This is Zoe’s response to Bloom’s “Give me back that potato, will you?” As Don Gifford correctly states, Zoe’s verse is a conventional schoolchildren’s giving or exchange rhyme:
Give a thing … send you down below – Iona and Peter Opie (The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren [London, 1959], p. 133) cite an almost-identical verse from Laurencetown, County Galway. It occurs in children’s games that involve rituals of giving or swapping. (p. 510)
We should establish the chronology – that the rhyme predated Ulysses.
The earliest form
The general formula dates back in English at least until the sixteenth century, but different wording. The standard “proverb” reads: “Give a thing and take a thing, to wear the Devil’s gold ring”, and was associated with children as long ago as 1571, in John Bridges’s Sermon, preached at Paules Crosse on the Monday in Whitson weeke:
Shal we make God to say the worde, and eate his worde? To giue a thing, and take a thing, little children say, This is the diuels goldring, not Gods gift. (p. 29)
This traditional version is still recorded in the standard proverb sources today.
A Dublin alternative
Proverbs are very susceptible to alteration and adaptation, and this is precisely what happens in Ireland to the sober original of “Give a thing and take a thing”. Joyce’s version is more vigorous: “Give a thing and take it back / God’ll ask you where is that / You’ll say you don’t know / God’ll send you down below”.
The rhyme was well-enough known in Joyce’s day to be used in a debate in the Seanad Éireann in 1926. The British Government was challenged with withdrawing in 1926 guarantees to working people made under the Railways Act of 1924:
When I was at school there were a few lines we used to read, and I think they are repeated still:
Give a thing, take it back,
God will ask you where is that.
If you say you do not know
God will send you down below.1
But earlier than this, at the end of the nineteenth century, the rhyme had been discussed in Notes and Queries (1894: 24 March, p. 235), by “W. A. Henderson, Dublin”:
The mutability of children is well known; what is swopped or given to-day, is sought for, nay demanded back, to-morrow. […] Another rhyme, used in the same relation, lingers in my memory. –
Give a thing, and take it back,
God will ask you, What is that?
If you say you do not know,
He will send you down below.
The rhyme continued to be heard in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland (see the Opies, above), and is cited in Eilís Brady’s All in! All in! a selection of Dublin children’straditional street-games with rhymes and music (Baile Átha Claith: 1975):
The child who gives something and then wants to take it back is reminded:
Give a thing, Take it back,
God will ask you Where is that.
If you say you don’t know,
God will send you down below. (pp.18-19)
A literary sidelight
It appears that the original proverb underwent a parallel transformation in the world of book and book-collectors. There are many rhymes written into books to reinforce ownership and to warn off potential book-thieves. One echoes the children’s exchange rhyme cited above, and was frequently cited around 1900.2 Again the earliest reference comes from the scholarly review Notes and Queries (1899: 19 August, p. 153).
The curious warning subjoined – paradoxical in view of the improbability of any honest friend pilfering – has descended to our times from the days of black-letter printing: -
Steal not this book, my honest friend,
For fear the gallows be your end;
For if you do, the Lord will say,
"Where is that book you stole away?"
The writer continues with a version closer to that repeated by Joyce:
Another variant, often met this, is this: -
Steal not this book for fear of shame,
For in it is the owner’s name;
And when you die the Lord will say,
"Where is that book you stole away?"
Then, if you say you do not know,
The Lord will say, "Go down below";
But if you say you cannot tell,
The Lord will say, "Oh, go to h--."
The original proverbial rhyme “Give a thing and take a thing, to wear the Devil’s gold ring” dates back at least to the third quarter of the sixteenth century in England. By the later years of the nineteenth century it had developed at least two variants, one a warning of the dire consequences of book-theft, and another a children’s rhyme found in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland enjoining similar punishments on the child who gives something to another and then comes along later and demands it back. Perhaps Joyce was aware of both variants.