The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 13. Death’s Jest Book

The main constituent of this work is a play entitled Death’s Jest Book or The Fool’s Revenge, which was ready for publication as early as the spring of 1829. It was referred by the author to B. W. Procter and other timid critics, and pronounced by them, perhaps naturally, but unfortunately, to require revision. Beddoes submitted, and re-wrote it again and again, but never got it finished. After his death, it was published, but with what regard to the variants we do not know. He had earlier, at Oxford, published two much slighter productions, The Bride’s Tragedy and The Improvisatore, and his remains furnished his friend Kelsall (to whom they were left and who handed them over to Browning) with some miscellaneous poems, which were increased when Beddoes’s work was reprinted by Edmund Gosse with Browning’s permission. Beddoes has been called a link between Shelley and Browning himself. He was an avowed devotee of Shelley, and took a warm interest in the task of bringing out that poet’s posthumous poems. But there are also strong influences of Keats in his poems (see, especially, Pygmalion and Letter from Oxford), and, on the whole, the real filiation of his work, both dramatic and lyric, goes straight back to the larger Elizabethan time. Yet, though the influence of such writers as Tourneur and Webster is obvious, it is a great mistake to take him, as has been done, for a mere composer of Elizabethan pastiche, a word for which we have unluckily no exact synonym in English, though we have plentiful examples of the thing. Beddoes, in many ways, is intensely and, indeed, prophetically modern; he was a trained physician and physiologist; there is not a little of modern science in his thought, and his reader is often reminded of Ibsen in his more poetical plays. It is not quite clear whether Death’s Jest Book, as we have it, is a made text out of the three distinct versions which were said to exist, or merely one of them; and this makes it very difficult to judge it as a whole. Of the frequent greatness of the blank verse and of the still more exceptional greatness of the lyric found in it and outside it, there can be little dispute among impartial judges. for some years, Dream-Pedlary has even been near, if it has not actually incurred, that rare but formidable danger which attends enthusiastic laudation by the few, at first adopted by the many and then kicked against by them. But the Dirge for Wolfram (“If thou wilt ease thine heart”) is fully its equal; and such a pair it will be almost impossible to find in English outside the work of the very greatest of our poets. The same touch, if not the same completeness of working, may be found in many other places. There may be more doubt about Beddoes’s complete success anywhere in the line of grim humour such as Old Adam, the carrion crow and the Song of the Stygian Naiades. But, over these, as over all the rest, there hovers that atmosphere of real, if seldom perfect, poetry referred to above. To be content with this, or even to perceive it, is, no doubt, not for everybody. It is easy to dismiss Beddoes as a mere producer of

  • Fantastic beauty, such as lurks
  • In some wild poet when he works
  • Without a conscience or an aim—
  • and of that not very often; it is easy to dismiss him as an Elizabethan copyist; not least easy, perhaps, to obtain the credit of wise moderation by this and that admission. But, historically, Beddoes is an invaluable instance of that curious influence of transition periods on which we may say something true if not new at the close of this chapter. Personally and individually, he is an instance of the kind of poet whom it would be more or less preposterous to call a great poet, and who yet has produced things which only the greatest poets can match.