Framing W.B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett
: a comparative study of how and why two writers use fine art and its theories in their texts

  • John Brown

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis is the first detailed comparative study framing how and why fine art and its theories were deployed in the discursive and creative texts of two major Irish writers, W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) and Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). Previous studies have tended to focus on these writers' texts' literary qualities and junctures with history and philosophy: fewer have focused on fine art, and those which do have treated each writer separately. The study's comparative framework rectifies this critical deficit to contribute new knowledge by synthesizing past individual studies and comparing more recently available sources; it also provides a new slant on old knowledge in a new place. The primary focus is on the writers' relations with painting/its theories; this occupies more space, quantitatively and qualitatively, in this study (as in does in the writers' texts), although sculpture, a key consideration for Yeats, and embroidery are also considered. Exploring how and why fine art and its theories shape these two writers' respective ideas, themes, and concepts and use of language, the study's method is comparative: it compares the writers' documented encounters with fine art and citation of its histories/theories in discursive texts in tandem with evaluating how and why fine art theories and images inspire their creative texts; it's method reveals how theory and praxis pressure, complicate and modify each other.

The study's conceptual framework suggests how and why enlisting fine art/its theories assisted the writers' oppositional thematics and aesthetics. Yeats's emphasis on transcendence/the eternal and beauty, and Beckett's sponsorship of finitude/doubt and irony, are revealed as reinforced by, and partly built out of, the two writers' divergent responses to fine art theoretical texts, and use of fine art images. The study demonstrates how these diverging positions are responses conditioned by, and filtered via wider, twentieth century intellectual and contextual shifts and embedded in the art history and theory the writers read and use in their texts. The study demonstrates how and why the writers' fascination with seeing fine art, compounded by reading its theories/histories, produced their own essays engaging with it; it evaluates how and why fine art/its theories assist with their themes/aesthetics, provide images for their creative praxis, and supply a focus for self-reflection on the capacities/incapacities of language and literary forms which they engage in, and which conscript (or fail to conscript) fine art images.
The thesis is structured in four chapters. The first chapter reveals how and why the writer's readings, and subsequent re-writings, of fine art theory/history, permit them to selectively focus on, and inflect, the themes (identified above), detectable and available in the fine art theories of the "sister arts" and the "separate" arts which they read and cite. Excavating the basis of the writers' theories of fine art/the arts, in their ideas of perception/seeing, seeing and hearing, and their concepts or use images and mediums, the second chapter argues that these assist the two writers to develop oppositional ideas of the power of language/ekphrasis (Yeats) and of the limitations in language which conscript fine art objects and its visual images (Beckett). How and why this impacts on their texts is demonstrated. Comparing how and why the two writers use fine arts/its theories in Irish and European contexts the third chapter links fine art texts and their images with how/why Yeats constructs, represents and criticizes history/nation and how/why Beckett divorces the arts from debilitating nationalism(s) and representations of nation or self. The final chapter evaluates how and why fine art/its theories impact on praxis by examining the writers' framing of portraits, landscapes and interiors/still lifes; it evaluates how/why Yeats enlists the authority/precedents of fine art traditions, to frame and represent ideal subjects and themes in his texts and why/how Beckett orientates texts towards more modern, non-representational paintings and images to put pressure on these subjects and themes and to question the capacities of texts to do so.
In evaluating the writers' responses to fine art/its theories, the study argues that fine art/its theories, by proxy, afford opportunities for the writers to reflect on two crucial issues or themes, central in/to their essays and creative praxis. Firstly, fine art/its theories permit Yeats's texts to point to their own capacity to summon an image as object of/for meaningful thought, which an essay may analyse, and a poem grasp, and surpass by using it as a symbol in a unifying text; the power of fine art in Beckett's texts permit them to register reactions to its sensuous, material, silent objects that dismantle thinking and symbols, and disable what language cannot grasp, so it exposes the limitations of what language can do when it distorts the silence and visuality in autonomous images which elude it. Secondly, the thesis demonstrates how and why fine art/its theories provide an opportunity to construct opposing dialectics or thematics in which the fine arts may stand as symbols of tradition, enduring human achievements that transcend time and space or exist as experiential images or objects which disappear in time as they evoke human finitude and failure.

Date of Award2018
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorHoward Wright (Supervisor) & Alastair Herron (Supervisor)


  • W.B. Yeats
  • Samuel Beckett
  • Fine art

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