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Ulysses Blog by Ambassador Mulhall, Episode 11, The Sirens

Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary describes the Sirens as “sea nymphs who charmed so much with their melodious voice, that all forgot their employments to listen with more attention, and at last died for want of food.” Odysseus makes his way past the Sirens by plugging the ears of his sailors with wax and having himself tied to the mast of his ship.

In the Sirens episode of Ulysses, we see Bloom tied up at the Ormond Hotel, tucking into a meal of liver and potatoes, and being distracted by singers in an adjacent room, while Blazes Boylan journeys towards Ithaca (Bloom’s home at 7 Eccles Street) for a sexual rendezvous with Molly.

Here the role of the sea nymphs is taken by Miss Lydia Douce (also referred to as ‘bronze’) and Miss Mina Kennedy (‘gold’), two barmaids at the Ormond Hotel. They are not great singers, but do offer their customers some minor titillation as when Miss Douce “let free sudden in rebound her nipped elastic garter smackwarm against her smackable woman’s warmhosed thigh.”  These Sirens have little time for their male customers. “Aren’t men frightful idiots”.

When revealing the schema he used for Ulysses, Joyce let it be known that the art form of this episode is music and the featured organ, the ear. He told a friend that he “wrote this chapter with the technical resources of music. It is a fugue with all musical notations, piano, forte, rallentando.” (Ellmann, Ulysses, p. 473). James Joyce was a fine singer and had a lifelong enthusiasm for music. Ulysses contains many musical references, but the Sirens is a veritable symphony of music and song. 

Make no mistake, this is a difficult part of Ulysses and many readers will struggle with it. The style of writing makes heavy demands on us. Here’s how it begins. “Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyrining Imperthnthn thnthnthn”. Its first few pages are especially testing, for they contain made up words that try to imitate musical sounds as well as lines that stop mid-sentence (“Have you the?” and “Blue Bloom is on the”).

Its opening pages should be viewed as some sort of overture to what follows. Many of the words and phrases that appear in the overture crop up again later in the episode. The ‘overture’ helpfully ends with the words: “Done. Begin.”

The “hoofirons” mentioned in the first sentence provide a link with the Earl of Dudley’s procession through Dublin which featured in the Wandering Rocks. Here Misses Douce and Kennedy are seen looking out the hotel window as “the viceregal hoofs go by, ringing steel”, a phrase that echoes the episode’s opening sentence.

If you find these pages hard going, you are not alone. Critic Hugh Kenner has written that Ulysses the naturalistic novel ends with Wandering Rocks and that the Sirens marks “the advent of engulfing stylistic idiosyncrasies.” He saw Leopold Bloom’s day as divided in two, before and after 4 pm when Molly was set to have her tryst with Blazes Boylan. The Sirens episode takes place at that key time in the novel’s narrative. After the Sirens Kenner sees Bloom as being “in freefall, routine and cuckoldry equally behind him, occupied chiefly with staying away from the house as long as he can.”  (Kenner, Ulysses, p. 51)

No less a person than the poet, Ezra Pound, who was an ardent champion of Joyce’s work and helped him get it published, did not approve. Pound thought that “a new style per chapter not required.” A stubbornly independent-minded Joyce, who had taken five months to complete this chapter, was not to be deterred by Pound’s assessment. He thought Pound’s disapproval was “due chiefly to the varied interests of his admirable and energetic artistic life”.  In other words, Pound was too distracted to be able to appreciate the penetrative power of Joyce’s art!

Nor was he prepared to bow to the views of his wealthy and generous patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, who had published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in her magazine, The Egotist. She felt that the Sirens did not quite reach “your usual pitch of intensity.”  Responding to her, Joyce understood how she might regard “the various styles of the episodes with dismay, and prefer the initial style.” He went on to explain that “to compress all these wanderings and clothe them in the form of this day is for me only possible with such variation which, I beg you to believe, is not capricious.” (Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 475.)

Although there is much coming and going, singing and gossiping at the Ormond Hotel, at the heart of this episode are Bloom and Boylan. We see Boylan drinking with Lenehan and then wending his way towards his rendezvous with Molly as Bloom obsesses about his wife’s infidelity while at the same time surreptitiously writing an amorous note to his pen-paramour, Martha Clifford. 

After the Blooms and Stephen, Boylan is perhaps the most significant character in the novel in that he appears in the first episode where we encounter the Blooms (Calypso) and also features in Molly’s soliloquy that closes the novel. Molly’s betrayal of Bloom with Boylan halfway through the novel is perhaps its central event.    

When he arrives at the hotel, Lenehan, a character who first appeared in Joyce’s story ‘Two Gallants’ and who we have already come across in the Aeolus and Wandering Rocks episodes, greets him – “See the conquering hero comes.” Bloom, “the unconquered hero” arrives just after Boylan and takes refuge in the company of  Richie Goulding, brother-in-law of Simon Dedalus and Stephen’s uncle. Boylan doesn’t impress Miss Douce. “You're the essence of vulgarity, she in gliding said.”

An extraordinarily passive Bloom watches Boylan and seems to fret that Boylan may miss his 4 pm rendezvous with Molly. “Has he forgotten? Perhaps a trick. Not come: whet appetite.” After Boylan leaves – “Bloom heard a jing, a little sound. He's off. Light sob of breath Bloom sighed on the silent bluehued flowers. Jingling. He's gone. Jingle. Hear.”  We trace Boylan’s journey towards Eccles Street while Bloom munches on his early dinner and listens to Simon Dedalus, Ben Dollard and Fr Cowley play piano and sing in the next room.

“By Bachelor's walk jogjaunty jingled Blazes Boylan, bachelor, in sun, in heat, mare's glossy rump atrot, with flick of whip, on bounding tyres: sprawled, warmseated, Boylan impatience, ardentbold” until he reaches his destination at 7 Eccles Street: “One rapped on a door, one tapped with a knock, did he knock Paul de Kock, with a loud proud knocker, with a cock carracarracarra cock. Cockcock.” The Sirens episode does not take us inside the door of the Blooms’ home. We will have to wait until the novel’s closing chapter to get Molly’s candid account of her encounter with Boylan! 

Back at the Ormond, Molly (“a buxom lassy”) is being discussed by Simon Dedalus and his fellow drinkers, who recall going to her house to borrow a costume for a concert and finding that “she had some luxurious opera cloaks and things there. .. Any God's quantity of cocked hats and boleros and trunkhose.” Then Dedalus ungenerously remarks that “Mrs Marion Bloom has left off clothes of all descriptions.”  

This is just the latest example of Molly being ogled over by some of the novel’s minor characters. In the Hades episode, John Henry Menton describes her as “a good armful” while in the Wandering Rocks a lecherous Lenehan describes her as “a gamey mare and no mistake.”  Joyce draws our attention to the hostile gossip surrounding his Everyman Leopold Bloom and his relationship with his wife Molly. Fear not, Molly will have her say before this epic day ends!

We also hear Bloom’s assessment of Simon Dedalus. “Glorious tone he has still. Cork air softer also their brogue. Silly man! Could have made oceans of money. Singing wrong words. Wore out his wife: now sings. .. Drink. Nerves overstrung. Must be abstemious to sing.” The reference to his wife relates to the death of Stephen’s mother which we heard about in the book’s opening chapter and about which Stephen feels intense guilt.

The musical finale of this musical episode revolves around the singing of a patriotic ballad, the Croppy Boy. This song refers back to the rebellion of 1798 whose aim, inspired by developments in the United States and France, was to secure Irish independence.

The version of the Croppy Boy that features in the Sirens was written in the 1840s at the time of the Young Ireland movement, romantic revolutionaries who harked back to the events of 1798. Fittingly, in a book like Ulysses, which has marital betrayal at its heart, the Croppy Boy tells of the betrayal of a young revolutionary who, on his way to fight, drops into a church and gives his confession to a priest who turns out to be a British soldier in disguise. He is arrested and subsequently executed.    

Bloom, although sceptical about the sentimental nationalism of Simon Dedalus and his circle, makes a connection with the song’s hero, who, having lost his father and brothers in the fighting, is “Last of his name and race.” Bloom thinks: “I too, last my race”, this being a reference to the death of his son, Rudy, which has soured Bloom’s life.

Bloom leaves the hotel before Simon Dedalus completes the “most trenchant rendition of that ballad” and walks past an antique shop window where he examines a portrait of the early 19th century Irish patriot, Robert Emmet, emblazoned with the last words of his famous Speech from the Dock which Abraham Lincoln knew by heart. “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.” Bloom’s perusal of Robert Emmet’s speech is accompanied by some unmusical bodily sounds. “Let my epitaph be. Karaaaaaaa. Written. I have. Pprrpffrrppfff. Done

Bloom has ‘done’ and we have navigated our way past the Sirens and on to Cyclops, my favourite part of Ulysses, where Joyce will, through Leopold Bloom, riotously interrogate what he saw as the one-eyed nationalism of the early 20th century.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States     

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