Thomas Lovell Beddoes spent his life as a perpetual medical student, even after he qualified for his degree at universities in Germany and Switzerland; he ended his life by poison at the age of forty-five. Apart from two books of juvenile poems, Beddoes published only one work in his lifetime, The Bride’s Tragedy, which became a best seller in London when he was a nineteen-year-old undergraduate at Oxford. Early success with this poetical drama suggested to him the notion of “reviving” the English drama, a desire shared by many English writers between the successes of John Dryden and William Butler Yeats or T. S. Eliot—witness the impossible verse dramas of William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Thomas Hardy. The shadow of William Shakespeare and the Elizabethans stretched long across the centuries, but unlike the Elizabethans the great English poets had very little practical experience of the stage. Thus it is that Beddoes’s two most complete works are verse dramas, The Bride’s Tragedy and Death’s Jest-Book, which he completed in the four years ending in 1828 and spent the rest of his life revising.
Beddoes enjoyed a competent income all his life and suffered no attachments. He seems to have spent his years on the Continent, between 1825 and 1848, as a graduate student and a political radical; a favorable rate of exchange and the reputation of a free Englishman made him a well-known figure among students and the secret police abroad. He seems to have been fortunate in his friends, especially his literary executor, Thomas Forbes Kelsall, but to have suffered a grand dyspepsia for life, of which he was thoroughly conscious:
For death is more “a jest” than Life, you seeContempt grows quick from familiarity, . . . Few, I know,Can bear to sit at my board when I showThe wretchedness and folly of man’s allAnd laugh myself right heartily.
Beddoes’s long self-exile is perhaps the clearest indication of his malaise and the cause of his fragmentary work. He was unable to grasp the realities of life around him. A gentleman, a student, a foreigner, he sought an effective means of communication in a totally unrealistic medium, the poetic drama. Having little to say and no way of saying it, he turned ever inward, exploring his own melancholy and recording it in an outworn medium he acquired not from the stage but from books.
For all this perversity, eccentricity, and tragedy, however, no anthology of nineteenth century English poetry can afford to omit at least two of Beddoes’s lyrics: “Old Adam, the carrion crow” from the final scene of Death’s Jest-Book and “Dream-Pedlary” from “The Ivory Gate,” the title of a collection of the poems written on the Continent. Remote as he was from the country of his speech, the events and literature of his time may have been preconditions of his unique tone, which escapes finer definition, as does that of his place in English literature. The situations of his lyrics are always slightly freakish, for it is the style that marks their individuality. Along with much conventional language there are turns in the lines that can only be crass or inspired phrasing: “And through every feather/ Leaked the wet weather. . . .” The second line is ironic and realistic. This is the effect Beddoes was always trying to bring off, a danse macabre in polka time...
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