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Driving fate, from death to the eternal depths of fire.

Thomas Lovell Beddoes was the kind of person that would have a huge impact on anyone who gets the opportunity to become just a little familiarized with him. His almost morbid appearance, his brilliant sarcasm, his erratic behaviour, augmented by his lifelong obsession with death turn him into one of the most eccentric characters of the nineteenth century. Reaching the pinnacle of his literary career at the age of nineteen with the publication of The Brides Tragedy, he seemed headed for a brilliant career as a writer. He was praised for his delightful imagination, for his vigorous poetic expression and for his originality, and he quickly came to be known as a poet "of great hope and of very considerable performance" (Cornwall 1823: 16972), an expectation that he would fail to fulfil--the first of a long line of failures that would determine his obscure transition through life.

Come with me into the quiet tomb

Born on 30 June 1803 in Cliffton, Beddoes was the eldest son of the charismatic and unconventional physician, Thomas Beddoes, and of Anna Edgeworth, sister of the famous novelist Maria Edgeworth. The family's male line, with Beddoes included, exhibited a "rational eccentricity" that would manifest itself in various forms, while the female line was much more inclined to normality and gracefulness (Snow 1928: 3). Extremely rational, disrespectful of any religious belief, uninterested in moral, social, and even professional formalities, Dr. Beddoes was a legend himself. He was quite prolific as a writer, signing a considerable number of works in the field of medicine, chemistry, biology, philosophy, politics and even literature. Science, however, was his main preoccupation and he made a name for himself with the lectures on chemistry at Oxford and with the medical experiments he conducted at the Pneumatic Institute in Bristol. And yet, because of his wide range of interests, Dr. Beddoes seems to have lacked the strength to channel his efforts in one direction, a deficiency that would also affect his son's career, as the poet himself admitted in a letter to Thomas Forbes Kelsall: "What my intentions further may be I cannot say precisely, as I am not altogether endowed with the polar virtue of perseverance, and the needle with which I embroidered my cloth of life has not been rubbed with the magnet of steady determination." (apud Gosse 1894: 71)

As unfair as it may seem to assume that much of Beddoes's erratic and unconventional lifestyle is the result of Dr. Beddoes's influence on his son, since the poet was only five years old when the father died, we cannot disavow the impact of the legacy he grew up with, nor of the few memories he must have had of his father. As a physician, he insisted on children's emotional well-being and repeatedly declared that they "should be kept unacquainted with despondency" (Snow 1928: 6). And yet, he wanted his children to have a proper scientific education and therefore he did not refrain from performing autopsies on chickens and cats in front of his terrified little children (Johnson 1963: 447). These recurring episodes must have caused quite an indelible impression in the mind of the young poet and even though any direct consequences of these events remain unreported, if we consider Beddoes's subsequent choice of theme for his artistic creation, as well as his career option, we may very well assume that this is where his literary and scientific fascination with death begins.

Beddoes's heritage was as much literary as it was scientific. His father also ventured upon writing poetry, but the creative drive that enabled the young poet to produce literary works seems to have been inherited from his mother's side of the family. During the frequent visits to Edgeworthstown, where his maternal grandfather lived, Beddoes spent much of his time with his aunt who used to read them moral stories or fragments of her novel The Absentee (Snow 1928: 8). The grandfather, Mr. Edgeworth, was the absolute monarch of his household, an elaborate establishment in which twenty-two children, sisters-in-law and various grandchildren lived in complete harmony. Like Dr. Beddoes himself, he was also a man of many talents. Despite his difficult task of managing a large estate, Mr. Edgeworth still found the time to test his engineering skills by trying (and failing) to deflect the course of a river, his writing and educational skills by working with his daughter, Maria, on a treatise on Practical Education, and also his inventor skills by patenting several products with no significant importance. As it appears, the Edgeworthstown family lacked the "sense of the grotesque" and Beddoes was brought up in that atmosphere in which the "emphasis was all upon independent thought and the action which logically followed it, regardless of how fantastic such action might appear to other eyes. Merely routine thinking had no place in such an atmosphere, and an hereditary contempt for formalism and the shells of things was reinforced by every influence of his childhood." (Snow 1928: 10)

Nevertheless, the scientific influence in the poet's life does not end with him living at the grandfather's estate and witnessing Mr. Edgeworth's frequent failures. When Dr. Beddoes died, his children were left under the guardianship of Sir Davies Gilbert, his father's close friend and a scientist himself, and when Mrs. Beddoes's health started to deteriorate, he took charge of the children's education. He sent Beddoes to Bath Grammar School where he studied until 1817, when he transferred to Charterhouse. Beddoes's tempestuousness and morbid inclinations must have been noticed even before being sent to school, but the first recollections of his eccentricities as a child only come from one of his schoolfellows, Charles Dacres Bevan, a minor student who, willingly or not, was part of Beddoes's frequent acts of insubordination: "The expression of his face was shrewd and sarcastic, with an assumption of sternness, as he affected the character of a tyrant and bully, though really not much of either; but a persevering and ingenious tormentor, as I knew to my cost." (Snow 1928: 12)


Always at war with both his schoolfellows and the masters who were unwilling to close their eyes at his frequent indiscretions, callous and obdurate, vindicative and yet picturesque, Beddoes exhibited many of the qualities of a "misunderstood genius." By the age of fifteen he was already familiar with the dramatic poets of the English Renaissance and also engaged in his own poetic endeavour. In 1819 he published his first poem in a newspaper and he was probably already working on his first published volume, The Improvisatore, a macabre narrative poem that foreshadowed Beddoes's taste for death, violence and degradation, the key elements in the "memento mori spectacle" (Neil 1998: 113) depicted in his poetry: "But on their best-loved flowers, that perished brood,/Cast their last kiss of perfume and of blood,/Tinge with their dying breath some opening bloom,/And breathe one sigh, then hurry to their tomb." (Beddoes 1890a: 212)

According to Bevan, the bulk of Beddoes's artistic creation, including The Brides' Tragedy which was published in 1822, was completed while he was still studying at Charterhouse. And yet, if The Improvisatore was labelled as juvenilia because of its lack of "the nervous vigour of the later style," its overwrought construction, its artificial language, and its excessive display of physical horrors (Strachey 1922: 243), The Brides' Tragedy, the poetical drama elaborated in the Elizabethan style, is the testimony of Beddoes's maturity as an artist. Despite its faults, the evocative images in which Eros and Thanatos surrender to each other in a fervent dance of death, the subtle use of irony, the extensive use of blank dramatic verse, turn The Brides' Tragedy into his first major poetical achievement which represents the beginning of a journey that should have ended with him becoming a great poet: "Shall I turn back and try to thrust my soul/In at her lips, and so re-animate/The beauteous casket while this body dies? I cannot: not the universe of breath/Could give those little lips their life again./I've huddled her into the wormy earth,/And left the guilty dagger at her side/ [...] Thanks for your merry voices; ye have waked/ A sudden hurry round about my heart,/I'll think it joy. Now for my second bride." (Beddoes 1890a: 148-149)

If there were dreams to sell, what would you buy?

The fame achieved by Beddoes while he was still an undergraduate college student was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it increased his self-confidence and it enabled him to invest even more time and effort in his artistic enterprise, but on the other, it also heightened his sense of superiority, made him even more contemptuous and indolent, and pushed him further away from his official studies. In 1823 he moved to London, although he had not taken his final examinations, and he only paid occasional visits to Oxford whenever he had to face arrear examinations. In the summer of 1825 he completed his college duties and took his bachelor's degree. Meanwhile, he had also worked on a volume of lyrical poems that should have been published under the title "Outidana," but because of the pleasure he took in scandalizing everyone around, he faced serious opposition and gave up that idea. However, this episode did not inhibit his literary activity and after his graduation he announced his friend Kelsall that he was planning to write another tragedy for which he already had the title: "Oxford is the most indolent place on earth I have fairly done nothing in the world but read a play or two of Schiller, Aeschylus, & Euripides--you I suppose read German now as fast as English. [...] I do not intend to finish that 2nd Brother you saw but am thinking of a very Gothic-styled tragedy for which I have a jewel of a name--Death's Jestbook--of course no one will ever read it--Mr. Milman (our poetry professor) has made me quite unfashionable here by denouncing me, as one of a 'villainous school.' I wish him another son." (Gosse 1894: 68)

If it had been published, "Outidana" would have proven Beddoes's continuous development as a poet. The volume contained twenty-eight poems inspired by the songs in The Brides' Tragedy, the unfinished dramas "The Second Brother," mentioned in the letter to Kelsall, and "Torrismond," as well as other poems (Baulch 2012: 112), among which "Pygmalion," which concluded the series and which draws on the myth created by Ovid, but unlike any of the other works that rely on the same myth to express the artist's triumph in his quest for perfection, Beddoes's version is more of a "violent rebellion of the life-force against the inevitability of death" (Miles 1999: 339), and in the world he creates in his poem, one that abounds with creative energy, it is unclear whether the genius who can create perfection has triumphed or not, since he dies before being able to enjoy his creation: "And now, Pygmalion, that weak life of thine/Shakes like a dew-drop in a broken rose,/Or incense parting from the altar-glows./'Tis the last look, and he is mad no more; By rule and figure he could prove at large/She never can be born, and from the shore/His foot is stretching into Charon's barge." (Beddoes 1890a: 26-7).

It seems that the "creative man is a riddle that we may try to answer in various ways, but always in vain" (Jung 2001: 171), and Beddoes's actions only come to reinforce this idea. If in May, 1825 he was talking enthusiastically about his literary plans, in July, 1825 he was already on his way to Germany to study medicine at the University of Gottingen. We do not know for sure why he took such a radical decision, but there are several facts in his biography that announce this moment.

As the son of a renowned physician, left in the care of another scientist who must have kept Dr. Beddoes's memory alive, the poet eventually came to understand and appreciate the legacy left by his father. Moreover, it is reported that his family was not at all satisfied with his artistic activity as one might expect. Long after his death they were willing to suppress any poetical work signed by him, but eager to publish anything related to medicine, a fact that could only make us believe that even in his youth he was advised to follow in his father's footsteps.

The next episode that might have contributed to his decision was the death of his mother in Italy, in 1824. By the time he learned about her illness he was too engaged in his literary projects and he did not rush to her bedside until it was too late. Soon after that he found himself in charge of his family and that was probably a task he did not want to accomplish, not because he did not care about his family, but because that was something he did not choose for himself, and he was not the type of man who accepted such a constraint. He appreciated too much his independence and the prospect of living near a family that was not at all sympathetic, neither towards his poetry, nor towards his strangeness, was simply unacceptable. (cf. Snow 1928: 60)

Another reason for abandoning both England and his literary career may be the frustration caused by the failure to publish "Outidana" combined with the great amount of pressure brought by his notoriety in the literary circles. Critics had high expectations which acted as both stimuli of his creativity and imagination and inhibitors of his determination to fulfil their expectations. All these factors compromised his ability to channel his energy towards completing his literary projects and despite his grandiose plans to produce a dramatic work that would astonish the audience, he was already on a path of no return: "He was seized with that inability to finish, that lack of an organic principle of poetical composition, which were to prevent him from mounting to those heights of which his facility and brilliancy seemed to promise him an easy ascent."(Gosse 1890: xxi)

By the time Beddoes had taken the decision to give up his seemingly promising literary career, he had already gone through episodes of extreme shyness and melancholy, which made him isolate himself from his few friends and family, as well as episodes of exuberant enthusiasm when he "flung himself into the whirl of London literary life, [...] got wittily drunk with Proctor, and failed of what he sought, spiritual ease" (Snow 1928: 34). That kind of mood swings is often associated with manic-depressive illness and although Beddoes was never properly diagnosed or treated for such a mood disorder, Kay Redfield Jamison put him on her long list of poets who presented the psychotic symptoms related to bipolar disorder and eventually committed suicide.

She argues that "changes or extremes in mood and experience alone do not guarantee good art. If, however, they are coupled with imagination and discipline, the possibilities for creating lasting and sustaining art may be greatly enhanced" (Jamison 1993: 117). Beddoes's imagination, educated in the Elizabethan spirit and refined by the Romantic influence, seemed to have no boundaries, but discipline was not among his virtues. He burnt himself out in the five exhaustive years preceding his departure for Germany; thereafter writing was more like a strange leisure activity. He felt a rather compulsive need to write, but because he was unable to produce anything new and spectacular, he kept revising his magnum opus, Death's Jest-Book, trying to prove that his recent immersion in the mysteries of medicine (anatomy) could not destroy his love for poetry, but rather enrich his verse: "I have been/Giving some negro minutes of the night/Freed from the slavery of my ruling spright/Anatomy the grim, to a new story/In whose satiric pathos we will glory./In it Despair has married wildest Mirth/And to their wedding-banquet all the earth/Is bade to bring its enmities and loves [...] For death is more 'jest' than life: you see/Contempt grows quick from familiarity./I owe this wisdom to Anatomy." (apud Gosse 1894: 93-5)

Dance and be merry, for Death's a droll fellow

Beddoes's life in Germany started on a cheerful note. If in England he was known as a promising young poet, but also as a troubled man of rationalist upbringing, contemptuous, aggressive, and aloof, Germany welcomed him as a valuable scientist. In 1825 he started his four-year long training in medicine and philosophy at the University of Gottingen. He almost immediately embraced the German lifestyle, the language, and even the German way of thinking. A whole new life seemed to lie ahead of him and he was willing to make the best of it. He eagerly plunged into his studies, still dreaming of the idea of becoming an accomplished poet one day: "I am perhaps somewhat independent, and have a competence adequate to my philosophical desires. There are reasons why I should reject too much practice, if it did intrude; really I am more likely to remain a patientless physician. And now I will end this unnecessary subject, by telling you that Death's Jest-Book goes on like the tortoise slow and sure; I think it will be entertaining, very unamiable, and utterly unpopular. Very likely it may be finished in the spring or summer." (cf. Gosse 1894: 81-2)

Soon after, however, poetry started to occupy a secondary place in Beddoes's mind. As much as he tried to convince himself and others that medicine and poetry worked perfectly together and that "the production and interpretation of dramatics art benefitted from medical studies such as anatomy, physiology, and psychology and vice versa" (Berns 2011: 18), he still could not stop his literary ambitions from melting into thin air. With the famous anatomist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach as his mentor and close friend, he dedicated all his time and energy to studying medicine. His little spare time was divided between morning calls at professor Blumenbach's house and occasional celebrations that often ended with "a general attack upon table benches, windows and heads" (Gosse 1894: 102) on account of alcohol abuse. That kind of behaviour would have been considered outrageous in England, but at Gottingen such episodes happened on a regular basis.

Unlike his Oxford experience, when he seemed to have settled for mediocrity, Beddoes became quite conscientious as a medical student. He had come to Germany to expand his horizons with physics, philosophy and a new culture, but anatomy caught his attention almost immediately and it became his main preoccupation. And yet, after long hours spent studying chemistry, anatomy, attending lectures and reading German and Greek, he still devoted some time to completing Death's Jest-Book, despite his increasing adversity towards it: "10 to 11. write a little Death's Jest-Book which is a horrible waste of time, but one must now and then throw aways the dregs of the day" (cf. Gosse 1894: 78-9). By the end of 1826 he described it to Kelsall as "my unhappy devil of a tragedy, which is done and done for, its limbs being as scattered and unconnected" (Gosse 1894: 110) but he only showed it to him two years later, when he visited England for a few days and took his Master's Degree at Oxford.

The visit to London proved to be quite unpleasant. Beddoes was appointed to hold a lecture on drama and found himself in the position of reading his work in an almost empty hall. His disappointment grew even bigger when he was informed by Proctor and Kelsall that he needed to revise and improve Death's Jest-Book in order to be published. Apparently, his friend, Proctor, simply could not overcome his concerns with the public reaction to the play's disclosure of political and sexual indiscretion, as well as to its homoeroticism (Berns & Bradshaw 2007: 98), so he decided against its publication. This fact, however, seems to have significantly diminished Beddoes's self-confidence. Like any creative person, he needed to feel his work appreciated and respected by his peers. He already feared failure, for he had experienced it once before, therefore the new rejection acted as a strong inhibitor not only of his creativity, but also of his wish to ever publish Death's Jest-Book.

There is no wonder then why Beddoes felt so comfortable in Germany. With an almost destroyed self-confidence, he returned to his country of adoption. He believed that the eccentricity for which he was so condemned in England was pretty much tolerated at Gottingen. Generally, eccentricity is a form of "people's antagonism to conventional values and entrenched ways of thinking" (Plucker 2011: 379). The differences between England's and Germany's tolerance towards Beddoes's eccentricities rested on the cultural and social differences between these two countries. If England rejected Beddoes's unconventional behaviour, his contempt for social rules, his over-rationalization, his lack of manners and his disputatious nature, Germany was willing to condone that. But the nineteenth century Germany had its limits as well. When eccentricity meant "perverse" or "wild" (Pina 2011: 422) and it violated the moral, religious and political code of the society, then tolerance was no longer shown.

In 1829 Beddoes ended his affairs with Gottingen. Being suspected for involvement in radical political activities, he was expelled from the university for having gotten drunk in public. At this point, he was already confronting with an existential anxiety that paved the way to his destruction. All his life he had been on a "quest to lay bare the relation of body and soul" (Neil 1998: 121). When he felt that his imagination had betrayed him, for not being able to create a literary work which could answer the questions that were tormenting him, he turned to reason, but now reason was failing him as well and he rapidly slipped into a state of melancholy that would make him contemplate the futility of life: "I am now already so thoroughly penetrated with the conviction of the absurdity and unsatisfactory nature of human life that I search with avidity for every shadow of a proof or probability of an after-existence both in the material & immaterial nature of man. Those people, perhaps they are few, are greatly to be envied who believe honestly and from conviction in the Xtian doctrines: but really in the New T. it is difficult to scrape together hints for a doctrine of immortality--Man appears to have found out this secret for himself & it is certainly the best part of all religion and philosophy, the only truth worth demonstrating: an anxious Question full of hope & fear, & promise for [which] Nature appears to have appointed one solution--Death." (apud Gosse 1894: 134-5)

Farewell! and be that word a road to death

Beddoes's next destination was Wurzburg and here he completed his medical training. However, it remains unclear whether he took his degree or not. While Gosse claims that Beddoes did take his degree, there are serious reasons to believe that he never actually received it, since he was banished from Wurzburg for political reasons (Snow 1928: 73). And yet, in Zurich, where he spent his next seven years, he practised medicine and he was even considered for a professorship. Apparently his reputation preceded him, but he did not obtain the position for having published nothing in the scientific field.

In the meantime, Beddoes became acutely estranged from his family and friends in England. Except for a brief, but troubled visit in 1835 when he scandalized an old schoolfellow with his aggressive rebelliousness, found out about his brother's marriage from a stranger and took care of his business affairs, Beddoes spent the happiest time of his life "in the pursuit of knowledge, not for professional distinction or financial gain, but for the personal satisfaction and pleasure which he derived from the mere acquisition" (Miller 1903: 309). And yet, the visit to England must have reminded him of his literary ambitions and in 1837 he reconnected with Kelsall and started working on "a volume of prosaic poetry and poetical prose" (Gosse 1894: 210) which should have been called "The Ivory Gate." He had also revised Death's Jest-Book and he was preparing for a literary comeback, but of course these plans were to be abandoned as abruptly as they were launched.

In 1839 Beddoes began a period of aimless wandering through Europe, right after his rather peaceful and happy life in Zurich had been suddenly interrupted by a peasants' rebellion. His declared political affinities put him at risk once again and he had to find a safer place for himself. He spent some time in Berlin, Frankfurt, London and several other places and eventually settled down in Basle where he was a practising homosexual living with a nineteen-year-old baker called Konrad Degen. In 1846 he returned to England for a longer stay. He was more acid in his commentaries, more erratic and more misanthropic than ever. He appeared at the front door of his relatives "out of obscurity riding upon a donkey, a gloomy philosopher subject to fits of terrible depression, and eccentric on the verge of madness."(Snow 1828: 110-1)

Theorists argue that "the expectation of madness continues to be part of a professional ideology of what it means to be truly creative" (Becker 2011: 70), and this is probably the first and the only expectation that Beddoes managed to fulfil. With writers like him, the relation between creativity and mental illness loses much of its controversial nature. He is the perfect example of a highly creative person, despite his inability to complete his projects, as well as the perfect subject for a psychiatric analysis, given his mood swings, his erratic behaviour, his eccentricity, his violent outbursts in his latter years, his misanthropy and his eventual suicide.

During the ten months spent in England Beddoes would either isolate himself in his room, refusing to see anybody, or he would scandalize the public opinion with all sorts of gestures, such as trying to set Drury Lane Theatre on fire in moments of extreme irritability. Back in Frankfurt, he contracted a virus from a dead body on which he was performing an autopsy. He had no problem overcoming the physical danger, but the incident triggered another episode of depression--his last one. He secluded himself from the world once again and he refused to see anyone but Degen. He never completely recovered and when Degen left him he attempted suicide for the first time. Seized with despair, he severed an artery in his leg after a sleepless night. Doctors saved his life, but their efforts to restore his health were futile, compared to his wish to be left to die. He systematically tore off his bandages and the infection eventually led to gangrene. Doctors had no other choice but to amputate his leg to save his life.

In the following months Beddoes set his affairs in order, made his will, and informed his family of his condition. Of course, his account of what happened to him was nothing more than an elaborate story that was meant to reassure his family that he was in good health again, for fear they should come to visit him. He wanted everyone to believe that he had regained his good mood, so that he could eventually fulfil his malignant wish to die. Not even Degen, who was near him again, managed to make him want to live and when he found an opportunity, he took advantage of his position as a physician and bought a poison called curare. On the 26th of January, 1849, he was found dead in his bed, with a goodbye note lying on his chest in which he speaks of his lifelong regret: "I am food for what I am good for worms [...] I ought to have been among other things a good poet." (Gosse 1894: 261-2)

Considering the poet's life history, his suicide may be regarded as Beddoes's final logical step in his quest for finding a meaning in death and beyond it. He was a troubled man--there is no doubt of that--a man who experienced every emotion at full intensity, and, as it often happens with oversensitive people, he took his everyday emotions, his sorrows, his fears, his frustrations and turned them all into an excruciating psychological pain (Shneidman 1996: 6-7) that tore him apart until he had nothing left to give and nothing left to fight for.


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Cristina Mandoiu University of Craiova

Cristinel Stefanescu Grigore T. Popa University of Medicine

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Author:Mandoiu, Cristina; Stefanescu, Cristinel
Publication:Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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