The house that Jack built

The house that Jack built

In Brief

Strains of the nursery rhyme The House that Jack Built sound twice in Oxen of the Sun. In his mocking rant against the church Stephen refers to "Peter Piscator who lives in the house that Jack built," and in the medley of anonymous voices at the end of the chapter someone calls the man in the macintosh a "Man all tattered and torn that married a maiden all forlorn.

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The nursery rhyme is a cumulative one that adds things to Jack's house until a mnemonically challenging string of relative clauses has piled up:

This is the horse and the hound and the horn
That belonged to the farmer sowing his corn
That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn
That woke the judge all shaven and shorn
That married the man all tattered and torn
That kissed the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog that worried the cat
That killed the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.

The accumulation of animals strikingly resembles the Aramaic song called Chad Gadya that Bloom thinks of in Aeolus, so much so that some people have speculated that the ancient Jewish rhyme may have inspired it. The Gentile version appeared in many 18th and 19th century children's books.

Jesus founded his church on the rock of Simon Peter, the fisherman who became first in a long line of bishops of Rome—so, when Stephen speaks of "Peter Piscator" (Peter the Fisherman) living in the house that Jack built, he is referring to the pope presiding over his Catholic church, or perhaps residing in his Vatican digs. Calling the unknown man in the raincoat "tattered and torn" extends observations made of him by the men in Burke's ("Golly, whatten tunket's yon guy in the mackintosh? Dusty Rhodes. Peep at his wearables. . . . D'ye ken bare socks? Seedy cuss . . .  That, sir, was once a prosperous cit"), and "married a maiden all forlorn" expresses their belief that he roams the streets mourning a woman who died ("Slung her hook, she did. Here see lost love. Walking Mackintosh of lonely canyon").

Although the ditty's words are sufficient to account for these allusions, it may be worth noting that, in a novel filled with memories of pantomimes, a number of these vaudevillean dramatic productions seem to have been based on the nursery rhyme. One of them played at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in London in 1850 and 1851. The Sheffield City Archives house another one written by J. H. Booth in 1900. And J. G. Farrell's 1970 novel Troubles, set in Ireland ca. 1919-1921, records that "a man sitting in the stalls of the Empire [the name for the Dublin theater earlier called Dan Lowrey's Music Hall] was shot in the chest while watching the pantomime The House that Jack Built" (325).

JH 2020
1905 drawing graph for the opening verses of The House that Jack Built. Source:
Poster made from an engraved print for the pantomime Harlequin and The House that Jack Built, produced at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in London, 1850-1851. Print is held in the Granger Historical Picture Archive, Brooklyn, New York. Source: