Episode 11

A brief guide to “Sirens”

Prepared by Danis Rose

2021 edition Ulysses pages 285-324
2017 edition Ulysses pages 230-261
1922 edition Ulysses pages [245]-279

Thursday 16 June, 1904: 3.39 to 4.40 p.m., The Ormond Hotel, Ormond quay.


TITLE and SENSE: Sirens. The Sweet Cheat.
SCENE: The Concert Room
HOUR: 4 p.m.
ART: Music
SYMBOL: Barmaids
TECHNIC: Fuga per canonemm1

‘Sirens’ is the fricasseed, unnerving, musical, pub-scene episode structured (the author assures us) as a “fuga per canonem” in eight “regular” parts.

Historically, it may well have been the episode in which the dark-eyed Bloom first steps into Ulysses, and then only belatedly, as a fleshing-out of a reference to Molly by one of the drinkers in the bar. That said, it is one of Joyce's most masterful pieces of writing. The hour — at four, she said — of the adulterous assignation approaches, and our hero knows it. Time ticks inexorably forward: the minute-hand of the clock clacks out its endless circle. Bloom, ropey and distracted, fiddles at his liver-and-steak snack and half-listens to the piano-playing and singing of the insouciant afternoon-men in Mrs Nora de Massey's Ormond hotel, served and titillated by saucy Miss Douce and sweet Miss Kennedy.m2

The episode devolves upon the Ormond Hotel at No. 8, Ormond Quay, upper. Bloom's approach to the hotel is roundabout. We meet him first coming up from Merchant's Arch, then walking along Wellington Quay, by the shop of Daniel Moulang, jeweller and pipe importer at No. 31, by Bernard Wine's, general dealer in jewellery and antiquities at No. 35, past Aaron Figatner's, diamond setter at No. 26, by the “blessed virgins” of Aurelio Bassi & Co., statue and picture frame maker at No. 14, and by the picture-frame and looking-glass factory of Peter Ceppi and son at Nos. 8 and 9.

He is on two minds where best to eat: the Clarence Commercial Hotel at Nos. 6 and 7 or at the Dolphin in the next street? As it happens, he chooses neither, opting to cross Essex-bridgem3 and dine at the Ormond Hotel at No. 8, Ormond Quay, upper. He stops on the way to purchase stationery at Teresa Daly's, the tobacconist's, at No. 1. Coming out, he spots Boylan for the third time that day as he crosses over Essex (“Yessex”) Bridge in a jaunting car, warm-seated, warm-buttocked, atrot, ardent, bold.

Watching Boylan swagger into the hotel, Bloom decides, in an out-of-character show of bravado, to follow the bounder in, but shuns a direct encounter with his rival. He enters the dining room, dines, responds discreetly to his correspondent Martha Clifford, if surreptitiously (he is under the gaze of his chance dinner companion, Richie Goulding: the worst liar in Dublin, as the saying goes, yet un-hanged). Finishing up, with Blazes already by now inside the Eccles Street home, he leaves for his appointment at the courthouse in Green Street, up the road.

He has arranged to meet up with Martin Cunningham before they call on Paddy Dignam's widow. (“Barney Kiernan's I promised to meet them. Dislike that job. House of mourning.”)

Midway through the episode, while Bloom is still heavily distracted, nay, turbulently thought-crossed, Boylan, boiling with impatience, impatient with Lenehan (“the essence of vulgarity”), leaves the adjacent bar. He has a hot appointment and is itching to keep it. Accordingly, he hops back onto a jaunting car to head across the city to Eccles Street, dismounts, and knocks cockily at the door of 7, precisely as Bloom despondently recollects the graveyard rodent he had earlier espied in Hades, to wonder “where that rat is now”.

His dinner done, passing out of the saloon, past the rocks, out of earshot on the day-bright open street, deeply, climactically, pathetically, earthily, Bloom, in ultimate resignation, slowly, lowly, sonorously farts. The grounding act restores to him his sense of corporality after the sickly ethereality of the music in the glaucous bar-room. Our wanderer finally shuffles off on his continuing Odyssey, un-reconciled, unrequited, irresolute, unresisting, and indifferent to the sentimentality of the songs, to charms, to contrasts, to seductions. He is his own man: or, perhaps, his own half-a-man.

But before he looks for Cunningham he has a small matter to attend to: money for Martha. He decides to pick up a postal order at the nearby town sub-post office, money-order and savings-bank office at No. 34. He makes it (in the reader's view) only as far as Lionel Marks, antique dealer, watchmaker, jeweller and picture frame maker at No. 16.m4


Sirens = Misses Douce and Kennedy
Isle = Bar
Bloom = Odysseus
Ormond Hotel = Anthemoissa
Piano-tuner = Jason

Sirens is seeped and stewed in music-hath-charms and while Bloom is not unmoved by it in the end he rejects it: it “gets on your nerves.” He sails past it and gives vent to the physical music of his own corporality: a slow, extended stream of flatulence from the bass of his posterior.

Like the Sirens, there are two would-be seductresses in the Ormond Hote;, standing in for the island of Anthemoissa: Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy. To allure, the barmaids use their voices less than they do their bodies: song, in Joyce's version, emanates from the ogling boozers at the bar.

Joyce's list of persons in the Gorman schema is rather odd, as it includes Leucothea, Orpheus, Menelaus, alongside the Argonauts.m5

Orpheus is mentioned in passing in Homer as a lyrist drowning out the voices of the Sirens, thereby enabling Jason and his ship, the Argo, to pass safely by, but he has nothing to do with Odysseus. He resurfaces here as the (absent) blind piano-tuner, who has left behind his tuning-fork (his lyre). Menelaus, who wrestled with Proteus, is even more incongruous, as he remains far off in Lacedaemon.m6

Odysseus manages to survive the lure of the Sirens and to continue his journey. So too does Bloom, shaking off the momentary torpor induced by the syrup of sentimentality in the mid-afternoon quayside hotel.

THE ODYSSEY, 12 (Sirens)

The Sirens
Setting: The island of Anthemo√ęssa

The Achaeans return from dismal Hades to Kirke's Aiaia briefly to see to the ritual burial of Elpenor, whose corpse they had left there on the ground and they make a fire under it and the flames consume it, along with his armour, and lastly, they raise a mound over the ashes and on the top fix Elpenor's oar of polished pine.

Kirke now addresses Odysseus, saying he must now sail past the place of the otherworldly Sirens. To avoid joining the mouldering bones there, he must plug the ears of his men with softened beeswax. If he personally wishes to hear their seductive song, he must first be bound with thick rope to the mast, head to foot. Once the danger has passed, he must choose a route homeward, either by the Wandering Rocks or by six-headed Skylla and, close to her, the whirlpool Charybdis. And as no man other than Jason has sailed unscathed through the passage by the Rocks, and even the dove cannot fly by it without harm, it is better for him to avoid it and take the other sea-route, perilous as it is, and to sail by Skylla and lose some of his crew to her than to lose all to crazed Charybdis. On passage beyond the monster's narrow reach, they will upon the island of Thrinakria where the spiral-horned cattle of Helios feed in the lush grass, neither giving birth nor dying, but living as eternal beasts. No harm must come to these or shipwreck will surely follow and all hands perish, save perhaps his own.

On hearing Kirke's premonitions, Odysseus keeps his own counsel and tells none of the perils ahead. The Achaeans meanwhile feast and sleep and two days pass and on the third day they go down to the sea at first light and board their black ship.

Carried by a fair wind to the island of the Sirens, they sail then into absolute calm. As instructed, Odysseus fills the ears of his companions with wax, and the men lash him upright to the mast. Setting hands on their polished oars, they row the ship past and, in this way, protected from the seductive sound, sail swiftly, safely, by.

Odysseus, bound, alone hears the compelling song and is moved, but cannot move.