Thomas Beddoes Lovell Criticism: Overviews And General Studies - Essay

Edinburgh Review (essay date 1823)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “English Tragedy,” in Edinburgh Review, Vol. 38, No. LXXV, February, 1823, pp. 177-208.

[In the following essay, the anonymous reviewer attempts to place Beddoes within the context of English drama and praises the poetic language of The Brides' Tragedy.]

In the history of a nation, the progress and vicissitudes of its Literature are but too frequently disregarded. The crowning of kings, and the winning of battles, are recorded with chronological accuracy, and the resources of the country are laid open. The eye of the reader is dazzled with the splendour of courts, and the array of armies: The rise and fall of parties—the trial and condemnation of state criminals—the alternations of power and disgrace, are explained to very weariness. But of the quiet conquests of learning, there is small account. The philosopher must live in his own page, the poet in his verse; for the national chronicles are almost mute regarding them. The historian's bloody catalogue is not made up of units; but deals only with great assemblages of men—armies, fleets, and senates: The king is the only ‘One’ included in the story; but of him, be he a cipher or a tyrant, we are told in a way to satisfy the most extravagant desires of loyalty.

There is in this, we think, an undue preponderance—a preference of show to substance—of might to right. There is at least as much importance to be attached to the acquisition of Paradise Lost, or Lear, as to the gaining of an ordinary victory. Accordingly, we, profiting by the historian's lapse, and in order to do those ingenious persons (the poets and philosophers) justice, assume the right of tracing, from time to time, their histories upon our pages, and of discussing, with something of historic candour, their good qualities and defects.

In contemplating the great scene of Literature, the Muses are, beyond doubt, one of the brightest groups; and, among them, those of the Drama stand out preeminent. To quit allegory—it comes more quickly home to the bosoms of men; it is linked more closely to their interests and desires, detailing matters of daily life, and treating, in almost colloquial phrase, of ordinary passions. It is as a double-sided mirror, wherein men see themselves reflected, with all their agreeable pomp and circumstance, but freed of that rough husk of vulgarity which might tempt them to quarrel with their likeness: while the sins of their fellows are stripped and made plain, and they themselves pourtrayed with unerring and tremendous fidelity.

Certainly dramatic poetry is more quick and decisive in its effects than poetry of any other kind; and this arises partly from its nature, and partly from the circumstances under which it is made public. In the imagination of a person visiting the theatre, there is a predisposition to receive strong impressions. The toil of the day is over, the spirits are exhilarated, and the nerves rendered susceptible by a consciousness of coming enjoyment. All the fences and guards that a man assumes in matters of business or controversy, are laid aside. Even the little caution with which he takes up a book (for we have now got a lurking notion that authors are not infallible) is forgotten: he casts off his care and his prudence, and sets both the past and future at defiance when he enters the limits of a theatre. It is impossible for a person unacquainted with dramatic representation, to understand the effect produced on a mixed mass of the people, when a striking sentiment is uttered by a popular actor. The conviction is instantaneous. Hundreds of stormy voices are awakened, the spirit of every individual is in arms, and a thousand faces are lighted up which a moment before seemed calm and powerless;—and this impression is not so transient as may be thought. It is carried home, and nursed till it ripens. It is a germ which blossoms out into patriotism, or runs up rank into prejudice or passion. It is intellectual property, honestly acquired; and yet debateable ground, on which disputes may arise, and battles are to be fought hereafter.

Men are often amused, and sometimes instructed, by books. But a tragedy is a great moral lesson, read to two senses at once; and the eye and the ear are both held in alliance to retain the impression which the actor has produced. A narrative poem is perhaps more tempting in its shape than a play, and may fix the attention more deeply in the closet; but it is addressed to a more limited class, and necessarily affects our sympathies less forcibly; for a Drama is an embodying of the present, while an Epic is only a shadow of the past. We listen, in one case, to a mere relation of facts; but, in the other, the ruin of centuries is swept away, and time annihilated, and we stand face to face with ‘grey Antiquity.’ We see and hear things which we thought had departed for ever; but they are (or seem to be) here again—in stature, in gesture, in habit, the same. We become as it were one of a crowd that has vanished; we mix with departed sages and heroes, and breathe the air of Athens, and Cressy, and Agincourt. Men who have been raised to the stars, and whom we have known but by the light of their renown, are made plain to our senses: they stand before us, flesh and blood like ourselves. We are apt to deny our sympathy to old events, when it is asked by the mere historian of the times; but, when the mimic scene is unfolded before us, we are hurried into the living tumult, without the power (or even wish) to resist.

Schlegel, in his acute and learned Lectures on ‘Dramatic Art and Literature,’ inquires, ‘what is Dramatic?' A definition is seldom an easy thing. Although we can understand what is called dramatic writing, it may nevertheless be difficult to define it correctly. It certainly does not consist merely in its shape of dialogue, because dialogue may be, and often is, essentially undramatic. Speeches may be shaped, and separated, and allotted, and they may be raised or lowered in expression, as the king, or the merchant, or the beggar, is presented, yet the hue of the author's mind shall pervade them all. Such characters are not dramatic: they have no verisimilitude: they are like puppets worked with wires, the mechanism of the brain, but little more. They may startle our admiration, or tease our curiosity, by the ingenuity of the workmanship; but we have no faith in them, and they stimulate us to nothing. In Shakespeare (but he stands in this, as in every thing else, alone), we never see the prejudice of the author peeping out and interfering,—a mistake and an anachronism in the scene. He is the only one who ever had strength enough to cast off the slough of his egotism, and courage enough to lay his vanities aside, and array with the pure light of an independent intellect, the most airy creations of the brain. Like the prince in the Arabian fiction, he leaves one shape for another and another, animating each and all by turns; not carrying the complexion or tone, or diseases of the first, into the body of the second; and yet superior even to that ingenious metempsychosist, whose original love, if we remember aright, remained unaltered through all the changes that he underwent in story.

It is assuredly difficult,—and argues more than common disinterestedness, to set aside, of our own accord, our right to be heard, and to become the organ and mouthpiece of a variety of men. To invest ourselves for a time with the prejudices, and even with the very speech of statesmen and soldiers, kings and counsellors, knaves, idiots, friars and the like, seems like a gratuitous vexation of the intellect; and yet it must be done. We must give up our privilege to dictate, and lose the opportunity of saying infinitely better things than the parties concerned would utter, if we wish for eminent success in the drama. This is offensive to our self-love; and the truth is, that a vain man can never be a good dramatist. He must forget himself before he can do justice to others. We have heard it insisted, that this is neither possible nor desirable. But that it is possible, Shakespeare is a brilliant testimony. And that it is desirable, is equally certain, and, we apprehend, not very difficult of proof. A character (king or peasant) must speak like himself, or like another person, or like no person whomsoever:—which style is the best, we leave to the understanding of the reader. It is true that, without much of that particular faculty which we are inclined to call ‘dramatic,’ some authors have contrived to pourtray one or two characters with success; but these have been generally mere beaux ideals,—mere copies or modifications of themselves. Indeed, we have found, on a strict scrutiny, that their opinions might always be seen darkening one character, and their animal spirits gilding another; and that, whether didactic, or disputatious, or jocose, the fluctuation of their own spirit has been manifest through all the shiftings and disguises of their tale.

Schlegel, in reply to his own question of ‘What is dramatic?’ says—that it does not consist merely in dialogue, but that it is necessary that such dialogue should operate a change in the minds of the persons represented. If by this he means, that the character itself should be wrought upon and change, we think that this may be desirable; but the nature of the drama is a thing different from the result which it ought to arrive at. This assertion of Schlegel is therefore almost like saying, that argument is not sound (or rather that it is not argument at all) unless it shall produce conviction. In our own literature, at least, it is certain that we often find the personages at the end of the play in precisely the same state of mind as at the commencement. We make a play a succession and change of events, and not a change of sentiment. The sentiment of the hearer is indeed, if possible, to be wrought upon, but not necessarily that of any one character of the drama. The character, in fact, is frequently developed in the first scene, and we have nothing afterwards to learn except as to what accidents befall it. If the German critic means to say (for he is not very clear), that the tone of the several speeches in a play should be dependent on each other—that the first should give rise to the second, the second to the third, and so on, we entirely agree with him: For the bright spirit of dialogue can only be struck out by collision; and if the speech, the answer, and the replication, were mere independent and insulated sayings, each character would utter a series of monologues, and no more.

Shakespeare (as in the case of Macbeth and others) sometimes makes his tragedy an absolute piece of biography, and allows his characters to unfold themselves gradually, act by act: he does not, in truth, often bring forward a ready-made villain, whom we may know at a glance; but we have a map of the march and progress of crime or passion through the human heart: our sympathies are not assaulted or taken by surprise, but we move forward, step by step, with the hero of the story, until he perishes before our eyes. This is undoubtedly the perfection of the drama; but it exists in its weakness as well as in its strength; and even in Shakespeare, Iago is much the same person in the fifth act as he is in the first scene, and Richard undergoes little, if any, alteration.

If we were driven to a definition, we should say, that a good drama is—‘A story told by action and dialogue, where the spirit and style of the speeches allotted to each character are well distinguished from the others, and are true to that particular character and to Nature.’ It must involve a story (or event), or it will not have the strength and stature of a drama; for that is not a collection of scenes loosely hung together without object, but a gradual detail of one or more facts in a regular and natural way. It must have action, or it cannot be fit for representation; and dialogue, or it would be but narration. The speeches must possess character and distinction, without which, a play would be monotonous, and like the voice of a single instrument breathed through different tubes of one diameter: and that those speeches should be true to the characters to which they are assigned, and (as a consequence) to Nature, must be presumed, until we can show that Nature is wrong, or can find a brighter model to imitate.

The earliest dramatic amusements of modern times (they were common to Italy, and Spain, and England), were of a religious nature, and with us passed under the name of ‘Mysteries.’ In these, which were stories taken from the Bible and Testament, the characters were sustained by monks, or boys attached to ecclesiastical establishments; and, indeed, the literary part of the Mysteries (such as it is) must have sprung from the same source.

Much discussion has occurred among our industrious and inquisitive brethren in learning, as to whether our Drama is of foreign or English growth. Something plausible may no doubt be urged on each side of the question; but we must rest on circumstantial proof at last: And, after all, the discovery would scarcely compensate for the pains that must be bestowed on the inquiry; for the subject itself is not very important to the interests even of the Drama.

Some derive our dramatic literature at once from the tragedies of the ancient Greeks; some from the comparatively modern entertainments which the Jews and early Christians were accustomed to exhibit at Constantinople (Byzantium) and elsewhere: others say that it originated at fairs in the ingenuity of the itinerant dealers, who thus exerted their wits to draw people and purchasers together; while the rest (without referring to this origin) contend only that it is of pure English growth, and has no connexion with any that we have mentioned, nor even with the Mysteries of Italy or Spain. Schlegel himself is, if we remember correctly, of this last opinion.

Now, we can scarcely suppose that our earlier writers were indebted to the classic Grecian models; for the ‘Mysteries’ have been traced back as far as the twelfth century; and Chaucer, in the fourteenth century, speaks of ‘plays of miracles;’ at which time we are not aware that the Greek dramatists were known in England. But there is a better reason still against this supposed derivation, which is, that the early English performances bear no resemblance whatever to the tragedies of the Greeks. The latter are fine and polished entertainments, discussing matters of daily life, or immortalizing events in their own history; while the former are meagre didactic matters, taken solely from sacred history, and destitute of the chorus which forms so stirring a feature in the character of the Grecian plays. Had our forefathers imitated Sophocles, or Euripides, or Eschylus, it is but fair to suppose that they would have imitated them entirely; for the taste of the nation was not at the point to suggest selections from their style, nor to justify any deviation from their successful system. We must therefore conclude, that the ancient Grecians had little to do (nothing directly) with the birth of our English Drama.

As to the opinion that it began in mimic and buffoonery at fairs, we cannot understand why, if this was the case, the subjects should be of so serious a cast. It is not reasonable to suppose, that the wandering merchants of the time would strive to attract purchasers, by laying before them some signal instance of God's vengeance. If they had mimicked any thing, it would have been the manners or the follies of the time, the gesture or the gait of individuals, or things that were in themselves obviously susceptible of mirth, and readily to be understood by the spectators. But we see nothing of this in the earliest specimens of the English dramatic writers; and without this we cannot well accede to the opinions of Warton or Schlegel, and think that our drama had no connexion with that of foreign countries. In the first place, our English Mysteries were essentially like those of Gregory Nanzianzen and the modern Italians. We had intercourse with Italy and Constantinople; and it is known that the stories of Boccaccio and his countrymen had been brought into England in the time of Chaucer.

If there had not been so decided a resemblance, in point of subject, between the ‘Mysteries’ of England and the sacred Dramas of Italy and modern Greece, we should have felt inclined to adopt the opinion of Schlegel. It is known that the same ingenious discoveries have been made in different parts of the world which had no acquaintance with each other; and it would have been but equitable to have given the English credit for a drama of their own invention. But, to say the truth, the earliest specimens of English plays do not look like inventions; they are at once too complete for originals, and too rude to be considered as copies from the polished Dramas of Sophocles and his cotemporaries. The first attempt at dramatic writing would naturally be in the form of a monodrame, or a simple colloquy, and not a drama with all its principal and subordinate parts illustrating a fact in history. It is said, indeed, that the Mysteries were composed by the monks, for the purpose of supplanting more vulgar entertainments of a similar nature; yet the fact of no such entertainments having come down to us, may well excite some scepticism; for the person capable of inventing a drama, would also, we should think, be able to record it. It is true, that the most ancient entertainment at Naples is Punch, who has descended, by tradition only, from father to son, and still keeps his place of popularity, in defiance both of improvement and innovation. But Punch was not the origin of the Italian Drama; nor would the fact of his having been so, or of his resemblance to our fair mimicry, alter the question as to the invention of the English ‘Mysteries.’ After all, however, the matter is not important, and scarcely worth the very small discussion which we have bestowed upon it.

The ‘Moralities’ which followed, grew out of the old ‘Mystery,’ and were the natural offspring of such a parent. They were mere embodyings of the vices and virtues; and though dressed up after a barbarous fashion, made some approach to the models of the ancient Greeks; at least in the titles of their dramatis personœ. ‘Death,—Kindred,—Strength,—Discretion,’ and others, for instance, which occur in the old Morality of Everyman, came nearer to the personages in the Prometheus of Æschylus than the nature of the ‘Mysteries’ would allow; and in the Morality of Lusty Juventus, the persons of ‘Knowledge,—Good Councell,—Sathan the Devyll,’ and others, explain at once the nature of their offices, and the entertainment they are likely to afford. These compositions (especially the Morality called Hycke-Scorner) possess occasional gleams of dramatic spirit; but, generally speaking, they have little of that quality beyond what is discoverable in the romances and narrative poems of the same period.

The first regular English comedy, Gammer Gurton's Needle, in every sense a very remarkable performance, is said to have been written in the year 1551; and if that statement be correct, the first English tragedy, Ferrex and Porrex, which was the joint composition of Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, and Thomas Norton, was written in the same year. Our business is not now with the comedy. With regard to the latter Drama, it is remarkable rather for its even style and negative merits, than for any one brilliant or sterling quality. It has none of the rudeness of the Dramas which preceded and followed it, but stands by itself, an elegant instance of mediocrity in writing. Without extravagance or flagrant error—without ribaldry, or any of the offensive trash that disgraced those days, it is nevertheless mournfully deficient in spirit and dramatic character. The hue of the authors' minds pervades the whole like a gloom. When Pope praised this tragedy for ‘the propriety of sentiments, and gravity of style,’ &c. ‘so essential to tragedy,’ and which, he says, ‘Shakespeare himself perpetually neglected, or little understood,’ he proves to us nothing but that he did not understand dramatic writing. Even Milton (and we say this very reluctantly) seems to have had an imperfect idea of true tragedy, when he calls the Greek writers ‘unequalled,’ and proposes them as models, in preference to our own great and incomparable poet. We have little to object to the ‘propriety’ of Lord Buchurst's sentiments, and nothing to the ‘gravity’ of his style. These things are very good, no doubt; but we have nothing else. There is no character—no variety, which is the soul of dramatic writing. What Lord Buckhurst says might as well be said in a narrative or didactic poem,—in a sermon, or an essay. But in a play, we want true and vivid portraits: we want the life and spirit of natural dialogue: we want ‘gravity of style’ occasionally, but we also want fancy, and even folly: we want passion in all its shapes, and madness in its many words, and virtue and valour,—not dressed up in allegory, nor tamed down to precept, but true and living examples of each, with all the varieties and inflections of human nature,—not too good for us to profit by, nor too bad for us to dread. Now, we have little of this in Ferrex and Porrex. The play is sterile in character, and, with all its good sense, is a dead and dull monotony. The following is one of the most favourable passages; but it will nevertheless afford a fair specimen of the style in which the whole is written. Hermon (a parasite) is addressing the King.

—If the fear of Gods, and secret grudge
Of Nature's law, repining at the fact,
Withhold your courage from so great attempt,
Know ye that lust of kingdoms hath no law,
The Gods do bear, and well allow in Kings
The things that they abhor in rascal routes.
When kings on slender quarrels run to wars,
And then, in cruel and unindly wise,
Commend thefts, rapes, murder of innocents,
The spoil of towns, ruins of mighty realms,
Think you such princes do suppose themselves
Subject to laws of kind, and fear of Gods?
Murders and violent thefts in private men
Are heinous crimes, and full of foul reproach;
Yet no offence, and deck'd with glorious name
Of noble conquests in the hands of kings.

Act 2. sc. 1.

We have taken no liberty with this very edifying counsel, except that of altering the ancient spelling. The doctrine requires as little assistance.

After Lord Sacville followed Edwards, who, in 1571, wrote The Comedy of Damon and Pythias. It has, notwithstanding its title, some things of tragedy in it; but the serious parts are nearly worthless. The style is rude and bad enough, and the play is filled with anachronisms and inconsistencies; but there is an attempt at character in one or two of the persons of the drama, which serves in some small measure to redeem it. Aristippus is an instance of a philosopher turned courtier; and Carisophus is a specimen of the parasite plant, which we can easily suppose flourished and multiplied as readily at the foot of Etna, as on the banks of the Seine or the Thames, or on the shores of the sea of Archangel. About the same time with Edwards lived and wrote Thomas Preston, the author of Cambises king of Percia. This tragedy is remarkable only for its having been referred to, as is supposed, by Shakespeare in Henry the Fourth. The ‘vein’ of Cambises, however, is but a sorry vein; and is more dull than extravagant. It would probably long since have been forgotten, but for Falstaff's allusion. Whetstone, the author of Promos and Cassandra, is scarcely worth a mention, unless it be that Shakespeare has borrowed his subject of Measure for Measure from him;—neither is Kyd, who wrote Soliman and Perseda, and the Spanish Tragedy. We say this on the supposition that some other was the author of the scene in the latter play, where Hieronimo is discovered mad. There is in that scene, indeed, a wild and stern grief, painted with fearful strength, which we must not altogether pass over. The following short extract is powerful and fine.

The Painter enters.
                    Paint. God bless you, Sir.
                    Hier. Wherefore? why, thou scornful villain?
How, where, or by what means should I be blest?
                    Isab. What would'st thou have, good fellow?
                    Paint. Justice, madam.
                    Hier. Oh! ambitious beggar, would'st thou have that
That lives not in the world?
Why, all the undelved mines cannot buy
An ounce of Justice, 'tis a jewel so inestimable.
I tell thee, God hath engrossed all justice in his hands,
And there is none but what comes from him.
                    Paint. Oh! then I see that God must right me for
My murdered son.
                    Hier. How, was thy son murdered?
                    Paint. Ay, Sir: no man did hold a son so dear.
                    Hier. What! not as thine? that's a lic
As massy as the earth: I had a son,
Whose least unvalued hair did weigh
A thousand of thy sons, and he was murdered.
                    Paint. Alas! Sir, I had no more but he.
                    Hier. Nor I, nor I: but this same one of mine
Was worth a legion. But all is one; Pedro,
Jaques, go in a doors, Isabella, go,
And this good fellow here, and I
Will range this hideous orchard up and down
Like too she lions reaved of our young.

Besides these, there are some others who may be said to have flourished before the time of Shakespeare—Wilmot, who wrote Tancred and GismondeGreene, the author of James the FourthLegge, who is said to have written Richard the Third—the celebrated John Lily the Euphuist—George Peele, who wrote David and Bethsabe and Mahomet and Hiron, and some other dramas,—and last, but not least, Christopher Marlow. These authors, with the exception of Peele and Marlow (for Lily's plays can scarcely be considered within the limit of our subject) may be passed over without further mention. The lines of Peele are sweet and flowing, but they have little imagination and no strength; and he is without a notion of dialogue. He would have written pastorals perhaps smoothly and pleasantly, but the passions were altogether above him. One of his plays, Mahomet and Hiron, is probably the source from which ancient Pistol has derived a portion of his learning. David and Bethsabe reminds us of the Old Mysteries: its style, however, is different, and it has some lines that have undoubtedly great beauty. In Bethsabe's apostrophe to the air, she says—

Deck thyself in loose robes,
And on thy wings bring delicate perfumes—

which is delicacy itself; nor can the following lines in the same play (describing a fountain) be denied the merit of being extremely graceful.

The brim let be embraced with golden curls
Of moss that sleeps with sounds the waters make,
With joy to feed the fount with their recourse:
Let all the grass that beautifies her bower
Bear manna every morn instead of dew;
Or let the dew be sweeter far than that
That hangs like chains of pearl on Hermon hill.

But Marlow was undoubtedly the greatest tragic writer that preceded Shakespeare. The spirit of extravagance seems to have dwelt in his brain, and to have imped him on to the most extraordinary feats: but his muse had a fiery wing, and bore him over the dark and unhallowed depths of his subject in a strong and untiring flight. This poet is less remarkable for his insight into human character, than for his rich and gloomy imagination, and his great powers of diction,—for whether stately, or terrible, or tender, he excels in all. His ‘mighty line’ was famous in his own time, and cannot be denied even now: Yet he could stoop from the heights of a lawless fancy, or the dignity of solemn declamation, to words of the softest witchery. He certainly loved to wander from the common track, and dash at once into peril and mystery; and this daring it was which led him naturally to his sublimity and extravagance. Unfortunately Marlow is never content with doing a little, nor even with doing enough; but he fills the cup of horror till it overflows. There is a striking instance of this in his tragedy of Lust's Dominion, which seems written from a desire to throw off a tormenting load of animal spirits. There is a perpetual spurning at restraints, a warring with reason and probability throughout the whole of the play. Eleazar, the Moor, is a mad savage who should have been shut up in a cage, and the queen, his paramour, with him; and the whole dialogue (though there are some strong well-sustained passages) is as unequal and turbulent as the characters.

Of all the plays of Marlow, Faustus is the finest, and Edward the Second perhaps the most equal. The Jew of Malta we cannot admire, (though there is in it certainly the first hint of Shylock); and Tamburlaine, generally speaking, is either fustian or frenzy. However, the poet's idea of the horses of the sun—

                    ‘That blow the morning from their nostrils,’
is magnificent, and his description of Tamburlaine's person
                    ‘(Such breadth of shoulders as might mainly bear
                    Old Atlas' burden’—)

recals, not unpleasantly, to our mind the description of the great ‘second spirit’ of Milton. Faustus is the story of a learned man who sells himself to the devil, on condition of having unlimited power on earth for twenty-four years; and Mephostophilis (a spirit) is given to him as a slave. These two worthies pass from place to place, enjoying themselves in feastings, and love, and triumphs of various kinds; and, by the aid of Lucifer, they beat priests and abuse the pope to his face, and commit similar enormities in defiance of ‘maledicats’ and other formidable weapons of church construction. There are many single lines and phrases in this play which might be selected as incontestable evidence that Marlow was in felicity of thought, and strength of expression, second only to Shakespeare himself. (As a dramatist, however, he is inferior to others.) Some of his turns of thought are even like those of our matchless poet; as when he speaks of

                                                                                          —unwedded maids
Shadowing more beauty in their airy brows
Than have the white breasts of the queen of love;

or of a temple

That threats the stars with her aspiring top;

and where he refers to a man who has an amiable soul,

If sin by custom grow not into nature—

and many others. But Faustus's death is the most appalling thing in the play. It is difficult, however, to give the reader an idea of it by a brief extract—he must read it with its ‘pomp and circumstance’ about it. Faustus is to die at twelve, and the clock has already struck eleven. He groans forth his last speech, which begins thus—

O Faustus!
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned perpetually.
Stand still, you ever moving spheres of Heaven,
That Time may cease, and Midnight never come!
Fair Nature's eye, rise—rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year—a month—a week—a natural day—
That Faustus may repent, and save his soul, &c.

And now, to pass from the terrible to the gentle, nothing can be more soft than the lines which he addresses to the Vision of Helen, whom he requires to pass before him when he is in search of a mistress. He is smitten at once by her excelling beauty, and thus he speaks:

Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?—
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss—
Her lips suck forth my soul …
Here will I dwell, for Heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee
Instead of Troy shall Wittenburg be sacked,
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest.
—Oh! thou art fairer than the evening air,
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter,
When he appear'd to hapless Semele,
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azure arms,
And none but thou shall be my paramour.—

Following Marlow, but far outshining him and all others in the vigour and variety of his mighty intellect, arose the first of all poets, whether in the East of West—Shakespeare. He had, it is true, many contemporaries, whose names have since become famous,—men who slept for a time in undeserved obscurity, and who are at last brought forward to illustrate the fashion of their time, and to give bright evidence of its just renown: Yet there is not one worthy of being raised to a comparison with Shakespeare himself. One had a lofty fancy, another a deep flow of melodious verse, another a profound reach of thought; a fourth caught well the mere manners of the age, while others would lash its vices or laud its proud deeds, in verse worthy of the acts which they recorded; but Shakespeare surpassed them all. In the race of fame he was foremost, and alone. He was, beyond all doubt or competition, the first writer of his age or nation. He illuminated the land in which he lived, like a constellation. There were, as we have said, other bright...

(The entire section is 13830 words.)

Edmund Gosse (essay date 1890)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Poetical Works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, J. M. Dent and Co., 1890, pp. xvii-xxxix.

[In the following essay, Gosse provides a biographical and critical overview of Beddoes.]


In a letter written to Kelsall in 1824, Beddoes makes the following remarks on the poetical situation of the moment:—

The disappearance of Shelley from the world seems, like the tropical setting of that luminary to which his poetical genius can alone be compared, with reference to the companions of his day, to have been followed by instant darkness and owl-season: whether the vociferous Darley is to be...

(The entire section is 6078 words.)

Barnette Miller (essay date 1903)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thomas Lovell Beddoes,” in Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Vol. 11, No. 3, July, 1903, pp. 306-36.

[In the following essay, Miller discusses the defining characteristics of Beddoes's works, concluding that his “genius is undeniable, but it is limited in scope.”]

Among minor English poets, there is no more striking figure than Thomas Lovell Beddoes, a man of unique personality and versatile talents. Between 1821-26, the five years of mediocrity which followed the deaths of Keats, Shelley, and Byron, and preceded the outburst of song in the Victorian Era, it is claimed by Mr. Edmund Gosse that “Beddoes was the most interesting talent engaged in writing English...

(The entire section is 10526 words.)

Lytton Strachey (essay date 1907)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Last Elizabethan,” in Literary Essays, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1907, pp. 171-94.

[In the following essay, Strachey evaluates Beddoes's place in English literature and offers a stylistic analysis of his work.]

The shrine of Poetry is a secret one; and it is fortunate that this should be the case; for it gives a sense of security. The cult is too mysterious and intimate to figure upon census papers; there are no turnstiles at the temple gates; and so, as all inquiries must be fruitless, the obvious plan is to take for granted a good attendance of worshippers, and to pass on. Yet, if Apollo were to come down (after the manner of deities) and put...

(The entire section is 8140 words.)

Royall H. Snow (essay date 1928)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Death's Jest Book, or the Fool's Tragedy,” in Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Covici & Friede, 1928, pp. 99-128.

[In the following essay, Snow deems Death's Jest Book a unique but flawed drama, contending that the play's “brilliance is akin to that of a diamond crushed under a pile-driver—scattered, chaotic, begrimed, but still there and sparkling.”]



It is in Death's Jest Book that Beddoes' spectacular and morbid genius comes to its final flowering; and it is upon this play, together with a handful of scattered lyrics, that his fame must rest—that tentative...

(The entire section is 8912 words.)

F. L. Lucas (essay date 1934)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Playboy of the Netherworld,” in Studies French and English, Cassell and Company Ltd., 1934, pp. 217-41.

[In the following essay, Lucas asserts that Beddoes's work was unique for his time and praises stylistic aspects of his poetic drama.]

‘Alors s'assit sur un monde en ruines une jeunesse soucieuse. … Et ils parlèrent tant et si longtemps, que toutes les illusions humaines, comme des arbres en automne, tombaient feuille à feuille autour d'eux, et que ceux qui les écoutaient passaient leur main sur leur front, comme des fiévreux qui s'éveillent.’ This is not a picture of post-war Europe; at least, not of our post-war Europe. The words are all...

(The entire section is 7621 words.)

H. W. Donner (essay date 1935)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Oxford University Press, 1935, pp. xxivlv.

[In the following essay, Donner traces Beddoes's literary history and discusses the difficulty in compiling a complete collection of the dramatist's work.]

No task could appear more simple than that of editing the works of a poet whose publications did not reach beyond a single volume of poetry, one play, and a few poems and articles separately published; the bulk of whose manuscripts have unaccountably disappeared, while the majority of the rest are known to have perished either at his own hands or those of other people; whose works were edited by an executor, as...

(The entire section is 15722 words.)

Horace Gregory (essay date 1935)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Survival of Thomas Lovell Beddoes,” in Spirit of Time and Place: Collected Essays of Horace Gregory, W.W. Norton, 1957, pp. 42-51.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1935, Gregory determines the influence of the Gothic imagination on Beddoes's work.]

If the temptation exists to place Beddoes in biographical proximity to Byron, an even greater temptation to view him as a belated Elizabethan has not been resisted. If we could be content with a second glance at Beddoes's works in the huge, eight-hundred-page volume, so devotedly, almost devoutly edited by Dr. H. W. Donner,1 we would agree with the reiterated opinions of Lytton...

(The entire section is 4112 words.)

Louis O. Coxe (essay date 1953)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Beddoes: The Mask of Parody,” in Hudson Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer, 1953, pp. 252-65.

[In the following essay, Coxe praises the singularity and fearlessness of Death's Jest Book.]

The poetry of Thomas Lovell Beddoes should find in our time a place denied it in its own if only because we are today interested in deviation for its own sake. Beddoes' life, curious and expatriate, a life that shows him as radical, scientist, psychiatric case and necrophile, alone would attract our age. The poetry, however, is the subject here, and it is a poetry of a sort that seems to me to offer a way out for the modern writer while it exists in its own world as a strange,...

(The entire section is 5495 words.)

Anne Harrex (essay date 1967)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Death's Jest Book and the German Contribution,” in Studia Neophilologica, Vol. 39, No. 1, 1967, pp. 15-37.

[In the following essay, Harrex assesses the influence of the German dramatic tradition on Death's Jest Book.]



Thomas Lovell Beddoes travelled to Germany in 1825 to study medicine, and although he had already begun to learn the language and read it a little before leaving England,1 it was in Germany itself that he made his real discoveries in the literature, reading widely and critically among German writers to such an extent...

(The entire section is 9088 words.)

James R. Thompson (essay date 1985)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Brides' Tragedy and Dramatic Fragments: Jacobean Romantic,” in Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Twayne, 1985, pp. 24-50.

[In the following essay, Thompson explores the major themes of The Brides' Tragedy as well as several of his incomplete dramas.]

As we approach an examination of Beddoes's The Brides' Tragedy and other dramatic attempts, it will be useful to pause for a brief discussion of the significance of his choice of drama as a vehicle for self-expression, as well as our critical attitudes toward that choice.


The earliest of Beddoes's reviewers and many critics since...

(The entire section is 9816 words.)

Daniel P. Watkins (essay date 1989)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thomas Lovell Beddoes's The Brides' Tragedy and the Situation of Romantic Drama,” in Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900, Vol. 29, No. 4, Autumn, 1989, pp. 699-712.

[In the following essay, Watkins situates The Brides' Tragedy within the tradition of Romantic literature.]

Like Matthew Lewis and Mary Shelley before him, Thomas Lovell Beddoes published, before the age of twenty, a literary work of extreme horror that touches the dark underside of the Romantic imagination. Unlike The Monk and Frankenstein, however, The Brides' Tragedy has rarely been studied seriously, partly because it is a poetic drama (a genre out of...

(The entire section is 5879 words.)

Christopher Moylan (essay date 1991)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “T. L. Beddoes, Romantic Medicine, and the Advent of Therapeutic Theater,” in Studia Neophilologica, Vol. 63, No. 2, 1991, 181-88.

[In the following essay, Moylan investigates the relationship between Beddoes's career as a physician and his development as a writer and places his work within a medical context.]

Harold Bloom designated Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849) “a poet of death.”1 In Death's Jest Book, Beddoes' magnum opus, Gothic drama found a work worthy of the Elizabethan and Jacobean authors he studied so devotedly. His writings also show influences of an entirely different order. References in his plays and letters to...

(The entire section is 4258 words.)