THE LIFE OF THOMAS LOVELL BEDDOES (1803-1849) BY THE LATE 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
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.
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