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Thomas Lovell Beddoes Biography | Poet

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Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849), English dramatist and poet, son of the physician, Thomas Beddoes, was born at Clifton on the 20th of July 1803. His mother was a sister of Maria Edgeworth, the novelist. He was sent to Bath grammar school and then to the Charterhouse. At school he wrote a good deal of verse and a novel in imitation of Fielding. In 1820 he was entered at Pembroke College, Oxford, and in his first year published The Improvisatore, afterwards carefully suppressed, and in 1822 The Bride’s Tragedy, which showed him as the disciple of the later Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists. The play found a small circle of admirers, and procured for Beddoes the friendship of Bryan Waller Procter (Barry Cornwall). Beddoes retired to Southampton to read for his degree, and there Procter introduced him to a young lawyer, Thomas Forbes Kelsall, with whom he became very intimate, and who became his biographer and editor. At this time he composed the dramatic fragments of The Second Brother and Torrismond. Unfortunately he lacked the power of constructing a plot, and seemed to suffer from a constitutional inability to finish anything. Beddoes was one of the first outside the limited circle of Shelley’s own friends to recognize Shelley’s genius, and he was certainly one of the earliest imitators of his lyrical method. In the summer of 1824 he was summoned to Florence by the illness of his mother, but she died before he arrived. He remained some time in Italy, and met Mrs Shelley and Walter Savage Landor before he returned to England. In 1825 he took his degree at Oxford, and in that year he began what he calls (Letters, p. 68) “a very Gothic styled tragedy” with “a jewel of a name.” This work was completed in 1829 as the fantastic and incoherent drama, Death’s Jest Book or The Fool’s Tragedy; but he continued to revise it until his death, and it was only published posthumously. On leaving Oxford he decided to study anatomy and physiology, not, however, without some hope that his studies might, by increasing his knowledge of the human mechanism, further his efforts as a dramatist. In the autumn of 1825 he entered on his studies at Göttingen, where he remained for four years. In 1829 he removed to Würzburg, and in 1832 obtained his doctorate in medicine, but his intimate association with democratic and republican leaders in Germany and Switzerland forced him to leave Bavaria without receiving his diploma. He settled in Zürich, where he practised for some time as a physician, and was even elected to be professor of comparative anatomy at the university, but the authorities refused to ratify his appointment because of his revolutionary views. He frequently contributed political poems and articles to German and Swiss papers, but none of his German work has been identified. The years at Zürich seem to have been the happiest of his life, but in 1839 the anti-liberal riots in the town rendered it unsafe for him, and early in the next year he had to escape secretly. From this time he had no settled home, though he stored his books at Baden in Aargau. His long residence in Germany was only broken by visits to England in 1828 to take his master of arts degree, in 1835, in 1842 and for some months in 1846. He had adopted German thought and manners to such an extent that he hardly felt at home in England; and his study of the German language, which he had begun in 1825, had almost weaned him from his mother-tongue; he was, as he says in a letter, “a non-conductor of friendship”; and it is not surprising that his old friends found him much changed and eccentric. In 1847 he returned to Frankfort, where he lived with a baker called Degen, to whom he became much attached, and whom he persuaded to become an actor. He took Degen with him to Zürich, where he chartered the theatre for one night to give his friend a chance of playing Hotspur. The two separated at Basel, and in a fit of dejection (May 1848) Beddoes tried to bleed himself to death. He was taken to the hospital, and wrote to his friends in England that he had had a fall from horseback. His leg was amputated, and he was in a fair way to recovery when, on the first day he was allowed to leave the hospital, he took curare, from the effects of which he died on the 26th of January 1849. His MSS. he left in the charge of his friend Kelsall.

In one of his letters to Kelsall Beddoes wrote:—“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. Such ghosts as Marloe, Webster, &c., are better dramatists, better poets, I dare say, than any contemporaries of ours—but they are ghosts—the worm is in their pages” (Letters, p. 50). In spite of this wise judgment, Beddoes was himself a “creeper into worm-holes,” a close imitator of Marston and of Cyril Tourneur, especially in their familiar handling of the phenomena of death, and in the remoteness from ordinary life of the passions portrayed. In his blank verse he caught to a certain degree the manner of his Jacobean models, and his verse abounds in beautiful imagery, but his Death’s Jest Book is only finished in the sense of having five acts completed; it remains a bizarre 615production which appeals to few minds, and to them rather for the occasional excellence of the poetry than as an entire composition. His lyrics show the influence of Shelley as well as the study of 17th-century models, but they are by no means mere imitations, and some of them, like the “Dirge for Wolfram” (“If thou wilt ease thy heart”), and “Dream Pedlary” (“If there were dreams to sell”), are among the most exquisite of 19th-century lyrics.

Kelsall published Beddoes’ great work, Death’s Jest Book: or, The Fool’s Tragedy, in 1850. The drama is based on the story that a certain Duke Boleslaus of Münsterberg was stabbed by his court-fool, the “Isbrand” of the play (see C.F. Floegel, Geschichte der Hofnarren, Leipzig, 1789, pp. 297 et seq.). He followed this in 1851 with Poems of the late Thomas Lovell Beddoes, to which a memoir was prefixed. The two volumes were printed together (1851) with the title of Poems, Posthumous and Collected. All these volumes are very rare. Kelsall bequeathed the Beddoes MSS. to Robert Browning, with a note stating the real history of Beddoes’ illness and death, which was kept back out of consideration for his relatives. Browning is reported to have said that if he were ever Professor of Poetry his first lecture would be on Beddoes, “a forgotten Oxford poet.” Mr Edmund Gosse obtained permission to use the documents from Browning, and edited a fuller selection of the Poetical Works (2 vols., 1890) for the “Temple Library,” supplying a full account of his life. He also edited the Letters of Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1894), containing a selection from his correspondence, which is full of gaiety and contains much amusing literary criticism. See also the edition of Beddoes by Ramsay Colles in the “Muses’ Library” (1906).

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