READING FINNEGANS WAKE

Micro-Structural Approach with Musical Sound



There has been so much written about James Joyce's last work, and so many different critical avenues of approach to him and to it, that the perceptive reader who comes to the Wake the first time, may well throw up his hands in confusion and despair.

I know a serious psychiatrist who has read Joyce carefully, word by word while taking notes, and he has stated in a scholarly article that Joyce was clearly schizophrenic. I had a uncle now long since gone, who twisted words continually to my mother's desperation; now I realize that he had something of the Joycean twist, but little artistry. And he may have suffered brain-damage from an early contact with electricity while in the bath. When the Wake appeared in 1939 most Americans would have endorsed the above view. about writings of a deranged man.

Years ago I taught the Wake to a small college seminar at a time when my colleagues said this should not be taught since undergraduates couldn't possibly understand it. I suppose they were approaching from the source-chasing side, with Tindall's "Guide...." in hand and pencil poised to insert in their copies marginal scholia. They would unravel the puzzles one by one, from Ordovician, to river-lore, earwiggery, and cross-language punning like the "gobble Ann's carrot cans" from an overheard French telephone number "Gobelins: quarante-quinze". But is this the right introitus? Even more is all this important on the primary level? Clearly: NO!

My approach was musical, as a Classicist I have always been clear about the overriding importance of sound as music in Greek and Latin poetry, and I knew that Joyce has to be taken first of all as sound. It is not just question of reading the words aloud, they have to be interpreted with sense and intelligence, just as a musical score has to be interpreted by a skilled artistic performer before it becomes real music. Hindemith flatly stated that a good score contained only about 40% of the "music", the rest was in the hands of the performer as interpreter. And it is not far different in reading words on a page. Until they become sound and music from an interpreting reader, they are just black marks on a white page.

The purpose of this essay, which with effort I am going to keep short and clear, is to bring to the reader who has not found the keyhole through which to perceive the Wake, one single passage which I know has great depth musically as well as a hidden pattern which can be unraveled after the sound has come forth. This is the way you approach music, you listen to a Bach Cantata a number of times until you have "absorbed" it fully as music, then if you want you can go to the record jacket or a work of scholarship and have a look at the overall pattern. But the overall shape of the piece will not make you love it, that has to come at the primary level, the root level, which is the articulated sound as music. And it is just so with poetry!

First, take a look at the paragraph at the top of page 556 of the Viking Press edition. I reproduce it first as prose with the original standard line layout; read this carefully a number of times, perhaps even let some parts sink into your mind sufficiently to be thought of as "memorized".




night by silentsailing night while infantina Isobel (who will be
blushing all day to be, when she growed up one Sunday,
Saint Holy and Saint Ivory, when she took the veil, the
beautiful presentation nun, so barely twenty, in her pure coif.
sister Isobel, and next Sunday, Mistlemas, when she looked
a peach, the beautiful Samaritan, still as beautiful and still
in her teens, nurse Saintette Isabelle, with stiffstarched cuffs but
on Holiday, Christmas, Easter mornings when she wore a wreath,
the wonderful widow of eighteen springs, Madame Isa Veuve La
Belle, so sad but lucksome in her boyblue's long black with
orange blossoming weeper's veil) for she was the only girl they
loved, as she is the queenly pearl you prize, because of the way
the night that first we met she is bound to be, methinks, and not
in vain, the darling of my heart, sleeping in her april cot, within
her singachamer, with her greengageflavoured candywhistle
duetted to the crazyquilt, Isobel, she is so pretty, truth to tell,
wildwood's eyes and primarose hair, quietly, all the woods so
wild, in mauves of moss and daphnedews, how all so still she lay,
neath of the whitethorn, child of tree, like some losthappy leaf,
like blowing flower stilled, as fain would she anon, for soon again
twill be, win me, woo me, wed me, ah weary me! deeply, now
evencalm lay sleeping;

Now let us read the same text again, in a different format, one which I find natural and useful. I have separated out phrases which seem to hang together, and used the poetical "centering format" to put a little space around each significant phrase, something like a musical "rest" or pause around phrases. Bear in mind that this is my own arrangement, you might do it differently, and a purist may well say that this is improper tampering with the Joycean text. But this is done for a reason, to enforce phrasing and allow spaces, which are most important in the art of reading.

night by silentsailing night......... while infantina Isobel

(who will be blushing all day to be,

when she growed up one Sunday, Saint Holy and Saint Ivory,

when she took the veil, the beautiful presentation nun,

so barely twenty, in her pure coif

sister Iso el,

and next Sunday, Mistlemas, when she looked a peach,

the beautiful Samaritan, still as beautiful and still in her teens,

nurse Saintette Isabelle, with stiffstarched cuffs

but on Holiday, Christmas, Easter mornings

when she wore a wreath, the wonderful widow of eighteen springs

Madame Isa Veuve La Belle,

so sad but lucksome in her boyblue's long black

with orange blossoming weeper's veil)

"For she was the only girl they loved,

As she is the queenly pearl you prize"

because of the way the night that first we met

she is bound to be, methinks, and not in vain,

the darling of my heart,

sleeping in her april cot, within her singachamer,

with her greengageflavoured candywhistle duetted to the crazyquilt,

Isobel,

she is so pretty, truth to tell,

wildwood's eyes and primarose hair,

quietly, all the woods so wild,

in mauves of moss and daphnedews,

how all so still she lay,

neath of the whitethorn, child of tree,

like some losthappy leaf,

like blowing flower stilled,

as fain would she anon,

for soon again 'T'will be,

win me,

woo me,

wed me,

ah weary me!

 

deeply, now evencalm lay sleeping;




At this point I am going to break the poem/passage into short sections so I can record my own impressions by way of commentary. This is a personal matter, the way I have over the years come to think about these lines, nothing more, and no more perceptive than my own taste and ability. But I did want to show that there are things which can be said about this "difficult" text, and that direct comment is indeed possible.

The starting phrase "night by silentsailing night.." connects after all the inter-locked phrasing of this long paragraph, with the finale "deeply, now evencalm lay sleeping".. The flow of words/ideas inbetween is a gush of images and feelings, but in a hurried and in a sense breathless pursuit.




night by silentsailing night........... while infantina Isobel

(She blushes as a girl, but is "growed up" suddenly, and then the chronology starts to go backwards, as below.)

who will be blushing all day to be,

when she growed up one Sunday, Saint Holy and Saint Ivory,

when she took the veil, the beautiful presentation nun,

so barely twenty, in her pure coif

sister Isobel,

(The holidays are listed like a calendar, the titles of her name go forward as years pass, but the years slip back and she is constantly becoming younger. Now we have poignant details about her appearance, charm, her beauty.)

and next Sunday, Mistlemas, when she looked a peach,

the beautiful Samaritan, still as beautiful and still in her teens,

nurse Saintette Isabelle, with stiffstarched cuffs

(Now even younger, she is however a widow, but in choirboy's garb with widow's veil!)

but on Holiday, Christmas, Easter mornings

when she wore a wreath, the wonderful widow of eighteen springs

Madame Isa Veuve La Belle,

so sad but lucksome in her boyblue's long black

with orange blossoming weeper's veil)

(Now a cite from a popular song of the early century, of which there are many examples scattered throughout the Wake.)

"For she was the only girl they loved,

As she is the queenly pearl you prize"

(...and now comes a love-song, the personal sketch of the lovely lady in her setting, and her eyes and hair, as we come ever closer!)

because of the way the night that first we met

she is bound to be, methinks, and not in vain,

the darling of my heart,

sleeping in her april cot, within her singachamer,

with her greengageflavoured candywhistle duetted to the crazyquilt,

Isobel,

she is so pretty, truth to tell,

wildwood's eyes and primarose hair,

(Now change to a nature setting, delicate tracery of fine detail of leaf and flower, moss and breeze....... still zooming, coming closer!)

quietly, all the woods so wild,

in mauves of moss and daphnedews,

how all so still she lay,

neath of the whitethorn, child of tree,

like some losthappy leaf,

like blowing flower stilled,

(At closest range we see in a vision: a rebirth, a new life, the Sister reformed into a woman waiting for the final marriage, the union. And then with driving assonance, the formula "woo...win...wed" turned inside out, first won, then wooed, finally wed ........and the weariness of it all in her mind, her tired dream.)

as fain would she anon

for soon again t'will be

win me

woo me

wed me

ah weary me!

Now return to the first line, "night by silentsailing night..." as Isobel is concluded in rest and piece.:

deeply, now evencalm lay sleeping;




Now I am going to print this once more on your screen, this time with stresses on certain words, which I indicate by using an aposstrophe as a signal, after the stressed syllable vowels. This is fairly arbitrary, please try to change the stresses as you see them, there is no rigidity intended in my experiment, or I would never have considered doing it. This is more or less the way I read the passage, you may well do it considerably better. I only offer this as a sample.

ni'ght by silentsailing ni'ght..... while infantIna Isobel

(who will be blu'shing all day to be',

when she gro'wed u'p one Su'nday, Saint Ho'ly and Saint Ivory,

when she took the vei'l, the beautiful presentation nun,

so barely twe'nty, in her pure coi'f

sister Isobel,

and next Su'nday, MIstlemas, when she looked a pea'ch,

the beautiful Sama'ritan, still as beau'tiful and still in her tee'ns,

nurse Sainte'tte Isabe'lle, with sti'ffstarched cu'ffs

but on Ho'liday, Christmas, Easter mo'rnings

when she wore a wrea'th, the wo'nderful wi'dow of eighteen springs

Madame Isa Veu've La Belle,

so sad but lu'cksome in her bo'yblue's lo'ng bla'ck

with orange blossoming weeper's veil)

"For she was the o'nly girl they lo'ved,

As she is the quee'nly pearl you prIze"

because of the wa'y the night that first we met

she is bound to be', methinks, and not in vain,

the da'rling of my hea'rt,

sleeping in her April co't, within her si'ngachamer,

with her gree'ngageflavoured ca'ndywhistle duetted to the crazyquilt,

I-so-bel,

she is so pre'tty, truth to tell,

wildwood's e'yes and primarose hair,

quie'tly, all the woo'ds so wild,

in mau'ves of mo'ss and da'phnedews,

how all so still she lay,

neath of the whi'tethorn, child of tree',

like some lo'sthappy lea'f,

like blowing flower sti'lled,

as fai'n would she ano'n,

for soo'n again t'will be',

wIn me,

woo me,

wed me,

Ah wea'ry me!

dee'ply, now evencalm lay slee'ping;




So now at last we are in a position to read the "poem" with cadence, with musical modulations, light touches of emphasis and passages of unstressed syllable like the passing-tones of music. The meaning permeates the sound, but most careful attention must be given to the sound first, or there will be nothing to permeate. It is like a Persian rug, the design is there from the start, but design is flowed through tens of thousands of little knotted tufts of wool worked into a hundred foot square of color and texture. If you see "rug" alone, you have passed over it too quickly. If you see design and picture, you have the top layer of the piece. Only if you take the time to examine detail, even infinite detail, are you taking possession of the piece as a work of craft, of labor and of artistry

.


William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris