The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Whoroscope is exactly one hundred lines of rambling monologue supposedly mouthed by the famous seventeenth century French philosopher and scientist René Descartes while waiting to be served an egg which he might consider sufficiently mature to be eaten. There is no rhythmical pattern, and the poem’s mannered colloquialisms and oratorical informalities give it an aura less of poetry than of desultory chatter. Samuel Beckett uses minor and sometimes intimate details of Descartes’s life that he found in a biography of the philosopher written by Adrien Baillet. Beckett entered a poetry contest sponsored by Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press in Paris; entries were to relate in some way to time, and this was Beckett’s hastily written entry. After winning the contest, Beckett provided notes to explain the poem; his notes, although helpful, are not sufficient for most readers, and The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1973) has added to Beckett’s notes further information that clears up most of the allusions.

Descartes evidently had an aversion to fresh eggs, and he demanded that his omelette be made from eggs at least eight to ten days old. In the first sentence, he rejects an egg for being clearly too fresh for him; immediately the erudite connections begin, since the expostulation that accompanies the rejection of the egg refers to “the brothers Boot”—two Dutch doctors who had written a book attacking Aristotle. From this moment on, the poem is a supposedly accurate rendering of Descartes’s conversation, a combination of associated ideas and stream-of-consciousness maunderings. He thinks next of Galileo, who had musical interests (hence the reference to “thirds”) and whom he dislikes, possibly because he was once accused of stealing Galileo’s ideas. Galileo used a pendulum in his experiments on the earth’s movements about the sun, and he illustrated the enigma of feeling stationary while on a moving object by using the examples of a boat ride or a load on the back of a horse. It is this density of witty allusion that gives the poem much of its aesthetic piquancy.

The next section returns to questioning the omelette, with a mixed Italian-English pun on “prostisciutto,” a jamming together of the English word “prostitute” and the Italian word for smoked ham, prosciutto. The scientists named in this section all came to Descartes for solutions to difficult mathematical problems. The idea of someone trying to give him a fresh egg seems to lead at...

(The entire section is 1027 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In Whoroscope, Beckett was looking back with some admiration to two major experimental authors as the inspiration for this poem. The most obvious influence was James Joyce, with whom Beckett had close personal connections throughout the 1930’s. Joyce’s deep knowledge of theology and his Roman Catholic education did not deter him from using Roman Catholic doctrine without much concern for good taste; that carefree and careless attitude pervades Beckett’s poem, together with a joyful, playful, and somewhat sophomoric enthusiasm for religious jokes and vulgarities. Much of the roughhouse pleasure of the poem lies in its schoolboy tastelessness and a kind of self-congratulatory smartness. Like Joyce, Beckett was not inclined to be deterred by considerations of propriety, and this poem is proof of their mutual belief that more sauciness makes for better art.

The poem’s form, however, comes from a poet whose temperament artistically was entirely different from that of Joyce and Beckett. It is T. S. Eliot who contributes the idea of the monologue cluttered so densely with scholarly allusion that the ordinary reader would find the material impregnable. Eliot’s work in poems such as The Waste Land (1922) and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is, actually, perfectly understandable if all the allusions (historical, literary, religious, and social) are known, and footnotes can provide that knowledge. The experience of reading such...

(The entire section is 526 words.)