James Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann records that this poem was written in 1904 and expresses Joyce’s feelings shortly after the death of his mother. Memories of the death-bed of the mother of the hero, Stephen Dedalus, are a central feature of the first chapter of Joyce’s “Ulysses”, which gives in one Dublin day a parallel to the events of Homer’s Odyssey.
The flowering branch and black stream recall underworld motifs from Aeneas’s journey to Hades in Book 6 of the Aeneid: the golden bough that was Aeneas’s pass into the other world, black Cocytos and the river Styx over which he was brought by Charon the ferryman.
You can hear Aeneas’s underworld journey in Latin and follow in English from the Latin Poems pages here.
Though Joyce had a reciprocally wary attitude towards W B Yeats and other writers of the “Celtic twilight”, they do not feel far apart in this poem.
The poem was not published until 1927 in a book called “Pomes Pennyeach”, priced at one shilling (twelve pence). There are twelve other poems in the book: a “tilly” is the free thirteenth item in a “baker’s dozen”.
He travels after a winter sun,
Urging the cattle along a cold red road,
Calling to them, a voice they know,
He drives his beasts above Cabra.
The voice tells them home is warm.
They moo and make brute music with their
He drives them with a flowering branch before
Smoke pluming their foreheads.
Boor, bond of the herd,
Tonight stretch full by the fire!
I bleed by the black stream
For my torn bough!