The London Magazine 7 (1823)


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

[The spelling and punctuation of the original have been maintained. The citations of material quoted from the play have been changed.]


          This Drama is undoubtedly one of the most promising performances of this "poetical age." There are, indeed, few things which, as mere poetry, surpass it. It has plenty of faults, and so much the better. It has plenty of beauties too,—many delicacies, sometimes great power of expression, sometimes originality, and seldom or never common place. And this, we apprehend, is what very few first performances can pretend to. We know a friend, indeed, who may, if he pleases, give to the world a volume of poetry, which may compete with the Brides' Tragedy; but as yet he has not done so. When he shall publish, it will be time enough to praise—and blame.

          Mr. Beddoes is a minor, and an under-graduate of Pembroke College, Oxford. These colleges—Cambridge and Oxford, are fine institutions—for certain ends. One gets stored there with Greek, Latin, and Mathematics; but they are not favourable, we think, to poetry. It is true, that Mr. Milman is poetical professor there; and, what is much more to the purpose, both Mr. Wordsworth and Lord Byron were members of an University. But these two last did not pick up the seeds of poetry by the Isis or the Cam. They found them on the mountains, on the seas, in forests, and by running rivers,—in Cumberland, and Italy, and Greece. They were not content with cloistral studies, nor conventional systems of rhyme: but they looked at the naked nature, and into their own hearts, and drew thence thoughts and images which will live for ever. We think that Mr. Beddoes has in a great measure done the same. But he must, we conjecture, have rambled away from his "rooms," and from the grave presence of Pembroke Hall, before he gave himself up to the endearments of the Muse. The aspect of a Doctor or Professor, however intelligent, does not certainly generate poetical ideas. The wig, the gown, the paraphernalia of a college, may sometimes beget respect, but it is not possible for them to entice us on the Muse's flowery ways. They are in the opposition themselves. Besides this, the upholding of old established ideas, however right in itself, operates necessarily against thinking . We argue in favour of what others have said, but we say nothing new ourselves. Early thinking may be bad,—or good: we do not profess to give an opinion on that head: but that thinking is necessary in poetry as well as prose, we must insist,—notwithstanding the many instances of success on the contrary side of the question.

          Mr. Beddoes then is a poet. He is one of great hope and of very considerable performance. But he has faults; and we will tell him of them as frankly as we speak of his merits. In the first place, there is a want of earnestness very often in his play. He toys with his subject too much; and this (which is delightful in the Midsummer-Night's Dream, and such works) is destructive to a tale of midnight murder. 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 hunstmen and servants talk good courtly (or if he pleases poetical) language. We appeal to Mr. Beddoes, whether Hubert talks like a huntsman—though we admit that he talks very well. He says, that it is "a fearful time,"

And through the fiery fissures of the clouds
Glistens the warfare of arm'd elements,
Bellowing defiance in earth's stunned ear,
And setting midnight on the throne of day
                                                                        (3. 3. 158-61)

If Mr. Beddoes to our accusation replies, that Hubert (for we do not collect distinctly what he is) is superior to a huntsman, we retort with the "huntsman's" own words

The roar has ceased: the hush of inter-calm
Numbs with its leaden finger Echo's lips,
And angry spirits in mid havoc pause.
                                                                         (3. 3. 162-64)

although in the same page Mr. Beddoes has given as plain a picture (and it is fine from its very simplicity) as we could wish. Our friend the huntsman speaks again:

The forest has more tenants than I knew,
Look underneath this branch; see'st thou not yonder
Among the brushwood and the briery weeds
A man at work?
(3. 3. 170-173)

This is good, as we have said, from its simplicity and plainness: but there are passages of a higher quality; as, for instance, where Hesperus (the hero) grasping his dagger, exclaims—

Who placed this iron aspic in my hand?
                                                                       (2. 4. 53)

and where, to the poor Floribel's supplications for mercy, he says,

Earth gives thee back: thy God hath sent me for thee:
Repent and die!
                                                                      (3. 3. 101-102)

Again, there are passages of a different sort (and indeed, it is in them that the author excels) equally delightful. He is speaking of the time when "fantastic dreams" mix with the sleeper's fancies,

While that winged song , the restless nightingale,
Turns her sad heart to music.
(1. 1. 12-13)

This is as fine and beautiful as poetry can be. Shakespeare might have written it. Of the violet, he says, it is

__________________Like Pandora's eye,
When first it darkened with immortal life.
                                                                      (1. 1. 33-34)

          But we are criticizing Mr. Beddoes's play, without having informed our readers of the particulars of the story. They are as follows.

          The Manciple of one of the colleges at Oxford, early in the last century, had a very beautiful daughter, who was privately married to a student without the knowledge of the parents on either side. Shortly afterwards, he was introduced to a young lady who was at the same time proposed as his bride. Absence, his father's displeasure, and the presence of the new object, divorced him from his old regard. He grew enamoured of the second lady, and destroyed the poor girl who had privately become his wife. He decoyed her to a solitary spot in the Divinity-walk, murdered, and buried her. The deed was never known till he discovered it on his death-bed.

          Of this play, the three first acts are decidedly the best. And the reason is this; that, after the end of the third act, we have nothing to learn except that the murderer dies. The interest runs up to the part in which Floribel (the girl) is murdered by her lover and husband, Hesperus, and then it falls. He marries again (also in the third act) but it must be owned that he is less interesting afterwards.—There is not much attempt at character in the play. Both Floribel and Olivia are gentle girls—Hesperus is a person swayed by circumstances and his own passions—Claudio is a sort of joker—and the rest have no very distinguishing traits.

          We have heard it said (in reply to our strongly expressed admiration of this play) that it wants interest, and character, and unity of purpose, &c. This is true to a certain extent. But a great part of the interest of a play arises from the mechanical construction of it; and this Mr. Beddoes will easily acquire. Delightful passages, striking scenes, may be scattered about, but if a drama wants the appearance of a main serious purpose, it will necessarily fail with the great body of readers. We would fain impress this on Mr. Beddoes. Let him try to fix his scenes closely, one within the other,—to "dovetail " them, as cabinet makers would say, and he will find that the appearance of his dramas will be materially better. It is to be recollected, however, that the first plays of all authors have failed in the mechanism. Look at Shakespeare's first (and cruelly under-rated) play of Pericles:—the hero's hairs grow grey in the course of it. His second play is more regular, but there he is indebted to Plautus. His third and fourth (if they are indeed his)—the two parts of Henry VI are rambling and strange enough. And in that exquisite Fantasia, the Mid-summer Night's Dream, we scarcely know who are the heroes and heroines. Let us pardon our author, therefore, on account of his failures in the joiner's part of tragedy (he will soon amend that), and look only to his delightful poetry.

          The following soliloquy of Hesperus has a gloomy grandeur about it.

Hail, shrine of blood, in double shadows veil'd,
Where the Tartarian blossoms shed their poison
And load the air with wicked impulses;
Hail, leafless shade, hallow'd to sacrilege,
Altar of death. Where is thy deity?
With him I come to covenant, and thou,
Dark power, that sittest in the chair of night,
Searching the clouds for tempests with thy brand,
Proxy of Hades; list and be my witness,
And bid your phantoms all, (the while I speak
What if they but repeat in sleeping ears
Will strike the hearer dead, and mad his soul;)
Spread wide and black and thick their cloudy wings,
Lest the appalled sky do pale to day.
Eternal people of the lower world,
Ye citizens of Hades' capitol,
That by the rivers of remorseless tears
Sit and despair for ever;
Ye negro brothers of the deadly winds,
Ye elder souls of night, ye mighty sins,
Sceptred damnations, how may man invoke
Your darkling glories? Teach my eager soul
Fit language for your ears. Ye that have power
O'er births and swoons and deaths, the soul's attendants,
(Wont to convey her from her human home
Beyond existence, to the past or future,
To lead her through the starry blossom'd meads
Where the young hours of morning by the lark
With earthly airs are nourish'd, through the groves
Of silent gloom, beneath whose breathless shades
The thousand children of Calamity
Play murtherously with men's hearts:) Oh pause,
Your universal occupations leave,
                                                                                (3. 6. 36-68)

The reader may now take a lighter extract. It is from the early part of the drama, and shows how gracefully Mr. Beddoes can handle a somewhat trite subject. Hesperus and Floribel have met in a bower of eglantine and honeysuckle. She has flowers with her, and he affects a jealousy. "So, I've a rival here?" he says:

What's this that sleeps so sweetly on your neck?
                                                                               (1. 1. 29-30)

And thus his bride replies:

Jealous so soon, my Hesperus? Look then,
It is a bunch of flowers I pulled for you:
Here's the blue violet, like Pandora's eye,
When first it darkened with immortal life.
. Sweet as thy lips. Fie on those taper fingers,
Have they been brushing the long grass aside
To drag the daisy from its hiding-place,
Where it shuns light, the Danäe of flowers,
With gold up-hoarded on its virgin lap?
   Floribel . And here's a treasure that I found by chance,
A lily of the valley; low it lay
Over a mossy mound, withered and weeping
As on a fairy's grave.
Hesperus.           Of all the posy
Give me the rose, though there's a tale of blood
Soiling its name. In elfin annals old
'Tis writ, how Zephyr, envious of his love,
(The love he bare to Summer, who since then
Has weeping visited the world:) once found
The baby Perfume cradled in a violet;
('Twas said the beauteous bantling was the child
Of a gay bee, that in his wantonness
Toyed with a peabud in a lady's garland;)
The felon winds, confederate with him,
Bound the sweet slumberer with golden chains,
Pulled from the wreathed laburnum, and together
Deep cast him in the bosom of a rose,
And fed the fettered wretch with dew and air.
                                                                                (1. 1. 31-57)

          We close our extracts with part of the scene where Hesperus murders Floribel; though the reader must understand, that the beauties of Mr. Beddoes's writing are so scattered over his play, that we cannot very well, by extracts, unless they were very long, do him justice. He wants, as we have said, earnestness sometimes, and but too often trifles a little with his subject; but there are marks of great and undoubted talent in his play; and the whole is clothed in a more poetical dress (a rare thing—though we do call ours "a poetical age,") than we have for a very long time seen displayed to the public. We hope that the public will appreciate it.

   Hesperus. Well, speak on; and then,
When thou has done thy tale, I will but kill thee.
Come tell me of my vows, how they are broken,
Say that my love was feigned, and black deceit,
Pour out thy bitterest, till untamed wrath
Melt all his chains off with his fiery breath,
And rush a-hungering out.
          Oh piteous heavens!
I see it now, some wild and poisonous creature
Hath wounded him, and with contagious fang
Planted this fury in his veins. He hides
The mangled fingers, dearest, trust them to me,
I'll suck the madness out of every pore,
So as I drink it boiling from thy wound
Death will be pleasant. Let me have the hand
And I will treat it like another heart.
Here 'tis then—(stabs her.)
Shall I thrust deeper yet?
          Quite through my soul,
That my senses, deadened at the blow,
May never know the giver. Oh, my love,
Some spirit in thy sleep hath stole thy body
And filled it to the brim with cruelty;
Farewell, and may no busy deathful tongue
Whisper this horror in thy waking ears,
Lest some dread desperate sorrow urge thy soul
To deeds of wickedness. Whose kiss is that?
His lips are ice. Oh my loved Hesperus,
Help!           (Dies.)
What a shriek was that; it flew to heaven.
And hymning angels took it for their own.
Dead art thou, Floribel; fair, painted earth,
And no warm breath shall ever more disport
Between those rubious lips: no, they have quaffed
Life to the dregs, and found death at the bottom,
The sugar of the draught. All cold and still;
Her very tresses stiffen in the air.
Look, what a face: had our first mother worn
But half such beauty when the serpent came,
His heart, all malice, would have turned to love;
No hand but this, which I do think was once
Cain, the arch-murtherer's, could have acted it.
And I must hide these sweets, not in my bosom,
In the foul earth. She shudders at my grasp;
Just so she laid her head across my bosom
When first—oh villain! which way lies grave? (Exit.)
                                                                                          (3. 3. 110-53)
[return to top]