Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-49)

Thomas Lovell Beddoes was a dramatist and poet who also practiced medicine. His father Thomas Beddoes was a famous science writer and medical doctor whose friendship with Coleridge led to Coleridge’s interest in the Higher Criticism (the study of the Bible as a collection of historical documents) and influenced the poet’s scientific thinking. The son also befriended Coleridge, and the younger Beddoes’s preoccupation with death and the Gothic is echoed in Coleridge’s work, especially “Lamia,” “The Eve of St Agnes,” and “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.” Lovell Beddoes studied for a time in Göttingen in Germany, hoping that he might establish unassailable empirical evidence for the survival of a spiritual element after the death of the physical body. He committed suicide by poison, aged 45, in Basel–Switzerland–in 1845. Coleridge said of the father’s death: “Few Events have taken out so much Hope from my Life.” Later, as he reflected on the first Thomas Beddoes’s possible contribution to science, Coleridge wrote that the father had “talents which would have exalted him to the pinnacle of philosophical eminence if they had been applied with discretion.” Humphry Davy, a scientist whom Beddoes had literally plucked from obscurity, was likewise shattered by the death of his mentor. Beddoes, Sr., himself thought that his life had been a waste; to Davy he wrote–on his deathbed–“Greetings from Dr. Beddoes, one who has scattered abroad the Avena Fatua [wild oats] of knowledge, from which neither branch nor blossom nor fruit has resulted.” Meanwhile the son went on to become a poet known primarily for his preoccupations with illness, death, graveyards, and human mortaility.

Lovell Beddoes’ most well known poetic work was the dramatic Death’s Jest Book, or the Fool’s Tragedy, although it was only published after  after his death and is little read today. His goal was tho recreate Elizabethan verse-drama for the nineteenth century and, although he never suceedded in this ambitious task, his work remains a testament to a unique sensibility that mixed Shakespearian, Romantic, Gothic, and psychological elements with powerful command of the blank verse line. When Beddoes arrived in London in 1824, he met the last remnant of the Shelley Cicrcle: Mary Shelley (now a widow), her father William Godwin, and her one-time suitor and former best friend of her husband–Percy Shelley: Thomas Jefferson Hogg. Thoroughout Beddoes’s adult life, the intensity of his behavior and personality led to various charges of madness and insanity. He clearly abused alcohol, literally boozing, brawling, and bad-boying–while doctoring!–his way across Europe for two decades from the 1820s to the 1840s. Three deccades after his final visit to Britain in 1846 (and a quarter-century after his death), those interviewed by Sir Edmund Gosse still reported that he had been an annoying drunk whose behavior often seemed to border on literal lunacy.

At the end of Beddoes’ life, his own assessment of himself and his achievements fit well with the death-0bsessed style and focus of his poetry. As Dr. Gerald McDaniel described the poet’s end in a 1990 posting on the Beddoes Society’s website:

The last act of his dramatic life is one of conjecture by various family members and Beddoes scholars.  As best can be ascertained, he had been contaminated by a diseased cadaver in Frankfurt.  His health so deteriorated that his friend Dr. Frey convinced him to enter the Basel hospital.  In deep despondency, Beddoes tried to end his life by severing a blood vessel in his leg.  The bleeding was stopped, but a later gangrene infection led to partial amputation of the leg in October 1848.  In January 1849, Beddoes wrote his sister, explaining his condition as the result of a riding accident.  Sometime in that month, Beddoes secured a dosage of the poison curari, and his body was found in his disheveled room on 26 January 1849, in his 45th year. In a penciled note to an English friend, he called himself “food for what I am good for—worms.”

Beddoes’ posthumous career was much more successful than much of his life. The immediate reception of Death’s Jest-Book was so positive that his literary executor and editor, Thomas Forbes Kendall, published The Poems of the Late Thomas Lovell Beddoes soon after, including dramatic fragments, a memoir of Beddoes by Kendall, and numerous Beddoes letters. His activity in Germany had included a great deal of significant political writing, almost all of which has been lost. His translation of the important medical work, “Structure of the Spinal Cord’ (by R. D. Grainger), seems also to have been lost or destroyed.

A recent critique of Death’s Jest-Book, by Paul Douglass at San Jose State University, suggests how many modern themes this often-neglected poet weaves into his drama:

The themes were immediately tied to his tormented homosexuality, and to the experience that taught him that all expressions of desire were taboo and must be repressed or hidden. Beddoes was preoccupied with death, decay, and dissolution. His morbid fascination with mortality was expressed with satirical irony, ridicule of the futile idealization of physical beauty, coarse jesting on bodily functions, dissected corpses, aborted babies. Relations between men, no less than between men and women, are disrupted by rivalry and jealousy. Lovers love in vain: the only consummation is in the grave. Dramatic moments of grief lapse inevitably into mocking fatalism. One by one, each of the characters is murdered, yet each refuses an inanimate death. They continue to play. Death’s Jest Book, originally sub-titled “The Fool’s Tragedy,” depicts the social tragedy of repressive homophobia, but turns into grotesque comedy played out in the “underground” of the tombs.

The legacy of Beddoes is a complex combination of contemporary appreciation of at least one Gothic classic and an acceptance of this overlooked-author as a contributor to the Graveyard School of Poetry, to late Romanticism, and to a crucial  link between science and poetry that has proven to be a key to our understanding of Romantic natural history.

Beddoes Links

1) Death’s Jest-Book: order a copy at this link, which also provides passages from the book that were often quoted in the 19th and 20th centuries:

“Say what you will — I am convinced the man who is to awaken the drama must be a bold trampling fellow — no creeper into worm-holes-: — no reviser even — however good. These reanimations are vampire-cold . . .‎” (prose “Preface” xi: quoted 85 times–in books–between 1803 and 2007)

“They would envy our delight, / In our graves by glow-worm night. / Come follow us, and smile as we; / We sail to the rock in the ancient waves, / Where the snow falls by thousands into the sea, / And the drowned and the shipwrecked have happy graves.‎” (118: quoted 30 times from 1850-2004)


2) “Lord Alcohol,” from the website Writers No One Reads:

No one reads Thomas Lovell Beddoes, who asks in his poem “Dream-Pedlary”:</p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p>If there were dreams to sell/ What would you buy?</p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p>and whose obscurity perplexed Lytton Strachey, who wrote:<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
If the neglect suffered by Beddoes’ poetry may be accounted for in more ways than one, it is not easy to understand why more curiosity has never been aroused by the circumstances of his life. For one reader who cares to concern himself with the intrinsic merit of a piece of writing there are a thousand who are ready to explore with eager sympathy the history of the writer; and all that we know of both the life and character of Beddoes possesses those very qualities of peculiarity, mystery and adventure which are so dear to the hearts of subscribers to circulating libraries.<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
For more on Beddoes’ peculiar, mysterious and adventurous life, see John Ashbery’s lecture on the poet in Other Traditions.<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
(Image: first stanza of “Lord Alcohol”)



3) The Literary Gothic webpage: with lots of quotations and some useful critical essays, especially Susan Wolfson on the value of a number of under-read and under-appreciated 19th century authors (Hood, Praed, and Beddoes).

4) “The Phantom Wooer”: a great YouTube animation of Beddoes “reading” his own poem: “Come with me into the quiet tomb, /Our bed is lovely , dark, and sweet. . . . Ever singing, ‘Die, O Die’.””

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