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Samuel Beckett, Yeats, and the occult: A digression

W. B. Yeats's occultism fits into an Irish Protestant literary tradition that includes Sheridan Le Fanu, Charles Maturin, Bram Stoker and Elizabeth Bowen. These, according to R. F. Foster in W.B. Yeats: A Life, were Protestant writers obsessed with Catholicism and with the social changes that were disinheriting them turned to the occult or, in some cases (that of Æ, for example) to mysticism. What Foster does not say - to digress from his biography of Yeats - is that there were Irish Protestant writers who did not belong to this tradition.

Samuel Beckett was one. He was born of Protestant Irish parents in suburban Dublin in 1906, some 40 years after Yeats and Æ, and seven years after Bowen. Unlike them, Beckett did not grow up in a family with significant clerical forebears, and though his parents did own property - an impressive house in prosperous Foxrock - theirs was property they had bought rather than inherited. The best sources of information about Beckett's life are Deirdre Bair's biography Samuel Beckett (1978) and the recently published The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Vol. 1, 1929-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Yeats and Beckett - two of Ireland's Nobel prize winners in literature (George Bernard Shaw and Seamus Heaney are the others) - had poverty in common, but the crushing poverty of their circumstances in the years when they were establishing themselves as writers had different causes: Yeats's family was impoverished, where Beckett's refused to support his literary ambitions with more than a pittance.

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Beckett did everything he could to distance himself from Ireland, where Yeats chose to identify himself with the national cause. Like Joyce, whom he knew and admired, Beckett distanced himself from Ireland geographically, as well, by living in France; Beckett was in Ireland when war broke out, but quickly returned to France, declaring that he preferred France at war to Ireland at peace. Joyce distanced himself linguistically by creating his own hybrid language; Beckett chose after the war to write in French.

And Beckett distanced himself from his Irish heritage spiritually, as well. That meant shunning the Protestant religion of his parents; it also meant shunning the occult and mystical interests that his Protestant literary forebears Yeats and Æ took so seriously. Beckett was able to use these interests to good effect in his work, but the use he put them to is comic rather than serious. There is lots of evidence of this, starting with the title of Beckett's award-winning poem Whoroscope and including his first published novel, Murphy, which makes a mockery of the occult enterprise, of astrology, and, pointedly, of Æ's mystical text The Candle of Vision.

Beckett avoided meeting Yeats whom, Bair writes, "he regarded as pompous and posturing, fatuously slobbering over all the wrong aspects of Ireland and Irish society." However, Beckett was - to digress from this digression - a friend and a sincere admirer of the work of the Irish painter Jack Yeats, the poet's younger brother.

Who - it's time to bring all this back to Foster's great biography - had a far more stable upbringing than the poet, spending eight years in Sligo with his well-to-do Pollexfen grandparents while the impoverished Yeatses were huddling over a single candle at one address or another in Dublin or London.

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