The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1027

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.

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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 line 21 into a memory of how his brother tried to swindle him. He fuses that idea with his memory of being a soldier, earning a few pennies, and repudiating Jesuit thinkers.

The action seems to be taking place at the time when Frans Hals, the famous Dutch painter, is waiting to paint a portrait of Descartes (a painting that still exists). Descartes remembers a cross-eyed girl he played with as a child, and that leads him to a series of other memories, including the death of his own child from scarlet fever. The problem of a suitable egg appears again, and he is still not satisfied. The sad memory of his own child’s death has depressed him, and it leads him into the memory of three dreams he had in one night in 1619: In the first one he is blown against the church at La Flèche, and the dreams in total convince him that he had been given important philosophical insights.

He remembers going to the shrine of Our Lady of Loretto to thank the Virgin for showing him in his dreams that his future lay in science rather than the Church. Reference is made to his past interest in the Society of Rosicrucians, whose emblem includes a yellow key. The rest of this verse is a demotic version of his denial that his theory of the nature of matter is inconsistent with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which deems that in Communion the wafer and wine become the blood and flesh of Christ. He seems to be saying that all things are possible for God, and he ends by mocking Antoine Arnauld, who had attacked him on that point.

Again the problem of the egg comes up, comically enough and appropriately so in conjunction with Francis Bacon, the great English philosopher, who also favored reason over theological superstition and conservatism. The “cave phantoms” is a reference to a Bacon metaphor about humankind’s tendency to prefer to believe in accumulated superstitions. He returns to his own troubles with the Church establishment, remembering Anna Maria Schurmann, a scholarly supporter of Descartes’s enemy, Gisbert Voet, who attacked a book containing some of his ideas. “Leider! Leider!” (meaning “too bad” in German) was obviously her feeling about Descartes’s work.

In the next section, he mocks his own most famous saying, “I think, therefore I am,” fusing it with Saint Augustine’s “Si fallor, sum” which means “If I err, I exist.” He goes on to mock Augustine’s repudiation of the pleasures of the world, calling him a “froleur,” a teaser. All quarrels aside, Descartes accepts God’s existence, and his own—not as a god, or as anything less than a part of the perfection that is God’s creation, symbolized by the rose. It is the one moment of lyric seriousness in the poem.

Then Descartes returns to the egg, a double-yoker, which he relishes before going off to Sweden to teach Christina, the Queen of Sweden. She is “murdering” in the sense of insisting that Descartes join her early in the morning; his last illness was blamed on that rigorous practice. The poem ends with Descartes rejecting the suggestion of Weulles, a Dutch doctor who proposes to “blood” him to bring down his fever. The “bitter steps” are an allusion to a line in Dante’s Paradiso (c. 1320), in which exile from one’s native land is described as the painful descending and climbing of foreign steps. He asks to die, and in doing so reminds himself and others of his refusal to reveal his birthday to any astrologer in order to avoid having his future life and death predicted: “my second starless inscrutable hour.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526

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 poems is, in a sense, a necessarily double one for most readers, who must accumulate all the necessary facts concerning the allusions. Once these are intellectually ingested, the poem makes sense, and much of the aesthetic and intellectual pleasure comes from recognizing the aptness of the references. This is clearly a large part of what is going on in Whoroscope, which does, in the main, however, confine its footnote materials to three areas of special knowledge: religion (particularly Roman Catholic), philosophy, and biographical aspects of Descartes’s career and personal eccentricities.

The other matter to be met is the way in which Beckett uses or misuses (however one sees it) the Eliot version of the dramatic monologue, developed to its finest point in the nineteenth century by Robert Browning and refined by Eliot, particularly in the two poems mentioned above, to meet the social and psychological problems of early twentieth century man. Beckett adapts it for his own purposes, which are clearly less ambitious than those of either Browning or Eliot, who took the idea of the single figure contemplating his or her life quite seriously. Beckett seems most interested in piling on the gnomic allusion for the sheer fun of it, so much so that the poem is not so much an exploration of a serious moment in the life of the main character who seeks to find a solution through the process of talking about it in a kind of self-analysis session as it is a framework for the improvisatory exuberance and extravagance of the poet’s imagination. It is an example of imitating a form (much admired in its original state in the hands of Eliot) by cheerfully mangling it and changing it into what might be called, as in the mock epic, the mock dramatic monologue.

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Themes