Books and Characters, by Lytton Strachey

The Last Elizabethan

The shrine of Poetry is a secret one; and it is fortunate that this should be the case; for it gives a sense of security. The cult is too mysterious and intimate to figure upon census papers; there are no turnstiles at the temple gates; and so, as all inquiries must be fruitless, the obvious plan is to take for granted a good attendance of worshippers, and to pass on. Yet, if Apollo were to come down (after the manner of deities) and put questions — must we suppose to the Laureate? — as to the number of the elect, would we be quite sure of escaping wrath and destruction? Let us hope for the best; and perhaps, if we were bent upon finding out the truth, the simplest way would be to watch the sales of the new edition of the poems of Beddoes, which Messrs. Routledge have lately added to the ‘Muses’ Library.’ How many among Apollo’s pew-renters, one wonders, have ever read Beddoes, or, indeed, have ever heard of him? For some reason or another, this extraordinary poet has not only never received the recognition which is his due, but has failed almost entirely to receive any recognition whatever. If his name is known at all, it is known in virtue of the one or two of his lyrics which have crept into some of the current anthologies. But Beddoes’ highest claim to distinction does not rest upon his lyrical achievements, consummate as those achievements are; it rests upon his extraordinary eminence as a master of dramatic blank verse. Perhaps his greatest misfortune was that he was born at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and not at the end of the sixteenth. His proper place was among that noble band of Elizabethans, whose strong and splendid spirit gave to England, in one miraculous generation, the most glorious heritage of drama that the world has known. If Charles Lamb had discovered his tragedies among the folios of the British Museum, and had given extracts from them in the Specimens of Dramatic Poets, Beddoes’ name would doubtless be as familiar to us now as those of Marlowe and Webster, Fletcher and Ford. As it happened, however, he came as a strange and isolated phenomenon, a star which had wandered from its constellation, and was lost among alien lights. It is to very little purpose that Mr. Ramsay Colles, his latest editor, assures us that ‘Beddoes is interesting as marking the transition from Shelley to Browning’; it is to still less purpose that he points out to us a passage in Death’s Jest Book which anticipates the doctrines of The Descent of Man. For Beddoes cannot be hoisted into line with his contemporaries by such methods as these; nor is it in the light of such after-considerations that the value of his work must be judged. We must take him on his own merits, ‘unmixed with seconds’; we must discover and appraise his peculiar quality for its own sake.

      He hath skill in language;

And knowledge is in him, root, flower, and fruit,

A palm with winged imagination in it,

Whose roots stretch even underneath the grave;

And on them hangs a lamp of magic science

In his soul’s deepest mine, where folded thoughts

Lie sleeping on the tombs of magi dead.

If the neglect suffered by Beddoes’ poetry may be accounted for in more ways than one, it is not so easy to understand why more curiosity has never been aroused by the circumstances of his life. For one reader who cares to concern himself with the intrinsic merit of a piece of writing there are a thousand who are ready to explore with eager sympathy the history of the writer; and all that we know both of the life and the character of Beddoes possesses those very qualities of peculiarity, mystery, and adventure, which are so dear to the hearts of subscribers to circulating libraries. Yet only one account of his career has ever been given to the public; and that account, fragmentary and incorrect as it is, has long been out of print. It was supplemented some years ago by Mr. Gosse, who was able to throw additional light upon one important circumstance, and who has also published a small collection of Beddoes’ letters. The main biographical facts, gathered from these sources, have been put together by Mr. Ramsay Colles, in his introduction to the new edition; but he has added nothing fresh; and we are still in almost complete ignorance as to the details of the last twenty years of Beddoes’ existence — full as those years certainly were of interest and even excitement. Nor has the veil been altogether withdrawn from that strange tragedy which, for the strange tragedian, was the last of all.

Readers of Miss Edgeworth’s letters may remember that her younger sister Anne, married a distinguished Clifton physician, Dr. Thomas Beddoes. Their eldest son, born in 1803, was named Thomas Lovell, after his father and grandfather, and grew up to be the author of The Brides’ Tragedy and Death’s Jest Book. Dr. Beddoes was a remarkable man, endowed with high and varied intellectual capacities and a rare independence of character. His scientific attainments were recognised by the University of Oxford, where he held the post of Lecturer in Chemistry, until the time of the French Revolution, when he was obliged to resign it, owing to the scandal caused by the unconcealed intensity of his liberal opinions. He then settled at Clifton as a physician, established a flourishing practice, and devoted his leisure to politics and scientific research. Sir Humphry Davy, who was his pupil, and whose merit he was the first to bring to light, declared that ‘he had talents which would have exalted him to the pinnacle of philosophical eminence, if they had been applied with discretion.’ The words are curiously suggestive of the history of his son; and indeed the poet affords a striking instance of the hereditary transmission of mental qualities. Not only did Beddoes inherit his father’s talents and his father’s inability to make the best use of them; he possessed in a no less remarkable degree his father’s independence of mind. In both cases, this quality was coupled with a corresponding eccentricity of conduct, which occasionally, to puzzled onlookers, wore the appearance of something very near insanity. Many stories are related of the queer behaviour of Dr. Beddoes. One day he astonished the ladies of Clifton by appearing at a tea-party with a packet of sugar in his hand; he explained that it was East Indian sugar, and that nothing would induce him to eat the usual kind, which came from Jamaica and was made by slaves. More extraordinary were his medical prescriptions; for he was in the habit of ordering cows to be conveyed into his patients’ bedrooms, in order, as he said, that they might ‘inhale the animals’ breath.’ It is easy to imagine the delight which the singular spectacle of a cow climbing upstairs into an invalid’s bedroom must have given to the future author of Harpagus and The Oviparous Tailor. But ‘little Tom,’ as Miss Edgeworth calls him, was not destined to enjoy for long the benefit of parental example; for Dr. Beddoes died in the prime of life, when the child was not yet six years old.

The genius at school is usually a disappointing figure, for, as a rule, one must be commonplace to be a successful boy. In that preposterous world, to be remarkable is to be overlooked; and nothing less vivid than the white-hot blaze of a Shelley will bring with it even a distinguished martyrdom. But Beddoes was an exception, though he was not a martyr. On the contrary, he dominated his fellows as absolutely as if he had been a dullard and a dunce. He was at Charterhouse; and an entertaining account of his existence there has been preserved to us in a paper of school reminiscences, written by Mr. C.D. Bevan, who had been his fag. Though his place in the school was high, Beddoes’ interests were devoted not so much to classical scholarship as to the literature of his own tongue. Cowley, he afterwards told a friend, had been the first poet he had understood; but no doubt he had begun to understand poetry many years before he went to Charterhouse; and, while he was there, the reading which he chiefly delighted in was the Elizabethan drama. ‘He liked acting,’ says Mr. Bevan, ‘and was a good judge of it, and used to give apt though burlesque imitations of the popular actors, particularly Kean and Macready. Though his voice was harsh and his enunciation offensively conceited, he read with so much propriety of expression and manner, that I was always glad to listen: even when I was pressed into the service as his accomplice, his enemy, or his love, with a due accompaniment of curses, caresses, or kicks, as the course of his declamation required. One play in particular, Marlowe’s Tragedy of Dr. Faustus, excited my admiration in this way; and a liking for the old English drama, which I still retain, was created and strengthened by such recitations.’ But Beddoes’ dramatic performances were not limited to the works of others; when the occasion arose he was able to supply the necessary material himself. A locksmith had incurred his displeasure by putting a bad lock on his bookcase; Beddoes vowed vengeance; and when next the man appeared he was received by a dramatic interlude, representing his last moments, his horror and remorse, his death, and the funeral procession, which was interrupted by fiends, who carried off body and soul to eternal torments. Such was the realistic vigour of the performance that the locksmith, according to Mr. Bevan, ‘departed in a storm of wrath and execrations, and could not be persuaded, for some time, to resume his work.’

Besides the interlude of the wicked locksmith, Beddoes’ school compositions included a novel in the style of Fielding (which has unfortunately disappeared), the beginnings of an Elizabethan tragedy, and much miscellaneous verse. In 1820 he left Charterhouse, and went to Pembroke College, Oxford, where, in the following year, while still a freshman, he published his first volume, The Improvisatore, a series of short narratives in verse. The book had been written in part while he was at school; and its immaturity is obvious. It contains no trace of the nervous vigour of his later style; the verse is weak, and the sentiment, to use his own expression, ‘Moorish.’ Indeed, the only interest of the little work lies in the evidence which it affords that the singular pre-occupation which eventually dominated Beddoes’ mind had, even in these early days, made its appearance. The book is full of death. The poems begin on battle-fields and end in charnel-houses; old men are slaughtered in cold blood, and lovers are struck by lightning into mouldering heaps of corruption. The boy, with his elaborate exhibitions of physical horror, was doing his best to make his readers’ flesh creep. But the attempt was far too crude; and in after years, when Beddoes had become a past-master of that difficult art, he was very much ashamed of his first publication. So eager was he to destroy every trace of its existence, that he did not spare even the finely bound copies of his friends. The story goes that he amused himself by visiting their libraries with a penknife, so that, when next they took out the precious volume, they found the pages gone.

Beddoes, however, had no reason to be ashamed of his next publication, The Brides’ Tragedy, which appeared in 1822. In a single bound, he had reached the threshold of poetry, and was knocking at the door. The line which divides the best and most accomplished verse from poetry itself — that subtle and momentous line which every one can draw, and no one can explain — Beddoes had not yet crossed. But he had gone as far as it was possible to go by the aid of mere skill in the art of writing, and he was still in his twentieth year. Many passages in The Brides’ Tragedy seem only to be waiting for the breath of inspiration which will bring them into life; and indeed, here and there, the breath has come, the warm, the true, the vital breath of Apollo. No one, surely, whose lips had not tasted of the waters of Helicon, could have uttered such words as these:

Here’s the blue violet, like Pandora’s eye,

When first it darkened with immortal life

or a line of such intense imaginative force as this:

I’ve huddled her into the wormy earth;

or this splendid description of a stormy sunrise:

The day is in its shroud while yet an infant;

And Night with giant strides stalks o’er the world,

Like a swart Cyclops, on its hideous front

One round, red, thunder-swollen eye ablaze.

The play was written on the Elizabethan model, and, as a play, it is disfigured by Beddoes’ most characteristic faults: the construction is weak, the interest fluctuates from character to character, and the motives and actions of the characters themselves are for the most part curiously remote from the realities of life. Yet, though the merit of the tragedy depends almost entirely upon the verse, there are signs in it that, while Beddoes lacked the gift of construction, he nevertheless possessed one important dramatic faculty — the power of creating detached scenes of interest and beauty. The scene in which the half-crazed Leonora imagines to herself, beside the couch on which her dead daughter lies, that the child is really living after all, is dramatic in the highest sense of the word; the situation, with all its capabilities of pathetic irony, is conceived and developed with consummate art and absolute restraint. Leonora’s speech ends thus:

      . . . Speak, I pray thee, Floribel,

Speak to thy mother; do but whisper ‘aye’;

Well, well, I will not press her; I am sure

She has the welcome news of some good fortune,

And hoards the telling till her father comes;

. . . Ah! She half laughed. I’ve guessed it then;

Come tell me, I’ll be secret. Nay, if you mock me,

I must be very angry till you speak.

Now this is silly; some of these young boys

Have dressed the cushions with her clothes in sport.

’Tis very like her. I could make this image

Act all her greetings; she shall bow her head:

‘Good-morrow, mother’; and her smiling face

Falls on my neck. — Oh, heaven, ’tis she indeed!

I know it all — don’t tell me.

The last seven words are a summary of anguish, horror, and despair, such as Webster himself might have been proud to write.

The Brides’ Tragedy was well received by critics; and a laudatory notice of Beddoes in the Edinburgh, written by Bryan Waller Procter — better known then than now under his pseudonym of Barry Cornwall — led to a lasting friendship between the two poets. The connection had an important result, for it was through Procter that Beddoes became acquainted with the most intimate of all his friends — Thomas Forbes Kelsall, then a young lawyer at Southampton. In the summer of 1823 Beddoes stayed at Southampton for several months, and, while ostensibly studying for his Oxford degree, gave up most of his time to conversations with Kelsall and to dramatic composition. It was a culminating point in his life: one of those moments which come, even to the most fortunate, once and once only — when youth, and hope, and the high exuberance of genius combine with circumstance and opportunity to crown the marvellous hour. The spade-work of The Brides’ Tragedy had been accomplished; the seed had been sown; and now the harvest was beginning. Beddoes, ‘with the delicious sense,’ as Kelsall wrote long afterwards, ‘of the laurel freshly twined around his head,’ poured out, in these Southampton evenings, an eager stream of song. ‘His poetic composition,’ says his friend, ‘was then exceedingly facile: more than once or twice has he taken home with him at night some unfinished act of a drama, in which the editor [Kelsall] had found much to admire, and, at the next meeting, has produced a new one, similar in design, but filled with other thoughts and fancies, which his teeming imagination had projected, in its sheer abundance, and not from any feeling, right or fastidious, of unworthiness in its predecessor. Of several of these very striking fragments, large and grand in their aspect as they each started into form,

Like the red outline of beginning Adam,

. . . the only trace remaining is literally the impression thus deeply cut into their one observer’s mind. The fine verse just quoted is the sole remnant, indelibly stamped on the editor’s memory, of one of these extinct creations.’ Fragments survive of at least four dramas, projected, and brought to various stages of completion, at about this time. Beddoes was impatient of the common restraints; he was dashing forward in the spirit of his own advice to another poet:

      Creep not nor climb,

As they who place their topmost of sublime

On some peak of this planet, pitifully.

Dart eaglewise with open wings, and fly

Until you meet the gods!

Eighteen months after his Southampton visit, Beddoes took his degree at Oxford, and, almost immediately, made up his mind to a course of action which had the profoundest effect upon his future life. He determined to take up the study of medicine; and with that end in view established himself, in 1825, at the University at Göttingen. It is very clear, however, that he had no intention of giving up his poetical work. He took with him to Germany the beginnings of a new play —‘a very Gothic-styled tragedy,’ he calls it, ‘for which I have a jewel of a name — DEATH’S JEST-BOOK; of course,’ he adds, ‘no one will ever read it’; and, during his four years at Göttingen, he devoted most of his leisure to the completion of this work. He was young; he was rich; he was interested in medical science; and no doubt it seemed to him that he could well afford to amuse himself for half-a-dozen years, before he settled down to the poetical work which was to be the serious occupation of his life. But, as time passed, he became more and more engrossed in the study of medicine, for which he gradually discovered he had not only a taste but a gift; so that at last he came to doubt whether it might not be his true vocation to be a physician, and not a poet after all. Engulfed among the students of Göttingen, England and English ways of life, and even English poetry, became dim to him; ‘dir, dem Anbeter der seligen Gottheiten der Musen, u.s.w.,’ he wrote to Kelsall, ‘was Unterhaltendes kann der Liebhaber von Knochen, der fleissige Botaniker und Phisiolog mittheilen?’ In 1830 he was still hesitating between the two alternatives. ‘I sometimes wish,’ he told the same friend, ‘to devote myself exclusively to the study of anatomy and physiology in science, of languages, and dramatic poetry’; his pen had run away with him; and his ‘exclusive’ devotion turned out to be a double one, directed towards widely different ends. While he was still in this state of mind, a new interest took possession of him — an interest which worked havoc with his dreams of dramatic authorship and scientific research: he became involved in the revolutionary movement which was at that time beginning to agitate Europe. The details of his adventures are unhappily lost to us, for we know nothing more of them than can be learnt from a few scanty references in his rare letters to English friends; but it is certain that the part he played was an active, and even a dangerous one. He was turned out of Würzburg by ‘that ingenious Jackanapes,’ the King of Bavaria; he was an intimate friend of Hegetschweiler, one of the leaders of liberalism in Switzerland; and he was present in Zurich when a body of six thousand peasants, ‘half unarmed, and the other half armed with scythes, dungforks and poles, entered the town and overturned the liberal government.’ In the tumult Hegetschweiler was killed, and Beddoes was soon afterwards forced to fly the canton. During the following years we catch glimpses of him, flitting mysteriously over Germany and Switzerland, at Berlin, at Baden, at Giessen, a strange solitary figure, with tangled hair and meerschaum pipe, scribbling lampoons upon the King of Prussia, translating Grainger’s Spinal Cord into German, and Schoenlein’s Diseases of Europeans into English, exploring Pilatus and the Titlis, evolving now and then some ghostly lyric or some rabelaisian tale, or brooding over the scenes of his ‘Gothic-styled tragedy,’ wondering if it were worthless or inspired, and giving it — as had been his wont for the last twenty years — just one more touch before he sent it to the press. He appeared in England once or twice, and in 1846 made a stay of several months, visiting the Procters in London, and going down to Southampton to be with Kelsall once again. Eccentricity had grown on him; he would shut himself for days in his bedroom, smoking furiously; he would fall into fits of long and deep depression. He shocked some of his relatives by arriving at their country house astride a donkey; and he amazed the Procters by starting out one evening to set fire to Drury Lane Theatre with a lighted five-pound note. After this last visit to England, his history becomes even more obscure than before. It is known that in 1847 he was in Frankfort, where he lived for six months in close companionship with a young baker called Degen —‘a nice-looking young man, nineteen years of age,’ we are told, ‘dressed in a blue blouse, fine in expression, and of a natural dignity of manner’; and that, in the spring of the following year, the two friends went off to Zurich, where Beddoes hired the theatre for a night in order that Degen might appear on the stage in the part of Hotspur. At Basel, however, for some unexplained reason, the friends parted, and Beddoes fell immediately into the profoundest gloom. ‘Il a été misérable,’ said the waiter at the Cigogne Hotel, where he was staying, ‘il a voulu se tuer.’ It was true. He inflicted a deep wound in his leg with a razor, in the hope, apparently, of bleeding to death. He was taken to the hospital, where he constantly tore off the bandages, until at last it was necessary to amputate the leg below the knee. The operation was successful, Beddoes began to recover, and, in the autumn, Degen came back to Basel. It seemed as if all were going well; for the poet, with his books around him, and the blue-bloused Degen by his bedside, talked happily of politics and literature, and of an Italian journey in the spring. He walked out twice; was he still happy? Who can tell? Was it happiness, or misery, or what strange impulse, that drove him, on his third walk, to go to a chemist’s shop in the town, and to obtain there a phial of deadly poison? On the evening of that day — the 26th of January, 1849 — Dr. Ecklin, his physician, was hastily summoned, to find Beddoes lying insensible upon the bed. He never recovered consciousness, and died that night. Upon his breast was found a pencil note, addressed to one of his English friends. ‘My dear Philips,’ it began, ‘I am food for what I am good for — worms.’ A few testamentary wishes followed. Kelsall was to have the manuscripts; and —‘W. Beddoes must have a case (50 bottles) of Champagne Moet, 1847 growth, to drink my death in . . . I ought to have been, among other things,’ the gruesome document concluded, ‘a good poet. Life was too great a bore on one peg, and that a bad one. Buy for Dr. Ecklin one of Reade’s best stomach-pumps.’ It was the last of his additions to Death’s Jest Book, and the most macabre of all.

Kelsall discharged his duties as literary executor with exemplary care. The manuscripts were fragmentary and confused. There were three distinct drafts of Death’s Jest Book, each with variations of its own; and from these Kelsall compiled his first edition of the drama, which appeared in 1850. In the following year he brought out the two volumes of poetical works, which remained for forty years the only record of the full scope and power of Beddoes’ genius. They contain reprints of The Brides’ Tragedy and Death’s Jest Book, together with two unfinished tragedies, and a great number of dramatic fragments and lyrics; and the poems are preceded by Kelsall’s memoir of his friend. Of these rare and valuable volumes the Muses’ Library edition is almost an exact reprint, except that it omits the memoir and revives The Improvisatore. Only one other edition of Beddoes exists — the limited one brought out by Mr. Gosse in 1890, and based upon a fresh examination of the manuscripts. Mr. Gosse was able to add ten lyrics and one dramatic fragment to those already published by Kelsall; he made public for the first time the true story of Beddoes’ suicide, which Kelsall had concealed; and, in 1893, he followed up his edition of the poems by a volume of Beddoes’ letters. It is clear, therefore, that there is no one living to whom lovers of Beddoes owe so much as to Mr. Gosse. He has supplied most important materials for the elucidation of the poet’s history: and, among the lyrics which he has printed for the first time, are to be found one of the most perfect specimens of Beddoes’ command of unearthly pathos —The Old Ghost— and one of the most singular examples of his vein of grotesque and ominous humour —The Oviparous Tailor. Yet it may be doubted whether even Mr. Gosse’s edition is the final one. There are traces in Beddoes’ letters of unpublished compositions which may still come to light. What has happened, one would like to know, to The Ivory Gate, that ‘volume of prosaic poetry and poetical prose,’ which Beddoes talked of publishing in 1837? Only a few fine stanzas from it have ever appeared. And, as Mr. Gosse himself tells us, the variations in Death’s Jest Book alone would warrant the publication of a variorum edition of that work —‘if,’ he wisely adds, for the proviso contains the gist of the matter —‘if the interest in Beddoes should continue to grow.’

‘Say what you will, I am convinced the man who is to awaken the drama must be a bold, trampling fellow — no creeper into worm-holes — no reviver even — however good. These reanimations are vampire-cold.’ The words occur in one of Beddoes’ letters, and they are usually quoted by critics, on the rare occasions on which his poetry is discussed, as an instance of the curious incapacity of artists to practise what they preach. But the truth is that Beddoes was not a ‘creeper into worm-holes,’ he was not even a ‘reviver’; he was a reincarnation. Everything that we know of him goes to show that the laborious and elaborate effort of literary reconstruction was quite alien to his spirit. We have Kelsall’s evidence as to the ease and abundance of his composition; we have the character of the man, as it shines forth in his letters and in the history of his life — records of a ‘bold, trampling fellow,’ if ever there was one; and we have the evidence of his poetry itself. For the impress of a fresh and vital intelligence is stamped unmistakably upon all that is best in his work. His mature blank verse is perfect. It is not an artificial concoction galvanized into the semblance of life; it simply lives. And, with Beddoes, maturity was precocious, for he obtained complete mastery over the most difficult and dangerous of metres at a wonderfully early age. Blank verse is like the Djin in the Arabian Nights; it is either the most terrible of masters, or the most powerful of slaves. If you have not the magic secret, it will take your best thoughts, your bravest imaginations, and change them into toads and fishes; but, if the spell be yours, it will turn into a flying carpet and lift your simplest utterance into the highest heaven. Beddoes had mastered the ‘Open, Sesame’ at an age when most poets are still mouthing ineffectual wheats and barleys. In his twenty-second year, his thoughts filled and moved and animated his blank verse as easily and familiarly as a hand in a glove. He wishes to compare, for instance, the human mind, with its knowledge of the past, to a single eye receiving the light of the stars; and the object of the comparison is to lay stress upon the concentration on one point of a vast multiplicity of objects. There could be no better exercise for a young verse-writer than to attempt his own expression of this idea, and then to examine these lines by Beddoes — lines where simplicity and splendour have been woven together with the ease of accomplished art.

How glorious to live! Even in one thought

The wisdom of past times to fit together,

And from the luminous minds of many men

Catch a reflected truth; as, in one eye,

Light, from unnumbered worlds and farthest planets

Of the star-crowded universe, is gathered

Into one ray.

The effect is, of course, partly produced by the diction; but the diction, fine as it is, would be useless without the phrasing — that art by which the two forces of the metre and the sense are made at once to combat, to combine with, and to heighten each other. It is, however, impossible to do more than touch upon this side — the technical side — of Beddoes’ genius. But it may be noticed that in his mastery of phrasing — as in so much besides — he was a true Elizabethan. The great artists of that age knew that without phrasing dramatic verse was a dead thing; and it is only necessary to turn from their pages to those of an eighteenth-century dramatist — Addison, for instance — to understand how right they were.

Beddoes’ power of creating scenes of intense dramatic force, which had already begun to show itself in The Brides’ Tragedy, reached its full development in his subsequent work. The opening act of The Second Brother— the most nearly complete of his unfinished tragedies — is a striking example of a powerful and original theme treated in such a way that, while the whole of it is steeped in imaginative poetry, yet not one ounce of its dramatic effectiveness is lost. The duke’s next brother, the heir to the dukedom of Ferrara, returns to the city, after years of wandering, a miserable and sordid beggar — to find his younger brother, rich, beautiful, and reckless, leading a life of gay debauchery, with the assurance of succeeding to the dukedom when the duke dies. The situation presents possibilities for just those bold and extraordinary contrasts which were so dear to Beddoes’ heart. While Marcello, the second brother, is meditating over his wretched fate, Orazio, the third, comes upon the stage, crowned and glorious, attended by a train of singing revellers, and with a courtesan upon either hand. ‘Wine in a ruby!’ he exclaims, gazing into his mistress’s eyes:

I’ll solemnize their beauty in a draught

Pressed from the summer of an hundred vines.

Meanwhile Marcello pushes himself forward, and attempts to salute his brother.

Orazio. Insolent beggar!

Marcello. Prince! But we must shake hands.

Look you, the round earth’s like a sleeping serpent,

Who drops her dusky tail upon her crown

Just here. Oh, we are like two mountain peaks

Of two close planets, catching in the air:

You, King Olympus, a great pile of summer,

Wearing a crown of gods; I, the vast top

Of the ghosts’ deadly world, naked and dark,

With nothing reigning on my desolate head

But an old spirit of a murdered god,

Palaced within the corpse of Saturn’s father.

They begin to dispute, and at last Marcello exclaims —

Aye, Prince, you have a brother —

Orazio. The Duke — he’ll scourge you.

Marcello. Nay, the second, sir,

Who, like an envious river, flows between

Your footsteps and Ferrara’s throne. . . .

Orazio. Stood he before me there,

By you, in you, as like as you’re unlike,

Straight as you’re bowed, young as you are old,

And many years nearer than him to Death,

The falling brilliancy of whose white sword

Your ancient locks so silverly reflect,

I would deny, outswear, and overreach,

And pass him with contempt, as I do you.

Jove! How we waste the stars: set on, my friends.

And so the revelling band pass onward, singing still, as they vanish down the darkened street:

Strike, you myrtle-crownèd boys,

Ivied maidens, strike together! . . .

and Marcello is left alone:

      I went forth

Joyfully, as the soul of one who closes

His pillowed eyes beside an unseen murderer,

And like its horrible return was mine,

To find the heart, wherein I breathed and beat,

Cold, gashed, and dead. Let me forget to love,

And take a heart of venom: let me make

A staircase of the frightened breasts of men,

And climb into a lonely happiness!

And thou, who only art alone as I,

Great solitary god of that one sun,

I charge thee, by the likeness of our state,

Undo these human veins that tie me close

To other men, and let your servant griefs

Unmilk me of my mother, and pour in

Salt scorn and steaming hate!

A moment later he learnt that the duke has suddenly died, and that the dukedom is his. The rest of the play affords an instance of Beddoes’ inability to trace out a story, clearly and forcibly, to an appointed end. The succeeding acts are crowded with beautiful passages, with vivid situations, with surprising developments, but the central plot vanishes away into nothing, like a great river dissipating itself among a thousand streams. It is, indeed, clear enough that Beddoes was embarrassed with his riches, that his fertile mind conceived too easily, and that he could never resist the temptation of giving life to his imaginations, even at the cost of killing his play. His conception of Orazio, for instance, began by being that of a young Bacchus, as he appears in the opening scene. But Beddoes could not leave him there; he must have a romantic wife, whom he has deserted; and the wife, once brought into being, must have an interview with her husband. The interview is an exquisitely beautiful one, but it shatters Orazio’s character, for, in the course of it, he falls desperately in love with his wife; and meanwhile the wife herself has become so important and interesting a figure that she must be given a father, who in his turn becomes the central character in more than one exciting scene. But, by this time, what has happened to the second brother? It is easy to believe that Beddoes was always ready to begin a new play rather than finish an old one. But it is not so certain that his method was quite as inexcusable as his critics assert. To the reader, doubtless, his faulty construction is glaring enough; but Beddoes wrote his plays to be acted, as a passage in one of his letters very clearly shows. ‘You are, I think,’ he writes to Kelsall, ‘disinclined to the stage: now I confess that I think this is the highest aim of the dramatist, and should be very desirous to get on it. To look down on it is a piece of impertinence, as long as one chooses to write in the form of a play, and is generally the result of one’s own inability to produce anything striking and affecting in that way.’ And it is precisely upon the stage that such faults of construction as those which disfigure Beddoes’ tragedies matter least. An audience, whose attention is held and delighted by a succession of striking incidents clothed in splendid speech, neither cares nor knows whether the effect of the whole, as a whole, is worthy of the separate parts. It would be foolish, in the present melancholy condition of the art of dramatic declamation, to wish for the public performance of Death’s Jest Book; but it is impossible not to hope that the time may come when an adequate representation of that strange and great work may be something more than ‘a possibility more thin than air.’ Then, and then only, shall we be able to take the true measure of Beddoes’ genius.

Perhaps, however, the ordinary reader finds Beddoes’ lack of construction a less distasteful quality than his disregard of the common realities of existence. Not only is the subject-matter of the greater part of his poetry remote and dubious; his very characters themselves seem to be infected by their creator’s delight in the mysterious, the strange, and the unreal. They have no healthy activity; or, if they have, they invariably lose it in the second act; in the end, they are all hypochondriac philosophers, puzzling over eternity and dissecting the attributes of Death. The central idea of Death’s Jest Book— the resurrection of a ghost — fails to be truly effective, because it is difficult to see any clear distinction between the phantom and the rest of the characters. The duke, saved from death by the timely arrival of Wolfram, exclaims ‘Blest hour!’ and then, in a moment, begins to ponder, and agonise, and dream:

And yet how palely, with what faded lips

Do we salute this unhoped change of fortune!

Thou art so silent, lady; and I utter

Shadows of words, like to an ancient ghost,

Arisen out of hoary centuries

Where none can speak his language.

Orazio, in his brilliant palace, is overcome with the same feelings:

Methinks, these fellows, with their ready jests,

Are like to tedious bells, that ring alike

Marriage or death.

And his description of his own revels applies no less to the whole atmosphere of Beddoes’ tragedies:

Voices were heard, most loud, which no man owned:

There were more shadows too than there were men;

And all the air more dark and thick than night

Was heavy, as ’twere made of something more

Than living breaths.

It would be vain to look, among such spectral imaginings as these, for guidance in practical affairs, or for illuminating views on men and things, or for a philosophy, or, in short, for anything which may be called a ‘criticism of life.’ If a poet must be a critic of life, Beddoes was certainly no poet. He belongs to the class of writers of which, in English literature, Spenser, Keats, and Milton are the dominant figures — the writers who are great merely because of their art. Sir James Stephen was only telling the truth when he remarked that Milton might have put all that he had to say in Paradise Lost into a prose pamphlet of two or three pages. But who cares about what Milton had to say? It is his way of saying it that matters; it is his expression. Take away the expression from the Satires of Pope, or from The Excursion, and, though you will destroy the poems, you will leave behind a great mass of thought. Take away the expression from Hyperion, and you will leave nothing at all. To ask which is the better of the two styles is like asking whether a peach is better than a rose, because, both being beautiful, you can eat the one and not the other. At any rate, Beddoes is among the roses: it is in his expression that his greatness lies. His verse is an instrument of many modulations, of exquisite delicacy, of strange suggestiveness, of amazing power. Playing on it, he can give utterance to the subtlest visions, such as this:

Just now a beam of joy hung on his eyelash;

But, as I looked, it sunk into his eye,

Like a bruised worm writhing its form of rings

Into a darkening hole.

Or to the most marvellous of vague and vast conceptions, such as this:

      I begin to hear

Strange but sweet sounds, and the loud rocky dashing

Of waves, where time into Eternity

Falls over ruined worlds.

Or he can evoke sensations of pure loveliness, such as these:

So fair a creature! of such charms compact

As nature stints elsewhere: which you may find

Under the tender eyelid of a serpent,

Or in the gurge of a kiss-coloured rose,

By drops and sparks: but when she moves, you see,

Like water from a crystal overfilled,

Fresh beauty tremble out of her and lave

Her fair sides to the ground.

Or he can put into a single line all the long memories of adoration:

      My love was much;

My life but an inhabitant of his.

Or he can pass in a moment from tiny sweetness to colossal turmoil:

      I should not say

How thou art like the daisy in Noah’s meadow,

On which the foremost drop of rain fell warm

And soft at evening: so the little flower

Wrapped up its leaves, and shut the treacherous water

Close to the golden welcome of its breast,

Delighting in the touch of that which led

The shower of oceans, in whose billowy drops

Tritons and lions of the sea were warring,

And sometimes ships on fire sunk in the blood,

Of their own inmates; others were of ice,

And some had islands rooted in their waves,

Beasts on their rocks, and forest-powdering winds,

And showers tumbling on their tumbling self,

And every sea of every ruined star

Was but a drop in the world-melting flood.

He can express alike the beautiful tenderness of love, and the hectic, dizzy, and appalling frenzy of extreme rage:—

. . . What shall I do? I speak all wrong,

And lose a soul-full of delicious thought

By talking. Hush! Let’s drink each other up

By silent eyes. Who lives, but thou and I,

My heavenly wife? . . .

I’ll watch thee thus, till I can tell a second

By thy cheek’s change.

In that, one can almost feel the kisses; and, in this, one can almost hear the gnashing of the teeth. ‘Never!’ exclaims the duke to his son Torrismond:

There lies no grain of sand between

My loved and my detested! Wing thee hence,

Or thou dost stand to-morrow on a cobweb

Spun o’er the well of clotted Acheron,

Whose hydrophobic entrails stream with fire!

And may this intervening earth be snow,

And my step burn like the mid coal of Aetna,

Plunging me, through it all, into the core,

Where in their graves the dead are shut like seeds,

If I do not — O, but he is my son!

Is not that tremendous? But, to find Beddoes in his most characteristic mood, one must watch him weaving his mysterious imagination upon the woof of mortality. One must wander with him through the pages of Death’s Jest Book, one must grow accustomed to the dissolution of reality, and the opening of the nettled lips of graves; one must learn that ‘the dead are most and merriest,’ one must ask —‘Are the ghosts eaves-dropping?’— one must realise that ‘murder is full of holes.’ Among the ruins of his Gothic cathedral, on whose cloister walls the Dance of Death is painted, one may speculate at ease over the fragility of existence, and, within the sound of that dark ocean,

      Whose tumultuous waves

Are heaped, contending ghosts,

one may understand how it is that

Death is mightier, stronger, and more faithful

To man than Life.

Lingering there, one may watch the Deaths come down from their cloister, and dance and sing amid the moonlight; one may laugh over the grotesque contortions of skeletons; one may crack jokes upon corruption; one may sit down with phantoms, and drink to the health of Death.

In private intercourse Beddoes was the least morbid of human beings. His mind was like one of those Gothic cathedrals of which he was so fond — mysterious within, and filled with a light at once richer and less real than the light of day; on the outside, firm, and towering, and immediately impressive; and embellished, both inside and out, with grinning gargoyles. His conversation, Kelsall tells us, was full of humour and vitality, and untouched by any trace of egoism or affectation. He loved discussion, plunging into it with fire, and carrying it onward with high dexterity and good-humoured force. His letters are excellent: simple, spirited, spicy, and as original as his verse; flavoured with that vein of rattling open-air humour which had produced his school-boy novel in the style of Fielding. He was a man whom it would have been a rare delight to know. His character, so eminently English, compact of courage, of originality, of imagination, and with something coarse in it as well, puts one in mind of Hamlet: not the melodramatic sentimentalist of the stage; but the real Hamlet, Horatio’s Hamlet, who called his father’s ghost old truepenny, who forged his uncle’s signature, who fought Laertes, and ranted in a grave, and lugged the guts into the neighbour room. His tragedy, like Hamlet’s, was the tragedy of an over-powerful will — a will so strong as to recoil upon itself, and fall into indecision. It is easy for a weak man to be decided — there is so much to make him so; but a strong man, who can do anything, sometimes leaves everything undone. Fortunately Beddoes, though he did far less than he might have done, possessed so rich a genius that what he did, though small in quantity, is in quality beyond price. ‘I might have been, among other things, a good poet,’ were his last words. ‘Among other things’! Aye, there’s the rub. But, in spite of his own ‘might have been,’ a good poet he was. Perhaps for him, after all, there was very little to regret; his life was full of high nobility; and what other way of death would have befitted the poet of death? There is a thought constantly recurring throughout his writings — in his childish as in his most mature work — the thought of the beauty and the supernal happiness of soft and quiet death. He had visions of ‘rosily dying,’ of ‘turning to daisies gently in the grave,’ of a ‘pink reclining death,’ of death coming like a summer cloud over the soul. ‘Let her deathly life pass into death,’ says one of his earliest characters, ‘like music on the night wind.’ And, in Death’s Jest Book, Sibylla has the same thoughts:

      O Death! I am thy friend,

I struggle not with thee, I love thy state:

Thou canst be sweet and gentle, be so now;

And let me pass praying away into thee,

As twilight still does into starry night.

Did his mind, obsessed and overwhelmed by images of death, crave at last for the one thing stranger than all these — the experience of it? It is easy to believe so, and that, ill, wretched, and abandoned by Degen at the miserable Cigogne Hotel, he should seek relief in the gradual dissolution which attends upon loss of blood. And then, when he had recovered, when he was almost happy once again, the old thoughts, perhaps, came crowding back upon him — thoughts of the futility of life, and the supremacy of death and the mystical whirlpool of the unknown, and the long quietude of the grave. In the end, Death had grown to be something more than Death to him — it was, mysteriously and transcendentally, Love as well.

Death’s darts are sometimes Love’s. So Nature tells,

When laughing waters close o’er drowning men;

When in flowers’ honied corners poison dwells;

When Beauty dies: and the unwearied ken

Of those who seek a cure for long despair

Will learn . . .

What learning was it that rewarded him? What ghostly knowledge of eternal love?

If there are ghosts to raise,

  What shall I call,

Out of hell’s murky haze,

  Heaven’s blue pall?

— Raise my loved long-lost boy

To lead me to his joy. —

  There are no ghosts to raise;

  Out of death lead no ways;

    Vain is the call.

— Know’st thou not ghosts to sue?

  No love thou hast.

Else lie, as I will do,

  And breathe thy last.

So out of Life’s fresh crown

Fall like a rose-leaf down.

  Thus are the ghosts to woo;

  Thus are all dreams made true,

    Ever to last!


Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:31