The Great, Death-Obsessed Thomas Lovell Beddoes

Written by NY Press on . Posted in Books, Posts.


 


Young soul,
put off your flesh and come
With me into the
quiet tomb,
Our bed is lovely,
dark, and sweet;
The Earth will swing
us as she goes,
Beneath our coverlid
of snows
And the warm leaden
sheet.
Dear and dear is
their poisoned note,
The little snakes
of silver throat
In mossy skulls
that nest and lie,
Ever
singing, “die, oh! die.”

(Article by Rob Hardin)

So wrote Romantic
poet and threnodist Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-’49), a fun-parlor aficionado
whom critics have called the “poet of death” and scholars dubbed the
most morbid poet in English literature. Throughout his writing life, Beddoes’
normative subject was always the loss of life. That mortality provoked him to
passages of eerie rapture should be obvious to the most casual reader: “And
at each slightest tremor of a leaf, my hearse moves one step closer. Joy, my
love, we’re nearer to our bridal sheets of lead…” Less obvious is
the philosophical depth of his preoccupation, which he expressed in this letter
to a friend: “I search with avidity for every proof or probability of an
after-existence, both in the material and immaterial nature of man.” (How
indicative of Beddoes’ end that he never found any.)


His diction
and stanza-form are deliberately archaic, his metaphors sanguine and astringent,
all of which suggest the influence of 17th-century metaphysical poet Richard
Crashaw. Often, Beddoes is compared to nightmarish Elizabethan playwright John
Webster, whom he resembles stylistically as well as thematically: his plots
are always gruesome, his endings tragic. He also seems Elizabethan because his
knowledge of science and philosophy engenders such jarring metaphors, and because
his elaborate thought unwinds sinuously in whatever form he chooses. All of
which made him conspicuous in an age of Wordsworthian simplicity. But Beddoes
never seemed to mind being conspicuous–never fretted about being a macabre
virtuoso, with his degree in medicine and mastery of formalist poetry.


Squeamish editors
tend to characterize Beddoes as a minor Romantic poet and put him in this or
that irrelevant historical context. “Beddoes is interesting as marking
the transition from Shelley to Browning,” editor Ramsay Colles wrote nearly
a century ago, proving his understanding of Beddoes to be even more pedestrian
than his grasp of history. Still worse than gushing over his morbidity is the
attempt to downplay it. Even today, the back cover of the current Selected
Poems
begins by quoting uncharacteristic treacle about the spontaneity of
nightingales (perhaps the worst lines Beddoes ever wrote), and glosses over
his preoccupation with death to speak of his poetry’s “bold wildness.”
While Beddoes’ behavior might have been bold and unruly, his poetry is
measured and exacting (which is why Beddoes did not care for most Romantic poetry:
he felt it was sloppy).


The characteristics
attributed to Beddoes’ poetry by such aversionists are ones his admirers
might loathe and avoid. They evoke not Beddoes’ witty epicedia but rather
the ditties of some minor Lake poet given to spewing shoddy rhapsodies about
befriending the elements and celebrating the “Self.” Beddoes is a
far cringe from that, with his neo-Elizabethan archaisms, non-naturalistic descriptions,
Latinate vocabulary and explorations of characters who are removed from life
and from nature, who endeavor not to celebrate but to obliterate all traces
of themselves.


Though many
critics and editors seem not to get him, certain writers have savored Beddoes’
headstone-chiseled stanzas. “The power of the man is immense and irresistible,”
Robert Browning wrote of Beddoes. Similarly, Lytton Strachey effervesced: “Simplicity
and splendor have been woven together with the ease of accomplished art… His
mature blank verse is perfect… He belongs to that class of writers of which,
in English literature, Spenser, Keats and Milton are the dominant figures–the
writers who are great merely because of their art.” Ezra Pound lionized
Beddoes after denouncing Wordsworth as execrable: “one might and does ask
why so good a poet has remained so long in obscurity.” Celebrated Victorian
critic George Saintsbury praised Beddoes extravagantly in the Historical
Manual of English Prosody
.


Strange, that
after gaining such attention from the lions of the ivory tower, Beddoes remains
so little-known by the public. If the excellence of his poetry is difficult
for many readers to recognize, then why is his life–with its violence,
adventure and flashy virtuosity–not the stuff of Masterpiece Theater
and Off-Broadway musicals?




Luckless
man
Avoids the miserable
bodkin’s point,
And, flinching from
the insect’s little sting,
In pitiful security
keeps watch,
While twixt him
and that hypocrite the sun,
To which he prays,
comes windless pestilence,
Transparent as a
glass of poisoned water
Through which the
drinker sees his murderer smiling;
She stirs no dust,
and makes no grass to nod,
Yet every footstep
is a thousand graves,
And every breath
of hers as full of ghosts
As a sunbeam with
motes.


 

He might have
been an obscure English poet, but his life has generated a reliquary’s
worth of rumor. According to Judith Higgins’ introduction to the Selected
Poems
, Beddoes’ father was a distinguished doctor who liked to perform
autopsies for his children’s edification. He was also the inventor of laughing
gas and an incorrigible eccentric who once led a horse up a flight of stairs
to breathe on a bedridden patient. The doctor died when Beddoes was just five
years old. Obsessed with medicine and mortality, the son would grow up to study
philosophy in Zurich, receive a doctorate in medicine in Bavaria and write several
verse-plays. One of these, Death’s Jest-Book, was so grisly that
it forever secured Beddoes’ ghoulish reputation.

 

As might be
expected, Higgins’ “ad hoc poet of death” was also an aficionado
of suicide. Higgins reports that Beddoes slashed an artery in his leg seeking
relief from “a long and debilitating illness brought about by blood-poisoning
after a dissection.” Months after the partial amputation of his leg, Beddoes
wrote to his sister explaining his injury as the result of a “riding accident.”
Later that month he took a dose of curare. His body was found in his spectacularly
untidy study. Beside the body lay a suicide note in which the deceased left
his wine cellar and a stomach pump to his physician, Dr. Ecklin.

 

A century and
a half after his death, Beddoes remains largely out of print. The Complete
Works
have not been reprinted since 1978 (though the last publisher, Donner,
claims the demised edition will be resuscitated soon). His Selected Poems
were unavailable for 20 years and have only now resurfaced.

 

I happen to
have grown up with a used copy of the 1976 Carcanet Selected Poems. Thankfully,
Judith Higgins’ original introduction has been only slightly revised. The
last paragraph has been replaced by six pages under the heading, “Critical
Response to Beddoes.” This new section, and an expanded bibliography, are
enormously useful.

 

Higgins’
introduction is not without flaws. Too much emphasis is placed on Beddoes’
arguable faults, most notably his so-called “failure” to create convincing
characters. Higgins’ assessment of Beddoes’ characters as “two-dimensional”
could apply just as easily to the allegorical figures in Ben Jonson’s Volpone,
or to the personae of a French symbolist play by de L’isle. The mode is
deliberately artificial, a fact Beddoes’ critics seem to miss. Celebrated
tone-deaf alarmist Harold Bloom asserts that Beddoes “fails” because
“the separation between subject and object is bridged not by any imaginative
act…but by dying”–as if Beddoes’ morbid subject matter somehow
neutralizes his imaginative powers and disqualifies their evident accomplishments.
Such censures from on high, combined with commonplace dismissals of his subject
matter, make Beddoes seem amusingly tasteless and inept, the Romantic equivalent
of Ed Wood.

 

“To be
interested in Beddoes is to be interested in broken forms,” Higgins deems.
Regrettably, the reader is not given the option of disagreeing: how tiresome,
to be told by the editors that “Beddoes is the Romantic poet of fragments”
and then to be given only fragments through which to assess this judgment. Irked,
I did a book search last month for the Edmond Gosse two-volume edition of Beddoes’
Complete Works (1890). Yes, I shelled out a pretty pfennig and yes, the
scholarship is out of date. But it is thrilling to read Death’s Jest-Book
in its entirety and find that “dithyramb in the High Gothic style,”
as Beddoes called it, absorbing from start to finish; how bracing, to savor
the play in toto and not be lectured that gobs are as good as it gets.

 

With the exception
of one deletion and one substitution, the sampling of poetry in the newly issued
Selected Poems is the same as in the 1976 edition. And though that sampling
now seems far too brief, it will serve as a heady introduction. It contains
the first Beddoes poem I ever read, “The Phantom Wooer,” which seduced
me as a teenager with the lines quoted at the top of this article.

 

The Selected
Poems
is not the only Beddoes in print. The Bride’s Tragedy
is an early play (written when the author was just 19); though dolent-pitched
and bristling with Shakespearean felicities, it lacks the originality of his
later work. The Woodstock edition, edited by Jonathan Wordsworth (Spelsbury
House, Oxford), is a model of thorough scholarship, and Wordsworth’s comments
are refreshingly open-minded. “Like Keats,” he writes, “Beddoes
is attractive to us because his high intelligence is combined with a striving
after the highest poetic ideals… If Webster was obsessed with death, Beddoes
is inspired.” The major shortcoming of the author of The Bride’s
Tragedy
, says Wordsworth, derives from Beddoes’ difficulty in “controlling
the larger structures and effects” of the play. Here, as elsewhere, Wordsworth’s
exactitude is admirable.

 

Even so, I
find it strange that such Shakespearean standards are applied to Beddoes routinely,
since they’re never mentioned in connection with the verse-plays of other
Romantics. As dramatists, Keats, Coleridge, Blake and Shelley are no more successful
than Beddoes; yet The Bride’s Tragedy is held to be terminally flawed,
despite its strenuous plot, while Prometheus Unbound meanders on to professorial
acclaim. Especially appalling is the hypocrisy of modern critics, who dismiss
Beddoes for formal inconsistencies while praising the same in modern novelists
like John Hawkes, who shares many of Beddoes’ peculiarities. Hawkes is
a brilliant stylist whose tone, diction and imagery are perfect; but his control
of larger structures is less reliable even than Beddoes’, and to excuse
Hawkes’ form as avant-garde is neither fair nor helpful in discerning the
many virtues of either writer.

 

The facsimile
edition also contains a “dedication” (really a preface), in which
Beddoes cites the source of his inspiration for the play (“founded on facts,
which occurred at Oxford”): the murder and burial of a secret bride. Not
surprisingly, he refrains from decrypting the play’s sexual symbolism:
then a young homosexual at college, Beddoes was perhaps murdering The Love that
Dare not Speak Its Wedding Plans, his own clandestine consort.

 


His look,
his breath, had choaked her soul.
Death’s hand
Had
stiffened her fair tresses, and the grasp
Of his cold clammy
fingers in their clasp
Mottled her beauty
with damp mildewed stains.
That eye of beams
is stagnant; no more rains
The dew of pity
on the buds below,
Which echoed with
their sighs. A dismal band
Of mourners is around,
and sable woe
Clouds every feature…


To read everything
in print by Beddoes is to launch an obsession. But for the true devotee, only
one course of action is feasible: to join the Thomas Lovell Beddoes Society.
My application is wending its way to Derbyshire, England, where John Lovell
Beddoes, sanguine relation of the Master, will weigh my qualifications. Already
I’ve received a few sample issues of the Society’s newsletter, a compendium
of artifacts, appreciations, doctoral theses, minutes from meetings and kudos
to those who have furthered the Cause (i.e., of making Beddoes properly known).
In one issue, I found a letter in which Beddoes lied about his first suicide
attempt, telling his sister that his leg injury was due to falling “with
a horse in a precipitous part of the neighboring hills.” In another issue
gleamed a reprint of Ezra Pound’s essay, “Beddoes and Chronology.”

 

In the wake
of pseudo-Elizabethan spew by Neil Gaiman and gothic kitsch by Anne Rice, modern
readers need an infusion of blank verse by Beddoes. A reprint of the Complete
Works
is in order, as is a new edition of the Selected Letters and
perhaps an anthology of important essays about him. Until that happens, initiates
must grin and wait. For others, the Carcanet selection should prove a delicious
beginning, and Woodstock’s facsimile edition of The Bride’s Tragedy
should whet new appetites even more.


Works by Thomas
Lovell Beddoes:


Selected
Poems
(Carcanet, 152 pages, $18.95)
The
Brides’ Tragedy
(Woodstock, 151 pages, $48)
Complete Poetical
Works
(J.M. Dent, two volumes, last printed in 1890)
Letters of Thomas
Lovell Beddoes
(George Olms, 270 pages, last printed in 1973)



See also the
Thomas Lovell Beddoes Society: www.nortexinfo.net/McDaniel/tlb.htm.


  • Bob Gordon

    While Beddoes might have appreciated the nullity that has supplanted the reviewer’s name, in fact it was written by Rob Hardin (which I know because I’m he).

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