Pick, pack, pock, puck

Tom Paulin

Tom Paulin

Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier, admires water for, among many other qualities, its ‘universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level’. Bloom returns to the stillflowing tap, washes his soiled hands with the tablet of Barrington’s lemonflavoured soap that has accompanied him on his odyssey. He asks, the catechistic narrator implies, if Stephen wants to wash his hands:

What reason did Stephen give for declining Bloom’s offer?

That he was hydrophobe, hating partial contact by immersion or total by submersion in cold water (his last bath having taken place in the month of October of the preceding year), disliking the aqueous substances of glass and crystal, distrusting aquacities of thought and language.

The narrator, evidently pleased by his use of that pompous, uncomfortable word ‘aquacities’, returns to it in the next reply where he cites ‘The incompatibility of aquacity with the erratic originality of genius.’

The English language, at this late moment in the narrative, is in a state of heavy-metal exhaustion, but inside the intense and devoted facticity of his prose here, Joyce wants us to consider the water theme in the novel, and the theme that counterpoints it, which the k sound in ‘aquacity’ represents. In Joyce’s imagination k means fact, while water represents the romantic idealism he scorned. ‘What makes people’s lives unhappy’, he told Arthur Power, ‘is some disappointed romanticism, some unrealised or misconceived ideal.’ This rejection of romanticism is expressed by Stephen in Portrait, where he formulates his classical aesthetic in a series of epiphanies. For Joyce, the classical artist’s ‘constant’ state of mind contrasts with the inconstancy of water and the formlessness of the romantic imagination. As Stephen explains in Portrait, the aesthetic emotion is static: the mind is ‘arrested and raised above desire and loathing’. There is a crucially important passage in Stephen Hero, which Joyce chose not to include in Portrait, where Stephen writes an essay on the classical style, arguing that

Classicism is not the manner of any fixed age or of any fixed country: it is a constant state of the artistic mind. It is a temper of security and satisfaction and patience. The romantic temper, so often and so grievously misinterpreted and not more by others than by its own, is an insecure, unsatisfied, impatient temper which sees no fit abode here for its ideals and chooses therefore to behold them under insensible figures. As a result of this choice it comes to disregard certain limitations. Its figures are blown to wild adventures, lacking the gravity of solid bodies, and the mind that has conceived them ends by disowning them. The classical temper on the other hand, ever mindful of limitations, chooses rather to bend upon these present things and so to work upon them and fashion them to their meaning which is still unuttered. In this method the sane and joyful spirit issues forth and achieves imperishable perfection, nature assisting with her good will and thanks.

The classical temper is both stringently intelligent and sensuous, while the romantic temper is formless, anxious and lacking ‘the gravity of solid bodies’. Later in Stephen Hero Joyce describes how Stephen, in ‘a stupor of powerlessness’, reviews ‘the plague of Catholicism’. A paragraph later, Stephen

gazed wearily out of the window, across the mist-laden gardens. The air was webbed with water vapours and all the flower-beds and walks confronted the grey of the sky with a truculent sodden brown. Mackintoshes and overcoats came along the walks or down the steps of the monument under their umbrellas or surmounted by a muffled human head. The footpaths inside the chains where Stephen had so often walked with his friends at night glistened like a grey mirror.

Like a moment out of Sartre’s La Nausée, this watery scene expresses Stephen’s disgust and alienation; it isn’t simply descriptive, because the water imagery carries a whole attitude of mind which is set out in the distinction between the classical and romantic tempers. Those chained footpaths belong in minotaur’s labyrinth, a labyrinth that is symbolized by the iron railing at the end of ‘Eveline’, and by the priest’s ‘black cavernous nostrils’ in ‘The Sisters’.

As a schoolboy, Stephen has a crucial epiphany in which he recognizes this distinction:

The fellows were practising long shies and bowling lobs and slow twisters. In the soft grey silence he could hear the bump of the balls: and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.

In this crucial passage, we hear the gravity of solid bodies as cricket balls clock cricket bats. Joyce, typically, makes the image of water dripping carry a series of hard sounds, each with a k at the end: pick pack pock puck. He deploys this sequence of sounds to challenge the sentimental, dead cadences that precede it: ‘and from here and from there through the quiet air’. The anapaestic rhythm and the preening there/air rhyme, as well as the facile alliteration ‘fountain falling’ at the close of the sentence, and the soft/softly repetition, are briefly broken up by the slow, measured, precise and acoustically ineluctable consonantal density of the cricket balls. They and the sound the bats that hit them make are an expression of the classical temper, which knows that art, like any game, is based on rules. Hopkins has a lovely phrase for this effect – ‘each tucked string tells’ – an effect in the Joyce passage that is like someone thrumming the taut strings of a violin or cello. In the last sentence of ‘The Dead’, Joyce describes flakes of frozen water falling in a deliberately over-cadenced prose:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Gabriel is a romantic who as he falls asleep imagines ‘the solid world itself dissolving’. He is a self-regarding provincial intellectual, whose imagination in the closing paragraphs is a mixture of Shelleyan, Yeatsian and Catholic imagery: his swooning soul is Shelleyan, the ‘vast hosts of the dead’ and the west of Ireland location are Yeatsian, even Syngian, while the crosses, spears and ‘barren thrones’ are Catholic. This is the romantic temper self-consciously watching itself fade out.

The sound of the water drops embodies Joyce’s realist aesthetic. As he told Arthur Power, ‘in realism, you are down to facts on which the world is based: that sudden reality which smashes romanticism into a pulp’. The sound of cricket balls becoming water drops, and the way that sound wrecks the vocabulary and the rhythm of the prose which contains it, is an example of romanticism being smashed to a pulp.

In Ulysses it is in the deployment of sound, in the acoustic imagery and texture of the epic, that we can observe Joyce’s realism, his devotion to hard fact, at work. He told Power, in a laconically punning phrase, that a novelist’s work must have ‘a sound basis in fact’, and he went on to describe how essential to him noise was when he was working. He showed Power Valery Larbaud’s Paris apartment, where he had stayed and worked in a room that was soundproof, and he said:

I don’t like being shut up … When I am working I like to hear noise going on around me – the noise of life; there it was like writing in a tomb. I suppose I would have got used to it, but I didn’t want to because then I might have lost my ability to work wherever I happen to be, in a lodging-house, or in a hotel room, and silence might have become a necessity to me as it was, for example, to Proust.

This communicates the democratic nature of Joyce’s imagination – he calls writing ‘work’, and like a Luftmensch he writes in whatever lodging house or hotel room he happens to be temporarily staying in. He doesn’t like being shut up, in the other sense of not being allowed to communicate, and he must have the noise of life going on around him.

At the centre of his imagination is the most important meal of the day, breakfast, where Bloom in the beloved opening sentence of ‘Calypso’ eats ‘with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes.’ The pattern of guttural ks textures the otherwise dominant softness of the inner organs. The effect of Joyce’s prose is apparently realistic, and this fits Bloom’s ‘solid pragmatic presence’, as Jeri Johnson terms it. This realism is partly a tribute to Defoe, whom Joyce revered, and whose imaginative presence can be felt throughout Ulysses. Joyce called Robinson Crusoe ‘the English Ulysses’, and he has Bloom think of the novel as he stands by Paddy Dignam’s open grave. But Joyce is also thinking as Bloom prepares breakfast of another great Dissenting English writer, William Blake, whom he also revered and to whom he alludes frequently.

In March 1912, in Trieste, Joyce gave a lecture on Defoe and a lecture on Blake under the title ‘Realism and Idealism in English Literature’. In the lecture on Blake, he says:

Elementary beings and the spirits of deceased great men would often enter the poet’s room at night to speak to him about art and the imagination. Blake would then bounce out of bed and, grabbing his pencil, stay up through the long hours of the London night drawing the features and limbs of the visions while his wife crouched next to his armchair, lovingly holding his hand and staying quiet so as not to disturb the ecstasy of the seer. When the visions disappeared towards dawn, the wife would get back under the covers while Blake, radiant with joy and benevolence, would hurriedly set about lighting the fire and making breakfast for them both. Ought we to be amazed that the symbolic beings Los, Urizen, Vala, Tiriel, and Enitharmon and the shades of Homer and Milton should come from their ideal world into a poor room in London, or that the incense that greeted their coming was the smell of Indian tea and eggs fried in lard?

Those symbolic beings are present in Bloom’s kitchen, as he makes tea and fries kidneys, because Bloom is a version of Blake in that ‘poor room in London’. His wife doesn’t hold his hand like Catherine Blake, but Joyce’s admiration for Blake finds a radical and democratic expression in Bloom in the kitchen.

It’s here that Joyce reintroduces a pattern of acoustic images that will come to dominate the novel, and that is made up of the sometimes separate, sometimes linked sounds of creaking and jingling. This happens early in ‘Calypso’ where Bloom goes up the staircase on ‘quietly creaky boots’. Then, when he brings Molly a cup of tea and says ‘You don’t want anything for breakfast?’, she grunts and turns over in the bed so that ‘the loose brass quoits of the bedstead jingled’. This introduces the jingling theme – or it seems to. A few pages later, when Bloom sets the tray on the chair by the bedhead: ‘She set the brasses jingling as she raised herself briskly.’ This theme, which is more major than its cousin, the creaking theme, will journey through the narrative like the tablet of lemonflavoured soap, until in their last appearances they will have a similar partially-used quality. The creaking theme begins in Portrait in the famous scene where Stephen encounters the Dean of Studies:

A smell of molten tallow came up from the dean’s candle-butts and fused itself in Stephen’s consciousness with the jingle of the words, bucket and lamp and lamp and bucket. The priest’s voice too had a hard jingling tone. Stephen’s mind halted by instinct, checked by the strange tone and the imagery and by the priest’s face which seemed like an unlit lamp or a reflector hung in a false focus. What lay behind it or within it? A dull torpor of the soul or the dullness of the thundercloud, charged with intellection and capable of the gloom of God?

The jingling sound must have been fixed forever in Joyce’s mind as signifying power, dominance, sterility. The priest’s English accent, his ‘pale loveless eyes’, are present in the sound.

In Ulysses, the jingling sound first appears in Mr Deasy’s conversation with Stephen, where Deasy proudly informs Stephen that he is descended from Sir John Blackwood who put on his topboots to ride from the Ards of Down to vote for the Union. In fact, Blackwood died in the act of putting his topboots on to go to Dublin to vote against the Union, but it suited Joyce’s imaginative strategy to give the Unionist Deasy a wholly Unionist pedigree. What stuck in his mind were those topboots, which become in Stephen’s mind ‘Two topboots jog dangling on to Dublin’. In effect, this is an acoustic poem, where a jangling noise is added to, or played over, the visual image. The jangling noise is created by superimposing the j of ‘jog’ on the d of ‘dangling’. The jangling sound is played over the motion of the boots, like added soundtrack. In Paradise Lost, Milton’s ear is also drawn to ‘jangling’ sounds, and to what he terms ‘barbarous dissonance’. Epics need noise to convince us of their gigantic form and scope, and they need to insist that we are in the presence of serious historical action. Such action, for Joyce, can be found in any noise. Both he and Milton use grating, often rebarbative sound to purge their styles of any type of magniloquence or preciousness – all that Joyce meant by aquacity, and Milton by a cloistered, and therefore silent, virtue. Although Milton identifies barbarous dissonance with Satan, he needs erratic noise – needs error – because the unexpectedness of its sudden interventions are an expression of ‘the erratic originality of genius’. By seeming to break form, they reintegrate it and give it greater force and authority. When a gavel bangs, we know that we are compelled to listen, but in epic the authority of sudden noise appears not to derive from the author, but from life itself, that ‘sound basis in fact’ that Joyce insists on.

In Ulysses, it is the noise of Irish history that is implicit in the phrase ‘Jingle jingle jaunted jingling’ in the musical overture to ‘Sirens’. Thus we get:

Jingle jaunty jingle
jingle jaunty blazes boy
Jingling on supple rubbers it jaunted
Jingle jaunted by the curb and stopped
Jingle a tinkle jaunted
By Bachelor’s walk jog jaunty jingled Blazes Boylan
Jiggedy jingle jaunty jaunty
jingle jogged
Jingle by monuments
Jingle into Dorset street
This is the jingle that joggled and jingled
Joy jig jogged stopped

After ‘Jingle a tinkle jaunted’, Joyce writes:

Bloom heard a jing, a little sound. He’s off. Light sob of breath Bloom sighed on the silent bluehued flowers. Jingling. He’s gone. Jingle. Hear.

Like salt in a wound, the sound of his bed reverberates in Bloom’s mind. The repeated sound is counterpointed by the knock/cock sound and by the imperious and imperial ‘Imperthnthn thnthnthn’ of the viceregal coach, so that the lord lieutenant in his coach and Boylan in his jingling jaunting car are identified, as we hear ‘the viceregal hoofs go by, ringing steel’. Time and again, Joyce varies and repeats the jingling theme, the idea being that even before Molly and Boylan have sex, the bed’s jingling sounds are all over Dublin. Molly is embarrassed by the sound and in the early hours of the morning remembers ‘this damned old bed too jingling like the dickens I suppose they could hear us away over the other side of the park till I suggested to put the quilt on the floor with the pillow under my bottom’.

The jingling noise of the bed is inside Bloom’s head throughout much of the narrative (there are two harness jingles at the end of ‘Circe’, where, so far as I can tell, Joyce lays the theme to rest before it is briefly recapitulated as Molly lies in bed, half asleep on the current of her consciousness). This theme, as I’ve suggested, is linked to the creaking theme, which is first introduced by Bloom’s quietly creaky boots. This in turn draws on an early passage at the beginning of ‘Proteus’, where Joyce deliberately avoids evoking the sea, which Stephen has already dismissed as ‘snotgreen’. Instead, he has Stephen walk over ‘seaspawn and seawrack’. Stephen closes his eyes in order to hear his boots ‘crush crackling wrack and shells’. The reiterated k sounds are versions of pick pack pock puck, and they are pitched against aquacity, or what Stephen terms ‘my weak watery blood’. That aqueous formlessness is present in the deliberately kitschy 1890s paragraph which follows Mulligan’s booming recitation of these lines from Yeats’s song ‘Who Goes with Fergus’, from his play The Countess Cathleen:

And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery
For Fergus rules the brazen cars

Joyce does not quote the next three lines, which end the poem:

And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.

Instead, he makes Stephen’s mind compose a prose variation on them:

Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast of the dim sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstrings merging their twining chords. Wovenwhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide.

Eighteen pages later the ‘Crush, crack, crick, crick’ of seawrack and seashells under Stephen’s boots act as a repudiation of this watery rhetoric. But that rhetoric will not leave Stephen alone:

Under the upswelling tide he saw the writhing weeds lift languidly and sway reluctant arms, hising up their petticoats, in whispering water swaying and upturning coy silver fronds.

This weedy theme is picked up again at the end of ‘Lotus-Eaters’, where Bloom foresees his body lying naked in the bath and imagines the ‘dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower’.

This in turn picks up a phrase of Bloom’s from the opening of ‘Lotus-Eaters’ – ‘Sensitive plants. Waterlilies’ – which looks forward to the ‘wideleaved flowers’ of porter froth on a ‘lazy pooling swirl of liquor’ that Bloom (alias Henry Flower) imagines ‘winding through mudflats all over the level land’. These moments are reprised when Bloom looks out of the coach in Paddy Dignam’s funeral cortège and sees a man standing ‘on his dropping barge between clamps of turf’, as water ‘rushed roaring through the sluices’. This is an unstable moment, one that acts as a prolepsis for the lowering of Dignam’s coffin into the grave, which Bloom and the other mourners will very soon witness. And it is the instability of water that is to blame for this.

Bloom reacts romantically to the sight of the bargeman as he stands on the disappearing barge:

On the slow weedy waterway he had floated on his raft coastward over Ireland by a haulage rope past beds of reeds …

This, like the languid floating flower, is an image of the baby Moses from the Book of Exodus. Its weedy wateriness is toughened or rejected by the chunky factual phrases that follow: ‘over slime, mudchoked bottles, carrion dogs’. It’s as though Joyce must take back any free-floating, unanchored lyrical moment and smash it to pulp. Inventing a new verb, he says that the ‘felly harshed against the curbstone’ as the carriage came to a halt, a rebarbative noise that drowns out any facile sentiment. A similar effect occurs when Bloom waits for the kran, kran, kran of an approaching tram to reach a crescendo, so that its Krandlkrankran will conceal the sound of his imminent fart, an acoustic pick pock moment, which is also meant to drown out the sentimental engraving of Robert Emmet above the text of his last words from the dock.

In one passage in ‘Sirens’, Joyce shows that Bloom has a technical interest in acoustics:

Jog jig jogged stopped. Dandy tan shoe of dandy Boylan socks skyblue clocks came light to earth.

O, look we are so! Chamber music. Could make a kind of pun on that. It is a kind of music I often thought when she. Acoustics that is. Tinkling. Empty vessels make most noise. Because the acoustics, the resonance changes according as the weight of water is equal to the law of falling water. Like those rhapsodies of Liszt’s, Hungarian, gipsyeyed. Pearls. Drops. Rain. Diddle iddle addle addle oodle oodle. Hiss. Now. Maybe now. Before.

Bloom, lover of water, considers its acoustics here, as Joyce makes a mocking reference to his first book of poems, Chamber Music. If we trace this noise theme back to Portrait, we can see that it is deep in Joyce’s early struggle towards complete aesthetic freedom and independence. As an undergraduate, the young Stephen – Stephen is forever young – watches birds flying round the ‘jutting shoulder’ of a house in Molesworth Street. They fly high and low in straight and curving lines, ‘circling about a temple of air’. Then Joyce says:

He listened to their cries: like the squeak of mice behind the wainscot: a shrill twofold note. But the notes were long and shrill and whirring, unlike the cry of vermin, falling a third or a fourth and trilled as the flying beaks clove the air. Their cry was shrill and clear and fine and falling like threads of silken light unwound from whirring spools.

This is the thread that will lead him out of minotaur’s labyrinth, which is here, ever so faintly, also Macbeth’s castle, where the ‘temple-haunting martlets’ fly before Duncan’s murder. He imagines ‘the hawklike man whose name he bore soaring out of his captivity on osierwoven wings’, and immediately he imagines Thoth, the god of writers, ‘writing with a reed upon a tablet’. Stephen is about to leave for ever ‘the house of prayer and prudence into which he had been born and the order of life out of which he had come’. It’s then that Joyce returns to the flying birds: ‘they came back with shrill cries over the jutting shoulder of the house, flying darkly against the fading air’. They must be swallows, he thinks, ‘ever going and coming, building ever an unlasting home under the eaves of man’s houses and ever leaving the homes they had built to wander’.

The prose here is too watery, too self-conscious, and to heighten this Joyce has Stephen remember four lines from The Countess Cathleen:

Bend down your faces, Oona and Aleel,
I gaze upon them as the swallow gazes
Upon the nest under the eave before
He wander the loud waters.

Yeats’s ‘She’ becomes ‘He’, as Stephen allows a fantasy to overwhelm his imagination. Then:

A soft liquid joy like the noise of many waters flowed over his memory and he felt in his heart the soft peace of silent spaces of fading tenuous sky above the waters, of oceanic silence, of swallows flying through the seadusk over the flowing waters.

This is a false epiphany – a point Joyce underlines by immediately repeating the opening words of the paragraph:

A soft liquid joy flowed through the words where the soft long vowels hurtled noiselessly and fell away, lapping and flowing back and ever shaking the white bells of their waves in mute chime and mute peal and soft low swooning cry.

A key adjective here is ‘soft’ – we remember it from the pick pack pock puck passage earlier – and its texture, unattractive to Joyce, is heightened by the noiselessness and muteness of the fantasy, which gives way to Stephen’s memory of the audience at the play, their ‘catcalls and hisses and mocking cries’ that ran in ‘rude gusts’ round the hall. These noisy cries and the sweating ‘burly policeman’ are moments of reality which crush the fantasy. Joyce’s use of The Countess Cathleen here and in Ulysses suggests, I think, that his quarrel with aquacity is partly a quarrel with Yeats’s early style: his ear refuses to be charmed by ‘lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore’. By not taking a bath for nearly a year Stephen is asserting his independence against Yeats’s ‘aquacities of thought and language’.

In Ulysses, Joyce designs variations on what he terms ‘a black crack of noise in the street’, and he sets up a cognate or related leitmotif in the persistent image of creaking shoes. In the first example I gave, the sound of Bloom’s shoes creaking on the stairs is innocent and domestic. At another moment, the sound has the poignancy of a banal and irrelevant detail as he remembers his father and the hotel in Ennis where he committed suicide, then sees rain dotting the pavement and adds, ‘My boots were creaking I remember now.’ It is this sound that helps to quicken the scene into actuality. This extra and particular as well as otiose memory of the creaking sound his shoes made underwrites Bloom’s recall of his father telling him to be good to his dog, Athos.

Creaking shoes reappear at the beginning of ‘Scylla and Charybdis’, where the librarian moves forward ‘on neatsleather creaking’, and then corantos off ‘twicreakingly’. The librarian is also ‘softcreakfooted’. A few pages later the sound is mentioned again: ‘rectly creaking rectly he was rectly gone’. Late in ‘Sirens’ Lenehan follows Boylan’s ‘hasty creaking shoes’. Then in a pedantic narrative moment: ‘Blazes Boylan’s smart tan shoes creaked on the barfloor, said before.’ When he first describes the shoes in ‘Wandering Rocks’, Joyce simply says that Boylan walked up and down the florists’ ‘in new tan shoes’. Then the shoes creak on the bar floor, and few pages later Bloom thinks ‘There’s music everywhere. Ruttledge’s door: ee creaking. No, that’s noise.’ This creaking sound, like the more dominant jingling sound, is meant to represent Boylan. In ‘Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, De Quincey is fascinated by the fact that the murderer Williams wears creaking shoes, and although Joyce parodies De Quincey’s prose in ‘The Oxen of the Sun’ the coincidence is too tenuous to suggest an allusion. The creaking sound, like the tap tap tap of the blind stripling’s cane, is a way of representing pure fact, and is one example of the way in which Joyce’s ear is obsessively drawn to words that contain either a k or a kuh sound. In the poignant passage where Paddy Dignam’s young son remembers his father’s death, the screws are screwed into the coffin with a ‘scrunch’, and in ‘Nausicaa’ there is a run of words that appear to advertise this guttural. Gerty MacDowell is dreaming and thinking:

every morning they would both have brekky
there wasn’t a brack on them
the little kinnatt

Bloom is watching and thinking:

Up like a rocket, down like a stick

And the episode concludes with the cuckoo clock in the priest’s house going


Especially in the words ‘brekky’ and ‘kinnat’, Joyce is recalling his hopeless infatuation with Gertrude Kaempffer, whom he met in Locarno in 1917. It’s almost as though he is running his tongue over the k that begins her surname.

There are a number of other moments where Joyce delights in a run of guttural ks that texture his sentences with an irrefutable reality:

Stuck on the pane two flies buzzed, stuck.
At Duke lane a ravenous terrier choked up a sick knuckly cud on the cobble stones and lapped it with new zest.
A monkey puzzle rocket burst, spluttering in darting crackles.

Joyce almost overemphasizes the sound in order to signal his delight in its solidity and to rub our noses in its facticity. It’s there in Bloom’s passing glimpse – ‘An illgirt server gathered sticky clattering plates’ – where the two cognate guh sounds intensify the two ks and smear them with grease. And those clattery k sounds are there in his belief that Molly would sooner ‘have me than some poet chap with bearsgrease plastery hair, lovelock over his dexter optic’, where the target is again the young Yeats. Earlier, in ‘Sirens’, the butt of the barmaids’ hysterical mockery has become ‘greaseabloom’, the wanderer or the gleam on the slippery sea, a moment that is implicit in the image of the ‘sticky clattering plates’, which is like a camera shot that is held to give it extra significance. This means, I think, that Joyce is introducing a grease theme similar to the sacral grease theme that Dickens explores in Great Expectations, where many objects, like the condemned coiner’s hat, are greasy with use. What I’m suggesting here is that some novels need to be read in the way we have to look at pictures and films – i.e. in terms of visual and acoustic leitmotifs, which are organizing principles, ends in themselves, not necessarily thematic vehicles.

In ‘Eumaeus’ Joyce pays an ironic tribute to Dickens in his portrait of the tedious English sailor, who produces ‘a blunt hornhandled ordinary knife’, which is an allusion to Magwitch’s ‘great horn-handled jack-knife’. The Dickensian reference is signalled in the next sentence, when Bloom observes, ‘Our mutual friend’s stories are like himself.’ There is also a reference to the circumlocution office, and in ‘Penelope’ Molly refers to ‘that lame sailor for England home and beauty’. Joyce quotes ‘for England, home and beauty’ from the song ‘The Death of Nelson’, which Micawber quotes at the end of his letter in chapter fifty of David Copperfield (and which Joyce probably saw as shorthand for Dickens’s novels and for British imperialism). The word ‘knife’, of course, has a silent k (it is called a ‘dangerous looking claspknife’ earlier), but it belongs as much as kran kran kran and ‘A black crack of noise in the street here, alack, bawled, back’ to Joyce’s insistence on the superiority of hard fact to watery formlessness. This is the music of fact, the noise of time in Mandelstam’s phrase, and it means that when the ‘jingling of harnesses’ is twice mentioned in ‘Lestrygonians’ within a few sentences of ‘creaking beds’, we need to hear this as the introduction of a theme which culminates in Bloom’s hope in ‘Penelope’ that the old press doesn’t creak and his reference four lines later to ‘the lumpy old jingly bed’. As readers our pleasure lies not in the interpretation of this moment, but in the completion of a theme.

Our pleasure, too, lies in our recognition that Joyce loved fact, and delighted to chuck noisy dollops of it at the soppy and the sentimental. Knowing this, and knowing that he used the 1904 edition of Thom’s Dublin Directory, these bare facts become marvellous, like a passage from an epic.


Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 7 Summer 2002