Waters come down

Waters come down

In Brief

"O Jesus wait yes that thing has come on me yes now wouldnt that afflict you": near the end of her 6th sentence, Molly realizes that her period has started (pun intended), and for well more than a page her thoughts center on menstruation. At the end of the sentence, as she sits on the chamber pot listening to it "pouring out of me like the sea," she inexactly remembers the beginning of a poem by Robert Southey: "O how the waters come down at Lahore." Together with an expression just a little earlier, "O Jamesy," the allusion involves meta-fictive self-reference on Joyce's part.

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Lahore is in the Punjab, in present-day Pakistan, but the poem describes the Lodore Falls in England's Lake District, across the sea from Belfast. Southey, England's Poet Laureate from 1813 until his death in 1843, wrote some notable works for children, including The Story of the Three Bears about an ill-mannered "little old Woman," later known as Goldilocks. In The Cataract of Lodore: Described in Rhymes for the Nursery, Southey responds to a request of his young son, seconded by his two daughters: "'How does the water / Come down at Lodore?' . . . And moreover he tasked me / To tell him in rhyme."

"Lodore" begs comparison with other 19th century lyric soundscapes. Instead of the relentless onomatopoeia of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Bells," or the intricate alliteration and assonance of Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Inversnaid," Southey's poem relies mostly on his son's request, "rhyme," to imitate the clangorous effects of its subject. The poem ends with several long verse paragraphs in which the end-rhymes give way to internal rhymes—first in twos, then threes, and finally fours:

Collecting, projecting,
Receding and speeding,
And shocking and rocking,
And darting and parting . . .

Dividing and gliding and sliding,
And falling and brawling and sprawling,
And driving and riving and striving,
And sprinkling and twinkling and wrinkling . . .

Retreating and beating and meeting and sheeting,
Delaying and straying and playing and spraying,
Advancing and prancing and glancing and dancing,
Recoiling, turmoiling and toiling and boiling . . .

One can easily imagine the delight which Southey's children took in hearing their father meet their request to imitate the effects of the waterfall in rhyme. Less immediately apparent is the delight which Joyce must have taken in having the heroine of Ulysses associate the sounds of her chamber pot with the musical effects of a lyric poem. In doing so, he alluded to the pun embedded in the title of his first book of poems, Chamber Music—a pun which has already occurred to Molly's husband in Sirens.

This interplay between character and author supports the inference that Gifford makes about another of Molly's remarks just a few lines earlier. Sitting on her bloody chamber-pot, she thinks, "O Jamesy let me up out of this pooh," to which Gifford asks, "Dodging the curse O Jesus? or calling on her maker?" Probably both readings are correct. Molly felt no need to dodge the curse at the moment when she first recognized the onset of her period—"O Jesus wait yes that thing has come on me"—but she may well be falling back on an accustomed substitute here.

For Joyce, however, her exclamation is like Alfred Hitchcock strolling through a scene in one of his movies, or Renaissance artists featuring their own faces in their paintings. The artist who, according to Stephen in A Portrait, "like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence," shows his face here, in close proximity to a veiled reference to the poems of Chamber Music. In a 21 August 1909 letter Jim told Nora that "When I wrote them, I was a strange lonely boy, walking about myself at night and thinking that some day a girl would love me" (Letters II, 236-37 and Selected Letters 161). In 1922, near the end of his big novel, he allowed his female protagonist to respond. She seems to be saying, You were right to make your pun on water music, but if you're the god of this fictive world why on earth did you give us menstruation?

John Hunt 2019
"O how the waters come down at Lahore," Richard Hamilton's 1988 pencil drawing with watercolor washes based on a frame from Sorcha Cusack's performance as Molly in a 1988 documentary on Ulysses.
Source: Imaging James Joyce's Ulysses.