Thomas Lovell Beddoes’s poetry (including his verse drama) focuses on three subjects: love, death, and madness. There is a constant theme: Love offers an entrance to the charmed world where spirit and nature are one; yet, just when love asserts its claims and some ideal of joy seems realizable, either madness or death intrudes with an ironic laugh to snatch away that love—the best hope that human beings have for something approximating transcendence. The reader is left with an ironic ambivalence toward the expectations of the spirit. Those expectations are linked ever more tightly, as Beddoes’s poetry unfolds, with the mocking ironies (death and madness) which give the lie to dreams of love, immortality, and transcendence. Beddoes’s ambivalence toward his own dream of immortality is partly a result of his progressively deeper commitment to scientific inquiry, with its rigorous rules of evidence. It is also in part a reflection of the ambivalence of the whole age. John Herschel, William Whewell, and Augustus De Morgan were all Victorian scientists, for example, who wrote highly romantic poetry. Charles Darwin enjoyed a wide reading in imaginative literature. However, it was becoming progressively clear that the specializations of scientific thought would soon put an end to the ideal fusion of science and the humanities which Beddoes sought.
The main body of Beddoes’s work shows the ambivalence which he felt about all the great themes of literature: love, the meaning of suffering, the significance of everyday life, the possibilities for some sort of redemptive experience, and the hope for immortality. The fragmentation of his work, his desultory efforts to polish and finish it, his inability to commit himself to a dramatic poem with sufficient force to work it through, all suggest Beddoes’s dilemma. He was a man whose learning and instincts were grounded in the classical past, a man who loved the great sureties of the great poets. In his own age, however, and in his own mind, those sureties were being eroded by a secular skepticism which denied him the assurance and joy of the old world, yet revealed no credible options for a man of the spirit living in an empirical and pragmatic age. Before Arnold, Beddoes was “caught between two worlds,/ One dead, the other powerless to be born.” Before Franz Kafka, he sensed the abyss that underlies everyday experience. Biographies can never, of course, reconstruct all the sorrows and the intense impressions of a private person who lived long ago. It is clear enough from his work itself, however, that Beddoes believed that the illusions of a sacred and mythopoeic world were breaking up, that the losses to be suffered would throw enormous stress on the devices of sanity, and that in the end, death would mock the illusions, the losses, and even the madness itself by keeping its eternal secret.
Such ambivalence appears as early as The Improvisatore and grows progressively more profound and ironic all the way through his work, culminating in Death’s Jest-Book. The Improvisatore is a series of three ballad-like tales that suffer from a trite and overheated romanticism. These tales were published when Beddoes was eighteen years old, and they reflect his early quest for a lyrical style that would give voice to his yearnings for a mythopoeic, spiritual world. His images, however, are often clichés: “’Twas as though Flora had been sporting there,/ And dropped some jewels from her loosened hair.” Sometimes the images are absurd conceits, similar to those of the Metaphysical poets two centuries earlier: “Her mouth!—Oh pardon me, thou coral cave,/ Prison of fluttering sighs . . . if I fail to tell/ The Beauty and the grace, that in thee dwell.”
These early tales share in common the themes listed above: love, madness, and death. In each ballad, youthful or infant love loses its object—a sweetheart, a parent. This loss starkly transforms the protagonist. The youthful sense of a charmed and summertime reality gives way to a madness expressed in images of a horrific supernaturalism. The only escape from that madness is into death.
The Bride’s Tragedy and The Second Brother
The Bride’s Tragedy and The Second Brother are more accomplished than The Improvisatore. There are fewer clichès. Still, these plays too might be thought melodramatic except that the romanticism is less feverish, and Beddoes’s ability to control his lyricism, his characterizations, and his plot construction have clearly matured. In The Bride’s...
(The entire section is 1890 words.)