The Great, Death-Obsessed Thomas Lovell Beddoes

| 16 Feb 2015 | 05:00


    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: [](