Two poetic snippets: row me o’er the ferry (U 6.447-8) and maledictive stones (U 12.144)

1) row me o’er the ferry

In Ulysses 6.438-452 the funeral cortege of Paddy Dignam passes over the Royal Canal at Crossguns Bridge. Bloom reflects (447-8) on “Developing waterways. James McCann’s hobby to row me o’er the ferry.” James McCann has been identified as chairman of the Grand Canal Company, which maintained a fleet of trade boats on the canal. (He died in February 1904 and, as Don Gifford notes (Ulysses Annotated, p. 114) is a definite candidate for the role of Charon in this episode.)

The phrase “to row me o’er the ferry” derives from the poem Lord Ullin’s Daughter, by the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844). The poem’s opening stanza reads:

A chieftain to the Highlands bound

Cries, "Boatman, do not tarry!

And I’ll give thee a silver pound

To row us o’er the ferry!"

(Bloom slightly alters the last line, or perhaps Joyce did.) The poem was a very popular one in its day, appearing in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. It must be said that it is not a great advertisement for transport by water, since the chieftain and his lover, Lord Ullin’s daughter, end up drowned while being pursued by Lord Ullin and his men.

The use of the word "ferry" in this sense (OED: a passage or place where boats pass over a river etc. to transport passengers and goods) is all but obsolete now and was probably obscure in 1904, but Bloom is thinking mainly of the line from Campbell. He has, it seems, found a poetic way of describing what McCann did in his profession and seems to understand the general sense of the line.

Incidentally, the first stanza of another poem by Campbell, The Exile of Erin, forms the basis of Finnegans Wake pages 148.33-149.10.

Thomas Campbell (1777-1844)

Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Ferguson (1810–86) Wikimedia Commons

2) maledictive stones

In his annotation to “maledictive stones” (U 12.1448) Don Gifford writes:

A heap of stones piled (and added to) as the monument to a disaster. It was traditional to add a stone as one passed such a monument in token of one’s humility in the face of disaster; the superstition also suggested burying the disaster so that it would not rise again.

Ulysses Annotated, pp. 361-2

This note is erroneous.

Much more pertinently, the most recent annotator of Ulysses, Sam Slote, cites William Stokes in The Life and Labours in Art and Archaeology of George Petrie (London: 1868). Stokes describes “maledictive stones” (p. 295-6) as:

A Pagan practice, in use among the Lusitanian as well as the insular Celts […] "They are round stones, of various sizes […] These stones are turned and […] their order changed by the inhabitants on certain occasions […] to wish good or evil to their neighbours."

Ulysses, annotated by Sam Slote (London: 2012), p. 720

This is by far the more accurate definition: further information about the use of these stones, more commonly called “cursing stones” (I’m not sure there is much evidence that they were ever used to wish good to people) is available in Peter Harbison: Pilgrimage in Ireland: The Monuments and the People (Syracuse University Press: 1995) p. 301.

A more specific allusion may be intended by the Ulysses reference, however: this is to the poem The Burial of King Cormac by Samuel Ferguson. This poem has already been (mis)remembered by Bloom in Lestrygonians (8.663-7), and the circumstances with which it deals are again referred to by Stephen in Ithaca (17.30-6).

The poem includes the lines (after King Cormac has renounced paganism and foretold the arrival of Christianity and the druids are planning their revenge):

They loosed their curse against the king;

They cursed him in his flesh and bones;

And daily in their mystic ring

They turned the maledictive stones, …

Ironically, the note by Stokes which Slote cites is itself taken from Ferguson's own note on "maledictive stones" (in Lays of the Western Gael, London: 1865, p. 240).

Taken on its own, the Ulysses reference to “maledictive stones” might not be enough to establish a connection with Ferguson’s poem, but the presence of the poem or its context at other points in the text makes it likely that this is indeed an allusion to The Burial of King Cormac.

Terence Killeen

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