One might think there could be few connections between Samuel Beckett and such writers as Swift, Pope, Johnson, Voltaire, La Rochefoucauld, and Chamfort. On the one hand, a reclusive author whose down-and-out characters ponder the miseries of existence; on the other, famous wits whose mots were celebrated in elegant society. But Beckett in fact admired these authors, referred to their works, and used some of their aphorisms as the basis of his own.
John Fletcher and Frederik N. Smith have pointed out allusions to Swift in "Fingal" (a story in Beckett's More Pricks Than Kicks), Watt, and other works. The phrase "Wren's giant bully," in Beckett's poem "Serena I" (Collected Poems 22) is taken from a description of "London's column . . . like a tall bully," in Pope's Moral Essays (Epistle 3, lines 339-40). Two passages in Murphy, "Walk before you run" and "sit down before you lie down" (79, 191), and still another in Molloy, "First learn to walk, then you can take swimming lessons" (92), are based on "And men must walk at least before they dance," in Pope's "The First Epistle of the First Book of Horace" (Epistle 1, line 54). In the 1930s Beckett worked on a play - eventually abandoned - dealing with the life of Samuel Johnson; its title, Human Wishes, is based on Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" (Bair 253-57).
The title of Beckett's short satirical dialogue "Che Sciagura" (1929) is taken from a phrase in Voltaire's Candide (Federman and Fletcher 5). Beckett later used the English version of "Che Sciagura" - "What a Misfortune" - as the title of a story in More Pricks Than Kicks; in addition, he mentioned La Rochefoucauld (118) and Swift in this story (145, 150). In Murphy, Beckett describes his hero laboring "at his own little dungeon in Spain" (180), a phrase based on Chamfort's aphorism, "A pessimist is one who builds dungeons in Spain." Some thirty-four years after Murphy was published, Beckett set to verse English versions of epigrams from Chamfort's Maximes; these eventually were published (Collected Poems 122-37).
There are examples in Beckett's works of references to the writings of a number of other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century wits. Pascal, in a famous conceit, described nature as an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. This image underlies a description of beauty "with a centre everywhere and a circumference nowhere" in Beckett's first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women (35). There are references to Pascal's Pensees and to Racine's Phedre in Beckett's critical study Proust (20, 5); and Racine is mentioned a number of times in Dream of Fair to Middling Women (48, 85, 144, 197). The dramatic fragment Le Kid (1931), which Beckett wrote in collaboration with George Pelorson, is a parody of Corneille's Le Cid. "Whoroscope," Beckett's first published poem, deals with events in the life of Descartes; Lawrence Harvey gives an excellent discussion of this poem and lists references to Descartes in Beckett's other poems. Allusions to Descartes and his ideas also appear in such works as Proust (25, 51); Dream of Fair to Middling Women (47, 134); and Murphy (140).
What Beckett admired in these seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers was a fresh way of viewing familiar situations, an ability to probe the deficiencies in commonplace truisms, and a talent for conveying such ideas in taut, compressed sentences. But he was not content merely to quote his favorite aphorisms: he often revised them. It must have occurred to Beckett that with sufficient repetition one generation's witticisms become another's cliches; and so he added polish to those that had lost their luster.
Ruby Cohn calls these transformations "comic twistings of cliche and quotation," an apt description of Beckett's technique (133). In many instances the comic twistings involve a display of learning, as in Dream of Fair to Middling Women where Beckett refers to "John of the Crossroads" instead of "St. John of the Cross" (186), and to "Fallopian pipettes" instead of "Fallopian tubes" (216).
The display of learning in Beckett's revised aphorisms often involves literary allusions. Thus the title Dream of Fair to Middling Women is based on the title of Tennyson's poem "A Dream of Fair Women," together with an echo of Chaucer's "The Legende of Good Women." Many of the revised aphorisms in Beckett's works of the 1930s, like the following examples, are based on literary allusions:
* "grass Dido" (a blend of "grass widow" together with an allusion to Dido in the Aeneid; Murphy 195)
* "night's young thoughts" (an allusion to Edward Young's Night Thoughts; Murphy 73-74). Beckett later used the phrase "night's young thoughts" in "Texts for Nothing 8" (115).
* "Since heaven lay about you as a bedwetter" (from "Heaven lies about us in our infancy" in Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality"; Murphy 217)
* "The Wanderjahre were a sleep and a forgetting" (from "our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting," again in Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality"; Dream 200, More Pricks 48)
* "not one was idle" (from "Tears, idle tears," in Tennyson's poem "Song"; Murphy 223)
* Women "never quite kill the thing they think they love" (from "Yet each man kills the thing he loves," in Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"; Murphy 202-3)
* "The bang is better than the whimper" (from "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper," in T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men"; Dream 177)
* "here was a chance to end with a fairly beautiful bang" (again from Eliot's "The Hollow Men"; More Pricks 90)
* "fell in terram nobody knows where" (from "It fell to earth, I know not where," in Longfellow's "The Arrow and the Song"; More Pricks 99)
In some instances, as in the last passage I quoted, Beckett introduces expressions that readers with a knowledge of foreign languages might be expected to recognize. The following examples are again all from the 1930s:
* "viva sputa" ("by sputum," versus viva voce, "orally"; More Pricks 115)
* "Beltschmerz" ("belt pain," versus Weltschmerz, "melancholy"; More Pricks 118)
* "Lex stallionis" ("law of the stallion," versus lex tallionis, "law of retaliation"; Dream 101)
* "nulla linea sine die" (versus Apelles' "nulla dies sine linea," "not a day without a line"; Murphy 85)
* "Quod erat extorquendum" ("which was to be wrenched out," versus quod erat demonstrandum, "which was to be demonstrated," that is, Q.E.D.; Murphy 184)
* "We had no idea ars longa was such a Malebolge" (versus Seneca's "Vita brevis est, ars longa," "life is short, art is long," and Malebolge, a place in Dante's Hell, Inferno 18.1; Dream 168)
At times the passages Beckett revises are based not on quotations from well-known authors but on cliches. For example, Belacqua, the hero of the story "Echo's Bones," tells Lord Gall, "keep your hair on" instead of "keep your hat on" (12); the hero of Dream says "take your hurry" instead of "take your time" (63); and the narrator of Murphy speaks about bringing "turf" - versus coals - "to Newcastle" (197). As H. Porter Abbott points out, Beckett's method represents an "attack on the idiom and the conventional metaphor" (39).
In his early works Beckett often alters cliches in this way, injecting an unexpected element that can add sparkle to a timeworn phrase:
* "porridge days" (versus "salad days"; Dream 183)
* "Dear old indelible Dublin" (versus "Dear old dirty Dublin"; Murphy …