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Al Alvarez

Poet on Poet of the Week on Wednesday, 25 May 2022

On Thomas Lovell Beddoes

John Ashbery

Thomas Lovell Beddoes was born in Clifton, Shropshire, in 1803, to a distinguished and eccentric
family. His mother was a sister of the novelist Maria Edgeworth; his father, often referred to in
his time as 'the celebrated Dr Beddoes', was a colleague of Sir Humphry Davy, who lived with the
Beddoes family and taught at the Pneumatic Institution in Clifton, where Dr Beddoes administered
laughing-gas to Coleridge. The doctor also tried his hand at poetry; his long poem 'Alexander's
Expedition down the Hydaspes and the Indus to the Indian Ocean' has been called 'one of the
strangest books in English'.

As a student at Charterhouse School, Beddoes wrote prose narratives of which only Scaroni
survives, and probably began there his long poem 'in three fyttes', The Improvisatore,
which he would publish with other juvenilia in 1821 as a pamphlet while still an undergraduate at
Oxford. These early works promise little for the future except their ghoulish atmosphere, which
was to remain a constant. His next volume, the only other one published during his lifetime, was
The Brides' Tragedy, which appeared the following year and was a critical success. In 1825
Beddoes left England to study medicine in Göttingen where he eventually received his MD. He
would spend most of the remainder of his life on the continent, frequently in trouble with the
authorities for drunken and disorderly behaviour and for his involvement in radical political
movements. He lived for a year with a Russian Jewish student named Bernhard Reich, who may be
the 'loved, longlost boy' of 'Dream Pedlary'. During his last years his companion was a young
baker named Konrad Degen, who later became an actor of note. A pleasant stay of seven years in
Zurich ended with Beddoes' expulsion on political grounds. In June 1848 he left Degen behind in
Frankfurt and returned to Switzerland, where he put up at the Cigogne Hotel in Basle; the next
morning he cut open an artery in his leg with a razor, gangrene set in and the leg was amputated
below the knee. Finally, on 26 January 1849, he succeeded in taking his life with poison, having
written the same day to his executor, Revell Phillips: 'I am food for what I am good for
- worms.'

Beddoes has often been called a 'poet of fragments', most of which are embedded in unfinished
Jacobean-style tragedies. Their dramatic structure has the form of quicksand, in which dazzling
shreds of poetry sink or swim. His magnum opus was to have been Death's Jest Book, a kind of
bottomless pit that absorbed most of his creative energies during his final years. As in all his
plays, the plot is murky to the point of incomprehensibility, and the characters exist mainly to
mouth Beddoes' extraordinary lines, though they do collide messily with one another. One critic
has observed that they have 'the essential unity of dream characters' who meet 'in the dreamer'
and are merely 'emanations of the central idea'. All this does result in a bizarre kind of
theatricality, and it might be interesting to try to sit through a staged version of Death's
Jest Book. Unlikelier closet dreams have made it to the boards.

Death was Beddoes' main subject, both as a poet and as a medical man; he seems relaxed and happy
only when writing about it. Pound (in the Pisan Cantos) mentions 'Mr Beddoes/(T.L.) prince
of morticians . . . centuries hoarded/to pull up a mass of algae/(and pearls).' Any anthologist
is bound to include a bit of the former (the creepy 'Oviparous Tailor', for instance) as well as
some of the latter, and none can avoid 'Dream Pedlary': his most anthologized poem, it is also
one of the most seamlessly beautiful lyrics in the English language.

Pound evokes 'the odour of eucalyptus or sea wrack' in Beddoes; one could add those of rose,
sulphur and sandalwood to this unlikely but addictive bouquet. Edmund Gosse, whose landmark
edition of Beddoes' work appeared in 1890, got it almost right in his preface: 'At the feast of
the muses he appears bearing little except one small savoury dish, some cold preparation, we may
say, of olives and anchovies, the strangeness of which has to make up for its lack of importance.
Not every palate enjoys this hors d'oeuvre, and when that is the case, Beddoes retires;
he has nothing else to give. He appeals to a few literary epicures, who, however, would deplore
the absence of this oddly flavoured dish as much as that of any more important piece de
resistance.' One should qualify that by adding that in the century since it was written, the
little band has swollen to something like a hungry horde, avid for what Pater called 'something
that exists in this world in no satisfying measure, or not at all.'



One drop of Manna in a shower of brine.


Sailing together
Over that heaven painted in the sea
Which leans its curly head o'er Naples' shoulder,
We oft have marked two cities, one above
Climbing the coast, and underneath another,
Its watery twin even to the upper suburb.


A ship alone upon the sea
And at its prow a gray old man.


Thy gloomy features, like a midnight dial,
Scowl the dark index of a fearful hour.

      x. Rosily Dying

I'll take that fainting rose
Out of his breast; perhaps some sigh of his
Lives in the gyre of its kiss-coloured leaves.
O pretty rose, hast thou thy flowery passions?
Then put thyself into a scented rage,
And breathe on me some poisonous revenge.
For it was I, thou languid, silken blush,
Who orphaned thy green family of thee,
In thy closed infancy: therefore receive
My life, and spread it on thy shrunken petals,
And give to me thy pink, reclining death.


The ghost of wasps shall haunt thee, naughty bud.


Bury him deep. So damned a work should lie
Nearer the Devil than man. Make him a bed
Beneath some lock-jawed hell, that never yawns
With earthquake or eruption; and so deep
That he may hear the devil and his wife
In bed, talking secrets.



Honoured Miss H.
On my visage
     You might see
Smiles of pleasure
Without measure,
     Fol de ree,
Since I'm writing
And inviting
     You to T.

If I'm not wrong,
Fine strong souchong
     From Miss Sally,
Extra Hyson,
Teacake, a nice one,
Will be smelling
At six right well in
     This here valley.

But here the muse
     Lays down her lyre -
Pray don't refuse,
     And bring the Squire.



      Act I, Scene i

Hesperus: Of all the posy
Give me the rose, though there's a tale of blood
Soiling its name. In elfin annals old
'Tis writ, how Zephyr, envious of his love,
(The love he bore to Summer, who since then
Has weeping visited the world;) once found
The baby Perfume cradled in a violet;
('Twas said the beauteous bantling was the child
Of a gay bee, that in his wantonness
Toyed with a peabud in a lady's garland;)
The felon winds, confederate with him,
Bound the sweet slumberer with golden chains,
Pulled from the wreathed laburnum, and together
Deep cast him in the bosom of a rose,
And fed the fettered wretch with dew and air.
At length his soul, that was a lover's sigh,
Waned from his body, and the guilty blossom
His heart's blood stained. The twilight-haunting gnat
His requiem whined, and harebells tolled his knell,
And still the bee in pied velvet dight
With melancholy song from flower to flower
Goes seeking his lost offspring.


       (unknown play)

     A. The king looks well, red in its proper place
The middle of the cheek, and his eye's round
Black as a bit of night.
     B. Yet men die suddenly:
One sits upon a strong and rocky life,
Watching a street of many opulent years,
And Hope's his mason. Well! to-day do this,
And so to-morrow; twenty hollow years
Are stuffed with action: - lo! upon his head
Drops a pin's point of time; tick! quoth the clock,
And the grave snaps him.
     A. Such things may have been;
The crevice 'twixt two after-dinner minutes,
The crack between a pair of syllables
May sometimes be a grave as deep as 'tis
From noon to midnight in the hoop of time.
But for this man, his life wears ever steel
From which disease drops blunted. If indeed
Death lay in the market-place, or were - but hush!
See you the tremble of that myrtle bough?
Doth no one listen?
     B. Nothing with a tongue:
The grass is dumb since Midas, and no Aesop
Translates the crow or hog. Within the myrtle
Sits a hen-robin, trembling like a star,
Over her brittle eggs.
     A. Is it no more?
     B. Nought: let her hatch.




If there were dreams to sell,
     What would you buy?
Some cost a passing bell;
     Some a light sigh,
That shakes from Life's fresh crown
Only a roseleaf down.
If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the crier rung the bell,
     What would you buy?


A cottage lone and still,
     With bowers nigh,
Shadowy, my woes to still,
     Until I die.
Such pearl from Life's fresh crown
Fain would I shake me down.
Were dreams to have at will,
This would best heal my ill,
     This I would buy.


But there were dreams to sell,
     Ill didst thou buy;
Life is a dream, they tell,
     Waking, to die.
Dreaming a dream to prize,
Is wishing ghosts to rise;
     And, if I had the spell
     To call the buried, well,
     Which one would I?


If there are ghosts to raise,
     What shall I call,
Out of hell's murky haze,
     Heaven's blue hall?
Raise my loved longlost 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!


       (from Love's Arrow Poisoned)

What's going on in my heart and in my brain,
My blood, my life, all over me, all through me?
It cannot last! quickly I shall not be
What I am now. - Oh I am changing, changing,
Dreadfully changing. - Aye, even as I stand
A transformation will come over me,
I am unsouled, dishumanised, and now
My passions swell and grow like brutes conceived;
My feet will soon be fixed - and every limb
Be swollen, distorted, till I am become
A wild old mountain, forest over-grown,
And have a dreadful tempest for a voice;
Aye, the abhorred conscience of this murder,
It will grow up a Lion, all alone,
A mighty-maned, grave-mouthed prodigy,
And live within my caves; - the other passions,
Some will be snakes, and bears, and savage wolves -
And when I lie tremendous in the desart
Or abandoned sea, murderers and idiot men
Will come to live upon my ragged sides,
Die and be buried in me. - Now it comes,
I break and magnify. - Heaven pours down sleet
And snow and hail, and hell rains up its fire.


       (from The Ivory Gate)

A thousand buds are breaking
          Their prisons silently;
A thousand birds are making
          Their nests in leafy tree;
A thousand babes are waking
          On woman's breast to-day;

          Is born to man, to-day
          Beneath the sun of May:
Whence come ye, babes of flowers, and, Children, whence come we?

The snow falls by thousands into the sea;
     A thousand blossoms covers
          The forsaken forest,
     And on its branches hovers
          The lark's song thousandfold;
     And maidens hear from lovers
          A thousand secrets guessed
          In June's abundant breast
          Before and yet are blessed -
Whence, blossoms rich, birds bold, beloved maidens, whence come ye?

The snow falls by thousands into the sea;
     A thousand flowers are shedding
          Their leaves all dead and dry;
     A thousand birds are threading
          Their passage through the sky;
     A thousande mourners treading
               The tearful churchyard way
               In funeral array:
Birds, whither fly ye? - whither, dead, pass ye?
The snow falls by thousands into the sea.


      An abandoned fragment

Flowed many a woodbird's voice, and insects played
On wings of diamond o'er the murmuring tide,
So on the billows of thy ocean's heaven,
Dark with the azure weight of midnight hours,
Thy marble shadow like a root of towers
Young city of the sea, -


      Act I, Scene ii

Orazio . . . Sweet, did you like the feast?
Armida Methought, 'twas gay enough.
Orazio Now, I did not.
'Twas dull: all men spoke slow and emptily.
Strange things were said by accident. Their tongues
Uttered wrong words: one fellow drank my death,
Meaning my health; another called for poison,
Instead of wine; and, as they spoke together,
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.
Armida Nay, you are ill, my lord:
'Tis mere melancholy.
Orazio There were deep hollows
And pauses in their talk; and then, again,
On tale and song and jest and laughter rang,
Like a fiend's gallop. By my ghost, 'tis strange.

      Act III, Scene ii

Thou dost me wrong. Lament! I'd have thee do't:
The heaviest raining is the briefest shower.
Death is the one condition of our life:
To murmur were unjust; our buried sires
Yielded their seats to us, and we shall give
Our elbow-room of sunshine to our sons.
From first to last the traffic must go on;
Still birth for death. Shall we remonstrate then?
Millions have died that we might breathe this day:
The first of all might murmur, but not we.
Grief is unmanly too.


      Act I, Scene iv

     Torrismond We talk like fighting boys:
Out on't! I repent of my mad tongue.
Come, sir; I cannot love you after this,
But we may meet and pass a nodding question -
     Duke. Never! 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 Ætna,
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!
If I do not forgive thee then - but hence!
Gaudentio, hence with him, for in my eyes
He does look demons. -
     Melchior (to TORRISMOND ) Come out with me and leave him:
You will be cool, to-morrow.
     Torris. That I shall;
Cool as an ice-drop in a dead man's eye,
For winter is the season of the tomb,
And that's my country now.


      Act V, Scene iii

     Wolfram: As I was newly dead, and sat beside
My corpse, looking on it, as one who muses
Gazing upon a house he was burnt out of,
There came some merry children's ghosts to play
At hide-and-seek in my old body's corners [. . .]

      Act I, Scene iii

  Wolfram: This is the oft-wished hour, when we together
May walk upon the sea-shore: let us seek
Some greensward overshadowed by the rocks.
Wilt thou come forth? Even now the sun is setting
In the triumphant splendour of the waves.
Hear you not how they leap?
     Sibylla: Nay; we will watch
The sun go down upon a better day:
Look not on him this evening.
     Wolfram: Then let's wander
Under the mountain's shade in the deep valley,
And mock the woody echoes with our songs.
    Sibylla: That wood is dark, and all the mountain caves
Dreadful and black, and full of howling winds:
Thither we will not wander.
     Wolfram: Shall we seek
The green and golden meadows, and there pluck
Flowers for thy couch, and shake the dew out of them?
     Sibylla: The snake that loves the twilight is come out,
Beautiful, still, and deadly; and the blossoms
Have shed their fairest petals in the storm
Last night; the meadow's full of fear and danger.
    Wolfram: Ah! you will to the rocky fount, and there
We'll see the fireflies dancing in the breeze,
And the stars trembling in the trembling water,
And listen to the daring nightingale
Defying the old night with harmony.
   Sibylla: Nor that: but we will rather here remain,
And earnestly converse.

      Act III, Scene iii

Siegfried: How? do you rhyme too?
    Isbrand: Sometimes, in leizure moments
And a romantic humour; this I made
One night a-strewing poison for the rats
In the kitchen corner.
    Duke: And what's your tune?
    Isbrand: What is the night-bird's tune, wherewith she startles
The bee out of his dream and the true lover,
And both in the still moonshine turn and kiss
The flowery bosoms where they rest, and murmuring
Sleep smiling and more happily again?
What is the lobster's tune when he is boiled?
I hate your ballads that are made to come
Round like a squirrel's cage, and round again.
We nightingales sing boldly from our hearts:
So listen to us.


      The Ballad

He reads
'Harpagus, hast thou salt enough,
     Hast thou broth enough to thy kid?
And hath the cook put right good stuff
     Under the pasty lid?'

'I've salt enough, Astyages,
     And broth enough in sooth;
And the cook hath mixed the meat and grease
     Most tickling to my tooth.'

So spake no wild Red Indian swine,
     Eating a forest rattle-snake:
But Harpagus, that Mede of mine,
     And King Astyages so spake.

'Wilt have some fruit? Wilt have some wine?
     Here's what is soft to chew;
I plucked it from a tree divine,
     More precious never grew.'

Harpagus took the basket up,
     Harpagus brushed the leaves away;
But first he filled a brimming cup,
     For his heart was light and gay.

And then he looked, and saw a face,
     Chopped from the shoulders of some one;
And who alone could smile in grace
     So sweet? Why, Harpagus, thy son.

'Alas!' quoth the king, 'I've no fork,
     Alas! I've no spoon of relief,
Alas! I've no neck of a stork
     To push down this throttling grief.

'We've played at kid for child, lost both;
     I'd give you the limbs if I could;
Some lie in your platter of broth:
     Good-night, and digestion be good.'

Now Harpagus said not a word,
     Did no eye-water spill:
His heart replied, for that had heard;
     And hearts' replies are still.

      The Application

A cannibal of his own boy,
     He is a cannibal uncommon;
And Harpagus, he is my joy,
     Because he wept not like a woman.

From the old supper-giver's poll
     He tore the many-kingdomed mitre;
To him, who cost him his son's soul,
     He gave it; to the Persian fighter:
               And quoth,
'Old art thou, but a fool in blood:
     If thou has made me eat my son,
Cyrus hath ta'en his grandsire's food;
     There's kid for child, and who has won?

'All kingdomless is thy old head,
     In which began the tyrannous fun;
Thou'rt slave to him, who should be dead:
     There's kid for child, and who has won?'



     Wee, wee tailor,
     Nobody was paler
     Than wee, wee tailor;
And nobody was thinner.
Hast thou mutton-chops for dinner,
My small-beer sinner,
My starveling rat, - but haler, -
     Wee, wee tailor?

Below his starving garret
Lived an old witch and a parrot, -
     Wee, wee tailor, -
Cross, horrid, and uncivil,
For her grandson was the Devil,
Or a chimney-sweeper evil:
She was sooty, too, but paler, -
     Wee, wee tailor.

Her sooty hen laid stale eggs,
And then came with his splay legs
     Wee, wee tailor,
And stole them all for dinner;
Then would old witch begin her
Damnations on the sinner, -
'May the thief lay eggs, - but staler;'
     Wee, wee tailor.

     Wee, wee tailor,
Witch watched him like a jailor.
     Wee, wee tailor
Did all his little luck spill.
Tho' he swallowed many a muck's pill,
Yet his mouth grew like a duck's bill,
Crowed like a hen, - but maler, -
     Wee, wee tailor.

Near him did cursed doom stick,
As he perched upon a broomstick, -
     Wee, wee tailor.
It lightened, rained, and thundered,
And all the doctors wondered
When he laid above a hundred
     Gallinaceous eggs, - but staler -
          Wee, wee tailor.

A hundred eggs laid daily;
No marvel he looked palely, -
     Wee, wee tailor.
Witch let folks in to see some
Poach'd tailor's eggs; to please 'em
He must cackle on his besom,
     Till Fowl-death did prevail o'er
          Wee, wee tailor.
Taken from 'Poets on Poets'...
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