“Hwaet” is an utterance you often see in Old English poetry. It means something like “listen!” and is I suppose the Teutonic equivalent of a drawn-out Hellenic invocation.  (It doesn’t appear in Ulysses so far, but it seemed appropriate; read on.) I don’t know much about Old English poetry, but I do remember that much from a survey course I took in college. I also remember something vague about the common use of “ubi sunt,” which means “where are” in Latin. The translated form is used in lamentations in Old English poetry, to ask things (rhetorically) such as where one’s dead companions-at-arms are. It also happens to appear (well, “ubi” does) in Ulysses (386) alongside other archaisms like “ywimpled” and “yclept.” These forms too I recognized from an English literature survey course, dating I believe to something closer to medieval times. I suspect you find “yclept” (which means “named” or “called”) in Chaucer and possibly as late as Spenser. Early in “Oxen of the Sun” we also find lots of alliteration. It turns out in many cases not merely to be alliteration but to be balanced alliteration. That is, it’s often alliteration with a sort of symmetry of sounds:

Before born babe bliss had.

Within womb won he worship.

Whatever in that one case done commodiously done was.

Light swift her eyes kindled, bloom of blushes his word winning.

The first two examples demonstrate pure symmetry (this is my term, not a technical term), four syllables starting with the same sound in a sentence. The third demonstrates what I guess you might call a-b-a-b symmetry. You have a /k/ sound and a /d/ sound, and then the pattern repeats. The fourth example demonstrates a-a-b-b symmetry, two /b/ sounds followed by two /w/ sounds.

Yet another fact I remember from that old survey class is that Old English poetry was alliterative. It tended to be written in lines that had alliterative syllables split by a caesura, or pause. This is what Joyce is doing for a lot of this episode.

It was really rough going for me at first, but once I grew accustomed to the mode in which he’s writing, I began to really enjoy it. The dense, archaic first part of the episode was in a way easier for me to read than the last part. There are moments that provoked audible laughter. For example: “And the traveller Leopold went into the castle for to rest him for a space being sore of limb after many marches environing in diverse lands and sometimes venery.”

I’m not sure what other modes Joyce sprinkles into this episode. At times it felt briefly Victorian again. At times it seemed later than middle English but not quite modern (I’m thinking of his use of words like “eftsoons,” which means “after” or “again” and appears in English as early as 950 but has many more citations in the OED in the 1400s and later. The paragraph after the opening incantations read to me like modern parodic corporate speak.

It is in the “Oxen of the Sun” episode of The Odyssey that Odysseus loses all of his shipmates. The opening of that venerable poem Beowulf plunges us into a tale at the end of which the warrior has lost his comrades-in-arms. One of the standard (alliterative) Old English poems read in survey classes — “The Wanderer” — tells of the loss of friends. All of these address the transitory nature of life. This episode about abortion, birth, and the death of children does the same. Joyce is creating an association. He’s also probably showing off a little, and I think he’s having fun. Although parts of this episode were hard to get into (Sarah notes that my first reaction in a comment to her post on the prior week’s reading was an “arrgh”), parts of it were also very fun for me. But then I’m a language nerd and admired translation into archaic forms. Why I enjoyed parts of this but not the lofty passages a couple of episodes back I’m not sure. Maybe there was more room to stretch my legs and get into the proper mood for it this time around.

10 thoughts on “Hwaet!

  1. Jeff Anderson August 9, 2010 / 10:36 pm

    Oh, this is my very favorite part of the book. I’ve been looking forward to it since you announced the read-along. This episode chronicles the maturation of English-language literature in parallel with the birth of Mortimer Edward Purefoy. It’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever read.

    You’re absolutely right about the Old English poetry–and I’d wager that the “modern parodic corporate speak” section you’re talking about actually corresponds to classical Latin writing. (Part of what those of us who dislike impersonal language dislike about it is how all the latinate words come to sound needlessly pretentious, to a certain mindset.) But the style actually develops pretty much in tandem with the chronological development of English-language literature. The bit at 429 about “young Boasthard,” frex, is pure Bunyan, and I’m sure I caught some Swinburne, and there are loads of other spot-on…I won’t say “pastiches,” because it’s not like that, but that’s probably close enough.

    And I betcha Judd can give us the paragraph breakdown and how it lines up with a pregnancy.

    But here’s the kicker, and why I love this section so much: It’s a formal and primarily stylistic argument for how all of literature in the English language has led to the birth of: James Joyce’s Ulysses. So brash, but the exuberance of this chapter actually carries off the claim it makes.

  2. crazymonk August 9, 2010 / 10:57 pm

    If you really want to get deep into all the styles used in Oxen, Jorn Barger has done the work for you here: http://www.robotwisdom.com/jaj/ulysses/oxen1a.html

    I didn’t actually enjoy reading this episode, mostly because I was just too confused most of the time to even understand things on a sentence-by-sentence basis.

    As such, this was one of those sections for me that was much more fun to read analyses of than the primary text itself. Perhaps a second reading will be far more fruitful, but I have my doubts since I don’t particular enjoy or have much affinity with the various styles Joyce works through. (I did however reread the slangy part at the end and was able to enjoy the sheer drunken confusion of it. Runefal!)

    This is one of those writer-friendly sections of the book, something specifically written for those who have studied English literature in its entire history. If someone pulled this same exact trick w/ American literature today, I would not only get most of it, I would probably enjoy the ride, so I understand Oxen’s significance. But hoopsaboy was I glad when it was over.

  3. Cathy Hand August 10, 2010 / 2:23 am

    Oxen is the first episode that’s made me laugh. Not because I understood that much — I just let it carry me along and found myself smiling, then giggling. Now I understand why Joyce thought it humorous. What a time he must’ve had writing it!

  4. Sarah August 10, 2010 / 4:20 pm

    So ‘yclept’ is a real word? And the alliteration isn’t just a life bouy? Looks like my Ulysses tool kit is somewhat understocked.

  5. Chris Forster August 11, 2010 / 10:16 am

    Semi-Relevant, Tangential Link: The poem “The Seafarer” is another classic Old English alliterative poem. Ezra Pound, who was in correspondence with Joyce during the writing and publication of Ulysses translated this poem to modern English, preserving the alliteration (it is one of my favorite Pound poems…) in 1911, plenty of time for its rhythms to have percolated into Joyce’s sense of alliterative verse.

    A recording of Pound reading the poem is available through PennSound’s great archive of Pound recordings: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Pound.php (I think the kettle drum in the background is annoying, personally, but ymmv…)

  6. Daryl L. L. Houston August 11, 2010 / 4:40 pm

    Pound is a riot to listen to. Yeats is pretty fun too.

    Sarah, yep, yclept is a word. Its root is clepe, which is related to Middle Low German kleperen, which means to rattle. The y I believe is a past-participial particle, related (I think) to the particle “ge” you find in German serving the same (or a similar — I don’t know German) purpose. I don’t imagine ywimpled is a real word (I think it’s just an adoption of the form), which makes it all the funnier.

    • Jeff Anderson August 13, 2010 / 1:38 pm

      You’ve got it on the connection to “ge,” Daryl. German has two past-tense forms; the one generally used in speech tends to add a “ge-” prefix to the main verb (it also adds an auxiliary verb). If I remember right, that “ge-” became pronounced as “ye” in Old English–the first line of Beowulf, for example has geardagum, which starts with a sound kind of like the word “hare” with a Y standing in for the H. As Old English evolved, the spelling of that prefix came more into line with the pronunciation, so it turned into “y-” forms.

      (I may have my time-arrow reversed on pronunciation; that is, it may be that the pronunciation was always originally “ye,” and German pronunciation changed later to match the spelling.)

  7. Paul Debraski August 16, 2010 / 10:57 am

    When I read the Wikipedia summary, I wished that I had paid more attention to the Episode. Olde English is not my thing, so I struggle with this chapter (it was so dense!). But i did laugh at a lot of little things “ywimple” I thought was funny even if I didn’t know of it’s origin or proximity to reality.
    There’s a lot of stuff in the book that is very funny, and it’s clear that Joyce is laughing to himself about, but yes this was definitely show off time.

    I understand why the book is so critically lauded, and also why non one actually reads it. But diligence is certainly rewarded.

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