Beckett’s English Poetry
Transcending the Roots of
Resistance in Language
A. V. Koshy
Worldwide Circulation through Authorspress Global Network
First Published 2013
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Copyright © 2013 A V Koshy
Beckett’s English Poetry: Transcending the Roots of
Resistance in Language
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the author.
Printed in India at Krishna Offset, Shahdara.
Dedicated to my mother Sara, my inspiration, who was herself a writer and poet.
A BRIEF INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER 1. THE EARLY PHASE: THE YEARS OF LEARNING
CHAPTER 2. THE EARLY PHASE: THE YEARS OF WANDERING
CHAPTER 3. THE MATURE PHASE: THE BLUE CELESTE OF POESY
CONCLUSION: TRANSCENDING THE ROOTS OF RESISTANCE IN LANGUAGE
A SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY
Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in Foxrock, Dublin, Ireland. His parents were Protestants, having French Huguenot ancestors. His father, William Beckett, was a quantity surveyor. His mother Mary Beckett, also called May, had a puritanical disposition and taught Beckett the Bible. Bill, her husband, was more easy-going. Beckett had an elder brother called Frank. ‘Sam’ gradually grew away from his family, although his comfortable middle-class upbringing was not one to give him cause for complaint. He out-lived all the members of his family and the grief caused by the separation of death appears frequently in his works. Beckett’s date of birth, he said, was April 13, 1906, a Good Friday. But this story has not been supported by his biographer Deirdre Bair. It might be a fiction that he foisted on himself in keeping with his image as the writer with the bleakest vision in twentieth-century literature. Beckett studied in Portora Royal High School, Ulster, and Trinity College, Dublin. He was interested in chess, cricket, rugby and golf. His appreciation of these, especially chess, manifests itself in the works “For Future Reference,” Murphy, Endgame and “The Three Dialogues” with Georges Duthuit.
Beckett grasped the complexities of the structures of Western classical music well. He had a talent for languages and a love of literature that helped him to master French, German and Italian literature. He added Spanish to this list later, besides having a smattering of Greek and Latin. He was “a polyglot punster” and hence words from languages as diverse as Hebrew and Sanskrit appear in his works. He won a gold medal for brilliance in his studies and, as expected, became a teacher. His friend Arthur Rudmose-Brown introduced him to the modern French poets like Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Stephen Mallarmé and Paul Valéry who changed the perception of the best poets of his time. They influenced W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound etc., deeply. But Beckett was more fascinated by the lesser known, more ‘avant-garde’ poets like Jules Romains, the Unanimist, and Guillaume Apollinaire, the first Surrealist. Beckett’s Continental visits brought him in touch with James Joyce who was then in France. He wrote a monograph on Marcel Proust that was appreciated in academic circles, a few poems, pieces of criticism and short stories. He fell in love with Peggy Sinclair; a cousin of his who had green eyes, was Irish-German and died young of tuberculosis. Her death inspired him to write his first ‘enueg’ poems. He had sexual liaisons, seemingly, with women like ‘the Alba Perdue’ of the early short stories and Dream of Fair to Middling Women. He eventually resigned his job as a lecturer.
The early years of his life went by in wandering, drinking heavily, learning to appreciate painting, cinema and theatre, being ill and poor, attempting journalism, writing creative pieces sporadically, receiving little attention from the critics and being published only in small literary magazines. His father’s death in June 1933 was a rude shock to him. The poem “Malacoda” commemorates the occasion. His father left him a slender but steady income that helped him to continue his writing career. Around 1937, in Paris a pimp stabbed Beckett and later when asked why by him he said “Je ne sais pas, Monsieur” (I don’t know, Mister). The answer became central to Beckett’s writings. Suzanne Dumesnil who eventually became his wife came into his life at this time. Beckett’s knowledge of the other fine arts and his deep knowledge in general increased rapidly. During the Second World War he joined the French Resistance, against Hitler’s Nazi Germany and anti-Semitic madness, risking his life. He avoided arrest, went into hiding and wrote Watt. He won a Croix de Guerre for bravery and worked for a little while, after the war, as a translator for the Red Cross to help the rehabilitation of bombed cities like Saint-Lô. By this time his friends included not only Irish artists like Jack. B. Yeats and Thomas MacGreevey but also Henri Haydn, Avigdor Arikha and the van Velde brothers, Geer and Bram.
Beckett’s period of greatness as a writer began after all this. His writing prowess exploded, helped along by the fear that a tumour in his cheek was cancerous and could result in death. The fear turned out to be false. But many of the books that he wrote then during 1946-’50, including Waiting for Godot and The Unnamable, have become classics of world literature. When Waiting for Godot was produced by Roger Blin it instantly became noticed by leading critics like Jean Cocteau. To paraphrase Hugh Kenner, just as in the thirties everyone inhabited the ‘Waste Land ‘ in the fifties all waited for ‘Godot’.
Beckett’s personal life became less and less momentous. But as the years went by, in the midst of his busy aesthetic life of play-direction, writing, creation and translation his loved ones and friends kept slipping away from him. 1950 saw the death of his mother. In “Footfalls” and Ill Seen Ill Said Beckett pays oblique tribute to her.
Beckett died on December 22, 1989, in the week before Christmas. His fame has remained unshaken. The recent publication of Dream of Fair to Middling Women has again sparked off controversial interest in his talent. Eleutheria, his first completed and ‘unstaged’ play, is also now published. So is much else that he has written. Some early pieces like the short stories “Assumption,” “A Case in a Thousand” and “Echo’s Bones” are not read by the present reader.
In 1961 Beckett shared, with the equally great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, the Prix Formentor prize for writing. Both of them went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Beckett received the prize in 1969. Unlike in some other cases, no one questioned his right to be granted this prestigious award. Beckett’s art has been labelled Modern, Cartesian, Nihilist, Existentialist, Absurd etc., according to the changing critical mores and times. At present it is considered as one of the best examples of the post-modern, deconstructive, super-structural literary epoch we live in. His ability to move ahead of the Zeitgeist did not prevent him from being ‘satiric’ and ‘apocalyptic’ in his vision like his Puritan ancestors.
Although not “a political animal,” Beckett was one of the writers who consistently involved himself in the fight against literary censorship and human tyranny. He spoke out on behalf of Fernando Arrabal and Vaclav Havel in the days of their imprisonment under Communist regimes. More recently, he was among those who deplored the threat on Salman Rushdie’s life. In a sense he continued to be part of an invisible Resistance that opposed all forms of literary or human censorship or dictatorship. Beckett had no children in keeping with his strange view that procreation is a crime. His works, however, survive him with a vengeance.
The following book is perhaps intended primarily for third- world readers who are already quite familiar with Beckett’s life, the available works in English and a substantial amount of the criticism on them. Hence biographical details appear rarely, only when essential to the interpretation. Since Lawrence E. Harvey has already done a minute detailed study of most of Beckett’s poems written before 1950 in his book Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic, the effort has been not so much the exposition of all the twists and turns of the poems but the extension of the readings. A more holistic approach has been attempted, made possible by the spadework other critics have done in this area. This study does not deal with Beckett’s French writings and translations like “the Huit Maximes/After Chamfort” or the French poems. Considering Beckett as an English poet has involved a questionable division of his texts on a chronological, generic basis, but the clarity and consistency gained consequently in the conclusion of the book is, one hopes, a sufficient gain to offset this. The word ‘poem’ has been thought of as being adequately defined by tradition and hence Beckett’s excursions into regions that break this norm have been neglected. The lack of space in which to accommodate everything is another important reason for such omissions. The French poems without translations, the transcreations, the lineated drama “Rockaby” (a lullaby), the hybrid play “What Where,” Beckett’s free-prose pieces like “Texts for Nothing” and “Fizzles” that can be called prose poems by a stretch of the imagination, his “lyrics of criticism” on Avigdor Arikha, Jack. B. Yeats, Henri Haydn etc., in Disjecta have all been left untouched in the ‘formal’ context as territory those who follow can explore. But the startling depth of the poems in English has ensured that the study is still sufficiently multi-layered. No attempt has been made to compare and contrast the poems with those of others, often, because such an imposition would look forced and would not fit in with the drift of the main argument, becoming instead a sub- theme having too much importance to be woven neatly in with the other. Wherever Beckett uses as his ‘source’ texts in languages other than English, authentic commentaries have been depended on instead of originals that are not understandable or translations that are not available. In compensation of these short-comings this book can point to the fact that it is the first on Beckett’s poems to study all of his published English poems including the ones omitted by Harvey and the snippets of verse in his prose texts, thus up-dating Harvey’s seminal work on Beckett’s poems and poetics beyond the fifties into the nineties. As a thematic study dealing with the question of Beckettian semantics in connection with the poems the present work tries to clarify Beckett’s position further; a task more feasible now since the author ceased from writing in 1987 and his work is beginning to take on a definite parabola retrospectively.
The brief introduction to this book states the background of Beckett’s poems and traces out, vestigially, the development of his poetic graph. It divides Beckett’s poems into two periods. “The years of learning” can be called the former half of the early period of 1929-’35. Beckett wrote his “jettisoned poems” then. They are juvenile and imitative, yet passable. The second half of the early phase is that of “the years of wandering.” They show Beckett as a representative, typical modern poet who could occasionally be jejune or brilliant. They also reveal his avant-garde posture and show him moving on rapidly to Post-modernism. The poems of the first collection Echo’s Bones are the ones of this latter half of the early period. The second or mature period of Beckett’s poetic career stretches from 1935 to his death with a stretch of long silence (e.g., 1950 – ’73) in between. In this phase his style became distinct and, from Watt onwards, post-structural. The poems reflect “deceleration” and perpetrate or perpetuate very few aesthetic blunders. His restless inventiveness in the matters of form, structure and themes is mentioned. The elusive depth he generates in his poems is hinted at. Stock is taken of the details that matter (i.e., facts, feats, figures, dates, names, places etc.) and the influences and affinities that ought to be known.
The first chapter on the years of learning analyses the first twelve of Beckett’s available poems in English that he later considered immature, except perhaps for “Whoroscope.” The sections where he equals or rivals his mentors, then living or dead, like Browning, Dante, Joyce, Eliot etc., are highlighted. His wrestling with the issue of whether eroticism, Christianity or art should be chosen as a way of life is seen as the thread that unites these disparate exercises. Beckett gives up his youthful interest in sex and is shown as opting for art as his religion, without a corresponding faith that it will lead him to any sort of redemption. “Whoroscope” and “Gnome,” the finer poems of this period, are studied in some detail. The second chapter on the years of wandering dissects the thirteen poems in Echo’s Bones. Beckett’s modernity, existentialism and nihilistic tendencies etc., are explored. The poems sparkle with compressed metaphoric gems of youthful lustre in a manner not found in any of his other works. The well- nigh inexhaustible nature of the collection, its allusive flexibility and the obscurities that become transparent to the patient eye are all meditated on. The fine touches in the poems and the better poems like “The Vulture” and “Da Tagte Es” are investigated. The aesthetically viable claim that the collection is a ‘sequence’ is established in the course of the chapter.
In the third chapter the even excellence of most of Beckett’s poems of the mature phase from 1935 is contemplated. Beckett’s move towards a metaphysical and aesthetic poetry that is implicitly ‘minimal’ is noticed. The insights that are thrown up in the process are sometimes ‘new’ and may help to explain strange Beckettian texts like “dread nay” and “Something there” to the reader for the first time. The generally high standard of the poems being studied has led to the chapter being called “the blue celeste of poesy.”
The conclusion, besides explaining the theme of the book, i.e., the bridled anguish of non-expression, by which Beckett ‘transcends the roots of resistance in language,’ also sums up the poet’s achievements. Beckett’s technical, formal, structural and thematic concerns are stated and illustrated point by point. His major theme or semantic structure of meaning, one that deconstructs itself in its attempt to be ‘knowing’ and is borrowed from the Hegelian dialectic, is laid bare. Its vicissitudes, as they appear throughout the many poems as the pair ‘Being’ and ‘Nothingness’ in metaphors, are traced out. The deduction is that Beckett’s deep metaphysical base, although not fully critique-resistant, places him on an ontologically valid aesthetic path that few have thought of as existing before or trod. His resultant fear of failure is shown as being stemmed by solitary moments of poetic transcendence that come his way more and more frequently over the years. These moments are also, incidentally, among the best in the history of English poetry of the twentieth century, according to the present writer.