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Romanticism in Samuel Beckett's Poetry



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Lee-Six, Edward Arthur 


If English Romantic writers occasionally make an appearance in Samuel Beckett’s prose and drama, it is in the voice of sarcastic or deflating allusion. His poetry, by contrast, presents a different relation to Romantic writers, one founded on a shared medium, lyric, and comparable ways of inhabiting that medium. This dissertation pursues the faint, intermittent, and scattered resonances of Romanticism, resonances whose reality resides in their very fragility: I argue for reading Beckett’s poetry as Romanticism’s dying fall. My argument mobilises two approaches: close reading and historical materialism. On the one hand, many of the kinships between Beckett and his Romantic precursors are invisible to arm’s-length reading: rather, only close attention to linguistic detail and to formal features specific to lyric poetry can reveal Beckett as Romantic. On the other hand, I propose to follow a critical tradition which sees Romanticism as a culture of resistance to capitalism. Romanticism, in this reading, is the rejection of a specifically capitalist present in the name of pre-capitalist values. Beckett’s relation to his contemporaneity can be construed as precisely such a resistance, albeit one which undergoes significant – but not total – alterations in the relevant two-hundred-year period, approximately from the decisive victory of the bourgeoisie in 1789 to Beckett’s death in 1989.

The dissertation is organised into three chapters, each concentrating on a motif around which Beckett’s last-gasp Romanticism crystallizes. These conceptual structures were moulded into distinctive shape by the Romantics, before being inherited, in however fragmentary a form, by Beckett. Thus, the first chapter, ‘THEN AND NOW’, considers the binary of present and past temporalities which is at the foundation of Romantic ideology. Romanticism often adopts the contorted posture of being in the present while turning back to the past. Beckett, too, paces incessantly between these dimensions of time, but whether the past has any power of redemption is more in doubt than ever. Chapter 2, ‘IN AND OUT’, moves from a temporal to a spatial contradiction, investigating the circular as a figuration of the tensions between outer and inner. For the Romantics, this often articulates the familiar discourse of the poet’s withdrawal from the contemporary world, in favour of the inward turn for inspiration. For Beckett, these tensions are discernable in the circular poetics of his intensely reduced poetry. The final binary is one of scale: Chapter 3, ‘BIG AND SMALL’, explores the Romantic resistance to contemporary society’s tendency towards normalisation and homogenisation. Romanticism, by contrast, entertains a fascination for extremes, both the infinite and the infinitesimal. Beckett’s writing is equally drawn to extremes of scale: this will particularly come into focus in a discussion of number and mathematics in Beckett. These three chapters are introduced by a discussion of Beckett criticism in general, and of studies of the poetry in particular. I make the case that a new appraisal of Beckett’s poetry may help the wider field of Beckett studies to see beyond certain limitations which it has struggled to overcome, stemming from narrow post-war contextualisation. The dissertation also implicitly refutes the understanding of literary history as a sequence of self-contained ‘periods’, to suggest rather that ostensibly distant –isms may nevertheless be grounded in homologous relations between art and other forms of social life, and can, therefore, be compared. The conclusion turns towards the question of Beckett’s Irishness, and also his Frenchness, as profoundly inflecting his recourse to English Romanticism in his fraught pursuit of cultural legitimacy.





Stillman, Anne Malone


Samuel Beckett, Romanticism, Marxist literary criticism


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge