Beckett’s Double-Vision of Yeats in …but the clouds

  • Graley Herren


As a young writer struggling to carve out a niche for himself, Samuel Beckett had a special loy to grind with William Butler Yeats. And like Christy Mahon, who dealt two mighty loy blows to Old Mahon in Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, Beckett would learn that patriarchs are not dispensed with so easily. Fathers stubbornly refuse to stay dead. They keep returning for more praise and more abuse and must be buried anew. Young Beckett’s attitude toward Old Yeats is best captured in “Recent Irish Poetry,” a review published in the August 1934 issue of The Bookman. The 28-year-old Beckett literally “makes a name for himself” in this essay, adopting the pseudonym “Andrew Belis.”1 Five years earlier, an even younger Beckett had warned, “The danger is in the neatness of identifications” (“Dante” 19). But “Andrew Belis” promptly ignores this advice, beginning “Recent Irish Poetry” with a neat identification: “I propose, as rough principle of individuation in this essay, the degree in which the younger Irish poets evince awareness of the new thing that has happened, or the old thing that has happened again, namely the breakdown of the object,” or the “breakdown of the subject. It comes to the same thing—rupture of the lines of communication” (70). With recognition of this rupture as his litmus test, Beckett divides contemporary Irish poets into two groups, “antiquarians and others, the former in the majority” (70).


Involuntary Memory Young Writer Aged Mind Radio Play Verse Dialogue 


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  1. 5.
    In 1948, Beckett published a poem closely modeled after Yeats’s conceit in “He wishes his Beloved were Dead.” See “je voudrais que mon amour meure” (“I would like my love to die”) in Samuel Beckett, Poems 1930–1989 (London: Calder Publications, 2002), 70–71. John Calder divulges in his note to the poem that, “The lady in question is often assumed to have been Lucia Joyce” (220). If this rumor is true, then the theme of exerting control through poetry over an uncontrollable situation in real life seems acutely relevant.Google Scholar
  2. 7.
    This contribution to the 1956 Shaw program was solicited by Cyril Cusack. My citation is taken from James Knowlson, Samuel Beckett: An Exhibition (London: Turret Books, 1971), 23.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    The play was first performed on April 2, 1916, in Lady Cunard’s drawing room in London to an elite avant-garde gathering. Two nights later, it was performed again at Lady Islington’s as a charity event under the patronage of Queen Alexandra. Ezra Pound, who attended the first performance with his new protégé T.S. Eliot, described the spectacle as “‘a theatreless stage—very noble & exclusive [ ... ] performed before an audience composed exclusively of crowned heads and divorcées.’” For a marvelous account of the composition and original production history of At the Hawk’s Well, see R.F. Foster, W.B. Yeats: A Life. Volume II: The Arch-Poet, 1915–1939 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003), 34–43.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    For a fuller discussion of Craig’s theories as they relate to Beckett, see Les Essif, Empty Figure on an Empty Stage: The Theatre of Samuel Beckett and His Generation (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001).Google Scholar

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© Graley Herren 2007

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  • Graley Herren

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