Thursday, October 4, 2007

Thomas Lovell-Beddoes: minor early Victorian poet

I’m saving the best for last. Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-49) was an itinerant medical student and political radical, son of another doctor (Thomas Beddoes), himself an important figure in English medical history. Shelley is the touchstone, again. Lovell-Beddoes had an unusual, death-obsessed imagination, leading to highly original poetry, often in the form of songs. Here a pair of crows, Adam and Eve, tell us how they plan to spend a rainy day:

Old Adam, the Carrion Crow

Old Adam, the carrion crow,
The old crow of Cairo;
He sat in the shower, and let it flow
Under his tail and over his crest;
And through every feather
Leaked the wet weather;
And the bough swung under his nest;
For his beak it was heavy with marrow.
Is that the wind dying? O no;
It's only two devils, that blow
Through a murderer's bones, to and fro,
In the ghosts' moonshine.

Ho! Eve, my gray carrion wife,
When we have supped on kings' marrow,
Where shall we drink and make merry our life?
Our nest is queen Cleopatra's skull,
'Tis cloven and cracked,
And battered and hacked,
But with tears of blue eyes it is full:
Let us drink then, my raven of Cairo.
Is that the wind dying? O no;
It's only two devils, that blow
Through a murderer's bones, to and fro,
In the ghosts' moonshine.

This song is from “Death’s Jest-Book”, a sort of play. Much of Beddoes best poems are actually fragments from plays, some never completed. The plays have some relationship to those great, terrifying masterpieces of John Webster and Cyril Tourneur, but Beddoes is not afraid to be even more bizarre and less coherent.

Here a fellow, who thinks he has poisoned himself*, takes time out for another song:

A cypress-bough, and a rose-wreath sweet,
A wedding robe, and a winding-sheet,
A bridal bed and a bier.
Thine be the kisses, maid,
And smiling Love's alarms;
And thou, pale youth, be laid
In the grave's cold arms.
Each in his own charms,
Death and Hymen both are here;
So up with scythe and torch,
And to the old church porch,
While all the bells ring clear:
And rosy, rosy the bed shall bloom,
And earthy, earthy heap up the tomb.

Now tremble dimples on your cheek,
Sweet be your lips to taste and speak
For he who kisses is near:
By her the bride-god fair,
In youthful power and force;
By him the grizard bare,
Pale knight on a pale horse,
To woo him to a corse.
Death and Hymen both are here,
So up with scythe and torch,
And to the old church porch,
While all the bells ring clear:
And rosy, rosy the bed shall bloom,
And earthy, earthy heap up the tomb.

This is hardly Beddoes’s strangest stuff. His poems are full of gibbets and skeletons. Curious how all of this death-stuff can be so enjoyable. That’s one thing poetry can do:

Thread the nerves through the right holes,
Get out of my bones, you wormy souls.

Or:

Dear and dear is their poisoned note,
The little snakes of silver throat,
In mossy skulls that nest and lie,
Ever singing ‘die! Oh die.’

Or the famous description of a crocodile and its companion:

Hard by the lilied Nile I saw
A duskish river-dragon stretched along,
The brown habergeon of his limbs enamelled
With sanguine almandines and rainy pearl:
And on his back there lay a young one sleeping,
No bigger than a mouse; with eyes like beads,
And a small fragment of its speckled egg
Remaining on its harmless, pulpy snout;
A thing to laugh at, as it gaped to catch
The baulking, merry flies. In the iron jaws
Of the great devil-beast, like a pale soul
Fluttering in rocky hell, lightsomely flew
A snowy trochilus**, with roseate beak
Tearing the hairy leeches from his throat.

Thomas Beddoes is a very narrow poet in some ways. But what riches.***

* Poor Beddoes actually poisoned himself, age 45.

** The crocodile bird is not actually a trochilus. Poetic license, or possibly ignorance.

*** I should have saved this post for Halloween. Don’t forget to join the Thomas Beddoes society!

4 comments:

  1. thank you that was delightful and you mentioned the Soc - who are you? may I ask....

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  2. I'm just one of those Common Readers Virginia Woolf mentions. A literature hobbyist. Maybe it's not so common to read Lovell-Beddoes any more, but that's not my problem.

    I'm not a Thomas Lovell-Beddoes Society member. It's too expensive for me, at least until the dollar gets its wind back.

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  3. Somebody's been reading The Visionary Company.

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  4. Somebody has not. Maybe somebody should.

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