This chapter is a sort of dream sequence, quite possibly of our now shamed hero Here Comes Everybody, as we left him unconscious on the pub floor at the end of Book 2.3. There seems to be little connection to the main story, but that is probably true about most of the book anyway. It opens with a poem about a chap named Mark, who loses his shirt and trousers in a dark park. He appears quite full of himself and is described in the poem:
‘You’re the rummest old rooster ever flopped out of a Noah’s ark
And you think you’re the cock of the walk.’
But apparently he isn’t the cock of the walk, that accolade goes to Tristan, a young fellow who is wooing a beautiful maiden, Isolde. Whilst they go about the general business of being lovers – including canoodling on a fifteen inch love seat – they are watched secretly by four dirty old men, known as the Four Masters. They are:
Matt Gregory – wears a ‘saltwater hat’ and is a ‘queenly man’
Luke Tarpey – possibly Welsh
Johnny MacDougall – wears half a tall hat. The other half he lost to someone called Lally, who also took other belongings from him.
The Four Masters seem to represent Matthew, Mark, Luke and John whilst also being related to the four elements of earth, wind, fire and water. They are old men, all divorced by their ‘shehusbands’, who reminisce endlessly about their own past conquests and the many lovers who have left them. As they spy on Trstian and Isolde, they repeat themselves constantly about their memories, which revolve around women, education, the great flood, auctioneers and drinking.
The theme of repetition is presented as the Four Masters (and mankind in general) being destined to repeat the same mistakes:
‘…when hope was there no more, and putting on their half a hat and falling over all synopticals and a panegyric and repeating themselves…’
They eventually implore the Almighty to release them from this cycle so that they are able to die – which they eventually do (‘happily buried’), having forgotten all their memories.
Meanwhile, we are presented with some sort of alternative creation story and tales of a lot of people dying at sea. The education system is mocked and there is a bearded Queen who has various dealings with Roneo and Giliette. These two undoubtedly reference Romeo and Juliette, but I can’t help thinking it would be better if it was Gillette; not only could the bearded Queen sort out her face fuzz, but she could claim to be ‘the best a man can get’. Anyway.
HCE laughs at Welshman Tom Tim Tarpey and four middle-aged widowers, who are no doubt the Four Masters.
A woman plots to kill a man (possibly HCE) with a pair of borrowed curling tongs.
Biddy is writing her memoirs, which are being serialised in Grocery Traders Monthly magazine! (Someone should really write some fan fiction based around this, I think).
The chapter – and, indeed, Book 2 – ends with a poem about Tristian and Isolde, in which he proposes to her and she accepts. But somehow the suggestion of an undisclosed tragic ending to their tale looms large.
I have various thoughts about what this is all about, but they are pure conjecture. Repetition is a device that has been employed liberally by Joyce since the beginning and there are two purposes for this of which I am certain. The first is to draw the reader’s attention to aspects of the tale which are important. The second, I believe, is to evoke particular feeling and atmosphere within the reader. Often the words of a passage are irrelevant and it is the soundscape they create upon the tongue and mind where the meaning is found.
There is no concrete reality or true narrative in Finnegans Wake, making it impossible to tell unconscious from conscious thought and truth from gossip, rumour and myth. In some ways this makes it the most realistic of novels as real life is endlessly interwoven with our different perspectives and understandings of people, events and the world at large. It makes for bloody complicated reading, though.
‘The new world presses. Where the old conk cruised now croons the yunk.’
Even if I knew what a conk and a yunk were, it still probably wouldn’t make much sense.
‘…and he was so sorry, he was really, because he left the bootybutton in the handsome cab and now, tell the truth unfriend never,’
I would be sorry to misplace a bootybutton, for sure.