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Author(s): Mark Nixon

Source: Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui, Vol. 18, "All Sturm and no Drang": Beckett
and Romanticism, Beckett at Reading 2006 (2007), pp. 61-76
Published by: Brill
Stable URL:
Accessed: 16-01-2018 16:27 UTC

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Today / Aujourd'hui

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Mark Nixon

This essay surveys Beckett's response to Romantic literature and painting in

the 1930s. It examines the way he dismissed its sentimentality and elaborate
style but was attracted to a particular strand of Romanticism that portrayed a
melancholic sensibility.

In a letter of 29 January 1935 to Thomas MacGreevy, Beckett

announced that he had written a "new short story," and had sent it to the
publisher Lovat Dickinson (letter to MacGreevy [hereafter TM], 29
January 1935). The story, "Lightning Calculation," which ultimately
became a part of Murphy, was the first piece of creative writing Beckett
had done since A Case in a Thousand, completed in May 1934. Indeed,
1934 was a year in which his thinking revolved around the aesthetic
implications of writing rather than the practical process of composition.
Beckett published several critical pieces and reviews during this year,
and also read extensively, as several notebooks (especially those on
philosophy, psychology and the history of German Literature) now at
Trinity College show.
Beckett's theoretical preoccupations of the time are reflected in
"Lightning Calculation," which in many ways reads like an aesthetic
statement. It is for example the first text to draw on the visual arts in
more than just a referential way. Indeed, the story must have been
begun shortly after what was undoubtedly Beckett's most profound
engagement with the visual arts in general, and the painter Cezanne in
particular, up until that time. Beckett had already alluded to Cezanne in
Dream of Fair to Middling Women as being "very strong on
architectonics," although his knowledge of Cezanne's work at this time
appears to have been rather negligible (178). Two remarkable letters
written to MacGreevy in September 1934, however, reveal a far more
searching encounter with Cezanne's work, which had a critical impact
on Beckett's developing poetics. Discussing the painting Montagne
Sainte-Victoire (1905-06) in London's Tate Gallery, Beckett argued
that whereas the "anthropomorphized" reality as portrayed by Dutch

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painting had become insufficient, "Cezanne seems to have been the first
to see landscape & state it as material of a strictly peculiar order,
incommensurable with all human expressions whatsoever" (TM, 8
September 1934).
Beckett's criticism of anthropomorphism in the Cezanne letters is
rooted in its "itch to animise," the investment of landscape with human
qualities: "What I feel in Cezanne is precisely the absence of a rapport
that was all right for Rosa and Ruysdael for whom the animising mode
was valid" (TM, 8 September 1934). Beckett's terms of reference here
invoke the trajectory from a romantic, or rather pre-romantic to a
'modern' view of the world. Both Salvator Rosa (1615-73) and Jacob
van Ruysdael (c. 1628-82) are considered proto-Romantics in that their
late paintings reveal a romantic sensibility in the use of mood, motifs
and perspective, and Ruysdael in particular inspired many Romantic
landscapists. That Beckett viewed Cezanne as the painter who
overcame Romantic painting is evident from a letter written in 1937, in
which he stated that Constable's "nature is really infected with 'spirit,'
ultimately as humanised + romantic as Turner's was + Claude's was
not + Cezanne's was not" (TM, 14 August 1937).
The debate between a romantic and a modern approach to
landscape (and the problematic object-subject relationship) lies at the
heart of various critical pronouncements made by Beckett during 1934.
It thus appears in his attack in "Recent Irish Poetry" on the "Victorian
Gael," where Sir Samuel Ferguson and Standish O'Grady are dismissed
as an "Irish Romantic Arnim-Brentano combination," with a reference
to Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1806-08) compounding the "Ossianic"
mixture (Beckett 1983, 70 and 77). The condemnation of the "cut-and
dried sanctity and loveliness" of the Irish "antiquarians" is located in
their refusal to admit 'self-perception' as a theme, in that their writing
merely strives to "land the practitioner into the correct scenery, where
the self is either most happily obliterated or else so improved and
enlarged that it can be mistaken for part of the decor" (71).1 This
essentially rephrases Beckett's belief that in Romantic writing, as well
as painting, "the landscape shelters or threatens or serves or destroys"
(TM, 14 August 1937).
Beckett's concern with the relationship between self and other, the
individual and landscape, forms a central focus of "Lightning
Calculation" (RUL MS 2902). The short typescript describes the
movements of one Quigley, who is writing a book entitled The Pathetic
Fallacy from Avercamp to Campendonck. Quigley's undertaking is not

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Beckett and Romanticism in the 1930s

without its problems, as he is both troubled by the fact that he cannot

remember the "name of Hobbema's celebrated avenue" and because the
"golden Cuyp sky which he now evoked, in order to make sure that it
contained the flight of birds so important to his thesis, did not present
itself with sufficient detail to set his mind at ease."2 Quigley only
manages to find some kind of resolution to these problems when he
stops off at the Lyons teahouse on the way to the National Gallery. In a
scene that reappears in Murphy, Quigley devotes considerable energy to
calculating the various ways in which he can eat his five assorted
biscuits. As a consequence, "Quigley began to be engrossed by the
biscuits, and therefore no longer troubled by Hobbema and his avenue
and Cuyp and his birds." The entire episode can be seen as a fictional
manifestation of Beckett's aesthetic concerns as imparted to
MacGreevy in the September 1934 letters. Ultimately, in the eating of
the biscuits, Quigley is favouring mathematics, or Cezanne's
"architectonics," over Dutch "landscapability," which reflects Beckett's
own dismissal of "Cuyp's cows as irrelevant" in a letter to MacGreevy
(TM, 8 September 1934).
Nevertheless, as John Pilling rightly argues, Murphy is not a book
"strong on architectonics" (1997, 133). In part this is because, in
"Lightning Calculation," Quigley finds it difficult to write his book
"without reneging on his infatuation with the work of Hercules
Seg[h]ers." Although not a formalistic artist either, the Dutch artist
Seghers is equally not an "animising" painter. Indeed, as Beckett noted
in February 1937 when he inspected two coloured engravings in the
Print Room of the Zwinger Gallery in Dresden, Seghers was a "[v]ery
modern talent" ("German Diaries" [hereafter GD], 9 February 1937).3
Hercules Seghers (1580/907-1633/8?) was an innovative and
experimental artist, few of whose paintings survive today. Seghers, by
all accounts a drunken, destitute and unappreciated artist, represents the
very kind of unhappy creative spirit to whom Beckett tended to be
attracted. Influenced by one of Beckett's favourite painters, Adam
Elsheimer, Seghers's work often depicts wild and fantastic
mountainous scenes, with jagged cliffs and desolate valleys invoking at
once an emotional intensity as well as a haunting, melancholy quiet.
Seghers's etchings, which Beckett admired in Dresden, are particularly
ahead of their time, as he experimented with different coloured inks and
often printed on dyed or coloured paper. A further diary entry on
Seghers clarifies Beckett's perception of Seghers's modernity: "Two
Hercules Seghers [...] both flat landscapes with view of Rhenen, one

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formerly given to Van Goyen, but the tone is already much more
piercing, + less stylised than V.G.'s" (GD, 2 January 1937).
Importantly, in September 1934 Beckett had defined Van Goyen as one
of the painters who "anthropomorphized landscape" (TM, 8 September
1934). Dismissive of the sentimental expression of anthropomorphism,
yet unable to achieve the cold "architectonics" of Cezanne, Beckett
ultimately sought a middle ground that the innovative yet emotionally
intense Seghers could supply.
The key to Seghers's modern approach, according to Beckett, lies
in the fact that he is both less 'stylised' and less 'sentimental' than his
contemporaries. The two terms act as yardsticks in Beckett's evaluation
of literature and painting in the 1930s, and fundamentally determine his
like or dislike of artists. Already in his lecture on Gide at Trinity
College he had condemned the Naturalists and Romantics as being
"artificial" and lacking "authentic complexity" (Rachel Burrows lecture
notes, TCD MIC 60, 3 and 5). Beckett thus favoured the "integrity of
incoherence" in both Gide and Stendhal over the "patient fabricated
order or Rom[antics] and Natsts. [Naturalists]" (37 and 9). Following
Gide, Beckett thought that the Romantics evaded the complexity of
reality by adopting the "demon d'analogie" (39), a notion he rephrased
in his 1934 review "Schwabenstreich" as "the theory of
Correspondences, that trusty standby of all the Romantics from
Hoffmann to Proust" (1983, 62). The point is also made in "Fingal,"
where Belacqua feels he "must be getting old and tired [...] when I find
the nature outside me compensating for the nature inside me, like Jean
Jacques [Rousseau] sprawling in a bed of saxifrages" (1973, 31).
Beckett's attitude towards Romanticism in the 1930s was not one
of simple dismissal. To be sure, a sweeping glance through Beckett's
writing of the 1930s would appear to confirm that he did not think
much of Romantic writers and artists. In accordance with what Dream
calls the "tag and the ready-made" (47), the names of poets and
fragments of their work are liberally scattered throughout the early
prose and poetry, and more often than not take the form of humorous
misquotation. One among numerous examples of this is Beckett's use
of Wordsworth's "Immortality Ode" in both Dream and Murphy, the
latter text including the revision of the Romantic poet's line "Heaven
lies about us in our infancy" to "Since Heaven lay around you as a
bedwetter" (1993, 122).4 On the whole the Romantic poets are
condemned for their stylised, affected writing and, in particular, their
sentimentality. In all of Beckett's early work the word 'sentimental' is


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Beckett and Romanticism in the 1930s

used as an index of something to be negated, as in the passage in

Dream where the Smerry leaves for Hamburg, and Belacqua is left
mourning her departure: "certain aspects of her abode in his heart [...]
made themselves felt from time to time in the form of a sentimental
eructation that was far from being agreeable" (109). The subsequent
reference to Belacqua's "infrequent jolt of sentimental heartburn" (109)
highlights Beckett's general distaste for the word 'heart,' which
resurfaces again and again in connection with exaggerated
sentimentality, usually in connection with Romantic writers. Thus in a
May 1931 letter to MacGreevy he draws attention to "a few shocking
lines here and there" (TM, 29 May 1931) in Goethe, quoting from Die
Leiden des Jungen Werther. "Was ich weiss kann jeder wissen, / mein
Herz hab' ich allein. !! (What I know everybody can know, / my heart
is mine alone.)" (Beckett's emphasis; my translation). Dismissing this
excessively sentimental strand of German Romanticism, Beckett would
again mock the "blabby word" Herz by incorporating a line from
Gretchen's song at the spinning-wheel from Goethe's Faust in Dream:
"Mein Ruh ist hin mein Herz ist schwer ich finde Sie nimmer und
nimmer mehr" (My peace is fled, / My heart is sore; / I shall find it
never, / Ah! nevermore) (59).5
The wealth of allusions to and fragments from Romantic writers in
the early work is taken, as so often with Beckett, from secondary rather
than primary sources. Thus Beckett for example read Theophile
Gautier's Histoire du romantisme, from which he took three notes in
his Dream Notebook (items 1000-02). He also took extensive notes on
German Romantic thinkers from Wilhelm Windelband's A History of
Philosophy (TCD MS 10967), on German Romantic writers and their
texts from J.G. Robertson's History of German Literature in Spring
1934 (TCD MS 10971/1), and, to a lesser degree, on their English
counterparts from the revised 1933 edition of Emile Legouis and Louis
Cazamian's A History of English Literature (TCD MS 10970). From
these books Beckett largely copied out biographical and bibliographical
details, but he did at times take more extended notes, such as the
excerpt from a footnote in Cazamian's discussion of the Romantic

All that Romantic writers imagine and feel is accompanied by a

shade of wonder, because they see those emotions and those
images rise within themselves with a surprising spontaneousness,
and because all such imaginings, in spite of their novelty, bring

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with them a disturbing impression of an intimacy of old date.

Romanticism is as a whole, in this respect, a phenomenon of
collective 'paramnesia', the reviviscence of a subconscious
(TCD MS 10970, 38r; Legouis and Cazamian, 1030, n.l)

The two strands of Cazamian's discussion noted here - spontaneous

imagination and the importance of memory - are drawn from
Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, and are restated (as Philip Laubach
Kiani has pointed out) by Beckett in his essay Proust. Beckett thus
locates Proust's "romantic strain" in his "substitution of affectivity for
intelligence" and "the importance of memory in inspiration" (80 and
82). Moreover, Wordsworth's statement that "[p]oetry is the
spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" in the Preface to the
Lyrical Ballads is echoed by Beckett's belief that - in terms of his own
poetic output - only those poems stemming from a "spontaneous
combustion of the spirit" were worth anything (TM, 18 October
Curiously, Beckett re-enacted a Romantic compositional
experience during his visit to Germany in 1936/37. Whilst visiting the
Ohlsdorf graveyard on the outskirts of Hamburg, Beckett appears to
have been simultaneously receptive to spontaneous inspiration as well
as to the specific creative stimulus injected by memory. Walking
through the cemetery, "alive with graves," Beckett "thought a poem
would be there": "the noise of my steps in the leaves reminds me of
something, but can't find what" (GD, 25 October 1936). Yet the
Romantic "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" was not
forthcoming: "I feel nothing." Beckett's diary entry, however, captures
the mood of the cemetery:

Strange banners on the newly earthed. One bedraggled crape fillet

all on its own. Yellow leaves + red berries. Young poplars of
incredible delicacy, almost bare of leaves, sheathed in their
branches. Dull golden larches + glaucus pines. Heather on graves
(but in bunches), roses [...] One Liebespaar [loving couple]. Fish
in pond being fed. Swans. A [erasure] small old man sidles
determinedly into a nook, [erasure] behind a yew hedge, facing a
piece d'eau, [erasure] with the air of a regular weekend mourner, a
Leidtragender Trostsuchend [erasure] und findender
[sufferer/bereaved seeking and finding consolation].


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The large number of erasures show Beckett's earnest attempt to

describe the cemetery, perhaps hoping that he would be able to write a
poem at a later point, drawing as it were on Wordsworth's "emotions
recollected in tranquility."
Yet if Beckett admitted a romantic sensibility into his private diary
("How I ADORE solitude"; GD, 31 December 1936), in his texts such
descriptive material is usually filtered through a rather mocking
attitude. Thus for example Beckett extensively parodies a Romantic
style of writing in the unpublished short story "Echo's Bones," in
which the narrative frequently traces an embellished, adorned
discourse. On being asked what he sees from Lord Gall's tree-house,
Belacqua says "Timberlike trees in great profusion [...] brushwood in
abundance and diadems of lakes" (15). Despite being told to "Cut out
the style" by Gall, Romantic passages continue to appear in the story,
as in the description of "a cataclasm of boughs and a moonlit
pandemonium of autumn tints" (18). This exuberant style reaches its
apotheosis when towards the end of the story, Belacqua is sitting (like a
Graveyard Poet?) on his tomb stone:

What with the moon shining, the sea tossing in her sleep and
sighing, and the mountains observing their Attic vigil in the
background, he found it difficult to decide offhand whether the
scene was of the kind that is called romantic or whether it should
not with more justice be termed classical. Both elements were
present, of that there could be no question. Perhaps classico
romantic would be the fairest diagnosis. A classico-romantic
Personally, he felt calm and wistful. A classico-romantic
Leaving aside the use of stereotypical Romantic (and Greek) metaphors
and analogies, the terms of this passage are taken from Mario Praz's La
Came, La Morte e II Diabolo (The Romantic Agony), notes from which
Beckett took in the Dream Notebook. As the title of the book indicates,
The Romantic Agony is essentially a study of decadence, and thus
concentrates on the darker strands of Romanticism - the satanic hero,
deathly beauty, the beauty of death, decadent sexuality - all the while
hovering between the ecstatic (Blake) and the depraved (de Sade). As
he did with Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, Beckett mainly used the


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book to furnish Dream and texts written shortly thereafter with literary
and biographical curiosities. Yet Beckett was also aware of the larger
movement behind Praz's study, and used terms and ideas from the
introductory chapter to flesh out his parody of Romantic writing. Thus
Belacqua's indecision over the precise nature of the evening mood -
classical or romantic - draws on Praz's statement (not copied into the
Dream notebook) on the opening page of his study that "L'epiteto
romantico e l'antitesi classico-romantico sono approssimazioni da
lungo tempo entrate nell'uso" (The epithet 'romantic' and the
antithetical terms 'classic' and 'romantic' are approximate labels which
have long been in use (Praz 1930, 1; Praz 1951, 1)). And the word
"wistful" is used by Praz as an example - together with the German
"Sehnsucht" - as an expression of a Romantic "state of mind which
cannot be described" (Praz 1951, 14).
Perhaps more importantly, Praz's book illuminated what Beckett
in his essay on Proust called the "gangrene of Romanticism" (80).6
Somewhat misleadingly, Beckett implies that the phrase derives from
J.-K. Huysmans's A rebours, but whereas this book does talk about the
"decomposition of the French language," and the way it goes "a little
greener every century" (200), it is in En menage that Huysmans refers
to the fact that "nous n'etions pas gangrenes par le romantisme." The
degeneration of the lofty ideals and aspirations of the Romantics clearly
appealed to Beckett, whose early landscapes are literally infused with
'gangrene.' Thus the colours yellow and green are frequently employed
to signpost a process of decomposition, as in the poem "Enueg I" with
its image of the "blotches of doomed yellow in the pit of the Liffey"
and the "slush of vigilant gulls in the grey spew of sewer" (1977, 12).
In Murphy romanticised moments are undercut with that same sense of
the organic, the "wild evening" is "green and yellow seen in a puddle"
(128). Similarly, as Murphy awakens in the park after night had fallen,
surrounded by "less Wordsworthy" sheep, he "bared his eyes to the
moon, he forced back the lids with his fingers, the yellow oozed under
them into his skull, a belch came wet and foul from the green old days"
Yet if Beckett turned away from the Romantics' use of landscape
and nature - as Malone says, "but to hell with all this fucking scenery"
(1994, 279) - he was not against the Romantic sensibility. Throughout
the 1930s, Beckett's cultural awareness was shaped by his attraction to
the melancholy strain inherent in Romanticism, or those qualities
encapsulated by the German word Schwermut. Thus it was clearly not


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the Romantic hero that interested Beckett, but the solitary turning his
back on the world, or being shorn by the world. As I have shown
elsewhere, Beckett was in particular attracted to a melancholy strand of
German Romanticism, the co-ordinates of which he traced from
Schopenhauer, Schubert, Goethe (tellingly, as a poet, not as a
playwright), Grillparzer, Heine to Holderlin and Georg Trakl.7
Beckett had of course already expressed sentiments that set him
alongside this tradition in Proust here "art is the apotheosis of
solitude" (64), and suffering "the main condition of the artistic
experience" (28). Indeed, the entire essay is founded upon a matrix of
pessimism filtered through Schopenhauer. Beckett was highly
conscious of where he was taking his reading of Proust. Even before he
had started writing the essay (late August 1930), an entry dated 15 July
1930 in George Reavey's diary, presumably made after the two friends
had met, illustrates this: "Sam. Beckett - Proust + Pessimism."8 It was
at around this time that Beckett first read Schopenhauer:

An intellectual justification of unhappiness - the greatest that has

ever been attempted - is worth the examination of one who is
interested in Leopardi and Proust rather than in Carducci and
(TM, undated [25? July 1930])

Attentive to "the darkest passages in Schopenhauer" (Beckett 1992,

62), Beckett introduced this aesthetic of unhappiness into Proust. And
having defined his interest in Leopardi by way of Schopenhauer's
"unhappiness," the Italian artisan de ses malheurs was engaged to
further enrich the essay's pessimistic flavour.9 The importance of
Leopardi to early Beckett is exemplified by his attachment to the poem
"A se stesso" (To Himself).10 A single unlined sheet of paper survives
on which Beckett had copied out the poem, which includes lines which
expressed feelings apparently close to Beckett's temperament:

Omai disprezza
Te, la natura, il brutto
Poter che, nascoso, a commun danno impera,
E Pinfinita vanita del tutto.
(Now despise
Yourself, nature, the sinister


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Power that, secretly, commands our common ruin,

And the infinite vanity of everything.)
(TCDMS 10971/9)

If we turn to French Romantic writers, it is again those whose

writing is tinged with a melancholy air that Beckett read, admired and
"borrowed" material from, rather than the more grandiose, elaborate
writers. Thus it is not Hugo but de Musset who appears throughout the
early works. Although familiar with de Musset's poems ("La Nuit de
mai" and "Souvenirs" seemingly favourites, despite being caricatured
in Dream), it was probably his reading of Praz's The Romantic Agony
that alerted him to The Confessions of a Child of a Century. Beckett
read the book in 1931, when he jotted down some entries from the book
in his Dream notebook (items 255-57 and 263-67). The references to de
Musset in the Dream notebook interrupt the notes taken from Praz at
precisely the point at which they are discussed in The Romantic Agony,
where the influence of de Sade on de Musset is explored. And, as in the
case of Goethe, Beckett was interested in the personal rather than the
public writings of another (proto-)Romantic writer, the "celebrated poet
Rousseau" (1992, 97), declaring - on the basis of his reading of the
"the madness + the distortion" in the Reveries of a Solitary Walker
(TM, 5 December 1932) - Rousseau to be an "authentically tragic
figure" (TM, undated [16 September 1934]).
Another such tragic figure is of course John Keats, apart from the
German poets of the period the most important Romantic figure in
Beckett's creative development. It is surely no exaggeration to say that
Beckett was fascinated by writers and artists who died young, as Keats
did, at 25. In his notes on English literary history, for example, Beckett
transcribed the title of a poem by Henry Kirke White - "Oft in sorrow,
oft in woe" - before noting that White's early death at 21 made him a
"[s]ymbol for Romantics of the poet" (TCD MS 10970, 39r)u
Having read him as a schoolboy, Keats remained a point of
reference throughout Beckett's life, and his admiration for the "Ode to
a Nightingale" is evident from the fact that quotations from and
references to the poem appear in a large number of texts. In particular,
Beckett used and adapted the line "To take into the air my quiet breath"
as well as Keats's play on the rhyme between 'death' and 'breath'
(lines 52-54 of the poem) in every major publication of the 1930s.12
Tellingly, despite its similar reference to "quiet breathing," Beckett
used Keats's more positive poem "Endymion" in Molloy, as Molloy,

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Beckett and Romanticism in the 1930s

substituting 'life' for 'thing,' quotes the line "A thing of beauty is a joy
for ever" (1995, 198)
For Beckett, Keats and his writing embodied precisely those
elements of Romanticism that he most admired. As he explained in a
letter to MacGreevy:

I like that crouching brooding quality in Keats - squatting on the

moss, crushing a petal, licking his lips + rubbing his hands,
'counting the last oozings, hours by hours.' I like him the best of
them all, because he doesn't beat his fists on the table. I like that
awful sweetness and thick soft damp green sickness. And
weariness: 'Take into the air my quiet breath.'
(TM, undated [6 April 1930])

Beckett's statement ties together several main aesthetic concerns that

would preoccupy him throughout the decade. First of all, Beckett finds
in the Keats of 'To Autumn' an analogue to the 'gangrenous' element'
of Romanticism, the "oozing" and the "thick soft damp green sickness."
But more importantly, Beckett is here locating a quietist attitude in
Keats, one which he would seek out and find in numerous other writers
in the following years, from Thomas a Kempis via Grillparzer to
Geulincx. He is thus favouring the languid, reticent, resigned poet over
the exuberant visionary, the figure who - like Dante's Belacqua
crouching or Walther von der Vogelweide sitting on his stone -
abandons the trope of onwardness, of going up.13 It is a kind of
recognition that the Romantic Sehnsucht - Beckett had already used the
word in Dream (80) - the longing for love or immortality or spiritual
transcendence will always remain unfulfilled. The result is a kind of
melancholy anguish, as Goethe expressed in a line from "Mignon's
Song" (in Wilhelm Meister) which Beckett copied into his "Sottisier"
notebook (RUL MS 2901): "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, weiss was
ich leide" (Only he who has experienced yearning knows how I suffer;
RUL MS 2901, 15r).
Furthermore, Beckett's own aesthetic concerns with the threshold
between expression and silence, knowledge and incompetence found a
parallel with a similar Romantic concern. Thus Mario Praz in the
Romantic Agony points to the fact that in scorning "concrete
expression," Romantic writers celebrate the "magic of the ineffable,"
and goes on to quote Keats's poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "Heard
melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter" (Praz 1951, 15).


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As Anne Atik tells us, Beckett was also familiar with Keats's idea of
"negative capability," designating (as he expressed in a letter to his
brothers dated 21 December 1817) "a man [...] capable of being in
uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact
and reason"; a line that sums up Beckett aesthetic movement over the
course of the 1930s (Atik, 71; Keats 1974, 55).
Beckett's specific evaluation of Romanticism in general and Keats
in particular can also be traced through his comments on Dutch and
Romantic painting during his trip to Germany in 1936/37. The quietist
attitude he detected in Keats, as expressed in his letter to MacGreevy,
finds expression in his comments on Philips Wouwermann, whose
"lyrical" landscapes he admired, the "solitary riders + resting scenes"
(GD, 5 February 1937). As in his response to Romantic literature,
Beckett was aware of the "frontier of sentiment + sentimentality' (GD,
6 December 1936). Even in Munch's more contemporary painting he
discerned "feeling inclined to be overstated into the sentimental" (GD,
20 January 1937). On the whole he thought that German Romantic
painters were hopelessly mired in sentimentality, and in his diary notes
how he regarded their work "with loathing" (GD, 21 October 1936).
The one German painter exempted from this dismissal was Kaspar
David Friedrich. His comments on Zwei Manner den Mond betrachtend
(Two Men Observing the Moon, 1819), an acknowledged visual
influence on Waiting for Godot, are strikingly similar to his reading of
Keats: "Pleasant predilection for 2 tiny languid men in his landscapes,
as in the little moon landscape, that is the only kind of romantic still
tolerable, the bemolise [the minor key]" (GD, 14 February 1937).14
Beckett's sympathy with this quiet melancholy was closely
connected with his growing emphasis on the unsaid, the implied, rather
than exultant, overemphasised expression. Almost amounting to an
aesthetic credo, Beckett repeatedly and in various guises made the
distinction, as in his comments on modern German painters, preferring
the "stillness + the unsaid of [Willem] Grimm + [Karl] Ballmer" (GD,
26 November 1936) as opposed to Bargheer's "enormous competence"
(GD, 26 November 1936) and Schmidt-Rottluff s "programmatic
monumentalism" (GD, 19 December 1936).15
Beckett's attraction to melancholy Romanticism stayed with him
all his life - he was fond of quoting Keats in the last months of his life.
In Malone Dies, fragments of Romanticism resurface in the description
of "such a night as Kaspar David Friedrich loved, tempestuous and
bright" when "[t]hat name comes back to me, those names" (1994,

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Beckett and Romanticism in the 1930s

198). There follows a passage in which Beckett in quick succession

references many of the poems he had already drawn upon in his work
of the 1930s:

The clouds scud, tattered by the wind, across a limpid ground. If I

had the patience to wait I would see the moon [Shelley, "To the
Moon"]. But I have not. Now that I have looked I hear the wind.
[Shelley. "Ode to the West Wind"] I close my eyes and it mingles
with my breath [Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"]. Words and
images run riot in my head, pursuing, flying, clashing, merging,
endlessly. But beyond the tumult there is a great calm
[Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads], and a great indifference, never
really to be troubled by anything again.
(1994, 198)

Whether he wanted to or not, Beckett's own temperament opened his

work up to Romantic influences. As he stated after a walk on the
outskirts of Hamburg: "Feel most happily melancholy" (GD, 7
November 1936).


1. Such an enlargement of the self Beckett detected in Rilke's "Ichgott," the

"prime article of the Rilkean faith, which provides for the interchangeability of
Rilke and God" (1983, 66). Cf. also Beckett's note on Schelling's statement
that "Nature is the ego in process of becoming," taken from Windelband's A
History of Philosophy; TCD MS 10967, 247r.

2. Beckett is alluding to Hobbema's The Avenue at Middelharnis (1689) in

London's National Gallery. The Cuyp mentioned here could be any one from a
number held in London, as many of Cuyp's landscapes have both a golden sky
and the flight of birds.

3. Cf. also Beckett's comment following a visit to the National Gallery in

London, where he "saw a lot in the Segers that I had not seen before" (TM, 8
October 1935).

4. Throughout his life Beckett made jokes based on Wordsworth's

daffodils, as when he talks to Arland Ussher about the "bull let loose among
the cows in Eisenstein's General Line, a reference which I confess only occurs
to me this moment, in the calm light of March winds caught up like sleeping
daffodils"; letter to Arland Ussher, 25 March 1936 (HRHRC). Cf. also his note


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Mark Nixon

to Judith Douw (Schmidt) that it was the "most wretched Spring within
memory of daffodils"; letter of 27 April 1965 (Syracuse).

5. The Faust line is from Part 1,11.3374-77; English translation taken from:
Faust, trans, by Albert G. Latham, 116.

6. Cf. also Beckett's letter of 12 May 1938 to Arland Ussher, in which he

quotes Herriot's "obsolete vitamins of romanticism."

7. See my "'Scraps of German.'"

8. George Reavey, diary entry for 15 July 1930 (HRHRC). Beckett told
MacGreevy that he was struggling to start writing in a letter dated 25 August
1930, but completed the essay on 17 September 1930.

9. The Watt notebooks contain a further reference to the "unhappy writer"

Leopardi, in Notebook 1, 31r (HRHRC). In a 1958 letter to A.J. Leventhal,
Beckett confirmed that "Leopardi was a strong influence when I was young
(his pessimism, not his patriotism!)"; letter to A.J. Leventhal, 21 April 1958
(HRHRC). The epigraph to the first edition of Proust was taken from
Leopardi, but removed from subsequent editions.

10. The poem is cited in Dream (62).

11. When taking biographical details and dates on writers and painters in his
notebooks, Beckett tended to append an exclamation mark beside artists who
died young.

12. Cf. Dream (107), "Dante and the Lobster" (1973, 22), Murphy (86, 128),
Watt (31). Note also how Beckett admired Goethe's "Wandrers Nachtlied," in
which the song of the birds is ended.

13. Presumably alluding to Keats's sickness, Beckett refers in Proust to "the

terrible panic-stricken stasis of Keats" (90).

14. Cf. Knowlson (2002, 78) for a discussion of the 'bemolise' Beckett
detected in Friedrich. Note that Friedrich's paintings did not always fulfil the
criteria of the 'minor key.' Beckett described the painting Kreuz im Gebirge
(1807-08) as appealing to the "very dregs of aesthesia" (GD, 14 February

15. In his 1938 review "Intercessions" Beckett similarly detected in Devlin's

poems "the extraordinary evocation of the unsaid by the said" (1983, 94).


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Beckett and Romanticism in the 1930s

Works Cited

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