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  • What Era’s O’ering? The Precession of the Equinoxes in Finnegans Wake

The precession of the equinoxes and the myths that it has produced have been studied by George de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend in Hamlet’s Mill and Thomas D. Worthen in The Myth of Replacement. In this study, I examine its role in Finnegans Wake. The great year that corresponds to the precessional cycle and the myth of replacement that arises from the replacement of one pole star with another are, in the context of the Wake, another way of telling the story of generational conflict and cyclical return. I also analyze the appearance in the Wake of such authors as Plato, Cicero, Giordano Bruno, Madame H. P. Blavatsky, and W. B. Yeats whose representations of cyclical change drew on the mythology of the precession. Finally, I show how such heroes of the precession as Noah, Manu, and Arthur who survive the flood of chaos—the chaotic period between pole stars and between eras—become, in the Wake, avatars of HCE in his struggle to rear his kingdom on the ruins of time.

The section of Finnegans Wake II.2 that has been dubbed “The Triangle” can make a number of claims to being the central edifice of Finnegans Wake (FW 282.05–304.04). As Luca Crispi observes, “it was the first section written, and it remains the chapter’s dramatic centerpiece.”1 It is named after the geometrical diagram on page 293 that has been called by John Gordon “the book’s formal centre.”2 The architectural implications of this diagram have also been noted by William Stirling, who observes its resemblance to the Vesica Piscis: “a symbol applied by the masons in planning their temples.”3 Similarly, the architecture of the Wake is, in many ways, structured around this nodal point. The two triangles placed in the oval produced by the intersecting circles have been connected to a number of beginnings and points of origin. Gordon sees it as the “beginning of life and (as riverbed delta) civilizations, first problem in Euclid, centre of the primal scene, even, so the Bass Ale company assures us, the oldest trademark in existence” (184–85). For Shem and Shaun who study the diagram as part of their evening’s lesson, Crispi notes, it also represents the point of origin par excellence: their mother’s “pudenda” (220).

Utilizing the observation of Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon that the diagram is also “a map of heaven,”4 I add to the list the celestial phenomenon known as the precession of the equinoxes. This map is rendered in four dimensions, representing geometrically what the ancients called the great year. In other words, it can be seen as two superimposed snapshots illustrating the earth’s present polar coordinates and its position in 13,000 years (see Figure 1)—a period covering one-half of the precessional cycle. As we can see by comparing the two diagrams, the “A” in Joyce’s image corresponds to the alpha of Ursa Minor—our present pole star—while the “L” approximates Lyra—the constellation containing our future pole star, Vega. The center of ALP’s vagina corresponds to the pole of the ecliptic, which is also known as “the Open Hole in Heaven because in that region there is no star to mark it.”5 It is the fixed point around which the precession revolves. [End Page 111]

A few words of explanation are necessary. The precession of the equinoxes is caused by a gyroscopic motion of the earth that makes the pole of the earth’s axis (as it is extended into space) move in an enormous circle taking 26,000 years to complete. During this time, one pole star is replaced by another, and the signs of the zodiac rising at the spring equinox are replaced by the preceding sign (hence the precession of the equinox) of the astrological year. This astronomical phenomenon has inspired many myths that include vicissitudes of world ages, apocalyptic deluges, and conflagrations. Thomas D. Worthen calls his study of the precession The Myth of Replacement since the replacement of one pole star by another (or one astrological sign by another) was interpreted mythically as a cosmic upheaval putting an end to one world age and giving birth to another.6 It is no accident that Bloom speaks to Stephen “of the precession of equinoxes” right after the latter makes his “exodus from the house of bondage to the wilderness of inhabitation” (U 17.1048–49, 1021–22). Bloom, who is filled with “the accumulation of the past,” is about to be replaced by Stephen, who represents “the predestination of a future” (U 17.777–78, 780). The Wake develops this theme by presenting the downfall of HCE and the rise of his sons in similarly precessional terms.

There are a number of references to the great year in the text surrounding the triangle. For example, on the facing page, there is a reference to “Platonic yearlings” that are “lurking gyrographically” (FW 292.30–31, 28–29). Here the gyroscopic motion of the earth—written down and charted on a graph as befits a child’s lesson—is linked to the enormous cycle of Plato’s year. Plato gives his version of the Great Year in the Timaeus when he observes that “the perfect number of time fulfills the perfect year when all eight revolutions, having their relative degrees of swiftness, are accomplished together.”7 The immaturity of the brothers is also suggested in that they are both young (yearlings) and sexually neutral (Platonic). Their condition before they encounter the diagram illustrates the ordeal of generational growth as Edmund Epstein describes it: in effect, the “sons are ‘ever virgin’ until they are ready to become fathers.”8 This situation has changed a few pages after the diagram when “the elipsities of their gyribouts” is connected to “those fickers which are returnally reprodictive of themselves” (FW 298.16, 17–18). The gyroscopic earth is now associated with the myth of the eternal return, as the reproduction of the identical succession of events becomes a basis for prediction. More importantly, the brothers have become “reproductive”—capable of producing offspring and adding one more revolution to the wheel of generations. Instead of Platonic lovers, they have become fuckers (fickers)—mother-fuckers, in fact, since their startling development results from glimpsing “the mother’s pubic delta,” according to Gordon (184). This sexual maturation is also consistent with an encounter with the Vesica Piscis since, [End Page 112] as Stirling observes, “the charm most generally employed to avert the dread effects of its fascination was the Phallus” (13).

Rose and O’Hanlon’s observation that the diagram also represents W. B. Yeats’s “Vision gyres” introduces another layer to the precessional motif (156).9 His historical ages of two thousand years correspond to the amount of time needed for each sign of the zodiac to rise at the spring equinox, and, he writes, “twelve such wheels or gyres constitute a single great cone or year of some twenty-six thousand years” (202). His footnote, explaining that “[m]y instructors are playing with the period necessary to complete the precession of the Equinox from Aries to Aries” (202 n1), is also important to the Wake’s story of generations. When HCE replaces Finn in I.1, he is described as “a big rody ram lad at random” (FW 28.36)—a sentence combining Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random, the young phallic male, and the rise of HCE at the completion of the precessional year of Aries, the ram.10 In the passage above the diagram, the reference to “some somnione sciupiones” (FW 293.07–08—Cicero’s Dream of Scipio) also suggests a cycle approaching completion.11 In the chapter of A Vision on “The Great Year of The Ancients,” Yeats quotes from this work: “when the whole of the constellations shall return to the positions from which they once set forth, thus after a long interval re-making the first map of the heavens, that may indeed be called the Great Year” (245–46). As he conceives of the idea poetically, the events of history will repeat themselves at the completion of “Magnus Annus at the spring” (254)—or what the Wake calls “the first equinarx in the cholonder” (FW 347.02–03).

The period of transition between eras—before the cycle has been completed—was one of catastrophic upheaval. This is also suggested by the observation that “a poor soul is between shift and shift ere the death he has lived through becomes the life he is to die into” (FW 293.02–05) where the struggle of the younger generation to establish itself upon the ruins of the older one is compared to the chaotic period between pole stars. The analogy between the Earwicker “family umbroglia” and the vicissitudes of the polar shift is further developed in an earlier part of the triangle section where it is observed that “[a] Tullagrove pole to the Height of County Fearmanagh has a septain inclinaison” (FW 284.04, 05–06). On the one hand, perhaps HCE’s phallic pole has an illicit inclination toward his daughter. On the other, there is a reference to the ecliptic, which, due to the tilt in the earth’s axis, is “inclined to the equator,” as George de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend note, by the amount of 23 1/2 degrees (58). James S. Atherton connects this “Tullagrove pole” to “the pole on which the spheres revolve in Tully’s Scipio’s Dream.”12 In addition, the word “septain” suggests the seven stars of Ursa Minor and Polaris—our present pole star. As Worthen observes, “the number [End Page 113] seven . . . clearly fits the pole” (207). The myth of replacement is further suggested by the footnote referring to “that putch on your poll” (FW 284.n1)—a combination of the bald patch on HCE’s head and the stellar upheaval (in German, “putsch” means “insurrection”) that will replace one pole star with another. Macrocosmically, we have, in de Santillana and von Dechend’s words, intimations of “‘a new heaven and a new earth’ . . . ruled by a ‘new’ Pole star” (142); microcosmically we have Earwicker’s sons threatening to displace their aging father.

Crispi observes that II.1 and II.2 were written concurrently and that the same textual material “shaped the development of both chapters” (226). Thus, when HCE calls the children home from their games at the end of II.1, he is troubled by the same precesssional fears that appear in II.2. In the first case, the premonition of his decline is sparked, so to speak, by the sight of the lamplighter making his rounds at nightfall, prompting him to ask “who comes yond with pire on poletop?” (FW 244.03). As de Santillana and von Dechend observe, the ritual “lighting of fire at the pole is part of the idea” of many precession-based myths since it represents the “kindling [of] the ‘fire’ which was to last for a new age of the world” (140). But the kindling of the new inevitably means the extinguishing of the old, and the process elicits the further question “[w]hat era’s o’ering?” (FW 244.25). The one who lights the pole for the children is accompanied by “the hag they damename Coverfew” (FW 244.08)—a bad sign for HCE since “couvrefeu”—the French equivalent of “curfew”—means the “time for putting out fires.”13

Since the cosmic upheavals that put an end to cosmic eons and eras were often represented in terms of world-annihilating floods, there are further references to Noah (“Ark!? Noh?!”—FW 244.26) and Deucalion and Pyrrha (“Drr, deff, coal lay on and, pzz, call us pyrress!”—FW 244.17–18). In the case of the latter, it is the very inclination of the earth’s axis that causes the flood. As de Santillana and von Dechend interpret the myth, the “tilting [of] the ‘table’ caused the Flood of Deukalion, the ‘table,’ of course, being the earth-plane through the ecliptic” (279). In Joyce’s rendition of the myth, the couple also participates in the ritual fire-lighting, laying coal on the dwindling fire. In a sense, HCE’s funeral pyre becomes the polar coordinates for the new age. It is also possible that HCE is reminded of the flood when he considers that “[t]he feast of Tubbournigglers is at hand” (FW 244.05–06). The phrase refers to both the washing of his dirty children in a tub and the Jewish feast of Tabernacles. H. P. Blavatsky connects this feast to the completion of the great year and the inauguration of a new era, and she speculates that Moses identified the new nation he was creating with the renewal of the “sidereal cycle, which he symbolizes under the form and measurements of the tabernacle.”14 In this scenario, HCE represents the corrupt and [End Page 114] enslaving old order and his children the Jews who have escaped from the house of bondage.

Gordon’s observation that the triangle represents “the primal scene” adds another layer to the precessional theme (184). An earlier reference to “the zeroic couplet” presents the coupling pair in terms of the diagram, and their problems are attributed to the “septain inclinaison” of the pole (FW 284.09–10). This theme is developed further in the “scribbledehobbles” section of the lessons chapter (FW 275.03–279.09), which, though it appears earlier, was composed later than the triangles section, according to Crispi (225–34). Here the mother and father appear as “Airyanna and Blowyhart topsirturvy” (FW 275.14)—an inverted couple who, like the Blooms in Ulysses (U 17.2302–05), lie in bed head to foot. The passage also refers to a precessional myth from the Zoroastrian tradition recounted in Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine. As she tells the story, “the beautiful, eternal spring of Airyana-Vaêjô” is changed into a “winter, generating disease and death” because of the bite of a serpent (Doctrine 2:356). The serpent represents “the North Pole . . . [and] the Pole of the Heavens” (or the axis of the earth and the pole of the ecliptic), and after its bite “[t]he two axes were no more parallel” (Doctrine 2:356).15 In the Wake’s version, the extra “n” in “Airyanna” emphasizes the connection to Anna Livia, making HCE and ALP stand for the two divergent poles. This inverted couple appears once again in The Secret Doctrine as an emblem of the gyroscopically inclined earth in the guise of a kabalistic engraving of “a white man standing erect and a black woman upside down, i.e., standing on her head”—in other words, topsy-turvy (Doctrine 2:359). Blavatsky interprets this picture as representing “the poles inverted, in consequence of the great inclination of the [earth’s] axis” (Doctrine 2:360).

In the ninth and final section of the lessons chapter (FW 304.05–308.25), the children have completed their studies and prepare to write an essay, probably on the downfall of HCE. Their final “yuletide greetings” have a dark underside, since the message wishes their parents were dead: “[w]ith our best youlldied greedings to Pep and Memmy” (FW 308.17–18). This desire is implicit in the earlier exclamation of “Trionfante di bestia!” (FW 305.15)—a reference to Giordano Bruno’s Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, which presents the twilight of the Greek gods as the completion of the sidereal year.16 In that work, Jove, much like HCE, thinks “of his Day of Judgment, because the period of the more or less, or exactly, thirty-six thousand years is near” (93). Bruno is aware that his estimate is only approximate (the correct figure is 25,290 years)—but his connection of the precession and the myth of replacement draws on the old tradition. Bruno’s Jove observes that a “new day of Justice invites us” (115), and this would be welcomed by the Earwicker children who are united in a [End Page 115] conspiracy against the injustice of their father, according to Rose and O’Hanlon (158). In interpreting the astronomical fact metaphorically, Bruno associates the moral uprightness of justice with the physical uprightness of the earth’s axis, and Ursa Minor is criticized for marking “the magnificent pole and axis of the world, as if she were a sign worthy of so great a place” (121).17 The return of justice to the earth will coincide with the alignment of the earth’s axis with the pole of the ecliptic, thus freeing the earth from seasonal change. Bruno notes, “[W]here the sublime pole of Truth will be vertical to you . . . where light is continuous and neither shadows nor cold is evident, . . . there is a perpetual warm climate” (190)18—a return to Blavatsky’s “eternal spring of Airyana-Vaêjô.”

These themes carry over to the next chapter (II.3) which, although it comes later in the chronology of the book, is concurrent in terms of the narration. In other words, the myth-elated drinking “in the barrabelowther” occurs at the same time as the irksome lessons “in the studiorium upsturts,” and “[t]he tasks above are as the flasks below” (FW 266.10, 13, 263.21). David Hayman calls this chapter “Male Maturity or the Public Rise & and Private Decline of HC Earwicker,”19 and, as I will show, both rise and fall are presented in terms of precesssional myth. The two radio-broadcast stories of Kersse the Taylor and the Russian General enact a Janus-faced rendition of decline: the first looking back to HCE’s fall from heroic nomad to house-bound husband, and the second looking ahead to his demise at the hands of his sons. HCE’s apogee occurs at the horse-racing interlude near the beginning of the Butt and Taff section (FW 341.18–342.32) where he imagines himself castrating his sons (who become “three buy geldings”—FW 342.23) and copulating with his daughters (who present “a clean pairofhids to Immensipater”—FW 342.26). This also marks the moment of decline.

After the break that would have been line 342.33, Taff envisions a “saggind spurts flash” (second sports flash—FW 342.34–35), which announces a different result to the race. In the new story, the racer “takes the dipperend direction and . . . orients by way of Sagittarius towards Draco on the Lour” (FW 342.35–343.02). Here the different direction takes us from the pole star in Ursa Minor, the little dipper, to a new point of orientation—the pole of the ecliptic in the constellation Draco.20 As Worthen observes, in what sounds like a commentary on this passage of the Wake, “[t]his figure is centered on that point in the constellation Draco which is never moved by precession, the so-called pole of precession” (167). As indicated earlier, this is also the point in the diagram that marks the center of ALP’s vagina, and the axis that points to it is analogous to Bruno’s “sublime pole of Truth” (190). Roland McHugh’s observation that the phrase “on the Lour” comes from the Dutch phrase “op de loer” or “on the lookout” (343) [End Page 116] is also relevant to Taff’s project of justifying the universe and annulling the effects of precessional drift. Worthen observes, “The myth of Ladon-Draco symbolizes the fixity of the ecliptic pole preserved by an unwearying, unblinking guardian” (202–03). The eye is unblinking because it is, in Worthen’s words, “the one point in the sky with eternal stability” (207). For Taff, the geometrical uprightness that approximates this celestial location will replace the “septain inclinaison” of his falling father (FW 284.06). It will also provide a stable foundation upon which to rear a new generational order.

The same act of justifying is implicit in Butt’s return to a point “roughnow along about the first equinarx in the cholonder” (FW 347.02–03). The first equinox in the calendar is, of course, the vernal event, and it is one of the two times in the year (the other being the autumnal equinox) when the axis of the earth is aligned with the ecliptic, making the days and nights of equal length. Here, however, we are dealing with two cycles of time. On the one hand, as Nathan Halper observes, “[t]he sun is about to move into the equinoctial Ram” in the yearly cycle;21 on the other, as Yeats says, we are about “to complete the precession of the Equinox from Aries to Aries” in another Great Year (202 n1). The more notable first equinox in the calendar is Yeats’s “Magnus Annus at the Spring” (254)—the alignment of yearly and precessional cycles. The vernal equinox is also the main coordinate that allows the precession to be measured. Because the celestial equator (or circle of the equator extended infinitely into space) cuts across the ecliptic (the great circle that contains the twelve signs of the zodiac) at a slightly different point with every revolution, “[t]he vernal equinox . . . which was traditionally the opening of spring and the beginning of the year, will take place in one sign after another,” according to de Santillana and von Dechend (144). Butt recognizes the precession of zodiacal signs when he comments that the spring equinox is a time “when we sight the beasts” (FW 347.06).

It also marks the point where the new era displaces the old. When Butt observes that these events occurred “where the midril met the bulg” (FW 347.01), he combines Isaac Newton’s discovery that the precession was caused by “the gravitational pull of the sun and moon on the earth’s equatorial bulge” with the growing bulge in HCE’s midriff—a sign of his decline.22 Once again, the anarchic interval between ages is represented as a deluge, and Butt surrounds his comment on the zodiacal beasts with references to Noah’s flood. On one side, the phrase “hegheg whatlk of wraimy wetter!” (FW 347.06–07) evokes the rainy weather of the flood—“heghegh” is Armenian for “flood,” according to McHugh (347)—while, on the other, “blodidens and godinats” (FW 347.06) refers to the “forty days and forty nights” of Genesis 7:4. The flood thus reigns on either side of the equinoctial justification of the poles. In this version, however, the patriarch Noah-HCE [End Page 117] does not survive the deluge. McHugh points out that “end in deed” (FW 347.05) is a reference to Genesis 9:29—“& he [Noah] died” (347)—which suggests that the new world belongs to the three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth, which, in the context of the Wake, are the three brothers—Shem, Shaun, and (the tertium quid that replaces the father) “Shimar Shin” (FW 10.06).

HCE has had a premonition of this turn of events earlier in the chapter when “the doomering this tide” threatens (FW 316.17). His distress signal as he descends to “the button of his seat” (FW 316.18)—the “bottom of the sea,” McHugh notes (316)—also connects his demise to the sidereal year. The frantic telegraphing of SOS— which comes out as “sess old soss” (FW 316.18)—contains in it “the ancient Mesopotamian soss23—an old name for the number sixty, which was a basic astronomical unit for calculating the Great Year. Joseph Campbell points out the rather startling fact that 432 years multiplied by sixty gives us “exactly 25,920 years” (38)—the precise modern-day estimate of the precessional cycle. The number 432, of course, is central to the Wake’s representation of eons and eras.24 In addition, de Santillana and von Dechend connect this number to the Gotterdammerung since the “final battle of the gods” in Valhalla was fought by 432,000 warriors (162). Thus, as he is overwhelmed by the tide, HCE’s distress signal contains an implicit knowledge of the implacable cycles that determine his fate.

The Mamalujo components of the next chapter (II.4) further develop the correspondence between male decline, polar replacement, and annihilating flood. This section, which takes place “after the universal flood” (FW 388.12), represents the full effects of the deluge on the fathers before the sons begin to retrieve the scattered debris in section III. As Jed Deppman observes, in II.4, the processes of “aging, senility, and failing memory” are presented in terms of “the conceit of men turning into the waves of Ireland or Homeric ‘old men of the sea.’”25 Instead of competing against the sons in the Oedipal drama, here the fathers are reduced to impotent voyeurs. There are also a number of allusions to Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies whose sentimentality and nostalgia contribute to the sloppy “aquacities of thought and language” (U 17.240) that characterize the chapter as a whole.26 In one of these allusions—to Moore’s “The Prince’s Day”—the ritual “lighting of fire at the pole” that signals a new era is re-enacted, according to de Santillana and Dechend (140). The difference is that while the earlier instance filled HCE with the dread of being replaced by his children, here the old men hope that their youth will be renewed by viewing the lovemaking of the young. As they observe Tristan and Isolde and think “throw darker hour sorrows, the princest day” (FW 387.18–19), the allusion to Moore’s “[t]hough dark are our sorrows, today we’ll forget them,/And smile through our tears, like a sunbeam in showers” [End Page 118] suggests that they are consoled by the sight (195). More importantly, the last four lines of the poem express doubt about whether the ritually renewed light will initiate a new age or be extinguished forever: “Oh the joy that we taste, like the light of the poles,/Is a flash amid darkness, too brilliant to stay,/But, though ‘twere the last little spark in our souls,/We must light it up now on our Prince’s Day” (196).

As Deppman points out, the “Tristan” and “Mamalujo” sections in II.4 were written separately and then fused together (308). Joyce’s incorporation of the former into the latter was a way of offsetting the story of male decline with the myth of replacement. In other words, Tristan’s replacement of the impotent King Mark is analogous to the replacement of the pole star. Page 387 might then be called the high-water mark of the flood in the Wake. The many references to watery disasters include the Wreck of the Hesperus, the sinking of the White Ship, the drowning of Pharoah and his men, and the drowning of Matthew Kane/Martin Cunningham (FW 387.20–21, 25, 26, 28–30). As in II.1 (FW 244.01, 17–18), the destruction of the flood is offset by the creative spark re-igniting the poles. As in FW 316.18, the distress signal sent out in “the year of the flood 1132 S.O.S.” (FW 387.23) alludes to the ancient astronomical figure “soss,” which was used to calculate the Great Year—an affirmation in the midst of disaster that the old cycle will continue to repeat “[t]he seim anew” (FW 215.23).

De Santillana and von Dechend point out that the age of chaos between pole stars or astrological ages was often mythologically represented as a time in which “the Emperor sleeps on in the depth of the Watery Abyss” (46).27 The most famous of these figures is King Arthur who, as the once and future king, represents both the extinction of the old order and the promise of the new. In one telling of the story, de Santillana and von Dechend write that “King Arthur did not really die but lives on in the depth of the mystic lake” (46), and FW II.4 suggests this version when it describes how “[t]he arzurian deeps o’er his humbodumbones sweeps” (FW 387.32–33). Here HCE/Arthur, having gone down like the Titanic (or Humpty Dumpty) in the previous chapter, humbly awaits his resurrection in the person of his sons. It is fitting that Arthur reaches his lowest point in II.4 since he is analogous to the displaced Mark in the love triangle of betrayal. That in this particular version Arthur will be both repeated and replaced by a new generation is affirmed by the statement “Runtable’s Reincorporated. The new world presses” (FW 387.36). Just as the tilting of the table in the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha represents the inclination of the celestial equator with respect to the ecliptic, the reincorporation of the round table represents the establishment of a new astronomical order in which equator and ecliptic coincide.

The watches of Shaun (Book III) are too extensive to be adequately [End Page 119] covered in this essay. Instead, I will concentrate on a few nodal points in III.3 where these motifs are concentrated, before showing how they are fully developed in book IV. When we first encounter Shaun at the beginning of III.1, the wish that “all the blueblacksliding constellations continue to shape his changeable time-table” expresses the hope that his story will be determined by the precession as it has in the past (FW 405.09–11). The constellations of the precession are backsliding because they move against the direction of the astrological year. In other words, we are presently moving from the age of Pisces to the age of Aquarius in contrast to the year that moves from Aquarius to Pisces. In the context of the continuing saga of the Wake, the precession indicates the counter-narrational tendency of the four watches of Shaun. As has often been pointed out, “Book III moves backwards,” repeating in reverse the events of Book I.28 Sam Slote quotes Joyce who himself noted the precessional tendency of this section, calling it “‘a description of a postman travelling backwards in the night through events already narrated’” (19—LettersI 214). In other words, it is a chapter of undoings. The two sections I will examine also represent surviving or undoing the ravages of the universal flood.

In III.3, the themes of the completion of the great year, the coming of Arthur, and the justifying of the poles are gathered together on page 486. In the first four lines of the page, the number 432, which, in historical time, indicates the coming of Patrick to Ireland, in mythical time, suggests the completion of cosmic cycles, according to Clive Hart (56). Joyce frames this completion around the myth of Arthur when he adds that “[t]he old order changeth and lasts like the first” (FW 486.10). McHugh points out the allusion to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Morte D’Arthur (486): “The old order changeth, yielding place to the new/And God fulfills himself in many ways” spoken by the dying Arthur to Sir Bedivere.29 In the Wake, HCE as the old Arthur/order is decomposed and reincorporated into the new order/ Arthur of his sons. When Tennyson’s Sir Bedivere complains that “the whole ROUND TABLE is dissolved” and then goes on to call it “the image of the mighty world” (2:17), the roundness of the table corresponds to the circularity of the ecliptic. As de Santillana and von Dechend observe, in precessional myth, “the ‘earth’ was the ideal plane laid through the ecliptic” (58). After the bitter dissolution of the flood, the poem suggests the possibility of “order’s coming” (FW 277.20) when it ends with a dream of people crying “Arthur is come again” (2:19). In this version, Arthur does not descend to the bottom of the sea but is taken to the island of Avalon where he will enjoy a paradisiacal interim until his return. Tennyson’s evocation of a place “where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,/nor ever wind blows loudly” (2:18) recalls Blavatsky’s description of “the beautiful, eternal spring of Airyana-Vaêgô” or Bruno’s of a place “neither shadows nor [End Page 120] cold is evident, but where there is a perpetual warm climate”—the former referring to the ideal conditions before the earth’s axial tilt and the latter to its restoration at the completion of the sidereal year.

In the section immediately following, the three exchanges in which “the initial T square” (FW 486.15) is placed against what Gordon calls “Yawn’s temple, lips, and breast” (240) can all be seen as attempts to justify the poles and free the earth from precessional and seasonal change. In the first exchange, the “upright” T square corrects the inclination of the pole (FW 486.15). Edmund Spenser writes that “the world is runne quite out of square” because of the effects of the precession (723), and Bruno claims that, when these effects are annulled, “the sublime pole of truth will be vertical to you” (190). In the second exchange, the horizontal “serpe with ramshead” (FW 486.21), which has been variously interpreted as an allusion to the Book of the Dead or Celtic religious monuments, according to McHugh (486), can also represent the squaring of the celestial equator with the pole of the ecliptic. Blavatsky points out that the coincidence of the north pole and the pole of the ecliptic was “symbolized by the Egyptians under the form of a Serpent with a hawk’s head” (Doctrine 2:356). The substitution of the ram for the hawk’s head would emphasize that this coincidence occurs when the sun is in Aries. Since the spring equinox is one of the two points in the year when the earth’s equator is horizontal to the pole of the ecliptic, the speaker declares that “I horizont the same” (FW 486.21). In the third exchange, the inversion of the poles is reversed. According to Blavatsky, “the poles inverted, in consequence of the great inclination of the axis” (Doctrine 2:360)—a situation that is ritually reversed when the speaker declares, “I invert the initial of your tripartite and sign it sternly” (FW 486.27–28). In the economy of the Wake, the moment coincides with the entry in VI B.6 that introduces the upside down T as a siglum, in Slote’s words, “to designate Isolde” and makes her the “inverted reflection” of Tristan (17). It also represents the upright phallus of Shaun since the impotent sexual inversion of Jonathan Swift (whose desires are “still a vain essaying”—FW 486.26–27) is reversed.

Jean-Michel Rabaté claims that, in chapter III.3, Joyce portrays “the densest climax of the dream just before dawn approaches in a recapitulation of all the themes in the book.”30 One such moment of density occurs on page 525 where the motifs of recovery from the flood, replacement of the pole star, and the establishment of a new cosmic order are repeated in terms of the myth of Manu. In the phrase “[t]he great fin may cumule! Three threeth o’er the wild! Manu ware” (FW 525.31–32), we observe the familiar pattern of three against one that indicates the sons pitted against HCE. The phrase “Manu ware” suggests both that one should beware of Manu and that his ship is a man-of-war with hostile intentions. In the story, Manu seeks out a [End Page 121] great fish that has promised to save him from the flood, fastens his ship’s line “to the fish’s fin,” and, finally, tethers “the ship to a tree and [waits] for the waters to subside,” as Worthen relates (195). He interprets the myth as follows: Manu’s “bark (the equinoctial point) must weigh anchor and be taken by the fish (the new equinoctial sign) in the right direction. Fertility is restored when it finds its haven at the pole-fast world tree” (195).31 In the Wake’s re-telling, the fin of the fish evokes the end of Finn MacCool. In this version, however, the heroic patriarch of the old order is not a murderous adversary or passive spectator but a saving and guiding presence. HCE no longer desires to destroy the sons who have come to replace him; in fact, he conspires in his own overthrow.

The reference to “a runnymede landing! A dondhering vesh vish, Magnam Carpam” also suggests that HCE purposely sacrifices his body to provide sustenance for his sons (FW 525.19–20). The landing of the great carp recalls the “[m]en like to ants or emmets [who] wondern upon a groot hwide Whallfisk” (FW 13.33–34), which, in turn, is based on the Stephen’s recollection of the stranded “school of turlehide whales” that is set upon by the starving “jerkined dwarfs” of medieval Dublin (U 3.303, 04–05). This carp is a “vesh vish” because the fish in the myth of Manu is an avatar of Vishnu, and its role in leading Manu to the new equinoctial sign is emphasized by the exclamation that “I can see him in the fishnoo!” (FW 525.27), further suggesting that the new age is ruled by Pisces. The reference to the Magna Carta also connects the new equinoctial order with the Oedipal struggle against kingship. The injunction to “[l]ift it now, Hosty! Hump’s your mark!” changes Hosty’s scurrilous ballad of “Parasol Irelly” (FW 525.19, 16) into a harpoon to be plunged into the humpback/hunch-back of HCE (as the Magna Carta was a thrust against the power of kings). HCE is both the target for Hosty’s murderous hostility and a marker guiding him to the new polar coordinates. Worthen indicates that, in the time of anarchy between pole stars, “there is no marker,” and, when this marker is found, it is often represented as a “pole-fast world tree” (228, 195).32 In the phrase “[t]hree threeth o’er the wild,” the three sons are identified with this world tree, which, as noted by de Santillana and von Dechend, “has three roots—one in heaven, one in earth, the third in the water eddy” (205), as they establish order in the wilderness of uncoordinated space.

In book IV, which marks “the Viconian period of renewal,”33 the awakening of the new age is announced by the first three words of the chapter: “Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Sandhyas!” (FW 593.01). While Blavatsky defines a “sandhi” as the time of “morning & evening twilight” (Isis 1:32), Joyce told Jacques Mercanton that it referred to “the twilight of dawn,” according to McHugh (593). Both senses are implied in the declaration that “Arcthuris comeing!” (FW 594.02)—an [End Page 122] announcement of the second coming of Arthur—as in Tennyson’s “Arthur is come again”—and the protective-destructive role of the star Arcturus. When Bloom talks of stars with Stephen in “Ithaca,” he mentions “Arcturus” and “the precession of equinoxes” (U 17.1048–49) as if the two things were naturally connected. Joyce’s pun is authorized by William Blake who claims that “Arthur was a name for the constellation Arcturus or Bootes, the keeper of the North Pole.”34 According to another myth, however, discussed by de Santillana and von Dechend, at the end of the precessional cycle, Arcturus will bring about Armageddon by unhinging the pole: “[w]hen Arcturus (alpha Bootis, supposed to be an archer, Ursa Major being his bow) shoots down the North Nail with his arrow on the last day, the heaven will fall, crushing the earth and setting fire to everything” (383). These multiple senses are contained in the Wake’s declaration that “we have fused now orther” (FW 593.10–11)—a present (as opposed to the once and future) Arthur who fuses together a new order even as he lights the fuse that will blow up the old.

The same duality appears in the subsequent reference to a “[s]catter brand to the reneweller of the sky, thou who agnitest!” (FW 594.01–02), which presents the Hindu fire god Agni as both a destroying fire brand and a renewing light. De Santillana and von Dechend call Agni “a great circle connecting the celestial poles” since the god created a new axis and world frame for the coming era (159). This latter sense is emphasized when a way is opened up “through dimdom done till light kindling light has led” (FW 594.06). Purifying fire is essential to the inauguration of eras since cosmic “catastrophe cleans out the past, which is replaced by ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ and ruled by a ‘new’ Pole star,” as noted by de Santillana and von Dechend (141–42). They also point out that the renewing upheaval completing the Great Year and bringing all of the planets back to an original configuration was known by the ancients as “the ‘turning over’ of the sky” (151). The Wake announces that this moment is imminent—perhaps coinciding with the dovetailing of its last word into its first—with its declaration “[i]t is just, it is just about to, it is just about to rolywholy-over” (FW 597.03). Here, the three repetitions of the word “just” also look forward to a restoration of perfect equilibrium. As Jove says in Bruno’s dialogue about the completion of the sidereal year, “the new day of Justice invites us” (115).35

ALP, who is given the last word in the Wake as Molly is in Ulysses, indulges in a fit of precessional nostalgia before she plunges into the destructive element of the sea. Her nostalgic look back to a time when “we were by the jerk of a beamstark, backed in paladays last, on the brinks of the wobblish” presents her lost springtime with HCE in sidereal terms (FW 615.25–26). On the one hand, the “wobblish” refers to the scientific revolution that changed the precession from “the vast [End Page 123] impenetrable pattern of fate itself” to “a purely earthly affair, the wobbles of an average planet’s individual course,” in de Santillana and von Dechend’s description (145). As she will later remark in her revised view of HCE’s status, ALP says, “I thought you the great in all things, in guilt and in glory. You’re but a puny” (FW 627.23–24). On the other hand, she thinks of Paradise Lost in which Milton interprets the inclination of the pole as a punishment for Adam and Eve’s disobedience. In addition, there is a suggestion of “Pleiades lost” since this star group marked the spring equinox during the age of Taurus, which, according to Biblical chronology, is when the fall would have taken place.36 Their loss was considered a catastrophe that unmoored the universe from its stable coordinates. Finally, her recollection of a violent “jerk of a beamstark” suggests the wrenching inclination of the polar axis that set the wheels of change in motion (FW 615.25).

ALP, however, affirms the future of becoming and change when she exclaims, “Send Arctur guiddus!” (FW 621.07–08). The polyvalent prayer includes a wish for the safe delivery of letters by Shaun (Saint Anthony, guide us), the happy intoxication of Shem (Sir Arthur Guinness), the protective/destructive ambiguity of Arcturus (send Arcturus to guard us, to get us), and the guiding spirit of Arthur (send Arthur to guide us). The eternal wobble leads us upward and on!

Roy Benjamin
Borough of Manhattan Community College
Roy Benjamin

Roy Benjamin teaches English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. His articles on Finnegans Wake and various other subjects have appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature, Joyce Studies Annual, and the Irish Studies Review.


1. Luca Crispi, “Storiella as She Was Wryt: Chapter II.2,” How Joyce Wrote “Finnegans Wake”: A Chapter-by Chapter Genetic Guide, ed. Crispi and Sam Slote (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2007), p. 218. Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

2. John Gordon, “Finnegans Wake”: A Plot Summary (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1986), p. 183. Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

3. William Stirling, The Canon: An Exposition of the Pagan Mystery Perpetuated in the Cabala as the Rule of All the Arts (London: Elkin Mathews, 1897), p. 12, and see Roland McHugh, The Sigla of “Finnegans Wake” (1980; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2006), p. 293. Further references to both works will be cited parenthetically in the text.

4. Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon, Understanding “Finnegans Wake”: A Guide to the Narrative of James Joyce’s Masterpiece (New York: Garland Publishers, 1982), p. 156. Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

5. See George de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time (Ipswich, Mass.: Gambit, 1969), p. 143. This is the central work on the mythological, cosmological, and poetic implications of the precession. Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

6. Thomas D. Worthen, The Myth of Replacement: Stars, Gods, and Order in the Universe (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1991). Further references will be [End Page 124] cited parenthetically in the text.

7. Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York: Random House, 1920), 2:21.

8. Edmund Epstein, The Ordeal of Stephen Dedalus: The Conflict of the Generations in James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1971), p. 15. Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

9. See W. B. Yeats, A Vision (1925; New York: Collier Books, 1966). Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

10. See Tobias Smollett, The Adventures of Roderick Random (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964).

11. Cicero, “Nine Orations” and the “Dream of Scipio” (New York: New American Library, 1967).

12. James S. Atherton, “A Man of Four Watches: Macrobias in Finnegans Wake,” A Wake Newslitter, 9 (June 1972), 40. Cicero was also known as “Tully” because his middle name was “Tullius.”

13. See Walter W. Skeat, A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Perigee Books, 1980), p. 124.

14. H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy (Pasadena, Calif.: Theosophical Univ. Press, 1888), 1:314. Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text as Doctrine and by volume and page number.

15. It is notable that, for once, Blavatsky lives up to the title of her book, which promises a synthesis of science and religion. In other words, the religious myth that makes a connection between an “eternal spring” and an upright earth is scientifically accurate (Doctrine 2:356). As Ian Ridpath explains, in the Collins Pocket Guide to Stars and Planets (London: Harper Collins, 1984), pp. 11–12, “[i]f the earth’s axis were directly upright with respect to its orbit around the Sun, then the equator and the ecliptic would coincide. One result would be that we would have no seasons on Earth.” Mythological thought has given a moral color to this scientific fact, and the inclination of the Earth’s axis has been interpreted as the result of a “cosmogonic ‘original sin’ whereby the circle of the ecliptic (with the zodiac) was tilted up at an angle with respect to the equator, and the cycles of change came into being,” according to de Santillana and von Dechend (p. 5). In Paradise Lost, The Poems of Milton (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), p. 961, John Milton transfers the sin from the cosmos to the human race when he writes of God that “[s]ome say he bid his angels turn askance/The poles of the earth twice ten degrees and more/From the sun’s axle” (10:668–70) as a punishment for Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Milton is in agreement with all three of the writers mentioned above when he adds that the tilting brought “in changes/Of seasons to each clime; else had the spring/Perpetual smiled on earth with vernant flowers,/Equal in days and nights” (p. 961, 10:677–80).

16. Giordano Bruno, The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, trans. Arthur D. Imerti (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1964). Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

17. The Wake possibly refers to this passage with its interjection of “sign osure” (FW 234.13): sign? Oh, sure! The word “cynosure” is derived from one of the names of Ursa Minor.

18. The idea of an analogue between the justifying of the earth’s axis and [End Page 125] the re-establishment of justice upon earth is an old one. The fifth book of the Faerie Queene is dedicated to the theme of justice, and, according to Yeats, its introduction made the precession “a part of [western] literary tradition” (p. 202 n1)—see Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche Jr. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 723–26.

19. David Hayman, “Male Maturity of the Public Rise & Private Decline of HC Earwicker,” How Joyce Wrote “Finnegans Wake” (pp. 250–303).

20. Drawing a line from alpha Ursa Minor to the constellation Sagittarius will, in fact, cut directly through the middle of Draco.

21. Nathan Halper, “Joyce and Eliot,” A “Wake” Newslitter, 2 (June 1965), 3.

22. See James Glieck, Isaac Newton (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003), p. 136.

23. See Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space (New York: Alfred Van Der Marck Editions, 1986), p. 38. Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

24. Clive Hart, Structure and Motif in “Finnegans Wake” (Evanston: North-western Univ. Press, 1962), p. 56. Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

25. Jed Deppman, “A Chapter in Composition: Chapter II.4,” How Joyce Wrote “Finnegans Wake” (p. 317). Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

26. Thomas Moore, The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1910). Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

27. The astronomical origin of myths of this sort is suggested by Spenser who writes, in The Faerie Queene, that, due to the precession, the sun is declined “[n]igh thirty minutes to the southerne lake” (Book V: “Prologue” 7:8, p. 725)—which is to say that, between the autumn and spring equinoxes, it descends below the ecliptic. Such stories of divine or kingly absence that anticipate a second coming may all be traced to a precessional solar mythology—compare this to Joyce’s punning joke: “Was Jesus a Sun Myth?” (U 15.1579).

28. Slote, “Introduction,” How Joyce Wrote “Finnegans Wake” (p. 19). Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

29. Alfred Lord Tennyson, Morte D’Arthur, The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), 2:17. Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text by volume and page number.

30. Jean-Michel Rabaté, “The Fourfold Root of Yawn’s Unreason: Chapter III.3,” How Joyce Wrote “Finnegans Wake” (p. 385).

31. Worthen groups the many stories dealing with the establishment of a new pole star under the heading of rituals of “right running” (p. 24)—that is, rituals designed to promote fertility and the continuance of generations. He points out that the word “rite” is “related to the verb ri which has the sense of ‘to fit, join, fix’ and then ‘to move fitly, to go on the path’; . . . and finally, ‘right, good, true’” (p. 24). All of these senses are combined in the Wake’s phrase “the rite words by the rote order” (FW 167.33)—with its additional suggestion of “rota”: the rotation of the great wheel.

32. The identification of HCE with a world-tree/cosmic axis is a constant theme in the Wake. When he is described as a “supershillelagh where the palmsweat on high is the mark of your manument” (FW 25.15–16), he becomes Manu, the equinoctial marker, and the pole-fast world-oak (a shillelagh [End Page 126] is an oaken stick). In addition, the “palmsweat on high” identifies the pole star with the phoenix palm—and, by extension, the fabulous bird born out of its ashes. The “hegoak” (FW 5.07) upon his coat of arms combines the world oak, which rescues from the flood, with our present pole star (an ancient name for Polaris was “he-goat,” according to de Santillana and von Dechend—p. 138). In addition, the oak and dragon or snake were central to myths about the precession. Blavatsky writes, in Isis Unveiled (Pasadena: Theosophical Univ. Press, 1888), 1:297–98, of “the Hellenic tree of life, the sacred oak among whose luxuriant branches a serpent dwells and cannot be dislodged,” a reference to the unmoving pole of the ecliptic in the constellation Draco. Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text as Isis. William Tyler Olcott, on the other hand, in Star Lore of All Ages (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1911), p. 186, recounts a Christian version of how the dragon was dislodged, initiating precessional change: “the precession of the equinoxes forced the [dragon] off the pole, and he was said to have been overcome by the stalwart, Michael, and thrown into the bottomless pit.” In Ovid’s classical version, because of the catastrophic ride of Phaeton, “the cold Serpent at the ice-bound Pole/Grew mad with fire”—see Ovid, The Metamorphosis (New York: New American Library, 1958), p. 61. All of these references are implicit in the Wake’s description of how “asnake comes slid-uant down that oaktree” (FW 100.11).

33. Dirk Van Hulle, “The Lost Word: Book IV,” How Joyce Wrote “Finnegans Wake” (p. 436).

34. See S. Foster Damon, A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1971), p. 29.

35. Book four of the Wake is roughly analogous to the “Nostos” section of Ulysses since both are devoted to the theme of the return of the king. In “Ithaca,” the astronomical aspect of return is emphasized when Bloom imagines himself a wanderer to “the extreme boundary of space” who will, “after incalculable eons of peregrination return an estranged avenger, a wreaker of justice on malefactors, a dark crusader, a sleeper awakened” (U 17.2015U 17.2020–22). Though Bloom’s itinerary is “cometary” (U 17.2013), rather than sidereal, it still suggests the cosmic peregrination of the Great Year. The combined returns of Ulysses, Arthur (see “Arthur-honoured . . . he skall wake from earthsleep”—FW 73.36–74.02), and the Count of Monte Cristo all suggest a restoration of universal equilibrium at the completion of a cycle.

36. That the Pleiades had their heliacal rising at the “first equinarx in the cholonder” (FW 347.02–03) is suggested by their name, which contains the etymological “root ple- [which] is probably an Indo-European form meaning ‘first,’” according to Worthen (p. 228). Here the sidereal year is extended from Taurus to Taurus, in contrast to Yeats who traces it from Aries to Aries (p. 202 n1). The former, however, indicates the position of the constellations when the spring equinox was first recorded. As de Santillana and von Dechend explain, “[s]ince the beginning of history, the vernal equinox has moved through Taurus, Aries, and Pisces. This is all that historical experience has shown mankind: a section of about one quarter of the whole main circle of the machine” (p. 145). [End Page 127]

Figure 1. The figures reflect similarities between an image of the precession and the diagram of the lesson’s chapter and perhaps also “a superpbosition! Quoint a quincidence!” (FW 299.07–08).
Click for larger view
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Figure 1.

The figures reflect similarities between an image of the precession and the diagram of the lesson’s chapter and perhaps also “a superpbosition! Quoint a quincidence!” (FW 299.07–08).

[End Page 128]

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