Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 13, 2017

Finnegans Wake, (1939), (2014 Folio Edition) by James Joyce #8 Chapter 7

Well, you won’t be surprised to learn that I skipped reading a chapter of Finnegans Wake while hosting Indigenous Literature Week here on the blog and attending Rare Books Week events and a launch or two (a NAIDOC week art exhibition and The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover at the Bookshop At Queenscliff.  But now I’m back on track, and up to chapter 7.

As usual, I have consulted my trusty guides Tindall and Campbell, only to come away a tad discouraged.  Tindall says that this chapter is little more than the author’s apology and his boast:

Shem the Penman, the exiled author of Ulysses and the Wake is a problem.  Joyce was always composing portraits of himself, but most of them, differing in kind from this portrait of Joyce-Shem, are distanced and controlled by irony or other device.  So distanced, Stephen is nothing like Shem.  Bloom and Earwicker, also self-projections, are objective and independent.  The heavy – almost painful -jocularity with which Joyce handles Shem, no substitute for irony or comedy, fails to separate the embracing author from his embraced creation.  (Tindall, p. 131)

Campbell, OTOH, hammers home the point that Shem is a lowlife, and goes into considerable and somewhat unedifying details from the text, which – given Joyce’s often incomprehensible language, I probably would not have understood and might have preferred it that way.  Still, with the peace and quiet of the house around me, I ventured forth, and as with previous chapters found bit and pieces to make me laugh and plenty to puzzle over.

Shem is not a prepossessing fellow:

Shem’s bodily getup, it seems, included an adze of a skull, an eight of a larkseye, the whoel of a nose, one numb arm up a sleeve, fortytwo hairs off his uncrown, eighteen to his mock lip, a trio of barbels from his megageg chin (sowman’s son), the wrong shoulder higher than the right, all ears, an artificial tongue with a natural curl, not a foot to stand on, a handful of thumbs, a blind stomach, a deaf heart, a loose liver, two fifths of two buttocks, one gleetsteen avoirdupoider for him, a manroot of all evil, a salmonkelt’s thinskin, eelsblood in his cold toes, a bladder tristended, so much so that young Master Shemmy on his very first debouch at the very dawn of protohistory seeing himself such and such, when playing with thistlewords in their garden nursery, Griefotrofio, at Phig Streat III, Shuvlin, Old Hoeland, (would we go back there now for sounds, pillings and sense? would we now for annas and annas? Would we for fullscore eight and a liretta? for twelve blocks one bob? for four testers one groat? not for a dinar! not for jo!) dictited to of all his little brothron and sweestureens the first riddle of the universe: asking, when is a man not a man?

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition, pp. 169-170).

In John Vernon Lord’s collage illustration of this chapter, we see the torso of this poor specimen, starkers (but with his modesty retained with the judicial placement of a sort of mandala featured a woman in medieval getup), with just a few stray whiskers showing on what we can see of his chin.  And there is print all over his body, with ink made in a method I’d rather not describe.  His mouth, drawn separately to the rest of his body, shows a quill in place of a tongue (an artificial tongue with a natural curl) because of the quotation Lingua mea calamus scribae velociter scribentus from Psalm 45:1, ‘My tongue is the pen of a ready writer.’  Well, yes, but IMO it has a double meaning.  Joyce as an exile in Ireland, was also speaking a tongue that was artificial for him and no doubt he retained the curl of his Irish brogue.

And what was the answer to the first riddle of the universe?  …  When is a man not a man?  The answer is … when he is a Sham.

Now Shem was a sham and a low sham and his lowness creeped out first via foodstuffs.  Shame on him, he prefers tinned salmon to roeheavy lax (caviar); and his preference for tinned over fresh extends to pineapples.  He’d rather muddle through the hash of lentils in Europe than meddle with Irrland’s split little pea. 

Not only does his sell his birthright by eating the wrong foods, he’s also a drug and drunkery addict growing megalomane of a loose past, and he’s a coward.  He abuses his deceased ancestors wherever the sods were and he’s always in debt.  (This section, according to Tindall, has many references to Swift, but the only one I recognised an allusion to gulliber’s travels.  So much for having waded through A Tale of a Tub).  But there was an allusion I pounced on:

[with] a litany of septuncial lettertrumpets honorific, highpitched, erudite, neoclassical which he so loved as patricianly to manuscribe after his name. It would have diverted if ever seen the shuddersome spectacle of this semidemented zany amid the inspissated grime of his glaucous den making believe to read his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles.

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition, p. 179).

My ‘desert-island’ book Ulysses unreadable?  Does Joyce really think so, or is he having a go at his critics, in readiness for what was to come over the publication of Finnegans Wake?

Poor Shem.  He’s up against it.

… what with the murky light, the botchy print, the tattered cover, the jigjagged page, the fumbling fingers, the foxtrotting fleas, the lieabed lice, the scum on his tongue, the drop in his eye, the lump in his throat, the drink in his pottle, the itch in his palm, the wail of his wind, the grief from his breath, the fog of his mindfag, the buzz in his braintree, the tic of his conscience, the height up his rage, the gush down his fundament, the fire in his gorge, the tickle of his tail, the bane in his bullugs, the squince in his suil, the rot in his eater, the ycho in his earer, the totters of his toes, the tetters on his tumtytum, the rats in his garret, the bats in his belfry, the budgerigars and bumbosolom beaubirds, the hullabaloo and the dust in his ears since it took him a month to steal a march he was hardset to mumorise more than a word a week.

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition, p. 180).

There is a splendid catalogue which seems to be a description of an author’s lair which might make authors reading this sigh with recognition:

My wud! The warped flooring of the lair and soundconducting walls thereof, to say nothing of the uprights and imposts, were persianly literatured with burst loveletters, telltale stories, stickyback snaps, doubtful eggshells, bouchers, flints, borers, puffers, amygdaloid almonds, rindless raisins, alphybettyformed verbage, vivlical viasses, ompiter dictas, visus umbique, ahems and ahahs, imeffible tries at speech unasyllabled, you owe mes, eyoldhyms, fluefoul smut, fallen lucifers, vestas which had served, showered ornaments, borrowed brogues, reversibles jackets, blackeye lenses, family jars, falsehair shirts, Godforsaken scapulars, neverworn breeches, cutthroat ties, counterfeit franks, best intentions, curried notes, upset latten tintacks, unused mill and stumpling stones, twisted quills, painful digests, magnifying wineglasses, solid objects cast at goblins, once current puns, quashed quotatoes, messes of mottage, unquestionable issue papers, seedy ejaculations, limerick damns, crocodile tears, spilt ink, blasphematory spits, stale shestnuts, schoolgirl’s, young ladies’ milkmaids’, washerwomen’s, shopkeepers’ wives, merry widows’, ex nuns’, vice abbess’s, pro virgins’, super whores’, silent sisters’, Charleys’ aunts’, grandmothers’, mothers’-in-law, fostermothers’, godmothers’ garters, tress clippings from right, lift and cintrum, worms of snot, toothsome pickings, cans of Swiss condensed bilk, highbrow lotions, kisses from the antipodes, presents from pickpockets, borrowed plumes, relaxable handgrips, princess promises, lees of whine, deoxodised carbons, convertible collars, diviliouker doffers, broken wafers, unloosed shoe latchets, crooked strait waistcoats, fresh horrors from Hades, globules of mercury, undeleted glete, glass eyes for an eye, gloss teeth for a tooth, war moans, special sighs, longsufferings of longstanding, ahs ohs ous sis jas jos gias neys thaws sos yeses and yeses and yeses, to which, if one has the stomach to add the breakages, upheavals distortions, inversions of all this chambermade music one stands, given a grain of goodwill, a fair chance of actually seeing the whirling dervish, Tumult, son of Thunder, self exiled in upon his ego a nightlong a shaking betwixtween white or reddr hawrors, noondayterrorised to skin and bone by an ineluctable phantom (may the Shaper have mercery on him!) writing the mystery of himsel in furniture.

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition pp. 183-184)

My favourite of these are alphybettyformed verbage; best intentions; quashed quotatoes and longsufferings of longstanding.

These struggles of Shem the writer in writing his Wake go on to refer to stories resembling the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners, and the difficulty he had in finding a publisher for them.

Tindall reminds me at the end of his chapter about FW’s chapter 7 that it represents Vico’s ‘human age’ because it proves great Joyce to be as human as the rest of us, but I’d forgotten all about Vico long ago.  (See my post from Chapter 1 if you are keen). I think I’ll save adventures with Vico for if I ever read FW for a second time.

So on to Chapter 8!




  1. My goodness, Lisa – I am impressed! I just read through it – very slowly – picking up what made sense to me and leaving it at that. I suppose the rate was a couple pages (paperback) at a time a half-dozen times a day and I think I’ve said that it took me 8 months – including a 3-month break. (Reading that way makes for a nice meditation.)

    But going into it like you are – omg – that takes perseverance and fortitude in addition to a considerable amount of grey matter. My way was just like drifting down that old riverrun in a tube or something – your way is examining the whole environment of it.


    • I think we all approach books like this in different ways, and with FW in particular, I say, whatever works for you!


  2. You are tantalising me with this amazing project and am thinking I must continue to read Joyce. He is something quite special as both writer and Irish man with all its connotations. Your blog is a great source of connection on a personal level and keeps me coming back to that wonderful activity reading. Thanks so much.


    • Thanks, Fay, it’s nice to know that not everyone thinks I’m crazy!


  3. I’m impressed that it is starting to make so much sense to you that you are picking up your own allusions (Shem’s Irish ‘curl’).


    • LOL It could be a sign of impending madness…


  4. […] agree that this chapter is ‘about’ Anna Livinia Plurabelle (ALP), Shem’s mother (see Chapter 7) and Earwicker’s wife, and she is represented by the River Liffey where two washerwomen are […]


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