Ship of the street

Ship of the street

In Brief

Near the end of Eumaeus Stephen and Bloom come upon "a horse, dragging a sweeper." Many European cities at the turn of the last century employed horse-drawn contraptions to sweep up the manure produced by all the horses on the streets. This is one of those devices, "brushing a long swathe of mire up," and at the end of the episode the horse pulling the machine adds three of its own "turds" to the mess it is wading through—a distinctly creaturely action. But Joyce also sprinkles the passage with some strange mechanical details that threaten to turn this straining, defecating animal into no less a machine than the carriage it pulls, making it a "ship of the street." These symbolic colorations have the outlandish effect of making the horse reenact the sinking of the Titanic.

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Some phrases present the horse as very much a fleshly animal: "a fourwalker, a hipshaker, a blackbuttocker, a taildangler, a headhanger," "a good poor brute," "a big nervous foolish noodly kind of a horse." But some odd word choices also seem to remove this recognizable animal entirely from what Stephen in Scylla and Charybdis calls "the whatness of allhorse." The first is Bloom's admonition to Stephen, "Our lives are in peril tonight. Beware of the steamroller." Some of the street-sweeping machines of this time did carry large bristled rollers, and perhaps some of them had steam engines, but there is nothing remotely steam-powered about this one. Probably Bloom's warning emphasizes the size and power of the apparition he comes upon in the dark, unable to quite make it out (steamrollers were invented in the 1860s). But the fanciful comparison distinctly overstates the case and injects a mechanical element of steam-power that his senses could hardly be registering.

Two sentences later Bloom gets a good look at the animal "quite near so that it seemed new, a different grouping of bones and even flesh." Again, the characterization seems excessive. Bloom may be seeing the horse in a new way, or even seeing clearly for the first time that it is a horse, but that freshness of perception would hardly make it new. Indeed, as a "headhanger" it seems old and tired. But later in the same paragraph, Bloom's thoughts do provide a context for seeing the animal as a different grouping of bones and flesh: "But even a dog, he reflected, take that mongrel in Barney Kiernan's, of the same size, would be a holy horror to face. But it was no animal's fault in particular if he was built that way like the camel, ship of the desert, distilling grapes into potheen in his hump."

So a principle of metamorphosis is at work. Struck by the great size of the animal looming up in the dark, Bloom imagines it as being somewhat like a towering camel. But the phrase "ship of the desert" complicates this picture. It is a cliché, certainly, in a chapter chockablock full of clichés, and Bloom's repetition of the tired commonplace might be dismissed as simply a reflexive mental action. In the context of fantastic substitutions, however, it threatens to take the morphing horse out of the animal kingdom altogether. And, sure enough, three sentences later the narrative voice of the chapter affirms Bloom's inconvenient comparison-within-a-comparison: "These timely reflections anent the brutes of the field occupied his mind somewhat distracted from Stephen's words while the ship of the street was manoeuvring and Stephen went on about the highly interesting old..."

Not only has the horse now been narratively authorized as a ship, but it is "manoeuvring" through the avenue, like troops on campaign or warships in formation. Individual sentient beings are sometimes said to perform such an action ("She had mastered the delicate maneuver"), but one would hardly expect a poor horse to do so outside of the dressage ring. Looking back to a sentence just before the remark about the steamroller, one can see that this is not the first inappropriate verb that has been applied to the horse: "By the chains the horse slowly swerved to turn." Has anyone ever seen a horse swerve? The word is usually applied to vehicles, and in this case the vehicle would seem to be large and unwieldy, like a Boeing 747 initiating a turn—or like an immense passenger liner trying to avoid an iceberg.

In an unpublished paper presented to the summer 2019 Trieste Joyce School, Senan Molony argues that echoes of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic pervade Eumaeus, and that many of those echoes sound in this passage. Titanic was "steam"-powered, and it plowed through ocean "rollers." It was brand, spanking "new," celebrating its maiden voyage from the U.K. to the U.S., and that passage proved to be a "holy horror." The ship was named for the horrible giants that assaulted the holy citadel of the Greek gods, and the iceberg with which it crossed paths caused unfathomable horror by ripping gaping holes in six of its watertight compartments. (The vessel was designed to withstand rupture of three.)

Two more details catch Molony's attention: "The horse having reached the end of his tether, so to speak, halted and, rearing high a proud feathering tail, added his quota by letting fall on the floor, which the brush would soon brush up and polish, three smoking globes of turds. Slowly three times, one after another, from a full crupper, he mired." If the horse somehow predicts the Titanic, then its turds are the ship's lifeboats, dropping away from the doomed vessel.

The second, closely related, detail is the location of the ship's sinking: "Beresford Place," at the rear of the Custom House. In addition to the man for whom this broad avenue was actually named—John Beresford, a Wide Streets Commissioner—Molony detects allusions to several individuals relevant to the actions being described: "In 1887 an Admiral Charles Beresford chaired a House of Commons Select Committee on Saving Life at Sea. His committee recommended 'that all sea-going passenger ships should be compelled by law to carry such boats, and other life-saving apparatus, as would in the aggregate best provide for the safety of all on board in moderate weather.' A quarter of a century later, in 1912, the same Admiral Lord Beresford, now an MP, is back, and being widely quoted about lifeboat provision on board the Titanic." Another Beresford was involved in the same battle of regulatory oversight: in 1872, "a Francis Beresford MP tabled an amendment to legislation proposing that 'certificates should not be granted to passenger ships unless they are provided with lifeboats and deck rafts sufficient to save all on board in case of disaster or shipwreck.'"

Neither of these men is explicitly named in Ulysses, so perhaps their connection with the scandalously inadequate number of lifeboats aboard the Titanic can be dismissed as coincidence. But yet another Beresford does make an appearance in Cyclops: "Sir John Beresford, of earlier date, a Royal Navy disciplinarian who is denounced by the Citizen for giving miscreant sailors the lash. Remarkably, his middle name is ‘Poo.’ Sir John Poo Beresford. And here’s a horse doing a poo in Beresford Place…" Why, one may ask, would Joyce have attached an individual's name to the savage discipline of the British navy if he had not been planning to make something of that name in a later chapter?

If Molony's reading of all these strange details is not too ingenious (and no one who studies the works of James Joyce should be too quick to level that charge!), then one wonders not only at the deliberate anachronism of Joyce's symbolism, but also at how he compares the lowering of the Titanic's lifeboats to the defecations of a horse. The first puzzle may perhaps be resolved by invoking an ambitious device of literary realism that Joyce borrowed from Dante. The second perhaps lends itself to cruder analysis. Noting that the stunning wreck of the great vessel provoked heated public debate among Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle, and George Bernard Shaw, Molony sees subversive scatalogical humor at play. "In making poo of the great iconic event of April 1912," he speculates, Joyce comments on these "high-profile literary spats on the cause and meaning of the Titanic disaster, and the response it should provoke." They "can only have fascinated the author of Ulysses as he watched established luminaries in an unedifying slugfest. . . . All this, Joyce proclaims, will pass—and in the horse’s case, will pass literally. It is withering, steaming criticism."

JH 2019
Chromolithograph showing a Parisian horse-drawn street-sweeper of the late 19th or early 20th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Black and white print image, held in the U.S. Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division, of Titanic Sinking, a 1912 painting by Willy Stöwer. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Beresford Place curving around the back of the Custom House in a 1920 Bartholomew map of Dublin held in the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center of the Boston Public Library. Source:
View southward along Beresford Place, with Liberty Hall (right) and Butt Bridge (center) visible, in a photograph of unknown date. Source:
1908 photograph of Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, 1st Baron Beresford, from a page in Queen Alexandra's Christmas Gift Book, Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Admiral Sir John Poo Beresford, 1st Baronet Beresford, from a page in The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1820-1832, Source: