Row me o'er the ferry

Row me o'er the ferry

In Brief

As the funeral carriages pass over the Royal Canal, Bloom watches a boatman standing on his barge as it drops down into the draining lock. Since Hades is studded with references to the underworlds of classical epics, this detail tempts one to hear an echo of Charon, the boatman who ferries souls across the river Styx in Virgil's Aeneid and the river Acheron in Dante's Inferno. The inference is justified several sentences later as Bloom combines his memory of a local boatman who recently died with his memory of a poem about a boatman's deadly water crossing: "James M'Cann's hobby to row me o'er the ferry."

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Gifford notes that James M'Cann "was chairman of the court of directors of the Grand Canal Company, which maintained a regular fleet of trade boats on the Grand Canal (to central and southern Ireland)." Since Bloom is crossing the Royal Canal, on the north side of Dublin, the geography would seem to be wrong. But M'Cann, Gifford goes on to observe, died on 12 February 1904. He thus "has already arrived in Hades" and could very well play the part of Charon, helping Bloom cross the northern river that separates Dublin from the land of the dead in Glasnevin. In life such tasks constituted a paying profession for McCann. Now it seems they are a "hobby."

In a note on JJON, Terence Killeen observes that use of the word "ferry" to refer not to a boat or its action of crossing a stream, but to the "place where boats pass over a river etc. to transport passengers and goods" (in the same way that a "ford" can be a place as well as an action) is "all but obsolete now and was probably obscure in 1904." But Bloom, he suggests, is thinking of a line from a poem written a century earlier:

A chieftain to the Highlands bound
Cries, "Boatman, do not tarry!
And I'll give thee a silver pound
To row us o'er the ferry."

Lord Ullin's Daughter, published in 1804, was written by a Scottish poet whose work Bloom seems to know—later in Hades he tries to recall who wrote Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and comes up with "Wordsworth or Thomas Campbell." Campbell's ballad describes the plight of Lord Ullin's daughter and the young chieftain she has run off with as they flee her father's soldiers. The ferryman agrees to save the bridegroom from the sword, but the "dark and stormy water" threatens no less mortal peril. Lord Ullin arrives at the shore of the loch in time to watch his girl drown: "The waters wild went o'er his child, / And he was left lamenting."

Lord Ullin's Daughter, then, coheres with the possible echo of Charon in its depiction of a boat ferrying people over some very dark waters. By changing "row us" to "row me," Bloom puts himself in the boat, confirming the impression that he is being ferried to the land of the dead. It seems odd that his meditation on McCann and Campbell comes in the middle of about a dozen sentences in which he thinks about traveling west along the canal to see Milly in Mullingar. But these sentences are preceded and followed, at the beginning and end of the paragraph, by long gazes at the boatman, so Bloom has him in view the whole time. Death breaks in on his happy dreaming.

JH 2019
Cropped image of Gustave Doré's 1880 engraving of Dante's Charon (Inferno, plate 9). Source: Wikimedia Commons.