Decoding Dedalus: Full Fathom Five

I haven’t let this young man off very lightly, have I? Many writers have written about themselves. I wonder if any one of them has been as candid as I have? – James Joyce to Frank Budgen

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 page p. 50 in my copy (1990 Vintage International). We’ll be looking at the passage that begins “Five fathoms…” and ends “We enjoyed ourselves immensely.”

Before we leave the shores of Sandymount at the end of “Proteus,” we should dive into one last motif just a bit deeper. We’ve previously focused on drowning in relation to the death of Stephen’s mother and as a manifestation of Stephen’s hydrophobia, but at the end of the episode, the image of a drowned man in Dublin Bay resurfaces once more. As we’ll see, Stephen fear of drowning extends beyond his memories of his mother coughing up bowls of green phlegm.

Moving his focus from the sand, stones and seaweed on Sandymount Strand, Stephen begins to contemplate the waters of Dublin Bay. He has attempted to categorize and order the scattered people, creatures and detritus of the shore through Berkeleyan idealism and the fixed language of heraldry, but the sea is still a wild place, shifting and protean. The sea contains mysteries yet untamed, the ninth wave out from land a portal to the otherworld. It is not confined to the restrictions of solid forms like those found on the shore. It is a place of possibility, and ultimately, change.

Five fathoms out there. Full fathom five thy father lies. At one, he said. Found drowned. High water at Dublin bar.

Back in “Telemachus,” Stephen and the boys overheard  two men talking on their way to bathe at the 40 Foot. One, a boatman, remarks, “There’s five fathoms out there. It’ll be swept up that way when the tide comes in about one. It’s nine days today.”

The “it” in question is the body of a man drowned off Maiden’s Rock, a group of rocks of the coast of Dalkey, so-named because several young women ran their boat onto the rocks and drowned. Maiden’s Rock isn’t visible from Sandymount, but the way those protean tides move, it could wash up there or another location. High tides for Dublin on 16 June 1904 were 12:18 AM and 12:42 PM. Not quite 1:00, but nonetheless, the drowned man approacheth. Traditionally it was believed that a body lost at sea would surface on the ninth day, which is today.

Act I Scene i, The Tempest, George Romney, 1797

“Full fathom five thy father lies” is borrowed from Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange. 

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:


Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.

Ariel, an invisible spirit, sings this song in earshot of Ferdinand who has just escaped a shipwreck. He assumes the song is about his father, lost in the same wreck. The song describes the changes that take place to a body beneath the sea, but rather than focusing on the grim details of decomposition as Stephen soon will, Ariel paints a more fantastical picture of a lost man turned physically to beautiful objects and transformed spiritually into something “rich and strange.” 

The sea has thus far been a maternal symbol: a “great, sweet mother,” or a bowl filled with a dying mother’s sputum. Ariel’s Song shifts Stephen’s thoughts to the sea’s connection to fathers.

Agenbite of Inwit, Stephen Dedalus, Ulysses, James Joyce
The spectre of Stephen’s late mother.

Stephen’s father Simon is drowning. Though he has not yet appeared “onscreen” in “Proteus,” his presence in Stephen’s psyche looms large. Just as guilt regarding his mother lurks in Stephen’s thoughts, Simon invades his intellectual wrangling with the doctrine of consubstantiality: “By them, the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath.” Simon still walks amongst the living, but it is not hard to see that he is having difficulty keeping his head above water. Simon has been drowning in financial trouble since Stephen was young, causing him to have to leave Clongowes Wood College as a boy (this story is told in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). Stephen’s family is still drowning in debt; he later sees his younger sister Dilly selling his old school books to earn enough money to buy food for the family in “Wandering Rocks.”

The Dedalus’ are falling into poverty in part because Simon is drowning himself in booze to numb the pain of losing his wife, on top of the financial woes. Simon is surrounded by peers who are similarly struggling to keep their heads above water, including the grieving Dignam family, J. J. O’Molloy the failed attorney, Bob Doran (as seen in “Dubliners”) drowning in alcohol, his brother-in-law Richie Goulding drowning in debt and alcohol, Leopold Bloom and his failing marriage. Alcoholism is the main culprit in and/ or result of most of these metaphorical drownings. Mark Osteen wrote that, “more time and time is spent drinking in Ulysses than on any other activity, except perhaps playing the horses.” A drowned man washing up on the shore of such a city is not surprising.

Driving before it a loose drift of rubble, fanshoals of fishes, silly shells. A corpse rising saltwhite from the undertow, bobbing a pace a pace a porpoise landward. There he is. Hook it quick. Pull. Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor. We have him. Easy now. Bag of corpsegas sopping in foul brine. A quiver of minnows, fat of a spongy titbit, flash through the slits of his buttoned trouserfly.

Here, we return to Stephen’s idea of the literal drowned corpse loosening from the seafloor and “rising saltwhite” to the surface on the bay on its ninth day beneath the waves. This description reminds me of the opening scenes of the film Swiss Army Man, where Paul Dano rides Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse across the sea like a jet ski. That’s how the movie begins. If you’re in the mood for something gross, magical and horrifying, I’d recommend it. 

I digress, but I will justify the digression by saying that I also find Joyce’s corpse imagery in this passage simultaneously gross, magical and horrifying.

The corpse surfacing like a porpoise is a bit of a mystery, but never fear, Stuart Gilbert has an answer. Gilbert says this is an allusion to a passage in the ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Gilbert wrote of the Egyptian background of Menelaus’ capture of Proteus in The Odyssey. Proteus (aka “the old man of the sea”) tangled with Menelaus on the Egyptian isle of Pharos. Through a series of linguistic clues, Gilbert deduced a connection with the Egyptian story of prince Noferkephtah who discovered the magic Book of Thoth hidden in the Nile after defeating a wiley, magical serpent. A quick aside, this is the Egyptian Book of Thoth, not the Aleister Crowley book on tarot.

Gilbert likened Noferkephtah’s tale to Menelaus subduing the sea god Proteus in The Odyssey. Likewise, he saw the above Ulysses passage as an allusion to a passage in the Book of Thoth that reads, “I saw the fishes of the deep for there was a divine power which made them rise to the surface of the waters.” Endowed with the magical power of the book, Noferkephtah gains knowledge of the entire world, including the depths of the sea, which gives him power and wisdom similar to the Old Man of the Sea. Presumably, this would also give him knowledge of the location of the corpse the boatman spoke of that morning as well as the power to raise it to the surface.

One other allusion of note here: John Milton’s “Lycidas,” as seen in Stephen’s lesson back in “Nestor,” makes an appearance in the line, “Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor.” “Lycidas” is a pastoral elegy written by Milton to memorialize a close friend who had drowned. If you’d like to know more, Blooms & Barnacles covered “Lycidas” here

John Milton, Lycidas, James Joyce, Ulysses
John Milton mourns in the poem ‘Lycidas.’

God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain. 

A lot going on here. This line will get its own blog post in the near future.

Dead breaths I living breathe, tread dead dust, devour a urinous offal from all dead. Hauled stark over the gunwale he breathes upward the stench of his green grave, his leprous nosehole snoring to the sun.

Notice the shift in pronouns in this section. As Stephen imagines the “bag of corpsegas” being hauled over the gunwale of a boat, he can’t help but picture himself in the role of the corpse. The word “gunwale” (rhymes with “tunnel”; impress your nautical friends!) appears twice in “Proteus,” both times in close proximity to a drowned corpse.

“Dead breaths I living breathe” indicates that Stephen is aware that like his father, he too is drowning on dry land. In the closing pages of “Proteus,” Stephen is effectively homeless and has about £4 to his name. He is on his way to meet Buck Mulligan ( who once saved a drowning man) at a drinking establishment called The Ship where he will spend part of that £4 on booze. It’s Mulligan, the closest thing Stephen has to a support system, who should be hauling the young Artist over the gunwale of his metaphorical ship, but instead invites him to a Ship where he will take Stephen’s money and begin inundating him in alcohol, holding Stephen’s head under the waters he so desperately needs to escape. That Mulligan boy is a bad influence.

James Joyce, Stephen Dedalus, Ulysses
Stephen receives a shocking telegram in Paris.

But Stephen is complicit in his own ruination, as well as his sisters’. He has referred to Simon as his “consubstantial father” much earlier in “Proteus.” He sees his father sinking further into grief, alcoholism and penury and knows he is following his father’s footsteps. Stephen had high hopes that his genius would carry him far away from Dublin, but after his failed Parisian sojourn, he has crash-landed back in Dublin where the only option left is to slowly transform into his father.

Back on p. 45 Stephen thought, “Do you see the tide flowing quickly in on all sides, sheeting the lows of sand quickly, shellcocoacoloured? If I had land under my feet. I want his life still to be his, mine to be mine. A drowning man.” He feels he isn’t a strong swimmer (though he enjoyed swimming when he was a student at Clongowes) and therefore couldn’t save someone from drowning like Mulligan. Stephen isn’t the only Dedalus affected by Simon’s floundering, though. He wishes he could save Dilly and his other sisters, but he fears returning to his family home would pull him full-force back into Dedalus family drama, destroying his chance of escape. Dilly and the others are sacrificed so that he might have freedom to pursue his artistic dreams. 

Before we become too mired in this fatalistic mud, there is one word that pops out in this section to shine a little brightness into Stephen predicament. “Green” is the thematic color of “Proteus”: the symbolic color of creation. With creation comes the possibility of change and rebirth. 

A seachange this, brown eyes saltblue. Seadeath, mildest of all deaths known to man. Old Father Ocean. Prix de paris: beware of imitations. Just you give it a fair trial. We enjoyed ourselves immensely.

By claiming that seadeath is “mildest of all deaths known to man,” Stephen is attempting to let himself down easy about letting his remaining family “drown.” The last three phrases, from “Prix de paris” to “we enjoyed ourselves immensely,” are advertising slogans from the era in which Ulysses takes place. A bit of dark humor on Stephen’s part and a sign he’s not totally convinced by his own justification. 

The phrase “sea-change” was coined by Shakespeare, first appearing in Ariel’s Song in The Tempest. To save you from a bit of scrolling:

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange. 

The drowned man in Ariel’s Song, though dead beneath the waves, transforms into coral and pearl rather than fading into dust like a man who died on land. The sea change brought about by the gods of the deep is gradual metamorphosis (metempsychosis?) over the eons, changing God into a featherbed mountain. Water plays an important role in the sacrament of baptism as well as the Catholic mass. It is an element capable of washing away original sin and the iniquities of life on the mortal plane. Sinking into the depths may seem like drowning to those on land, but perhaps it is the only path to true enlightenment.

The Fall of Icarus, Jacob Peter Gowy, 1630’s

Further Reading: 

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

Edmundsen, M. (2009). ‘‘Love’s Bitter Mystery’’: Stephen Dedalus, drowning, and the burden of guilt in Ulysses. English Studies, 90 (5), 545-556. Retrieved from 

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. 

Igrutinović, D. (2013). The snotgreen sea: Water as metaphor in Joyce’s Ulysses. Linguistics and Literature, 11 (1), 55-66. Retrieved from 

Osteen, M. (1995). The economy of Ulysses: making both ends meet. New York: Syracuse University Press. Retrieved from 



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