Heaven

Treading water to paradise



U 6.448-51: Cheaper transit. By easy stages. Houseboats. Camping out. Also hearses. To heaven by water. Perhaps I will without writing. Come as a surprise, Leixlip, Clonsilla. Dropping down lock by lock to Dublin. With turf from the midland bogs. Salute.


In ‘Hades’ Bloom contemplates various modes of travel and various modes of death, playing with the idea of going “to heaven by water”.

     The idea of going to heaven by water is not new to Joyce, but it has had several meanings over the years. The editor of John Heywood’s Playe called the foure PP [= Ps: the palmer, the pardoner, the (a)pothecary, and the pedlar], originally published in 1544, interprets the expression as implying drinking:

Potycary. Sende ye any soules to heuen by water

Pardoner. If wee dyd syr what is the mater

Potycary. By god, I haue a drye soule shulde thither. (sig. A3)

     A century later John Waite’s lecture The way to heaven by water concomitated, by the sweet-breathing gales of the spirit: wherein, the point of originall sinne is touched; infants baptisme justified, and how far the guilt of originall sinne, in the elect, is therein ordinarily removed, &c., published in 1645, introduces the idea of baptism as the true route to heaven. And this meaning is also found in Edmund Hickeringill’s Scandalum Magnatum (1682, Postscript, p. 106):

Nor does the Rubrick say, that Men are bound to take a pair of Oars, and go by Water to Fulham to be confirmed---as if men were dipt with the Error Anabaptistical, and thought it necessary to go to Heaven by Water, (more then needs.)

     At roughly the same time we find that the lover Alciana:

returned to a fresh cariere of weeping, as if shee meant to send up her griefe  to heaven by water to procure redresse. (part 1, p. 82)

in Cloria and Narcissus (1653), associating weeping as the means of expressing her grief to heaven.

     But Joyce is calling on the tradition that identifies drowning as the road to heaven by water (in the context of Paddy Dignam’s/Matthew Kane’s funeral), and in this he draws on a classical tradition given voice in Robert Stapylton’s translation of Juvenal’s eleventh satire:

Since to come sup with me, th' hast promis'd now

Thy host EVANDER I will be; and thou

HERCULES; or AENEAS, lesse then he,

But JOVE'S Relation in the next Degree:

And for this Son and Granchild when he sent.

     The first in fire, the last by water went.1

     The relevant line of Juvenal’s satire (which happens to mention Ulysses a few lines earlier) runs:

Alter aquis, alter flammis ad sidera missus.2

     Stapylton’s commentary explains the reference:

Verse 80. The last by water.] Aeneas, treated by Evander a long time after Hercules was burned, went  to heaven by water; for he got his death by a fall into the Numician Well; some say he was drowned in it, and the Fountain it self consecrated to his Deity. Tibull. [p. 407]

     This is not to imply that Joyce read Stapylton. The expression had a long history with the sense of “drowning”. We find it in Thomas Hutchinson’s History of Massachusetts-Bay (1765, p. 85):

In her [a ship] went passenger Mr. Grigson, one of the magistrates, in order to solicit a patent, and eight or ten more considerable persons, who, to use Mr. Cotton's expression, all went to heaven by water, the ship never being heard of after their sailing.

and, in 1813, in the Monthly Magazine and & Literary Journal (1 April, p. 361):

The Clergyman was exceedingly frightened and immediately turned pale, they however reached the shore safe […] "Ah!" said the Rev. Sir, "I cannot be reconciled to go to heaven by water."

     Of numerous other references in the nineteenth century – some retelling medieval English and French stories – the most relevant to Joyce relate to the death of Ophelia.  The poet Theodore Hook’s skit on Hamlet in the Universal Songster of 1834 (sung to the air “Lunnon is the Devil”) includes the verse:

Hamlet lov’d a maid,

Calumny had pass'd her,

She never had play'd tricks,

'Cause—nobody had asked her;

Madness seiz'd her wits,

Poor Lord Chamb'rlain's daughter,

She jump'd into a pond,

And went to heaven by water.

Tooral, looral, lay, ti, rol, &c.3

     W. H. Maxwell’s “Boulogne en route to Paris” in Bentley’s Miscellany (1849) seems to allude to this song (or a similar one):

"[She] rashly resolving to commit herself and sorrows to the friendly bosom of the Thames."

"Which means," said the ruthless owner of the gouty show, "what the old song would term, an intention, like the gentle Ophelia’s, of

            'Going to Heaven by water!'"4

     The song was persistent. Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly of May 1886 comments on “Curious Suicides”:


The world often hears of suicides through love. Two young people meet and admire each other, then admiration is succeeded by passion, and, hey presto! Unless they wed, all the world seems awry, and they take poison or go, like Ophelia, "to heaven by water", as the old song puts it.5

     It seems that the expression had a long pre-history in song before appearing en passant  in Ulysses.

John Simpson


Search by keyword (within this site)


1 Robert Stapylton in Juvenal’s Mores Hominum (1666), p. 396.
2 Translated by G. G. Ramsay in the Loeb Classical Library parallel text (1918) as “the one by water, the other borne by fire, to the stars”.
3 The Universal songster: or, Museum of mirth (1834), volume 1, page 184. The song starts in pseudo-epic style “A Hero’s life I sing […]”.
4 Bentley’s Miscellany (1849), vol. 26, p. 78.
5 Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly (1886), May p. 544