Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 12, 2020

My Little Pony: Literary Text Edition

The first time I remember noticing the ponies in class was in second year of high school Latin. They may have been present in Latin I, but it wasn’t until we started reading portions of Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War that they proliferated.

For generations, Caesar’s been responsible for the presence of ponies in countless classrooms.

Of course, any student who takes a pony into class does his or her best to hide it.

Riding a Pony Through Gaul

First, the basics. Our English word pony arrived in the mid 17th century from Scots powny. It stemmed from Middle French poulenet, little foal (French still retains related words), before that from — ironically, in the present context — Latin pullanus, the young of an animal.

At some time — which I cannot find documented — the term pony became associated with a translation or “crib” used by students to fake their way through texts like the Commentaries, The Iliad, etc. One was, essentially, “riding a pony” instead of having to translate those unfamiliar noun cases and sentences with mystifying word order.

Where Did They Get Those?

To this day, I don’t know where so many of my classmates secured those ponies. In at least one case, a guy had the one handed down from an older brother. As for the others, perhaps they were simply cleverer and more resourceful than I, seeking out translations of Caesar in some bookstore. Lacking imagination, I didn’t think of that.

In any event, I did not ride through Gaul with Caesar and the legions; I walked: slowly.

The Present Case

Why this comes to mind is because I have, at this moment, a couple of ponies on my desk to assist with deciphering not a text in Latin or Greek, but English. English, at least, of a particular stripe.

I’ve determined it’s time to try seriously to re-read James Joyce’s Ulysses. I did it once — after a fashion — not quite 50 years ago.  After dithering endlessly, I’ve decided not to go it solo, but to ride a couple of ponies.

Joyce ponies Brad Nixon 8979 680

One need not necessarily follow a guide. Ulysses is, after all, written in English … mostly: except for a number of Irish place names, words, phrases and songs in some other languages, including Latin. Educated by the Jesuits, Joyce probably made it through Caesar without a pony. Not to mention words Joyce invented, sometimes adaptations or portmanteau words, other times purely onomatopoetic words or … well, there are some challenges.

Joyce’s book is densely packed with multiple layers of meaning, inference and association, with a reputation for being somewhere between difficult and impenetrable. It is difficult, but not impossibly so.

One bit of background to know is that the book’s structured on a framework deriving from Homer’s Odyssey, describing the hero, Odysseus, as he spends ten years making his way back from the Trojan War.

Opening my copy of the book for the first time in decades, I encountered the document below.

Ulysses chapters 680

Produced in a now obsolete technology called mimeograph, that’s a list of Joyce’s 18 chapters, with the corresponding names of the episodes in Homer. I must have gotten that from one of my professors. Don’t worry, even the most basic summary of Ulysses will give you that information without relying on some ancient artifact.

The Big One

The primary challenge for one who aspires to get as much as reasonably likely out of Ulysses is the way Joyce adapted a dizzying amount of personal experience into his book.  He packed it full of actual people, events and places he knew from his early years in Dublin. One can still appreciate the book without knowing all these details, so one’s approach to Ulysses is a matter of weighing how much effort to invest in background vs. story..

One way to get at an overview of those references is Richard Ellman’s authoritative and deeply researched biography, James Joyce. You won’t come away from Ellman knowing all the Ulysses references, but you’ll gain some familiarity with how Joyce wove his own experiences into the fabric of the novel.

Send in the Ponies

One could read Ulysses with a certain amount of help from dictionaries, online resources. In the end, I’ve decided to have two guides handy. One, which I’ve seen before, is Anthony Burgess’ Re Joyce — in the UK titled Here Comes Everybody. A longtime student of Joyce’s work, Mr. Burgess isn’t encyclopedic in his approach, but a reliable guide.

The second, I’m exploring for the first time: The New Bloomsday Book, by Harry Blamires. More of an episode-by-episode, event-by-event explication of the characters, action and themes, I hope it’ll prove useful.

Off to the Horizon

How will I do? I’ll let you know. Saddle the ponies.

© Brad Nixon 2020. James Joyce, New and Revised Edition, © Richard Ellman, Oxford University Press, New York, 1982. Re Joyce, © Anthony Burgess 1965, W.W. Norton, New York. The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses, © Harry Blamires, 1988, Routledge, New York/London. I’m reading Ulysses, James Joyce, Vintage Books, New York, 1986.


  1. Oh man! I did not realize Lebanon still taught Latin in school!
    Mom would occasionally sing ‘Marzidotes’ in Latin from her school days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think she would’ve had the same teacher as I, but I’m not certain. Miss Corwin, my teacher, was somewhat older, but I think arrived later.
      Even had that been the case, mentioning that I knew the Valedictorian of ’47 would only have resulted in some comparison that would not have redounded to my credit.
      It was difficult enough to follow the footsteps as the son of that classmate of Ms. M’s. There were a handful of teachers still on the faculty from their day, including the Biology teacher.
      We did not learn Marzidotes in Latin, but I do know that little lamsey-divey, courtesy of Mom.


  2. Analogous to pony as ‘a friendly animal that you ride from non-understanding to understanding’ is the coach (i.e. trainer, tutor) that metaphorically carries you from untrained to a state of mastery. That sense was originally British university slang. Now hardly any native speaker would suspect that a coach in football and a coach drawn by horses are the same word.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s fascinating, thank you. No, it would never have occurred to me that coach and coach were related in an analogous way.
      You’re very likely aware — something I learned in the course of writing this, but left out, since I was running long — that our “foal” is also cognate with Latin pullanus, following a P to F consonant shift … although I didn’t pursue it any further than that.
      And just to be clear, I don’t know these etymologies off the top of my head.
      Appreciate your taking time to comment.


  3. I don’t recall any ponies at school when we did Caesar. I could certainly have done with one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You may have been at a more advanced institution with sharper students than I! Or perhaps a sterner instructor.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sterner instructor is most likely right. Latin was taken seriously in my school and so we had serious teachers who frowned on short cuts.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Not a milieu I was familiar with in my high school — for the most part.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I vaguely remember hearing the term ‘pony’ used in this way, but I’m not sure if I heard it in school, or read it in a book. What I do remember are the (in)famous Cliffsnotes, which seem to have functioned in somewhat the same way. In the middle of the Wiki page about those, I found this: “In 2011, CliffsNotes announced a joint venture with AOL and reality TV show producer Mark Burnett to introduce a series of 60-second video study guide surveys of literary works.”

    I wonder what they would have done with Ulysses? One thing’s for sure; if you’re going to pony up for a pony, you’d best get one better than a 60-second video.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I suspect there IS a Cliff’s Notes version of Ulysses, although I’m with you, I’d watch the 60 second video, no question.
      I’ve come across the Classics Illustrated versions of both Iliad and Odyssey, but I’ve never checked to see if there was ever one of Ulysses.

      Liked by 1 person

    • And, FYI, there’s a delightful graphic novel series of In Search of Lost Time. I’ve lost track of who published it. This is my own reminder to see if I can make a note of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “Ponies” as a term not referring to horses? Once again you have enlightened me. As I’m nearing 70, better late than never! I was aware of Cliff’s Notes in high school and college, but I shunned them in favor of doing things the hard way. Did it make any difference? I can’t be sure, even this late in the game.

    As for Ulysses, well, I read a short stream of consciousness passage in it once, and decided it was way beyond me. Good luck in your endeavors. I just don’t have the patience, even if, as a retiree, I do have the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Why there are so many books; many paths to tread.


  6. How do you use your ponies? Read them all first, then go to Ulysses? Or look at the ponies as you are reading? Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good question. I’m still sorting out the process. Both books have introductory overviews of each of the 18 episodes, so I mostly read those before I start reading the text.
      Then, the Blamires guide goes step by step chronologically through the people, events, locations, historical/mythic associations, etc., so I’ve been scanning them as I go. Sometimes more detail than’s useful, sometimes worth reading. I may adjust this plan as I go. It’s slow, I can tell you that. Thanks for asking.


      • Thank you for the reply!

        Liked by 1 person

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