The Poetry of Beddoes
THE POETRY OF BEDDOES BY DR. MICHAEL BRADSHAW
Thread the nerves through the right holes,
Get out of my bones, you wormy souls.
Shut up my stomach, the ribs are full:
Muscles be steady and ready to pull.
Heart and artery merrily shake
And eyelid go up, for we’re going to wake.—
His eye must be brighter—one more rub!
And pull up the nostrils! his nose was snub.
This weird little poem is called ‘Resurrection Song’. Beddoes is often remembered as the poet of ‘Dream Pedlary’, which certainly makes an attractive anthology piece. But if we were to choose a single poem to represent his achievement, ‘Resurrection Song’ would be more challenging and a better reflection of his style. This is an extraordinary poem—brief, brilliant, and brutally comic. Once read, impossible to forget. The fashionably macabre theme is rendered with an anatomical detachment which recalls the laboratory of Victor Frankenstein, and yet the business of resurrection is also treated as slapstick farce. Neither the corpse nor the surgeon seem to know what they’re doing, and their incompetence is spun into a frivolous ditty which leaves the imagined reader helpless with laughter.
Beddoes wrote ‘Resurrection Song’ in Germany between 1825 and 1828 for inclusion in his satirical tragedy Death’s Jest-Book. The character Wolfram has been murdered in the first act, and here in Act III a necromantic spell is about to raise him from the dead. But by this point Beddoes had layered the complicated scene with so much irony that he seems to have felt the song was excessive, and ran the risk of dispelling all seriousness completely. So he cancelled it, and consigned it to the margins of Death’s Jest-Book as a fragment. Its stranded status is now one of its fascinations; as postmodern readers, we are consistently drawn to ‘illegitimate’ material that has been suppressed, rejected or erased.
Beddoes’s comic style is so effortless that it’s easy to overlook just how extreme a statement the poem makes. To begin with, its placement in time: these lines dramatise in banal, everyday terms what is either a religious miracle or a story out of science fiction (depending on your point of view)—the moment when a corpse is brought back to life. The speakers are at the very borderline between death and life. This raises all kinds of problems: for example, does the poem participate in any religious orthodoxy, and if so, why is it so harshly irreverent? Isn’t resurrection supposed to happen at the end of time?—and in that case, this is a conversation we could never overhear. The song is all about the moment of transformation, and yet seems scornful of the miracle it describes. It is therefore both highly theatrical, and cynically destructive of the theatrical illusion. For all its charm, one begins to see why Beddoes may have considered it troublesome, and removed it from his already over-full drama.
‘Resurrection Song’ is also a good introduction to the intricacy of Beddoes’s verse, with its relish of physical detail. For example, within the rattling rhythm of the couplets, there are internal rhymes and other sound effects; the echoing assonance of ‘bones and ‘souls’ (l. 2), the rhymes of ‘steady’ and ‘ready’ (l. 4) and ‘Heart and artery’ (l. 5), the repetition of ‘eye’, parallel in adjacent lines. This accumulation of detail suggests the intricacy of mechanism, as the human body is patched up in readiness for its new life. A botched repair-job by rude mechanicals.
‘Resurrection Song’ therefore holds in miniature a wealth of Beddoes’s eccentric gifts as the most criminally neglected writer of the British Romantic era. It has a provocative mixture of theological and anti-religious content. Despite its absurd burlesque tone, it speculates about human life, and searches for proof of an after-existence. Both the gross bodily detail, and the anatomist’s love of precision come direct from the dissecting rooms and Beddoes’s medical training at the University of Göttingen, where he boasted of his expertise with the scalpel. Its stranded status in the margins of that great dramatic shambles Death’s Jest-Book is characteristic of Beddoes’s habit of hitting upon his most intense images in fragments and miscellaneous pieces, free from the discipline of formal design, plot and characterisation. The poem is powerfully physical, but also undeniably metaphysical; a whole poem, but also a broken fragment of verse; tragic and farcical. It belongs in the pastiche sixteenth-century theatre, and equally in the operating theatre of nineteenth-century medicine. In all its tense contradictions, it is so much more powerfully true to Beddoes than the smooth and gorgeous lyric for which he is best remembered.
Thomas Lovell Beddoes had a strange career as a poet in his lifetime. His posthumous career has also been strange.
Beddoes’s first publication was The Improvisatore (1821), a wild and hysterically macabre triptych of narrative poems, in which the undergraduate writer drew heavily on the fashionable Gothic styles of ‘Monk’ Lewis and the ‘Terror School’. The Improvisatore is for the committed Goth only. Embarrassed by its excesses, Beddoes later (but not much later) hunted down every copy he could find in friends’ houses and, with typical ruthlessness, hacked all the pages out of the covers.
The Brides’ Tragedy (1822) was different, altogether more mature and original. As well as holding in inchoate form much of Beddoes’s developing themes, the tragedy can still be read as a brilliant study in psychic disintegration, and the anxious limitations of the Romantic theatre. It elaborates in the Elizabethan style on a tale Beddoes had gleaned at Oxford, of a young man who had married in secret, and then murdered his bride in favour of another. The death-obsessed protagonist Hesperus is Beddoes’s first substantial dramatic creation, and has some fine speeches which echo Shakespeare and his contemporaries with clever authorial irony.
Said by the critic Ian Jack to have been ‘a man of genius who wrote nothing that is commonly remembered’, Beddoes was in part the victim of this precocious early success. The publication of The Brides’ Tragedy in November 1822, when Beddoes was all of nineteen years old, was a great hit with the reviewers; but even before the notices appeared (mostly in 1823), he knew he had written something impressive. Excited by the prospect of poetic fame, Beddoes spent the next few months energetically drafting two new dramas, which, although fertile in startling images and fine verse, failed to reach satisfactory completion. The Last Man and Love’s Arrow Poisoned (both 1823), which now exist only as collages of blank verse fragments, both date from a busy summer staying with his friend Kelsall in Southampton. They were followed fast by Torrismond and The Second Brother (both 1824), in which Beddoes shows his strengthening grasp of design and character, but which also failed to reach the point of closure.
The summer of 1825 was a turning point in Beddoes’s life and in his writing. When he left England to pursue his medical studies in Germany, nothing would be the same again. From this date his writing in verse and prose gained depth, rigour and sophistication, advancing rapidly from the dazzle and ostentation of his early work. But the move to continental Europe also signalled what was to be a decisive break with the poetic and publishing world of London, and an increasingly ironic distance from all things English. Geographically, intellectually and culturally, Beddoes always found it hard to go back. The early texts of Death’s Jest-Book, which he began in Göttingen in the summer of 1825, show the influence of his new anatomical and scientific studies, which deepen and complicate what had been merely macabre. The Jest-Book was ambitiously planned and meditated; at first intended as a satirical destruction of the power of death, this strange and heterodox drama (and especially its grim anti-hero Isbrand) quickly took on a life of its own and began to point instead to the defeat of the poet’s own hubris. The plot concerns two warring brothers (a favourite structural device of Beddoes) who have sworn revenge on a corrupt duke for the death of their father. They quarrel when Wolfram recants and expresses the wish to forgive their enemy, Isbrand remaining implacable in hate. Wolfram is killed by the duke, and there follows the scene necromancy from which Beddoes suppressed the ‘Resurrection Song’. The drama ends with succeeding revolutions, in which Beddoes makes a powerful equivalence between immortality as a revolt against death’s dominion and the libertarian revolutions that shook Europe in his lifetime.
The first text of Death’s Jest-Book was completed in fair copy by the end of 1828. But Beddoes was to revise it on and off until his suicide in Switzerland twenty years later. Negative response from his friends Procter and Bourne in 1829 persuaded Beddoes to delay publication, a fatal decision which resulted in two decades of revision and expansion of the text, and deep misgivings about his powers as a poet (including at least one suicide attempt). But by this time Beddoes’s immersion in German literature had introduced him to the concept of ‘Romantic irony’, which some have viewed as the artistic salvation of Death’s Jest-Book. The German ironists provided a model for Beddoes’s increasingly diffuse redrafting of his drama, in which he gradually distances himself from the naïve ambitions of the work’s inception, and moves towards a more patient and elegiac meditation of death. The later versions of the Jest-Book from the 1830s and ’40s are ‘prodigal of lyrics’—full to bursting with delicate but sinister songs about seductive death, finely balanced against their dramatic context to perform a sceptical commentary on the thundering blank verse of Isbrand.
The other major undertaking of Beddoes’s later years is The Ivory Gate, a collection of prose tales with lyrics and occasional verses interspersed throughout. Now existing as another loose assemblage of fragments, The Ivory Gate provides intriguing glimpses into the softening and growing melancholy of the once furious and ribald verse of the anatomist-poet.
Many of Beddoes’s manuscripts have been irrecoverably lost. At his death in 1849, he bequeathed a strange body of work to Kelsall, writing with apparent nonchalance that his friend must ‘print or not as he thinks fit’. Kelsall published Death’s Jest-Book in 1850, and the Poems Posthumous and Collected the following year, in which he included a memoir of Beddoes’s life. Robert Browning’s enthusiasm for Beddoes led Kelsall to bequeathe him a large collection of autographs, in the hope that the Browning might one day produce a definitive edition, advancing Beddoes’s cause with the august imprint of his own name. It was not to be. The so-called ‘Browning Box’ of manuscripts ended up in the possession of ‘Pen’, Robert Browning’s son, and the rest is literary anecdote; the papers disappeared on Pen’s death after a fire in his disreputable Italian castle. The result of this strange chain of events is that once-substantial works such as The Last Man now amount to little more than an apparently random collection
of fragments. It has tantalised generations of readers and admirers of the poet to think how much material has been lost. The poet of fragments and patched up corpses leaves us a suitably ruined legacy, in which the reader will always have a certain freedom to imagine what might have been.
In a lifetime of writing about ghosts and graves and resurrections, Beddoes must have produced any number of epitaphs for himself. The following poem makes an appropriately supernatural and ironic conclusion. Written for the expanded first act of Death’s Jest-Book, it commemorates the death of Wolfram, and sends a sinister warning to his murderer that debts may be paid from beyond the grave.
Voices in the air
As sudden thunder
As magic wonder,
Our ghost, our corpse and we
Rise to be.
As flies the lizard
As goblin vizard,
At the spell
Of pale wizard,
Sinks to hell:
Our life, our laugh, our lay
As wake the morning
As snowdrop, scorning
Like a sprite:
We buried, dead, and slain