Only snuffers’ cornets drifts my way that the cracka dvine chucks out of his cassock, with her estheryear’s marsh narcissus to make him recant his vanitty fair. Foul strips of his chinook’s bible I do be reading, dodwell disgustered but chickled with chuckles at the tittles is drawn on the tattlepage.
Finnegan’s Wake 212.30-4. First published in May 1939.
This extract lives up to the book’s reputation for being impenetrable – would it help to point out there are coded references to Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, and Marsh’s friend Henry Dodwell, the philosopher and theologian?
As Anthony Burgess said in his essay about Finnegan’s Wake, “Need one go so far in digging out strata of meaning? Only if one wishes to; Finnegans Wake is a puzzle, just as a dream is a puzzle, but the puzzle element is less important than the thrust of the narrative and the shadowy majesty of the characters.” But let’s try.
In context, this section of Finnegan’s Wake follows the conversation of one washerwoman to another (she references Hudson’s Soap and Reckitts Blue, and puns on Clane – both a town beside the Liffey and a variant of “clean” as in the joking Kildare proverbial ideal couple “a Prosperous man and a Clane woman.”)
Burgess points out the importance of (Irish philosopher) Swift and his relationships with “Stella” (Esther Johnson) and “Vanessa” (Esther Vanhomrigh) to Finnegan’s Wake. “Esteryear” immediately brings Swift to mind, as does the mention of “Tale of a Tub” just before this extract. If the cracka dvine is Swift (likely), then the papers (snuffers cornets) falling from his cassock would be papers – his writing?
Narcissus Marsh lived to see Swift “recant Vanity Fair”: Swift was made Dean of St Patrick’s in 1713, an event that curtailed his time in London where he had been deeply immersed in its literary world. “Vanity Fair” refers to worldly frivolity and ostentation, a metaphor taken from Bunyan’s allegory Pilgrim’s Progress in which the Pilgrim visits a town called Vanity which holds a perpetual fair. Marsh and Swift had clashed over Marsh’s Library in 1707. There are also possible links with the Liffey: Esther Vanhomrigh lived in Celbridge and Narcissus Marsh had a house in Leixlip, both down-river from Clane.
Why would Dodwell (Henry Dodwell, best known for arguing that the soul is mortal) be disgustered? It’s worth noting that he was involved in the 17th century English Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, started by Swift’s patron Sir William Temple who argued for the superiority of ancient learning, and replied to by Richard Bentley and William Wotton among others. A response by Dodwell, Exercitationes duae de aetate Phalaridis was published in 1704 (see Joseph M. Levine (1991) The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age-, Cornell University Press, pp. 93-100.) It was rather less interesting than Swift’s response, published the same year: A Tale of a Tub (published with The Battle of the Books). Swift’s book was controversial but Dodwell’s sank like a stone.
If the Chinook Bible is A Tale of a Tub (and what more suitable book for her to read?) the washerwoman may be thinking of Dublin reactions to the book at the time. Dubliners shouted abuse during Swift’s installation as Dean, outraged by the criticism of the Established Church that they perceived in A Tale of a Tub.
Why are there “tittles…drawn on the tattlepage”? Marsh’s Library was open to the public (despite Swift’s best efforts) from 1707 – was that the source of the washerwoman’s reading? Was the copy used for note-taking by another reader?
Given this is Finnegan’s Wake, your guess is a good as mine!