Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett; drawing by David Levine

Samuel Beckett, who is eighty this month, is sui generis, a writer with his own stamp, assured and stylized. This said, he can still usefully be ranged against his Irish predecessors. Because of what he has written, they take on a different aspect. Because of their work, he may seem not quite so rootless as he first appears. Although Beckett has not called attention to his Irish nationality as Yeats and Joyce did, his books are apt to mention with fondness unexpected Irish details. For example, in his first publication, the poem “Whoroscope,” he draws in two brothers named Boot from seventeenth-century Dublin so as to compliment them for having refuted Aristotle. His character Molloy suddenly remarks, “Da, in my part of the world, means father,” and the name Molloy reminds us of Beckett’s conspicuous fondness for the commonest Irish names, especially if they begin with M—Murphy, Molloy, Moran. In his Fizzles the Irish word deasil, which means “clockwise,” suddenly appears, and we recall that it is also used conspicuously as the first word in the Oxen of the Sun episode in Ulysses. Beckett’s translations of his works into English tend to give them an Irish inflection. When someone asked him if he were an Englishman, he replied, “Au contraire.”

These inclinations to acknowledge his Irish antecedents were qualified by his decision in early youth to live outside Ireland. At the age of twenty-two Beckett went from Dublin to Paris; twenty-six years earlier, at the age of twenty, Joyce made the same journey. Equally pivotal were the displacements of Yeats at twenty-two from Dublin to London, and of Wilde, at twenty, from Dublin to Oxford. The geographical change symbolized for all four of them an attempt to proceed from the known to the unknown, to remake themselves in unfamiliar air.

When Beckett arrived in Paris in 1928, he might well have supposed that the principal outposts of literature had already been stormed, some of them by his own countrymen. Disapprove as he did of Yeats when he postured—for Beckett hates posturing—he could not help but find Yeat’s late verse and prose incongruous with that poet’s frequent references to his decrepitude. Joyce, whom Beckett soon met in Paris, had reconstructed prose narrative and, not content with radical modifications of English, was evolving “heavenly vocables” in a language never before uttered by man. Other eminences, of other nationalities, were of course about, and activity in related arts was intense. Beckett was not intimidated. Initially he pursued the academic career that he had earlier marked out for himself. He wrote about Proust and Joyce, in partisan and cryptic terms; he worked, or disdained to work, at a thesis in French literature; and after two years as lecteur at the Ecole Normale he went back to teach at Trinity College, Dublin.

His friends suspected that he was a genius, yet no one knew as yet how his abilities would be deployed. His teaching post at Trinity he quit abruptly because he discovered, and would later remark, that he could not teach others what he did not himself understand, a handicap that most of us endure without bridling. He returned to the Continent, he traveled, he idled, he absorbed languages while he idled, he allowed himself amorous entanglements, and because there was nothing else for it and he was, as he liked to say later, “in the last ditch,” he began to write. Whether he did it to express nuances or to exorcise demons he could perhaps not have specified. But write he did. First he was a poet who wrote short stories, then a novelist who wrote plays. Compositions of all kinds—often hard to specify in traditional terms of genre—sprang from his sense that the old relations of authors to their subjects, to their characters, to their language, to their readers, and even to their own selves were discredited. Each foray into a more stark and final apprehension necessitated another; he was impatient with his own modes of pursuit, which became increasingly outlandish as he strove to come closer to the total expression of his experience. Not that he thought of himself as pursuing, for the idea of pursuer and quarry belonged to the past of literature. Rather he happened upon certain consequences of his own being. The urge to write seized him convulsively rather than on some Trollopian schedule.

The temporal stirrings of Beckett’s molar genius are familiar. He published his first novel, Murphy, in 1938. That it was an early work seems to be demonstrated by its having a plot, though the plot was, as he said, deliberately hard to follow in its later stages. The character of Murphy in some ways extrapolated Beckett’s own. Murphy is in search of plenitude, or is it emptiness? Perhaps they are the same. Beckett’s work was to rest, or to be restless, amid such paradoxes. A corollary is that poverty and possessions are the same thing, possessions being only meaningless arrests in time, and time itself an illusion. Murphy, even more than Belacqua in the earlier short stories of More Pricks Than Kicks, is someone to whom such paradoxes offer a way of life, or of nonlife. Action is suspiciously like inaction, being like nonbeing. At the novel’s start Murphy, self-bound by seven scarves in a rocking chair and attempting to rock himself (as Baudelaire says) “anywhere out of this world,” feels the rocking chair overturn. Physical dislodgement and spiritual aspiration intermix, as if the world might overcome and be overcome at the same moment.


Beckett has encouraged us to think of his life not as a well-filled chronicle but as a patch of dark color. Authors, he has said, are never interesting. The poem “Whoroscope” offers a picture of Descartes in the form of a monologue by him that is fragmented and opaque. He was dissatisfied with the anodynes—love, ambition, diligence—with which we moderate incomprehension and futility. He agreed with Dr. Johnson, about whom he started to write a play, that the predominant element in life is misery. “I suffer, therefore I may be” was his improvement upon Descartes, as if misery marked but did not confirm existence, and as if thinking were out of the question. He suffered not only for himself but for others. His character Belacqua in More Pricks Than Kicks feels pity for the lobster thrown into the boiling pot, but Beckett’s companionable sympathy extends beyond crustaceans. Forty-odd years after the event, he can still mourn the killing of Jewish friends by the Nazis as if it had happened yesterday. That Estragon in Waiting for Godot was originally called Levy suggests some of the emotional origins of that play, though, indeed, the play’s final form still embodies them. His dedication of the recent play Catastrophe to the dissident Czech dramatist Václav Havel would suggest that Beckett sees horror as maintaining itself in post-Nazi events.

Both Murphy and a novel he wrote in English during the war, Watt, brought the characters to insane asylums, as if only there did human gestures approximate to their environment. Beckett was searching out a form for what he called “the mess.” The mess could be framed if not alleviated. Shortly after the war he experienced what he would later with some embarrassment and yet some stubbornness identify as “a revelation.” It occurred when he was visiting his mother in Ireland in the summer of 1945. In her house, “New Place,” across the road from “Cooldrinagh,” where he had grown up, he suddenly saw what his future writing must be. Unlike most revelations, this one offered no new heaven or new earth. If anything, something like a present hell. We know what the revelation was in part because he himself satirized it in Krapp’s Last Tape. This play manipulates the double perspective of Krapp young, taping his achievements, and Krapp old, exasperated with his earlier pretensions and eager to listen only to a moment of relinquished love. Krapp switches on box three, spool five, and hears his own claim made long ago to have had such a momentous experience as Beckett did:

Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indigence until that memorable night in March, at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision at last. This I fancy is what I have chiefly to record this evening, against the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle…[hesitates]…for the fire that set it alight. What I suddenly saw then was that, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely….

At this point he impatiently switches ahead on the tape, but not far enough, for we pick up the words “that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most…” before he switches again. The tape must have gone on to say, “that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most” effective ally (or most valued confederate). What Krapp really wants to listen to is not his revelation, which no longer interests him, but his experience of a moment of love in a boat. He gets to this and listens to it with intentness. The tape relentlessly winds on past it:

Here I end this reel. Box three, spool five. Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.

Constipated Krapp—banana-eating, spool-playing Krapp—would of course give anything to have them back. The fire of creation, if ever there was one, has long since gone out. Beckett memorializes here, with self-lacerating irony, a moment when he too must have made a crucial choice.


The label he gave to his new motive in art was poverty or impoverishment. His characters would be deprived not only of money but of youth, of health, of fortitude. I do not think that the aged, the infirm, the enervated attracted him for their own sake so much as because through them he could approach the underside of experience, go beneath pose and posture. His books would also neglect the available saving graces of literature. Since Balzac, novelists had prided themselves on amassing particulars. Beckett does not renounce them, though he speaks of doing so, but the particulars he includes, such as sucking stones or farts, are of such paltriness that we scarcely recognize them. Yet beds, chairs, pets, bikes, and food appear, separated and isolated. The furniture may not be Louis Quinze, but it is there.

Only in one way did he allow himself an unexpected sumptuousness, and that was in language. He uses hard words that have to be looked up and then turn out to be marvelously apposite; he will not allow clichés or stock phrases to pass as dead matter; his sentences may describe faltering, but they themselves stand up under inspection; as if to counter the dying fall of his characters, his language undergoes a tremendous revivification. Beyond that, he deals in unheroics. His dislike of pretenses and pretensions makes him shy away from swelling chords toward diminuendos. No makers and shapers, no deeds or events; nothing but residues, detritus, debris, the pratfall triumphant. It was one way of coming close to the nucleus of being, where the least false is the most true, where—as for Genet, the poorest is the richest, or, as for Chaplin, the most painful is the funniest. In More Pricks Than Kicks Belacqua asked himself, “Was it to be laughter or tears?… It came to the same thing in the end.” Or as Oscar Wilde said, “There is a grotesque horror about its [life’s] comedies, and its tragedies seem to culminate in farce.” The two elements heighten each other.

Uncommon as Beckett’s revelation was, his Irish predecessors appear to have experienced comparable moments of visionary decisiveness. The exact date of each is hard to discover and scarcely matters. With Joyce it was earlier than with Beckett; it came when he discovered the “epiphany,” a term as portentous as revelation. An epiphany was the sudden and unostentatious exposure and disclosure of what some passing moment meant. The artist did not concoct it or interpret it, he simply apprehended its shape. While such moments might include dreams or lyrical intimations, the less expected ones were ugly and vulgar—pawn tickets or defecation, for instance. The epiphany exalted the commonplace and led naturally to the internal monologue, in which the essence of a situation was expressed without prior ordering, the epiphany personalized. With the epiphany Joyce discovered the world of the unmentionable and the not worth mentioning. Beckett’s revelation led him to extend the unmentionable to the world of flagging energies.

For Wilde and Yeats too there appears to have been such a moment of revelation. When Wilde was first at Oxford, he berated himself for his opposite tendencies toward the heights of aspiration and the depths of sensation. The issue was crystallized for him by his desire to become a Catholic and his wish to be a pagan. He blamed himself for yielding to such a contrariety of impulse. But then there came a time when he saw that he might choose both rather than one or the other, and by living a kind of double life could avoid closing off an area of his own individuality. He acquired the courage that Baudelaire prayed for: to contemplate his own nature without disgust.

Wilde’s contemporaries might have their world of decision making and conformity, but in having it they had to deny another world of secret impulse and furtive doubt. At some point he came to see that this undisclosed aspect of experience might include sexual deviation, and deviation became a symbol of his acceptance of himself for what he was. It was as if every statement, like every proclivity, contained its own contradiction. To acknowledge this was to assure himself of a new source of insight. To present it to others the best medium was paradoxical wit. The paradox was an insistent reminder of what lay behind the accepted or conventional. Like Beckett Wilde forces us to see beneath the surface of casual converse while keeping its structures intact.

By the time he was thirty-two, his views on homosexuality, epigrams, and artistic insight had coalesced into a working method from which emerged his best work. Only when he committed himself to a double life, and a double view, did he devise characters who disclosed or discovered that they were not what they seemed, so that Lady Windemere could act in complete disregard of her fixed principles, Algernon and Jack could imagine alternate lives for themselves, and Dorian Gray could find doubleness an affliction. Wilde did not invent a new language, as Joyce eventually felt compelled to do, but he evolved an English that challenged solemnities by its tautness and surprise.

Precisely when Yeats came to a realization of his nature and direction is even harder to determine, but his friend George Russell said that in 1884, when nineteen, Yeats had been greatly excited by Russell’s drawing of a man on a mountain, startled at his own image in the mist. It prefigured his lifetime exploration of self and antiself, of pose and mask. By extension it included all the encroachments of fairies, spirits, demons, and images upon things of this world. Théophile Gautier said that he was one for whom the visible world existed; Yeats knew himself to be one for whom the invisible world existed. Just what the status of that invisible world was he could never state with definiteness. It was not like Wilde’s double life, for in Yeats’s case there were not two sexual directions but two scales for weighing reality. To encompass his gradually increasing sense of bifurcation he needed a new vocabulary and syntax, and he molded them in his late thirties.

The new language that Beckett found was an old one, French. The first pages that he composed after the “New Place” revelation, before he left Ireland once more, were in French, as he began his trilogy. The linguistic decision entailed quite different modes of expression to go with the new shapes of literature that he was evolving. His boldness was almost without precedent. It freed him from literary forefathers. It was a decision only less radical than Joyce’s in inventing his extravagant Finnegans Wake-ese. Impoverishing himself, Beckett had to forswear all those associations which a native speaker writing in his own language happily makes use of. He has said that writing French freed him from the necessity of style, although in fact he evolved a new style in his adopted language.

The three novels of the trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, show their protagonists withering away along with the world they inhabit. Even their names become confused and finally disappear. Whether they have ever lived is also dubious. Beckett takes doubt to the point that David Hume reached but preferred to withdraw from. “My waking was a kind of sleeping,” says Molloy with bitter wit. “I have lived in a kind of coma,” is Malone’s admission. “Let us go on,” says the Unnamable, “as if I were the only one in the world, whereas I am the only one absent from it.” While most artists concentrate on peopling the void, Beckett’s creative act is unpeopling it again. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” says the Unnamable, and some have seen this as a ray of hope in the Cimmerian darkness. To repudiate such a suggestion, forlorn as it is, Beckett ends his latest work with the terminal words, “Nohow on.”

Beckett’s characters generally hobble about, as far from the world of trains and trams as they can get. They are usually old, and mostly ill. Disease and old age have not been favorite literary subjects; Swift portrayed the superannuated in his Struldbruggs, who however do not speak. Beckett’s Struldbruggs do little else. The speaker in his recent work, Ill Seen Ill Said, hopes that at the moment of expiring she will at last “know happiness.” Perhaps no one has written so well as Beckett about how it feels to be so ill. He has given a voice to the decrepit and maimed and inarticulate, men and women at the end of their tether, past pose or pretense, past claim of meaningful existence. He seems to say that only there and then, as metabolism lowers, amid God’s paucity not his plenty, can the core of the human condition be approached. These lean and slippered pantaloons, crutched, paralyzed, defeated, are past the illusions which animal vigor proffers. Neither subjective nor objective worlds can maintain themselves in the face of decrepitude. “I say, I. Unbelieving,” says the Unnamable and “It, say it, not knowing what.” In Worstward Ho the figures of an old man and a child appear tentatively. “Any other would do as ill,” the text confides. In Company, the first member of this most recent triad of Beckett’s writings, the companions are imagined into a precarious existence from which they soon fade and leave their imaginer as he was at the start, alone. The imagination finds images to conceive of a world without them.

While he was carrying his trilogy of novels through to what we can only call (if we are true Beckettians) incompletion, in the 1940s Beckett also composed two plays. The first has never been published, though we can get a good idea of it from Ruby Cohn’s description. It was entitled Eleuthéria—Greek for liberty. Beckett’s use of such a term seems by necessity ironical, as far as possible from Byron fighting for Greek freedom at Missolonghi. It is centered on a young man who might be characterized as an anti-artist, and the play offers his portrait. This hero does not aspire through silence, exile, and cunning to bring a conscience for his race. The freedom he wishes for is simply to be rid of the world and his own selfhood. This freedom he will never achieve. The faint sound of his chains rubbing together will be as he says the closest to freedom he can get. Beckett must have had in mind to write a reverse Bildungsspiel, not a shaping but a losing of shape, diseducation rather than education. (Shelley’s Demogorgon tells us that “the deep truth is imageless.”) Beckett put the play aside, perhaps because it was too much a counterstatement to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist. After a time he set out to write, again in French, Waiting for Godot. In this there could be no suspicion of Joyce’s influence even being repudiated. Where Eleuthéria dealt with the cancellation of relations among people, Godot deals with their futile continuance. In his prose fiction, doubles or near-doubles are likely to turn up, in his plays he usually summons up a more variegated world of down-and-outers, clowns, nihilists. The bleak but comic world they inhabit has the same foul weather as the novels. In the give-and-take of dialogue the characters complain of the same enigmatic confusion of reality and unreality, of point and pointlessness.

With Waiting for Godot Beckett framed his landscape and his mood. They were as memorable as Kafka’s, yet different in that Kafka’s people struggle purposefully, while Beckett’s endure purposelessly. Waiting is for them like willing for others; they linger, uncertain why. They seem to be on the verge of discovering why they should not be there. Yet as with Kafka and with Henri Michaux—writers with whom Beckett has affinities—a certain aesthetic sense remains when the five physical senses more or less give way. “Let’s abuse each other” and “Let’s contradict each other” are games that Estragon and Vladimir are still willing to play. They take a wry satisfaction in their proficiency at them. In a later play, Endgame, Hamm tells himself, “You cried for night; it falls, now cry in darkness,” and then compliments himself, “Nicely put, that.” He has complimented himself on his phrasing earlier in the play, too. The language is alerted to itself as language.

In the trilogy, also, Malone congratulates himself on having phrased a problem: “Nicely posed, I think, nicely indeed.” There is a pleasure in expressing how hopeless is the future, as well as the present. Faced with the unbearable, men and women preposterously find a phrase for it. This aesthetic sense is related to Beckett’s comic mode, in which even his most distressful works at times participate. Misery is particularized with such attentiveness, with so many complex ramifications, as to become funny. Molloy has his sucking stones, Vladimir and Estragon have their boots.

Beckett is such an odd fish that his position vis-à-vis his predecessors is not easy to define. “The artist who stakes his being is from nowhere, has no kith,” says Beckett in his essay on the painter Jack B. Yeats. The Unnamable aspires “to start again from nowhere, from no one, and from nothing.” Reading Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce does not make the coming of Beckett predictable. Yet once he fills the scene we cannot help but consider or reconsider the writers who preceded him. And when we do, a strange thing happens. However unlike him they were, at least some of their interests appear to be proleptic of his. Qualities in his predecessors which had previously been less conspicuous he pushes to the fore.

Among the three, Wilde, though he shared Beckett’s middle-class, Protestant upbringing as well as his school and university, is the furthest afield. That insouciant boulevardier with his button-holded flower might appear to have nothing in common with Beckett’s anxious alley-crawlers. Yet elegance and squalor call to each other as opposites. Flouting the work ethic and doing nothing are behavior patterns they have in common. It’s true that Wilde’s characters do nothing because they enjoy it, Beckett’s because nothing is worth doing. Perhaps the distinction is not a small one. Life for Wilde is justified if during it art can be created, while in Beckett the creative impulse, though acknowledged, is impugned.

The mixture of erotic feeling and artistic ambition in Krapp’s Last Tape may not be quite so distant from Wilde as might be supposed. For Wilde also wrote an account of such a mixture and called it De Profundis. It could be described as Wilde’s last tape. For in it as C.3.3 (his prison name) he remembers how as Oscar Wilde he kinged it, swaggering and successful, and as Wilde he looks at C.3.3, reduced and humbled. There is in it a good deal of self-examination, some pride in accomplishments, much remorse; much talk of earnest going forward. At the end Wilde seems to put these matters out of his mind as he turns to erotic thoughts of meeting Alfred Douglas again, just as Krapp furiously plays the tape ahead to his scene of love in a boat. The fire in Krapp has gone out, except for that, and in Wilde too the nub of his recollections is now: “The secret of life is suffering.” He offers his newly apprehended summation of life as “failure, disgrace, poverty, sorrow, despair, suffering, tears….” Beckett could not have known that when Wilde was composing De Profundis in Reading Gaol the warder each day removed the pages he had completed, but in Molloy we learn that Molloy’s pages are removed each week in the same way.

That the secret of life is suffering was not something disclosed to Wilde only in prison. From his fairy tale “The Happy Prince,” through Dorian Gray and the character of Herod in Salome, there is a theme of anguished physical or spiritual decay. Herod, like Hamm in Endgame, retains an aesthetic sense as the world collapses around him. (In Salome Iokanaan rises from his cistern as Clov and Nell rise from their trash barrels in Endgame, a point I mention not to impute an influence but to suggest that both Wilde and Beckett could see drama in strange repositories.) One of Wilde’s prose poems might serve as an epigraph to Beckett’s work. It is the story of a sculptor who was commissioned to sculpt a work entitled The Sorrow That Endureth for Ever. Unfortunately he could find no bronze with which to make it, not anywhere in the land. At last he bethought himself of a work he had executed earlier entitled The Joy that Abideth Only for an Instant. So he melted the bronze of The Joy That Abideth Only for an Instant to fashion out of it The Sorrow That Endureth for Ever. Beneath much posturing in Wilde there is much pain.

The closest connection between Wilde and Beckett may well be their propensity to use their art as recreation as well as vocation. Amid solemnities their characters are Irish enough to dawdle for a chat, or a cigarette, or something to eat. There is always time to split hairs. The slanging matches of Vladimir and Estragon find a parallel in the stichomythia, and the self-conscious taking part in a game, of Cicely and Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest, or of Lord Illingworth and Lady Allenby in A Woman of No Importance. Algernon’s cucumber sandwiches, or Gilbert’s ortolands in “The Critic as Artist,” have counterparts in Beckett’s coarser delicacies—Krapp’s bananas, Vladimir’s carrots.

Both writers refresh the banal by bursting through the surface of statements, by taking an accepted idiom like “as well” and turning it into “as ill.” “Having lost one leg,” says the Unnamable, “what indeed more likely than that I should mislay the other?” and Lady Bracknell tells Jack, “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.” Both writers incessantly play with language, so that “westward ho” can become “worstward ho” just as the adjective “earnest” gives a wry twist to the proper name “Ernest.” Puns of language connect with puns of identity. Dorian and his picture, the putative portrait of Willie Hughes and the Shakespearean sonnet about a man of all hues in “The Picture of Mr. W.H.,” provide visual as well as verbal puns. The manufacture of alternate selves is a leading enterprise for both writers. Beckett speaks of “existence by proxy.” His proxies are sometimes humorous, like Bim and Bom in Murphy, but they can be sinister, as in How It Is, where the protagonist malevolently invents and tortures Bim, and in The Unnamable where Worm and Mahood offer their shadowy counterfeits of the principal characters.

A more profound resemblance is the quality possessed by both men of what might be called self-cancellation. They cannot think of one possibility without evoking its opposite and recognizing its equal claim. In one of his sonnets Wilde adapted a phrase of Pater (“Neither for Jehovah nor for his enemies”) to describe himself: “Neither for God nor for his enemies”; and Beckett makes use of the same line in Fizzles when he writes, “Grey cloudless sky verge upon verge grey timeless air of those nor for God nor his enemies.” Wilde concludes his essay “The Truth of Masks” by allowing that he does not believe all that he has said. “A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true,” he declares, and in fact the tenor of that essay, which is a plea for archeological accuracy in theater staging, is itself in sharp contradiction to a remark he made in another mood, “Where archeology begins, art ceases.”

Beckett, as skeptical of fiction as he is of fact, has Molloy end his long monologue, “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.” Affirmation and denial go hand in hand. In The Picture of Dorian Gray Sibyl Vane gives up the pretense of art so as to live entirely artlessly in this world, only to commit suicide, and Dorian tries to give up the conditions of existence and to live in the deathless (and therefore lifeless) world of art, only to commit suicide too. When Wilde repudiates nature, experience, and the ordinary self in favor of the perfection of art, there is an intimation that artifice hangs on the edge of nonbeing. Deny reality to the one, it is hard to claim it for the other. When he asserts that masks are more real than faces, the solidity of both is put in question. “All those Murphys, Molloys and Malones do not fool me,” says the Unnamable. The suspicion latent in nineteenth-century aestheticism is that its constructions may be only Potemkin villages, fiction redoubling fiction to cover an essential barrenness, which Wilde like Beckett identifies with misery. “There is something vulgar about all success. The greatest men fail, or seem to have failed,” Wilde attests, and Beckett says, “To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail.” In this respect Wilde prepares unwittingly for Beckett’s more flagrant belittlements of both life and art.

As a literary figure Wilde could arouse Beckett’s sympathy only after his fall, when his suffering became overt rather than covert. Wilde belonged to the previous century. Beckett was more respectful of Yeats, who had performed the feat of transforming himself from a nineteenth-century writer into a twentieth-century one. Among Yeats’s poems Beckett had distinct preferences. Those early ones in which Yeats summoned up what Beckett called “the attar of far off, most secret, and inviolate rose,” he recommended correcting by “a good smell of dung.” Yeats by this time agreed, for he introduced into his later verse “frogspawn,” “old bottles, old rags, and a broken can,” and “excrement.” Yet among Yeats’s early poems Beckett singled out unerringly the one that was most extraordinary, entitled “He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead.” It was a sentiment that Beckett would himself reframe in four of his best lines of verse:

I would like my love to die
and the rain to be falling on the graveyard
and on me walking the streets
mourning the first and last to love me

The last line read in the original French, “pleurant celle qui crut m’aimer,” literally “mourning her who thought she loved me.” It is a line that Yeats could not have written, not only because his love did not even think she loved him, but because he would not have ended a poem on so caviling a thought. Doubt—which Beckett likes to call more esoterically aporia—was for Yeats something to get beyond if possible. Beckett sought bathos as Yeats sought climax.

Beckett and Yeats met only once, at Killiney south of Dublin, introduced by Thomas MacGreevy. At this single meeting in 1932 Yeats astonished Beckett by praising a passage from “Whoroscope.” The passage Yeats quoted referred to Descartes’s attitude toward the Virgin Mary:

A wind of evil flung my despair of ease
against the sharp spires of the one

The suggestion of helpless male love and female cruelty may have impressed Yeats as much as the startling imagery. In a subsequent reciprocation, Beckett quoted lines from Yeats’s poem “The Tower” in his minidrama “…but the clouds…” In Yeats’s poem this phrase is part of a kind of grand testament:

Now shall I make my soul,
Compelling it to study
In a learned school
Till the wreck of body,
Slow decay of blood,
Testy delirium
Or dull decrepitude,
Or what worse evil come—
The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath—
Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades;
Or a bird’s sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.

Beckett leaves out the soul making and the determination, concentrating on the last lines. In his play a man is trying to evoke the remembered image of a woman, a Maud Gonne–like figure, and from time to time she appears briefly on a screen, murmuring inaudibly the last lines of Yeats’s poem. At last the man quotes:

…but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades;
Or a bird’s sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.

The effect is not one of realization, as in Yeats, but of unreality, or of reality too dim to be apprehended. In Beckett the clouds are triumphant, not the man, who is forever subject to decay of body, testy delirium, or dull decrepitude.

Most of Yeats’s late work in verse and drama contained elements that were congenial to Beckett. There were aged bundles of memories, such as Crazy Jane and Mad Tom, images of senile lust, of love lost or gained long ago, of flat and fallen breasts, of old scarecrows resembling men, of people “ravening raging and uprooting” only to come “into the nothingness of reality.” The sense of the world’s transmutability into an imaginative paradise, which is strong in Yeats, was alien to Beckett; but in the obverse of that, which occurs in Yeats from time to time, he could find kinship. An ardent attender of plays at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Beckett admired the late plays of Yeats. He liked especially the one about Swift, The Words upon the Window Pane, in which the voice of Swift utters the devastating final line, “Perish the day on which I was born.” He also liked Yeats’s version of the Sophoclean plays about King Oedipus, an apt emblem for Beckett of the human situation in general—man blinded and dispossessed like Hamm in Endgame.

Another play that moved him was At the Hawk’s Well, where an old man and a young one wait in vain, as do Estragon and Vladimir, for something that never happens to them. In Happy Days Winnie quotes from it, “I call to the eye of the mind.” We can imagine Beckett sympathizing with the old man who, as Chorus in The Death of Cuchulain, concludes his prelude to the play with the words, “I spit! I spit! I spit!” Or with the scenery in Yeats’s play Purgatory which rather like that of Godot consists of a blasted tree. The reduction of scenery, the elimination of flamboyant gesture, the concentration of words were to be characteristics of Beckett’s theater as they were of Yeats’s. One need not overstate the bond between Yeats, with fabulous occurrences in legendary places and anatomizing of the heroic, and Beckett, who has no truck with Irish legend and preferred the anatomy of the unheroic. Still, Yeats had a strain of skepticism too. His poems about Byzantium, artifice triumphant over nature, are balanced by poems about the void in which all art is only what he magnificently calls “the cold snows of a dream.” (Even in “Byzantium” the fire of art “cannot singe a sleeve.”)

The relation of Beckett to Joyce is the hardest of the three to clarify. Hostile critics at first suggested that Beckett was Joyce’s disciple, chiefly perhaps because the early books described characters wandering not very purposefully around cities. Such echoes as there are were mainly parodic. Beckett took over the Joycean monologue, but everyone has been doing that, and Joyce himself was following Edouard Dujardin. Certain kinds of humor, especially the painstaking enumeration of mechanical details, they both enjoyed, but so did Rabelais, and Chaplin.

Beckett probably knew Joyce as well as anyone during the last thirteen years of Joyce’s life. They met often, they conversed frequently, though much of the time without words, directing silences across each other’s torsos and into the unfeeling ether. Beckett has said that his short play Ohio Impromptu records their friendship. It refers to walks they took together along the Seine to the Ile des Cygnes. “With never a word exchanged they grew to be as one,” it says. Beckett was almost the only young writer whose talent Joyce acknowledged, and when Murphy was published, Joyce paid it the compliment of a bad limerick, and more important, quoted to Beckett from memory the passage about the disposal of Murphy’s ashes on the floor of a pub, the ashes mixing with the spit and sawdust and vomit in a way that Joyce, past master of the mixed mode and squalid imagery, could value.

For his part, Beckett recognized what he would later call Joyce’s “heroic work, heroic being.” Nonetheless, he did not subscribe wholeheartedly to all Joyce’s works. In particular he thought Stephen Dedalus’s sense of mission too clamant, his own being based on abjuring claims. The play Exiles he found bloodless. Finnegans Wake, the work on which Joyce was engaged during their friendship, provoked his admiration. Beckett was the first to try to translate it into another language, and he also wrote a defense of it at Joyce’s request. Still, its point of view was not one with which he could altogether agree. “Yesterday shall be tomorrow” might be true, as Finnegans Wake implied, yet Beckett marveled at the way Joyce seemed to make no distinction between the fall of Satan and the fall of a sparrow. Contemplating life from this perspective turned it all to sad and rollicking farce. Beckett could have agreed with Joyce’s motto, “the seim anew,” and in fact he begins Murphy with “nothing new” and ends Worstward Ho with “Nought anew.” But the repetition did not arouse in him a feeling of tolerance or acceptance. So in an acrostic on Joyce he announced himself as a defector from the Joycean universe.

Joyce’s attitude to language was another matter on which they differed. Finnegans Wake grew out of a wish that Joyce had expressed long before, for a language beyond national boundaries, one to which all known languages would be tributary. For such a language the polyglot tongue of Finnegans Wake offered at least a metaphor. Beckett could not celebrate the word in such terms. Since literature did not appear to him, as it did to Joyce and to Stephen Dedalus, to be the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man, language must suffer demotion also. The goal of speech in Beckett is not more speech. The mouth opens because it has to, and looks forward to being finally shut. “Words,” he told Lawrence Harvey, “are a form of complacency.” Beckett could find more sympathetic Bloom’s contemplation of old age as a “grey sunken cunt”—a word of which Beckett particularly approves—in the Calypso episode of Ulysses, of “maggoty death” in Hades, and Joyce’s version of the cruelty of the unconscious in the Circe episode. Very much to Beckett’s taste was the death scene of Anna Livia Plurabelle as “sad and old” she finds herself rivering relentlessly into the salt sea.

I have tried to suggest how, in the age of Beckett, Wilde, Joyce, and Yeats take on some of his attributes. But if we regard him for a moment as their successor, even though like every great writer he comes from nowhere, our attitude toward him undergoes some change. In Finnegans Wake Joyce ironically described the type of the artist as “Nayman of Noland,” existing on the vacuum of his own most intensely doubtful soul. Beckett might be said to embody this type, except for certain discrepancies. It is true that in How It Is he plays on Joyce’s “work in progress” as “ruins in prospect.” Yet as his predecessors’ affirmations are challenged by his doubts, so his doubts may seem less scorching if he is read after them. In particular, his naysaying is accompanied by innumerable comic details.

To say no in thunder is one thing, to say no in vaudeville is another. Beckett has never been willing to say yes or no to the Nobel Prize committee’s judgment that he had “transmuted the destitution of modern man into his exaltation.” Certainly he did not set out with this goal in mind. But as Nietzsche says, “Only where there are tombs are there resurrections.” It is somehow salutary to know the horrors in store for us. Joyce claimed to have given a voice to the third of human life that is spent in sleep. Beckett could claim to have given a voice to the third of every existence likely to be spent in decay. His studied reticence about his purpose is justified. To explain is to attenuate. As his writings have become shorter, he has seemed to imply that faithful images of life have to be squeezed out. Yet his musical cadences, his wrought and precise sentences, cannot help but stave off the void. Even here, as he says in Ill Seen Ill Said, “imagination at wit’s end spreads its sad wings.” If he means to depress us merely, he may be said to outwit himself. Those sad wings are not only panache, they are also poise. Like salamanders we survive in his fire.

This Issue

April 24, 1986