Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse
Thomas Lovell Beddoes (18031849)
[Thomas Lovell Beddoes was born at Rodney Place, Clifton, on the 20th of July, 1803; he was the son of the famous physician Dr. Thomas Beddoes, and nephew of the no less famous Maria Edgeworth. He was educated at Bath, and at the Charterhouse, and entered Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1820. From 1825 to 1846 he resided in Germany and Switzerland. He left England again after a stay of a few months, and died under somewhat mysterious circumstances in the hospital at Basle, Jan. 16, 1849. He published during his lifetime The Improvisatore, 1821, and The Brides Tragedy, 1822, besides various works in German; after his death appeared Deaths Jest Book, 1850, and Poems, 1851.]
IT has been the fate of Beddoes to be made the subject of praise and blame exaggerated enough to fill his proud and indifferent spirit, could he revisit the moonlit world of journalism, with a fund of sardonic merriment. He would certainly be the first to see the jest of his being treated as a profoundly original philosophic poet, and probably more amused than annoyed at being confounded with his own
bodyless child full of life in the gloom,
Crying with frog-voice, What shall I be?
There is certainly nothing vague, nothing misty or dubious about the poetic entity of Beddoes; he has scarcely left a page behind him of which it cannot be said that he alone in recent times could have written it. His own caustic definition of his poetry pronounces it to be entertaining, very unamiable, and utterly unpopular. We may paraphrase this by saying that it is entertaining because so skilful and nervous in style, so full of surprises, and so unconventional in its aspect of life; but unamiable because of its entire indifference to the ordinary interests of life, and unpopular because it deals with passions and events of a wholly foreign and unfamiliar type. Beddoes is in poetry what the Helsche Breughel is in painting. He dedicates himself to the service of Death, not with a brooding sense of the terror and shame of mortality, but from a love of the picturesque pageantry of it, the majesty and sombre beauty, the swift, theatrical transitions, the combined elegance and horror that wait upon the sudden decease of monarchs. He was scarcely a born singer; he was a man of consummate natural ability, who chose to walk through the world in the masquerade of a tragic dramatist, and who carried his antique robes so consistently and so skilfully, that at last his artificial presentment was almost as interesting as the real thing would have been, and the mummer himself almost forgot that he was mumming. The reader who carefully analyses his passages of declamatory fancy, is equally startled by the unreality and by the consummate cleverness of the style. The blank verse of Beddoes is always admirable; it was not as a craftsman that so accomplished a personage was likely to fail; it is even more than admirable, it occasionally approaches closer to the grand manner of the Elizabethan iambic movement than almost any modern verse. But under it all there lies no deep murmur of poetry, no ground-swell of momentous music, making itself dimly heard when the march of the lines is silent, none of that wonderful mystery of sound that we catch in the best passages of Webster and Marston, and even of Cyril Tourneur. Beddoes succeeds, in my judgment, much more truly as a song-writer than as a constructor of blank verse. His songs are very plainly modelled upon two types, the one that of Shakespeare and his school, the other that of Shelley. It was no honour to Beddoes, it was merely characteristic of his extraordinary intellectual vigour and perspicacity, that he was the first Englishman, outside the circle of personal friends, to perceive the momentous character of Shelleys genius. In his lyrics he sat at Shelleys feet, always with too much cleverness to fall into the tricks of imitation; and it would perhaps not be very easy to trace the likeness, if he had not unwarily left one palpable specimen of his method in the song The swallow leaves her nest, where the movement of Shelleys verse is borrowed, not adapted. Yet, if we are content to take the best of his songs for what they are worth, as marvellously clever tours de force, they are as enjoyable as purely artificial exercises in verse can ever be.
Beddoes expended thought and labour for four years on the one poem which he meant to be his masterpiece, Deaths Jest Book. It is a tragedy of the same class as the Duchess of Malfy and Antonio and Mellida; indeed there are whole scenes which might have been taken bodily out of Marston. There is no doubt that Deaths Jest Book is a poem which will reward perusal; it can scarcely be said to invite it. The plot is founded on the story of a Duke Boleslaus of Münsterberg in Silesia, who was killed by his court-fool in 1377. Some months before Beddoes actually commenced the composition of the piece, he wrote, in one of his charming letters, the following extremely sage words about the mode in which to approach modern tragedy: Say what you will, I am convinced the man who is to awaken the drama must be a bold trampling fellow, no creeper into wormholes, no reviver even, however good. Such ghosts as Marlowe, Webster, etc., are better dramatists, better poets, I dare say, than any contemporary of ours, but they are ghosts; the worm is in their pages; and we want to see something that our great-grandsires did not know. It would have been salutary indeed for the poor poet himself to have practised what he preached; as it is, nothing is more curious than the contrast between what he wished to do and what he did. Deaths Jest Book is the most eminent specimen existing of poetical spirit-rapping; those very ghosts, whose presence on the modern boards Beddoes so wisely deprecated, were called up more lustily and pertinaciously by none than he. Sometimes, as notably in the scene where the Duke watches by his wifes grave, the modern poet almost attains to the genuine horror of his masters touch, but even here something mechanical reminds us of the deception. In Deaths Jest Book, as elsewhere in Beddoes, the lyrics appear to me fresher and more enjoyable than the blank verse, and some of the grim and humorous songs have the spell of real genius upon them. That containing the stanza
From the old supper-givers pole
He tore the many-kingdomed mitre;
To him, who cost him his sons soul,
He gave it, to the Persian fighter,
seems to me of an extraordinary force and horror. My friend Mr. Browning, from whose subtle pen we may yet hope to receive the final and authoritative judgment on Beddoes, informs me that many songs of this ghastly comic cast still remain unprinted, and throw an interesting light upon the character of this problem of a poet.