1885 Dictionary of National Biography Entry

“BEDDOES, THOMAS LOVELL (1803-1849), poet and physiologist, was born at Rodney Place, Clifton, on 20 July 1803. He was the eldest son of Dr. Thomas Beddoes, the celebrated physician, who died when his son was five years old. His mother, Anna, was the daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, of Edgeworthtown, and the poet was therefore the nephew of Maria Edgeworth, the novelist. At the death of his father T.L. Beddoes was left in the guardianship of Davies Giddy, afterwards known as Sir Davies Gilbert, P.R.S., who died in 1839. He was sent first to Bath Grammar School, and on June 1817 entered the Charterhouse. During his stay at this school he distinguished himself by his mischievous deeds of daring, by the originality of his behaviour, and by his love of the old Elizabethan dramatists, whom he early began to imitate. He wrote a novel called ‘Cynthio and Bugboo,’ and in 1819 a drama called the ‘Bride’s Tragedy.’ The former was never printed; the latter remained for some years in his desk. His earliest verses belong to 1817; in July 1819 his name first appears as the contributor of a sonnet to the ‘Morning Post.’ Beddoes, on leaving Charterhouse, went to Oxford, and was entered a commoner at Pembroke on 11 May 1820. At Oxford he was eccentric and rebellious, priding himself on his democratic sentiments, which he preserved through life. In 1821, while yet a freshman, he published his first volume, the ‘Improvisatore,’ a pamphlet of 128 pages, printed in Oxford. Of this jejune production he speedily became so much ashamed that he endeavoured to suppress it, and with such a measure of success that very few copies of it are now known to exist. In 1822 he published in London his boyish play, the ‘Bride’s Tragedy,’ a work of extraordinary promise, modelled very closely on such Jacobean writers as Webster, Marston, and Cyril Tournetir. In this drama the principal features of Beddoes’ later style are all clearly to be discerned. The ‘Bride’s Tragedy’ enjoyed a success such as rarely rewards the ambition of so young a writer; it was favourably noticed by the principal reviews, and in particular by Barry Cornwall and George Darley, who welcomed the new poet with effusion. The former, then thirty-five years of age and at the height of his reputation, extended to the young Oxonian his valuable friendship, and in 1823 Beddoes became acquainted with Thomas Forbes Kelsall, a young solicitor, afterwards his biographer and posthumous editor. He now planned, and partly wrote, several other dramas; of one, ‘Love’s Arrow Poisoned,’ considerable portions still remain unpublished; another, the ‘Last Man,’ which is frequently referred to in Beddoes’ correspondence, has entirely disappeared. He became deeply interested in Shelley, and in 1824 became guarantee, in common with several other friends, for the first edition of that poet’s ‘Posthumous Poems.’ In an unpublished letter in 1824 Procter describes Beddoes as ‘innocently gay, with a gibe always on his tongue, a mischievous eye, and locks curling like the hyacinth;’ and it appears that this was by far the brightest and happiest part of his career, though even at this time his excessive shyness made him averse to society. His mother’s health was now breaking up, and in the summer of 1824 he was called to Florence, where she was residing; but she was dead before he could reach her. He spent some time in Italy, where he became acquainted with W.S. Landor and Mrs. Shelley, and he then brought his sisters back to England. These interruptions delayed the preparation for his bachelor’s degree, which he eventually took on 25 May 1825. During this year he wrote the dramatic fragments, the ‘Second Brother’ and ‘Torrismond,’ which appear in the second volume of his works, and he began his great poem, ‘Death’s Jest-Book,’ upon the polishing of which he was engaged for more than twenty years. He planned to publish a volume of lyrics, entitled ‘Outidana, or Effusions, Amorous, Pathetic, and Fantastical;’ but he was dissuaded from doing so by his unpopularity with a certain clique at Oxford, Milman, in particular, denouncing him as belonging to ‘a villainous school.’ He now determined to abandon literature, which he had thought of taking up as a profession, and to give his whole attention to medicine, and particularly to anatomy. Accordingly, in July 1836, he went to the University of Göttingen, where he remained in residence for four years, studying physiology under Blumenbach, surgery under Langenbeck, and chemistry under Stromeyer. All this time he was slowly completing ‘Death’s Jest-Book,’ which was finished, in its first form, in February 1829. During these four years Beddoes only left Göttingen once, to take his M.A. degree at Oxford on 16 April 1828. In the winter of 1829 he transferred his residence to Würzburg, in Bavaria, where he continued his medical studies, and in 1832 obtained the degree of doctor of medicine at that university. He had, however, by the open expression of democratic opinions, made himself obnoxious to the government, and before the diploma was actually conferred upon him he was obliged to fly out of the Bavarian dominions, and to take refuge at Strassburg. In 1833 he visited Zurich, and was so much pleased with it that, when his political intrigues had again made it impossible for him to remain in Germany, he settled down at Zurich in June 1835. He brought with him a considerable reputation as a physiologist, for Blumenbach, in a testimonial which exists, calls him the best pupil he ever had; and he now assumed his degree of M.D. The surgeon Schoelieu proposed him to the university as a professor, and he was elected, although the syndic, for a political reason, refused to ratify the election. Beddoes, however, continued to reside in Zurich for several years, and amassed there a scientific library of 600 volumes. He was at Zurich on 8 Sept. 1839, when the peasantry stormed the town, and deposed the liberal government. He observed the riot from a window, and witnessed the murder of the minister Hegetschweiber, who was one of his best friends. Beddoes had taken an acute interest in the cause of liberal politics, supporting it with his purse and his pen, for he now wrote German with complete fluency. After the defeat and dispersion of his friends, Zurich was no longer safe for him. In March 1840 his life was threatened by the insurgents, and he was helped to fly from the town in secret by a former leader of the liberal party named Jasper. He proceeded to Berlin, where, in 1841, he made the acquaintance of one of his latest friends, Dr. Frey. From this time to the date of his death he was a wanderer, still carrying about with him everywhere, and altering, his ‘Death’s Jest-Book.’ In August 1842 he was in England; in 1843 at Baden in Aargau, and again at Zurich; from 1844 to 1846 at Baden, Frankfort, and Berlin. In the summer of 1846 he came once more to England for nearly a year: his friends found him very much changed, and most eccentric in manner. He complained of neuralgia, and shut himself up for six months in his bedroom, reading and smoking. In June 1847 he finally quitted England, and settled for twelve months at Frankfort in the house of an actor named Degen, practising a little as a physician. Here in the early part of 1848 his blood became poisoned from the virus of a dead body entering a slight wound in his hand. This was overcome, but seriously affected his health and spirits. His republican friends had deserted him, and he felt disgusted with life. The circumstances which attended his death were mysterious, and have not been made known to the public. The published account was founded on a letter from Beddoes to his sister, in which he says: ‘In July I fell with a horse in a precipitous part of the neighbouring hills, and broke my left leg all to pieces.’ This is the version which he wished to circulate, and this may be accepted in silence. The incident, however, whatever it was, occurred not in July, but in May 1848, and in the town of Bale, where he had arrived the previous night. He was immediately taken to the hospital, where he was placed under the charge of his old friend, Dr. Frey, and of a Dr. Ecklin. The leg was obstinate in recovery, and eventually gangrene of the foot set in. On 9 Sept. it became necessary to amputate the limb below the knee-joint; this operation was very successfully performed by Dr. Ecklin. Beddoes had not, until this latter event, communicated with his friends in England, but during October and November he wrote to them very cheerfully, declining all offers of help, and chatting freely about literature. In December he walked out of his room twice, and proposed to go to Italy. His recovery was considered certain when, on 26 Jan. 1849, Dr. Ecklin was called to his bedside, and found him insensible. He died at 10 p.m. that night. On his bed was found a paper of directions, written in pencil with a firm hand, leaving his manuscripts to Kelsall, and adding: ‘I ought to have been among other things a good poet.’ He was buried in the cemetery of the hospital.

His old friend, Thomas Forbes Kelsall, undertook the task committed to him with the greatest zeal and piety. His first act was to publish the poem of Beddoes’ life, the famous ‘Death’s Jest-Book, or the Fool’s Tragedy,’ in 1850. This play attracted instant
attention. It is a story of the thirteenth century, founded on the historical fact that a Duke of Munsterberg, in Silesia, was stabbed to death by his court fool; the latter personage Beddoes has made the hero of his play under the name of Isbrand. This volume was so successful that Kelsall followed it in 1851 by the publication of ‘Poems by the late Thomas Lovell Beddoes,’ including several dramatic fragments mentioned above, and introduced by an anonymous memoir of Beddoes written by Kelsall. This memoir, which is a very accomplished and admirable piece of biography, contained a large number of interesting letters from Beddoes. In 1838 Beddoes had translated into German Grainger’s work on the ‘Structure of the Spinal Cord;’ but it is supposed that he failed to find a publisher for it. He is known to have contributed largely to the political literature of the day in German prose and verse, but anonymously, and these fugitive pieces are entirely lost, with the exception of one unimportant fragment. In person Beddoes was like Keats, short and thick-set; in the last year of his life he allowed his beard to grow, and ‘looked like Shakespeare.’ His friends in the hospital spoke of his fortitude under suffering, and said that he always showed ‘the courage of a soldier.’ He died in possession of several farms at Shifnall and Hopesay, in Shropshire.”