Tuesday 20 May 2014

The sentence it took Joyce twelve years to write

'The Suspended Sentence' 106.13

On 8 November 1926, Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver.

'The book really has no beginning or end. (Trade secret, registered at Stationers Hall.) It ends in the middle of a sentence and begins in the middle of the same sentence.'  Letters 1, 246

'Many indications aside from the fact that the book begins in the middle of a sentence point out that its design is circular, without the beginning, middle and ending prescribed for chronological narratives.'

Elliot Paul, 'Mr Joyce's Treatment of Plot', transition 9, December 1927 

Although Joyce came up with this idea in 1926, when he wrote the book's opening, it wasn't until twelve years later that he completed the sentence with the ending.

Here's the end, which is the beginning of the sentence. It's spoken by Anna Livia Plurabelle, the River Liffey dying as she merges with the sea: 'A way a lone a last a loved a long the...'  With the repeated 'a' and 'l' we expect a 'p' to follow, to complete the initials of Anna Livia Plurabelle. And there it is, at the bottom of the page! 

I learned from Dirk Van Hulle's article, 'The Lost Word' (in How Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake p455) that Joyce originally wrote 'A way a lone a lost a last a loved a long the', but, when the book was published, the words 'a lost' got lost!

Joyce wrote this in the winter of 1938, and it was his own farewell to writing

In 1942, Joyce's assistant, Paul Leon, recalled the day that Joyce wrote the book's ending:

'Among the innumerable critical reviews that I have gone through, I recall no mention of a point which, it seems to me, should strike us immediately: and that is the fact that the amazing postscript which concludes the work ends on an unfinished sentence, with the article 'the'; and the noun that follows this article is the first word of the book, that is to say 'riverrun'....This postscript had probably been carried in its completed form for many years in the prodigious brain that engendered it. The first version, which was only about two a half pages long, was written in one afternoon, in December 1938. It was a veritable deliverance. Joyce brought it with him when we met that evening for his usual half-past eight rendez-vous in Madame Lapeyre's pleasant bistrot, on the corner of the Rue de Grenelle and the Rue de Bourgogne...'

'In Memory of Joyce', Poésie No V (1942), reprinted in James Joyce Volume 2: The Critical Heritage, (ed Robert Deming)

In fact, one critic, Harry Levin, did notice that the book was circular, in his 1939 review.

Madame Lepeyre's bistro is now the Cafe Resto au Coin de La Rue
We know what Joyce read to Léon thanks to Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon's magnificent James Joyce Digital Archive, which gives all the drafts - read the first one here. The first version of the final sentence began as this:

'A bit beside the bush and then a walk along the'

On the third typescript, Joyce crossed out 'A bit beside the bush...' (moving it back to become 'We pass through grass behush the bush.') and replaced it with 'A way a lone a lost a last a loved a long the'

The last words were prefigured in Joyce's great short story 'The Dead':

'How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park!'  

Joyce talked about his final 'the' with Louis Gillet:

'In Ulysses, to depict the babbling of a woman going to sleep, I had sought to end with the least forceful word I could possibly find. I had found the word 'yes', which is barely pronounced, which denotes acquiescence, self-abandon, relaxation, the end of all resistance. In Work in Progress, I've tried to do better if I could.  This time, I have found the word which is most slippery, the least accented, the weakest word in English, a word which is not even a word, which is scarcely sounded between the teeth, a breath, a nothing, the article the.'

Louis Gillet, Stèle pour James Joyce, Marseille 1941, pp.164-65, quoted in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce 

John Bishop has suggested that the final word indicates the 'imminent appearance of the definite – the definite 'article 'the' –the solid and defined word of conscious waking reality.' (Introduction to the 1999 Penguin). That's a brilliant idea, but it seems to me to be contradicted by Joyce's own reading of 'the' as 'the word which is most slippery'.

Jim Le Blanc has written a whole essay on that final 'the', which he describes as 'a finger pointing at nothing...Our attention is misdirected away from the finger itself... However, we are also led to regard the 'the' itself, as a cat, say, or an infant might stare at an extended index finger without seeking anything further in the space beyond its semiotically suggestive tip.'  

'The Closing Word of Finnegans Wake' Hypermedia Joyce Studies

Edmund Lloyd Epstein has a nice reading of the end.

'The last phrase in the Wake is the most perfect iambic pentameter line ever penned....The whole phrase may mean: 'Away, alone at last – and loved! – along the river ran'. Like Coleridge's Alph the sacred river. ALP runs 'through caverns measureless to man', through the pathways of death and resurrection, back to Howth Castle and Environs, at the beginning of the book.  
  Then with the phrase, 'a loved', the tide turns, the river begins to flow backward. TIME stops and SPACE commences, as the great act of love begins again.' 
                                                                                        A Guide through Finnegans Wake

I'm not sure what some of that means. Why does the tide turn specifically at 'a loved'? How does TIME stop and SPACE start? But I think he's captured the feeling of the end.


This sentence is completed by the book's opening, which Joyce came up with in late 1926 (though some of the phrases were added ten years later):

So we begin, with the river bringing us back to HCE, the male protagonist of the book who is also the city of Dublin. We've also switched from ALP's voice to a guidebook narrator, who uses formal words like 'commodious' and 'environs'.

'riverrun' is a great and suggestive opening word. Here's what Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson had to say about it:

''Riverrun' is more than a clue to the circling plan of Finnegans Wake; it characterizes the essence of the book itself. For, in this work, both space and time are fluid; meanings, characters, and vocabulary deliquesce in constant fluxion.'   

The Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake.

People have also read into the word the Italian 'riverranno': (they will come again); the French 'rêverons' (we will dream) and 'reverrons': (we will see again, we will meet again); and the German 'erinnerung' (remembrance). It's also an echo of Coleridge's 'Where Alph, the sacred river, ran' and 'Reverend' (615.12), the opening of Anna Livia's letter which is delivered at the very end of the book. 

In his Latin translation of the Wake, Adam Roberts came up with the imperative 'flumenflue', ('river flow'): 'In this opening line Joyce is ordering his river to flow (ordering in more than one sense).'  The title Finnegans Wake can similarly be read as a command. 

The river flows past our first parents, Adam and Eve, which is also a real church on the south bank of the Liffey. The church is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception - 'Adam and Eve's' is the popular name, because it was built on the site of the Adam and Eve Tavern, where the Franciscans secretly said mass in penal days. So it can also stand as the tavern, a central location in Finnegans Wake.

Joyce has reversed the names, making 'Eve and Adam's', perhaps because we are going backwards - we are brought back from the sea at the end to the river in Dublin, and we are moving from Anna Livia to HCE.

'a commodious vicus of recirculation' suggests 'vicious circle', the cyclical theory of history of Giambattista Vico, and Dublin's Vico Road which runs beside the sea on the south side of Dublin bay.

'The Vico road goes round and round to meet where terms begin.' 452.21 

Joyce's old headmaster, Father John Conmee, uses the words 'commodious' to describe roads in his Old Times in the Barony (remembered in Ulysses):


'The Book of Doublends Jined' 20.13


That's a description of Finnegans Wake as the book of double ends joined, and Dublin's giant - the fallen Finn McCool who crashes to the ground to become the city of Dublin, with his head at Howth (which means 'head') and his feet in the Phoenix Park.

This idea, and the whole opening chapter, was inspired by a pamphlet about a 'giants' grave' at Saint Andrew's Church, Penrith, sent to Joyce in 1926 by Harriet Shaw Weaver. Joyce had suggested to her that she 'might 'order' a piece' for his book. She wrote:

'Here followeth my 'order'...Kindly supply the undersigned with one full length grave account of his esteemed Rhaggrick O'Hoggnor's Hogg Tomb as per photos enclosed...there is a short monograph inside the church which says that the grave was reputed to be that of a hero king (of Scotland, or Northumbria) whose name I misremember, but it began with O...Such is my order for this book.'

Letter to Joyce , 1 October 1926

The monograph, by the Reverend James Cropper,  was called A Short Historical Sketch of S Andrew's Church, Penrith.

Danis Rose describes Joyce's excited reaction to the order:

'Joyce was electrified: here exactly was what he needed to give spin to his work in progress: the notion of HCE as a (sleeping) giant interred in the landscape and, beyond that, of a man assumed dead but sleeping. Even better, he now had the notion of resurrection of the old by the new and cyclicity (Fin, again)....Everything hung together on the fulcrum of one word: Finn. And with MacCool came the ballad-hall Tim Finnegan with his hod (who now makes his appearance for the first time) and with him, his half-erected wall (by extension the unfinished tower of Babel). With his fall off the wall came the first Fall, Adam and Eve and all their descendants down to Mr and Mrs Porter shagged out in their bed.  In a word, Miss Weaver's fortuitously brilliant idea gave Joyce the notion for a chapter, or prelude, that was destined to become the common picture of Finnegans Wake: a giant dreaming of falls and walls, a babble of tongues, a tale of howes and graves and burrows and biers.'   

Danis Rose, The Textual Diaries of James Joyce, p.95

We can follow the development of the opening thanks to the fact that Joyce sent all his manuscripts to Harriet Shaw Weaver, who gave them to the British Library.  They've been published as The James Joyce Archive, by Garland Publishing, and as online transcriptions by Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon in the James Joyce Digital Archive.

Here's Joyce's first pencil sketch of the opening, from October 1926.

At this stage, the opening is just 'Howth Castle and Environs!' and there's no indication that it's part of a bigger sentence. The exclamation mark reminds me of the opening of the Aeolus episode of Ulysses, where Dublin tram destinations are shouted out.

The hoarse Dublin United Tramways Company timekeeper bawled them off:
–Rathgar and Terenure!
–Come on, Sandymount Green!

Joyce then wrote a second pencil draft, in November, getting rid of the exclamation mark and adding 'brings us back to'. So, at this stage, he'd probably decided to end the book with the River Liffey.

On the page to the left of this in his notebook, Joyce drew a huge E, his symbol for HCE, lying on its back.

Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver that 'the sign in this form means HCE interred in the landscape' (Letters 1,254). It looks just like the 'giant's grave' in Penrith!

The sign also resembles the Chinese letter word 'shan' which stands for 'mountain' . HCE is a mountain as well as a city (Joyce told Eugene Jolas, 'Time and the river and the mountain are the real heroes of my book'; HCE is 'a man that means a mountain' 309.04).  Joyce used this sign (which appears at 6.32) as his title for the chapter.

He shows it the other way up at 119.17, where he describes it as 'the meant to be baffling trilithon sign m' (a trilithon is a megalithic structure with three stones).  

In December, Joyce sent Harriet Shaw Weaver his version of the opening, with an explanatory key, which you can read here. He signed and dated it.

Joyce drew a little map of Dublin to explain his idea. It shows Dublin stretched out on the left and the Liffey on the right.

Here's yet another late 1926 fair copy where, for the first time, we get the word 'river', corrected to 'riverrun'.

When the opening was published in transition, in April 1927, it looked like this. 

Note how deeply indented the word 'riverrun' is on the line. It's almost in the middle of the page, giving a clear sense that we are in the middle of a sentence. It's a shame that this indentation was lost when the book was published. The ampersand of 'Howth Castle & Environs' was also changed to 'and', weakening the HCE initials.

The additions of 'by a commodious vicus of recirculation' and 'past Eve and Adam's', shown above, were made in 1936, for the printers of Finnegans Wake. Note Joyce's spelling of 'commodious', mistakenly changed to 'commodius' by the printer. With the loss of 'lost' and the ampersand, that means that there are three misprints in this sentence it took twelve years to write.

The very last part of the sentence 'from swerve of shore to bend of bay', was added, in Paul Leon's handwriting, to the page proofs on 20 November 1938.

A still from the 1982 RTE documentary The World of James Joyce.


  1. Fascinating. Thanks for this. Actually the name Howth comes from the 9th century, from a Scandinavian word for head, but there is also the Irish language name Binn Eadair (pronounced Byown Eh-dir) which is much older. I had a look to see where it comes from, but this seems unclear. For example: “The derivation of the much older Gaelic name for the peninsula namely Binn Eadair, loosely the Hill of Eadair, is less certain. The name Eadair has variously been suggested as a corruption of Etar, a Firbolg chieftain, or Edar, a De Danann chieftain's wife, or perhaps Binn Eadair is a corruption of Ben-na-Dair translated as Hill of the Oaks. The Gaelic name above may have connections with two of the earliest peoples to have inhabited Ireland namely the Firbolgs and the Tuatha De Danann”.

    Anyhow, as I grew up near there, I’m used to seeing Binn Eadair, as well as Howth, on the front of buses going there from the centre of town.

  2. Howth is an important location in Ulysses too - the scene of the great kiss of Leopold and Molly:

    ' Touched his sense moistened remembered. Hidden under wild ferns on Howth. Below us bay sleeping: sky. No sound. The sky. The bay purple by the Lion's head. Green by Drumleck. Yellowgreen towards Sutton. Fields of undersea, the lines faint brown in grass, buried cities. Pillowed on my coat she had her hair, earwigs in the heather scrub my hand under her nape, you'll toss me all. O wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweetsour of her spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft, warm, sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. A goat. No-one. High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nannygoat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman's breasts full in her blouse of nun's veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.'

    Which is like the kiss given by Anna Livia at the end of the Wake 'Lps. The keys to. Given.'

    This is from Boucicault's Arrah-na-Pogue (Arrah of the kiss). She helps her foster brother, Beamish MacCoul, escape from Wicklow jail the day before his hanging by passing him instructions on a piece of paper in a kiss

    Sean: She had rowled it up and put it in her mouth, and when she saw her foster-brother she gave it to him in a kiss.
    Arragh: And that's why they call me Arrah-n-Pogue.

    J.S.Atherton discusses this at length in The Books at the Wake:

    'This is the scene to which Joyce's four old men are referring when they speak of 'the good old days of Dion Boucicault the elder, in Arrah-na-Pogue, in the otherworld of the passing of the key of Two-tongue Common' (385.2). The last words of the Wake: 'Lps. The keys to. Given!' derive much of their meaning from the same source. A meaning which can be expressed quite simply as that it is Love which is the basis of our existence.
    This symbol taken from Boucicault - the passing on of a message from a woman to a man by a kiss - was used by Joyce in Ulysses. It is significant that it was seed-cake that Molly put into Bloom's mouth from her own. Boucicault's Sean uses the same image in the first scene with Arrah: 'There's a griddle in the middle of your own face, Arrah, that has a cake on it always warm and reday to stop a boy's mouth.'

    See also 'one of those pure clean lupstucks of yours thankfully, Arragh of the passkeys' 460.02

    It's important that this 'key in my kiss' is a Letter. So it ties in with the whole Letter theme of this page and the book. Another way of reading the ending is that 'The keys to. Given!' refers to the book which Joyce has now given to us.

    'If it's me chews to swallow all you saidn't you can eat my words for it as sure as there's a key in my kiss.' 279.F8

  3. Good stuff. That just reminded me: Joyce is one of the few male writers who isnt afraid to make his female characters POWERFUL. Nora Barnacle as main model I presume. Yet she never read any of JJs work. Amazing.

  4. Excellent post.

    Love the first sketch with the opening line simply "Howth Castle & Environs!"

  5. Both published paginations-- FW1 and FW2-- manage to align 'Howth' to the start of a line, like all(?) the faircopies and typescripts. And the various prependations like "brings us to" seem aligned to facilitate this...? Did tram conductors ever use 'environs'? (seems pretty unlikely) The Liffey flows from the Wicklow mountains down to Dublin Bay, where Howth could serve as a turningpoint in the watercycle, but why wouldn't it be neater to open the book with rain, say, falling in Wicklow, and end it (like Ulysses?) at Howth?

  6. Those are good points. Yes, 'environs' is in the guidebook language of the opening. Joyce was thinking of the tides here, which go in and out. Adam and Eve's church is part of the tidal stretch of the Liffey - which stretches up to Islandbridge. ' At Island Bridge she met her tide.' 103.01 'Hencetaking tides we haply return' 261.05 'Sea, sea! Here, weir, reach, island, bridge.' 626.07

  7. Google says nobody's transcribed that map anywhere: mare sestrum and nostrum? A Z Manposterd?? Marius Liffey? (I don't understand your reply: "Yes, 'environs' is in the guidebook language of the opening."? Are you saying there's a tram-guidebook that uses it? Joyce seems to have gotten in from an EB article on Edinburgh he read c1924. "Joyce was thinking of the tides here, which go in and out"? Where? Book IV is full of references to Howth, so shouldn't Book I feature rain in Wicklow somewhere?. The Liffey tides are upstream from Howth-- so isn't this a step backwards in the (downstream) cycle?)

    1. I've been trying to decipher that map. "Annie Liffey", "Old Plain of Dublin", "Phoenix Park", "Magazine Hill" (actually, I think it's called Thomas Hill), "Hill of Howth", "A-Z = Your postcard" (a reference to Harriet Shaw Weaver's Giant's Grave), "Mare vestrum and nostrum" (meaning our Irish sea and your British sea).

    2. That's great! Never noticed ' A-Z Your Poatcard'

  8. The opening chapter is written like a guidebook, and 'environs' sets the tone. That's all I meant.
    The tides go in and out of the Liffey, from the sea. Sea water rushes in, and then the tide turns and the fresh water rushes out. The tide flows in past Howth, and then goes through a process of 'recirculation' back there.

  9. Did you know the 1963 horror film "Dementia 13" was filmed in Howth Castle?! https://archive.org/details/Dementia_13