Mulligan jokingly suggests that the new art color for Irish poets is “snotgreen.” The color green is not a trivial thing to the Irish, especially not in 1904, when the memory of the Penal Laws (which repressed Catholicism and symbols of Irish identity) would still have been present. At this moment in history, Irish identity, and the future of Irish identity, is up for grabs. There is a newly emerging school of scholars and artists who are turning back to the native culture of Ireland as the source of its future–people are just starting to learn the Irish language again and read ancient Irish poetry. Mulligan is basically making fun of this. Instead, he’s looking to ancient Greece, perhaps thinking about a new Irish classical age. But Stephen isn’t much interested in this either. I’ll suggest that instead of looking backward into history, Stephen is looking towards the new artistic capital of Paris.
In the second panel, Rob has drawn Mulligan and Stephen in an odd pose. Stephen seems to be surprised in mid-phrase, and Mulligan is reaching into his pocket. Specifically he “thrust his hand into Stephen’s upper pocket.” It’s an interesting moment, one that the comic allows us to show the body language for. Mulligan is intruding, being forward, in Stephen’s space. “Thalatta thalatta” means, unsurprisingly, “The sea, the sea!” It’s from Xenophon. You can look it up…
A small textual point–there’s an omission in this early draft–Mulligan says “Lend us a loan of your noserag to wipe my razor” –we left out the “your.” Also, in the Rosenbach manuscript, Mulligan’s first mention of the sea in this moment is “she is our “great” sweet mother.” That’s in Joyce’s handwriting, and it’s quite clear. It’s repeated a few lines later. But in his errata for the first edition, Joyce specified that he wanted this to be “grey” sweet mother. A nice allusion to grey-eyed Athena, Odysseus’ protector, but otherwise obscure.
And as for the Greek– “Epi Oinopa Ponton” means (according to Gifford) “upon the winedark sea,” a common epithet in Homer’s Odyssey. This is another moment when I wonder if Joyce was raising another flag to his readers… “Hey! The Odyssey! It’s important!” We know the Odyssey is important now, eighty years after it was published… but this might have been a more useful to early readers.