Criticism

A Strayed Singer by Kate Hillard was published in 1873.

The Poetry of Beddoes by Dr. Michael Bradshaw provides a contemporary view.

For experimental criticism of Death’s Jest-Book, see Alan Halsey’s The Ghost of a Skeleton Key. It is a revision of the second part of his An Anatomy of ‘Death’s Jest-Book.’ A revision of the first part of Anatomy is available in his collection Marginalien (Five Seasons Press 2005).

The following are excerpts from 19th century criticism.

On Beddoes and his work in general:

THOMAS FORBES KELSALL, 1851
“How stately or enduring a monument he may, by the earnest cultivators of English poetic literature, be deemed to have himself erected in his works, this is not perhaps the fitting place in which to venture a prediction. In his life time, he may certainly be said to have strangely missed his fame: the most golden bough of ‘the everlasting singing-tree,’–the laudarier a laudatis,–as posthumous events have shown, lay already within his reach, would he but have stretched his hands to gather it. But even the full and open requital of these his actual, though hidden, claims of distinction, would still have left, for those who best knew that creative mind in all its undeveloped power, the larger portion of their Hope unsatisfied.” (The Poems Posthumous and Collected of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, “Memoir,” vol. I, p. cxvi)

J.H. GRAHAM, 1871
“His later dramatic compositions and fragments, though showing a certain vigorous and passionate thought have an increasing tendency to exaggeration and extravagance, and are hardly amenable to the ordinary rules of criticism.” (An Historical View of Literature and Art in Great Britain, p. 191)

BRYAN WALLER PROCTER, 1874?
“Beddoes in person and otherwise was not unlike Keats. Both were short in stature, and independent in manner, and very brief and decided in conversation. Beddoes was too fond of objecting and carping, when the merits of any modern books came into discussion. Not that he was at all vain or envious himself, but he was at all times unwilling to yield homage to any poets, except Shelley and Keats and Wordsworth. Of these Shelley was undoubtedly his favorite. Like that great poet, Beddoes had much love for philosophical questions, although the poetical element was predominant in him.” (Recollections of Men of Letters)

THOMAS SPENCER BAYNES, 1877
“Beddoes is a poet for poets, and few other readers will enjoy him. He is ‘of imagination all compact;’ his works scarcely contain a single passage of purely subjective feeling. He is, perhaps, the most concrete poet of his day; the most disposed to express sentiment by imagery and material symbolism. In this he resembles Keats, and may be termed a Gothic Keats, the Teutonic counterpart of his more celebrated contemporary’s Hellenism. The spirit of Gothic architecture seems to live in his verse, its grandeur and grotesqueness, its mystery and its gloom. His relation to the Elizabethan dramatists, moreover, is nearly the same as that of Keats to the Elizabethan pastoral poets; but the resemblance is one of innate temperament; he borrowed nothing, either from his Elizabethan precursors or the chief objects of his admiration among his contemporaries, Keats and Shelley. The want of constructive power which mars his dramas is even more prejudicial to his lyrics; but some few songs, where the right key note has been struck from the first, rank among the most perfect in our language.” (Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth ed., vol. III, p. 415)

AMELIA B. EDWARDS, 1878
“Beddoes was, so to say, saturated with the spirit of the Elizabethan Dramatists, and cast his poetry for the most part into Elizabethan forms.” (A Poetry-Book, Second Series, “The Modern Poets,” p. 322, note)

HENRY WOOD, 1883
“Buffon said, ‘Show me the style and I’ll show you the man’ [le style est de l’homme même]. Puttenham (Arte of English Poesie, 1589, p. 161) wrote with equal justice: ‘his [man’s] inward conceits be the metall of his minde, and his manner of utterance the very warp and woofe of his conceits;’ or, in other words, ‘show me the man, and I’ll show you his style.’ Beddoes’ Poems and Letters are one more welcome illustration of the truth of Buffon’s observation; but, in a far higher sense, of Puttenham’s. Here the style is the direct, necessary expression of the writer’s inmost nature. Since he was in the highest degree original, the fact has a significance, in matters of English style, far deeper than has been attributed to it…If we class the characteristic works in English literature with reference to the history of style into three periods, the Anglo-Saxon epic style and Shakspeare represent two of them. The third has no complete representative, but among its most significant writers (style being here assumed to have little more to do with constructive power than in the case of the Anglo-Saxon poets) is Thomas Lovell Beddoes. Beddoes’ intimate connection with Shakspeare in point, thought and style, is so marked that he has been called an Elizabethan, ‘a strayed singer,’ and the like.” (“T. L. Beddoes, A Survival in Style,” American Journal of Philology, vol. 4, pp. 445, 446)

AGNES REPPLIER, 1891
“The quality of youth is still more distinctly discernible in some of Thomas Beddoes’ dazzling little songs, stolen straight from the heart of the sixteenth century, and lustrous with that golden light which set so long ago. It is not in spirit only, nor in sentiment, that this resemblance exists; the words, the imagery, the swaying music, the teeming fancies of the younger poet, mark him as one strayed from another age, and wandering companionless under alien skies.” (English Love-Songs, “Points of View,” p. 60)

ARTHUR SYMONS, 1891
“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…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…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 neighborhood of Ebenezer Jones and Charles Wells.” (“The Poetical Works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes,” The Academy, vol. 40, p. 129)

RICHARD HENRY STODDARD, 1892
“No nineteenth century English poet with whom I am acquainted, ever promised more and performed less than Thomas Lovell Beddoes, whose verse, like his life, was a wayward fragment…There were the makings of a greater poet in Beddoes than he ever became, except at intervals, and in his most inspired moments; and the poet that he might have been, if fully developed, is of a kind that English poetry has long since outgrown. He belonged to the same guild of dramatists as Marlowe, Tourneur, and Webster, but where they were masters, he was an apprentice. There were the same dark elements in his genius as in theirs, but they were more confused and tumultuous, more chaotic than creative, and more horrible than terrible.” (Under the Evening Lamp, pp, 200, 210)

RICHARD GARNETT, 1894
“In all strictly poetical endowments he is most affluent, it is only when he of necessity forsakes the realm of pure poetry that he becomes awkward and ineffectual. He had chosen the drama for his special field—-unwisely it might have been said, had his overmastering enthusiasm for the Elizabethan stage allowed him any alternative…He is, however, much more than a writer of exquisite fragments, for his beauties, isolated and disjointed in themselves, are yet inspired with a continuity of feeling, and taken altogether, and especially when read in connection with his letters, form a kind of autobiographic poem, a comment on a character of striking originality and interest. The physiologist and psychologist may learn much from the only English poet whose mind has been deeply tinged by a medical training: but he is especially a poet for poets, readers who can prize the massy ore of poetry, even when it has failed to receive the stamp of artistic finish. Pure ore it is at least: after Shelley and Keats no poet is freer from admixture with inferior matter. Things invariably present themselves to him under their most picturesque and imaginative aspects, and it would be hard to bring him in guilty of a single commonplace. As a lyrical writer he is curiously unequal; some of his pieces are formless and tuneless; while others have placed him among the best lyrists in the language.” (The Poets and the Poetry of the Century, John Keats to Lord Lytton, ed. Miles, p.522)

GEORGE SAINTSBURY, 1896
“Except Donne, there is perhaps no English poet more difficult to write about, so as to preserve the due pitch of enthusiasm on the one hand and criticism on the other, than Thomas Lovell Beddoes…Beddoes has sometimes been treated as a mainly bookish poet deriving from the Elizabethans and Shelley. I cannot agree with this. His very earliest work, written when he could not know much either of Shelley or Keats, shows as they do technique perhaps caught from Leigh Hunt. But this is quite dropped later; and his Elizabethanism is not imitation but inspiration. In this inspiration he does not follow but shares with, his greater contemporaries. He is a younger and tragic counterpart to Charles Lamb in the intensity with which he has imbibed the Elizabethan spirit, rather from the nightshade of Webster and Tourneur than from the vine of Shakespeare. As wholes, his works are naught, or naught but nightmares; though ‘Death’s Jest-Book,’ despite its infinite disadvantages from constant rewriting and uncertainty of final form, has a strong grasp. But they contain passages, especially lyrics, of the most exquisite fancy and music, such as since the seventeenth century none but Blake and Coleridge had given…The author of such things as the ‘Dirge for Wolfram’ (‘If thou wilt ease thine heart’) in ‘Death’s Jest-Book,’ and the stanza beginning ‘Dream-Pedlary,’ ‘If there were dreams to sell,’ with not a few others of the same kind, attains to that small and disputed–but not to those who have thought out the nature of poetry disputable–class of poets who, including Sappho, Catullus, some mediæval hymn-writers, and a few moderns, especially Coleridge, have, by virtue of fragments only, attained a higher position than many authors of large, substantive, and important poems.” (A History of Nineteenth Century Literature, pp. 114, 115)

On The Brides’ Tragedy:

GEORGE DARLEY, 1822
“However, here is Minor Beddoes, born in the very zenith of this mock sun of poetry, while it is culminating in the mid-heaven of our literary hemisphere, shining in watery splendor, the gaze and gape of our foolish-faced, fat-headed nation; here is Minor Beddoes, I say, born amid the very rage and triumph of the Byronian heresy–nay, in a preface more remarkable for good nature than good sense, eulogizing some of the prose-poets–yet what does Minor Beddoes? Why, writing a tragedy himself, with a judgment far different from that exhibited in his own panegyrical preface, he totally rejects, and therewith tactly condemns and abjures, the use of prose-poetry. But it was not the boy’s judgment that led him to this; it was his undepraved ear, and his native energy of mind, teaching him to respue this effeminate style of versification. ‘The Bride’s [sic] Tragedy’ transcends, in the quality of its rhythm and metrical harmony, ‘The Doge of Venice,’ and ‘Mirandola,’ just as much as it does ‘Fazio,’ and the other dramas which conform to the rules of genuine English heroic verse in the energy of its language, the power of its sentiments, and the boldness of its imagery–that is incalculably.” (“Letters to the Dramatists of the Day,” London Magazine)

On Death’s Jest-Book:

JOHN FORSTER, 1850
“We must frankly say, in conclusion, that we are not acquainted with any living author who could have written the ‘Fool’s Tragedy.’” (The Literary Examiner, July 20)

WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR, 1850
“Nearly two centuries have elapsed since a work of the same wealth of genius as ‘Death’s Jest Book’ hath been given to the world.” (“Letter to John Forster,” Walter Savage Landor, A Biography)

ROBERT BROWNING, 1872
“Now as to the extracts which might be made: why, you might pick out scenes, passages, lyrics, fine as fine can be: the power of the man is immense and irresistible.” (“To Thomas Forbes Kelsall,” Fortnightly Review, vol. 18, p. 52, note)

THOMAS FORBES KELSALL, 1872
“So ends this singular drama,–singular in its plot, its characters, its accessories, and, above all, singular in the felicities and vigour of its composition. It may not be a suitable pillow for the head that would court only placid dreams, but those who turn habitually to poetry as ‘chief nourisher in life’s feast’ of some of their noblest faculties, will find such congenial aliment in the imaginative thoughts that crowd this little volume.” (“Thomas Lovell Beddoes,” Fortnightly Review, vol. 18, p. 75)

HENRY MORLEY, 1878
“In…1850 appeared as a posthumous work, a wild play, musical throughout, with grand echoes of Elizabethan thought and passion, the ‘Death’s Jest Book’ of Thomas Lovell Beddoes.” (English Plays, p. 434)

MARGARET O.W. OLIPHANT, 1892
“A painful but powerful tragedy, in which the poet endeavoured, as much as a man of the nineteenth century can, to throw himself into the atmosphere of the pre-Shakespearian tragedians.” (The Victorian Age of English Literature, vol. I, p.243)

RICHARD HENRY STODDARD, 1892
“‘Death’s Jest Book’ is a nightmare rather than a drama, and should be judged, if one must judge it, for what it is, not for what it might be, or should be. A law unto himself, Beddoes is the most lawless of poets. The scenes of his tragedies are laid in the land of Nowhere, and the actors therein, if not wholly mad, are certainly not sane. They live, move, and have their being in a borderland between the worlds of life and death. The prey of spasmodic emotion and unnatural passion, there is no telling what they will say or do in their fits of delirium, which are as unaccountable as violent. The specialty of the elder Beddoes was the analysis of disease; the specialty of his son was the exhibition of disease in the actors of his gloomy masquerades.” (Under the Evening Lamp, p. 211)