Before born

Before born

In Brief

New Style. "Before born bliss babe had. Within womb won he worship...So stood they there both awhile in wanhope sorrowing one with other": these six paragraphs announce a clear departure from what has gone before. In his letter to Frank Budgen Joyce said that the initial Latinate prose of Oxen would be followed by "earliest English alliterative and monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon." The new section narrating Bloom's arrival at the Holles Street maternity hospital and his conversation at the door with nurse Callan—most of the section, anyway—is indeed marked by alliteration, old Germanic words, and far more straightforward syntax. But the neatness of this characterization is complicated by a brief intrusion of something like the earlier style, and also by the competing influences of two different literary inspirations from the 10th century, one of them written in verse rather than prose.

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Critical discussions and annotations of this chapter seldom remark on the fact that insistent alliteration, while highly characteristic of the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon era, was not usually a feature of its prose. In lieu of rhymes or metrical feet, poets writing in Old English used alliteration to organize their verse lines. No matter how long or short a line (no set number of syllables was prescribed), several words (typically three or four) with the same initial consonant sounds (or vowels—any vowels) would be deployed over the course of the line (usually on both sides of a midline caesura). The alliterative syllables received accentual stress, creating what is often called a strong-stress or accentual meter. The effect can be gauged in the opening lines of The Wanderer, a magnificent long lyric poem recorded in a 10th century manuscript:

Oft him anhaga are gebideð,
     [Always the solitary one awaits kindness,]
metudes miltse, þeah þe he mod cearig
     [mercy of the Creator, even though he, heart-troubled,]
geond lagu lade longe sceolde
     [through the sea-ways for a long time must]
hreran mid hondum hrim cealde sæ
     [stir with his hands the ice-cold sea,]
wadan wræc lastas. Wyrd bið ful aræd!
     [tread the paths of exile. Fate is fully determined!]
I quote these lines because many readers have heard The Wanderer as a model for Joyce's writing in this section, despite his plan to imitate the history of English prose. The first two sentences do sound like lines of Old English verse: "Before born bliss babe had. Within womb won he worship." But after this point the rigid march of consonants disappears—the rest of the first paragraph uses no alliteration, and later paragraphs use it sparingly, about once a sentence on average. The echoes of The Wanderer, if such they are, are more thematic than prosodic. Like the exiled seafarer in the poem, Bloom "on earth wandering far has fared." He once lived near the hospital "with dear wife and lovesome daughter that then over land and seafloor nine years had long outwandered." As Gifford notes, the seafarer also keeps his thoughts and concerns to himself, and this quality distinguishes Bloom throughout Oxen of the Sun

Joyce's complicated use of a poem in a chapter about prose—two of his sentences sound like Old English verse without imitating the poem's contents, while five other paragraphs imitate the content without sounding like verse—creates difficulties for commentators looking to neatly divide the chapter's different styles. The trouble is compounded because those five paragraphs have another clearly identifiable inspiration: the Homilies of an Anglo-Saxon abbot called Ælfric of Eynsham or Ælfric the Grammarian. Rather than treat all six paragraphs as one section, Gifford identifies Ælfric as the inspiration for the first paragraph (which does not resemble his writing in the least), and The Wanderer as a model for the last five paragraphs (which do sound like Ælfric). Both Declan Kiberd and Jeri Johnson repeat these dubious attributions without further comment.

Ælfric composed prose works on religious topics, sometimes using alliteration to echo, faintly, the rhythmic effects of Old English verse. Joyce encountered his writing in one of two anthologies of English prose that he mined for the language of Oxen, George Saintsbury's A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912). In The Sources and Structures of James Joyce's Oxen (1983), Robert Janusko identifies phrases from Ælfric's Homilies that Joyce copied into his notesheets from Saintsbury's anthology and that made their way into the chapter (94). He also quotes, in modern translation, an excerpt from the life of St. Cuthbert that particularly caught Joyce's attention:
The aforesaid holy man was wonted that he would go at night to the sea, and stand on the salt brim up to his swire [neck] singing his beads. Then on a certain night waited another monk his faring; and with slack stalking his footswathes followed till that they both to sea came. Then did Cuthbert as his wont was; sang his beads in the sea-like ooze, standing up to the swire, and sithence his knees on the chesil bowed, with out stretched handbreadths to the heavenly firmament. Lo! then came twey seals from the sea-ground, and they with their flix his feet dried, and with their breath his limbs warmed, and sithence his beckonings with blessing bade, lying at his feet on the fallow chesil.
Janusko observes that Cuthbert's nightly visits to the sea can he heard in Joyce's second and fifth paragraphs: Bloom arrives at the hospital "at night's oncoming," and he "over land and seafloor nine year had long outwandered." Joyce's second paragraph echoes the other monk waiting for Cuthbert's "faring": "Some man that wayfaring was stood by housedoor...that man that on earth wandering far had fared." Ælfric's word for neck, "swire," shows up in the fourth paragraph when nurse Callan rises and opens the door for Bloom "with swire ywimpled." The "twey seals" reappear in the third paragraph when nurses Callan and Quigley are called "Watchers twey." The fact that the seals dried Cuthbert and "his limbs warmed" may also, Janusko suggests, sound in the sixth paragraph in nurse Callan's report that Doctor O'Hare received "sick men's oil to his limbs" (59). These convincing parallels occur in all five paragraphs, and the careful reader will note how much Ælfric's use of alliteration (preserved in the modern translation) resembles Joyce's, popping up from time to time rather than establishing a rigid pattern.

Janusko discovered one more borrowing that Joyce did not copy onto his notesheets. In the New Testament story of the centurion Ælfric writes, "Soothly he manifested mickle humility in this, that he said, 'Lord, not am I worthy that thou infare under my thatch.'" This gives rise to a lewdly suggestive detail in Joyce's fourth paragraph, when Callan urges Bloom to come inside: "Christ's rood made she on breastbone and him drew that he would rathe infare under her thatch." Janusko notes that "Literally, to infare under a thatch means the same in both sentences: to enter a building. The statement of the centurion, however, as Joyce would well have known, is the source for the 'Domine non sum dignus' prayer in the Mass said by communicants before receiving the host: 'Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Speak but the word and my soul shall be healed'" (59-60). In Oxen, the phrase suggests that Callan is inviting Bloom into her vagina. "Depending on one's point of view," Janusko observes, Joyce is either blasphemously using a prayer from the Mass to describe an obscene act, or to suggest the sacramental nature of copulation, that is, a visible and outward sign of a spiritual union" (60).

Beyond the many clear echoes of Ælfric, Joyce deployed a wealth of archaic Germanic words to enforce the feeling of a distant Anglo-Saxon past. The actions described in his last five paragraphs—Bloom comes to the hospital, led by concern for Mrs. Purefoy; two nurses walk the halls of the hospital, taking good care of the expectant mothers; nurse Callan opens the door to Bloom, sees rain and lightning, crosses herself, and urges him to come in; Bloom stands inside the entrance holding his hat and apologizes for having once failed to recognize her quickly enough in the street; she blushes at his friendliness and expresses concern at his mourning clothes; he asks about a doctor who used to be at the hospital and learns that he died two and a half years ago—all these events are recounted in recognizably English syntax, but colored by the filter of ancient words:
"stark ruth" (strong pity or compassion)
"to thole and bring forth bairns" (wait patiently, children)
"twey" (two)
"Truest bedthanes" (attendants)
"wariest ward" (care or protection)
"eft" (again)
"swire ywimpled" (neck covered with a wimple)
"levin leaping lightens in eyeblink" (lightning)
"westward welkin" (sky)
"Full she dread" (dreaded)
"fordo with water" (kill)
"he would rathe infare" (quickly enter)
"Christ's rood" (cross)
"her will wotting worthful" (knowing)
"Loth to irk" (reluctant)
"On her stow" (place)
"townhithe" (port town or town port)
"his weeds swart" (black clothing)
"grameful sigh" (sorrowful)
"algate" (always)
"shriven" (confessed and absolved)
"holy housel" (the Eucharist)
"the nun" (term of respect for a woman, instead of "nurse,"
    which as Gifford observes comes from Old French)
"bellycrab" (i.e., stomach cancer, cancer being Latin)
"Childermas" (Holy Innocents Day, December 28,
    commemorating Herod's slaughter of the infants)
"wanhope" (despair)
Several of the words come from Ælfric: "swire," "infare," and "twey" appear above, and Janusko's list of the phrases that Joyce copied into his notesheets from Saintsbury's anthology shows that "stow" and "townhithe" were taken from Ethelbald's grant to the Bishop of Worcester (94). But it seems likely that Joyce was reading more broadly in Old English literature. Other literary sources will probably eventually be identified.

In addition to the highly problematic mixture of verse and prose echoes, this passage contains another anomaly that commentators have either failed to notice or been content to ignore: the prose of the first paragraph threatens to devolve from Anglo-Saxon back into something like the Latinate style of earlier paragraphs. After the strikingly Germanic beginning, a short sentence is contaminated by the Latinate word "commodiously," and then a very long sentence brims over with such words: "A couch by midwives attended with wholesome food reposeful, cleanest swaddles as though forthbringing were now done and by wise foresight set: but to this no less of what drugs there is need and surgical implements which are pertaining to her case not omitting aspect of all very distracting spectacles in various latitudes by our terrestrial orb offered together with images, divine and human, the cogitation of which by sejunct females is to tumescence conducive or eases issue in the high sunbright wellbuilt fair home of mothers when, ostensibly far gone and reproductitive, it is come by her thereto to lie in, her term up."

This sentence is much too long for the Anglo-Saxon style. It contains no alliteration, unless one seeks it over much-too-long distances (food, forthbringing, foresight). Monosyllabic Germanic words increasingly give way to polysyllabic Latinate equivalents that toward the end sound almost as obscurely remote as the vocabulary of the earlier paragraphs: "sejunct females," "to tumescence conducive," "reproductitive." And the thudding simplicity of the paragraph's Anglo-Saxon beginning gives way to a meandering syntactic florescence that is finally choked off in Germanic directness: "it is come by her thereto to lie in, her term up."

Nothing in Joyce's letters betrays an intention to occasionally regress from new styles to ones characterized as historically older. But the messiness is all too characteristic of Oxen. Chronological retrogression happens more than once in its series of styles, and many of the phrases borrowed from Saintsbury and other sources show up in places remote from the historical eras in which they were written. Joyce could have maintained a tidier order had he wished to, so his refusal to slot styles into neat imitative compartments begs explanation. Perhaps he resumed an earlier style here because he was describing the maternity hospital, not Bloom. Perhaps he thought that periodization is artificial—old styles of writing persisting after historians deem a new era to have begun, and new ones popping up before their time. Perhaps he wanted to put his own stamp on literary history, generating styles as much from personal whim as from scholarly study. These hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, but the wild linguistic energy of Oxen's narrative—fully in keeping with the drunken young men's wild conversation—may advocate especially for the third view.

JH 2021
 Facsimile of the first page of The Wanderer from the codex of the Exeter Book, ca. 960-990 AD. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
 Stained glass window of Ælfric, location unknown. Source:
Title page of 1912 edition of Saintsbury's A History of English Prose Rhythm. Source: