A mess of four

U 9.890-2: They list. Three. They.

I you he they.

Come, mess. […]

He had three brothers, Gilbert, Edmund, Richard.

Gifford annotates the cryptic word “mess” in this passage as follows: “To ‘mess’ is obsolete or dialect for to portion out food, to serve a dish”. However, he does not take into account that this meaning does not make any sense in the context.

A glossary such Robert Nares’s gives a clear indication of what Joyce intended when he put the word into Stephen’s interior monologue:

As at great dinners of fests the company was usually arranged into fours, which were called messes and were served together, the word came to mean a set of four, in a general way. […] Hence Shakespeare says:

You three fools lacked me fool to make up the mess. (L.L.L., iv, 3)

Where are your mess of sons? (3 Hen. VI,I,4)

Namely, his fours sons, Edward, George, Richard, and Edmund earl of Rutland.

Robert Nares Glossary (London 1822), vol. 2, p. 566

This last example is so close to the context of Ulysses that there can be little doubt that the mess Stephen has in mind is not only the one made up of Mulligan, Lyster, Best and Eglinton, but also William, Gilbert, Edmund and Richard Shakespeare.1

Stephen goes on to say: “an Edmund and a Richard are recorded in the works of sweet William.” (9.898-9). Stephen’s “They list. Three” is confusing as it seems to refer to his listeners who, however, had just become four again as Lyster rejoined the group.

The first translations by Goyert and Morel read “mess” as an abbreviation of “messieurs”. Joyce took the word (without a dot to suggest an abbreviation) from a longer list of words to be found at the end of the first Scylla draft in the NLI (36,639/8C). This list was obviously extracted from a glossary of Shakespearean/Elizabethan drama while he was in Zurich, and so recourse to “messieurs” seems rather unlikely as an explanation, especially as the OED’s first quotation for that usage dates from only 1750.

Harald Beck


1 A “mess” was originally a portion or a group: a portion of food, etc., as in the biblical “mess of potage”, or a group of people or other things. OED’s obsolete sense 4 reads: “A company or group of four persons or things”, and is illustrated from the early sixteenth century (Skelton) to the early nineteenth century. The sense of a “mess” as some disordered dates only from the nineteenth century.

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