Is the mouth south someway? Or the south a mouth? – Stephen Dedalus
This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a passage of Ulysses and break it down line by line.
The passage below comes from “Proteus,” the third episode of Ulysses. It appears on pages 47-48 in my copy (1990 Vintage International). We’ll be looking at the passage that begins “A side eye…” and ends “… the library counter.”
In “Proteus,” James Joyce associated the color green with creation. We find green, and by extension creativity, reflected in the seaweed strewn across the strand, in Stephen’s memory of Kevin Egan’s absinthe and, direct from Cock lake, in Stephen’s urine. Thus far on June the sixteenth, Stephen has struggled to exercise his artistic creativity, instead disrupted by the crass Buck Mulligan, the gormless Haines and the calcified Mr. Deasy. Left to his own devices on Sandymount Strand, Stephen is finally stirred to claim his birthright as an Artist:
A side eye at my Hamlet hat. If I were suddenly naked here as I sit? I am not.
As the cocklepickers pass Stephen by, he is first stirred by a different kind of “creative” inspiration. Previously he had let his imagination run wild, imagining the couple to be a pimp and a prostitute scamming the wealthy men of Dublin. Stephen speculates that his Parisian fashion statement has caught the woman’s eye. The Latin Quarter hat has transformed, in accordance with the protean nature of all things found on Sandymount Strand, into a Hamlet hat. “Latin Quarter hat” is a Mulligan-ism, a phrase used to mock Stephen’s attachment to the trappings of his previous faux-hemian surroundings. Here, Stephen is gaining a bit of agency, at the very least dictating the nickname of his hat. More importantly, he is naming his role in the “story” of his life. He is Hamlet, the aggrieved Prince of Denmark. Usurpers, beware.
Since Stephen is speculating that Lady Cocklepicker is a woman of the evening, he’s wondering if she’s picturing him naked. Cousin Stephen, you will never be a saint. And there’s nothing sexier than an allusion to Hamlet. In Act 4, Scene 7 of Hamlet, Claudius the usurper receives a letter from Prince Hamlet that reads:
You shall know I am set naked on your kingdom. Tomorrow shall I beg leave to see your kingly eyes, when I shall, first asking your pardon thereunto, recount the occasion of my sudden and more strange return.
Hamlet means that he’s arrived in Denmark without an army to meet with Claudius. Stephen acknowledges he is not “naked,” but keep in mind he will soon parlay with his own usurper. “Proteus” takes place around 11 am, and Stephen is scheduled to meet Mulligan for a midday libation around 12:30. He won’t be attending naked, but instead armed with the greatest weapon of all:
Across the sands of all the world, followed by the sun’s flaming sword, to the west, trekking to evening lands.
Stephen begins toying with the idea of the cocklepickers as gypsies trekking “across the sands of all the world.” Like all art, Stephen’s poem doesn’t arise in a vacuum. He turns to his cultural influences for support, starting with the Bible. After Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden, God posted angels armed with flaming swords at the eastern border to keep them from sneaking back in. Genesis 3:24 says:
So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
Presumably, Stephen’s imagined wandering cocklepickers would travel far enough to encounter such a sight.
The phrase “evening lands” is inspired by the lyrical drama Hellas by Percy Bysshe Shelley, also known as the husband of Mary. Stephen has been living in Mulligan’s “omphalos,” aka the Martello Tower, long enough to have the ancients in the back of his mind. Shelley’s drama presents a more current take on Greece, as it was written in the 1820’s in support of Greek independence. In line 1027, Shelley wrote the following:
Let Freedom and Peace flee far/ To a sunnier strand,/ And follow Love’s folding-star/ To the Evening land!
Lest this seem like a bit of a tenuous connection, Shelley goes on to write in line 1076:
A new Ulysses leaves once more/ Calypso for his native shore.
We are only a few pages away from meeting Ulysses’ own Ulysses in the next episode, “Calypso.”
She trudges, schlepps, trains, drags, trascines her load.
Each entry in this parade of verbs means more or less the same thing. Perhaps Stephen is reaching for just the right word for his poem, as Stuart Gilbert suggests, requiring a bit of philological playfulness. Joyce himself attributed this “crescendo of verbs” to the “irresistible tug of the tides,” shifting and changing. “She” is Lady Cocklepicker, bearing her load along the strand, undergoing a protean transformation of her own in Stephen’s mind.
A tide westering, moondrawn, in her wake. Tides, myriadislanded, within her, blood not mine, oinopa ponton, a winedark sea.
Lady Cocklepicker becomes ol’ Algy’s “grey, sweet mother” – the sea herself. Just as the cocklepicker schlepps her load of picked cockles up the strand, Mother Sea trascines her tidal load across her “myiadislanded” surface, ebbing and flowing at the behest of the moon. However, our dear emo Stephen is still struggling against the “tide” of his own depressed psyche. His allusion to Shelley’s Hellenic verse was enough to summon a less welcome Hellenist to mind. The phrase “oinopa ponton, a winedark sea” appears in The Odyssey, but it is also quoted to Stephen by Buck Mulligan in “Telemachus” as he exhorts Stephen to embrace the ancient Greeks.
Behold the handmaid of the moon.
The sea personified as woman takes on a different connotation in this line, which evokes the Annunciation, the moment in the New Testament when an angel appeared before Mary to announce that she would bear the Son of God, as we see in Luke 1:38:
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
While Mary is the “handmaid of the Lord,” the sea becomes the handmaid of the moon, controller of the tides. These two handmaids share a deeper connection. Mary has been associated with the sea since ancient times, called Stella Maris in Latin, meaning Star of the Sea. While the name “Stella Maris” likely originates in a mistranslation, the name stuck. The name “Mary” isn’t all that far from the word for sea in several languages – mare, mer, muir among others. These aren’t a huge leap from the French word mère (mother). Throughout “Proteus,” Joyce has played with the idea of the sea and motherhood in addition to horses (mares, which are mother horses). It’s easy to lose oneself in this swirling tide of word play. Before I get totally pulled under, it’s also worth noting that Stephen is approaching St. Mary Star of the Sea church, which plays a big role in the “Nausicaa” episode many, many pages from now.
In sleep the wet sign calls her hour, bids her rise. Bridebed, childbed, bed of death, ghostcandled.
Naturally, Stephen can’t avoid dark thoughts of his guilt and grief over his mother’s death – “bed of death, ghostcandled” echoes Stephen’s nightmare of his mother’s phantom and “the ghostcandle to light her agony.” He also associates the scent of wetted ashes with his spectral mother, so could that be the wet sign? Stephen metaphor of sea and woman again swirl together here, again under the influence of the Bard himself. Time to put your Hamlet hat back on.
In Hamlet Act 1, Scene 1, Horatio discusses the dark portent of the appearance of a ghost outside the walls of Elsinore, recalling other such dread signs that appeared before Caesar’s death:
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun, and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.
The “moist star” in this verse is an eclipsed moon. Shakespeare describes the moon’s influence on “Neptune’s empire,” which is the sea. Stephen is describing the moon’s influence on the rising tide in this line, but his thoughts slide into death imagery followed by the lines of the poem he’ll fine tune this afternoon. Things are about to get real emo, dear reader.
Omnis caro ad te veniet.
Meaning “all flesh will come to thee,” this phrase originates in the Bible, in Psalms 65: 1-2 to be exact:
To the chief Musician, A Psalm and Song of David. Praise waiteth for thee, O God, in Sion: and unto thee shall the vow be performed. O thou that hearest prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come.
We see here “Zion” spelled as “Sion,” which you may remember from Stephen’s description of Kevin Egan: “They have forgotten Kevin Egan, not he them. Remembering thee, O Sion.”
He comes, pale vampire, through storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea, mouth to her mouth’s kiss.
Stephen’s poem takes shape. Knowing that our “pale vampire” is preceded by a line from the requiem mass, we can infer that “he” is Death personified. “All flesh will come to thee,” meaning we will all meet Death one day. Stephen’s vision of Death is infused with a bit of gothic horror – a vampiric presence bloodying the seas with his bat-winged ship comes to kiss “her.” Stephen has already been ruminating on death this morning, in the form of his mother’s angry ghost and the hypothetical drowning man that he wouldn’t be able to save. The connection of death and the sea is apparent enough, calling to mind John Milton’s “Lycidas,” which Stephen’s students were studying at the opening of “Nestor.”
“Mouth to her mouth’s kiss” could be a reference to death of Stephen’s mother, who has been transformed by death into a ghoulish “chewer of corpses.” This fits with the idea of a vampire’s kiss transforming a person into a monster. It really underscores Mulligan’s description of Stephen’s mother as beastly dead, becoming literally true if she’s been transformed by death into a monster hungry for the flesh of the living. Ulysses comes from the era before sexy, sympathetic vampires like Angel and Edward Cullen. In Stephen’s nightmare, his spectral mother is beastly, uncannily undead.
Speaking of pop culture vampires, it’s likely Stephen’s image of vampires would have been colored by the Twilight of his day – Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897. We’ve discussed in the past how the portrayal of Count Dracula was influenced by the antisemitic medieval legend of the Wandering Jew – an ageless, landless wanderer cursed after he mocked the suffering of Jesus Christ. There are plenty of other antisemitic tropes built into Dracula as well. He is after all an all-powerful foreigner who comes to England, manipulates the locals into carrying out his nefarious deeds, is scared of crosses and is literally sucking the life out of otherwise healthy, young English people. What was it Mr. Deasy said? “England is in the hands of the jews…. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength.”
Does Ulysses’ own Haroun al-Raschid travel upon a bat-winged ship? Perhaps subconsciously inspired by his prophetic dream, Stephen is once again foretelling his meeting with Leopold Bloom. Let’s fast forward to the end of “Circe.” Stephen has been knocked out cold by the English solder. Bloom leans down, trying to rouse him, nearly mouth to mouth. Stephen’s first words upon seeing Bloom are, “Who? Black panther vampire.” Back in “Aeolus” while Stephen was still working out the phrasing of his poem, he had switched from “vampire” to “phantom,” but Bloom’s presence provokes a spontaneous utterance of “vampire!”
Bloom seems far too gentle to be called a vampire due to his actions or personality, so what’s the connection? Bloom’s “vampirism” is a comment of his Jewishness. He may not drink blood literally, but Bloom is regarded as a racial outsider by his peers, a foreigner in his own city, and a bit suspicious as a result. He’s accepted but not embraced. Also, he’s ethnically Hungarian, and Transylvania was once part of Hungary.
Stephen, for all his open-mindedness and worldliness, is not immune to the anti-semitic views around him. He’ll defend the Jews’ right to be as capitalistic as Gentiles to Mr. Deasy, but his memory of the Jewish merchants in Paris, who he describes as gold-skinned and gabbling like geese, is still shallow and stereotypical. Later in “Ithaca,” he also shares the incredibly antisemitic song “The Jew’s Daughter” with Bloom, a fairly WTF moment to be sure. Following this, Stephen is unwilling to stay the night at the Blooms’ house, choosing instead wander off into the night. Is he uncomfortable taking shelter in the vampire’s lair?
There is also a fair bit of homophobia/ biphobia in the vampire mythos. Dracula beguiles young men and women with his eyes and mouth, both sexual body parts, transforming them into a demonic creature like himself. Jewish men are often stereotyped as feminized or nebbish – Bloom certainly is. He literally turns into a woman under the spell of Bella Cohen in Nighttown. Perhaps Stephen suspects the feminine Bloom’s kindness of having a homosexual implication?
Here. Put a pin in that chap, will you? My tablets. Mouth to her kiss.
No. Must be two of em. Glue em well. Mouth to her mouth’s kiss.
After toying around with metaphor and imagery arising from various biblical and literary allusions, Stephen’s mind finally alights on an image he likes and the foundations of his poem are laid. Stephen pauses for a moment to decide whether he likes the line “mouth to her kiss” or “mouth to her mouth’s kiss” and chooses the latter.
This passage ends up being a bit of a Joycean controversy since the line “mouth to her mouth’s kiss” sounds quite a bit like the final line of the final stanza of the song “My Grief on the Sea” as recorded in Douglas Hyde’s Love Songs of Connacht:
“And my love came behind me –/ He came from the South;/ His breast to my bosom,/ His mouth to my mouth.”
First of all, yes, that’s the same Love Songs of Connacht that Haines scurries off to buy over the noon hour. Hyde collected Irish-language songs from the rural people of the western Irish province Connacht and published them, Irish on one page, English on the other. The song in question tells the story of a man returned from the dead to embrace his lost love once more. It’s easy to see the similarity between the last line of “My Grief on the Sea” and the line Stephen composes, highlighted by the fact that he lingers over whether or not to say mouth once or twice.
So, did Joyce just rip off Hyde’s work and present it as his own, showing his literary avatar composing another poet’s verse on the seashore? It wouldn’t be without precedence for a Ulysses character to “create” a bit of verse that later turned out to be written by someone other than Joyce. In fact, the similarity to Hyde’s verse wasn’t pointed out until the 1940’s and not by Joyce. So, is Hero Stephen a big fake, no better than the likes of James Frey or Milli Vanilli?
We know James Joyce was familiar with the work of Hyde because Joyce openly criticized his work, thinking his verse very poor indeed. It’s no coincidence that the character most eager to buy Hyde’s book in Ulysses is portrayed as a naive, English buffoon. If we take Hyde’s English translation of “My Grief on the Sea” as an example, it’s not hard to see Joyce’s point. The original Irish verse reads more literally as, “My lover came to my side, shoulder to shoulder, and mouth to mouth.” The Irish word for south doesn’t appear in the original, which means Hyde added that detail in his translation. It seems he added it purely for the rhyme and that it has no greater meaning – no metaphor, no symbol, nothing particularly poetic. Later in “Aeolus,” we see Stephen struggling to reconcile the rhyme of mouth and south, “Is the mouth south someway? Or the south a mouth?”
I favor the position, advanced by Robert Adams Day, that this verse is a way for Joyce to make a subtle dig at Hyde’s weak verse. Stephen may have cribbed a bit from Hyde’s verse (he clearly has a lot of literary material clattering around his mind), but over the course of the day, he improves upon it. This is Joyce’s way of saying that Hyde’s work is so weak that even a naive 22-year-old Stephen (or Joyce) could have written better than that south-mouth thing. Let’s face it, Joyce has given us plenty of reason to believe that he would include a detail in his novel just for the sake of being mean to someone he found foolish.
His lips lipped and mouthed fleshless lips of air: mouth to her moomb. Oomb, allwombing tomb.
Stephen continues to ponder his rhymes as he writes his poem, mumbling to himself as he rhymes womb and tomb. The connection of womb and tomb nicely encapsulates Stephen’s intermingling thoughts of death and motherhood as his grief transforms into poetry, the protean effect of his time on the strand.
His mouth moulded issuing breath, unspeeched: ooeeehah: roar of cataractic planets, globed, blazing, roaring wayawayawayawayaway. Paper. The banknotes, blast them. Old Deasy’s letter. Here. Thanking you for the hospitality tear the blank end off. Turning his back to the sun he bent over far to a table of rock and scribbled words. That’s twice I forgot to take slips from the library counter.
I believe the “ooeehah” is Stephen muttering as he composes, a sound that mirrors a far away roar of the motions of the planets. As above, so below. He needs a bit of paper to write down his thoughts before they slide away. He produces Deasy’s letter from his pocket and tears off the bottom. He will later be questioned as to why the letter is torn when he presents it to the newspapermen in “Aeolus.” Poetry waits not for cattle traders.
Further Reading and Listening:
Beplate, J. (2007). Stephen’s lyrical language: memory and imagination in Ulysses. Études anglaises, vol. 60,(1), 42-54. https://www.cairn.info/revue-etudes-anglaises-2007-1-page-42.htm?contenu=article
Bowen, Z. (1974). Musical allusions in the works of James Joyce: Early poetry through Ulysses. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Budgen, F. (1972). James Joyce and the making of Ulysses, and other writings. London: Oxford University Press.
Day, R. (1980). How Stephen wrote his vampire poem. James Joyce Quarterly, 17(2), 183-197. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25476277
Delaney, F. (2013, Feb 19). Episode 141: Prince of Tides. Re:Joyce [Audio podcast].
Gifford, D., & Seidman, R. J. (1988). Ulysses annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gilbert, S. (1955). James Joyce’s Ulysses: a study. New York: Vintage Books.
Harrison, L. (1999). Bloodsucking Bloom: Vampirism as a Representation of Jewishness in “Ulysses”. James Joyce Quarterly, 36(4), 781-797. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25474086