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An Astonishing Poet: Thomas Lovell Beddoes
Written by: Arthur Symons
With the strange fortune that always accompanied him, in life and in death, Beddoes has not merely escaped the indiscriminate applause which he would never have valued, but he has remained a bibliographical rather than a literary rarity. Few except the people who collect first editions—not, as a rule, the public for a poet—have had the chance of possessing Death's Jest-Book (1850) and the Poems (1851). At last Beddoes has been made accessible, the real story of his death, that suicide so much in the casual and determined manner of one of his own characters.
'The power of the man is immense and irresistible.' Browning's emphatic phrase comes first to the memory, and remains always the most appropriate word of eulogy. Beddoes has been rashly called a great poet. I do not think he was a great poet, but he was, in every sense of the word, an astonishing one. Read these lines, and remember that they were written just at that stagnant period (1821-1826) which comes between the period of Keats, Shelley, and Byron, and the period of Browning and Tennyson. It is a murderer who speaks:
I am unsouled, dishumanised, uncreated;
My passions swell and grow like brutes conceived;
My feet are fixing roots, and every limb
Is billowy and gigantic, till I seem
A wild, old, wicked mountain in the air:
And the abhorred conscience of this murder,
It will grow up a lion, all alone,
A mighty-maned, grave-mouthed prodigy,
And lair him in my caves: and other thoughts,
Some will be snakes, and bears, and savage wolves,
And when I lie tremendous in the desert,
Or abandoned sea, murderers and idiot men
Will come to live upon my rugged sides,
Die, and be buried in me. Now it comes;
I break, and magnify, and lose my form,
And yet I shall be taken for a man,
And never be discovered till I die.
How much this has of the old, splendid audacity of the Elizabethans! How unlike timid modern verse! Beddoes is always large, impressive; the greatness of his aim gives him a certain claim on respectful consideration. That his talent achieved itself, or ever could have achieved itself, he himself would have been the last to affirm. But he is a monumental failure, more interesting than many facile triumphs.
The one important work which Beddoes actually completed, Death's Jest-Book, is nominally a drama in five acts. All the rest of his work, except a few lyrics and occasional poems, is also nominally dramatic. But there never was anything less dramatic in substance than this mass of admirable poetry in dialogue. Beddoes' genius was essentially lyrical: he had imagination, the gift of style, the mastery of rhythm, a strange choiceness and curiosity of phrase. But of really dramatic power he had nothing. He could neither conceive a coherent plot, nor develop a credible situation. He had no grasp on human nature, he had no conception of what character might be in men and women, he had no faculty of expressing emotion convincingly. Constantly you find the most beautiful poetry where it is absolutely inappropriate, but never do you find one of those brief and memorable phrases, words from the heart, for which one would give much beautiful poetry. To take one instance: an Arab slave wishes to say that he has caught sight of a sail nearing the coast. And this is how he says it:
I looked abroad upon the wide old world,
And in the sky and sea, through the same clouds,
The same stars saw I glistening, and nought else,
And as my soul sighed unto the world's soul,
Far in the north a wind blackened the waters,
And, after that creating breath was still,
A dark speck sat on the sky's edge: as watching
Upon the heaven-girt border of my mind
The first faint thought of a great deed arise,
With force and fascination I drew on
The wished sight, and my hope seemed to stamp
Its shade upon it. Not yet is it clear
What, or from whom, the vessel.
In scenes which aim at being passionate one sees the same inability to be natural. What we get is always literature; it is never less than that, nor more than that. It is never frank, uncompromising nature. The fact is, that Beddoes wrote from the head, collectively, and without emotion, or without inspiration, save in literature. All Beddoes' characters speak precisely the same language, express the same desires; all in the same way startle us by their ghostly remoteness from flesh and blood. 'Man is tired of being merely human,' Siegfried says, in Death's Jest-Book, and Beddoes may be said to have grown tired of humanity before he ever came to understand it.
Looked at from the normal standpoint, Beddoes' idea of the drama was something wildly amateurish. As a practical playwright he would be beneath contempt; but what he aimed at was something peculiar to himself, a sort of spectral dramatic fantasia. He would have admitted his obligations to Webster and Tourneur, to all the macabre Elizabethan work; he would have admitted that his foundations were based on literature, not on life; but he would have claimed, and claimed justly, that he had produced, out of many strange elements, something which has a place apart in English poetry. Death's Jest-Book is perhaps the most morbid poem in our literature. There is not a page without its sad, grotesque, gay, or abhorrent imagery of the tomb. A slave cannot say that a lady is asleep without turning it into a parable of death:
Sleeping, or feigning sleep,
Well done of her: 'tis trying on a garb
Which she must wear, sooner or later, long:
'Tis but a warmer, lighter death.
Not Baudelaire was more amorous of corruption; not Poe was more spellbound by the scent of graveyard earth. So Beddoes has written a new Dance of Death, in poetry; has become the chronicler of the praise and ridicule of Death. 'Tired of being merely human,' he has peopled a play with confessed phantoms. It is natural that these eloquent speakers should pass us by with their words, that they should fail to move us by their sorrows or their hates: they are not intended to be human, except, indeed, in the wizard humanity of Death.
I have said already that the genius of Beddoes is not dramatic, but lyrical. What was really most spontaneous in him (nothing was quite spontaneous) was the impulse of song-writing. And it seems to me that he is really most successful in sweet and graceful lyrics like this Dirge, so much more than 'half in love with easeful death.'
If thou wilt ease thine heart
Of love and all its smart,
Then sleep, dear, sleep;
And not a sorrow
Hang any tear on your eyelashes;
Lie still and deep,
Sad soul, until the sea-wave washes
The rim o' the sun to-morrow,
In eastern sky.
But wilt thou cure thine heart
Of love and all its smart,
Then die, dear, die;
'Tis deeper, sweeter,
Than on a rose-bank to lie dreaming
With folded eye;
And then alone, amid the beaming
Of love's stars, thou'lt meet her
In eastern sky.
A beautiful lyrist, a writer of charming, morbid, and magnificent poetry in dramatic form, Beddoes will survive to students, not to readers, of English poetry, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Ebenezer Jones and Charles Wells. Charles Wells was certainly more of a dramatist, a writer of more sustained and Shakespearean blank verse; Ebenezer Jones had certainly a more personal passion to express in his rough and tumultuous way; but Beddoes, not less certainly, had more of actual poetical genius than either. And in the end only one thing counts: actual poetical genius.