The spelling bee Bloom remembers was more than 40 years old in 1904. The Belfast News-letter of 26 August 1862 informs its readers:
The Earl of Carlisle mentioned several instances in which men of great mental calibre were unable to spell ordinary familiar words, and some doubt being expressed at the fact, his Excellency ventured to assert that he would repeat a single sentence, constructed of the most commonplace words, which very few of those who heard him would reduce to writing in strict conformity with Dr. Johnson’s canons in that case made and provided.
The challenge was at once accepted, and the following sentence was dictated by his Excellency: - ‘It is agreeable to see the unparalleled embarrassment of a harassed pedlar gauging the symmetry of a peeled pear.’ This sentence was submitted to the thirteen persons present all of whom transcribed it on slips of paper, when it was found that two of the whole number had spelt each and every word correctly!
Let any one who doubts the veracity of this story submit it to the same proof which triumphantly vindicated the orthographical prescience of your amiable Viceroy.
In Britain the test of spelling ability was typically attributed to the upper classes: the Earl of Carlisle (as above) or Lord Palmerston in the Huddersfield Chronicle of 25 September 1876:
Selections of Wit and Humour… Spelling. – The following short sentence was dictated by the late Lord Palmerston to eleven Cabinet Ministers, not one of whom, it is said, spelt it correctly: - 'It is disagreeable to witness the embarrassment of a harassed pedlar gauging the symmetry of a peeled potato'.
In America it was said to have more democratic origins. The Daily Gazette of Fort Wayne, Indiana of 5 February 1869 writes:
An Orthographical Puzzle. – The following sentence ...was first given to a teachers’ institute, at Boston, we believe, and a prize of one dollar offered for every instance in which every word was correctly spelled, and out of thirty-four competing, not one got the prize... We copy from the Toledo Blade, and find no less than three...:
It is agreeable business to perceive the unparalleled embarrassment of a harassed peddlar, guaging [sic] the symmetry of a peeled pear, which a sybil had stabbed with a poinard unheeding the inuendoes of the lilies of a carnelian hue, when on Wednesday last they endeavored to separate a niece and aunt.
The Freeman’s Journal was in on the act, too. On 12 March 1869 it too reported on another set of American teachers said to be making use of the puzzle:
A prize of ten dollars was offered by the Connecticut Teachers' Institute to any one who could spell the following lines without a mistake... 'It is an agreeable sight to witness the unparalleled embarrassment of a harnessed peddlar [sic] attempting to gauge the symmetry of a peeled onion, which a sibyl has stabbed with a poniard, regardless of the innuendos of the lilies of cornelian hue.'
In the same year it was published in Clarence J. Howard’s Book of Conundrums and Riddles (New York).
The spelling conundrum is mentioned quite regularly in the American and British/Irish newspapers from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. One imagines the sentence (which changes slightly with time) cannot have been too widely known, or it would have been no use as the tiebreaker in a spelling bee – and it seems it often had this function.
The precise version that Joyce used has not yet been found, but there is no doubt that he was tapping into an orthographical tradition current on both sides of the Atlantic from at least the mid nineteenth century.
The cemetery wall seems to be Bloom's invention put in on account of the funeral rather than the symmetry, but the link between ‘symmetry’ and ‘cemetery’ was not lost on earlier commentators. The Waterloo Daily Courier (Iowa) of 13 December 1897 had noted:
'It is agreeable to witness the unparalleled embarassment of a harassed peddler whilst gaging the symmetry of a peeled pear ...' One of the students made the peddler 'gaze on the cemetery of a pealed hair.'
See also 11.833: "Always find out this equal to that, symmetry under a cemetery wall."