Licking the saucer clean

Licking the saucer clean

In Brief

Nursery rhymes dance through Bloom's thoughts throughout the day, probably reflecting his experience as a devoted parent, but also suggesting childlike qualities in him, and an ad-man's propensity for jingles. Some nursery rhymes become freighted with textual significance, while others play a more incidental role in the fiction. Thornton identifies two seemingly slight allusions near the beginning of Calypso, and does not note a third possibility. Together with a more substantial allusion later in the chapter, these three rhymes all involve food.

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Bloom watches the cat at her saucer of milk as "She lapped slower, then licking the saucer clean." There is probably an echo here of the Jack Sprat ditty from Mother Goose, the most familiar modern version of which runs:

Jack Sprat could eat no fat;
His wife could eat no lean.
And so between them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the name Jack Sprat was idiomatic for a short, scrawny man. Bloom is not short, but he is a bit weak—he has been practicing Sandow's exercises to beef up his muscles. And Molly does perhaps enjoy luxurious food a little more than her husband—in Lestrygonians Nosey Flynn remembers meeting Bloom "with a jar of cream in his hand taking it home to his better half. She's well nourished, I tell you. Plovers on toast." Still, it seems a stretch to apply the nursery rhyme to Joyce's couple.

The same is true of a similar echo several sentences later, when Bloom thinks about his wife's eating preferences: "Thin bread and butter she likes in the morning." There may be an echo here of Little Tommy Tucker, also from Mother Goose:

Little Tommy Tucker
Sings for his supper.
What shall we give him?
White bread and butter.
How shall he cut it
Without any knife?
How will he be married
Without any wife?

Brown bread sometimes substitutes for white in the rhyme, and Thornton says that "Though I have not located it in print, I believe there is a variant reading 'Thin bread and butter.'" If so, thoughts of eating continue to be inflected through Mother Goose.

Together with these two allusions noted by Thornton and Gifford, there are these sentences from the fourth paragraph of Calypso: "He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off  the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out." The second sentence brings to mind the song I'm a Little Teapot, one version of which goes as follows:

I'm a little teapot,
Short and stout.
Here is my handle,
Here is my spout.
When I get all steamed up
Hear me shout,
Just tip me over
and pour me out!

The song, written by George Harold Sanders and Clarence Z. Kelley, was published in the United States in 1939, but its verbal similarities to Bloom's thoughts are close enough to suggest that it may have been based on an earlier nursery rhyme.

Later in Calypso A Song of Sixpence will make repeated appearances. The theme of eating is present in this rhyme too, but Joyce uses it to evoke aspects of the sexual dysfunction in the Blooms' marriage.

JH 2017
Illustration of Jack Sprat and his wife by American illustrator Frederick Richardson (1862-1937), date unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
William Wallace Denslow's illustration of Little Tom Tucker, in Denslow's Mother Goose (1901). Source: Wikimedia Commons.