In Brief

For many centuries people were buried in a winding sheet, also known as a shroud or cerement. This was a long piece of cloth that could either be wrapped around the body or tied at both ends and sewed up along the middle. In Hades Bloom thinks of women laying out corpses and making up beds, two activites that both involve arranging a sheet.

Read More

When Mr. Deasy says in Nestor that "Old England is dying," Stephen recalls two lines from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: "The Harlot's cry from street to street / Shall weave Old England's winding sheet." The lines return in Circe, altered to read "Old Ireland's windingsheet." In both cases, the focus is on the political and cultural forces that may undermine or destroy an entire nation.

Bloom too thinks of these burial cloths, with the same Joycean compound spelling but with a much more personal focus. As he ponders the readying of Paddy Dignam's body for burial, no doubt thinking back to similar preparations for his infant son Rudy, he associates these rituals with the everyday business of making a bed: "Then getting it ready. Laying it out. Molly and Mrs Fleming making the bed. Pull it more to your side. Our windingsheet. Never know who will touch you dead. Wash and shampoo." The details at the beginning and end of this passage describe the work of "laying out" a corpse, but in the middle Bloom thinks of Molly and the charwoman making the bed in the morning. The two chores meet in the shared detail of arranging a sheet just so. It is very characteristic of the practical and irreverent Bloom to make the connection.

Bloom wraps himself up in a bedsheet every night. By imagining it as his shroud he performs a small memento mori: best to stay clean, because you "Never know who will touch you dead." This matter-of-fact little meditation allies him with the far more dramatic and far more religious John Donne, who as he lay dying had himself sewn up in his shroud and sketched by an artist, so that in his final hours he could contemplate his coming demise.

JH 2022
English poet John Donne in his winding sheet, in a post-death 1633 engraving by Martin Droeshout held in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.