Poetry is a horrible waste of time

Frances Wilson

‘I ought to have been among other things a good poet,’ Thomas Lovell Beddoes wrote in the postscript to the brief and perfunctory note he left before swallowing a lethal dose of poison. He was 45 years old and had published nothing, save the odd poem, for a quarter of a century. In 1821, as a precocious Oxford undergraduate, he had brought out a volume called The Improvisatore, which was followed in 1822 by a verse drama, The Brides’ Tragedy. But he was so ashamed of the former, which contained lines such as ‘The snow is falling featherily’, that he destroyed all the copies he could find (friends discovered that the pages of their editions had been cut out and the hollowed books returned to the shelves).

Beddoes would have been relieved to know that Judith Higgens and Michael Bradshaw have included none of The Improvisatore in their new and revised selection of his poetry. From The Brides’ Tragedy we get only highlights, but enough to see Beddoes’s developing skill as a poet. The intensity of his imagery and the often thrilling beauty of his language earned him reviews unequalled for one so young – no one thought that Byron’s and Shelley’s juvenilia promised as much as this. Take Lenora’s speech after her daughter’s murder:

                                         It is the morning,
And she has risen to tend her favourite flowers,
And wearied with the toil leans o’er her seat
In silent languor. Now I will steal in
Softly: perchance she sleeps. It’s plain she hears not,
Or she would leap all-smiling to my arms.

After 1822 there was silence, although Beddoes continued to write for the rest of his life. Hence Ian Jack’s remark that he was ‘a man of genius who wrote nothing that is commonly remembered’.

There is something troubling in those last words that Beddoes wrote, something which snags and won’t go away. The problem seems to be in his attitude to poetry rather than to death, although the two were inseparable in his aesthetic. This much, if nothing else, he is remembered for: he is cited ad nauseam as the poet of death. His suicide was the culmination of a lifetime’s obsession with extinction, inherited no doubt from his father, ‘the celebrated Dr Beddoes’, philanthropist, scientist (he invented laughing gas) and sometime poet, who was so admired by Coleridge. Dr Beddoes encouraged his young son to observe him at work dissecting animals in his Clifton laboratory, and Thomas became so preoccupied with the process of cutting open that as an adult he talked of his poems not being read but dissected and of his writing not as a gathering together of parts but as a dismemberment: ‘My unhappy devil of a tragedy is ... done and done for; its limbs being scattered and unconnected,’ he said of Death’s Jest-Book (whose limbs are further scattered and unconnected in the portions selected here by Higgens and Bradshaw, who can give us only 39 pages of the drama). In a necromantic experiment conducted shortly before his death, he cut open an artery in his left leg. His ‘peg’, as he put it, had to be amputated and his subsequent lameness became a metaphor for the lack of poetic progress which had dogged the last twenty years of his life.

Beddoes was five when his awesome father died: Dr Death was now dead himself, and his son was equipped with ample facts and endless fantasies about what happened next in the cycle. The curious experiences of his childhood worm their way into Beddoes’s obsessive poetry:

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