Samuel Beckett Poetry Analysis
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.
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...
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