Beckett and The Divine Comedy: a lifelong influence

Course Dates: 13/06/24 - 04/07/24
Time: 10:15 - 12:15
Location: Keeley Street
Explore the intimate relationship between Beckett’s universe of unbelief, presided over by a Godot who never comes, and Dante’s poem, the most exalted, vastly influential literary expression of medieval Christianity, whose presence can be felt everywhere in the Irishman’s long oeuvre, in every genre – in his plays, novels, stories, poems, essays - and at every stage of his career. What brought them together, and what were the results?
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Beckett and The Divine Comedy: a lifelong influence
  • Course Code: HLT07
  • Dates: 13/06/24 - 04/07/24
  • Time: 10:15 - 12:15
  • Taught: Thu, Daytime
  • Duration: 4 sessions (over 4 weeks)
  • Location: Keeley Street
  • Tutor: Stephen Winfield

Course Code: HLT07

Thu, day, 13 Jun - 04 Jul '24

Duration: 4 sessions (over 4 weeks)

Please note: We offer a wide variety of financial support to make courses affordable. Just visit our online Help Center for more information on a range of topics including fees, online learning and FAQs.

What is the course about?

This online literature course will focus on Beckett’s obsessive quotations, misquotations and re-workings of Dante that run from ‘Sedendo et Quiescendo’, a short story drawn from his first novel “Dream of Fair to Middling Women” in 1932 to the late prose pieces of the 1970s, arguably even his final work ‘Stirrings Still’(1986-9), in which the narrator’s “want of a stone to sit like Walther and cross his legs … and of course sink his head” bears an uncanny resemblance to the craving for inertia of Beckett’s favourite character from the Commedia, the indolent lutenist Belacqua.

We will investigate the many passages from the Inferno and the Purgatorio that so haunted Beckett’s imagination in the context of the great poem’s overarching vision, theological, political and linguistic – Beckett was also familiar with the Vita Nuova and Dante’s other celebrations of the vernacular – before placing them alongside their reincarnations in such works as: ‘Dante and the Lobster’ and other stories from “More Pricks than Kicks”, ‘Echo’s Bones’, “Murphy”, the Trilogy, “Texts for Nothing”, “Happy Days”, “Play”, “The Lost Ones” and “Footfalls”. What is gained, what lost, in Beckett’s fabled reductio ad absurdum?

What will we cover?

The Commedia is just one strand, although undoubtedly the most imposing, in Beckett’s erudition. We will need to consider it in relation to the other literary and philosophical precursors that are constantly alluded to or inform line by line, like the Pre-Socratics, the way he crafts his voices. Beckett’s relationship to tradition shows few signs of any “anxiety of influence” – it’s part and parcel of every utterance he makes. Is he intimidated by Dante? He could hardly reach higher in his attachment to an authority figure while at the same time professing “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness”.

With the essay ‘Dante … Bruno. Vico … Joyce’ (1929) as our starting point, we will look beyond individual episodes or instances of a sublime lyricism to the wider implications of what Beckett calls the Italian’s “purgatorial imagination”, prefiguring his own. From the lobster and Murphy’s chair onwards, to the closed spaces of “Waiting for Godot”, “How It Is” and “Company”, the shades of Dante’s departed in their eternity of suffering or penitential longing for an exit are never far away, like the Unnameable’s “little hell after my own heart … with a few nice damned to foist my groans on … It issues from me, it fills me, it clamours against my walls … I can’t stop it, I can’t prevent it, from tearing me, racking me, assailing me”. Perhaps after all the Commedia, for Beckett, and with the notable exception of the Paradiso, is just his home from home.

What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...

-Discuss the featured passages from Dante and Beckett with some critical sophistication and technical knowledge
-Explore other sections of the Commedia or works by Beckett with a greater awareness of their governing themes and preoccupations
-Understand in detail the relationship of a major 20th century writer to the inherited past.

What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?

Some previous literary study would be useful but anyone interested in literature who enjoys close reading and is willing to take part in discussion is welcome.

How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?

There will be a variety of teaching methods, including direct tutor input, power point, video and discussion. There will be opportunities to express why individually we are participating on the course and what we hope to take away from it. There is no work outside class apart from reading the sample texts circulated digitally for each session.

Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?

No,the tutor will supply materials, but a personal copy of The Divine Comedy would be very helpful (Penguin Classics, trans. Kirkpatrick, 2012).

When I've finished, what course can I do next?

Have a look at HLT140 A Journey through Boccaccio's Decameron and other literature courses at under History, Culture and Writing/literature.

Stephen Winfield

Stephen Winfield has lectured in English for over thirty years. He taught Language and Literature at Richmond upon Thames College in Twickenham from 1989 to 2017, and was Coordinator of the International Baccalaureate there from 2004 to 2016. He has also lectured in English Literature at the University of Katowice in Poland and taught Business English in Paris. He has taught a range of EFL courses at Richmond College, for the Bell School of Languages, the Sinoscope Project at Kings College London and the BBC Summer School. He has taught classes in English, American and International Literature at City Lit since 2014.

Please note: We reserve the right to change our tutors from those advertised. This happens rarely, but if it does, we are unable to refund fees due to this. Our tutors may have different teaching styles; however we guarantee a consistent quality of teaching in all our courses.