Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay


BEDDOES, THOMAS LOVELL (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 production 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).

[contributor not given]

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

BEDDOES, Thomas Lovell (1803–1849) by Michael Bradshaw

As I was newly dead, and sat beside
My corpse, looking on it, as one who muses
Gazing upon a house he was burnt out of,
There came some merry children’s ghosts to play
At hide-and-seek in my old body’s corners. . .
(Death’s Jest-Book, V, iv, 198-202)

The first thing readers notice about Thomas Lovell Beddoes is that he is much possessed by death. Gradually, if they read on, they find that he is funny and satirical, literate and intertextual, dramatic and lyrical. Beddoes’ signature work, the supernatural tragedy Death’s Jest-Book (begun 1825; posthumously published 1850), overflows with subversive innovation. Its blank verse, lyrics, and Shakespearean prose seethe with ideas. Using the revenge genre as a vehicle for revolutionary thought, the Jest-Book has been a unique provocation for generations of readers and scholars.

Thomas Lovell Beddoes
Thomas Lovell Beddoes, © Pembroke College, Oxford Original image

Until around the 1990s, Beddoes remained an elusive presence on the borders of British Romanticism. Occasional evaluations of his work would cite the admiration of famous names, such as Robert Browning, Ezra Pound, Christopher Ricks, and John Ashbery, but then have to acknowledge that Beddoes was still neglected, if not entirely minor. In 2023, happily, he is widely studied and taught—no apologetic preamble needed.

In terms of subjects, there have been two key moments of change in the biographical study of Beddoes: suicide and sexuality.

The first turning-point had already happened when the original entry in Britannica XI was published in 1910-1911—the acknowledgement of Beddoes’ suicide by poisoning in Basel in 1849. Beddoes’ friend and literary executor Thomas Forbes Kelsall had written an early memoir of the poet in 1851, offering a fictitious account of his death due to an infection gained from morbid dissection, and the smokescreen story of a riding accident, which Beddoes himself had put out. In fact, the amputation of his gangrenous leg was the result of himself deliberately opening an artery. Kelsall leaves the story politely veiled out of sensitivity to Beddoes’ living relatives. Edmund Gosse became Beddoes’ next editor, and is credited with the discovery that Beddoes did die by his own hand. Yet in the Dictionary of National Biography of 1885, Gosse politely allows the reader to look away from this truth: This is the version which he wished to circulate, and this may be accepted in silence. Published in 1911, therefore, the Britannia entry is already clear on the question of Beddoes’ demise; Gosse is, by the way, the literary editor of Britannica XI, and he may have had something to with the Beddoes entry. And in fact, this short biographical note is pretty good, a useful overview of the major events, publications, and themes. There is, however, one strange error—the claim that Beddoes wrote a novel in imitation of Fielding, which may be a garbled reference to Scaroni, a juvenile Gothic romance from 1818, more in the style of Matthew Monk Lewis.

The other key event in Beddoes’ biography is the overt acceptance of his sexuality. The Britannica entry, typical of its time, alludes coyly to close male friendships: he lived with a baker called Degen, to whom he became much attached. The circumstantial evidence had long been there for any who cared to see it—Beddoes’ solitary lifestyle, his self-imposed exile from the cant and moralism of England, his difficult relationship with the wife of his best friend Kelsall. And then there was the poetry, with its curiously bloodless representation of women characters and displaced eroticism of death: Sweet and sweet is their poisoned note, / The little snakes of silver throat, / In mossy skulls that nest and lie, / Ever singing, ‘Die, oh! Die’ (The Phantom Wooer). In the early twenty-first century, a number of scholars (e.g., Ute Berns, Frederick Burwick, Shelley Rees) have not only assumed that Beddoes was a gay man who had relationships with men, but have also made this an intrinsic factor in the interpretation of his work.

Beddoes’ reputation has been enlivened by the application of many new contexts—historical, literary, and critical. New generations of scholars have found in Beddoes’ work, especially Death’s Jest-Book, fascinating case studies for the exploration of Romantic-era themes: medical history, theatre and performance, queer sexualities, revolutionary politics, travel and expatriation, and the transition to the new literary cultures of the mid-nineteenth century.

Beddoes seems to have been crushed by his friends’ lukewarm response to the first version of Death’s Jest-Book, which he sent from Germany in 1828. It is a strong flavour, certainly. The writer of the Britannica entry is still struggling with its provocative eccentricity: the drama remains a bizarre production which appeals to few minds, and to them rather for the occasional excellence of the poetry than as an entire composition. In 1911 it was regarded as a fault for a writer to exhibit a constitutional inability to finish anything. A century later, and critics actively delight in the broken, unfinished exuberance of Death’s Jest-Book. Contingency and fragmentation are theorised and highly acceptable attributes for a literary text; this has helped to liberate Beddoes from unappreciative Victorian taste, finding kinship with Modernist and postmodern allies.

The Britannia XI note could only reflect on early editions of Beddoes—Thomas Forbes Kelsall (1850-51), Gosse (1890), and Ramsay Colles (1907). It was not until 1935 that H.W. Donner published his magisterial edition of The Works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, and gave the world a variorum edition of Death’s Jest-Book, helping us to see it not as a frustrating unruly mess which might have been something better, but as a spectrum of possibilities. The literary world may yet be ready for him.

Selected post-2000 criticism:

  • Allard, James Robert, Romanticism, Medicine, and the Poet’s Body (London: Routledge, 2016).
  • Berns, Ute, Science, Politics, and Friendship in the Works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes (Newark MD: University of Delaware Press, 2012).
  • Berns, Ute and Michael Bradshaw, eds, The Ashgate Research Companion to Thomas Lovell Beddoes (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2007).
  • Bradshaw, Michael, Resurrection Songs: The Poetry of Thomas Lovell Beddoes (Aldershot and Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2001).
  • Bradshaw, Michael, Romantic Generations, Chapter 10 of The Oxford Handbook of British Romanticism, ed. by David Duff (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2018), pp. 157-72.
  • Halsey, Alan, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, new Dictionary of National Biography entry (2004):
  • Pladek, Brittany, The Poetics of Palliation: Romantic Literary Therapy, 1790–1850 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019).
  • Stewart, David, The Form of Poetry in the 1820s and 1830s: A Period of Doubt (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
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