Low lintel

Low lintel

In Brief

When Bloom steps into the outhouse, "bowing his head under the low lintel," his action is possibly meant to echo a line in a poem published in 1904 by Henry Van Dyke, praising the low lintel of a friend's house as a sign of humility.

Read More

Van Dyke, born in 1852, was a prominent American clergyman and professor of literature. His high-minded poetry, given to stale abstractions and unrelentingly uplifting sentiments, seems an odd candidate for anything but ironic inclusion in Ulysses, but Inscriptions for a Friend's House does contain one suggestive analogue to the sentence in Calypso. The first two of the poem's four sections go as follows:


The cornerstone in Truth is laid, 
The guardian walls of Honour made, 
The roof of Faith is built above, 
The fire upon the hearth is Love: 
Though rains descend and loud winds call, 
This happy house shall never fall. 


The lintel low enough to keep out pomp and pride
The threshold high enough to turn deceit aside: 
The doorband strong enough from robbers to defend: 
This door will open at a touch to welcome every friend. 

When he identifies this poem as a possible literary echo in Calypso, Thornton acknowledges that "the allusion seems perhaps unlikely." He argues for it by observing that Joyce spares Stephen the ignominy of defecating but inflicts it on Bloom, and that the depiction of him bowing his head "contributes importantly to our impression of Bloom as a man without 'pomp and pride'." Calling the privy seat a "cuckstool" may amplify the sense of abasement, if the reference is to the cucking-stools used in late medieval and early modern Europe to publicly punish malefactors. But this term had a broader range of meanings.

JH 2017
Late 19th century photograph of Henry Van Dyke. Source: americanliterature.com.