Introduction to The Brides' Tragedy

By David Baulch

I.  The Un-known author of The Brides' Tragedy

  1. To fully appreciate The Brides' Tragedy in its early nineteenth-century context is to catch a glimpse of the Thomas Lovell Beddoes of 1823, when reviewers identified him as a promising, if immature, playwright and a powerfully imaginative poet.  Within his own life, Beddoes's potential was never realized in print much beyond this brief recognition at eighteen.  Despite a number of attempts to produce subsequent dramas to follow the humble success of The Brides' Tragedy, Beddoes himself never offered another volume of his work to the British public.

  2. The purpose of this edition of The Brides' Tragedy is to help to return critical attention to the brief moment when Beddoes seemed poised to become a major voice in what might have been a "third generation" of British romanticism.  Contemporary students of British Romanticism may be aware of Thomas Lovell Beddoes as a writer of brief lyric poems, songs exhumed from the bodies of his dramas, and for the bizarre, sprawling Death's Jest Book. Thus, after slightly more than a century and a half, Beddoes's contemporary reputation rests largely upon texts that had no impact on the literary culture of his day.

  3. Among the books that Thomas Lovell Beddoes published during his lifetime, The Brides' Tragedy might best be described as coming out of an anomalous twenty-month period between March of 1821 and November of 1822. Beddoes's career as a British writer looks like a false start in the life of a medical academic and political radical in continental Europe.  Otherwise, his life seems to resemble that of his more famous father, the politically radical physician, Dr. Thomas Beddoes. It is only in the second half of the nineteenth century, through Thomas Forebes Kelsall's editions of Beddoes's works, that one glimpses the life of a subterranean writer who produced a remarkable body of work.

    II. Fictitious Airs: Beddoes's Youth and Initial Literary Efforts

  4. Born June 30, 1803 in Clifton, Shropshire, to the noted scientist and physician Dr. Thomas Beddoes and Anna Maria Edgeworth, the sister of the famous novelist, Thomas Lovell Beddoes entered into life amidst a rich mixture of science, literature, and radical politics.  Dr. Beddoes's radical political sympathies and, ironically, his poetic efforts to express those opinions, caused him to abandon his position in chemistry at Oxford.  Moving to Clifton in 1793 to begin a medical practice, Dr. Beddoes soon found himself in the company of the first-generation Romantic luminaries: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, and Joseph Cottle.  Soon Dr. Beddoes founded the Pneumatical Institute to experiment with the medical value of the inhalation of so-called "Fictitious Airs" such as nitrous oxide. His work at the Institute was assisted by the young Humphrey Davy. While Dr. Beddoes's was something less than outgoing, and by some accounts would barely take part in conversations, the doctor was nonetheless at the center of an intellectual interchange known as the Lichfield Circle, a group of thinkers whose members included Erasmus Darwin, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, his daughter Maria Edgeworth, and Anna Seward. When Dr. Beddoes died on December 24, 1808, the family subsequently relocated. Thus, it is unlikely that the intellectual ferment of the Lichfield Circle had much of an effect on the six-year-old Thomas.  What may have made a lasting, if not a traumatic, impression on the young Beddoes were the demonstrations of morbid anatomy that his father conducted for his benefit. At the very least, Beddoes's literary obsession with death and his years of scientific practice as an anatomist suggest the significance of the paternal legacy that emerges clearly in The Brides' Tragedy and is present throughout most of his subsequent literary efforts.

  5. Placed in Charterhouse School in London in 1817, Beddoes showed a great inclination to literary production and public spectacle.  His personality during the years at Charterhouse is characterized by Charles Dacres Bevan in Kelsall's memoir, as lively, imaginative, shrewd, and sarcastic.  Here, Beddoes distinguished himself through his literary efforts and his eccentric pranks.  It is also at Charterhouse that Beddoes wrote Scaroni, or The Mysterious Cave (1818), a derivative effort at the Gothic, and published his first poem, "The Comet," in the July 6, 1819 edition of The Morning Post. By 1820 Beddoes had entered Pembroke College, Oxford. 

  6. On the 24th of March 1821, one month and one day after the death of John Keats, The Oxford University and City Herald announced The Improvisatore, In three fyttes, With Other Poems by Thomas Lovell Beddoes. Thus, at the age of seventeen, Beddoes saw the publication of his first volume of poetry.  But The Improvisatore by no means marked any kind of critical or personal success for Beddoes.  The Monthly Review; or Literary Journal observes of Beddoes's first production, "Fits, indeed! Hysterically decided" (qtd. in Donner, Making, 64).  Nor has the passage of time recovered a misunderstood brilliance in this early production. In his 1928 biography of Beddoes, Royall Snow comments, "This then was Beddoes's introduction to English literature, and sorry stuff it was" (21). In what is probably the best known recent assessment of Beddoes's career, James Thompson says of the poems within The Improvisatore, "Except for an isolated line or image, they cannot detain us with their intrinsic merit" (13).  Still, it is unlikely that the failure of The Improvisatore to ever find an appreciative audience would have disappointed its author.  Beddoes's own actions suggest that he was very much at the forefront the critical judgments against The Improvisatore.  As Wolfgang Donner relates, "Beddoes soon grew ashamed of the verses he had with true filial pride inscribed to his mother, and in the attempt to exterminate it visited the studies of several of his friends, and there leaving binding undamaged, eviscerated every volume he could lay his hands on" (Making, 64). As a result, The Improvisatore itself became a victim of the very sort of gothic horrors in which it reveled, subject to the vindictive blade of its own author.

  7. The real importance of The Improvisatore for The Brides' Tragedy lies in a remarkable coincidence.  The March 24, 1821 issue of The Oxford University and City Herald announcing The Improvisatore's publication also contains what Snow describes as the "palpably fictitious Memoirs" relating to a "series of events which may or may not have occurred in Oxford somewhere about 1737" (42).  Both this story directly and the poem "Lucy" that it inspired Thomas Gillet to write and publish later that year serve as the basis of Beddoes's second published volume, The Brides' Tragedy. 

    III. The Ghost of Divinity Walk: The Brides' Tragedy and its Sources

  8. Twenty months after The Oxford University and City Herald announced the publication of The Improvisatore, Beddoes had completed his second volume. On November 30, 1822, the same paper announced that: "This day is published, 8vo. Price four shillings & sixpence, /THE BRIDE'S [sic] TRAGEDY./ By THOMAS LOVELL BEDDOES, of Pembroke / College, Oxford. / Printed for F. C. and J. Rivington, Waterloo-place, and /sold by J. Parker, Oxford" (qtd. in Donner, Works, xxvii).[1] While the overwhelming critical interest in Beddoes's dramatic efforts has focused upon the way his plays echo the plotting and language of Elizabethan drama, I want to take a moment to summarize the play and to place it in the context of its immediate source materials which are neither Elizabethan nor dramatic.

  9. The conflict that initiates the action of The Brides' Tragedy as a dramatic tragedy is relatively simple.  Hesperus, the son of a nobleman, has secretly married Floribel, an impoverished girl from a once relatively prosperous family.  Orlando, a young, wealthy nobleman, imprisons Hesperus's father Lord Ernest for his enormous debuts.  Lord Ernest will be released on the condition that Hesperus agrees to marry Orlando's sister Olivia.  The point of Orlando's machinations is to remove Hesperus as a rival for Floribel's affections.  After some hesitation, Hesperus agrees to marry Olivia, keeping his prior marriage to Floribel secret. 

  10. Because of his deliberations regarding his promise to his father, Hesperus is late to visit Floribel.  After upbraiding her lover, Floribel and Hesperus are briefly reconciled.  Suddenly returning to find Floribel kissing Orlando's young page, Hesperus flies into a jealous rage.  Hesperus refuses to understand that Floribel's kiss to the boy was entirely innocent and that she had just rejected Orlando's suit out of hand.  Back at Orlando's palace, Hesperus woos Olivia with the strange and dark promise that their souls will be wed after their deaths. 

  11. Under the strain of the emotional tension generated by conflicting passions and loyalties, Hesperus rapidly deteriorates into madness.  Roused from his sleep by voices urging him to kill Floribel, Hesperus's deliberations borrow heavily from Macbeth. We next see Hesperus at the side of the suicide/parricide Hugo.  Hesperus invites the soul of Hugo to displace his own, so that he can find the courage to murder Floribel.  Meeting Floribel during a terrible storm in the woods where Hesperus has promised to present her as his bride to his father, he instead brutally stabs and buries her.  Observed by a noble and his huntsman in the woods, they think they have seen a miser burying his gold.  When Hesperus leaves the scene, they dig up what they anticipate to be his hoard only to find Floribel's body with a dagger that has Hesperus's name engraved upon it.

  12. Back at Orlando's palace, Hesperus's increasingly strange behavior has casts a pall on what was supposed to be a feast to celebrate his impending marriage to Olivia.  The Duke's guards interrupt the abortive festivities to arrest Hesperus.  Next, we see parallel scenes where Olivia is experiencing a slow wasting death and Hesperus is preparing for execution at the hands of the state.  Floribel's mother Lenora visits Hesperus, and enacts her revenge for the loss of both her daughter and husband during the course of the play by killing Hesperus and herself with a fragrant but poisonous bouquet of flowers. Hesperus dies amidst visions of fiends and their hell hounds coming to tear him apart.

  13. Either directly, through the story itself, or indirectly, through Thomas Gillet's poem "Lucy," the story in The Oxford University and City Herald serves as the basis of Beddoes's first play.[2]  Beddoes's dedication to The Brides' Tragedy only mentions Gillet's "Lucy" as its source.  It is odd, however, that in citing "Lucy" as the source of his play, his summary of the poem includes details about Lucy's father that are not in the poem, but which are a part of the newspaper story.  The interesting coincidence is that the announcement of the publication of Beddoes's first volume is also in that day's paper, so it seems likely that Beddoes has in mind the newspaper story as much as he does Gillet's poem. The story in The Oxford University and City Herald for March 24, 1821 and Gillet's "Lucy" tell of a well-to-do young man who woos, wins, and secretly marries a beautiful young woman who is beneath his social station.  The thread of the plot wherein love seems about to conquer social prohibition is complicated by the youth also contracting an alliance with a social superior.  To hide his duplicity, the young man arranges a romantic encounter with his secret wife, Lucy, brutally murders her, and is seen burying the body. 

  14. The plot of the story in The Oxford University and City Herald differs from the plot of The Brides' Tragedy in a number of significant ways, suggesting that—to the extent this story might have influenced Beddoes's play—it was important in providing a tale of earthly love and treachery that produces supernatural results. The newspaper's story is primarily a Faustian morality tale about the social and political aspirations of its male protagonist, presented as recorded by the perpetrator's friend and conveyed to the paper by this friend's grandson. The Oxford student of the story is a "young man of rank and of considerable expectations . . . who afterwards became a conspicuous character in the state." He secretly woos and wins Lucy, the daughter of the college's butler. The student's social and political aspirations were awakened when "he was introduced to the daughter of a peer, and he soon found that he might without difficulty succeed in gaining her affections." The student returns to college, finding "that what he called his love for her was doubly increased" and only then secretly marries Lucy.  When the student returns home, "he again saw his titled lady; his father opened the affair to her noble parents and it was settled that the affair should shortly take place." This second alliance offers considerable advantages to the youth's future prospects. Back again at Oxford he "viewed [Lucy] only as a bar to his ambition." Murdering her at their romantic rendezvous, he quickly disposes of the body. Although the young man is observed digging the grave and depositing Lucy's body in it, he is never identified as the murderer, and he goes on to live a full, successful, and prosperous life, and the story's narrator only hears the perpetrator's tale as a deathbed confession.  "I always pray that my latter end may not be like to his," the narrator concedes. Lucy, in the meantime, has become infamous as "the ghost of the Divinity Walk" where she was murdered. 

  15. As its title suggests, Thomas Gillet's poem "Lucy" from his 1822 The Midland Minstrel: Consisting chiefly of Traditionary Tales and Local Legends focuses more on the victim.  Gillet's poem omits Lucy's father to concentrate on Lucy's beauty, purity, and uncanny ability to make "every heart with love inspir'd," despite her obviously humble social station (20).  Appearing with neither the "stately solemn gait" (17) nor silk dresses of the upper classes, Lucy is nevertheless something of a social phenomenon and a universal object of desire among the students. In "Lucy," it is the peer's daughter who actively seeks the love of the Oxford student and her parents who initiate the movement toward marriage. The difference here is that Gillet's male protagonist is initially less malicious, only demonstrating a youthful inconstancy in seizing the opportunities for social advancement that are suddenly presented to him. As in The Oxford University and City Herald's story, the young man's ambition is the reason for Lucy's death:

    Distinction now was all his aim,
       Renown at distance he foresaw.
    The noble's child's—a wedded Dame!
       And he—a Culprit to the Law!
                                                                (ll. 81-84)

    To avoid exposure as a bigamist, the student turns to murder.  "Lucy" makes it clear that while the youth's plan is a success, he is plagued by feelings of guilt that are confirmed by his death:

    And though his active, high career,
       Was crown'd with honour's fairest wreath;
    Yet was he doom'd remorse to bear,
       And fiends exulted at his death.
                                                                (ll. 141-145)

    Rendered perhaps a bit more malevolent by Gillet's adherence to an unfortunately predictable rhyme scheme, poor Lucy's ghost is left to "stalk" (146) where young lovers used to "walk" (148).

  16. What "Lucy" brings to The Brides' Tragedy is a rudimentary sense of the psychic stress that is a central element of Beddoes's play.  Gillet's Oxford student is described as having "Dark horrors gather o'er his brow" (132) and the mental image of Lucy at her death becomes a kind of traumatic memory that he can never escape, one that "[w]ould from his mind decay" and which "rose to blast his mental sight" (138-139).  While the psychological interiority Gillet bestows upon the Oxford student is perhaps the most significant contribution "Lucy" makes to Beddoes's play, The Brides' Tragedy's poetry owes nothing to pedestrian versification of Gillet's ballad.  In transforming the Oxford student into Hesperus, Beddoes fully realizes the psychological and poetic intensity in the speedier disintegration of a character who is simultaneously lover and murderer.  Beddoes admirably resists Gillet's hints of Lucy's ghostly return (an opportunity for exactly the kind of ghost that will be a central element in Death's Jest-Book). What The Brides' Tragedy does find in Lucy, as the basis of Floribel, is a character whose fate exposes the workings of both socio-economic and patriarchal ideologies.

  17. A key element that Beddoes's play realizes from both of its sources is the way the separate discourses of desire and class find their often disjunctive intersections in the ideological situation of a woman. Plural as well as possessive, The Brides' Tragedy is concerned with the ideological fate of women in general. As an object of desire, a woman's physical beauty and personal charm seem to offer the possibility of alliances that transcend class barriers in both Beddoes's drama and Gillet's poem. Nevertheless, the cultural fantasy of love as both a disruptive and a progressive social force ultimately yields to marriage as a practice keenly attuned to class position and the pursuit of material wealth. Unlike both of its period source texts, The Brides' Tragedy makes its male protagonist something better than a mere social climber. Hesperus's dilemma is caused in part by his father's debts and in part by Floribel's attractiveness, regardless of her class position. Love's champion, Hesperus, agrees to a second marriage in exchange for debt forgiveness for his father from Orlando. What The Brides' Tragedy brings to the story of Lucy and the Oxford student is Hesperus's overt slide into madness caused by the dilemma in which he has been placed by the economic machinations of those around him and the crime he commits to meet those economic obligations.  While money and class position are social forces that conspire against the romantic love Hesperus initially and naively professes for Floribel, Hesperus's second marriage reintroduces romantic love as a desire that admits of no earthly fulfillment.  The Brides' Tragedy ultimately, if monstrously, vindicates the power of love when Hesperus's second bride, Olivia, wastes away in sorrow because of the loss of Hesperus rather than because of horror at his misdeeds. 

  18. The complexity and psychological depth that The Brides' Tragedy brings to Lucy's story also creates its most perplexing characteristics as both a drama more broadly defined and a tragedy specifically.  Both the reviewers of The Brides' Tragedy in 1823 and contemporary critics find it difficult to celebrate Beddoes's play as a dramatic text, but its poetry and the intensity of its vision of Hesperus's madness have proved to be sites of enduring interest. 

    IV. Publication and Reviews of The Brides' Tragedy

  19. While it is unclear that The Brides' Tragedy enjoyed much of a popular reputation, the critical response that the play received is unanimous in its recognition of Beddoes's great poetic powers and, at the same time, all the reviews, either directly or indirectly, recognize its shortcomings in handling the conventions of drama. Of the four reviewers who reacted to The Brides' Tragedy, Bryan Waller Procter (a.k.a. Barry Cornwall) is both the most insightful and enthusiastic.[3]  Procter's review in The London Magazine is devoted exclusively to Beddoes's play. In it, he recognizes the power of Beddoes's poetry apart from the shortcomings of The Brides' Tragedy as a dramatic text: "There are, indeed, few things which as mere poetry, surpass it." While John Wilson's review in Blackwood's sees Beddoes's influences as "among the elder Dramatists," Procter places Beddoes specifically in the romantic tradition of Wordsworth and Byron. While Wordsworth and Byron attended Oxford before him, the review attributes Beddoes's power as a poet not to his education, but rather to the habits of observation and depths of feeling that mark the greatness of these writers. Procter claims Wordsworth and Byron "looked at naked nature and into their own hearts, [drawing] thence thought and images which will live for ever. We think Mr. Beddoes has in a great measure done the same."

  20. Like all of the reviewers of The Brides' Tragedy, Procter sees the gross faults in Beddoes's ability to draw distinct characters through the use of dialog. Procter, however, sees these faults in characterization as Beddoes refusal as poet to capitulate to the generic demands of drama: "The writer of a drama must often sacrifice poetry to passion, and fine phrase to the general purpose of his story. On the contrary, our author frequently makes his huntsmen and servants talk good courtly (or if he pleases poetical) language." Procter chides The Brides' Tragedy for the way its "striking scenes" are "scattered about," admitting this diffusion will make the drama "necessarily fail with the great body of readers." Ultimately, however the review concludes that this weakness is the result of the play's "mechanical construction . . . and this Mr. Beddoes will easily acquire."  As it happens, Procter has identified the characteristic way that Beddoes's dramatic work never adequately conforms to the formal requirements of the genre.[4]  

  21. A similarly positive review of The Brides' Tragedy by George Darley, writing as John Lacy, appeared within "A Sixth Letter to the Dramatists of the Day" in the next volume of The London Magazine. Darley complains about the nearly ubiquitous presence of "prose poetry," taking Byron and Barry Cornwall particularly to task, but he singles out as notable exceptions Joanna Baillie's De Monfort and Beddoes's The Brides' Tragedy. Unlike Procter's focus on Beddoes as a poet, Darley is enthusiastic about Beddoes's possibilities as a dramatist. The review expresses "the hope that [Beddoes] will devote himself to the stage," abandoning the Romantic minor genre of the closet drama. Citing Hesperus's invocation to the spirit of the parricide/suicide Hugo to help him commit the murder of Floribel in act two scene six, Darley detects "the luxuriant growth of a fancy which a maturer judgment will restrain . . . [and the presence of a] tragic power of the very highest order". What Darley sees here is a return to the judgment that he finds in Shakespeare, one that does not "mistake the epic for the tragic vein of magniloquence." Interestingly, Darley's review seems subtly at odds with itself. While overtly casting Beddoes as a dramatist in the Shakespearean tradition, what Darley seems to like in The Brides' Tragedy is primarily Beddoes's poetic rather than dramatic talent. 

  22. Darley's boundless enthusiasm for Beddoes's possibilities as a dramatist rest in what the review detects as the resemblance of The Brides' Tragedy to that of the great Elizabethan playwrights, claiming "tragedy has again put forth a scion worthy of the stock from which Shakespeare and Marlow [sic] sprung."  By quoting only Hesperus's monolog at Hugo's grave, Darley presents Beddoes's work to its best advantage, as poetry rather than drama.  By presenting Hesperus's monolog, Darley avoids the play's problems with dialog, character development, and diction appropriate to a particular character, tacitly defending Beddoes from what he identifies as the significant shortcomings of The Brides' Tragedy.  Beddoes, Darley claims, "exhibits no skill in dialog. He displays no power whatever in the delineation of character."  On the whole, the review seems aware that its enthusiasm for The Brides' Tragedy might appear suspicious, including a footnote disclaiming any relationship with Beddoes or any of his family.

  23. The lengthiest treatment of The Brides' Tragedy appears in the Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine review by John Wilson, writing as Christopher North.  While Darley ends his article by disclaiming any personal interest in promoting Beddoes's play, Wilson seems to feel an obligation to explain why he is speaking favorably of The Brides' Tragedy in the first place. Recalling Francis Jeffrey's notorious drubbing of the romantics in "the blood-thirsty youth of the Edinburgh Review," Wilson opens ominously by noting of Beddoes's play: "This is precisely one of those compositions that a cold, clear, shrewd, and sarcastic critic would delight in clutching into his merciless grasp, to tear it into pieces and strew the floor of his study with its shivering fragments." The positive notice in Blackwood's reveals the play's appeal to a more conservative audience, despite Wilson's claim that; "Young men, now-a-days, are not only permitted to write like young men, but praised and encouraged while doing so."  While clearly recognizing Blackwood's role in shaping the reception of contemporary literature, Wilson's review does not seem interested in placing Beddoes's work within the context of his contemporaries, content instead to see The Brides' Tragedy as an echo of the Elizabethan age.  Like Darley implicitly and Procter explicitly, Wilson acknowledges Beddoes's literary powers as specifically poetic in nature.  Better than any of the other period reviews, Wilson characterizes the tone or atmosphere of Beddoes's work in a way that was to be restated in many subsequent assessments: "[T]here is a dark and troubled guilt-like and death-like gloom flung over this first work of a truly poetical mind" (link to Wilson review).  While Procter's and Darley's assessments of The Brides' Tragedy depend on identifying the moments of poetic power as superior to the effect of the drama as a whole, Wilson asserts that the imagery of Beddoes's poetry only makes sense within the context of the drama's plot:

    Dip into the Poem, here and there, and you cannot tell what it is about—you see dim imagery, and indistinct figures, and fear that the author has written a very so so performance.  But give it a reading from the beginning, and you will give it a reading to the end, for our young poet writes in the power of nature, and when at any time you get wearied or disappointed with his failure in passion or in plot, you are pleased—nay, delighted, with the luxuriance of his fancy. . . .

    Wilson's celebration here is balanced against the common complaint against The Brides' Tragedy, Beddoes's inability to give his characters dialog that in any way individualizes them: "He has evidently never once attempted to make his different characters speak naturally; they all declaim, harangue, spout, and poetize with equal east and elegance."  Wilson's review ends, nonetheless, on a hopeful note.  In view of all of Beddoes's strengths, "we hope, and almost trust. . . . Mr. Beddoes to write a bona fide good English tragedy."

  24. While the reviews by Wilson, Darley, and Procter tend to see The Brides' Tragedy as the work of a writer aspiring to the stage, the mention of The Brides' Tragedy in a footnote in an anonymous piece entitled "On Ancient and Modern Tragedy" in The Album has a strikingly modern recognition of The Brides' Tragedy's value as poetry that is only hampered by placing it within the context of drama. This review is worth some attention simply because of the extent to which it goes outside the bounds of its specific interest in staged dramatic tragedy to praise the poetry of Beddoes's closet drama. In an article otherwise devoted to the shortcomings of the staged tragedies of the early nineteenth century as compared to their more distinguished English ancestors, the writer adds a footnote discussion of The Brides' Tragedy as "a very remarkable production." What this writer finds "remarkable" about Beddoes's play is its manner of "conjoining very striking poetical merits with what we might consider the greatest dramatic faults." The article lists "dramatic faults" of The Brides' Tragedy as its handling of plot and its failure to realize the potential of dialog. Nevertheless the writer observes that, "regarded as poetry alone, it is . . . of a degree of originality and beauty with which even these most poetical days rarely present." As evidence of its great claims for Beddoes as a poet, the article presents a lengthy quote from Floribel's dream (I. i. 95-133). In offering this moment of The Brides' Tragedy as evidence of its specifically poetic powers, the article has selected a particularly luxuriant, yet ominous display of Beddoes's imaginative powers. While presenting the merit of the selection as self-evident, it silently identifies the moment when the deeply interrelated themes of love and death are given their most evocative initial figuration within the play. Within this reviewer's interest in Floribel's dream lie the seeds of a pre-Freudian awareness of the as yet untapped psychoanalytic richness of Beddoes's imagery. The Album reviewer, while assessing the failings of later Romantic period drama, seems to recognize Beddoes's actual qualities as a poet whose work demonstrates an obsession with the connections between love and death in the symbolism of the manifest content of dreams. While the writer in The Album makes no comment on the scene offered for our approval, it is, to use the writer's word to describe Beddoes's play, remarkable that the piece seems to anticipate contemporary discussions of the psychoanalytic significance of Beddoes's work.

    V. After The Brides' Tragedy

  25. With the appearance of The Brides' Tragedy in November 1822 and its good reviews, Beddoes's enthusiasm for authorship is evident in the collection of poetry he attempted to produce as a volume, Outidana, and the numerous dramas he began between 1822 and 1825. However, Beddoes completed neither Outidana nor any of the dramas upon which he started in England.  He did manage to publish one mid-length poem, "The Romance of the Lily," in The Album in 1823, and in June of 1825 he published his translation of Schiller's "Philosophic Letters" in the Oxford Quarterly Magazine. By July of 1825, he had left England and, following in the footsteps of his father, turned his efforts to the study of medicine in Germany.  Thus Beddoes's public role as a British author is both a brief and inconclusive part of his life. 

  26. In 1833, Beddoes's lifelong friend and literary executor Thomas Forbes Kelsall placed the poet's lines in admiration of Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Lines written in the Prometheus Unbound," in The Athenaeum. Kelsall's headnote to the poem speaks to Beddoes's absence from the British literary scene since the publication of The Brides' Tragedy, likening Beddoes's silence to Shelley's death:

    Ten years have since elapsed, and in that long interval the author of the Bride's [sic] Tragedy has claimed no second ‘award'. For aught, indeed, that our literature would have lost, [Beddoes] might have perished in the same fatal storm in the Gulf of Spezia.  How much longer is he contented to be un-known as the author of the Bride's Tragedy—(that blossom of exquisite beauty—still but a blossom,)—and is expectation, in the few who know his really great and rare powers, to doze away at last into oblivion? (Donner, Works 796)

    Kelsall's question expresses a prophetic anxiety for his friend's literary reputation.  Retrospectively the headnote becomes the answer to the concern it expresses: "Lines" marks the terminus of Beddoes's career as a British writer.[5] 

  27. Beddoes's subterranean life as the author of Death's Jest-Book begins in Germany. In many ways, this period of Beddoes's life is more accessible than most because of his correspondence with Procter and, especially, with Kelsall. These letters reveal the quickness of Beddoes's wit and his vision for what he thought dramatic poetry could become.  Beddoes worked on Death's Jest-Book from 1825 until 1829, when he sent the manuscript to Procter and J. G. H. Bourne.  Bourne and Procter's criticism of the manuscript caused Beddoes to abandon plans for publication of the play.  He continued to revise it sporadically, possibly until his death in 1849. Apart from his revisions to Death's Jest-Book, Beddoes produced a number of excellent lyrics for what seems like an unrealizable project called The Ivory Gate, which Donner places between 1830-9.  Similarly, there are a handful of lyrics Donner collects under the title of "Last Poems, 1843-8" that are among some of Beddoes's best.

  28. In this latter grouping of poems, Beddoes's sense of himself as a failed poet is palpable in the four line manuscript poem that has been assigned the title "On Himself":

    Poor bird, that cannot ever
       Dwell high in the tower of song:
    Whose heart-breaking endeavour
       But palls the lazy throng
                                                                (Donner, Works 160)

    Both incapable of reaching his own poetic aspirations and unable to win an audience, Beddoes seems to come to a conclusion about his literary limitations.  While reading Beddoes's lines as referring to himself courts a serious literary sentimentalization of a man who, after all, did consciously choose to leave Great Britain to study medicine for the rest of his life.  Still, like his scientific and literary work's obsession with death as a kind of epistemological limit to human understanding, it is easy to see that there is more to Beddoes's sense of his own failure than a lack of literary fame. Beddoes's later years in Europe are marked by restless, erratic behavior and frustrated ambitions to see positive political change occur, to find institutional acceptance as a scientist, and to find satisfaction in his personal life. Taken together, these factors do not make Beddoes's suicide all that surprising.

  29. For a writer who feels that he has failed to realize his ambitions, a suicide note presents a significant challenge. By its own nature, such a note anticipates an audience and is thus one more literary performance. Beddoes's suicide note reflects an awareness of such a performance, giving his literary disappointments a place of prominence: "I ought to have been among other things a good poet" (Donner, Works 633). Beddoes, in his suicide note, admits failure but also finds room to make one more dark joke in the face of death. After the ingestion of a great deal of poison, Beddoes, knowing that his physician would find his case hopeless, turns the last line he would ever write into a mocking bequest of £20 with which his hapless doctor is instructed to purchase "Reade's best stomach pump" (Donner, Works 633). 

  30. As a fitting testament to the central theme of his literary efforts, death and the possibilities for existence beyond the mortal condition, the full measure of Beddoes's efforts as a writer would only appear as a ghostly remainder summoned by Kelsall in 1850 with the publication of Death's Jest-Book and in 1851 with Poems Posthumous and Collected of Thomas Lovell BeddoesWith a Memoir. Only after his death did Beddoes become recognizable as an author who had produced a coherent and sustained body of work.

    VI. Contemporary Criticism and The Brides' Tragedy

  31. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there has been a steady trickle of distinguished writers and critics, such as Sir Edmund Gosse, Lytton Strachey, Wolfgang Donner, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, John Ashbery, Frederick Burwick, Christopher Ricks, and Alan Richardson, interested in Thomas Lovell Beddoes. While Death's Jest-Book is usually the focus of critical interest among Beddoes's works, there is growing interest in The Brides' Tragedy. Perhaps the critic who did the most to bring Beddoes into the contemporary discussion of British Romanticism is Northrop Frye. Frye's 1968 A Study of English Romanticism devoted almost a quarter of its space to an archetypal analysis of Beddoes's work. Although Frye gives The Brides' Tragedy only a cursory treatment, he nevertheless shifts the conversations surrounding it away from the sentimental historicism of earlier commentators. Rather than focusing on the issue of genre, Frye reduces the plot of The Brides' Tragedy to "the theme of the demon-lover" (53). Concentrating on the sources of Hesperus's madness, Frye finds in the play a prefiguration of Freudian themes. Giving a mildly psychoanalytic inflection to Beddoes's thematic concerns with Eros and Thanatos, Frye identifies within the play the "suggestion of a cycle of death moving opposite to the cycle of life, of ghosts begetting ghosts" (54). Frye acknowledges that what is confusing about The Brides' Tragedy are the "three sets of motivations for [Hesperus's] act [of murdering Floribel]: one, his father is imprisoned by a Duke who wants Floribel for himself and is trying to force Hesperus into marrying his sister; two, Hesperus sees Floribel kissing a page boy and is seized with irrational jealousy. . . ; and three, . . . he has a Freudian trauma . . . which inspires him with a cyclical madness" (54). By placing The Brides' Tragedy within a larger theoretical frame, Hesperus's murder of Floribel becomes "something more than merely a crime" (55). In this way, Frye frees the discussion of The Brides' Tragedy from the largely Aristotelian/formalist questions about tragedy that focus on plot. 

  32. Frye's discussion of The Brides' Tragedy does not realize a critical reading of the play, but instead establishes a methodology that sets up his reading of Death's Jest-Book. Frye argues for a view of Beddoes's later play as displaying a precocious modernity in anticipating the theatre of the absurd rather than, as has been the prevailing tendency in the study of Beddoes's work, examining Beddoes's connection to his Elizabethan and Jacobean precursors. While Frye's interest establishes the precedent for thinking about Beddoes's work as an object of study for literary theory, it cannot be said that A Study of English Romanticism did for Beddoes what Fearful Symmetry did for William Blake.

  33. The longest, most detailed study devoted exclusively to The Brides' Tragedy is John Agar's "The Brides' Tragedy and T. L. Beddoes's English Roots," published in 1974. Eschewing Fry's synchronic archetypalism, Agar's article presents a historically and biographically contextualized reading of The Brides' Tragedy, tracing the influence of the ideas of Dr. Beddoes, primarily those expressed in his 1802 Hygëia: Essays Moral and Medical, on the Causes Affecting the Personal State of Our Middling and Affluent Classes, upon his son.  Agar claims that "For both Beddoeses, psychology, physiology, and philosophy were organically united in a way foreign to the more specialized modern mind" (178).  Like Frye, Agar is concerned with "the question of Hesperus's motivation," but rather than placing Beddoes within the context of a twentieth-century theoretical apparatus, Agar looks back to the rich ferment of medical knowledge, empirical philosophy, and associational psychology in the late eighteenth century (180).  For Agar, "the crux of The Brides' Tragedy is not the murder itself, but the process by which Hesperus becomes a criminal.  The wheel upon which Hesperus's mind finally breaks is not criminal insanity but his own intellectual self-deception" (181). By considering the characters of The Brides' Tragedy as operating along the lines of empirical science's assumptions about human psychology, Agar argues for the coherence of the play specifically as a tragedy. 

  34. Situating the play and its protagonist's crisis within the nexus of historically specific discourses, Agar's article represents a direct response to the argument Donner makes in his 1935 biography of Beddoes. Donner identifies the problem with The Brides' Tragedy as arising from a division between Elizabethan sources and a Romantic consciousness: "It would seem as if the indiscriminate borrowing from old plays and new had landed Beddoes in a contradiction. The exculpation of the criminal is modern, but the punishment is Elizabethan" (Making 92). In seeing Hesperus as mad, Donner argues that Beddoes's play refuses to hold him fully guilty of murder, but both the plot and thematic integrity of the play are sacrificed to the Elizabethan elements: Floribel's mother's revenge, the state's sentence of capital punishment, and Hesperus's own dying vision of being torn apart by demons. 

  35. Agar's response asserts that the true conflict of The Brides' Tragedy is not at the level of the plot's action, but rather that "[c]onflict in the play is realized only to the extent that it impinges upon [Hesperus's] mind" (369).  Instead of seeing this interiorization of conflict as working against what should be the play's dramatic expression of its conflict, Agar finds it "a measure of the youthful Beddoes's artistic maturity that he never fully resolves that struggle, that he prefers to trace Hesperus's mental history in terms not of a progression from point to point, but of an alteration between states.  Hence, Dr. Beddoes's analysis of mania and melancholia was useful to him in organizing the superstructure of The Brides' Tragedy" (369).  Agar's argument is daring in arguing for a kind of psychological realism springing from the scientific revolution enacted by English empirical thought as the basis of Beddoes's drama. 

  36. Specifically addressing the question of genre, James Thompson's 1985 Thomas Lovell Beddoes devotes most of a chapter to The Brides' Tragedy. Despite its superficial Elizabethan affectations, Thompson finds that the "real significance of the drama . . . is its peculiar embodiment of late Romantic pessimism and preoccupation with death—in image, symbol, and theme" (32). While Agar had argued for reading Hesperus through the historical context of Dr. Beddoes's thoughts on melancholia and mania, Thompson renders autobiographical the question of what the play's array of motivations say about death.  Behind the play's seeming inability to make a single, clear statement about its central issue, death, is "Beddoes's own ambivalence concerning death" (32). As was the case with Agar's reading of the play, Thompson finds the significance of Floribel's murder "actually symbolic; its significance is not to be found in the plot" (34). Instead of finding the strength of the play to be in its radical interiorization of conflict as Agar does, Thompson finds that the "play fails to dramatize the conflict between free will and necessity; Hesperus is a passive, emotionally disoriented (although not insane, as other characters and some critics assume) spiritual bankrupt whose only solution is to negate life" (41). In this way, Thompson's analysis refuses to let The Brides' Tragedy escape the generic demands of drama, even that of the closet.

  37. Rather than using the play as expression of Romantic consciousness, proto-modernism, or a retrograde Elizabethanism, Daniel Watkins brings a Marxist/materialist methodology to The Brides' Tragedy in his 1989 article, "Thomas Lovell Beddoes's The Brides' Tragedy and the Situation of Romantic Drama." Watkins asserts that The Brides' Tragedy "powerfully registers the conditions under which it was produced" (699). Further, he argues that The Brides' Tragedy perfectly demonstrates Raymond Williams's "description of how Romantic drama attempts to formulate the conflict between aristocratic authority and a bourgeois political unconscious, capturing not only the painful transformations of social class, but also the connections between those transformations and relations to gender" (701). Here Hesperus's actions become an expression of the conflicting entanglements of personal identity and social class so that "he sees death as the only certain way to laying this conflict to rest" (704). 
  38. Watkins suggests that the fates of Floribel and Olivia specifically register the role of gender in these entanglements, expressing "the structure and authority of patriarchy, and . . . some of the ways it is implicated in the social transformation from feudalism to capitalism" (704).  Amidst the signs of a decaying aristocratic order, as suggested by the financial condition of Hesperus's father Lord Ernest and Floribel's physically and fiscally broken father, Hesperus's madness becomes a sign of both the destabilizing forces of the bourgeois ascendancy and simultaneously his relentless drive towards death as an expression of the text's "inability to escape the political unconscious of bourgeois social order" (710).  In this way, the crisis of The Brides' Tragedy manifests the larger ideological crisis of Romantic drama as a literary form.

  39. Carrying on a similar analysis as Watkins, Chad Herman, in his 1992 article "Daughters, Wives, and Mothers: Women's Oppression in Thomas Lovell Beddoes's The Brides' Tragedy," works from the assumption that the family is the seat of patriarchal ideology and suggests that the fate of women in Beddoes's play is far from bizarre or tragic in a classical sense. In particular, Herman's article brings some attention to the figure of Lenora, Floribel's mother and, ultimately, Hesperus's murderer. Because Lenora's identity "as a mother under patriarchy" is dissolved with the deaths of her daughter and husband in the course of the play, she loses all sense of her self as defined by the patriarchy—and thus goes mad (119).  Because women in the play are ultimately dependent upon the very ideology that oppresses them, Herman concludes that "The Brides' Tragedy dramatizes a world in which the only future of freedom women possess lies in death" (120).  Compared to the way the way critics such as Donner and Thompson tend to see Floribel's fate as symbolic or symptomatic, what is particularly refreshing about Herman's article is its recognition of Floribel's death as a representation of the way real violence is casually perpetrated upon women.
  40. The prospect of incisive critical reassessment of Beddoes's career in the twenty-first century is brightened by Michael Bradshaw's 2001 monograph, Resurrection Songs: The Poetry of Thomas Lovell Beddoes. In one of the few book-length studies devoted to Beddoes's oeuvre, Bradshaw offers a sustained examination of the development of, and the connections between, death, resurrection, and the afterlife as the central impulse of Beddoes's work. In his analysis of The Brides' Tragedy, Bradshaw addresses "Beddoes's treatment of the soul/body perplex and afterlife" (50). Here, Bradshaw sees both the play and its protagonist as representing an extreme expression of the drive towards death produced by a dualistic view of the nature of the mortal condition as an imprisonment of the soul, on the one hand, and, on the other, the nature of immortal life offered by the post-mortal condition. This dualism is expressed by the doublings within the play. According to Bradshaw, "The representation of the immortality of the spirit has given rise to the doubling of the language of death into the warring twins of perfume and grave worm, the release of a lover and the murder of an enemy" (64). The obvious doubling of Hesperus's brides is reflected in a doubling within Hesperus. There is the Hesperus who is capable of loving Floribel, and there is the Hesperus who, inhabited by the spirit of Hugo, kills her. Hesperus's initial love for Floribel seems framed as a kind of paradise regained, and Hesperus's proposal of marriage to Olivia is a union of souls after death. Ultimately, Bradshaw's interest in the doubles of The Brides' Tragedy predicates his reading of more obvious instances of doubling and thematic expressions of the uncanny in Death's Jest-Book.

  41. As the scholarly consideration of Romanticism becomes more specialized, Beddoes's work is more likely to find a place in contemporary scholarship, as evidenced by Marjean Purinton's 2003 article, "Staging the Physical: Romantic Science Theatricalized in T. L. Beddoes's The Brides' Tragedy," in an issue of the European Romantic Review devoted to Romantic drama. For Purington, The Brides' Tragedy is located at the vital intersection between Gothic drama and science. Purinton reads Beddoes's play as reflecting a moment of crisis and transition in the scientific discourse of the period: "Beddoes's drama exposes and negotiates, but does not necessarily resolve, conflicting medical discourses that pressured significant paradigm shifts in metholodogy, epistemology, and therapy during this transitional period in scientific studies" (82). Purinton applies to Beddoes's text the idea, from Foucault's The Birth of the Clinic, of a medical/methodological shift from nosological prognosis to pathological anatomy's reading of the body, suggesting that one must understand The Brides' Tragedy as exposing "a medical pathology that fails to look for pathological symptoms for what seem to be purely psychological infirmities or character deficiencies" (85). While The Brides' Tragedy performs, rather than resolves, the questions surrounding the shifting paradigms of medical science, the play "positions the audience as an anatomist/physician" who must bear witness to this moment of change (93). By bringing the broader claims about science that Foucault makes to a specific study of The Brides' Tragedy, Purinton brings a contemporary critical methodology to the cultural discourses that are played out within Beddoes's work.

  42. While Purinton looked at The Brides' Tragedy from the perspective of medical science within the period, Diane Long Hoeveler, in her 2005 article, "Dying Brides: Anti-Catholicism and the Gothic Demonization of Fertility," claims that "[t]hese medical or scientific explanations [of the dying bride motif in the Gothic] are tempting, but . . . instead propose[s] a religious explanation for the motif" (146). Hoeveler gives central consideration to Beddoes's The Brides' Tragedy and Death's Jest-Book along side such key Gothic texts as Matthew Lewis's The Monk. Hoeveler's thesis is that "Thomas Lovell Beddoes self-consciously used a variety of pre-Christian as well as Germanic literary sources in order to valorize the death-fetish as well as to critique Catholicism and the female body" (147). The Brides' Tragedy becomes important as a text that thematically enshrines "nausea toward the flesh" by taking its cue from the ballad tradition represented by its source text, Thomas Gillet's "Lucy." Hoeveler finds crucial for understanding Beddoes's writings several important ballad themes with pre-Christian roots that celebrate ghosts and perpetuate negative stereotypes of women. She also takes into consideration the German folk tradition of Märchen, as practiced by Schiller and Tieck. The article returns to a brief reconsideration of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama as a source for Beddoes's obsession with violence towards women and the putrefaction of the flesh. Ultimately, Hoeveler resolves her discussions of the central preoccupations of Beddoes's texts as autobiographical extensions of an unresolved conflict Beddoes has with religion: "At times a dualist and at other times a monist, Beddoes is finally muddled as a gothic poet with theological interests" (161).  The violence against women in Beddoes's texts is thus read as the poet "blam[ing] the woman for not ushering in the promised land" of the resurrected or redeemed body (161).

  43. What emerges from a survey of contemporary criticism's interest in The Brides' Tragedy is a growing sense of just how much a part of its age the text really is. As opposed to the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century views of the play, The Brides' Tragedy is slowly beginning to come into focus as a literary text that is very much aware of the complexities of the scientific theories and ideological structures of its day. Rather than seeing the play, and Beddoes's work in general, as a strangely out-of-touch attempt to recuperate Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, The Brides' Tragedy is rapidly becoming recognizable both as Romantic drama and as an instance of the Gothic.  Even the difficulties of its plot and characterization are now starting to be realized as interesting treatments of the intersections between the medical science and interests in the psyche within the period. In short, it looks like The Brides' Tragedy is slowly beginning to achieve well-deserved recognition as a text worthy of study on its own right.

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Works Cited

Agar, John.  "The Brides' Tragedy and T. L. Beddoes's English Roots." Studia Neophilologica 46 (1974): 175-201 and 338-69.

Anonymous. "On Ancient and Modern Tragedy." The Album 3 (1823): 1-31.

---. "Memoris of ***." The Oxford University and City Herald 24 March 1822, 4.

Beddoes, Thomas Lovell.  The Works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes. Ed. H. W. Donner. London: Oxford U P, 1935. New York: AMS Press, 1978.

---.  Death's Jest-Book: The 1829 Text. Ed. Michael Bradshaw. Manchester: Fyfield Books, 2003.

---.  Death's Jest-Book. Ed. Alan Halsey. Nether Edge: West House Books and Belper: The Thomas Lovell Beddoes Society, 2003.

Bradshaw, Michael. Ressurection Songs: The Poetry of Thomas Lovell Beddoes. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.

Darley, George (John Lacy). "A Sixth Letter to the Dramatists of the Day." The London Magazine 8 (1823): 645-52.

Donner, H. W. Thomas Lovell Beddoes: The Making of a Poet. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1935.

---.  "Introduction." The Works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes. By Thomas Lovell Beddoes. London: Oxford U P, 1935; rpr. New York: AMS Press, 1978.

Frye, Northrop. A Study of English Romanticism. New York: Random House, 1968.

Gillet, Thomas. "Lucy" The Midland Minstrel; consisting chiefly of Traditionary Tales and Local Legends. Oxford: Munday and Slatter, 1822.

Herman, Chad. "Daughters, Wives, and Mothers: Women's Oppression in Thomas Lovell Beddoes's The Brides' Tragedy." Mount Olive Review 6 Spring (1992): 115-21.

Hoeveler, Diane Long. "Dying Brides: Anti-Catholicism and the Gothic Demonization of Fertility." Studies in the Humanities 32:2(2005): 145-67.

Moylan, Christopher. T. L. Beddoes and the Hermetic Tradition. Belper: Thomas Lovell Beddoes Society, 1999.

Procter, Bryan Waller, "Review of The Brides' Tragedy." The London Magazine 7 (1823): 169-72.

Purinton, Marjean D. "Staging the Physical: Romantic Science Theatricalized in T. L. Beddoes's The Brides' Tragedy."  European Romantic Review 14:1 (2003): 81-95.

Snow, Royall. Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Eccentric and Poet.  New York: Covici-Friede, 1928.

Thompson, James R. Thomas Lovell Beddoes. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Watkins, Daniel P. "Thomas Lovell Beddoes's The Brides' Tragedy and the Situation of Romantic Drama." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 29 (1989): 699-712.

Wilson, John (Christopher North). "Notices of the Modern British Dramatists, No. II Beddoes." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 14 (1823): 723-9.

Wolfson, Susan and Peter Manning, eds. Selected Poems of Hood, Pared and Beddoes. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.


[1] While it is unclear exactly what Beddoes's experience at Pembroke College contributed to the making of The Brides' Tragedy, it is likely that the time Beddoes spent away from Oxford with the Rev. Henry Card, the Vicar of Great Malvern, was instrumental to the appearance of his first play.  Beddoes's assistance to Card in his A Dissertation on the subject of the Herefordshire Beacon seems to have won Card's admiration both for Beddoes's scholarship and his manuscript of The Brides' Tragedy. That Beddoes dedicated The Brides' Tragedy to Card, and the fact that the play was published by the same house that had just published Card's historical study, suggests that the Vicar might have been a significant influence in its publication.

[2] Both texts are present in this edition. Please see the "Sources" table of contents.

[3] All of these reviews are included in this edition. Please see the "Reviews" table of contents for their individual listings.

[4] The legacy of Procter's review is a divided one for Beddoes's subsequent life and career. Procter's review led to his long-term friendship with Beddoes. Beddoes came to trust Procter's judgment above that of all his acquaintances, so Procter's negative verdict on the manuscript of Death's Jest-Book in 1829 constituted a blow from which Beddoes's ambitions as a writer never recovered.

[5] Beddoes did write and publish a number of articles and poems in German. Beddoes's articles appeared in the Bayerisches Volksblatt between 1830-2 (see Donner, Works, 560-573, for translations see Donner, Works 733-742). Beddoes's German poems were published in various European journals between 1837 and 1845 (see Donner, Works, 143-152, for translations see Donner, Works 702-706).