Samuel Beckett Poetry Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3443

Whoroscope was Samuel Beckett’s first major publication. It is a long poem, written originally in English, and published in book form by the Hours Press after winning a prize offered by the publisher for the best poem on the subject of time. The first-person narrator of the work is René Descartes, the seventeenth century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, and the poem is so full of obscure allusions to his life and times that, at the publisher’s request, Beckett added a page and a half of notes to the ninety-eight-line piece. In fact, the notes are almost as interesting as the poem itself, and, without them, it is unlikely that the average reader would even recognize Descartes as the speaker.

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Whoroscope

Whoroscope is an important poem not only because it marked Beckett’s official entry into the literary world but also because it introduced the basic themes that continued to occupy him as a writer and thinker. Clearly, Beckett himself recognized this fact, because he chose to keep this early work intact in the subsequent collections of his poetry, Poems in English and Collected Poems in English and French, which include all the works discussed here. In many ways, Whoroscope is quite unlike the author’s later writings. The structure of the piece is open, without rhyme or regular meter. The poem shows the influence of the French surrealists in its associative juxtaposition of images, but the influence of Joyce is also apparent in the punning title and in the body of the text.

On first reading, it is not at all obvious that this is a poem about time. From the opening line, Descartes rambles on, apparently at random, about various events in his life, without respect for chronology or even historical accuracy. In the closing section, it becomes clear that the philosopher is on his deathbed and that his ramblings are the result of illness and fever. In a sense, his life is flashing before his eyes. He is trying to grasp the fullness of time at the moment of his death, and a closer reading shows that the sequence of memories is not random at all but associative, each a memory leading to the next—not in chronological order but in the order dictated by Descartes’s subjective thought process.

In fact, the poem is very much about time—the time of a man’s life and the attempt to recapture lost time in the instant before time runs out. The Joycean influence in Descartes’s stream-of-consciousness narrative is evident, but it is also obvious that Beckett has learned a great deal from Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927, Remembrance of Things Past), which the young Beckett knew well—so well, in fact, that in 1931 he published Proust, a book-length study of this French masterwork.

Whoroscope, then, is about time as the great destroyer, time that eats up a man’s life and leads only to death. It is important to remember, however, that this poem is about the lifetime of a particular man, Descartes, and there is good reason for Beckett’s choice of this philosopher as his narrator. Like Beckett himself, Descartes was a transitional figure, the father of modern philosophy and the opponent of Aristotelian scholasticism. He and his contemporaries initiated a new age in Western civilization, an age that is only now passing away, and, in his poem, Beckett pays tribute to other great thinkers such as Galileo and Francis Bacon, who directed Western thought into the era of science and rationalism.

Descartes was a great builder, but he was also a great destroyer of the philosophies of the past, and, in the poem, he speaks with pride of “throwing/ Jesuits out of the skylight.” He devoted his life to the development of a new system of thought, but, in so doing, he also undermined the Aristotelian metaphysics that had served as the basis of European philosophy for centuries. Ironically, while Descartes was destroying his predecessors, the time of his own life was destroying him.

This is one of the key themes of Beckett’s work: the fact that death comes to all living things, without reason, without justice, regardless of whether one is innocent or guilty. As Beckett writes in a later, untitled poem, man lives “the space of a door/ that opens and shuts.” He is born to die; he is dying even in the womb, losing time from the moment of conception, and there is nothing that can stop or even delay this process. Each man’s life cancels itself, moment by moment.

The historical Descartes died while in the service of Queen Christina of Sweden, a harsh woman who forced the aging philosopher to call upon her at five o’clock each morning although he had been in the habit of staying in bed until midday all his life. This change in his routine, coupled with the northern weather, led to his final illness. In the poem, the fictional Descartes refers to Queen Christina as “Rahab of the snows.” Rahab was a biblical harlot mentioned in The Divine Comedy (c. 1320) of Dante (whom Beckett has called “the only poet”), and so it would seem that the Queen is the whore of the title. In his notes to the poem, Beckett points out that Descartes kept his birthday secret so that no astrologer could cast his horoscope. The philosopher was opposed to such mysticism, not only because it was unscientific but because he felt that many people let their entire lives be dictated by astrology; he even knew of two young men who had allowed themselves to die simply because their horoscopes had predicted death for them. With this knowledge, the Joycean pun of the title becomes clear. Queen Christina, the harlot, has cast Descartes’s death, which was present from the moment of his birth. His “whoroscope” is her prediction of his inevitable end.

This theme of the inevitability of death, of death as a necessary function of birth, runs through the poem in the form of a recurring motif. Again in the notes, Beckett explains that Descartes liked his morning omelette to be made from eggs that had been hatched from eight to ten days—that is, eggs in which the embryo was partially developed. Time and again in the poem he asks about his morning eggs: “How long did she womb it, the feathery one? . . . How rich she smells,/ this abortion of a fledgling!”

For Beckett, the egg is the symbol of the fetus conceived only to die, its brief span of life lived out in the instant between nonexistence and nonexistence. The time of the egg is the time of the philosopher as well. As with all human beings, Descartes is dying before he has even really lived, and, like the fledgling in the egg, he is dying for no purpose, simply because that is the way things are.

Beckett explored the themes of the inevitability of death and the meaninglessness of life time and again in his works, but he has always coupled these themes with another: the necessity of going on, of raging against the inevitable, of refusing to accept man’s fate. In the poem “Serena III,” he insists that human beings must “keep on the move/ keep on the move,” and, in Whoroscope, he depicts Descartes first as angry, cursing his fate, then as begging for another chance at a life he has never managed to understand, a “second/ starless inscrutable hour.” There is no reason for him to go on, and yet, as a human being, he must.

For Beckett, man must die, but he must also live and think and speak, as Descartes does, even to the last possible instant. He must live in his own inner world which is always dying, and he must also live in the outer world which will live on after him and which, therefore, is not his. This theme of the conflict between the inner and the outer worlds which runs through Beckett’s later work is present in Whoroscope as well. The very structure of the poem, which follows the philosopher’s associative thinking, places the narrative within Descartes’s inner mind, though in the end it moves to the outer world, to “Christina the ripper” and to her court physician, Weulles, who is attending to Descartes in his last moments. In his inner world, Descartes is alive and reliving his past, but it is the outer world which is leading him to inevitable death. Descartes devoted his life to trying to understand the outer world, but the very foundation of his thought, the dictum “cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) trapped him within his own subjectivity, and generations of later philosophers have tried to understand how one can move from the certainty of the “cogito” to the world beyond which is not oneself. The “cogito,” the single point of certainty in the Cartesian philosophy of doubt, is the fulcrum of modern Western philosophy, and yet it restricts the thinker to his own inner world, to what Beckett calls, in his poem “The Vulture,” “the sky/ of my skull.”

For Beckett, it is impossible for man to come to know the world beyond his skull, that very world in which he must live and die. In the play Endgame, the characters Hamm and Clov live within a skull-like structure; Hamm is blind, and Clov can see the world only through two eyelike windows which restrict his vision. In the short novel The Lost Ones an entire society lives and passes away within a huge white dome, a skull. In Whoroscope, Descartes can know his inner world, but the outer world remains “inscrutable.” He knows that he thinks and, therefore, that he is, but he does not know why. He wants to know the truth and to speak it, but the “cogito” cannot lead him to knowledge of the outer world. In the poem, he mentions St. Augustine, who also sought a single point of certainty in a world in which everything was open to question, and found that the only thing he could be sure of was that he could be deceived. The Descartes of the poem states the Augustinian dictum as “Fallor, ergo sum!” (“I am deceived, therefore I am”). At the moment of death, this certainty seems truer to the philosopher than his own “cogito.” To be a man is to be deceived, to fail, and, for a human being, courage is the courage to fail. Man is man only insofar as he knows that failure is inevitable and yet keeps going in spite of that knowledge.

Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates

There is another important Beckett theme which surfaces only briefly in Whoroscope but which becomes the main focus of the author’s second collection of poems, Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates: the theme of the impossibility of love in the face of absurdity and death. For Beckett, love is another of man’s basic needs, as important as the quest for meaning, and as futile. The Descartes poem touched on the theme only briefly, in the philosopher’s memory of a little cross-eyed girl who was his childhood playmate and who reminds him of his only daughter, Francine, who died of scarlet fever at the age of six. The implication is that love always ends, if not now, then late; and, like the rest of life, love is both essential and hopeless, necessary and frightening. Knowing that love is impossible, pretending that it is not, man loves, and that love is the source of his pain but also of his life.

The poems of Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates differ from Whoroscope not only because they focus on love but also because the narrator is not a fictional version of a historical character but the author himself. The title of the collection comes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis (before 8 c.e.), from the story of Echo, who, after being spurned by Narcissus, lets herself wither away until only her bones and voice remain. The connection between Ovid’s tale and Beckett’s theme of love is clear, but the story of Echo also provides the poet with two of his favorite images: the inevitability of death and the survival of the voice.

Most of the titles and forms of the poems in this collection are based on the songs of the troubadours which Beckett knew well and which attracted him no doubt because they were songs of love and, often, of loss, and also because the troubadours were usually wanderers and exiles, like Beckett himself and like the narrators of most of these poems. The work “Enueg I” draws its title from the traditional Provençal lament or complaint, and, as might be expected, it is a complaint of love. In the poem, the narrator leaves the nursing home where his beloved is dying of tuberculosis (“Exeo in a spasm/ tired of my darling’s red sputum”) and wanders through Dublin, traveling in a wide circle. He finds that the world is full of images of death (“a dying barge,” “the stillborn evening,” “the tattered sky like an ink of pestilence”) and that he cannot forget his beloved or the fate of their love. Of course, these signs of death are not really present in the outer world; they reflect the narrator’s inner life, the only life he can know, and, like Descartes, he rages against what he knows to be true as his own blood forms a “clot of anger.”

There is no romance in Beckett’s lament, only the all-encompassing awareness of mortality. Love and romance are like “the silk of the seas and the arctic flowers/ that do not exist,” figments of the imagination that lose all sense of reality in the face of “the banner of meat bleeding.”

The narrator keeps moving, however, and throughout the poem he has contact with others, with a small boy and “a wearish old man,” an archetypal Beckett character, “scuttling along between a crutch and a stick,/ his stump caught up horribly, like a claw, under his breech, smoking.” These meetings show the continuing possibility of human contact, even in a dying world; they also make clear the need for going on even in the face of futility. Perhaps the others, like the narrator, are also moving in circles, but circular movement is still movement, and even the old man, crippled and in pain, does not remain motionless, does not give up.

“Sanies I” is also modeled on a Provençal form; the title is derived from a Latin term meaning “morbid discharge.” For Beckett, writing is such a discharge, a residue, a “precipitate.” It is a by-product of living and dying, but it is also that which remains, like Echo’s voice.

Like the narrator of “Enueg I,” the narrator of “Sanies I” is a wanderer in the process of completing a circle; in this case, he is returning home to Ireland after traveling in Europe, apparently in Germany, for his speech is full of Germanic terms. Like later Beckett protagonists, he rides a bicycle, and he describes himself as “a Ritter,” a German knight, and, therefore, a somewhat ironic hero, though perhaps the only kind of hero who remains in the postmodern age: the hero who keeps moving. He has been wandering for a long time, and he says that he is “müüüüüüüde now.” The German “müde” means “tired,” but the extended “ü” sound also gives a sense of boredom, an essential element in most of Beckett’s work. Clearly, the narrator is both tired and bored, and, as a result, he is “bound for home like a good boy.” Thinking about home and his parents, he recalls his birth and longs for that sweet oblivion of the womb: “Ah to be back in the caul now with no trusts/ no fingers no spoilt love.”

This is a key passage. “The caul” to which the narrator would like to return is a fetal membrane covering the head, and, according to folklore, the child who is born with a caul is born to good luck. The implication here, however, is that the best of luck is never to have been born at all and, therefore, to have avoided “trusts” and “spoilt loves,” those exercises in futility. The unborn child also has “no fingers,” and one without fingers cannot, and therefore need not, travel on a bicycle as the narrator does. Even better, one without fingers cannot write, no matter how strongly he might feel the need to do so.

Of course, the narrator no longer has the option of not being born. He is “tired now hair ebbing gums ebbing ebbing home,” and yet he approaches his hometown like a “Stürmer,” German slang for “lady-killer.” It would seem that, despite his “spoilt loves,” he is prepared for love again, and, indeed, he sees his beloved waiting for him. “I see main verb at last/ her whom alone in the accusative/ I have dismounted to love.” In German, the “main verb” comes at the end of the sentence, and in this sentence that word is “love.” At the last moment, however, the narrator sends the girl away (“get along with you now”), refusing to make the mistake his parents made by bringing another being into the world. Although one cannot return to the peace of the womb, one can at least refuse to pass on the curse of life to another.

If “Sanies I” is about nonexistence in the womb (the Cartesian egg), and if “Enueg I” is about nonexistence in the tomb, the title poem of the collection brings these two notions together. “Echo’s Bones” is a short lyric that restates Beckett’s key themes in capsule form. The first word of the poem is “asylum,” a reference to the womb, but this is an “asylum under my tread,” a shelter underground, a tomb. Like those in the womb, those in the tomb are beyond the confusions and pains of living now that they have run the gauntlet of life, “the gantelope of sense and nonsense.” Only now, in death, are they free to be themselves, “taken by the maggots for what they are,” and what they are is fleshless bone, without love or dreams and without the need to keep striving. The title of the poem, however, is a reminder that something more than bone remains: the voice. The words may be only a “morbid discharge,” but, like Echo’s voice, they survive.

“Something There”

Leaping ahead four decades to “Something There,” a poem composed in 1974, the reader finds that the author’s voice has changed, although his key themes remain. Here the lines are short and direct, flat and prosaic. There are no obscure allusions, no Joycean puns. The “something there” of the title is “something outside/ the head,” and this contrast of inner and outer worlds returns the reader to Whoroscope and to the Cartesian dilemma of subjectivity which cannot reach beyond itself. The poem tries to reach that “something” in the only way it can, through words, but “at the faint sound so brief/ it is gone.” The reality beyond the inner mind disappears as soon as the words of the mind try to grasp it, and so language, in the end, describes only the inner world which becomes something like a womb and a tomb in the midst of life. The inner world is not life, and yet, despite the fact that man cannot reach beyond his inner self to comprehend the “something outside/ the head,” still he must try to do so, and the sign of his failure is language, the voice which always remains.

One can argue that Beckett’s view of existence is largely negative. On the other hand, however, it is important to remember that he was influenced greatly by the medieval theologians who argued that truth, in the person of God, is beyond positive statement and that man can know the truth only in the negative, by describing what it is not. Beckett seems to have taken the same approach. It is true that he wrote about the curse of life, but he did so beautifully, raging against the inevitability of silence. The beauty of his work is the beauty of the human will to live in the face of death. Beckett sings the praises of those who say, with the nameless, formless, faceless narrator of The Unnamable: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

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