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:

                                            Futurity
Broods on the ocean, hatching ’neath her wing
Invisible to man the century,
     That on its hundred feet, a sluggish thing
Gnawing away the world, shall totter by
    And sweep dead mortals with it. As I sing
        Time, the colossus of the world, that strides
        With each foot plunged in darkness silent glides,

And puffs death’s cloud upon us. It is vain
    To struggle with the tide; we all must sink
Still grasping the thin air, with frantic pain
    Grappling with Fame to buoy us. Can we think
Eternity, by whom swift Time is slain,
    And dragged along to dark destruction’s brink,
Shall be the echo of man’s puny words?

While his subject is often finality, in form his poems are as fragmented, raw and unresolved as the poet was himself; and its imperfections have caused his work to be dismissed by successive generations. His present editors suggest that the contemporary interest in ‘indeterminacy, fracture and defacement in Romantic literature’ may yet transform Beddoes’s ‘failings’ into privileged literary effects. But he has been critically exhumed and then reburied several times already, and there is no guarantee that this most recent attempt won’t join that doomed tradition.

Beddoes’s career began as those of Keats and Shelley ended. Keats died just months before The Improvisatore was published, and the following year – when Beddoes’s future as a poet and dramatist seemed secured – Shelley was drowned. Just when the path was cleared for him to succeed the two contemporaries he most admired, he decided to change the direction of his life and train as a doctor in Göttingen. Finding England bourgeois and dreary – ‘Drink Britannia, Britannia drink your Tea/For Britons, Bores and butter’d Toast; they all begin with B’ – he lived in Germany and Switzerland from 1825 until his death. He continued to write but in isolation, cutting himself off from literary circles and from the few friends he had, regretting, in a letter to Thomas Kelsall, that he had not yet replied to one from B.W. Procter (alias Barry Cornwall) received nine years before, although it had been on his mind to do so.

Beddoes became a doctor to protect the world from his writing. He also had to cure himself of his strange affliction: of an urge to destroy what he wrote which was as strong as his urge to write. To save himself he killed the writing, until he killed himself because the writing would not go away. No attempt by critics at writing Beddoes off has been so successful as his own endeavours to write himself out. He also wanted to be a dramatist and performed his own failure to become one, right down to the deathbed scene he constructed in January 1849 in Basle.

Having woken up aged 19 to find himself a poet, Beddoes’s subsequent life was an effort to lose himself as one. He was ‘contented with oblivion’, he said, as he found it harder and harder to write. His appearance in poetic history is ghostly, and after The Brides’ Tragedy Beddoes wrote poems in order to watch them die. In 1837 he produced a collection of verse and prose pieces called ‘An Ivory Gate’, which he was strongly encouraged by Thomas Kelsall to revise before printing. Either discouraged or having lost interest, Beddoes dropped the project. Death’s Jest-Book, his huge, wild dramatic masterpiece, was finished in 1828 and sent to Kelsall and Procter for comments. He was advised, perhaps wrongly, to revise it, and the drama was subsequently dissected by Beddoes for the rest of his life (it was published posthumously, in 1850). He grew to loathe the monster he had created but could not let it free. While he claimed that he wanted it published in order to create an explosion in British drama, it seems that he wanted it buried as well: Death’s Jest-Book was ‘stillborn’, he said, so there was no need to kill it either after or before publication. Beddoes was absorbed in something which was already dead.

It is customary to talk of poets like Beddoes as being ahead of their time, and in many ways he was: he was an anarchist, a rootless alien, a political malcontent, an existentialist; he was Underground Man. Ahead of him loomed the giants of Victorian letters, and it is easy to see that, had he lived the full term, he would hardly have been at ease in the company of Tennyson or Arnold, though he might have enjoyed a day’s drinking with Joyce. But it was not his modernity which crushed him – Beddoes was defeated by belatedness. When he began writing he was already too late, and his lateness exhausted and thwarted him. He was Lytton Strachey’s last Elizabethan; he looked back to the Jacobean dramatists as his inspiration, embracing their influence so thoroughly that one feels he must have feared his own originality, preferring to disguise himself in his writing as a Marlowe or Webster rather than come out as a late Romantic. Writing drama became a drama in itself, in which Beddoes was an actor adopting the voice of another dramatist. He once wrote that he wished theatres would dispense with the habit of producing bills telling us who the actors are. The drama must speak for itself – the identity of the actor is irrelevant and must be erased by the words he speaks, or which speak him.

This is clearly the effect Beddoes wanted to achieve with his own work: to vanish behind it Nothing, he wrote to Kelsall before meeting up with him again after twenty years, could be more ‘monotonous, dull and obscure’ than the ‘scenes of my existence’. No doubt this was one reason he liked the theatre so much but was unable to construct a fully formed, readable dramatic character: because, as Wallace Stevens said, ‘no one is ever simply himself but is always compounded of other people.’ For Beddoes the self was a graveyard, and his own was cluttered with the bodies of Keats and Shelley, Marlowe and Webster. Writing tragic drama legitimised his desire to resurrect the dead and dissect them.

So it is not the tone of weary resignation in his suicide note which haunts. Nor is it the maddening acceptance of his own limitations; these are Beddoes’s trademark characteristics. ‘I will frankly confess to you that I have lost much, if not all, of my ambition to become poetically distinguished,’ he wrote to Kelsall in 1825; ‘dissatisfaction is the lot of the poet,’ he wrote in 1827; by 1829: ‘I often very shrewdly suspect that I have no real poetical call’; and in 1844: ‘I think myself entitled to the thanks of the British public, for not having bothered them for the last twenty years.’ What is discordant in his note is the adjective ‘good’ – ‘I should have been ... a good poet.’ For what poet would ever aspire to the level of ‘good’, with its suggestions of acceptability and adequacy, its sheer ordinariness? At his best, Beddoes is startlingly brilliant: ‘You will be cool, tomorrow,’ Melchior says in ‘Torrismond’, an unfinished drama written in 1824. Torrismond replies: ‘That I shall;/Cool as an icedrop in a dead man’s eye.’ At his worst he is indigestible or exasperating:

Just now a beam of joy hung on his eye-lash;
But as I looked, it sunk into his eye,
Like a bruised worm writhing its form of rings
Into a darkening hole.

He is troublesome, absurd, darkly ironic. He is never innocent enough to be called ‘good’.

An iconoclast, who, as a protest against the state of English drama, tried to set fire to Drury Lane Theatre with a burning five pound note, an eccentric who arrived at a friend’s house on a donkey, Beddoes wanted to shock. Is to have been a ‘good’ poet really all he desired for his epitaph? Did he not want to be a better poet than Webster and Marlowe? Did he not want to be a great poet? Beddoes did not want the secondrateness which was being thrust on him but he refused to fight for recognition of his power. Rather than insist on his greatness he insisted on his worthlessness, over and over again. And yet the violence of his suicide is at odds with the modesty of his purported ambition. The suggestion of passive defeat in his final letter disguises his very real aggression, the fact that his life was a fight against art: determined to cast himself into obscurity, this was a battle he was committed to winning. He was afraid of his muse and would do anything to deafen the sound of poetry drumming in his head:

Up at five; anatomical reading till six; translation from English into German till seven; prepare for Blumenbach’s lecture on comparative anatomy, and breakfast, till eight; Blumenbach’s lecture till nine; Stromeyer’s lecture on chemistry till ten. Ten to half past twelve, practical zootomy; half past twelve till one, English into German or German literary reading, with a pipe. One to two, anatomical lecture. Two to three, anatomical reading; three to four, osteology; four to five, lecture in German language; five to six, dinner and light reading in zootomy, chemistry, or anatomy. Six to seven – this hour is often wasted in a visit; sometimes anatomical reading till eight; then coffee and read Greek till ten. Ten to eleven, Write a little Death’s Jest-Book, which is a horrible waste of time, but one must now and then throw away the dregs of the day; read Latin sometimes or even continue the anatomy – and at eleven go to bed.

Writing is a waste of time, a way of killing time, writing causes time to decay. Time is Beddoes’s enemy: no amount of filling time, timekeeping, or being on time can stop him from being late as a poet or make him more at one with his own time. Waste and dregs, like the corpses who stalk through his poems, are the leftovers we expel, and for Beddoes, poetry was the impure excess which must be got rid of. But by not printing his work, Beddoes was never able to be rid of it, which made the poems yet more abject and the time he had spent writing them yet more wasteful.

Were it not for the devotion of Thomas Kelsall, who collected his friend’s manuscripts and brought out an edition of his poems in 1851, Beddoes would have achieved the literary mortality he was half in love with, and his writing would have been well and truly wasted. It is still a battle to keep him from being discarded altogether, as Judith Higgens and Michael Bradshaw testify in their useful introduction to this selection. One wonders what he would have thought of his continued obscurity and the way in which each attempt at resurrecting his poetry has so far failed. Would this oblivion still have contented him?

As a strange postscript to this history of ambivalence, in 1883 Beddoes’s entire oeuvre ended up in the care of Robert Browning. Browning had expressed to Kelsall, Beddoes’s executor, his admiration for the poet, and Kelsall, hoping that Browning’s influence might help in establishing Beddoes’s reputation, bequeathed the Beddoes papers to him. What became known as the ‘Browning Box’ then hung around in Browning’s house like a bad smell for 11 years. He found himself inexplicably horrified by its contents, and, as if possessed by the spirit of Beddoes, became increasingly resistant to publishing, or even to reading, the letters and poems. He had eventually to get rid of the ‘dismal box’ and he gave it, still locked, to Edmund Gosse. It was Gosse who later brought out the Poetical Works of Beddoes that Kelsall had dreamed of.