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  • Trenchant CriticismJoyce’s Use of Richard Chenevix Trench’s Philological Studies in “Oxen of the Sun”
  • Sarah Davison (bio)

Language is the armoury of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past, and the weapons of its future, conquests.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Richard Chenevix Trench (1807–86) was born in Dublin, but raised and educated in England. He was appointed Dean of Westminster in 1856 and then Church of Ireland Lord Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland, a position he held from 1864 to 1884. His belief that God’s purpose is manifest in all aspects of creation, including language, led to a passion for philology, a pastime that resulted in several book-length studies of English words. He is celebrated today for his seminal role in the establishment of the reference work that is now known as the Oxford English Dictionary, and he is acknowledged in its “Historical Introduction.”1 The book that brought Trench’s philological scholarship to wide public attention was On the Study of Words, an accessible and lively account of the etymology, cultural and theological significance of items of English vocabulary first published in 1851, originating in five lectures delivered to the Diocesan Training School in Winchester. It ran to nineteen editions in Trench’s lifetime and shaped the popular understanding of the historical development of the English language for generations, promoting the idea that “in words contemplated singly, there are boundless stores of moral and historic truth.”2

Trench selected a proverb from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria to serve as an epigraph for On the Study of Words. It presents words as the spoils of battle, figuring language as an “armoury” in which [End Page 164] the “trophies” of past conflicts are arrayed and ready to be transformed into “weapons” for future “conquests.” The martial metaphor is implicit in Trench’s own writings. The many different linguistic formations that the English language preserves are considered to be richly edifying, not only because they are part of God’s creation, but also because they attest to different phases in England’s history. Language, Trench explains, should be regarded as “a moral barometer indicating and permanently marking the rise or fall or a nation’s life” (109). It “is full of instruction, because it is the embodiment, the incarnation, if I may so speak, of the feelings and thoughts and experiences of a nation, yea, often of many nations, and of all which through long centuries they have attained to and won” (28). The student who mines the English language for “strata and deposits” of “Celtic, Latin, Low German, Danish, Norman words, and then once more Latin and French” might therefore “re-create for himself the history of the [English speaking] people,” and “with tolerable accuracy appreciate the divers elements out of which that people was made up, in what proportion these were mingled, and in what succession they followed, one upon the other” (126). Trench instructs readers in this art through a series of case studies of different groups of loan-words from other languages. Examples are discussed both for their intrinsic philological and moral interest and for the purpose of re-creating the history of England as a nation: one that was conquered many times; was brought into contact with far-flung cultures through trade and transport; and was—at the time of writing—a proud imperial power.

Trench wrote three further philological works mediating ideas about the development of the English language as a source of historical and moral instruction to a general-interest audience: On the Lessons in Proverbs (1853), English Past and Present (1855), and A Select Glossary (1859). His surname is familiar to readers of Ulysses (1922), as his grandson, Richard Samuel Dermot Chenevix Trench (1881–1909), was the model for Haines, the Englishman who outstays Stephen’s welcome in the Martello tower. Given the high position Trench grand-père held in Dublin, the family connection could not have been unknown to James Joyce. The purpose of this article is to investigate the extent to which Archbishop Trench’s life and work are significant to the “Oxen of the Sun” episode of...


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pp. 164-195
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