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Authors: Samuel Beckett

Selected Poems 1930-1988

BOOK: Selected Poems 1930-1988
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Selected Poems 1930–1989

Edited by David Wheatley


Title Page


Table of Dates


Echo's Bones
was Beckett's only separately published collection of poems, but as the French poems of the 1930s and 1940s and the
all form sequences in their own right, all three are marked as such in the Contents.]





Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates

The Vulture

Enueg I

Enueg II



Sanies I

Sanies II

Serena I

Serena II

Serena III


Da Tagte Es

Echo's Bones


Yoke of Liberty





[Poems in French, 1937–1939]

‘elles viennent'
‘they come'

‘être là sans mâchoires sans dents'


La Mouche

‘ainsi a-t-on beau'


Rue de Vaugirard

Arènes de Lutèce




[Poems in French, 1947–1949]

‘bon bon il est un pays'

Mort de A.D.

‘vive morte ma seule saison'

‘je suis ce cours de sable qui glisse'
‘my way is in the sand flowing'

‘que ferais-je sans ce monde'
‘what would I do without this world'

‘je voudrais que mon amour meure'
‘I would like my love to die'


Song (‘Age is when to a man')

‘hors crâne seul dedans'
Something there

dread nay




en face


somme toute

fin fond du néant

silence tel que ce qui fut


lueurs lisières

imagine si ceci


flux cause

samedi répit

chaque jour envie

nuit qui fais tant

rien nul

à peine à bien mené

ce qu'ont les yeux

ce qu'a de pis

ne manquez pas à Tanger

plus loin un autre commémore

ne manquez pas à Stuttgart

vieil aller

fous qui disiez

pas à pas


morte parmi


mots survivants

fleuves et océans

de pied ferme

sitôt sorti de l'ermitage

à l'instant de s'entendre dire

la nuit venue où l'âme allait

pas davantage

son ombre une nuit

noire soeur

le nain nonagénaire

à bout de songes un bouquin


‘one dead of night'


‘again gone'

‘bail bail'


‘Go where never before'

Brief Dream

Comment dire
what is the word

[Translations by Samuel Beckett of poems by others]

Eugenio Montale: Delta

Ernst Moerman: Armstrong
Louis Armstrong

Arthur Rimbaud: Le Bateau ivre
Drunken Boat

Paul Éluard: L'amoureuse
Lady Love

Paul Éluard: A perte de vue dans le sens de mon corps
Out of Sight in the Direction of My Body

Guillaume Apollinaire: Zone

Sébastien Chamfort: Huit Maximes
Long after Chamfort


Tailpiece (‘who may tell the tale')


Appendix: translations of Beckett's untranslated French poems




About the Author

About the Editor

Titles in the Samuel Beckett series


Samuel Beckett began and ended his career with poetry. From
(1930) to ‘what is the word' (1989) is a lifetime's arc of writing. It was as a poet that the young Beckett launched himself in the little reviews of 1930s Paris, and as a poet that he would make his first breakthrough into writing in French. From the outset poetry was central to Beckett's work, from the abject majesty of the Leopardi epigraph to his book on Proust (‘
E fango è il mondo
'; ‘and the world is mud') to his lifelong engagement with Dante, Racine, Keats, Hölderlin and other favourites. ‘The poem of poems', Beckett wrote in ‘Recent Irish Poetry', ‘would embrace the sense of confinement, the getaway, the vicissitudes of the road, the wan bliss on the rim', and even allowing for the critical tone here (Beckett is deprecating his Irish contemporaries), an oscillation between contrary states is a defining condition of his own work too. Beckett the poet
between expansiveness and concision, slapstick humour and Zen-like calm, claustrophobic trampings round Dublin and moments of blissful centrifugal escape. Escape not just from Ireland but the larger Anglosphere was a deeply felt need: Beckett translated Rimbaud, Éluard and Apollinaire and served his time in the trench wars of Irish poetic modernism,
Yeats but embracing neither Eliot's Christianity nor the emerging idiolect of Auden, MacNeice and Spender. ‘Keep on the move,' Beckett writes at the end of ‘Serena III', and it was a stylistic principle to which his poetry would cleave assiduously. Though his ambitions quickly overspilled any one genre, Beckett's plays and fiction are also full of poetry, from the
doodles of
Dream of Fair to Middling Women
and the nonsense rhymes of
to Hamm's intoning of Baudelaire in 
and the dramatised versification of
Words and Music
. Beckett's work as a whole has never wanted for exegetes, but the poems remain a somewhat mandarin interest, attracting a band of advocates that has nevertheless included Michael Hamburger, Thomas Kinsella and Derek Mahon, while among composers György Kurtág, Morton Feldman and Marcel Mihalovici have all responded with musical settings.

Traditionally the
of the Beckett canon, ‘Whoroscope' was composed in 1930 as a last-minute entry for a poetry competition on the subject of time. The poem is spoken by Descartes, who has been employed by Queen Christina of Sweden to teach her philosophy; unfortunately for him, as a
late riser, the classes are at dawn. Hence perhaps the
of cool reasoning on the mind-body divide for the absurdist theatrics of Descartes sitting in the hot-cupboard ‘throwing Jesuits out of the skylight'. The notes Beckett appends to the poem exploit the new-found freedoms of
The Waste Land
while simultaneously sidestepping Eliotian solemnity (‘In 1640 the brothers Boot refuted Aristotle in Dublin'). A reference to Augustine proving God ‘by exhaustion' provides an early example of ‘the loutishness of learning' (in the words of ‘Gnome'), contorting the unobliging universe into patterns of reasonableness and sense. Derek Mahon, otherwise one of Beckett's strongest admirers, finds the poem's parade of learning altogether too loutish. However, if ‘Whoroscope' must finally be judged (in its own words) the ‘abortion of a fledgling', it sets a tone of what
calls ‘eleutheromania', or rage for freedom, that Beckett will follow in his later poems and their more successful puncturing of the embryos of callow youth.

The young Beckett's keenness to emulate Joyce extended to wearing the tight-fitting, pigeon-toed shoes favoured by the older man; and to contemplate the punning style of ‘Home Olga', an acrostic tribute to Joyce not included here, is to witness Beckett shoehorn himself into a style patently not his. The juvenilia published by Beckett in the 1930s secrete allusions
like cuttlefish ink, behind which lurks a spluttering and inchoate poetic ego. The baroque glory of titles such as ‘From the Only Poet to a Shining Whore' and ‘Casket of Pralinen for a Daughter of a Dissipated Mandarin' is among the most striking things about these poems, which are probably best read in tandem with the exhaustive commentaries in Lawrence Harvey's 1970 study,
Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic

A striking albeit exiled exception among the juvenilia is ‘Yoke of Liberty' (originally ‘Moly'), whose ceremonial vocabulary (‘torn', ‘grave', ‘watchful', ‘pitiful') links it to ‘Alba' and ‘Dortmunder' which were included in
Echo's Bones,
published in 1935 by George Reavey's Europa Press in Paris. From the biblical exhortation to ‘the prone' in the opening poem, ‘The Vulture', that they ‘take up their life and walk', the volume's thirteen poems embark on a variety of journeys that, variously, go nowhere or reveal themselves as preludes to the funeral procession of ‘Malacoda', written in deep grief for Beckett's father, who died in 1933 (‘all aboard all souls / half-mast aye aye / nay'). While Beckett refused to authorise a reprint of
More Pricks than Kicks
until 1970, he was happy in later life to keep the poems of
Echo's Bones
in print; to Hugh Kenner, they seemed the only part of his early work for which Beckett still cared. At the time, though, the book passed almost without notice: ‘five lines of faint damn in
Dublin Mag
', as Beckett lamented to Thomas MacGreevy, with the added insult that many of Beckett's friends, already familiar with the poems, refused to buy copies. ‘Getting known', as Krapp declared, contemplating his ‘seventeen copies sold'.

Beckett's hopes for
Echo's Bones
must have extended beyond a favourable review in the
Dublin Magazine
, but despite
from his teaching post at Trinity he still found himself, in the mid-1930s, more embroiled in Dublin literary life than can have been comfortable. His prose had so far failed to put the necessary distance between him and the hated
of Dublin pub life:
Dream of Fair to Middling Women
had been abandoned,
More Pricks Than Kicks
banned, and
endure dozens of rejections before its publication in 1938. The inducements to a little local score-settling were strong, and in ‘Recent Irish Poetry', writing as ‘Andrew Belis', Beckett launched a rollicking denunciation of his contemporaries. His prime targets are the ‘antiquarians' still wedded to Gaelic revivalism in the age of modernist ‘rupture of the lines of
'. These include F. R. Higgins and Austin Clarke, soon to be pilloried as the hapless ‘Austin Ticklepenny' of
. The young Beckett was not one for nuance on the subject of Ireland and Irish poetry in the 1930s, and kept his raids on mythology studiously free of the Celtic ‘fully licensed stock-in-trade' beloved of Higgins and Clarke. Though always an admirer of Jack Yeats, as both painter and novelist, Beckett also resisted the poetry of W. B. Yeats; evidence of his belated conversion to its merits can be found in Anne Atik's memoir
How It Was

The unpublished essay ‘Censorship in the Saorstat' links Irish anti-intellectualism and sexual Puritanism. Sex is everywhere and nowhere in 1930s Ireland: writing to MacGreevy in 1931 Beckett complains of Seumas O'Sullivan sizing up his
to the
Dublin Magazine
for obscene anagrams. Erotic thoughts in the early poems lead to wallowing abjection (‘girls taken strippin that's the idea') or hopeless sublimation. ‘Sanies II' remembers Becky Cooper's brothel in Dublin's Railway Street (whither Belacqua makes his way at the end of the short story ‘Ding-Dong'); the print of Henry Holiday's ‘Dante and Beatrice' on the wall shows what fertile ground the Beckett narrator finds in these ‘sites of rendezvous' for the
complex expounded in
Dream of Fair to Middling Women.
The French title used for a 1967 gathering of short prose,
, refers to the leftovers from a process of alchemical
, and in ‘Alba' an ethereal woman bestows her grace from on high but utterly fails to ennoble the base metal of the Beckettian ego, or raise him up to her level. Where other poems from
Echo's Bones
rage hysterically against this impasse, ‘Alba' achieves an oriental calm, with its lute music, silk and bamboo,
suggesting careful study of Pound's ‘Cathay' and the
translations of Arthur Waley:

before morning you shall be here

and Dante and the Logos and all strata and mysteries

and the branded moon

beyond the white plane of music

that you shall establish here before morning

Several of the poems of
Echo's Bones
adopt Provençal titles: a ‘Serena' is a lover's song of anticipation, sung at evening, and the ‘Alba' the song of the departing lover at dawn; ‘Enueg' is the Provençal for ‘ennui'. Another gnomic title, ‘Sanies', refers to a seropurulent discharge, and not without reason; Beckett's medical history for this period is one long catalogue of skin complaints, as though even at an epidermal level integration into his Irish surroundings was beyond him. The walker of ‘Enueg I' launches into his trek round Dublin ‘in a spasm', proceeding by a series of cinematic jump-cut transitions that remind us of Beckett's ambition in the mid-1930s to study with Eisenstein in Moscow. ‘Enueg I' alternates between social realism and incantation, keen as ever to bundle the self offstage (‘the mind annulled /wrecked in wind'), and ending with a quatrain transplanted from Rimbaud's ‘Barbare'. A long poem of MacGreevy's from this period, ‘Crón Tráth na nDéithe' (the Gaelic, roughly, for
), employs similar tactics of modernist collage and fragmentation, but predicated on an investment in Irish nationalism which is simply lacking in Beckett, for all the rediscovery in recent decades of his
undervalued Irishness. The poems of
Echo's Bones
are intensely claustrophobic, but while their Irish locales may appear inescapable (just as leaving the city is physically beyond the denizens of Joyce's
), their truest home remains ‘unspeakable', in the formulation of the late text ‘neither'. The urban peripatetics of
Mercier and Camier
and the post-war novellas, not to mention his kinship with Apollinaire's ‘Zone', have their self-shredding roots in poems such as ‘Sanies I'.

Robert Lowell found that John Berryman's work operated in a spin-cycle of ‘prayer' and ‘riot', and Beckett's critical
offer some perspective on his own wavering between the meditative and the unruly. Of Thomas MacGreevy he wrote in 1934: ‘All poetry, as discriminated from the various paradigms of prosody, is prayer.' A review of Denis Devlin four years later makes the obscurantist counter-argument, advancing ‘the vile suggestion that art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear'. Beckett's poems in English after
Echo's Bones
continue to thrive on
quarrels with the self, from the fulminating blasphemies of ‘Ooftish' to the lovelorn cries of ‘Cascando'. While the God the Father figure of ‘Ooftish' greedily feeds on human suffering (‘we'll make use of it /we'll make sense of it'), the disappointed lover of ‘Cascando' looks to non-existence instead (‘is it not better abort than be barren'). Neither poem uses any
, so when ‘Cascando' ponders ‘last times […] /of knowing not knowing pretending', it is tempting to hear ‘not knowing' as the Zen-like object of ‘knowing', and of the wise passivity towards which Beckett's poetry increasingly gravitates.

1937 saw Beckett make his permanent home in Paris and begin to compose in French, in a sequence of twelve poems published after the war in
Les Temps modernes
. His usual practice after his adoption of French was to produce versions of new texts in both French and English, sometimes, as with
Mercier and Camier
, allowing decades to elapse before completing the task. His poetry is anomalous in this regard, as the bulk of his poems exist in only English or French. In the case of poems such as ‘they come'/‘
elles viennent
', it is not immediately
which, if either, of the two texts should be thought of as the original and which the translation. Depending on one's
, Beckett has written one poem twice or two poems once. The Spanish edition of Beckett's poems responds to this by translating ‘they come' and ‘
elles viennent
' separately, enacting the poem's theme in a trilingual constellation of sameness and difference.

Esse est percipi
, to be is to be perceived, according to Bishop Berkeley but the roles of observer and observed shift constantly in these poems, along with the limits of the unitary self that might underwrite them (‘everything divides into itself', as Beckett writes in
Malone Dies
). A reference to Immanuel Kant contemplating the Lisbon earthquake suggests the seismic upsets Beckett has set himself to absorb, and it is hardly a
that many of these poems end with an image of flight from upheaval and violence. ‘Saint-Lô' vibrates to the echoes of a more recent catastrophe, commemorating Beckett's work with the Red Cross in that devastated Normandy town after the war and watching ‘the old mind ghost-forsaken /sink into its havoc'. If the self fragments in ‘
Arènes de Lutèce
', in ‘
Rue de Vaugirard
' he isolates a fugitive moment in time before peeling the self away from it like a photographic negative (‘
un négatif irrécusable
'). Beckett does something similar in the lovely
‘Dieppe', which he skims intertextually from Hölderlin's ‘
Der Spaziergang

BOOK: Selected Poems 1930-1988
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