Echo's Bones and Samuel Beckett's Early Aesthetics: "The Vulture", "Alba" and "Dortmunder" as Poetic Manifestos

By Studniarz, Slawomir | Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies, March-February 2020 | Go to article overview

Echo's Bones and Samuel Beckett's Early Aesthetics: "The Vulture", "Alba" and "Dortmunder" as Poetic Manifestos


Studniarz, Slawomir, Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies


The present article is devoted to the exposition of Beckett's aesthetics as formulated and exemplified in the key poems from Echo's Bones: "The Vulture", "Alba" and "Dortmunder". These texts emerge as Beckett's poetic manifestos, in which he explores the sources and materials of poetry, and addresses broader philosophical questions about poetry or art in general. Among his chief aesthetic concerns there are the place and obligation of poetry in the world as well as the efficacy of verbal magic, intimately connected with the possibility of artistic transcendence, or in other words, with the redemptive power of verbal, but not only, art. Leo Borsani in his study The Culture of Redemption looks into the cultural and philosophical assumptions that "make it natural to think of art as having such a [redemptive] power" (7), and begins his inquiry by turning to Proust, the author who was the subject of Beckett's first monograph and with whose ideas on literature and on the human condition the young Irish writer was very well conversant. For Borsani, Proust "embodies perhaps more clearly--in a sense, even more crudely--than any other major artist a tendency to think of cultural symbolizations as essentially reparative", and enshrines "the notion of art as salvaging somehow damaged experience" (7).

Before embarking on the task proper, that is the exposition of Beckett's aesthetics as advanced in "The Vulture", "Alba", and "Dortmunder", it might do well to emphasize that poetry had always ranked high on Beckett's artistic agenda. As an aspiring young writer in France in 1930s, he set great store by his poems and was disappointed by the lack of response and recognition he had desired for his poetic works (Beckett 260). While in the middle period of his literary career he chose to channel his creativity into plays and novels, he returned to the poetic mode in his late fiction, in which he deliberately blurred the boundary between prose and poetry. In general, Beckett's late prose displays many features of a poetic text and reveals techniques characteristic of the lyrical mode, visible especially in the strict rhythmical organization of textual passages and the dense patterning of verbal material. His late offerings are drawn even more deeply into the realm of poetry by their chief operative principles: repetition, polysemy, and ellipsis.

As opposed to the starkness and austerity of his late texts, Beckett's early poetry is marked by verbal exuberance. It can be cryptic, at times almost undecipherable, and the interpretive effort is not always adequately rewarded; sometimes it is thwarted by obscure personal references, indefatigably elicited from Beckett himself by Lawrence Harvey during long personal interviews with the author (Harvey xii). Hugh Kenner argues that the autobiographical and anecdotal elements in Beckett's early poems frustrate an attentive reader. As he puts it, "the poems are apt to leave a reader blank though for Beckett they fix circumstantial memories," adding that "[n]one of his other writing is entangled with his biography in so specific a way" (43). However, this can be overstated, and the presence of the personal element should not discourage literary analysts from serious investigation of Beckett's pre-war poetry.

Excluding The Whoroscope published in 1930 and a handful of miscellaneous poems, the early fruits of Beckett's poetic labor were brought together in the collection Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates (EBOP), which came out in 1935. Opening the volume, "The Vulture", which was the last of the EBOP poems to be written (Beckett 261), may be regarded as a brief manifesto: a condensed exposition of Beckett's poetics. The poem is typographically divided into three pairs of lines:

dragging his hunger through the sky
of my skull shell of sky and earth

stooping to the prone who must
soon take up their life and walk

mocked by a tissue that may not serve
till hunger earth and sky be offal. … 

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