Thomas Beddoes Lovell Critical Essays


Thomas Lovell Beddoes 1803-1849

English poet and dramatist.

Called “The Last Elizabethan” by Lytton Strachey, Beddoes is chiefly remembered for his evocative poetic vision in such works as Death's Jest Book or The Fool's Tragedy (1850). Although his works are few, he was an important figure in the Elizabethan literary revival of the nineteenth century. His work skillfully combines macabre imagery, passages of haunting beauty, and elements of the supernatural.

Biographical Information

Beddoes was born in Clifton, England, in 1803. His father was a celebrated physician of outstanding literary, as well as scientific, talent. Although he died when his son was young, he instilled in the young Beddoes an interest in literature and the sciences. Maria Edgeworth, Beddoes' aunt, was another important figure in his life and encouraged his writing. Beddoes was a brilliant child intellectually who won prizes for essays in Latin and Greek and published poetry in The Morning Post before entering college. However, he was also beset with emotional problems. His depression found expression not only in his personal life, but in the themes and characters of his works as well. In 1821 Beddoes attended Pembroke College, Oxford. After earning a B.A. and M.A., he traveled to Germany to attend medical school at Göttingen University. Beddoes was soon expelled from the university for drunken and disorderly behavior and for attempting suicide. He went on to Würzburg to earn a medical degree but was still dissatisfied with his achievements, and his outlook became increasingly morbid. In an effort to relieve his inner restlessness, Beddoes became involved with radical political activities. Beddoes traveled to Zürich, where he continued to work on Death's Jest Book, and wrote several short pieces, later collected in Poems Posthumous and Collected of Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1851). As the political climate in Europe became more intense, so did Beddoes' interest in revolutionary politics. In Germany, he delivered lectures for the liberal cause. Eventually, he was deported for his activities, and from that time on, wandered aimlessly throughout Europe, never settling in one place for long. Beddoes isolated himself from English society and his family, and in a state of complete despair, committed suicide in Basel on January 26, 1849.

Major Works

In 1822 Beddoes wrote The Brides' Tragedy, a verse drama based on a college murder; this work established him as a writer of merit. The obsession with death and the grotesque imagery of the piece were to recur in much of his later verse. He began to compose Death's Jest Book, considered his major work, during his years in medical school. Although it contains brilliant passages and demonstrates definite lyrical talent, Death's Jest Book never satisfied Beddoes; he altered it repeatedly, and it was not published in his lifetime. A revenge drama set in thirteenth-century Ancona, Egypt, and Silesia, the play incorporates a mixture of verse and prose and is considered the ultimate manifestation of Beddoes's preoccupation with death.

Critical Reception

Although Beddoes had a remarkable capacity for lyrical, imaginative poetic drama, he was a poet of uneven gifts. Many commentators have urged increased critical attention to his plays; in fact, some important critical studies on Beddoes have been published in the past few decades. Several critics have debated his place within the English literary tradition, in particular whether his work should be classified as Elizabethan, German Romantic, Jacobean, or Gothic; scholars have also debated whether his works should be considered poetry or drama. Whatever his categorization, Beddoes is recognized by commentators as a compelling minor figure in English literature.