Famous First Sentences: The opening of Finnegans Wake

Dublin Bay

from dlharbour.ie
from dlharbour.ie


This starts off as one of the most beautiful opening sentences I've ever read; and, no matter what you might think of the novel itself (if any of you get all the way through, would you let me know how it ends?), this first sentence has a power of its own.

    riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

As I said, it starts off as a lyrical paean to the beauty of Dublin Bay. But then it gets a bit bumpy with the language. It's funny, how Joyce chooses to meld the sublime into the uncomfortable, and this unwieldy phrase -- "commodious vicus of recirculation" -- is funny itself, like a pompous old man in an Edwardian suit and tie, har-umphing before he speaks.

Joyce loved words. Their plasticity and their ability, in English, to contain roots of other languages and to invent tendrils of new meaning when packed as in a portmanteau with varying shades of meaning. He literally couldn't help packing puns, double meanings, and paronomasia into his writing for scholars to drool over. Words are just too much fun to let them lie fallow, when they could be burgeoning.

Howth Castle


Past Eve and Adam's

Adam and Eve's is a Franciscan abbey on the south quays of the Liffey -- the river that flows through Dublin and out into the bay. ". . . riverrun, past Eve and Adam's" is starting the sentence, and the novel, in media res . Fittingly to the theme, the novel ends with the words "A way a lone a last a loved along the "; and the circular pattern is complete if we go back to the beginning from there.

So, if the book were a movie, we start with a view along the Liffey, past the quays, the abbey, and into the estuary, turning north and following the coast to where the land hooks south again, at Howth (where Molly Bloom said "yes" in Ulysses ). Everything swings around again, like the cycle of life itself, here echoed faintly in the circular landscape (see above).

Why "Eve and Adam's"? Ladies first, of course. It's also more sonorous, if one is gearing up, "past swerve of shore to bend of bay," to be pedantic. Or consciously verbose. But the words are all deliberate, so let's see what he's up to, here. "A commodious vicus of recirculation" is a very sesquipedalian way of saying the land curves round; the phrasing must, then, hold a key for us.

Lighthouse, Howth

from Wikimedia Commons
from Wikimedia Commons


In 1725 Giambattista Vico published his New Science , in which he detailed his ideas on the cyclical nature of history, the ricorsi or cycles of which fell into four repeating stages. He was a professor of rhetoric, so would have interested Joyce for a couple of reasons. Finnegans Wake (the first edition omitted the possessive apostrophe -- the pun is intended: both the wake for a dead Finnegan, but also the statement that Finnegans do wake, and the cycle begins again -- we continue the omission to distinguish between the novel and the popular eponymous Irish song) falls into four sections, or stages, too.

This awkward phrase, then: "a commodious vicus of recirculation," is the key for reading the novel. "vicus" is literally a village (from the Latin) that would have originally peopled the shore north of the Liffey, but it is also a nod to Vico. Another commentator has stated that it also refers to a "vicious circle." Whether vicious or not, the cycle is there.

Howth Head, that little insula at the northern tip of Dublin Bay, is gorgeous: a rough sentinel against the sea, rocky coast and heather behind on the hill. The environs, the surrounding area, figure in Joyce's work at important moments -- most famously as the location of Molly Bloom's answer, "yes." The trail to hike winds around the circular little almost-island to the top, and the views are beautiful.

My end is in my beginning

Joyce's streams of consciousness can be intimidating, obscure, but ultimately rewarding. And the more I study his work, the more humor I find in his plainspoken Dublin characters with their rich imaginations and their powerful gift of the gab. Finnegan's Wake is a book I can dip into at any point, and find wonderful passages of great erudition and beauty.

In a sense (pure academics might laugh at me here, but what the heck: they can kiss my Irish ass) Joyce was bringing to life here his understanding of the great continuum of being -- the ceaseless ebb and flow of history in its cyclical renewals. The opening focus on the river running into the sea is a strong enough image for us; and the fact that on Howth (as on any promontory of eminence in Ireland) ruins of an abbey echo the reference to Eve and Adam's only brings us full circle.

[N.B. Before Ireland succumbed to the Euro, Irish Five Punt notes had this opening sentence of Finnegans Wake printed on the back. There's a joke in there, somewhere. . . .]

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Comments 25 comments

Pete Maida profile image

Pete Maida 7 years ago

I have never read the story. I do love your description comparing it a pompous old man in an Edwardian suit and tie.

Candie V profile image

Candie V 7 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

Teresa, How would I ever read these books without your insight and clarification? Thank you for explaining things previously unclear, and with words I can't "get"! Lol! Thank you! Loved Pete's comment - brings it to a level I can imagine!

Iphigenia 7 years ago

"sesquipedalian" - blimey - had to look that one up.

This series is just wonderful - you have set my reading list for a couple of months ahead and I'm not sure where to start.

I love the pun on the title - 2 versions, one in the possessive. We wouldn't have known that as we will only see the version with the apostrophe.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Hey, Iphi -- thanks for drawing my attention back to the title -- later editions have continued the omission, so I was able to correct myself there. (You're a good editor!)

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Candie and Pete -- thanks for reading. People tend to be intimidated by Joyce because of all the notes and annotations scholars have seen fit to supply, but he's really a funny writer when you get past the fact that some of his puns are bilingual (or multilingual, in some cases).

2patricias profile image

2patricias 7 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

I would love to have the time and brain to read Finnegan's Wake. I think the only way I could possible manage it would be if you came over to my house and sat right next to me for about 2 weeks (or maybe 2 months).

From your disection of the opening line, I perceive that Joyce has a form in common with Greek poetry, where the most important part may be in the middle. You see - I didn't know that before, but now I think I'm one tiny step closer to being able to understand the book.

Thanks for another inspiring hub.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Hey, 2Pats -- yay! ain't it grand? That there Joyce fella was an omnilingual genius. . .

Cris A profile image

Cris A 7 years ago from Manila, Philippines

I haven't read the book. As far as Mr Joyce is concerned, I have only gotten as far as Ulysses and that's it! And since you yourself have yet to finish the book, why should I dare? LOL Anyway, your discussion of the locale brings to mind this wonderful movie called "The Secret of Roan Inish". Thanks for sharing, I always like attending your classes, it makes me feel intellectual :D

Haunty profile image

Haunty 7 years ago from Hungary

If I remember right either Joyce or Faulkner keeps the record of the longest English sentence ever. As a non-English speaker I guess I stick to the latter. What are my chances of understanding

Finnegans Wake?

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Hey, Cris -- thanks for being such a good student!

Haunty -- really, do you WANT to? sometimes it isn't necessary to understand something, when you can just let the words wash over you.

Haunty profile image

Haunty 7 years ago from Hungary

Oh yeah. How many times have I done that already... thanks for the reminder. :)

Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 7 years ago from United States

Finnegan's Wake is the biggest mental workout I ever had from any book including textbooks from advanced classes in subjects in which I am weak. I often want to go back to that particular tide of words but think better, or worse of it, due to the interruptus nature of my current existance. Thanks for writing so eloquently of this landmark work.

sixtyorso profile image

sixtyorso 7 years ago from South Africa

What an excellent lesson on Joyce. I got as far as reading selected passages of Ulysses in the toilet as a young prepubescent schoolboy! Ulysses was banned in SA for many years because of the language and content. But the same censors banned Anna Sewell's Black Beauty because they thought it was about a black female without realising it was a child's tale about a horse! They obviously never read the book. The ban was reversed on review, after much ridicule from the public.

James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

portmanteau? paronomasia? Now you're showing off! :D JK

I enjoyed this fascinating journey. You are in command, captain. Where will you lead us next? I'll tune in to see.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

(Grins) Joyce does that to ya (makes ya use big words). Thanks for reading, James!

Sixty -- yep, ignorance is the same everywhere. A schoolboard somewhere filed a complaint about the word "niggardly" from the Middle English nyggard, "stingy"), taking it as a racial slur. oops.

Tom, like Haunty and meself, fuggeddaboudit!

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

I like your advice to just let the words wash over you. I took a bath in your words tonight! LOL

LondonGirl profile image

LondonGirl 7 years ago from London

Honesty and confession time - I've never wholly got on with Joyce. I know I should, but I get impatient. My loss, clearly!

lxxy profile image

lxxy 7 years ago from Beneath, Between, Beyond

I really like this series, Tee. You always have interesting takes on literature.

I love it when an author writes in streams-of-conciousnessnessness.

It just produces some great things, and it feels more "real" for me.

Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 7 years ago from St. Louis

In college the reading list included "Portrait of the Artist..." I must have been like, WTF, because I can't remember a darn thing about it. I seem to remember thinking it was tedious. But I was an idiot. I'd like to give some Joyce another try. I am only part idiot now.

Versalon 233222332 6 years ago

this is the most rambunctious thing that i have ever read Sorry.

lawrence b lebin 6 years ago

i am currently half way through my third reading of the WAKE. how much do i understand? well, it gets a bit easier every time through. but i would warn anyone considering the undertaking that's it is a life time task. i have read, re-read, and taught DUBLINERS, PORTRAIT..., and ULYSSES. Still i vividly remember my first attempt. during a sabbatical i started with DUBLINERS again and read through ULYSSES before beginning the WAKE. i studied it day in and day out and kind of finished it, but understood little to nothing. even with the help of tindell, campbell/robinson, and reading about the WAKE can be very helpful, i was still unable to read much more than a page with any understanding at all. the best thing, i'm thinking now, is to tackle it on the web. just keep on googleing and surfing all the time collecting insights. and when you're ready start reading "riverrun....." Teresa it ends at the beginning and begins at the end.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 6 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thanks, guys, for all your comments.

Jon 6 years ago

By commodius vicus...

The nature of human institutions presupposes a conceptual language which is common to all nations.

p.84 Scienza Nueva Giambattista Vico

(duh ) )) )))

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 6 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Cool, eh?

Emily 6 years ago

I've always loved how the first sentence runs on from the last. I've heard the word 'cyclical' used to describe the writing and it reminds me of a river, how it sort of meanders along and everything ends up recycled in the end.

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