Why does Simon Dedalus say – or at least suggest - that Limerick-born businessman, MP and civic reformer Charles Dawson is “changing his drink” when he hears Ned Lambert intoning a paragraph of “high” (= lofty, elevated) and florid prose from the newspaper? Why does this make Ned laugh? The questions have puzzled the Charles Peake seminar:1
"Changing his drink": we had trouble with this joke, inasmuch as it is either itself a bit 'high' for us – though not, it would seem, for Ned Lambert – or it is simply not one of Simon’s best. A reference to the effect of mixing one’s drinks, or to opting for something more expensive than the usual when it is someone else’s turn to pay for a round?
The origin of the joke seems to lie in the disjunction between Charles Dawson’s normally down-to-earth, sometimes humorous and “charming”, factual, nationalist rhetorical style and the sentimental, poetic mode Joyce chooses for the text ascribed to him in the newspaper. The following extracts show Dawson’s typical style of delivery:
I will not trouble you with all the details of land systems existing in Prussia and other German States prior to the establishment of the feudal system. Up to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the tiller of the soil held his land under the allodial system, when the peasant was in perfect possession.
Freeman’s Journal (1902), 31 January, p. 1
Mr. Dawson put before the Conference "one definite, concrete, practical, possible, and profitable antidote to emigration, viz., the re-planting of the waste lands in Ireland".
Irish Independent (1905), 13 October, p. 6
But the amusement stems partially from the use of the expression “changing his drink”. Although this sounds unusual to us today, it was in fact a common expression often used in the context of speech-making and reporting in Joyce’s day:
He had not long begun [his talk] when it appeared, from the yawning and sleepy appearance of his audience, that it was not stuff to their taste. He closed his paper, changed his drink, and gave them something extempore […] and there was no more sleeping.
Dundee Courier (1859), 14 December
"No," retorted Carpenter, instantly; "don't put him out; change his drink!" During the delivery of the so-called "Janesville speech", the effect of which was a matter of some anxiety to Mr. Carpenter, a confusion occurred at the rear of the hall [etc.].
Joseph Wesley Donovan Modern Jury Trials and Advocates (1881), p. 570
We are pained to notice that his habit of playing on the edge of the piano, two inches away from the keys, grows upon him, and he should either change his drink or his vocation.
Star (St Peter Port) (1883), 15 February
The editor of the Republican needs to adjust his glasses or change his drinks as he says "it was a bit ungracious" for us to not predict the election of Judge Glenn in our acrostic, "Signs of the Times", last week.
Hartford Herald (Hartford, Kentucky) (1917), 17 October, p. 4
At times the expression was commandeered for more explosive contexts:
They are changing the drinks on us; they are using new and different kinds of high explosive shells, and it is only natural that surgery in war ischanging because of the effect on the tissues when we get a new deal.
Battle Training of Medical Officers during the Great War (pt. 2) (1918) (United States Army Sanitary School, Langres, France)
Changing one’s drink involved changing from one type of drink to another – and typically from beer to something stronger, such as brandy. If Charles Dawson had really “changed his drink” in this way, we can see how his earthy, factual rhetorical speaking style might have become laughingly transformed into early Victorian purple poetics.