Quarter to

Quarter to

In Brief

At the end of Telemachus Stephen recalls words from the prayer for the dying in a peculiar way, clipping three phrases from the longer text: "Liliata rutilantium. / Turma circumdet. / Iubilantium te virginum." At the end of Calypso Bloom does something similar, repeating a phrase three times on separate lines of the novel's text: "Heigho! Heigho! / Heigho! Heigho! / Heigho! Heigho!" Only after a reader carefully considers the second of these details can the first one make any sense. In separate locations, and filtered through dissimilar sensibilities, the two men must be hearing the same time of day announced by ringing bells. That time is "Quarter to," 8:45 AM. Later chapters will show Stephen, Bloom, and Molly all hearing the time through the bells of St. George's church.

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Before the era of omnipresent clocks and watches, many church and civic bell towers marked the time in quarter-hour intervals by playing the sequence called the Cambridge Quarters or Westminster Quarters, a melody that was written in 1793 for the clock in Great St. Mary's church at Cambridge University and adopted in 1859 for a new clock in the Big Ben tower of the Palace of Westminster. The melody uses four notes; in the original key of E major, they are B, E, F#, and G#. One strain of the melody, four notes long, is heard at 15 minutes past the hour. A different strain, with two four-note segments, signals the half hour. A still-longer group of three four-note segments signifies quarter till. The full hour is heard in a long melody of four four-note segments, followed by the tolling of a fifth bell, usually one octave down from the tonic note, to identify the hour: one strike for 1:00, two for 2:00, and so on. In the Westminster tower, Big Ben sounds these low notes.

As he listens to the tolling of the "loud dark iron" bells in St. George's, Bloom superimposes his childish words on the four-note strains. "Heigho! Heigho!" (or Hi ho! Hi ho!) is a common refrain in nursery rhymes like Froggy Went A-Courtin', The Fox and the Farmer, The Farmer in the Dell, Oh Who is so Merry?, and A Pie Sat on a Pear Tree. Hearing it sound three times, Bloom infers that the time is "Quarter to." Listening habitually for a fourth segment, he hears only an overtone: "There again: the overtone following through the air, third." Reading backwards (retrospectively), a reader can infer that Stephen too must have been listening to bells in some church tower or civic hall in Kingstown at the end of Telemachus when he recalled phrases from the much more solemn Christian prayer.

People making such minutely exact but unlikely connections between chapters may worry that they are reading too much into the text. But the novel relieves any anxiety of over-interpretation—and spurs slower wits to catch up—by reprising the two men's auditory reconstructions of the Westminster Quarters many chapters later. In Ithaca, as Stephen shakes Bloom's hand while leaving his back yard, a sound accompanies the action. What sound? "The sound of the peal of the hour of the night by the chime of the bells in the church of Saint George." The playful cadence, so similar to the effect of The House That Jack Built, is entirely consistent with Bloom's habit of imposing a nursery-rhyme jingle on the Quarters. Sure enough, the narrative asks, "What echoes of that sound were by both and each heard?" and, for Bloom, the answer is "Heigho, heigho, / Heigho, heigho." For Stephen, it is "Liliata rutilantium. Turma circumdet. / Iubilantium te virginum. Chorus excipiat."

This passage shows the two men listening to the same bells and playing their different auditory tapes, but now standing in one place. The effect is clearly to suggest that something similar was happening in the early chapters. Joyce disjoins his coterminous protagonists at the end of the day in the same way that he joined his divided protagonists at the beginning, as each left his home and headed off into the world. However, both intracranial versions of the bells' tune now occupy two lines of text, not three. The bells are sounding their Second Quarter, and the "hour of the night" appears to be 1:30 AM.

In the final chapter of the novel, Molly too uses the bells to tell time, though she does not supply words to their melody: "wait theres Georges church bells wait 3 quarters the hour l wait 2 oclock well thats a nice hour of the night for him to be coming home at." At the end of Calypso Bloom heard three quarters and waited for a fourth four-note segment, but got only an "overtone." Molly hears "the hour," i.e., a fourth segment, and then, waiting, she hears two low bells signaling that it is 2:00 AM.

JH 2020
Bells in St. Mary's Church, Felmersham, Bedfordshire. Source: www.felmersham.net.
The tunes of the Westminster Quarters, scored for five bells. Source: www.goathlandstmary.com.
Page from All the Prettiest Nursery Rhymes (London: Morrison & Gibb, 1896?). Source: ufdc.ufl.edu.
Page from Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes (Chicago: Donohue, Henneberry & Co., 1896). Source: www.klinebooks.com.