Old England

Old England

In Brief

Deasy's lament that "Old England is dying" prompts more of William Blake's poetry to float through Stephen's mind: "The harlot's cry from street to street / Shall weave old England's windingsheet." Possibly he thinks of these lines simply because they describe England as dying. But it is more likely that he is answering Deasy's reactionary thought with a revolutionary one, returning to the Blakean themes of apocalyptic transformation with which the chapter began.

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Nestor has already shown Stephen calling up The Rocky Road to Dublin to rebut Deasy's recollection of his ancestor's ride to Dublin. A close reading of Blake's poem suggests that he may be working the same trick again. Auguries of Innocence (ca. 1803) begins with the famous lines

To see a world in a grain of sand,
and a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

This assertion that all the universe is contained in every particular of existence functions as a kind of preamble to the main argument of the poem: that all forms of cruelty, violence, abuse, and malice are assaults on being itself. "A robin redbreast in a cage," say the next lines, "Puts all heaven in a rage." By the time it gets to the lines that Stephen is recalling (115-16), the poem is indicting institutionalized civic vice:

The Whore and Gambler, by the State
Licenc'd, build that Nation's fate.
The Harlot's cry from street to street
Shall weave Old England's winding sheet.
The Winner's Shout, the Loser's Curse,
Dance before dead England's Hearse.

Unlike Deasy's assertion that an alien ethnic population is sapping the life out of England, Blake's poem roots the problem in the policies of "the State." As an Anglo-Irish educator of Unionist sympathies, Deasy is an instrument of that state, and his fashionable ethnic hatred may be supposed to abet its crimes of tearing the fabric of the cosmos.

Or as Grace Eckley suggests in "Beef to the heel: Harlotry with Josephine Butler, William T. Stead, and James Joyce," Studies in the Novel 20:1 (Spring 1988): 64-67, he may be thinking of government licensing of sex workers. Several European governments in the 19th century attempted to control the spread of venereal disease in the same way that they confronted infections of livestock: by regular inspections and by controlling the movements of the stock. Deasy's interest in curtailing the spread of foot and mouth disease may, in Stephen's labyrinthine thoughts, trigger this dehumanizing association of cattle with women that was assumed by many policymakers of the time.

If such readings seem farfetched, it is worth considering that just after Stephen silently recalls Blake's lines he confronts Deasy directly, turning his arguments back on him. To the claim that "the jew merchants" are harming England, he reasonably replies that a merchant "is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not?" And to the claim that "They sinned against the light," he answers, "Who has not?"

John Hunt 2012

Source: shadowlight9.blogspot.com.