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  • Saintsbury’s Anglo-Saxon in Joyce’s “Oxen of the Sun”
  • Michael Gooch (bio)

Old English presents certain special problems for the contemporary non-specialist who wishes to imitate it. Thus, it is only natural that such a writer should seek a specialist in the field to serve as an explicator of these authoritative, yet mostly authorless, texts. Much as Ezra Pound utilized the assistance provided by textbook editors for his translation of “The Seafarer,” so did James Joyce use George Saintsbury in “Oxen of the Sun.” 1 Saintsbury, author of A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912), 2 was the primary authority and source for “Oxen,” providing commentary and examples of virtually every author or style that Joyce parodied. Joyce’s other sources were William Peacock’s English Prose From Mandeville to Ruskin (1903), 3 which provided examples to borrow from, but no commentary, and the Oxford English Dictionary, used primarily for finding word origins. A closer examination of Saintsbury’s influence on the Anglo-Saxon portion of the “Oxen of the Sun” (14.60–110) 4 will afford us considerable insight into Joyce’s use and abuse of source material in this very interesting and amusing episode.

Saintsbury was of the questionable opinion that any intelligent person ought to be able to read and understand Old English without recourse to dictionaries or other handbooks. Thus, his translations of various passages—given side by side with the originals—are hardly [End Page 401] translated at all and are filled with archaic and antiquated phrases in order to emphasize their alterity. More important, in order to preserve the prose rhythm, Saintsbury retains the original order of the words rather than reorganize them into the familiar subject-verb-object format. This can cause confusion for the modern reader, for, as Saintsbury explains about Old English, “the actual order of words in the clause is almost unlimited by any consideration of putting together in place those which are to go together in sense.” 5 Joyce was able to exploit both diction and syntax toward his dual goals of humor and bafflement in the Anglo-Saxon section of “Oxen of the Sun,” employing both oddly ordered sentences—without the benefit of case—to befuddle us, and archaic words and phrases to amuse us.

While Richard Ellmann makes much of the “Inspired cribbing,” 6 in “Oxen of the Sun,” Joyce seldom lifts whole phrases or sentences directly from the Anglo-Saxon, instead preferring to utilize individual words. One of the few instances in which Joyce borrows directly from Saintsbury’s Anglo-Saxon is one of the funniest parts of the section, as well as one of the most strategically important to the labyrinthine structure of “Oxen” as a whole. To summarize briefly, Leopold, Stephen, and various other men are in the hospital common room awaiting the birth of Mrs. Purefoy’s baby. A long, loud, drunken, bawdy, and mostly inarticulate conversation follows on the “great” subjects of “love, procreation, and birth.” 7 In addition, there are two other births: the birth and growth of the English language and the gestation of another fetus in which “Bloom is the spermatozoon, the hospital the womb, the nurse the ovum, Stephen the embryo.” 8

It is at the point of the faux conception between Bloom and nurse Callan that Joyce chooses to lift a phrase directly from Saintsbury. The original, printed alongside Saintsbury’s quasi-translation, was a line from Ælfric’s Homilies, which, in turn, was taken from Matthew 8:8, where the Centurion remarks, “Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof.” Ælfric’s version is “Drihten, ne eom ic innfare under mine .” Saintsbury, mimicking the archaic diction and syntax of Ælfric, gives us “Lord, not am I worthy that thou infare under my thatch.” 9 Joyce, as one might expect, exploits Saintsbury’s essentially accurate but oddly worded version for comic purposes, with Bloom telling the nurse “that he would rathe infare under her thatch” (84–85). Under Joyce’s handling the line takes on a double meaning, signifying that Bloom wishes to enter the hospital but also carrying an unmistakable sexual connotation as well, just as moments earlier, when...

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pp. 401-404
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