The pillow on the billow

U 13.1007-8: I leave you this to think of me when I’m far away on the pillow.

FW 445.29-30: but me far away on the pillow

For close to a century it was the obligation of any British schoolboy to learn “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna” by heart. Its author, the Reverend Charles Wolfe (1791-1823), a little-known Irish poet, first published it anonymously in 1817. It soon attracted speculation on its authorship: Shelley and Byron thought it was worthy of Thomas Campbell, others ascribed it to Byron.

Joyce would have found it hard to believe that the schoolboy pun he made use of would not be immediately spotted by readers of Ulysses, but neither Thornton nor Gifford nor Slote in their annotations mention its source in the sixth stanza of the poem:1

We thought, as we hollow’d his narrow bed,

And smooth’d down his lonely pillow,

That the foe and the stranger would tread o'er his head,

And we far away on the billow!2

It would have been a predictable slip of the tongue for a faltering schoolboy to repeat the word “pillow” from the second line to the gleeful laughter of his classmates.

Oddly enough another reference to the poem at U 16.1526-8 was identified by all three commentators mentioned above:

[… ] after the burial of a mutual friend when they had left him alone in his glory after the grim task of having committed his remains to the grave.

Harald Beck


1 McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake wrongly identifies the author as Thomas Campbell.

2 Remains of the late Rev. Charles Wolfe, ed. John Abraham Russel, (ed. 2, 1826), p. 30.

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