Sing a song of sixpence

In Brief

After perhaps recalling fragments of two nursery rhymes from Mother Goose early in Calypso—the echoes are tenuous, fragmentary—Bloom thinks quite specifically and repeatedly of another one later in the chapter and in Lotus Eaters: "Sing a song of sixpence." Like the children's lessons and stories of Finnegans Wake, the silly images in this song that parents sing to their children are made to convey some pressing adult concerns, especially the marital discord in the Bloom household.

Read More

The ditty probably originated in the 18th century. Its most familiar modern verses go as follows:

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing—
Wasn't that a dainty dish
To set before the king?

The king was in the counting-house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes;
Along came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.

The two most disturbing events of the song are the baking of live birds in a pie (an Italian recipe for such culinary entertainments survives from the 16th century, and there are contemporary reports that some were prepared for the wedding of Marie de' Medici and Henry IV of France in 1600), and the mutilation of the maid's face. But Joyce focused on three other, seemingly benign details, finding in each one elements of Bloom's intimate adult concerns.

One allusion to the song comes when Bloom is preparing to sit down in the outhouse: "He kicked open the crazy door of the jakes. Better be careful not to get these trousers dirty for the funeral. He went in, bowing his head under the low lintel. Leaving the door ajar, amid the stench of mouldy limewash and stale cobwebs he undid his braces. Before sitting down he peered through a chink up at the nextdoor window. The king was in his countinghouse. Nobody." With no one visible next door, the paterfamilias takes his seat upon the throne and voids his bowels, reflecting with satisfaction that the constipation from which he suffered on the previous day has now lessened its grip.

It is surely relevant here that Sigmund Freud, in "Character and Anal Eroticism" (1908), argued for an association in the unconscious mind between feces and money. Joyce had already displayed an interest in the ideas of this essay when he wrote A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In Joyce Between Freud and Jung (Kennikat Press, 1980), Sheldon Brivic applies some of them to reading the sentences in which Stephen, newly enriched by school prizes, tries to order his world by controlling the flow of money: "In his coat pockets he carried . . . chocolate for his guests while his trousers' pockets bulged with masses of silver and copper coins. . . . the money ran through Stephen's fingers. . . . He had tried to build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life without him and to dam up, by rules . . . interests . . . and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tides within him. Useless. From without as from within the water flowed over his barriers" (45).

In Bloom's recollection of the line about the king counting his money, this association between the flow of money and the flow of excrement becomes more directly connected with sexuality. The complex, according to Freud, is rooted in childhood experiences. Training children to use the toilet constitutes a crucial moment in the "anal phase" of their psychosexual development. Prior to this moment, children have an attachment to their own feces, as things that they have produced. (In Finnegans Wake Joyce presents Shem the Penman as an artist whose works are written with excrement on his own body.) But in potty training children are wheedled and shamed into relinquishing these precious parts of themselves. If they resist the adult instructions, the experience of retaining the excrement within the anus may produce sexual pleasure, and such individuals mature into adults who derive a quasi-sexual pleasure from holding onto money. Leopold Bloom, it may be noted, is notoriously tight with a ducat, and his eroticism is distinctly anal.

Given Bloom's anal eroticism, given his wife's disinterest in it ("its a wonder Im not an old shrivelled hag before my time living with him so cold never embracing me except sometimes when hes asleep the wrong end of me not knowing I suppose who he has any man thatd kiss a womans bottom Id throw my hat at him after that hed kiss anything unnatural where we havent 1 atom of any kind of expression in us all of us the same 2 lumps of lard before ever Id do that to a man pfooh the dirty brutes the mere thought is enough I kiss the feet of you senorita theres some sense in that"), given the sexual dysfunction that consequently exists in the marriage, and given the alienation that will result from Boylan's visit on this day, it seems appropriate that Bloom thinks of the nursery rhyme at a moment when he and Molly are in separate rooms, doing separate things. In Lotus Eaters the lines about the queen float back into Bloom's head as he remembers Molly lying in bed eating the slices of toast he brought her and reading Boylan's letter: "Mrs Marion Bloom. Not up yet. Queen was in her bedroom eating bread and."

Bloom of course has his own extramarital fascinations, and the nursery rhyme manages to embrace those as well. Its picture of the maid "in the garden, / Hanging out the clothes" is reproduced physically in the actions of the young woman whom Bloom stands beside in the butcher's shop. He recognizes her as "the nextdoor girl," a servant recently employed by his neighbours on Eccles Street: "His eyes rested on her vigorous hips. Woods his name is. Wonder what he does. Wife is oldish. New blood. No followers allowed. Strong pair of arms. Whacking a carpet on the clothesline. She does whack it, by George. The way her crooked skirt swings at each whack."

When Bloom exits his back door to go to the outhouse, this attractively aggressive young woman enters his thoughts again via the strains of the nursery rhyme: "He went out through the backdoor into the garden: stood to listen towards the next garden. No sound. Perhaps hanging clothes out to dry. The maid was in the garden. Fine morning." His voyeuristic delectation of this "nextdoor girl" that he has seen in the backyard anticipates his looking up from the yard "at the nextdoor window" later in Calypso, forming a perfect circularity among the three figures in the song. "Sing a song of sixpence" describes an unhappy love triangle as evocatively as do any of Bloom's thoughts about Boylan and Molly later in the novel.

JH 2017
Cover illustration for Randolph Caldecott's Sing a Song for Sixpence (Routledge and Sons, 1880). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration by Walter Crane from The Song of Sixpence. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration by Walter Crane from The Song of Sixpence. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration by Walter Crane from The Song of Sixpence (London: John Lane, 1864). Source: Wikimedia Commons.