A Strayed Singer

Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science 12 (November 1873): 550-557

Most of us know what a pathos is mixed with the sweet surprise of meeting a beautiful thing in strange and inferior surroundings, in circumstances that suggest an utter incongruity between the subject and the situation, and imply an awful weight of loneliness and an intolerable lack of sympathy. The Alpine harebell on the edge of the glacier, the caged lion gazing vacantly into a wearisome monotony of idleness, the shivering little Italian fiddling about our winter streets, make the same appeal, in various measure, to this consciousness of incongruity that in another phase would stimulate our laughter instead of our tears.

As with space, so with time. It is the appreciation of the discord between the subject and its surroundings that awakens our sympathy for men “born out of their time,” as we express it with an arrogance of wiser judgment. In every period of history, affronting the great averages of intellectual development, appear certain minds classified at once as being either before or behind their age. To the first class belong the great reformers, discoverers, inventors—men whose immense genius, concentrated upon one idea, carries them beyond their fellows, as a straight-going steamer distances a pleasure-yacht. These men we do not think of pitying, unless they come too near us, and then we call them fools or fanatics.

But there are lost children of the second class whose fate we all deplore—children of an earlier age or a summer clime, drifting about in this laborious world like helpless babes in the wood; bright-eyed, luxurious young Greeks, rebelling against pain and intolerant of toil, struggling in vain to hold their own among keen, restless Yankees; dreamy mystics, strayed from the shadows of some cloister, their vague eyes dazzled by the sun; artists of early Italy, worshiping the mediæval Madonna; poets, belonging of right to the court of Elizabeth, or companions of the wandering and disastrous fortunes of “the fairest and cruelest of princesses.”

It is of an Elizabethan poet strayed into our Victorian age that I propose to write. Few people except professed students of literature know more of Thomas Lovell Beddoes than his name. More than a year ago an article on him appeared in the Fortnightly, half biographical, half occupied with a sketch of his principal tragedy—an article doing more justice to the dramatic than to the lyric quality of his genius. But it is by his songs that his name is kept in the minds of men to-day—exquisite snatches of melody, full of the peculiar charm of that Elizabethan age to which they properly belong.

In 1851 an edition of his poems in two volumes, with a memoir and letters, was published by Pickering. The edition was small and soon exhausted, but the literary world of England was unanimous in its praise; and Landor, Browning, Proctor, and many others came out with generous tributes to the genius of that poet whose circle of listeners has always been so small. “Nearly two centuries have elapsed,” wrote Walter Savage Landor, with his hearty enthusiasm, “since a work of the same wealth of of genius as Death’s Jest-Book has been given to the world.” And Browning wrote to Mr. Kelsall, the author of the memoir: “You might pick out scenes, passages, lyrics, fine as fine can be: the power of the man is immense and irresistible.”

The two volumes contain, besides the Life and letters, two dramas, The Brides’ Tragedy and Death’s Jest-Book, two unfinished plays, Torrismond and The Second Brother, and many dramatic and poetic fragments and songs. The Life is an uneventful history, but the letters, though singularly free from egotism, bring up before us a most interesting character—a curious mixture of genius and want of faith in that genius, of energy and self-distrust, of intense devotion to practical studies and the most impractical and dreamy fancy, an affectionate nature lonely and misunderstood, a spirit of the most sturdy and uncompromising independence, a mind of keen and scientific insight—a character made up, in short, of all the warring elements of philosopher, physician, politician and poet.

Thomas Lovell Beddoes was born in Clifton in 1803, and died at Bâle in Switzerland in 1849. His mother was a sister of Maria Edgeworth, and his father a distinguished physician and an intimate friend of Sir Humphry Davy. In the father’s character we may trace the principal traits of the son: a strong scientific bent, a fondness for poetic dreams, an invincible independence, were predominant in both. The character of Lovell Beddoes’ poetry was the natural outgrowth of his early studies. His schoolfellows at the Charterhouse speak of him at the age of fourteen as already thoroughly versed in the best English literature and a close student of the dramatists, from the Elizabethan to those of his own day. He was always ready to invent and carry out any acts of insubordination, which he informed with so much wit and spirit that the very authorities were often subdued by their own irresistible laughter. It was one phase of his dramatic genius, that seemed to be constantly impelling him to get up some striking situation wherein he might pose as a youthful Ajax defying the lightnings. At Oxford his restless independence was continually prompting him to affront his tutors. He was always in opposition to the spirit of the occasion, whatever it might be.

This spirit of rebellion inspired him with an intense interest in German literature and German politics, as representing the ultra-liberal tendencies of the day. Shelley, too, the rejected of Oxford, whose name was scarcely to be mentioned to the British Philistine of the moment, was one of Beddoes’ idols, and he joined with two other gentlemen in the expense of printing the first edition of the poet’s posthumous works in 1824, afterward withdrawn by Mrs. Shelley. Byron was the popular poet then, and universal Young England was turning down its shirt-collars in a mockery of woe. But this boy of twenty, with his sturdy independence, would judge for himself, and wrote to a friend: “I saw —— (the greatest fool within the walls of my acquaintance) the other night at Oxford, repeating the whole of the Deformed in raptures. God forgive him!”

In 1821, while yet a freshman, he published a little volume of poems called The Improvisatore, of which he was soon ashamed. Long before he left Oxford he used to hunt the unfortunate volume through the libraries of his acquaintance, and cutting out all the pages leave the binding intact, a hollow mockery, upon their shelves. The next year, however, he published The Brides’ Tragedy, a drama of very great originality and power, and a most extraordinary production for a boy of nineteen. The Edinburgh Review and the London Magazine, then at the height of their power, came out with critical and highly laudatory notices by Proctor (Barry Cornwall) and George Darley, and the former was ever after one of Beddoes’ warmest personal friends. In July, 1825, he went to Göttingen, where his brilliant achievements as a student of medicine won him numerous honors. The rest of his life was spent in Germany and Switzerland, with occasional brief visits to England, but his heart was with the German radicals, and he found the united attractions of science, liberalism and Swiss scenery far more powerful than love of his native land. He threw himself with enthusiasm into the discussion of the scientific and political questions of the day, soon became a master of the language, wrote a great deal for the German newspapers, both in prose and verse, and used jestingly to call himself “a popular German poet.”

About this time he began his finest tragedy, Death’s Jest-Book, still undergoing correction and revision at the time of his death in his forty-sixth year. He was never weary of making alterations: never satisfied with the result of his labors, he tore up scene after scene, or struck out remorselessly the finest passage in a drama if he thought it inharmonious with the context. He had a theory that no man should devote himself entirely to poetry unless possessed of most extraordinary powers of imagination, or unfitted, by mental or bodily weakness, for severer scientific pursuits. The studies of the physician and the dramatist were to his mind allied by Nature, and he looked upon tragedy as the fitting and inevitable result of combined physiological and psychological researches. And he afterward declared himself determined “never to listen to any metaphysician who is not both anatomist and physiologist of the first rank.” This was in 1825, when German and French scientists were just beginning to explore the hidden mysteries of matter, and to trace its intimate and subtle connections with the mind, and when protoplasm was still an unknown quantity toward whose discovery science was slowly feeling its way.

As he penetrated deeper and deeper into the arcana of anatomy and physiology his judgment of his own poetry grew more and more severe. The more he knew of Truth, the nearer absolute perfection must that Beauty be which would compete with her for his heart. Busy with a pursuit in which his progress was marked by absolute tests that even his modesty could not disown, he shrank from trying to reach vague eminences in poetry that he judged himself unable to attain. There is something in his style that recalls Heine when he writes, “Me you may safely regard as one banished from a service to which he was not adapted, but who has still a lingering affection for the land of dreams—as yet, at least, not far enough in the journey of science to have lost sight of the old two-topped hill.” And again: “I am essentially unpoetical in character, habits and ways of thinking; and nothing but the desperate hanker for distinction so common to the young gentlemen at the university ever set me upon rhyming. If I had possessed the conviction that I could by any means become an important or great dramatic writer, I would have never swerved from the path to reputation; but seeing that others who had devoted their lives to literature, such as Coleridge and Wordsworth—men beyond a question of far higher originality and incomparably superior poetical feeling and genius—had done so little, you must give me leave to persevere in my preference of Apollo’s pill-box to his lyre, and should congratulate me on having chosen Göttingen instead of Grub street for my abode…It is good to be tolerable or intolerable in any other line, but Apollo defend us from brewing all our lives at a quintessential pot of the smallest ale Parnassian!”

There are so many racy bits of anecdote and opinion scattered through this correspondence, so many things worth keeping for their own sakes or as throwing new light upon the character of their writer, that it is hard to choose a single specimen, but with one more extract we must strive to be content. Beddoes’ friend and editor had been trying to get from him some personal details about his daily life, pursuits and fancies, which, with his usual horror of the egotistical, he flatly declined to give. “I will not venture on a psychological self-portraiture,” he writes, “fearing—and I believe with sufficient reason—to be betrayed into affectation, dissimulation or some other alluring shape of lying. I believe that all autobiographical sketches are the result of mere vanity—not excepting those of St. Augustine and Rousseau—falsehood in the mask and mantle of truth. Half ashamed and half conscious of his own mendacious self-flattery, the historian of his own deeds or geographer of his own mind breaks out now and then indignantly, and revenges himself on his own weakness by telling some very disagreeable truth of some other person; and then, re-established in his own good opinion, marches on cheerfully in the smooth path toward the temple of his own immortality. Yet even here, you see, I am indirectly lauding my own worship for not being persuaded to laud my own worship. How sleek, smooth-tongued, paradisaical a deluder art thou, sweet Self-conceit! Let great men give their own thoughts on their own thoughts: from such we can learn much; but let the small deer hold jaw, and remember what the philosopher says, ‘Fleas are not lobsters: d——n their souls!'”

Caring nothing even for professional honors, Beddoes refused various professorships in Germany, and traveled about to Zurich, to Bâle, and to the other German centres of learning as his desires prompted him. Always the same independent and rebellious spirit that he had shown himself as a boy, he sympathized warmly with the democratic movements then agitating Switzerland and the Rhine provinces, and devoted both his purse and his pen to aid the anti-oligarchic and anti-clerical party. In 1848 he had intended to go back to England, but in the spring of that year a slight wound received while dissecting infused a poison into his system that undermined his health. In May, while seeking restoration in the purer air of Bâle, his horse fell with him, and his left leg was so badly broken that amputation became necessary. Until the autumn he seemed to be doing well, but then the poison imbibed at Frankfort declared itself once more, and a slow fever set in which terminated in death on the 26th of January, 1849.

Beddoes’ great fault as a dramatist he was quite aware of himself, and had pointed out to the friend who was continually urging him to write: “The power of drawing character and humor—two things absolutely indispensable for a good dramatist—are the first two articles in my deficiencies; and even the imaginative poetry I think you will find in all my verse always harping on the same two or three principles; for which plain and satisfactory reasons I have no business to expect any great distinction as a writer.” He could draw types of character, but not individuals: the power of making the creations of the mind seem as real as “our dear intimates and chamber-fellows” was denied him. But he was not wholly destitute of humor, though he was possessed of but one kind—that grim, sardonic quality which we find so often among the Elizabethans—that mocking irony most like the grin upon a skull. His fools are his best characters, so far as strength and originality go. Here is a snatch from the wise conversation of two of these worthies in Death’s Jest-Book:

Isbrand. Good-morrow, Brother Vanity! How? soul of a pickle-herring, body of a spagirical tosspot, doublet of motley, and mantle of pilgrim, how art thou transmuted! Wilt thou desert our brotherhood, fool sublimate? Shall the motley chapter no longer boast thee? Wilt thou forswear the order of the bell, and break thy vows to Momus? Have mercy on Wisdom and relent.

Mandrake. Respect the grave and sober, I pray thee. To-morrow I know thee not. In truth, I mark that our noble faculty is in its last leaf. The dry rot of prudence hath eaten the ship of fools to dust: she is no more seaworthy. The world will see its ears in a glass no longer. So we are laid aside and shall soon be forgotten; for why should the feast of asses come but once a year, when all the days are foaled of one mother? O world! world! The gods and fairies left thee, for thou wert too wise; and now, thou Socratic star, thy demon, the great Pan, Folly, is parting from thee. The oracles still talked in their sleep, shall our grandchildren say, till Master Merriman’s kingdom was broken up: now is every man his own fool, and the world’s sign is taken down.

Isbrand. Farewell, thou great-eared mind! I mark, by thy talk, that thou commencest philosopher, and then thou art only a fellow-servant out of livery.”

Isbrand is the brother of the slain knight Wolfram: his foolery is but the disguise of his revenge, and thus he rails over the body of his brother: “Dead and gone! a scurvy burden to this ballad of life. There lies he, Siegfried—my brother, mark you—and I weep not, nor gnash the teeth, nor curse: and why not, Siegfried? Do you see this? So should every honest man be—cold, dead, and leaden-coffined. This was one who would be constant in friendship, and the pole wanders; one who would be immortal, and the light that shines upon his pale forehead now, through yonder gewgaw window, undulated from its star hundreds of years ago. That is constancy, that is life. O moral Nature!”

It is unnecessary to try to describe the plot of this strange drama, if plot it may be called. The poem rather resembles the old bridge at Lucerne with the gloomy figures of the Dance of Death painted along its wormeaten sides, while over its old timbers rolls the current of busy life, and the laughter of children echoes from its roof. With the exception of Isbrand, the characters of the play are pale and shadowy enough, but the poetry that they speak is wonderful. The gloom and tender beauty of the verse are inextricably united, as in the plays of Webster, whose “intellectual twin” Beddoes might have been. Here is a lovely sketch of “a melancholy lady:”

   Duke. Thorwald, I fear hers is a broken heart.
When first I met her in the Egyptian Prison,
She was the rosy morning of a woman:
Beauty was rising, but the starry grace
Of a calm childhood might be seen in her.
But since the death of Wolfram, who fell there,
Heaven and one single soul only know how,
I have not dared to look upon her sorrow.
   Thorwald. Methinks she’s too unearthly beautiful.
Old as I am, I cannot look at her,
And hear her voice, that touches the heart’s core,
without a dread that she will fade o’ th’ instant.
There’s too much heaven in her; oft it rises,
And, pouring out about the lovely earth,
Almost dissolves it. She is tender too;
And melancholy is the sweet pale smile
With which she gently does reproach her fortune.

But the greatest beauty of this singular poem, with its wild medley of jesters and spirits, knights and fiends, Deaths and tender women, “like flowers on a grave,” is the wonderful perfection of its songs. There are no less than thirteen in this play, some of them the wild mockery of the jesters, but many of them very beautiful; and there are three more in The Brides’ Tragedy. Since the days of Elizabeth we have had nothing to compare with them. They have that delicate poise of beauty, like the lighting of a butterfly on a bending flower, that adds to our delight the keen sense of its transitoriness. Here is one—”a voice from the waters:”

The swallow leaves her nest,
The soul my weary breast;
But therefore let the rain
      On my grave
Fall pure; for why complain?
Since both will come again
      O’er the wave.

The wind dead leaves and snow
Doth hurry to and fro;
And once a day shall break
      O’er the wave,
When a storm of ghosts shall shake
The dead, until they wake
      In the grave.

This is the least Elizabethan of them all, perhaps, in sentiment, but it has an exquisite sombre tenderness and music of its own. Then follows one of the finest of all Beddoes’ songs, a dirge, beginning—

If thou wilt ease thine heart
Of love and all its smart,
    Then sleep, dear, sleep;

which it is useless to quote entire, because it may be found in Dana’s Household Poetry, and in the best collection of songs we have, R.H. Stoddard’s Melodies and Madrigals, wherein are enshrined three of Beddoes’ dirges, all from this one drama of Death’s Jest-Book.

The second volume of Beddoes’ poems also contains The Brides’ Tragedy, written when he was but nineteen. More simple and coherent in plot and construction than the other drama, it has more sweetness and less strength. It is full of the innocence of love, and rich with that prodigality of beauty with which youthful genius loves to make itself splendid. It begins with a scene in a garden, and “while that wingèd song, the restless nightingale, turns her sad heart to music,” two lovers talk of flowers and love and dreams—dreams of the Queen of Smiles, and her attendant mob of Loves, busy with their various tasks:

                           Here stood one alone,
Blowing a pyre of blazing lovers’ hearts
With bellows full of absence-causèd sighs;
Near him his work-mate mended broken vows
With dangerous gold, or strung soft rhymes together
Upon a lady’s tress…And one there was alone,
Who with wet downcast eyelids threw aside
The remnants of a broken heart, and looked
Into my face and bid me ‘ware of love,
Of fickleness, and woe, and mad despair.

There are beautiful scenes and passages all through the play, the passion and the terror smacking somewhat of youth, perhaps, that loves to pile up agonies, but the poetry still so fine that one continually forgets to say, This is the work of a boy of nineteen. There is no need to say it, in fact: it is a work of genius, and demands no extenuation. There is a scene between Olivia and her attendants, as they prepare her for her bridal, that has a sustained and tender sweetness and calm about it hard to be matched in all our modern drama. For the same Olivia is sung this lovely


First Voice.
Who is the baby that doth lie
Beneath the silken canopy
Of thy blue eye?

Second Voice.
It is young Sorrow laid asleep
In the crystal deep.

Let us sing his lullaby,
Heigho! a sob and a sigh.

First Voice.
What sound is that, so soft, so clear,
Harmonious as a bubbled tear
Bursting, we hear?

Second Voice.
It is young Sorrow, slumber breaking,
Suddenly waking.

Let us sing his lullaby,
Heigho! a sob and a sigh.

They are not all dirges, these beautiful scraps of melody. Sometimes we come upon one as blithe as sunshine, like this serenade from the fine fragment called The Second Brother:

Strike, you myrtle-crowned boys,
   Ivied maidens, strike together:
Magic lutes are these whose noise
      Our fingers gather,
Threaded thrice with golden strings
      From Cupid’s bow;
And the sounds of its sweet voice
Not air, but little busy things,
   Pinioned with the lightest feather
      Of his wings,
   Rising up at every blow
Round the chords, like flies from roses
   Zephyr-touched; so these light minions
   Hover round, then shut their pinions,
And drop into the air, that closes
Where music’s sweetest sweet reposes.

There is a song worthy of Ariel, whose delicate involutions well repay study, and whose perfect melody carries along the unfolding of the thought as easily and lightly as a swift stream sweeps along scattered rose-leaves. And here is another of the same dainty complexion, but simpler:

How many times do I love thee, dear?
   Tell me how many thoughts there be
         In the atmosphere
         Of a new-fall’n year,
Whose white and sable hours appear
   The latest flake of Eternity:
So many times do I love thee, dear.

How many times do I love again?
   Tell me how many beads there are
         In a silver chain
         Of evening rain,
Unraveled from the tumbling main,
   And threading the eye of a yellow star:
So many times do I love again.

Nor is it only the songs of Beddoes that ought to keep his memory alive among us, if his dramas are too long to enchain our fickle attention. We turn over the small collection of fragments that his stern judgment has spared from the material of his two finished plays, to come across thoughts like these, that would have made the best part of some less severe critic’s pages:

I know not whether
I see your meaning: if I do, it lies
Upon the wordy wavelets of your voice
Dim as the evening shadow in a brook,
When the least moon has silver on’t no larger
Than the pure white of Hebe’s pinkish nail.

And many voices marshaled in one hymn
Wound through the night, whose still, translucent moments
Lay on each side their breath; and the hymn passed
Its long harmonious populace of words
Between the silvery silences.

Luckless man
Avoids the miserable bodkin’s point,
And flinching from the insect’s little sting,
In pitiful security keeps watch,
While ‘twixt him and that hypocrite the sun,
To which he prays, comes windless Pestilence,
Transparent as a glass of poisoned water
Through which the drinker sees his murderer smiling:
She stirs no dust, and makes no grass to nod,
Yet every footstep is a thousand graves,
And every breath of hers as full of ghosts
As a sunbeam with motes.

There is an old saying that the workman may be known by his chips: surely from these chips we may gather a high opinion of that artificer who left such fragments to testify for him. For imaginative power of a very high order, for the true tragic spirit, for exquisitely melodious versification, for that faculty of song which is the flower of the lyric genius, Beddoes was pre-eminently distinguished. Nor for these alone. His style is based upon the rich vocabulary of the old dramatists, and is terse, pregnant and quaint, without any trace of affectation. There was a sturdy genuineness about the man that forbade him to assume, and his phraseology was the natural outgrowth of his mind and his early education. He has not gone to work, like so many of our modern pre-Raphaelite painters, to imitate crudeness of form in the vain hope of acquiring thereby earnestness and innocence of spirit; but he has studied the best tragic models in a reverent spirit, and allowed his muse to work out her own salvation. That grim ironical humor which infuses such bitter strength into the speeches of Isbrand was always scoffing at his own verses, and nipping the blossoms of his genius in the bud. “I believe I might have met with some success as a retailer of small coal,” he writes to Mr. Kelsall, “or a writer of long-bottomed tracts, but doubt of my aptitude for any higher literary or commercial occupation.”

His greatest weakness as a writer of tragedy has already been mentioned as one of which he was himself but too well aware—his inability to create characters that should have any more individual existence than as the mouthpieces of various sentiments. While holding that the proper aim of the dramatic writer should be to write for the stage, his dramas are nevertheless fitted only for the closet. “If it were possible,” said George Darley (in the London Magazine, December, 1823), “speaking of a work of this kind (The Brides’ Tragedy), to make a distinction between the vis tragica and the vis dramatica, I should say that he possessed much of the former, but little of the latter.” As the beauties of his style—and they are many—recall to us the Shakespearian writers and the matchless riches of their verse, so do its faults—which are few—remind us of their faults. A turgid inflation in the tragic passages, a tendency to bombast, even more apparent in the man of forty-six than in the boy of nineteen, mar the calm strength of many of his scenes. The cloying sweetness that overloaded the verses of his juvenile work he left behind him as he grew older, but the Marlowe-like extravagance that rioted in the soliloquies of Hesperus still comes to the surface occasionally in the pages of Death’s Jest-Book. It is the extravagance of strength, however, not of weakness.

It is not often that we see a poet giving up the glorious race from sheer distrust of his power to win, but such was the case of Beddoes. A want of faith in his own genius was for ever paralyzing his hand. To succeed, as he himself knew but too well, and as he wrote to his editor, “a man must have an exclusive passion for his art, and all the obstinacy and self-denial which is combined with such a temperament—an unconquerable and always enduring will, always working forward to the only goal he knows.” This singleness of purpose Beddoes never possessed. Inheriting from his father the qualities of both poet and physician, the faculties of the scientific man, trained and cultivated through a long life by Dr. Thomas Beddoes (with whom poetry was but an occasional pastime), seem to have overbalanced and diverted the poetic genius of his son. The hereditary instinct overcame the individual bent. And in spite of Lovell Beddoes’ opinion that “the studies of the dramatist and physician are closely, almost inseparably, allied,” is it not true that the analytical faculty so essential to the latter is rarely found in connection with great creative ability? Sainte-Beuve never forgave Balzac for saying that critics were unsuccessful authors, but he should have consoled himself with the reflection that the author was unsuccessful because the critic was great. All critics, however, do not aspire to create, but all poets sooner or later attempt to criticise. Baudelaire, “the illustrious poet, the faultless critic,” as Swinburne calls him, went still further. He said: “Tous les grands poëtes deviennent naturellement, fatalement, critiques. Je plains les poëtes que guide le seul instinct; je les crois incomplets. Il serait prodigieux qu’un critique devînt poëte, et il est impossible qu’un poëte ne contienne pas un critique.” Yet a man cannot serve two masters, and Art is a jealous mistress who will not brook a rival. Even Beddoes found that his ideal of the physiologist-poet was fast slipping through his fingers, and confessed at last that were he “soberly and mathematically convinced” of his own inspiration, he would give himself up to the cultivation of literature. But he died at the early age of forty-six, from the effects of a wound received in the cause of Science. A singular retribution befell him, a truly poetic justice: all his scientific writings have disappeared—were either stolen before his executors had time to examine his papers, or had been destroyed by his own ruthless hand—and all that was left to keep his memory alive were the two tragedies and the few scattered fragments of verse of which he had made so little account during his lifetime. Their circle of readers has necessarily been small, but choice. There are few left, besides Browning and Proctor and John Forster, of his original admirers, and his name seems to be another on the long list of those who have failed, as the world counts failure. But the poets know better, and among their undying brotherhood space will always be kept for this strayed singer.