The English writer Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849) is one of the great figures in 19th century poetry and drama. He is renowned for his interest in death and the macabre.
The 1885 Dictionary of National Biography Entry provides many basic facts about Beddoes.
The lengthy Memoir of Thomas Forbes Kelsall provides a detailed account of Beddoes’ life.
The following biographical sketch was posted on the Thomas Lovell Beddoes Society’s website in the 1990s by the late Dr. Gerald McDaniel, who was then serving as the Society’s website manager.
THE LIFE OF THOMAS LOVELL BEDDOES (1803-1849) BY DR. GERALD MCDANIEL
Thomas Lovell Beddoes is thought of as the most talented member of a small nook in the British literary tradition, the Elizabethan Revival of the late Romantic period, when in one of the most fallow periods of British drama a handful of poets tried to recreate the grandeur of Elizabethan verse-drama. But those who stumble across Beddoes will file him away in their memories as one of the most death-preoccupied of all poets, even more so than Donne with his memento mori ring. Nurtured in the atmosphere of Jacobin politics of his notorious father, trained in the field of anatomy and medicine, at that time not too many times removed from the ghoulish grotesqueries of Paracelsus, steeped in the same occult traditions as his closest kin in the literary pantheon, Shelley, Beddoes developed not only a preoccupation with death but a despondent spirit and an eccentricity of character that led the editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature (which devotes three pages to Beddoes) to claim that his idiosyncrasies “sometime verge on madness.”
Beddoes was born 30 June 1803 in Clifton, now part of Greater Bristol. His father, Thomas Beddoes, was a radical physician who had taken a medical degree from Oxford and might have had a career as a professor had his ultra-liberal views not led to his departure. Dr. Beddoes married Anna Edgeworth, the sister of the novelist Maria Edgeworth. Dr. Beddoes could claim as his friends and associates such scientific luminaries as James Watt and Josiah Wedgwood. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, all his life seeking the company of physicians to cure him of his illnesses, real and imagined, became close friends with Dr. Beddoes, known now in British medical history for his pioneering of nitrous oxide or laughing gas. Both Coleridge and Southey wrote effulgent elegies when the doctor died in 1808, and Coleridge fell into a depression. The poet was only five when his father died, but the fact that the Beddoes home was filled with the accouterments of the anatomy table and the examination room may have predisposed the child to what the first major Beddoes scholar called a “skeleton complex.”
The poet Beddoes spent much of his childhood in the comfortable and apparently loving circle of his mother’s family the Edgeworths, in which the world of letters and the imagination were prized. He was sent for schooling at Charterhouse in London and matriculated in Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1820, from which his radical and poetic fellow-traveler P.B. Shelley had been expelled eight years earlier. It was during his undergraduate years at Oxford that his first volume of poetry, The Improvisatore (1821), and his first (and only completed) verse-tragedy The Brides’ Tragedy (1822), were published, the former garnering very little critical attention but the latter receiving favorable reaction.
Beddoes moved to London in 1824, coming into contact with what was left of the Shelley coterie: William Godwin, the widowed Mary Shelley, and Thomas Jefferson Hogg. He also formed two personal friendships that were to figure significantly in his life. He befriended Bryan Waller Procter, a fellow dramatist who wrote under the name Barry Cornwall, and a lawyer named Thomas Forbes Kelsall. The latter’s staid personality was a contrast to the eccentric one of the poet-dramatist, but after Beddoes’ untimely death, Kelsall would take on the role of literary executor.
Beddoes returned to Oxford, but right before his B.A. examinations, he went to Italy because of news that his mother, then touring Italy, had taken ill there. He did not know that his mother had already succumbed in Florence. Beddoes returned to Oxford in 1825, prepared for his examinations, but suddenly dropped out of sight. The next anyone heard from him, he had enrolled in the medical school in the Hanoverian university of Göttingen, where he spent four years distinguishing himself with both academic excellence and personal misconduct, stemming from financial irresponsibility as well as rowdiness. He was asked to leave the university, and he found himself next in the medical school in the Bavarian university of Würzburg. He continued to study anatomy and physiology and received the medical doctorate in 1831, but he complicated his life by throwing himself heart and soul into the liberationist politics of in the tumultuous era of Post-Napoleonic Central Europe. He wrote anti-establishment pamphlets in what was fast becoming his new language, German. The Bavarian government banished him from the kingdom in 1832. The next year found him in the haven of every European persona non grata, Switzerland, which was to be his home for the rest of his life. He went to Zürich and continued his career as an advocate of liberal causes until the political winds changed in Zürich and he left in 1839. He returned to England for the summer of 1840.
He was back in Switzerland by 1844, this time in the city of Basel, which he probably chose because he was friends with Dr. Alfred Frey, on the staff of the hospital in Basel. He also met a baker with aspirations for the stage, Konrad Degen, who seems to have been the object of Beddoes’ only amorous affections. He did his best to further Degen’s career, going so far as to teach him English.
In 1846, Beddoes returned to England for his last visit to his native land. His behavior during the 10-month sojourn was so abominable that people were still complaining about it when Sir Edmund Gosse interviewed family and friends over thirty years later as he prepared a biographical study of Beddoes—heavy drinking and generally boorish behavior. When he left for the Continent in 1847, most of his family and friends thought him mad.
Beddoes’ last months were marred with professional and personal tragedy. He and Degen located in Frankfurt at first, but by 1848 they had quarreled and he returned to Basel. The last act of his dramatic life is one of conjecture by various family members and Beddoes scholars. As best can be ascertained, he had been contaminated by a diseased cadaver in Frankfurt. His health so deteriorated that his friend Dr. Frey convinced him to enter the Basel hospital. In deep despondency, Beddoes tried to end his life by severing a blood vessel in his leg. The bleeding was stopped, but a later gangrene infection led to partial amputation of the leg in October 1848. In January 1849, Beddoes wrote his sister, explaining his condition as the result of a riding accident. Sometime in that month, Beddoes secured a dosage of the poison curari, and his body was found in his disheveled room on 26 January 1849, in his 45th year. In a penciled note to an English friend, he called himself “food for what I am good for—worms.” He sent affectionate remembrances to his sister and his English relatives, and he commissioned Kelsall “to print or not as he sees fit” his literary effects. He also made this sad assessment of his life: “I ought to have been among other things a good poet.”
A short obituary notice appeared in the April 1849 issue of the London publication The Gentleman’s Magazine, recalling Beddoes as the son of the famous Bristol physician Dr. Thomas Beddoes and as the author of The Brides’ Tragedy, over a quarter of a century earlier.
The nature of Beddoes’ hapless end was not made immediately known to the world. Dr. Frey communicated to the poet’s family and friends that Beddoes’ end, though distressing, had been from natural causes. It was only when Beddoes’ brother, dissatisfied with the saccharine picture the poet’s physician-friend painted of the events of January 1849 and finding it incongrouous with recollections he and the family had of the dissipated kinsman they had endured in 1847, pursued his own investigations that the truth of his suicide began to emerge. The suicide note was included in Beddoes’ effects which eventually came into Kelsall’s possession.
The box containing Beddoes’ literary effects was delivered to his long-time friend Kelsall soon after the poet’s death, and his play Death’s Jest-Book, over 25 years in composition and revision, was finally published in 1850. The Beddoes family was mixed in their reaction to posthumous publications of the works of their eccentric kinsman. Kelsall did find that the literary community of the 1850s and 1860s was willing to show a modicum of interest in Beddoes, and he found admiration of his late friend’s unusual oeuvre in such personages as Lord Tennyson, Meredith, and Landor. But Kelsall came to place the greater part of his hopes on Robert Browning, who had expressed an interest in Beddoes’ work. Kelsall began a correspondence with Browning about Beddoes’ work in 1867, and for the next five years Kelsall tried to inculcate in Browning enough interest in Beddoes for the former to edit a collection with his august name attached. Over the next few years he sent samples of Beddoes’ manuscripts to Browning, who was kind in his responses. Finally Browning agreed to be the recipient of the whole parcel of Beddoesiana, including the suicide note. In 1873 the widowed Mrs. Kelsall sent the box, thereafter known in Beddoes circles as the Browning Box, to Browning, but sent a letter marked “Private” beforehand saying that Browning was to open the package in private.
Browning never did the edition of Beddoes that Kelsall anticipated. In fact, it was ten years before Browning paid much attention to the Beddoes manuscripts, and that came at the insistence of one of the most problematical of scholars in the history of British literature, Edmund Gosse, who approached Browning about the contents. In 1883 Browning let Gosse have a transcription made of the papers—a task done by the scholar James Dykes Campbell, a fortuitous act, since after Browning’s passing in Venice in 1889 no more was ever heard of the tin box. Browning’s son simply surmised that it was lost.