Friday, March 30, 2012

Dance and be merry, for Death’s a droll fellow - laughing with Thomas Lovell Beddoes

The case of Thomas Lovell Beddoes in entirely different than that of his fellow Norton Anthology refugee George Darley.  His masterpiece Death’s Jest-Book (1850) is in print in a nice edition, a Beddoes Society exists, and some scholars do some work on him.  Last Friday poet and translator George Szirtes spent some valuable Twitter resources broadcasting Beddoes poems (today was Matthew Prior), which was fun for me.  Beddoes is a strange poet and a bad fit for a survey course, but his poems are unique.

Or unique but derivative, since Death’s Jest-Book is an authentic five-act blank verse imitation Shakespearean play, although even more than Shakespeare filled with songs:

As sudden thunder
     Pierces night;
As magic wonder,
     Wild affright,
Rives asunder
     Men’s delight:
Our ghost, our corpse and we
           Rise to be.  (I. iv.)

Those last lines could form a motto for Beddoes.  He is the most death-obsessed poet I know.  Death’s Jest-Book could be the name of his collected works.  Although desperately weird, Beddoes is not particularly gloomy.  The emphasis should be on “jest” as much as “death”:

ISBRAND:  Then you shall have a ballad of my making.
SIEGFRIED:  How? do you rhyme too?
ISBRAND:  Sometimes, in leisure moments
And a romantic humour; this I made
One night a-strewing poison for the rats
In the kitchen corner.  ( III. iii.)

Then Isbrand sings his song, in which the ghost of an unborn child “Squats on a toadstool under a tree” and speculates on what sort of creature it should become; a crocodile, perhaps, with its own song (“Catch a mummy by the leg / And crunch him with an upper jaw”), or a worm or snake (“’Tis pleasant to need no shirt, breeches, or shoe”), but not a camel or duck “notwithstanding the music of quack / And the webby, mud-patting toes.”

Much of the pleasure of Beddoes is obviously just in the language, in the surprising things he does with it.  In this way he really is an heir of his Elizabethan and Jacobean models, of Shakespeare and Webster and Tourneur.  I am always in suspense: what crazy thing will Beddoes come up with next?

The play, the plot of which I barely remember, because things that make no sense are hard to remember, climaxes not just with the revenge tragedy’s usual pile of corpses, but with a literal Dance of Death, as painted skeletons descend from the wall of a tomb and sing:

Mummies and skeletons, out of your stones;
    Every age, every fashion, and figure of Death:
The death of the giant with petrified bones;
     The death of the infant who never drew breath.
Little and gristly, or bony and big,
     White and clattering, grassy and yellow;
The partners are waiting, so strike up a jig,
     Dance and be merry, for Death’s a droll fellow.  (V. iv.)

I can see how it would be pedagogically irresponsible to expose sensitive youngsters to this sort of thing.  To older folks like me, Beddoes is bracing, a classic in the canon of poetic weirdness.

My antique Beddoes post is back here.  It has nothing to recommend it but more Beddoes, including his stunning crocodile poem (“The brown habergeon of his limbs enameled / With sanguine almandines and rainy pearl”).

I am pulling my fragments of Beddoes from the 1999 Selected Poetry, eds. Judith Higgens and Michael Bradshaw, Carcanet Press.


  1. Any writer who faces death with something more than shallow reassurances or absolute despair is someone I want to read.

    And nice on the ducks!

  2. That poetry reminds me a bit of George Macdonald's poetry, in At the Back of the North Wind, for instance. There's another weird guy who faces death with a sort of mystic cheerfulness.

  3. I love the line about the ducks.

    It is not that Beddoes is never morbid or, I don't know, sickly, maybe, but at his best he really does make Death a droll fellow, an ordinary part of life. No strike that, an extraoridinary part of life.

    George MacDonald - interesting - plausible. Author of Beddoes for children, or sweet & gentle Beddoes. Both were pretty darn weird.

  4. "this I made
    One night a-strewing poison for the rats
    In the kitchen corner."

    That's uproariously funny! I have to find a copy of this play.

  5. Beddoes is full of lines like that - I think: "What did he just say?"