Sardines

Sardines

In Brief

Simple coincidence or casual borrowing may be at work in Penelope when Molly remembers, from her childhood in Gibraltar, the beauty of "the sardines and the bream in Catalan bay round the back of the rock they were fine all silver in the fishermens baskets"—but the resemblance to one of Ezra Pound's fine short lyrics possibly constitutes a kind of hommage.

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Pound, of course, befriended Joyce and helped him in numerous ways in the ten years leading up to the publication of Ulysses. Much more is known about the advice Pound gave Joyce, and the responses he had to his works, than about Joyce's responses to Pound, but the Irishman so familiar with an Italian port might certainly also have been familiar with "The Study in Aesthetics," published in Lustra in 1917:

The very small children in patched clothing,
Being smitten with an unusual wisdom,
Stopped in their play as she passed them
And cried up from their cobbles:
        Guarda! Ahi, guarda! ch’ è be'a!    
 
But three years after this
I heard the young Dante, whose last name I do not know—
For there are, in Sirmione, twenty-eight young Dantes                                                        and thirty-four Catulli;
And there had been a great catch of sardines,
And his elders       
Were packing them in the great wooden boxes
For the market in Brescia, and he
Leapt about, snatching at the bright fish
And getting in both of their ways;
And in vain they commanded him to sta fermo!       
And when they would not let him arrange
The fish in the boxes
He stroked those which were already arranged,
Murmuring for his own satisfaction
This identical phrase:     
        Ch’ è be'a.
And at this I was mildly abashed.
Like the young Dante, the young Molly marveled at the silver beauty of the little fish, and she thinks of that epiphany just after remembering an elegant woman at the seashore: herself on a trip to Bray with her husband, with "my new white shoes all ruined with the saltwater and the hat I had with that feather all blowy and tossed on me how annoying and provoking." (Interestingly, she also thinks immediately afterward of "old Luigi near a hundred they said came from Genoa.")

Perhaps one should not make too much of these resemblances. But the embarrassment that Pound's speaker feels as he sees the "aesthetic" accomplishments of the human species matched by those of the natural world does have a suggestive counterpart in Ulysses. The simple joy that Molly takes in the things of nature offers welcome correctives to the urban mindset embodied in the first 17 chapters. In that belabored thoughtscape, the most wonder sardines can evoke comes (in Oxen of the Sun) from a literary parody: "And there was a vat of silver that was moved by craft to open in the which lay strange fishes withouten heads though misbelieving men nie that this be possible thing without they see it natheless they are so. And these fishes lie in an oily water brought there from Portugal land because of the fatness that therein is like to the juices of the olivepress."

In contrast to her husband, and Stephen, and the book's many clever narrative voices, Molly has remained in contact with the child's wonder at her world: "God of heaven theres nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and the waves rushing then the beautiful country with the fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours springing up even out of the ditches primroses and violets nature it is as for them saying theres no God I wouldnt give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why dont they go and create something."

JH 2020
Box of Fresh Sardines Seafood at a Local Market in Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain, a photograph by Joe Fox uploaded in 2013. Source: fineartamerica.com.
2019 photograph by André Delfosse of sardines in Marseille. Source: flickr.com.
Source: www.pinterest.com.