I will begin this post by alluding to a bigger argument that I would like to develop in a more extended form in another context. That more capacious discussion would take its point of departure from a coincidence, like one of those occasionalist parallelisms that so regularly stimulated Beckett’s metaphysical imagination: in the early 1940s, under analogous conditions of war and expatriation, two important representations of aphasic phenomena, one theoretical and the other literary, had their genesis. The first was the short treatise by Roman Jakobson entitled Aphasia, Child Language, and Phonological Universals, which he published in 1941, just as he was departing for the final phase of his exile, which had taken the linguist from the chaos of Russia during the Civil War to the newly independent Prague, then to Scandinavia when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, and finally to the United States. The other work, of course, is Samuel Beckett’s Watt, which both charts the itinerary of a dissociation of speech and meaning and inscribes that dissociation into the narrative of which it is the personified and eponymous object.
The pertinence of the contemporaneity of Jakobson’s writings on aphasia and language acquisition to Beckett’s Watt and vice versa may be evident enough (though despite the discussion, for example, by Michael Beausang of the more general topic of aphasia in Watt, Jakobson’s work was surprisingly not even mentioned). Less evident, in any case, may be the pertinence of Watt, with or without Jakobson, to the topic of lyric and verse in Beckett’s oeuvre. However, I can only state and leave hovering in the void of the unexplained, that there is a profound pertinence, but in a manner that illuminates, in the light of linguistic dissociation, that borderline occupied both by the phenomena of aphasic disorders and the crisis of lyric that Beckett passed through in the 1930s and 1940s and thematized in crucial ways in Watt.
Now, however, I must move on to my actual, more limited post, which takes up the narrower task of being a prelude to this larger argument, by discussing a single five-line poem of the mid-1930s, the unpunctuated verse lyric, if such it in fact is a lyric, entitled “Echo’s Bones.” In considering the question of Beckett’s relation to lyric and verse, I follow Paul De Man in defining lyric poetry not by formal characteristics per se, but by its “principle of intelligibility,” which, over and above its specific manifestation as verse or prose, or its historical instances of style, rests on the “actualization” or “concretization” of a speaking voice that must not be viewed as “mere figure of speech or play of the letter, for this would deprive it of the attribute of aesthetic presence that determines the hermeneutics of the lyric.” Put otherwise, lyric involves motivating phenomenal aspects of the text—sound structure, visual figure, and other sensory references—so that they coalesce into a unitary image of voice that expresses itself precisely through these sensual features.
Susan Stewart has offered a learned and elegantly written defense of lyric in precisely these terms. In the opening chapter of Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, in which the title’s “and” functions less as a sign of predication and more as a copula of identification, equating poetry as a whole with sensory necessity, Stewart writes: It will be the argument of this book that the cultural, or form-giving work of poetry is to counter the oblivion of darkness. . . . As metered language, language that retains and projects the force of individual sense experience and yet reaches toward intersubjective meaning, poetry sustains and transforms the threshold between individual and social existence. Poetic making is an anthropomorphic project; the poet undertakes the task of recognition in time— the unending tragic Orphic task of drawing the figure of the other –the figure of the beloved who reciprocally can recognize one’s own figure—out of the darkness.”
Beckett’s short poem “Echo’s Bones,” written in 1935 and the title poem of his only volume of lyric, suggests that at this moment in his career, he shared Stewart’s conception of the task of lyric, even in his evocation of a reversible communication of subject and object. A poem, according to Stewart, should project through its phenomenal aspects, not only the conjured presence of the other, but also that other’s reciprocal recognition of the speaking voice as a coherent, personalized figure who is affected by grief, or love, or civic passion, or any of the other sentiments native to lyric.
Beckett’s instantiation of this basic structure reads:
asylum under my tread all this day
their muffled revels as the flesh falls
breaking without fear or favour wind
the gantelope of sense and nonsense
run taken by the maggots for what they are
The poem already reveals Beckett’s penchant for generating figural equivocations out of puns and ambiguous syntax. The title “Echo’s Bones” references the classic Ovidian trope of belated speech derived from a fatal love frustrated by a male beloved’s specular, narcissistic enclosure of the self—which, more parodically, also provided the symbolic infrastructure for the novel Murphy, composed during the same years in London as the poems of Echo’s Bones. In its lyric version, Ovidian and Beckettian, a fading, disembodied, and repeating physical sound is poetically remotivated as a response to an emotionally distraught interlocutor’s insistent questioning. Beckett’s typical wandering figure here establishes a rhythmic communication with the dead beneath the ground, “under my tread all this day,” the dead who are undergoing the process of decay and consumption by vermin. His perambulating movements, which “scan” the metered “voice” of decay, the exhalations of gas from the corpse, and the punctuating foot-“falls” of flesh, translate perturbations of the dead into the meaningful phenomenality of poetic lines, sound images, and metrical feet (we can see this kind of ghostly translation still operating in Beckett’s late work in plays such as Footfalls and Rockaby).
But pressing against the figural work of lyric in the poem is the paragrammatic play of the letter, which generates images out of homonyms and puns. Thus the title punningly suggests that the relation between the speaking “I”—or ego—and the other—echo—have become increasingly indiscernible, not because of a condition of consciousness or of a sympathetic registration of physical events in a moving, sensing body, but rather because of the minimal difference of a voiced and unvoiced phoneme in the dark, palpitating cavity of the throat. So too “asylum” can mean here either refuge or madhouse, a calming and sheltering or a running wild, an antithetical oscillation that is picked up in the “gantelope” (an archaism for “gauntlet”) of “sense and nonsense.” And the strange word “gantelope” cannot help but drop its unexpected initial “g” to conjure, for an incongruous moment, the paragrammatic phantasm of an “antelope” running in the wind, a hallucinatory night mare disinterred from the subterranean stink and slime of maggot-infested flesh. Finally, in perhaps the most surprising turn of the poem, the syntax shifts the lyric “I”’s identification with the dead from that of direct address to physical incorporation, which is mediated through the figure of the maggots feeding off the dead. The final “they are” can refer to either the dead (“taken for what they are,” that is, not what they mean, but rather what they have become, disfigured matter, food for worms) or to the maggots themselves (“taken for what they are,” animate beings, a temporary detour of death, a blind life that humans share with worms in the material continuum of nature, the rhythmic interval of mouth to cloaca in the short, linear passage from dust to dust).
The real point is that it doesn’t matter which way this line is read, since in its perfect reversibility, the poem syntactically enacts the same point of indifference between worms and corpse that it thematizes as the trajectory of decay. But it also tropes the lyric “I” itself as a verminous chewer of corpses, whose “living” communication with the dead through a repeated, metered “gress”—to use a Beckettian term–reveals its own dangerous affinity with the corpse’s entropic automatism, its periodic flatulence and other time-marking phenomena of decay. This equivocation about which way the identification with the dead cuts—does the lyric “I” elegiacally animate the voices of the dead or do the dead autonomize and deaden the putatively animate voice of the “I”?—rebounds along the chain of the poem’s signifiers. The same question could be asked of “asylum”: does the poet’s language grant lyric haven to the chaotic noises of the dead or does excessive attention to dead sound, to non-signifying noises and the paragrammatic play of the letter, make the poet’s language run wild in madness? Does the lyric ego salvage the echo’s vocalic substance or does the echo hollow out the ego, condemning it to a skeletal schema of repetition?
I will conclude by noting that Beckett leaves the answer to these questions open, as a matter of hermeneutic, but perhaps more profoundly, also existential and even political decision. For as the novels Murphy, Watt, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable suggest, “asylum” has an institutional as well as a spiritual face; and what the personal and collective history that the intertwining of organic life and death “are” or may be comes down to an interpretation, a matter of their being “taken for” something, for a “what” or perhaps even a “Watt,” in an appropriation of being by language that may violently assign or deny meaning to the past in its material persistence. Lyric is, as Paul De Man so aptly put it, “the defensive motion of understanding, the possibility of a future hermeneutics.”. But to this lyrical asylum of understanding history as a projective fusion of communicative horizons, Beckett apposes another less reassuring image of history, no longer assimilable to either to lyric or narrative meaning, but to the catastrophe of their encounter, a material disintegration and collapse of communicative transmission from past to present, for which the literary mimesis of madness is the paradoxical vehicle.