Priestly water-divining

U 8.34-40: No families themselves to feed. Living on the fat of the land […] Does himself well. No guests. All for number one. Watching his water. Bring your own bread and butter. His reverence: mum's the word.

When Bloom thinks of Catholic Simon Dedalus and his large family, his thoughts drift towards the self-serving mentality of priests. In the Hades episode he had already made a vitriolic comment on a well-nourished priest’s body: “belly on him like a poisoned pup” (U 6.598-9).

In the autumn of 1921 Joyce made an addition to the existing passage: “All for number one. Watching his water.” Even if the reader originally misses the pun on the famous No I beer of the Bass Brewery in the first sentence, Joyce fills in the details some 80 lines further on when Bloom comments on Benjamin Dollard: “Powerful man he was at stowing away number one Bass.” The second sentence, “Watching his water”, remains slightly baffling to the modern reader who suspects more to it than a reference to the priest’s stinginess - keeping an eye even on the water and expecting visitors to bring their own bread and butter.

The figurative use of the expression in the sense of scrutinising a person’s conduct is recorded by the OED as early as 1640. John Ray’s Compleat Collection of English Proverbs of 1678 testifies to its popularity: “I'll watch your water.”

Smollett’s Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) offers a good example:1

For you must no, Molly, I missed three-quarters of blond lace, and a remnant of muslin, and my silver thimble; which was the gift of true love: they were all in my work-basket, that I left upon the table in the sarvants-hall, when mistresses bell rung; but if they had been under lock and kay, 'twould have been all the same; for there are double keys to all the locks in Bath; and they say as how the very teeth an't safe in your head, if you sleep with your mouth open — And so says I to myself, them things could not go without hands; and so I'll watch their waters: and so I did with a vitness […]

Today this figurative sense of the phrase has, however, fallen out of use.

The origin of the expression lies in the former medical practice of uroscopy, or examining the patient’s water for evidence of disease, or – in the words of Henry Weber, editor of the 1812 edition of Beaumont and Fletcher Pilgrim:2

A metaphor, not over-delicate, taken from the medical creed of the time; the urine being then considered as the greatest criterion whereby to judge of the nature and progress of disease.

In the context of the Lestrygonians episode with its emphasis on food and bodily functions, this origin provides relevant undertones. The self-centred priest can thus be seen as a hypochondriac. As the following example shows this use was still known in Joyce’s day:

I also told him to watch his water carefully for any sign of a stone.

Medical Press and Circular (1907), 13 March, p. 285

Harald Beck


1 Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (London: 1771), vol. 1, p. 147.

2 Henry Weber (ed.), The works of Beaumont and Fletcher (1812), vol. 5 p. 464.

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