Friday, 4 November 2022

James Joyce's Ashpit

How many great writers have had archaeological digs in their back gardens?  

I learned that a Joyce excavation in Fairview, Dublin, was taking place in 2013, from PQ's blog, A Building Roam. He shared a story from the Irish Times, which declared 'While it is unlikely that the excavation will yield any lost manuscripts, it is still the first such exploration of a Joyce location that has been undertaken.'

The 2014 spring edition of Archaeology Ireland (top) has Andy Halpin and Mary Cahill's report on the secrets they uncovered in the ashpit of the Joyce family house at 8 Royal Terrace (now Inverness Rd) Fairview.  

Ashpits were rectangular sunken brick or concrete lined structures, for dumping the ashes from fires and other domestic rubbish. In the 19th century, the ashes were taken away to be used as fertiliser or material for brickmaking.  In Ireland and Britain, we still call rubbish collectors 'dustmen'. 

Here's a dustman from Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor.  

We meet a dustman in Finnegans Wake'A dustman nocknamed Sevenchurches in the employ of Messrs Achburn, Soulpetre and Ashreborn, prairmakers, Glintalook...' 59.16

I like 'Ashreborn' - the ashes from ashpits are reborn as bricks and new life from fertiliser.

'This ourth of years is not save brickdust and being humus the same roturns.' 18.04

The Joyces lived in 8 Royal Terrace from 1900-1901, and it's the setting for the chapter of A Portrait where Stephen walks to the University.  Joyce describes the wet rubbish in the lane behind the house, where the dustmen would have made their collections;

'The lane behind the terrace was waterlogged and as he went down it slowly, choosing his steps amid heaps of wet rubbish, he heard a mad nun screeching in the nuns’ madhouse beyond the wall.

—Jesus! O Jesus! Jesus!

He shook the sound out of his ears by an angry toss of his head and hurried on, stumbling through the mouldering offal, his heart already bitten by an ache of loathing and bitterness.'

The nun's screeching may explain why, in Finnegans Wake, Joyce renames the street 'Royal Terrors' (420.28).

By the late Victorian period, metal dustbins (ashcans in the USA) had largely replaced sunken ashpits, and so the one in Fairview wouldn't have been regularly cleared out. The ashpit in 'An Encounter' is a place 'where nobody ever came':

'I hid my books in the long grass near the ashpit at the end of the garden where nobody ever came and hurried along the canal bank.' 

A London dustman in 1910

In 'Araby', Joyce describes the smell of the ashpits in North Richmond Street, where the family lived in 1894-7:

'The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness.'

(Thanks to Hen Hanna for sharing these Dubliners quotes, when we were discussing the ashpit excavation)

Joyce talks about the same smells in a letter to his publisher:

'It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories.'

Joyce to Grant Richards, 24 September 1905, Letters II


The story of the dig began in 2012, when the house owner, Stephen D'Arcy, discovered the ashpit. From the archaeologist's report: 

'Stephen, a professional gardener, was preparing this part of the garden for planting when he discovered the walls of the ash pit. At first he thought that they were the footing for a barbecue stand, but he quickly realised that he had discovered something quite different when fragments of glass with images began to emerge from the pit. At this stage, having removed some of the glass fragments (he) recognised them as magic lantern slides....'

From the Irish Times report on the dig

Stephen contacted the National Museum of Ireland, who sent in the archaeologists:

'Magic lantern slides in a suburban garden ash pit seem a long way from the usual investigations of cist burials and bog butter, but the archaeological nature of the discovery and the possible connection to important historical persons and events fit perfectly with the discipline of archaeological inquiry....The excavation of the ash pit took place over a week in February 2013, directed by Andy Halpin. Excavating an ash pit is not unlike excavating a Bronze Age cist burial, as the area to be excavated, confined by its concrete walls, is similar and the ashy deposit is also reminiscent of cremated deposits.'

Here's their photo of the excavated ashpit, which does look like a cist burial.

'charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild' 613.21

'the hollow chyst excitement' 596.28

Cist burial, from Davis and Thurman's Crania Britannica, 1865

The dig revealed more than 250 complete and fragmented slides, mostly showing religious subjects. Some of them were painted, others posed photographs. Labels on the slides show they were bought from John Lizar's of Glasgow (which also had offices in Edinburgh, Liverpool and Belfast).

One of the ashpit slides, showing a scene from the Pilgrim's Progress

A John Lizar's magic lantern

In a great piece of detective work, the archaeologists suggest that the slides belonged to Thomas McBratney, a Presbyterian lay preacher who lived in the house from 1918 until his death in 1921. The slides must have been thrown away after his death, perhaps while Joyce was beginning Finnegans Wake.


Finding religious magic lantern slides in this ashpit is an astounding synchronicity. For this was the very ashpit, where in 1901, the Joyce family found two books.

'Somebody found at the end of the garden two books which the children nicknamed 'the ashpit books'. One was a song-book, the first pages of which were missing. It contained a large and miscellaneous collection of classical and traditional songs, popular ballads and many so-called comic songs, the humour of which always remained a mystery to me. The other was a closely and badly printed collated edition of the four gospels in a red cloth cover. The former tenants of the house were Protestants...As the little volume was still quite presentable, though the cloth of one cover was detached from the cardboard owing to exposure to weather, I put it on my shelf.'

Stanislaus Joyce, My Brother's Keeper, p113-114

'The splendour of the trove may have been the origin of another of John Stanislaus Joyce's sardonic catchphrases when anything was in short supply: 'Have you tried the ash-pit?'

John Wyse Jackson and Peter Costello, John Stanislaus Joyce, Fourth Estate, 1997, p227

Catholic families did not have Bibles, so the book was a revelation for Stanislaus, then aged 16. After reading it from cover to cover, 'the immediate result was the uneasy prompting of doubt.'  The ashpit book discovery led Stanislaus to lose his faith. 

'My mother blamed Jim for my blunt refusal to go to confession or Communion, but she was wrong, for in point of time, at least, I refused first.'

Stanislaus Joyce, My Brother's Keeper, p118


The ashpit books recall the discovery in Finnegans Wake of a letter in a 'fatal midden' by Biddy the hen.  'Midden' is an archaeological term for a mound of domestic refuse, often food remains (kitchen middens). 

'This midden is a symbol, elaborated later, for the inhabited world in which men have left so many traces. The letter stands as a symbol for all attempts at written communication including all other letters, all the world's literature, the Book of Kells, all manuscripts, all the sacred books of the world, and also Finnegans Wake itself. One reason why The Book of Kells is included here is that it was once 'stolen by night...and found after a lapse of some months, concealed under sods' (Sullivan)'

J.S.Atherton, The Books at the Wake p62-3

Joyce may also have known that, since 1897, archaeologists were discovering vast amounts of Ancient Greek literature on papyrus scrolls from the dusty rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. 

Grenfel and Hunt's photo of their dig in Oxyrhynchus

The very first document discovered here was part of a previously unknown Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic collection of the 'hidden sayings' of Jesus.  Read a transcript here.

Oxyrhynchus 1, The Gospel of Thomas

The hen, scratching at the heap, is like one of these archaeologists. The letter she finds seems to be from an Irish American woman in Boston to her sister Maggy:

'The bird in the case was Belinda of the Dorans...and what she was scratching at the hour of klokking twelve looked for all this zogzag world like a goodish-sized sheet of letterpaper originating by transhipt from Boston (Mass.) of the last of the first to Dear whom it proceded to mention Maggy well & allathome’s health...'111.05-11

Later in the Wake, this letter is explicitly linked with the ashpit

'a letter to last a lifetime for Maggi beyond by the ashpit' 211.22

In the heat of the midden, this Boston letter has been transformed, like a melting photographic negative of a horse:

'If a negative of a horse happens to melt enough while drying, well, what you do get is, well, a positively grotesquely distorted macromass of all sorts of horsehappy values and masses of meltwhile horse....this freely is what must have occurred to our missive.... Heated residence in the heart of the orangeflavoured mudmound had partly obliterated the negative to start with, causing some features palpably nearer your pecker to be swollen up most grossly...' 111.26-36

Horse negative, from

This makes it astounding that archaeologists should have found magic lantern slides in the ashpit. 

A photographic slide from the ashpit

Thanks to PQ for making the connection between the slides and the melting negative in his blog, where he relates this to Robert Anton Wilson, the biggest Wake synchronicity hunter.

To sum up this web of psychogeographic synchronicities:

1897 Archaeologists in Egypt discover a Gospel of Thomas in the rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus.
1901 At 8 Royal Terrace, Fairview, the Joyces find an edition of the four gospels in the ashpit.
1905 Joyce writes 'An Encounter,' in which the boy narrator hides his books 'in the long grass near the ashpit at the end of the garden where nobody ever came.'
Joyce writes to Grant Richards, 'It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories.'
1921 Lay preacher Thomas McBratney's religious magic lantern slides find their way into the ashpit.
1923 Joyce writes the Hen chapter of Finnegans Wake, in which a letter dug out of a midden is compared with a melting photographic negative and a New Testament, the Book of Kells. This document has 'acquired accretions of terricious matter while loitering in the past' (114.28)
2013 The ashpit is excavated and the magic lantern slides discovered.

There might be even more synchronicities if we knew about the book of comic songs.


Lisa and I made a pilgrimage to Fairview in June, during the Ulysses centenary celebrations, retracing the route Stephen takes from his home to the University, in reverse.  Father Conmee, who also walks part of the same route in Ulysses, is commemorated on Newcomen Bridge.

'His morning walk across the city had begun, and he foreknew that as he passed the sloblands of Fairview he would think of the cloistral silverveined prose of Newman; that as he walked along the North Strand Road, glancing idly at the windows of the provision shops, he would recall the dark humour of Guido Cavalcanti and smile'

Standing in front of the house,  I felt I was close to one of the key locations of Finnegans Wake.

Friday, 10 June 2022

James Joyce was a Goat Lover

'Once as we were walking up the Champs Elysées together, I pointed to a beautiful white goat harnessed to a children's cart and said how much I admired these courageous and inquisitive creatures. Joyce fully agreed and stopping to contemplate the stately little animal, said he couldn't understand why the goat had been selected as a satanic symbol. 'Hircus Civis Eblanensis.' There was a good deal of the surefootedness and toughness of the mountain goat in Joyce's own composition.'  

Frank Budgen 'Further Recollections of James Joyce', Partisan Review, 1956

'We reached the zoo, and Joyce declared that he didn't care much for the animals; only cats and goats appealed to him....The goats entertained him highly with their pranks.' 

Ole Vinding, 'Joyce in Copenhagen', Portraits of the Artist in Exile 

James Joyce loved goats, which caper through the pages of his books, especially Finnegans Wake.  Goats are individualists and anarchists. Joyce identified with their independence and stubbornness.

Joyce liked goats so much that he even grew a goatee beard!

'Shem's bodily getup, included...a trio of barbels from his megageg chin.' 169.11

'Megageg' is the bleating sound made by a goat. So here Joyce is explicitly comparing his own beard with a goat's.  



Here's a photo of a flock of sheep and goats I saw in Alonissos,  in Greece.  The timid conformist sheep are keeping to the safe level central ground, while the bold inquisitive goats are exploring the edges.


Joyce preferred goats to sheep, reversing the position of Jesus Christ, in the gospel of Matthew:

'All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world....Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.'

Matthew 25 32-41

Christ saves the sheep and damns the goats

If you look up the Matthew passage online, you'll find lots of Christian writing explaining why Jesus preferred sheep to goats. They often repeat the saying 'Shepherds protect sheep from their environment, whereas goatherds protect the environment from their goats.' 

In Finnegans Wake, there are more than thirty uses of the goat/sheep motif, which you can read here in fweet.  Shem the Penman, the artist, is the goat. The conformist Shaun the Post is the sheep.


Here's the Exagmination, a 1929 defence of Work in Progress overseen by Joyce, who picked the title. Richard Ellmann says that 'The spelling of Exagmination was to claim its etymological derivation from ex agmine, a hint that his goats had been separated from the sheep.' 

When the Exagmination came out, Joyce wrote a letter to Valery Larbaud in which he parodied Christ's words damning the goats, applying them instead to the sheep:

'I am now hopelessly with the goats and can only think and write capriciously. Depart from me ye bleaters, into everlasting sleep which was prepared for Academicians and their agues!'

To Valery Larbaud, 30 July 1929, Letters 1, 284

The bleating sheep were the enemies of Work in Progress.  Joyce's chosen goats were the Exagmination's twelve writers (a parallel with Christ's apostles).

This goat I photographed in Ithaca tried to steal our sandwiches


In A Portrait, Stephen Dedalus, terrified of the hellfire sermon, temporarily joins the sheep and denies his goat nature. This vivid surreal scene is the only negative description of goats I can find in Joyce's writing:

'Creatures were in the field; one, three, six: creatures were moving in the field, hither and thither. Goatish creatures with human faces, hornybrowed, lightly bearded and grey as indiarubber. The malice of evil glittered in their hard eyes, as they moved hither and thither, trailing their long tails behind them. A rictus of cruel malignity lit up greyly their old bony faces. One was clasping about his ribs a torn flannel waistcoat, another complained monotonously as his beard stuck in the tufted weeds....That was his hell. God had allowed him to see the hell reserved for his sins: stinking, bestial, malignant, a hell of lecherous goatish fiends.'

For the rest of his life, James Joyce identified with the goats. 


Holman Hunt's The Scapegoat, 1854-6

Shem is also a scapegoat, the goat sent into the wilderness carrying the sins of the people, described in Leviticus 16:7-22:

'And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord's lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness....And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.'

Here is Shaun describing his brother:

'my allaboy brother...whom 'tis better ne'er to name, my said brother, the skipgod expelled for looking at churches from behind'. 488.22

skipgod = scapegoat and the goat that skips being offered as a sacrifice for the Lord

R.J. Schork argues that HCE is a Mosaic scapegoat and a Roman comedy lecherous billygoat. See his wonderful 1993 article 'Sheep, Goats, and the Figura Etymologica in Finnegans Wake' which is online here

Sometimes Joyce uses the German term for scapegoat, 'sündenbock':

'sindbook for all the peoples' 229.32

'their sindybuck that saved a city' 412.35

When the cad first appears, he is carrying 'his overgoat under his schulder, sheepside out' (35.13). 'Schuld' is guilt in German.


In the Anna Livia chapter, the washerwomen describe Earwicker as a he-goat, suckling Shem and Shaun.

Hircus Civis Eblanensis! He had buckgoat paps on him, soft ones for orphans. Ho, Lord! Twins of his bosom. 215.27

The Latin name means 'Goat Citizen of Eblana',  a term used by Ptolemy in his Geography, later identified by antiquarians with Dublin.  Joyce must have talked about this line with Frank Budgen, who related it to the white goat in the Champs Elysées above.

Joyce gave an extraordinary gloss on this passage to C.K.Ogden:

'The first man of Dublin was a he-goat.
Again the letters of Haveth Childers Everywhere.'


The first man of Dublin?

Here's a still from Percy Stow's 1909 film, A Glass of Goat's Milk, which Joyce showed at the Volta, Dublin's first cinema, in February 1910. This description is from the BFI:

'In this simple comedy a man drinks the milk of a particularly aggressive goat and grows horns. Instead off using a dissolve, director Percy Stow does it the old fashioned way, with a pair of inflatable horns, fashioned from paper, which blow up as we watch. The goat/man then proceeds to butt everything in sight before getting his horns stuck in a wooden winch where they are finally detached from his head....The actor, whoever he might be, does a splendid goat impression and the comedy builds in a satisfying way as the goat/man demolishes ever larger and more surprising objects - did they really cut down a tree specially for this film? - and there are some amusing special film effects, as when the dairyman is butted up into the air. '

I saw this, with piano accompaniment, at the National Film Theatre on Bloomsday in 1995, when it was part of a programme of films, curated by Luke McKernan, from the Volta (left). It was the only film I could imagine Joyce personally choosing for the programme.  The other films were Italian, and probably chosen by Joyce's partners from Trieste.

After reviving at his wake, Tim Finnegan told to stay lying in his coffin, is promised funerary offerings, including a glass of goat's milk:

'And we’ll be coming here, the ombre players, to rake your gravel and bringing you presents, won’t we, fenians?...and some goat’s milk, sir, like the maid used to bring you. ' 24.35


My favourite goat in Finnegans Wake makes an appearance as a 'litigant' in the Festy King trial on pages 85-92. Festy King was a real name, but Joyce also plays with the word king as title, bringing in a comic group of Irish kings:

'The litigants, he said, local congsmen and donalds, kings of the arans and the dalkeys, kings of mud and tory, even the goat king of Killorglin, were egged on by their supporters' 87.24-26

There really is a Goat King of Killorglin, chosen every year at the Puck Fair in Killorglin, County Kerry. Here's a lovely film about the ceremony.


In Ulysses, the only witness of Bloom and Molly's lovemaking on Ben Howth is a surefooted nannygoat:

'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. '  

The goat has a speaking role in the Circe episode:

(High on Ben Howth through rhododendrons a nannygoat passes, plumpuddered, buttytailed, dropping currants.)

THE NANNYGOAT: (Bleats.) Megeggaggegg! Nannannanny!

Old Irish Goats have now been reintroduced to Howth, by the Old Irish Goat Society, creating a perfect opportunity to reenact the big kiss scene.


Lisa and I were in Dublin last week, for the big Bloomsday celebrations.   On 15 June, we had day out in Howth, where I hoped to see some of the Old Irish Goats.  

We made boat trip in the Little Flower (Ireland's smallest and oldest passenger ferry) to Ireland's Eye

We saw loads of guillemots

Back on Howth Head, it was a perfect weather for goat spotting

The view south to Dalkey Island (which also has wild goats)

Here's the Bailey Lighthouse

We saw two llamas

But there was no sign of any goats!

After our day out, I learned on twitter that the Old Irish Goat Society had staged their own photo renactment with a magnificent goat. On Instagram, they posted film of of the shoot with this description:

'When Joycean Clare Taylor, approached us about a photoshoot with the goats to mark the centenary of Ulysses, we were a little nervous truth be told! Goats do their own thing it’s a known fact, & ours have a significant horned-presence, which made us question if it would be safe. What we didn’t expect was a day full of laughter & unforgettable moments, like when our handsome goat decided to remove Leopold’s pocket-square in the middle of a shot.'

picture and report from

When I mentioned my own failure to find a goat, they tweeted a kind invitation to give me a private tour. 

Unfortunately, we'd already gone south to Bray by this time.

I did find a sheep in Dublin, at F.X.Buckley's (Wakean name!) butcher shop in Talbot Street.

But the only goat I saw was this one on the wall of Sheridans the cheesemongers...

Thursday, 12 May 2022

The First Reviews of Finnegans Wake

'(Joyce) devoured the reviews of Finnegans Wake, but quickly grew disappointed and even moroseAs each one was read he listened intently, then sighed.' 

Richard Ellmann James Joyce, 1982, p.722 

The May 1939 issue of Time magazine carried a lengthy profile of Joyce by Whittaker Chambers. This part should be read out loud, preferably in the voice of Orson Welles:

'Generations of diviners, black magicians, fortune tellers and poets have made night and dreams their province, interpreting the troubled images that float through men’s sleeping minds as omens of good and evil....Only of late have psychologists asserted that dreams tell nothing about men’s future, much about their hidden or forgotten past. In dreams, this past floats, usually uncensored and distorted, to the surface of their slumbering consciousness.This week, for the first time, a writer had attempted to make articulate this wordless world of sleep. The writer is James Joyce; the book, Finnegans Wake — final title of his long-heralded Work in Progress....

Joyce’s idea in Finnegans Wake is not new. More than a hundred years ago, when Nathaniel Hawthorne was living in Salem, he jotted in his notebook an idea for a story: “To write a dream which shall resemble the real course of a dream, with all its inconsistency, its strange transformations . . . with nevertheless a leading idea running through the whole. Up to this old age of the world, no such thing has ever been written.”
Whittaker Chambers

But Joyce’s method is new. Dreams exist as sensation or impression, not as speech. Words are spoken in dreams, but they are usually not the words of waking life, may be capable of multiple meanings, or may even be understood in several different senses by the same dreamer at the same moment. Since dreams take place in a state of suspended consciousness, out of which language itself arises, Joyce creates, in Finnegans Wake, a dream language to communicate the dream itself.'

So the Time cover says 'He wrote Hawthorne's dream book'.

Chambers also writes, 'At present Joyce is not writing. His wife is trying to get him started on something, because when he is not working he is hard to live with.'

Imagine the challenge to the first reviewers of describing such a book!  


The laziest reviewer was Malcolm Muggeridge, who seems to have read only the opening page: 
'Mr. James Joyce's Finnegans Wake faces the reviewer with peculiar difficulties. In the first place he cannot read it, only battle through a page or so at a time without pleasure or profit. This would not, in itself, matter so much; but he does not know what the book is about. The dust jacket, which might be expected to help, says nothing except that Finnegans Wake has taken sixteen years to write, that it has been more talked about and written about during the period of its composition than any previous work of literature, and that it would inevitably 'be the most important event in any season in which it appeared'.... Considered as a book, and considering the object of a book to be by means of written symbols to convey the author's emotions to the reader, Finnegans Wake must be pronounced a complete fiasco. Such a word as 'bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!' is not merely senseless, it is absurd. How many mornings Mr Joyce devoted to coining this particular word, I do not know; perhaps it only took him one morning or just an hour or so; but in any case he was wasting his time as surely as, more surely than, a village idiot trying to catch a sunbeam.'

TIme and Tide, 20 May 1939 

The book jacket was indeed of no help to the reviewers.


Richard Aldington was just as contemptuous as Muggeridge, but much angrier. He'd taken his job seriously and actually read the book:

'Common honesty compels this reviewer to state that he is unable to explain either the subject or the meaning (if any) of Mr Joyce's book; and that, having spent several hours a day for more than a fortnight in wretched toil over these 628 pages, he has no intention of wasting one more minute of precious life over Mr Joyce's futile inventions, tedious ingenuities, and verbal freaks....
  What Mr Joyce has written is 628 pages of pedantic nonsense....This heavy compost is frequently infected with that lecherous suggestiveness of which Joyce is a master, which was defended in Ulysses as germane to the characters, but which seems here to have no purpose more interesting than the author's morose delectation...
  Such are the main ingredients of this ghastly stodge, repeated over and over again. The boredom endured in the penance of reading this book is something one would not inflict on any human being, but far be it from me to discourage any reader who prefers to use a perfectly good five-dollar bill to buy Finnegans Wake rather than to light a cigarette with it. (The latter of course will give more lasting satisfaction.) 
  Translated into native Tasmanian, this book should have a well-deserved sale.'

The Atlantic Monthly June 1939


B. Ifor Evans, in the Manchester Guardian, found the book impossible to review. But, unlike Aldington and Muggeridge, he preferred to suspend judgement:

'Mr. Joyce's "Finnegans Wake," parts of which have been published as "Work in Progress," does not admit of review. In twenty years' time, with sufficient study and with the aid of the commentary that will doubtless arise, one might be ready for an attempt to appraise it....The easiest way to deal with the book would be to become "clever" and satirical or to write off Mr. Joyce's latest volume as the work of a charlatan. But the author of "Dubliners," "A Portrait of an Artist," and "Ulysses" is obviously not a charlatan, but an artist of very considerable proportions. I prefer to suspend judgment. If I had had to review Blake's "Prophetic Books" when they first appeared I would have been forced to a similar decision....
  This book is nothing apart from its form, and one might as easily describe in words the theme of a Beethoven symphony....One concluding note. Mr. Joyce in a parody of Jung and Freud ("Tung-Toyd") mentioned "Schizo-phrenia." One might imagine that Mr. Joyce had used his great powers deliberately to show the language of a schizophrenic mind, and then he alone could explain his book and, I suppose, he alone review it.'

Manchester Guardian, 12 May 1939


The American poet, Louise Bogan looked at Joyce's claim that he was writing about the night and unconsciousShe was also the first genetic critic, comparing the published text with earlier versions:

'There is nothing whatever to indicate that Joyce has any real knowledge of the workings of the subconscious, in sleep or otherwise....The later versions of the fragments already published seem to be changed out of sheer perversity: a clause is omitted leaving nothing but a vestigial preposition; a singular noun is shifted to the plural and the meaning is thereby successfully clouded....The most frightening thing about the book is the feeling, which steadily grows in the reader, that Joyce himself does not know what he is doing; and how, in spite of all his efforts, he is giving himself away....
   The book cannot rise into the region of true evocation – the region where Molly Bloom's soliloquy exists imortalluy – because it has no human base....To read the book over a long period of time gives one the impression of watching intemperance become addiction, become debauch.
   The book's great beauties, its wonderful passages of wit, its variety, its marks of genius and immense learning are undeniable....But whatever it says of man's past it has nothing to do with man's future, which, we can only hope, will lie in the direction of more humanity rather than less. And there are better gods than Proteus...'

Nation 6 May 1939 


The only reviewer who claimed to understand the book was Edmund Wilson, who bizarrely argued that Finnegans Wake had 'a realistic foundation':

'Let me try to establish some of the most important facts which provide the realistic foundation for this immense poem of sleep. The hero of Finnegans Wake is a man of Scandinavian blood...Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, who keeps a pub called the Bristol in Dublin. He is somewhere between fifty and sixty, blond and ruddy, with a walrus moustache, very strong but of late years pretty fat.....'

'The Dream of Earwicker', The New Republic, 28 June 1939

Wilson then criticised Joyce for ignoring his realistic foundation, and writing a dream that this publican could not be having! 

'We are continually being distracted from identifying and following Earwicker, the humble proprietor of a public house, who is to encompass the whole microcosm of the dream, by the intrusion of all sorts of elements – foreign languages, literary allusions, historical information – which could not possibly be in Earwicker's mind....What about the references to the literary life in Paris and to the book itself as Work in Progress, which take us right out of the mind of Earwicker and into the mind of Joyce?'

I've written another post about this review, which influenced many later writers on the Wake.


Alfred Kazin challenged Wilson's idea that the book was Earwicker's dream (first expressed in Axel's Castle in 1931):

'How, you will ask, can Joyce know a dream? The answer of course is that he can't. In reality Finnegans Wake is a stupendous improvisation, a great pun. Even in sleep one cannot imagine an Irish-Norwegian brewer remembering words in a language he has never read....It is the sleep, not of one man, but of a drowsing humanity. All cultures have a relation to it, all minds, all languages nourish its night speech....Aone tortures one's way through Finnegans Wake an impression grows that Joyce has lost his hold on human life....He has created a world of his own, that night world in which all men are masters and all men dupes, and he has lost his way in it. For extraordinary a feat of language as Finnegans Wake is, what may we expect to follow it? the denigration has been too complete; after this twisting, howling, stumbling murk, language so convulsed, meaning so emptied, there is nothing.'

New York Herald Tribune, 21 May 1939 


In The New Yorker, Clifton Fadiman, US public intellectual, came up my favourite review title:

‘For the past seventeen years the author of “Ulysses” has been at work on a new book, released 
this week as “Finnegans Wake.” The world would doubtless be amazed at Mr. Joyce’s achievement, assuming the world understood it. But one doubts that “Finnegans Wake” will be grasped—at least in our time—except by a few conscientious philologists and a small lunatic fringe of autohypnotic Joyceans who seem able to hurl themselves into a trance of intuitive comprehension.
  I have enough sense to know that the man who wrote “Ulysses” is a great artist. I cannot believe, though some do, that he would spend seventeen years in the elaboration of a gigantic hoax. And, anyway, “Finnegans Wake” is so extraordinary that it’s worth talking about even if, like myself, you understand precious little of it….
   One of Joyce’s most earnest commentators, Eugene Jolas, declares that his master wants nothing less than to “hammer out a verbal vision that destroys space and time.” In a sense, the attempt is successful, but since time, space, and the individual are the loci, as it were, of human interest, Joyce is forced to forgo all attempts at appealing to our sensibilities. Even if you could understand “Finnegans Wake,” you would not be moved by it. A god, talking in his sleep, might have written it. The only attitude a god could well have toward human affairs is irony, and dehumanized irony seems to me the keynote of every one of these strange pages.’

I love his description of the 'lunatic fringe of autohypnotic Joyceans'!


Archibald Anderson Hill, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, looked at the book's linguistic experiments. He concluded that Joyce was following a mistaken and naive theory of language:
'The monstrosity of “Finnegans Wake” makes it seem impossible that a sane man could have written it, yet the early passages seem normal enough. The difference is that what appears in the early work as a preoccupation only, is in the later carried out with the relentlessness of a man demonstrating a theory. The theory is about language, and it is mistaken. But it is by no means abnormal or even very recondite, since it is shared by most naive people. Joyce believes that there is, or should be, a real connection between the sound and the thing. His theory rests in part on an exaggerated notion of the possibilities of onomatopoeia. Imitation by means of sound occurs to some extent in language, but is thoroughly successful only when the thing imitated is another sound.... 
   Joyce has apparently set out in “Finnegans Wake” to create a language which attempts to be really instead of nominally expressive....The attempts at onomatopoeia rest on a denial of the first fundamental characteristic of language, its arbitrariness; the puns rest on a similar denial of the second, its social basis....Joyce writes “lucalizod” for “localized” because his personal experience includes the names of two Irish villages of which the word “localized” reminds him. It makes no difference to him that the majority of his readers have never heard of the two villages. Since to him language is not social, any personal association between words is valid. It is a paradox that a man who thinks that he is creating a language of universal symbols should make constant use of associations of the most narrowly personal kind....
   It is difficult to judge the artistic effectiveness of the style in “Finnegans Wake,” apart from the faithfulness with which it represents the subconscious. To me, however, it is a complete failure, since the humor and the poetic beauty of much of “Ulysses” are here absent or rudimentary. Apparently, in representing the hypnoid mind, Joyce felt that it would be a mistake to tell a connected story, or to make his jokes too good. Consequently most of the humor is on the level of “peacisely.” Or if there is a good bit, it is lost in such a mass of turgid and opaque viscosity that it is impossible to laugh at it....Further, the book does not impress me as profoundly learned, in spite of the opinions of many critics....No amount of learning in languages, theology, or Celtic legend, will help the reader much. The only man who can really follow the puns is Joyce himself, because only he has formed the associations which made the puns possible.'


The Irish Times had an anonymous review which, John McCourt has revealed, was written by the novelist, and friend of Flann O'Brien, Brinsley MacNamara:

'The writing of "Finnegans Wake” took sixteen years, short enough, perhaps, beside the stretch of time that could be spent in trying to understand it....Nothing moves, or appears, or is said, as ever before in any book, it is endlessly exciting in its impenetrability....The work is described as a novel, and, although in their essence all the stories of the world may be here, there is no single story that one can grasp. It may be a novel to end novels for, if there is shape at all, it is the shape of a superb annihilation - as of some gigantic thing let loose to destroy what we had come to regard as a not unnecessary part of civilisation. One feels its power, the kind of gleaming genius behind it, but no communication of anything is achieved, perhaps simply because it is just not intended.... 
   There are moments of beauty, the measured sounds of lyrical prose which beat upon the ear, but which do not come into the understanding, and always an airy gesture beyond the words which make it as if Mr. Joyce had greatly enjoyed doing all this despite the torture of the sixteen years' labour that it took. Yet pleasure never altogether reaches to the reader; he is faced with an acute bewilderment from the beginning, which is no beginning, to the end, which is no end.
  The reader begins to reject constructively the formlessness which is all around him; he tries to find a way out, to relate to some kind of plan of his own, even one of these, embedded pages. There are lingering lovely passages like flickers of gold. By following the small light they give there may be real illumination a little further on. But the light fails, and he is left to wander round and round in the maze.... 
  It is a game which only Mr. Joyce can play, for he alone knows the rules, if there are any. He will take a word and twist and turn it, and chase it up and down through every language that he knows – English, French, German, Gaelic, Latin, Greek, Dutch, Sanskrit, Esperanto. The sounds of words in infinite variety fascinate him...
  We may be face to face in Finnegans Wake with one of the great milestones of literature, and in this book a new language may have been born....The extent to which Finnegans Wake may begin to influence the English language will be the measure of its reality and the only proper test of its importance.... This book could be imitated only by Mr Joyce himself. It may appear, therefore, in the ultimate view, that although after Ulysses he had no more to say, in Finnegans Wake he went on saying it'
The Irish Times, 3 June 1939

In Consuming Joyce, John McCourt quotes a 1947 'Irishman's Diary' column by the paper's editor, R.M.Smyllie:

'Brinsley MacNamara reviewed it for the Irish Times, and I still have somewhere a letter from Joyce himself, congratulating the paper on the excellence of the review. Praise from Joyce was high praise indeed. I wonder how many of its other reviewers can boast that they were congratulated by this remarkable, if wayward, genius.'


Joyce's friend Padraic Colum - who had helped him write the 'Haveth Childers Everywhere' section, described the pleasures of reading the book in The New York Times:

'Accept what looks like Volapuk on the pages, I would say to one who has got "Finnegans Wake," and turn to the last section in the first part, the section that begins 'O tell me all about Anna Livia!'....The reader who is not looking for usual connotations, for logical structure, can find something delightful here: he can experience the child's surprise at flowing water and all that goes on beside it.....Even if he does not understand all that is on any one page (the reader) will find sentences lovely in their freshness and their beauty and sentences that one can chuckle over for months. We have novels that give us greatly a three dimensional world: here is a narrative that gives a new dimension.'


The Scottish poet Edwin Muir wrote a lyrical and perceptive review:

'It is an enormous lingual feat; it does give the feeling sometimes that one is moving in a world where everything, including language and syntax and the principles of mental association, are different; it is an attempt never attempted before, which could only have been undertaken by a man of Mr Joyce's genius and perseverance....
  The book has the qualities of a flowing stream, sound and rhythm; the rhythm is sometimes beautiful, as can be tested by reading passages aloud....There are parodies of the sagas, skits on almost every style of writing, enormous catalogues in the vein of Rabelais, snippets of folk-lore, echoes of music-hall songs, all slightly dissolved, all tending to flow into each other, and producing a continuous effect of storytelling while continuously avoiding the commission of a story. To dip into this flux for a little is refreshing, but to stay in for long is to be drowned, 'with winkles, whelks and cocklesent jelks', in Mr Joyce's enormous Baroque moat. A reader might well cry 'Lifeboat Alloe, Noeman's Woe, Hircups Emptybolly!'

ThListener, 11 May 1939


The Wake's avoidance of storytelling was also discussed by Harry Levin, in Joyce's favourite review

'As a novelist he is, though not a failure, perhaps a bankrupt. He can no longer narrate; he can only elaborate....he has no story to tell. He merely effects a poignant kind of cross-reference.... Among the acknowledged masters of English – and there can be no further delay in acknowledging that Joyce is among the greatest – there is no one with so much to express and so little to say.... Sooner or later it gives a prejudiced reader the uncanny sensation of trying to carry on a conversation with an omniscient parrot.'

'On First Looking into Finnegans Wake', New Directions in Prose and Poetry, 1939   


The Observer had the inspired idea to commission Oliver St John Gogarty - Buck Mulligan himself! - to review Finnegans Wake. He looked at Joyce's motives for writing the book, and found the answer in the character of the man he'd known in 1904:

'When I think of the indomitable spirit that plodded on, writing Ulysses in poverty in Trieste, without a hope of ever seeing it published, I am amazed at the magnitude of this work, every word of which in its 628 pages had to be weighed, twisted, and deranged in order to bring up associated ideas in the mind....The immense erudition employed, and the various languages ransacked for pun and word-associations is almost incredible to anyone unaware of the superhuman knowledge the author had when a mere stripling. In some places the reading sounds like the chatter during the lunch interval in a Berlitz school. Every language living and dead in Europe gabbles on and on. But what is the motive force behind this colossal production? Finnegan’s wake [sic] may be the wake, that is the funeral celebration, as well as the panegyric, of civilisation. Resentment against his upbringing, his surroundings, and finally against the system of civilisation throughout Europe, perhaps against Life itself which Finnegan may represent, created this literary Bolshevism which strikes not only at all standards and accepted modes of expression whether of Beauty or Truth but at the very vehicle of rational expression. This arch-mocker in his rage would extract the Logos, the Divine word or Reason from its tabernacle, and turn it muttering and maudlin into the street. It is impossible to read the work as a serial. It may have a coherency and a meaning. What is wrong with the meaning that it cannot be expressed? Ripeness cannot be all in this instance, nor can a myriad-minded man full of infinite suggestion satisfy the reader with suggestions alone. Perhaps it is wrong to look for a meaning where there is every meaning. It may be unmodern to expect sense. Lewis Carroll stopped short brilligly, but this goes on lapsing as everlastingly as Anna Livia. There is nothing new under the sun: it is only exaggerated. This is the most colossal leg-pull in literature since McPherson’s Ossian. Mr. Joyce has had his revenge.’

Joyce liked this review. He told Frank Budgen, 'Gogarty is an athlete, a cyclist and a swimmer. He should know what staying power is.'


Patricia Hutchins looked at Faber's news cuttings files, and found the following delightful quotes:

'It was in the by-ways that the book found friends. Mr Beddow, assistant editor of The Schoolmaster and Woman Teacher's Chronicle, wrote, 'I have in my hands the biggest masterpiece of this century.'....The Library Assistant strongly recommended the book and an interesting review in Theology declared, 'the eye must indeed be blind that does not see in this author's lonely journeying a spiritual pilgrimage.''

Hutchins, James Joyce's World, Methuen, 1957, p238


Henry W Clune, in his witty 'Seen and Heard' column in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, reviewed the reviewers:

'James Joyce, the Dublin expatriate, who over a period of 16 to 17 years wrote a book in Paris called ''Finnegans Wake'', which runs to 628 pages, sells for $5, and which was brought out last week on a tide of hundreds of thousands of words by the book critics, opens in this wise: 'riverrun past Eve and Adam's from swerve of shore to bend of bay' and closes with this red hot tag line 'A way alone a last a loved a long the'....
  Mr Joyce is called one of the great modern literary artists, and last week got his picture on the front cover of ''Time'', a distinction of sorts....But no review I have read of Mr Joyce's opus has told precisely of what Mr Joyce was writing about. Still, the reviewers wrote very thoughtfully. They couldn't quite get at the thing but seemed to think that it must be significant. They felt a brilliant panorama lay before them if only they could get the swaddled eye sheets off their heads and have a long penetrating look.... 
 But for the life of me I can't see how anyone who is unable to understand Mr Joyce (and I have read of no who does understand him) should pay $5 for his book.' 

Here's the whole column by Clune: