Finnegans Wake – A Prescriptive Guide – 1

A Gentle Introduction to James Joyce’s Masterpiece

Finnegans Wake (Viking Press 1939)

Probapossible prolegomena to ideoreal history

James Joyce did not write books: he constructed literary edifices. Where others told stories, Joyce raised monuments. Words were the bricks and mortar out of which he built his Hanging Gardens and his Mausoleums. His works are architecturally structured. Like Dante’s Divine Comedy or Blake’s Jerusalem, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is a labyrinth built by the hand of a latter-day Daedalus. James Joyce was not a writer : he was a master builder.

To understand a book as complex as Finnegans Wake, it is essential to become familiar with the large-scale structure of the work. Familiarity on this level does not come easily. It requires repeated reading of the text, something that is more easily accomplished by taking part in public readings of the book. Reading Finnegans Wake alone, in silence, in the seclusion of your bedroom, is not recommended. If ever a book was written to be shared, this is it.

This prescriptive guide was originally conceived as an adjunct to public readings of Finnegans Wake. The term prescriptive should not be taken literally. I acquired my familiarity with the text through public readings of the book at Sweny’s Pharmacy in Dublin, where Leopold Bloom bought his lemon soap on the original Bloomsday, 16 June 1904. Although Sweny’s is no longer a pharmacy, it remains largely unchanged since that day: there are even some uncollected prescriptions on display, a few of which date back to Joyce’s time.

Sweny’s Distinctive Logo and Brown Paper

It is not my intention to provide the lazy reader with a crib, saving him the trouble of reading the book. There is no substitute for direct confrontation with Joyce’s text, however frustrating it may be at times. This is not to say that all those critical works that have been written about Finnegans Wake are worthless and ought to be avoided: if that was my opinion, I would not be adding to their number. Several books written about Finnegans Wake are very enlightening and highly diverting in their own right, and they have provided genuine assistance to at least one perplexed reader—me. Finnegans Wake, however, is one place where highly diverting is not a virtue but a vice. Anything that diverts you from what Joyce actually wrote is at best a two-edged sword. A good commentary has its uses. It may clear up some obscure passages. But if you find that you are using it as a substitute for those passages, then use has become abuse. It is time to put the commentary aside and immerse yourself once again in Joyce’s own words.

The first thing that strikes every new reader of Finnegans Wake is the language in which it is written. It is English, but not as we know it. Pick up a copy of the text and page through it: let your eye fall where it will and start reading. You will quickly discover that Finnegans Wake is unlike any other book you have ever read or are ever likely to read. Difficult, impenetrable, opaque: it defies you to read it. Its unreadability is not a fault to be apologized for but a challenge to be flaunted in your face. It is written in a language which will occasionally remind you of the English of Ulysses or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but most of the time it will bear little resemblance to any language known to mankind. Finnegans Wake is a book that you must first learn to read: understanding comes later, if it comes at all.

If you repeat this experiment several times, you will soon realize that the book does not possess a uniformity of style. Some passages are as transparent and as easy to read as a piece of Dickens or Trollope: others are almost impossible to read with any sense of fluency, and remain incomprehensible even after repeated readings. This is perhaps not surprising in a work that took more than sixteen years to write. It would have been extraordinary if Joyce’s style had stood still for such a length of time. And if you are familiar with Ulysses, you will already know that uniformity of style is not something that Joyce ever aimed for. In all his mature works there is a clear evolution of style throughout. Finnegans Wake is therefore quite typical in this respect.

lift we our ears, eyes of the darkness

The artist is the creator of beautiful things, wrote Oscar Wilde, to which he later added: All art is quite useless. Théophile Gautier, from whom Wilde borrowed that sentiment, expressed it less pithily but none the less effectively:

Nothing is really beautiful but that which cannot be made use of; everything that is useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and the needs of man are vile and disgusting, like his poor and infirm nature.—The most useful part of a house is the toilet.

In Finnegans Wake Joyce’s other epic novel, Ulysses, is actually described as usylessly unreadable (FW 179.26-27, RFW 142.04). It is probably safe to assume that Finnegans Wake too is useless—certainly, the World has continued to turn on its axis for almost a century now while largely ignoring it—but is it a thing of beauty? I believe that it is most assuredly a thing of beauty, but a beauty that can only be properly appreciated by reading the book aloud (or listening to someone else reading it aloud). You do not have to take my word for it. In 1929 James Joyce himself recorded a small extract from the book for posterity. This reading only lasts about nine minutes and covers three pages of text at the end of Book I, Chapter 8 (I.8 Anna Livia Plurabelle), but it is a priceless legacy bequeathed to us by the very man who wrote the words—and, therefore, of all the people in the world the one best qualified to read them aloud. It is probably the best introduction to the novel there is. Before you crack open your copy of Finnegans Wake and lose yourself in its labyrinth, I want you to listen to that precious recording, not once, not twice, but several times—as often as is necessary for the words to become etched onto your memory.

As you listen, try to follow the story in the text (pp 213–216 of the original edition of 1939, or 167–169 of The Restored Finnegans Wake of 2010). The passage represents part of a lengthy conversation between two women, who are washing dirty linen in the river Liffey as night falls. Their dialogue takes place across the river against the backdrop of the flowing water and other extraneous sounds. Joyce gives the washerwomen rural accents—from North Cork, I’m told, where his father was educated—but the text is not formatted to let us know which woman is speaking at any given moment: that would be too easy. At this stage, don’t worry about the meaning of the text. Just listen to the sounds. Let Joyce’s voice flow over you. Ideas and images will come to you—you may be surprised just how much of it makes sense to you. There are a few discrepancies between Joyce’s recording and the published text: the recording was made about a decade before Finnegans Wake was published and Joyce tinkered with the text in the intervening years.

Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling has a taling and that’s the he and the she of it. Look, look, the dusk is growing! My branches lofty are taking root. And my cold cher’s gone ashley. Fieluhr? Filou! What age is at? It saon is late. ’Tis endless now senne eye or erewone last saw Waterhouse’s clogh. They took it asunder, I hurd thum sigh. When will they reassemble it? O, my back, my back, my bach! I’d want to go to Aches-les-Pains. Pingpong! There’s the Belle for Sexaloitez! And Concepta de Send-us-pray! Pang! Wring out the clothes! Wring in the dew! Godavari, vert the showers! And grant thaya grace! Aman. Will we spread them here now? Ay, we will. Flip! Spread on your bank and I’ll spread mine on mine. Flep! It’s what I’m doing. Spread! It’s churning chill. Der went is rising. I’ll lay a few stones on the hostel sheets. A man and his bride embraced between them. Else I’d have sprinkled and folded them only. And I’ll tie my butcher’s apron here. It’s suety yet. The strollers will pass it by. Six shifts, ten kerchiefs, nine to hold to the fire and this for the code, the convent napkins, twelve, one baby’s shawl. Good mother Jossiph knows, she said. Whose head? Mutter snores? Deataceas! Wharnow are alle her childer, say? In kingdome gone or power to come or gloria be to them farther? Allalivial, allalluvial! Some here, more no more, more again lost alla stranger. I’ve heard tell that same brooch of the Shannons was married into a family in Spain. And all the Dunders de Dunnes in Markland’s Vineland beyond Brendan’s herring pool takes number nine in yangsee’s hats. And one of Biddy’s beads went bobbing till she rounded up lost histereve with a marigold and a cobbler’s candle in a side strain of a main drain of a manzinahurries off Bachelor’s Walk. But all that’s left to the last of the Meaghers in the loup of the years prefixed and between is one kneebuckle and two hooks in the front. Do you tell me. that now? I do in troth. Orara por Orbe and poor Las Animas! Ussa, Ulla, we’re umbas all! Mezha, didn’t you hear it a deluge of times, ufer and ufer, respund to spond? You deed, you deed! I need, I need! It’s that irrawaddyng I’ve stoke in my aars. It all but husheth the lethest zswound. Oronoko! What’s your trouble? Is that the great Finnleader himself in his joakimono on his statue riding the high horse there forehengist? Father of Otters, it is himself! Yonne there! Isset that? On Fallareen Common? You’re thinking of Astley’s Amphitheayter where the bobby restrained you making sugarstuck pouts to the ghostwhite horse of the Peppers. Throw the cobwebs from your eyes, woman, and spread your washing proper! It’s well I know your sort of slop. Flap! Ireland sober is Ireland stiff Lord help you, Maria, full of grease, the load is with me! Your prayers. I sonht zo! Madammangut! Were you lifting your elbow, tell us, glazy cheeks, in Conway’s Carrigacurra canteen? Was I what, hobbledyhips? Flop! Your rere gait’s creakorheuman bitts your butts disagrees. Amn’t I up since the damp tawn, marthared mary allacook, with Corrigan’s pulse and varicoarse veins, my pramaxle smashed, Alice Jane in decline and my oneeyed mongrel twice run over, soaking and bleaching boiler rags, and sweating cold, a widow like me, for to deck my tennis champion son, the laundryman with the lavandier flannels? You won your limpopo limp fron the husky hussars when Collars and Cuffs was heir to the town and your slur gave the stink to Carlow. Holy Scamander, I sar it again! Near the golden falls. Icis on us! Seints of light! Zezere! Subdue your noise, you hamble creature! What is it but a blackburry growth or the dwyergray ass them four old codgers owns. Are you meanam Tarpey and Lyons and Gregory? I meyne now, thank all, the four of them, and the roar of them, that draves that stray in the mist and old Johnny MacDougal along with them. Is that the Poolbeg flasher beyant, pharphar, or a fireboat coasting nyar the Kishtna or a glow I behold within a hedge or my Garry come back from the Indes? Wait till the honeying of the lune, love! Die eve, little eve, die! We see that wonder in your eye. We’ll meet again, we’ll part once more. The spot I’ll seek if the hour you’ll find. My chart shines high where the blue milk’s upset. Forgivemequick, I’m going! Bubye! And you, pluck your watch, forgetmenot. Your evenlode. So save to jurna’s end! My sights are swimming thicker on me by the shadows to this place. I sow home slowly now by own way, moyvalley way. Towy I too, rathmine.

Ah, but she was the queer old skeowsha anyhow, Anna Livia, trinkettoes! And sure he was the quare old buntz too, Dear Dirty Dumpling, foostherfather of fingalls and dotthergills. Gammer and gaffer we’re all their gangsters. Hadn’t he seven dams to wive him? And every dam had her seven crutches. And every crutch had its seven hues. And each hue had a differing cry. Sudds for me and supper for you and the doctor’s bill for Joe John. Befor! Bifur! He married his markets, cheap by foul, I know, like any Etrurian Catholic Heathen, in their pinky limony creamy birnies and their turkiss indienne mauves. But at milkidmass who was the spouse? Then all that was was fair. Tys Elvenland! Teems of times and happy returns. The seim anew. Ordovico or viricordo. Anna was, Livia is, Plurabelle’s to be. Northmen’s thing made southfolk’s place but howmulty plurators made eachone in person? Latin me that, my trinity scholard, out of eure sanscreed into oure eryan! Hircus Civis Eblanensis! He had buckgoat paps on him, soft ones for orphans. Ho, Lord! Twins of his bosom. Lord save us! And ho! Hey? What all men. Hot? His tittering daughters of. Whawk?

Can’t hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughtersons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night! [FW 213.11–216.05, RFW 167.15–169.21]

If, after listening repeatedly to these hundred-or-so lines, you find that Joyce’s strange poetry has worked its way into your soul, buried itself under your skin and taken up residence in your heart, then you are ready to confront the twenty thousand or so lines that make up Finnegans Wake. If, on the other hand, the reading has not struck you as a thing of beauty, but instead has left you feeling cold and alienated, then you should close your copy of the text and put it away: Finnegans Wake was not written for you.

James Joyce

But by standard conventions

The text of Finnegans Wake (FW) is littered with typographical errors. Joyce’s handwritten notes and drafts were not easily legible, the language he used was experimental, and because of his failing eyesight he was unable to correct the galley proofs. In 2010 Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon brought out a newly corrected edition of the work, with about 9000 emendations to the text published in 1939 (Houyhnhnm Press Limited, Dublin). Recalling the controversy that surrounded Hans Walter Gabler’s corrected edition of Ulysses (which was initially praised by the critics before being discredited—allegedly—by Professor John Kidd of Boston University), it is perhaps not surprising that The Restored Finnegans Wake has not yet supplanted the previous editions. Rose has a reputation for slicing through Gordian knots and making editorial judgments that are not always in line with common practice:

The new text differs from the old in about 9000 instances. This sounds grander than it is. Finnegans Wake comprises some 220,000 words, or about six times that number of characters: letters, spaces and punctuation marks. The changes vary from corrections in the spellings of individual words (yes, even in Finnegans Wake such errors occur!) to the restoration of missing conjunctions and marks of punctuation, to the realignments of phrases (when these ended up other than where Joyce intended) and to the repair of inadvertently fragmented sentences. Overwhelmingly, the changes pertain to the syntax (the flow of the words) rather than to the semantics (their individual meanings). Syntactic changes are more important than they might at first seem. Finnegans Wake has often been described as music: as such, it is music of sense as much as it is music of sound, and, like all music, it must flow unhindered to be heard. (Rose & O’Hanlon ix-x)

The German conductor Otto Klemperer once recalled how Gustav Mahler continued to tinker with the score of his Eighth Symphony throughout the rehearsals for the World première:

He always wanted more clarity, more sound, more dynamic contrast. At one point during rehearsals he turned to us and said, If, after my death, something doesn’t sound right, then change it. You have not only a right but a duty to do so. (Heyworth 48)

Most modern editors would wink at such a sentiment: changing a text because it doesn’t sound right is surely out of the question, isn’t it? But for Rose and O’Hanlon this is arguably an important editorial principle, particularly in the case of a text like Finnegans Wake, which the author subjected to repeated and haphazard revision over the course of sixteen years:

The greater task lay in the restoration through emendation of the syntactical coherence of individual sentences as they underwent periodic amplification under the writer’s revising hand. What is important is that the root sentence, considered as a logical linguistic structure expressed through syntax, retains its essential structure irrespective of its often complex expansion. In practice, yet not invariably, damage to this coherence was corrected by Joyce or one of his helpers. Otherwise it is visible in collation as a simple error. In other instances the loss or part-absence of the syntactical structure was not noticed and, as the sentence was further amplified, the damage intensified, often to the extent that its original and essential coherence is irrecoverable short of a full genetic analysis. (Rose & O’Hanlon 522)

If the majority of Rose and O’Hanlon’s emendations hold up under academic scrutiny, then these two scholars have undoubtedly done a huge service to readers of Finnegans Wake. Although it is still too early to pass judgment, I am willing to take a chance: if you are new to Finnegans Wake, I recommend that you provide yourself with a copy of The Restored Finnegans Wake. This is the version I intend to use from now on—at least until it’s discredited.

For all their flaws, however, those earlier editions of the book have for the most part one curious feature in common: they reproduce the pagination of the editio princeps of 1939. The exceptions are the third and subsequent Faber editions, which are one line out of step with the editio princeps from page 548 through page 554. Until the publication in 2010 of The Restored Finnegans Wake, this helpful feature allowed commentators to refer to any passage in the book, knowing that most readers would be able to follow them no matter what edition of the book they were using.

References to the 1939 text—abbreviated as FW—are given in the conventional page-and-line notation, the interpretation of which should be obvious from the following examples:

FW 003.01: riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend

FW 213.11: Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you

FW 418.10: He larved ond he larved on he merd such a nauses

FW 572.07: — Wait!

The seventeen chapters of Finnegans Wake were divided by Joyce into four books, containing respectively eight chapters, four chapters, four chapters and one chapter each. These chapters are conventionally referenced by book and number using a combination of Roman and Hindi-Arabic numbers: I.1 (Book I, Chapter 1), I.8 (Book I, Chapter 8), II.2 (Book II, Chapter 2), etc.

In II.2, the left and right marginalia and the footnotes are referenced by line number thus:

FW 260.L05: Menly about


FW 262.F09: Begge. Goodbeg, buggey Begge.

The twelve questions into which I.6 is divided are referred to by the designations I.6.1 through I.6.12.

The Restored Finnegans Wake

The Restored Finnegans Wake—abbreviated as RFW—has abandoned the traditional pagination, so page-and-line references to this edition will be of no help if you are using an earlier edition of the book, and vice versa. Nevertheless, the same conventions apply to The Restored Finnegans Wake as to the editio princeps (I am using the 2012 Penguin Classics edition):

RFW 003.01: riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore

RFW 167.15: Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling

RFW 324.31: He larved onn he larved onn he merd such a nauses

RFW 445.18: ─ Wait!

RFW 205.L04: Menly about

RFW 206.R04: as constitutional.

RFW 206.F11: buggey Begge!

If you are using an etext of the book, none of these references will do you any good: the pagination will probably depend on the size of your screen. But the search function will quickly locate any passage you want, so page-and-line references are unnecessary. Note that Joyce’s “footnotes” in II.2 have been relegated to the back of the book in the etext—transforming them into endnotes—with hyperlinks to navigate back and forth between the text and the notes.

And that is probably enough to be getting along with for the time being:

Now, patience. And remember patience is the great thing. And above all things else we must avoid anything like being or becoming out of patience. (RFW 086.07-08)


  • James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, Faber & Faber Limited, London (1939)
  • Danis Rose, John O’Hanlon, The Restored Finnegans Wake, Penguin Classics, London (2012)
  • Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Preface, Ward, Lock & Company, London (1891)
  • Théophile Gautier, Mademoiselle de Maupin, Préface, Madame Poussin, Paris (1835)
  • Peter Heyworth, Otto Klemperer, His Life and Times, Volume 1 1885–1933, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1994)

Image Credits

  • Finnegans Wake Dust Jacket (Viking Press 1939): Anonymous
  • James Joyce: From the photographic portrait by Berenice Abbott (1928), Gift of Mr and Mrs William B Liebman (1955), © Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd Inc
  • Sweny Logo: Public Domain
  • The Restored Finnegans Wake © Copyright 2016 Eoin Ryan
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