One of the hermetic joys about English Literature is that if you procrastinate inside the subject, you can still regard it as studying. An author may not be directly relevant to your exam or your essay, but now you know that they were alive and what they were writing and you’re able to re-shuffle your entire understanding of the media to accomodate them. And if you proctrastinate all around the author you’re actually supposed to be studying — a tactic I call the ‘Inverse Method’ — then the central gap that remains, however large, must be solid gold exam material. It’s like a stencil.
Which is a roundabout way of saying I’m going to talk about Thomas Lovell Beddoes.
I came across Beddoes while researching dinosaurs, and I certainly had no idea that such an excellent nineteenth-century poet had completely escaped me. Beddoes is a godsend for students with an interest in the Gothic, the Romantic, and Elizabethan Revival, a fresh source of hundreds of poems and letters and dramatic fragments. Disciples of Edgar Allan Poe will find much to appreciate in Beddoes — and I think these disciples probably constitute a very large portion of literature students. He’s so much like a parallel Poe that one can’t help but wonder if ‘William Wilson‘ was autobiographical. The two men were born just six years apart and both died in 1849.
‘Died’ is the key word in that sentence. The work of Thomas Lovell Beddoes is primarily concerned with death, dying, murder, woe, lamentation, dismay, cannibalism, ghosts, skeletons, the apocalypse, graveyards, Death with a capital ‘d’, pain, demons, gloom, fear, ‘Man’s Anxious, But Ineffectual, Guard Against Death’, evil tidings, shadows, bones, and even, at one point, a crocodile. Like Poe, he did not live a happy life. He was afflicted by alcoholism and depression, and his work is often morbid in the extreme. There’s a painful history behind these writings that’s all too easy to ignore at the sight of such astounding talent.
Thomas Lovell Beddoes, however, is not Edgar Allan Poe. A radical wandering physician, most of his work remained unpublished in his brief lifetime. Soon after his death, admirers started to consolidate his papers and publish what they found. Now, over a century and a half later, he’s still far from a household name, although there’s no shortage of writing on his fascinating oeuvre. Beddoes’s central literary achievement is his sprawling and unfinished play, Death’s Jest-Book, a Renaissance-style revenge tragedy that contains some of his best verse. And although I may draw attention to the dark nature of his themes, Beddoes also shows an incredibly delicacy towards nature, beauty, and sensuality worthy of any of the more famous Romantics.
You can find Beddoes’s writing on the excellent Phantom-Wooer website. Some of my favourites are ‘A Subterranean City’, ‘A Beautiful Night’, and ‘Stanzas (from The Ivory Gate)’, although I’ll leave you with ‘A Dream’. Enjoy.
Thomas Lovell Beddoes, ‘A Dream’
Last night I looked into a dream; ’twas drawn
On the black midnight of a velvet sleep,
And set in woeful thoughts; and there I saw
A thin, pale Cupid, with bare, ragged wings
Like skeletons of leaves, in autumn left,
That sift the frosty air. One hand was shut,
And in its little hold of ivory
Fastened a May-morn zephyr, frozen straight,
Made deadly with a hornet’s rugged sting,
Gilt with the influence of an adverse star.
Such was his weapon, and he traced with it,
Upon the waters of my thoughts, these words:
“I am the death of flowers, and nightingales,
And small-lipped babes, that give their souls to summer
To make a perfumed day with: I shall come,
A death no larger than a sigh to thee,
Upon a sunset hour.”—And so he passed
Into the place where faded rainbows are,
Dying along the distance of my mind;
As down the sea Europa’s hair-pearls fell
When, through the Cretan waves, the curly bull
Dashed, tugging at a stormy plough, whose share
Was of the northern hurricane—