introductory pages from

A Word In Your Ear

by Eric Rosenbloom
copyright 2002

Finnegans Wake (1922–1939) by James Joyce (1882–1941), elaborates the fragmentation and reunification of identity during sleep. The masculine (as Joyce characterized it) mind of the day has been overtaken by the feminine night mind. The result is a book that reaches deep into the unconscious soul, beyond language and so before language, but forced to use language to tell it. The characters live in the transformation and flux of a dream, embodying the sleeper’s mind. The human mind, and the history it creates in its image, is protean and complex but not a chaos or void. And so in Finnegans Wake certain things stand out again and again as one reads and rereads. What follows is an introduction to some of those patterns and recurring points of order — albeit as seen in my own ever evolving understanding. Knowing some of this as you begin reading yourself will I hope make the book a little less forbidding.

I will not be prescriptive, nor am I trying to prove a thesis. This introduction will avoid obsessive detail and arcana and analysis. The aim is to provide broadly applicable information — along with some of the insights of my experience — from which the reader will certainly venture according to his or her own insights, interests, and character.

Even this general introduction, however, may be a lot to absorb at once. Read it casually before we examine actual passages of the Wake. Then come back to it as a reference or foil for your own reading. Page references, unless otherwise noted, are to the corrected edition (8th onward) of Finnegans Wake, published by Viking Press.

Language and Technique

The language of Finnegans Wake is the first thing you notice. Basically, Joyce has altered words and phrases to reveal or accommodate opposites and correspondences — historical, coincidental, and humorous; e.g., the funeral becomes funferall, and the mighty are mitey. Terms often collide, as in “pentschanjeuchy,” combining pentateuch and punch & judy for an odd new adjective.

He also uses language to emphasize the subject, using Norwegian words, for example, when the Norwegian Captain is the subject, inserting names of rivers in a chapter about the river Liffey, and filling up his version of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper with names of insects and their body parts. Many European and other languages — including “secret” languages of travellers and the underworld (and of priests and scholars) — multiply the layers of meaning and pun.

Sometimes words are altered to fit a metrical or alliterative pattern or to create the sound of accent, dialect, or mishearing, or just to sound better musically, or to play with variations of a familiar phrase. Occasionally, words are scrambled, or worse. And the hero of the book often stutters: The stammer of a toddler — unsure of his words before his thoughts and senses and figures of authority — becomes the stammer of the authority himself, his hesitancy before the judgement of his peers, history, and his own conscience, struggling still with the ill fit of his few words.

A good example of the way Joyce intertwined and layered meaning is in the name Perce O’Reilly, by which the book’s male protagonist, Earwicker, is mocked in a ballad (pp. 44–47). The name comes from the French word for an earwig, perce-oreille. It also combines the names of the 2 leaders of the 1916 Easter uprising (see History, below), Patrick Pearse, a poet who was executed, and “The O’Rahilly,” who was killed in the battle. Once Joyce creates a name or word, he then uses that as a basis of other puns, as in “beers o’ryely” (p. 498), which echoes the duality of the character by evoking the scene from the song “Finnegan’s Wake”: “A gallon of whiskey at his feet, And a barrel of porter at his head.”

Imagine an absurdly precocious infant in a family whose every member and acquaintance speaks a different language and sings different songs. Joyce’s book is what that child, told to speak English, might say to give form to her Irish soul. As with a toddler’s amalgam of language before it has found its conformity, listening to Finnegans Wake requires familiarity, concentration, imagination, and patience.

Now, patience; and remember patience is the great thing, and above all things else we must avoid anything like being or becoming out of patience. [p. 108]

Keep in mind that there are no steadfast rules. There is no key. Or rather there is no single key. Set in Dublin, it is about doubling. The sound of the book is mostly, nonetheless, Irish-accented English. Read out loud: The sound of a sentence is usually more clear than its appearance. The thing to do is take it a bit at a time, as the book progresses in distinctly elaborated units, sometimes by paragraph, sometimes more.

Finnegans Wake is no doubt about it a challenging book, but reading just a few pages is uniquely rewarding. Before long, you will find a great deal of beauty that needs no exegesis.

Reading Techniques

Like Richard Wagner with his operas (bookseller Sylvia Beach thought that Finnegans Wake was modeled on Wagner’s Ring), James Joyce approached his work with a highly developed sense of its mythic importance: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man). He wrote the way a violinist loves the bow and strings of his instrument. There is something unnatural about it, and something necessary. His book broadens from personal to national to global memories in a grand affirmation of human identity. Joyce nonetheless recalls what the sentimental refers to — the love and fear that animate our lives — so that all his rigor brings him back to the humane.

Read slowly and listen to the music of the myriad voices. Catch the phrases that recur like motifs: “A pint of porter please!” “O felix culpa!” “Up Guards and at ’em!” “Obedientia Civium Urbis Felicitas,” “Our exagmination round his factification for incamination of work in progress,” and so on. Notice the lines of song that also contribute to the book’s music: from the American vaudeville song “Finnegan’s Wake,” of course, the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore, “The Wild Man of Borneo,” and many many more. Enjoy the word play. And, once in a while, you will come away with a somewhat conscious grasp or a meaningful memory of what you heard in your mind’s eye.

For puzzling out specific passages, I recommend first a good (unabridged) dictionary and then Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake, which is a linear compilation of allusions and non-English and uncommon words. An old Encyclopedia Britannica is useful, as Joyce owned — and used extensively — the 11th edition. There are books that discuss and index names, songs, places, plants, children’s lore, books, opera, sigla (see below), Gaelic, Greek, Latin, German, Scandinavian, alchemy, colors, history, sex, riddles, myth, &c., as well as books that more generally look at the book or all of Joyce’s work as a whole. Peruse the ones that seem interesting or useful to you. Articles in the James Joyce Quarterly and A Wake Newslitter (whose archive is available on “compact disc” for computer access) and other regular collections that can be found in a big library can be interesting, as can some of the material now found through the World Wide Web computer network. Participation in a reading group or electronic-mail discussion group can be particularly helpful. Finally, Richard Ellmann’s biography is essential, as Joyce’s favorite subject — the one he knew the deepest — was himself. By reflecting himself as fully as possible, Joyce has created an astounding mirror for every reader. Brenda Maddox’s biography of Nora Barnacle (his wife) is a valuable complement to Ellmann’s book.

Keep in mind that the experts may have more experience and specialized knowledge — and anyone can put up a web page — but they have no more insight than any other diligent reader. In fact, many published interpretations are rather a stretch or otherwise dubious. And as critic Marian Robinson has noted — and goes on to prove — explications of Finnegans Wake are often more arcane than the text itself. Even the seemingly objective and comprehensive Annotations has questionable glosses and huge gaps.

Finnegans Wake embodies Joyce’s view of the “chaosmos” (p. 118), our “whome” (p. 296 and elsewhere), and the human understanding of it, namely, epiphany. The Christian epiphany is the revelation to John — as the first rays of the sun (“Pu Nuseht, lord of risings” (p. 593)) strike the surface of the river — that Jesus was God: “bearing down on me under whitespread wings” (p. 628). We read the veil of appearances and once in a while our senses surge in a vision of what’s behind that veil: We feel a momentary harmony with beauty and meaning. And for Joyce, beauty, i.e. artistic, i.e. spiritual, truth, went well beyond the sentimentally pretty or moral to embrace all life, even the low parts. His artistic mission was not to excite desire or loathing but to create arresting moments of joy.

Example of Technique

An example of Joyce’s basic technique might be seen in the phrase (which I have made up so that I can confidently discuss its origin), “when bush cons to shrub.” This clearly plays on the familiar phrase for decisive moment, “when push comes to shove.” By altering the expected words, worlds of meaning are made available; most immediately, the intensification of push to shove is echoed by the concentration of bush (which can refer to a thicket or uncultivated countryside) to shrub, the collective to the specific. Yet at the same time bush and shrub defy that movement as they are also essentially equivalent terms. Shrub even looks like a reflection of bush.

If we are compelled to explore further, a dictionary reveals that bush once meant tavern (for the ivy branch on its signboard or over the door) and that shrub is a sweetened citrus drink with rum or brandy: Again, the movement is from the broad to the narrow, and perhaps from the symbolic to the sweetly sentimental. The latter meanings were not part of my original intention, but they are a happy coincidence that I accept — indeed that I must accept if I keep the door open in this way to all possibilities.

The expected comes is changed to cons, emphasizing the directional movement as an increase in knowledge. It also inserts the ideas of opposition and deceit. And in contemporary American politics, bush was the 41st president, George Bush, and shrub is what opponents called him and especially his son, also George Bush, who became the 43rd though not quite elected to be. This may suggest a movement from a diminutive to more diminutive, and it adds resonance to the use of con.

One might ruminate more on the word bush and even relate this example to several themes of Finnegans Wake. In fact, with the help of others, I had written several more paragraphs doing so, but this is enough to show the density and richness of meaning (not to mention fun as well as potential tedium) that Joyce’s technique makes possible. Note that the technique and the result are not random. First, we see that etymology reveals surprising truths. Not only are things related by their word origins, but unrelated origins often lead to homonymic coincidence. (An example Hugh Kenner gives is Cork (the Irish city, from curcagh, swamp) and cork (the bottle stopper, from Arabic-Spanish alcorque, itself from Latin quercus, oak); Joyce had a picture of Cork, where his father was from, in a cork frame.)

Second, the changes made to the normal written language are deliberate choices. In almost every case more and different changes could have been made but were not (e.g., “whynt pasch caints til shrove,” would have taken it in a complex theological direction). And if a change opens doors that confound without adding meaning or sense, it would not be made. Indeed, the language of Finnegans Wake is frequently just as it appears — no puns, no double meanings — as in the quote above about patience, and in the first word of the book, riverrun. Keep yourself open to the meanings that suggest themselves as you read, but beware of pretending to see or trying to put in what isn’t there.

Example of Exegesis

We will be reading particular passages later but in a broad way — so here is a small illustration of what’s involved in a closer reading of a whole passage, building on the techniques of the previous example.

If Dann’s dane, Ann’s dirty, if he’s plane she’s purty, if he’s fane, she’s flirty, with her auburnt streams, and her coy cajoleries, and her dabblin drolleries, for to rouse his rudderup, or to drench his dreams. If hot Hammurabi, or cowld Clesiastes, could espy her pranklings, they’d burst bounds agin, and renounce their ruings, and denounce their doings, for river and iver, and a night. Amin! [p. 139]

Right away, you notice the strong rhythm, alliteration, and rhyme, how it builds on itself, generating opposites (an important key to reading), counterpointing Ann against Dann and then elaborating the probable reactions of Hammurabi and Clesiastes. We see a male character (Dann the Dane) being matched by a female character (Ann of “dear dirty Dublin,” as suggested by the word dirty against dane). Dann also suggests the early De Danaan people associated with haunted burial mounds in Ireland, so he is both ancient spirit of the land and its Viking invader. Ann, too, is both of the dirt and of the Viking-built city of Dublin.

he’s plane she’s purty:  He’s flat — the plain west of Dublin — or a tree as well as the tool that smoothes a tree, and she’s pretty (stage-Irish pronunciation) and pert, perhaps in seclusion behind the purdah veil, and the stream purling through the plain.

he’s fane, she’s flirty:  A fane in poetry is a temple, a place for feasting; it is an old word for pennant and weathercock; in Scotland, it is a devil, and it means finished, refined; flirty may contain the Galway name Flaherty (so fane may have the Dublin name Fagan). (Joyce was an avid student of old forms and etymology, so I am using the Oxford English Dictionary, which he owned as it was published through the 1920s and early ’30s.)

Moving on, Ann’s auburn tresses become auburnt streams as she is the muddy river (and the dreams) the Viking’s boat comes up, and she has been oft burnt by earlier invasions, or by a life outdoors. She rouses his rudder (his penis steering for her vagina). And she runs through watering his dreams (dabblin suggesting Dublin, dabbling, and doubling, as well as a babbling brook rolling on), and floods his passion or puts his fire out as necessary.

The next sentence pairs two opposed male characters, hot Hammurabi (a law-giving prince) and cold (cowled) Clesiastes (a proverb-giving priest), against a more removed female. It speculates what would happen if they — like the elders of Babylon and Susanna — could see her pranklings. Prankle is an old form of prance. Prangle is a very old word for squeeze or pinch. And it is about pranks and the Prankquean of pages 21–23, in which the female is counter-invader, and the wrath of her rankling, and perhaps about wrangling and tinkling (spying on her while she urinates).

And there is a code here: HCE is the principal male character, the personification of Dublin, and ALP — the Ann of this passage — is his female counterpart, personifying the Liffey river. Their initials appear throughout the book — in various order — and I will describe these characters in the next section of this introduction. Here, we have hot Hammurabi–cowld Clesiastes–espy to denote HCE’s presence. The hot–cold personality split corresponds to Ann’s firing of and dousing of passion.

Wrapping up, if apart they could espy (suggesting violation) her pranklings — what Ann is capable of or the secrets she holds — they’d burst bounds agin (break their bonds, overflow their banks, agin meaning again and against each other and rhyming with the amin that ends this passage), and renounce their ruings (ruins, their past accomplishments, regrets), and denounce their doings, for river and iver (forever and ever, for Ann the river, and ivy the symbol of remembrance that came to stand for Charles Stewart Parnell’s futile sacrifice for Irish home rule), and a night (bringing to mind the thousand nights and a night of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment). Amin! — meaning amen, of course, the affirmative end of a prayer; and, according to McHugh’s Annotations, min is Dutch for love. In Dutch it also means to nurse. It Hebrew it means sex. Min is an Egyptian fertility — therefore river — god. Amen, for that matter, is a very ancient Egyptian god, whose name refers to the hidden power of conception and who may be invoked throughout the book.

Conclusion. By this example, you can see how stimulating it is to read this book. And how mad you would have to be — or would soon become — if you tried to tease out every thread of allusion or fill out every layer of meaning. On the other hand, such endeavors are richly rewarded, and it is definitely part of the pleasure of Finnegans Wake. Some passages in the book demand substantial work before revealing themselves, but as this example shows — I hope not too unfairly — the essence of most passages may be fairly clear in one or two readings without resort to extensive research or elaborate deduction. And even when the meaning is obscure, the music may nonetheless ring clear.

The example also shows what makes reading Finnegans Wake possible at all: Its main object of allusion is itself (although that self contains the universe). The book continually reiterates key themes, some of which I will now introduce.