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.
Finnegans 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 Finnegans 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. The speaker references Hudson’s Soap and Reckitts Blue (tools of her trade), and puns on Clane, which is both a town beside the Liffey and a variant of “clean” (as in the proverbial County Kildare ideal match “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 Finnegans Wake. “Esteryear” immediately brings Swift to mind, as does the washerwoman’s exclamation “That’s what you may call a tale of a tub!” (line 21) just before this extract. If the cracka dvine is Swift (likely), then the papers (snuffers cornets) falling from his cassock are likely his writings.
Narcissus Marsh lived (barely) long enough 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, the year Esther Vanhomrigh met Swift. The time from 1714 to 1723 might well be called Esteryear(s): Swift, “Stella” and “Vanessa” were all living in Ireland in that period.
The listing of Ester and Marsh might also link up to the course of the Liffey: Esther Vanhomrigh lived in Celbridge and Narcissus Marsh had a house in Leixlip, both down-river from Clane. The washerwomen are at this point perhaps in County Kildare.
Dodwell, the next name mentioned, was born in Dublin in 1640. 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. Temple was replied to by Richard Bentley and William Wotton among others. A response by Dodwell supporting Temple, 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.) A long academic tome, 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 went unnoticed: you might say it sank like a stone.
If the papers from the cracka dvine’s cassock are the same as the foul strips of the Chinook Bible, then it’s likely the book the washerwoman is reading is A Tale of a Tub (and what more suitable book for her to read?) The Chinook wind raises temperatures and that was certainly true of A Tale of a Tub. Written in support of the Established Church, it was widely misunderstood, including by Queen Anne who thought it profane. Her reaction barred Swift from any hope of a position in England during her reign. At Swift’s installation as Dean in 1713 Dubliners shouted abuse at him, outraged by the criticism of the Established Church that they perceived in the book. (Or as later Dubs might say, they tore strips off him.)
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 where the washerwoman read Tale of a Tub? Was the copy used for note-taking by another reader?
Given this is Finnegans Wake, your guess is as good as mine!