Poetry in Ulysses: White Thy Fambles, Red Thy Gan

[Rogues] have their several Wenches, and several places of meeting, where whatsoever they unlawfully obtain they spend, and whatsoever they spend is to satisfie their unsatisfied lust; wallowing in all manner of debauchery, converting the night into day and the day into night, damning and sinkling being four parts in five their discourse…  – Richard Head, 1673

For all posts on music and poetry in Ulysses, visit this page.


Near the end of “Proteus,” Stephen encounters a couple of cocklepickers “shouldering their bags” and walking along Sandymount Strand. The proceeding description, found on p. 47 in my copy of Ulysses (1990 Vintage International), becomes less and less intelligible as it goes on. At first glance, it’s hardly recognizable as English at all. Consult an annotation or reading guide, and you’ll be told it’s Gypsy speech but not much else. I think we should honor the art of “Proteus” – philology – and pick this one apart word by word.

As such, we should take a moment to define some terms. Stephen imagines the cocklepickers to be what he terms “red Egyptians,” and, as mentioned above, most annotations will describe them as gypsies. The term “gypsy” is often used to refer to the Romani people, but as it is both inaccurate and considered an ethnic slur, it’s best not to use it. It was long believed that the Romani originally came to Europe via Egypt. While consulting sources from the 17th and 18th centuries for this post, I saw the Romani regularly referred to as simply “Egyptians” and, in one instance, “Counterfett Egyptians.” More recently, it’s been determined that the Romani most likely originated in northern India before migrating to Eastern Europe, a fact that was originally uncovered through linguistic analysis of their language and later confirmed by DNA.

479px-Travellers_Decorated_Caravan_(6136023633)
Irish Travellers’ decorated caravan, 1954, National Library of Ireland archive

However, I think it’s unlikely Stephen’s cocklepickers would be Romani. Though Romani have lived in Ireland since the 19th century, it’s far more likely that they’d be Irish Travellers, who are also referred to as “Irish gypsies.” Travellers are not related in any way to the Romani, but the two groups get compared and conflated because Travellers are also a traditionally migrant community, but, unlike the Romani, they are native to Ireland. It’s unclear when they originated, but Travellers are officially recognized as a distinct ethnic group in Ireland. They are a tiny minority in Ireland and live almost totally outside the mainstream population, practicing their own traditions and living in insular communities suspicious of the “settled community.” In modern Ireland, they are far more likely to be unemployed and lack formal education than the average mainstream person. As with the Romani, the settled population is quite suspicious of, even hostile towards, the Travellers, often associating them with theft and violent crime.

One thing that distinguishes Travellers and Romani from mainstream society is their languages. In addition to English, Travellers speak a language called Shelta by linguists and Cant or Gammon by Travellers. The name “Cant” in particular is of interest to us since the language Stephen throws out in this section is taken from a 17th century book called The Canting Academy that revealed the secret code language (or cryptolect) of thieves in England. You might be familiar with Thieves’ Cant if, like me, you love playing a rogue in Dungeons and Dragons. Turns out it was a real thing.

And this brings us back to our “red Egyptians.” In many older sources, Romani and thieves are spoken of interchangeably, making little distinction between the groups. However, the Thieves’ Cant of 17th century England was used exclusively to discuss criminal activities while Shelta and Romani have well-developed vocabulary for everyday topics. You can even learn the “Our Father” in Shelta. “Gypsy” is now considered a slur because it has long been synonymous with “criminal.” Romani, Traveller and criminal become indistinct categories, a mixture of “those people.” I don’t see any evidence that the cocklepickers in “Proteus” are literally Travellers or Romani, but they are described as “Egyptians” and associated with Cant.  Fair or not, Stephen’s mind willingly “shapeshifts” them into scoundrels, keeping with this episode’s Protean theme.

Setting aside any and all ethnic stereotypes stirred up by Stephen, the young Artist has a keen memory for the Thieves’ Cant found in Richard Head’s book, the full title of which is The canting academy, or, The devils cabinet opened wherein is shewn the mysterious and villanous practices of that wicked crew, commonly known by the names of hectors, trapanners, gilts, &c. : to which is added a compleat canting-dictionary, both of old words, and such as are now most in use : with several new catches and songs, compos’d by the choisest wits of the age.

People were not into the whole brevity thing in the 1600’s. The Canting Academy was one of several books dedicated to revealing the secrets of the criminal underworld in England, which was apparently a hot topic in those days. It is delightfully readable and available in its entirety online.

As an example, the first bit of cant we come across in Ulysses is “mort,” meaning a woman. More specifically, Stephen imagines Lady Cocklepicker to be a “strolling mort,” whom Head described as:

Strowling-Morts are such as pretend to be Widdows, travelling about from County to County, making laces upon •aves, as Beggars tape, or the like; they are subtil Queans, hard-hearted, light-singred, hypocritical and dissembling, and very dangerous to meet, if any Ruffler or Rogue be in their company.

Watch out for that strolling mort, Stephen.

How about this bit, from “Proteus”:

Behind her lord, his helpmate, bing awast to Romeville. 

“Bing awast to Romeville,” comes directly from a “canting song” recorded by Head entitled “The Rogues delight in praise of his Stroling Mort.” It means roughly “let’s go to London.” Don Gifford records Rome-, or possibly rum-, as meaning “first-rate.” So, London’s a first-rate city. Let’s go there. Next:

When night hides her body’s flaws calling under her brown shawl from an archway where dogs have mired. Her fancyman is treating two Royal Dublins in O’Loughlin’s of Blackpitts. 

Stephen imagines her to be a prostitute by night, skulking in dark doorways, while her “fancyman” takes a couple soldiers to an unlicensed pub in the shady part of Dublin, so sayeth Gifford. Head describes this style of arrangement under the section titled “The Bawd Pimp and Whore”: 

…the Whore is the Main support of the House. The first will not swagger unless he be paid, the next wont procure unless he may Spunge, and have his Leachery for nothing, and the Whore will not ply unless she hath half share of her own Gettings besides a little Snicking by the by.

More Cant from “Proteus”:

Buss her, wap in rogues’ rum lingo, for, O, my dimber wapping dell!

“Buss” is to kiss; “wap” is sex. “Rogues’ rum lingo” could either be the lingo that rogues use when they’re on the rum, or possibly it’s just Stephen commending his first-rate use of Cant.  Gifford calls it “noted talk.” 

“O, my dimber wapping dell!” is another direct quote from “The Rogue’s Delight,” sometimes translated as “pretty, loving wench.” However, since we already know what wapping really is, and this is the slang of London’s criminal underbelly, I think it means more like “hot, fucking wench.” Too many polite annotators out there. 

Next, we get a full stanza from “The Rogue’s Delight”:

White thy fambles, red thy gan

And thy quarrons dainty is.

Couch a hogshead with me then.

In the darkmans clip and kiss.

Head offers his own translation into plain English, but if you’d like a translation into contemporary English, I would recommend checking out Jerome Rothenburg’s here. He translates this stanza as:

White thy hands, red thy mouth,

And thy body dainty is,

Lie down with me then,

In the night embrace and kiss.

Stephen follows his recitation of “The Rogue’s Delight” with the following musing:

Morose delectation Aquinas tunbelly calls this, frate porcospino.

Delectatio morosa, or “morose delectation,” is taking delight in evil thoughts. It has a similar meaning to schadenfreude and was considered a sin by the medieval Church (hey there, Thomas Aquinas!) It can also refer to not dismissing sinful thoughts when they creep into one’s mind, such as doing your best to recall rude, roguish poetry. Stephen is never far from his deep-rooted Catholic guilt. Agenbite of Inwit. Stephen thinks of Aquinas as “tunbelly,” which Gifford points out refers to Aquinas ample girth, so ample, in fact, that he required a concave table’s edge to accommodate it. “Tunbelly” also reminds me of the scene of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where Stephen is surprised to learn that the item an English dean referred to a “funnel,” Stephen had always known as a “tundish.” For Stephen, it was a moment of realization of both the cultural and class gulf between himself and the wealthy English dean. Stephen has a similar epiphany as Aquinas and the rogues clash in his mind:

Language no whit worse than his. Monkwords, marybeads jabber on their girdles: roguewords, tough nuggets patter in their pockets.

Stephen is a poet, and all words are his comrades. It doesn’t matter if they originate on the lips of monks, marybeads (rosaries) dangling at the side or from the mouths of rogues, with God knows what rattling around in their pockets. Aquinas’s words are not to be elevated above the cant of thieves. They deserve equal sampling at this linguistic banquet.

Further Reading and Listening:

Ahlstrom, D. (2017, Feb 9). Travellers as ‘genetically different’ from settled Irish as Spanish. The Irish Times. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/travellers-as-genetically-different-from-settled-irish-as-spanish-1.2969515 

Bakker, Peter. (2002). An early vocabulary of British Romani (1616): A linguistic analysis. Romani Studies. 12. 10.3828/rs.2002.4. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20111004125822/http://www.marston.co.uk/RSPP/LUPRSV012P02A00075.pdf

Bryant, C.W., & Clark, J. (2014, May 6), How Gypsies work. Stuff You Should Know. [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts/how-gypsies-work.htm 

Budgen, F. (1972). James Joyce and the making of Ulysses, and other writings. London: Oxford University Press. 

Gifford, D., & Seidman, R. J. (1988). Ulysses annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Johnson, S. (2011, Nov 14). Gypsy Paradise Lost. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/ppqp3z/gypsy-paradise-lost-0000047-v18n11 

Keefe, A. (2016, Aug 17). Life With the Irish Travellers Reveals a Bygone World. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2016/08/irish-travellers-uphold-the-traditions-of-a-bygone-world/ 

O’Leary, P. (2017, Sep 13). We Travellers must take a stand against racism, for the sake of our children. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/13/travellers-racism-hate-speech-discrimination-irish

Reidy, J. (2017, Aug 11). The harmful history of “Gypsy.” Bitch Media. Retrieved from https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/gypsy-slur-netlflix 

Rothenburg, J. (2012, Oct 2). Outsider poems, a mini-anthology in progress (46): ‘The Rogue’s Delight in Praise of his Strolling Mort: A Thieves’ Canting Song’. Jacket2. Retrieved from https://jacket2.org/commentary/outsider-poems-mini-anthology-progress-46-rogue’s-delight-praise-his-strolling-mort-thiev 

Russell, C. (2017, Feb 9). Study on ancestry of Irish Travellers details genetic connection to settled community. The Journal. Retrieved from https://www.thejournal.ie/traveller-community-study-rcsi-3231070-Feb2017/ 

Van Huygen, M. (2016, Sep 20). Uncovering Thieves’ Cant, the Elizabethan Slang of the Underworld. Mental Floss. Retrieved from http://mentalfloss.com/article/86148/uncovering-thieves-cant-elizabethan-slang-underworld

Source for photo of Travellers: http://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000047020

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