Tuesday, 21 June 2016


This strange passage is on page 379 of Finnegans Wake, at the end of the pub chapter. It comes in the middle of a long speech attacking HCE who, threatened by a hostile mob, has shut himself in his pub after closing time.

Curious about those capitalized words, which look like sound effects, I thought I'd see what the commentators had to say.  I started with the earliest one, Campbell and Robinson in The Skeleton Key:

'These capitalised syllables represent the fall of Finnegan, the rocking of a boat at the bottom of the sea of sleep, also a series of stiff punches that the prizefighters are throwing at each other; in sum, a combination suggesting the ultimate collapse and doom of HCE.'

He fell from the ladder and he broke his skull and they carried him home his corpse to wake

So they're suggesting the fall of Tim Finnegan from the wall on the book's opening page, maybe with his head making the first 'BENK' and the dropped bricks the following sounds.  The Skeleton Key authors like to bring Tim Finnegan in whenever possible.

The 'rocking of a boat at the bottom of the sea of sleep' idea made me wonder how a boat at the bottom of a sea of sleep would be able to make a 'benk' sound. And why would a boat rock at the bottom of the sea? And why would this boat suddenly appear at this point in the text? And how would it suggest 'the ultimate collapse and doom of HCE'?

And here are 'a series of stiff punches that the prizefighters are throwing at each other'. But who are these prizefighters? There's been no mention of them before in the Skeleton Key, and not clearly in FW either. Perhaps they were suggested by 'It's our last fight Megantic' (from the song 'It's Your Last Trip, Titanic, Fare You Well ').

It strikes me that all three suggestions are guessescreative readings, presented as statements of fact. It would have been better if Campbell and Robinson had said, 'These capitalised syllables suggest to us the fall of Finnegan' etc.
None of the other commentators have accepted the Skeleton Key interpretations – instead they've all come up with their own creative readings, which similarly weren't taken up by other commentators.  Every creative reader makes their own Finnegans Wake. As Finn Fordham says, 'We produce a wake by the way we steer, but we also steer by the Wake that we produce.'

David Hayman wrote that the sound effects were 'suggestive of stones being thrown at the pub by the clients'. I prefer that to the Skeleton Key's readings because it has been inspired by the actual situation on the page – HCE hiding from the hostile mob. It would also explain why the first sound has an exclamation mark (because of the surprise effect of hearing the first stone hitting) while the others don't. But it's a shame that Joyce didn't provide any other evidence ('Take that HCE!').

E.L.Epstein argued that the sounds combine the ringing of the 'midnight Angelus' with 'blows landing on the hump-backed scapegoat'. My problem with that is that HCE is inside the pub, protected from the mob outside. However there is a bell ringing earlier on the page at 379.08 'Bing bong!' –  the Zurich Sechseläuten festival bell, a Wake motif. Perhaps that bell, which is rung at 6pm rather than midnight, set off all these BENK! sounds. 

In the first draft, the bell's  'Beng!' goes directly before the 'BINK!' (Later Joyce switched the order of BENK and BINK)

David Hayman's First Draft Version of Finnegans Wake

The most eccentric reading is by John Gordon, who believes that HCE is lying in bed, having visions of a ghost. He sees the long angry speech from 373-80 as a shouting match between HCE and his man-of-all work, Sackerson, culminating in the slamming of shutters: 

'The figure lying in the bedroom has had enough of the weather coming in through the blown-open windowboards and has called for (Sackerson), who had 'hord from afar a piping' to come close them up. Meanwhile the roistering of the cast-out customers bodes ill for the would-be returner/haunter: they are overheard from outside 'marshalsing'...'The dumb he shoots the shopper rope. And they all pour forth' indicates that far from closing the shutters the oafish Sackerson has made things worse – perhaps he heard 'shut them up' as 'shutter open'. In the boisterous paragraph from 373.13 to 380.05, shouting master and servant are trying to make themselves understood to one another over the noisy weather, and things don't start to quiet down until, with a 'BENK!...BINK...BUNK...BENK BANK BONK' (379.27-30), the servant finally succeeds in slamming (or hammering – the sound echoes Christ being nailed o the cross) the windowboards shut...'

Gordon's book is misleadingly titled Finnegans Wake: A Plot Summary. It should be called A New Plot Applied to Finnegans Wake.

Joyce would probably have enjoyed all these interpretations (he said the Wake could 'satisfy more readers than any other book because it gives them the opportunity to use their own ideas in the reading').



More ideas came from  FWREAD, the page-a-week reading group. Peter Reichenberg suggested that the sounds could represent the interference on HCE's pub radio.  Hen Hanna discovered that 'Google.Books shows some hits for "benk bank bonk".  I think they are old Nordic (Swed. dial.) cognates for bang (strike)  bungle (strike clumsily)'. Eric Rosenbloom wrote, 'The B-NKs struck me as the knocking of a boat that The Four are launching (or carrying away).'

I suggested that they may be the sound of HCE, as High King Roderick O'Conor, falling over inside his pub, or knocking over the glasses (an event which follows immediately after, on p 382, where 'he came acrash a crupper'). But I have no idea if Joyce intended that.

There was an an-depth interpretation from Orlando Mezzabotta, the Italian actor and Wake performer, who is the most creative reader of Joyce I know. Orlando came up with a typically brilliant interpretation which, unlike John Gordon's, is based on a close reading of the text. His is the only reading which relates the words to the surrounding text:

'Well, I myself have been quite intrigued (and still I am) by B-NK series at the end of page 379. They seem obviously to be onomatopoeic sounds.

But first we should note that the first sound is BENK!, with an exclamation mark (MARK: king Mark), which seems indeed a KNOCK. That is probably in relation to 379.24-26

"But of all your wanings send us out your peppydecked ales and you'll not be such a bad lot."

Now it seems that after the insults the gang  (as a matter of fact I am convinced that the paragraph beginning with "He should be ashaped..." and ending with "fear you will." p. 379 is a long monologue of Hosty's - Hosty, namely Host Jr, against his father the Host; a violent tirade very similar to the one of the "unsolicited visitor" of the end of Chapter 3 - pages 70-72); the gang, led by Hosty, seems ready to make peace, provided HCE send them savoury drinks (send us out your peppydecked ales ).

There's indeed an ironic reference to Genesis 19,5. 

'They called to Lot, Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.'
Lot and "bad lot". Where "wanings" are "weanings", hinting at "children". And "ales" is "Alice"; thus: "of all your children send us  peppy Alice". Which is a further invitation to the father who does not want to listen, the deaf father [379.21  Yus, sord, fathe,], to loose to them his daughter (whom, in Genesis, Lot will have sex with).

So they want their drink/sex and they knock violently at the door:

BENK! In fact it's a sort of "BANG", with a "K" that enhances the noise.
And since "benk" is Norwegian "bench", that may hint also at a bench beaten against the door, a sort of ramming (the siege of HCE's castle/tavern).
But the B-NK series may also be a variant of Italian "bianco" (white), French "blanc", English "blank"; connected with the  "wheateny one" (379.26-27) the white flesh of the young girl, versus the browny one (rye) of servile women. A possible reference to the hen of 379.23:

"You keep that henayearn and her fortycantle glim lookbehinder."

(A lady with a glaring posterior! -- although in this case it's probably just a vulgar fat-assed woman, to underscore the difference from the jewel eyed girl: 379.24 "We might do with rubiny leeses" - lenses, eyes)

After the first, evident knock there is the series of five B-NKs in a vocalic succession (I-U-E-A-O) which is not the usual A E I O U. I don't think there is a purpose in this, unless we suppose that the "disorderly" gang does not follow the prescribed rules. I am more inclined to think that the sounds are related to specific situations.
First the gang addresses ALP  (that Missus with the kiddies of sweet Gorteen). I wouldn't exclude that "putty our wraughther" of 379.21 is in fact ALP, the mother. "wraughther -> wrought her" : she/her who created/wrought. And "putty" may hint at Italian "puttana", Spanish "puta". Thus: that whore of our mother! In Italy we say "Puttana Eva" (Eve, that whore!). An insult to both the parents. (b.t.w: wraughther  hints also at "wrougther - rorter :
[Australian] a small-scale confidence trickster)

The gang seems to beg the lady's pardon for the noise,  hoping not to have disturbed her:

"we sincerely hope that the Missus has not at all (at the very least) been (BINK) [note, please, "bing": the delicate, rosy (pink) banging!]  disturbed (deranged) by the noise (tittles: names, titles) we made in case she were sleeping (BUNK: bed)". Then the gang addresses HCE, calling him sarcastically "majesty" (Meggers), ramming furiously at the door, with the BENK (Norwegian: bench - which is also Dutch "BANK"), with a thunderous BONK. They may indeed remind of the hammering of the lid of a coffin (doornail), or of the building of the barge (sloop)  which shall carry the old Viking's corpse:

To speed the bogre's barque away
O'er wather parted from the say.'

I thought about illustrating Orlando's reading, but it was too much of a challenge!

What do you think these words represent? Please post any theories below!


  1. In Cornwall, apparently, a "benk" is a bench: https://books.google.com/books?id=SPs4AQAAMAAJ&dq=%22benk%22&pg=RA1-PA14#v=onepage&q=%22benk%22&f=false

  2. surely it's the prankquean demanding the ales?