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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 19, août 2000

New Texts and Textual Scholarship in British Literature, 1780-1830

Sous la direction de Anthony John Harding

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005932ar

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Article

Representing some Late Romantic-Era, Non-Canonical Male Poets: Thomas Hood, Winthrop Mackworth Praed, Thomas Lovell Beddoes

Susan J. Wolfson

Princeton University

Editor's Note

Selected Poems of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Winthrop Mackworth Praed, and Thomas Hood is now available from Penguin UK (ISBN: 0140436006 - Price:£9.99). You can find more information about this edition, and order it, at the Penguin website.


I. The Challenge

1

My cumbersome main title names four liabilities, instanced by my subtitle's perhaps unknown or only vaguely familiar names: the genre, the era, the status, the sex. The first liability, at least from a commercial standpoint, is (non-contemporary) poetry itself, increasingly an alien and foreign language not only in culture at large but even in our academic worlds. Byron's Corsair, legendarily, sold 10000 copies on the first day of publication and went into double-digit editions over the next several months. Last year, Penguin UK reissued the poem in its "first edition" series, not expecting a repetition of these figures, but not expecting the astounding failure they encountered either. So spectacular was this failure in relation to their modest but optimistic anticipations that it has virtually killed the series. The vanishing market for poetry is not a period-specific problem of course, but it feeds into the second liability, the difficulty of interesting publishers in any project of editing "Late Romantic-era" writers. If The Corsair flops, what hope is there for lesser lights?

2

Even in professional conversation, the three decades spanning the 1820 to 1850 have not, until recently, proved as interesting to students of Romantic poetry as the three previous decades. Until very recently, Romantics had even ceded the 1840s to the Victorians, the first decade (after all) of the eponym's reign. Even so, Romantics argued some claim. Wordsworth was still tending his career in the 1840s and still fiddling with the innovative poem that would be a publishing sensation in 1850, The Prelude; new, important editions of Keats, Shelley, L.E.L., and others appeared in these years; and everyone was still reading and being stimulated by the literature of the century's first decades, Scott and Byron as popular as ever. The1820s and 1830s? Until recently, these decades focused attention primarily to follow to conclusion the careers of Scott and Byron, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats, or to keep track of Wordsworth, or to mark the first flashes of later stellar careers (Tennyson, Barrett Browning, Browning). More recently, these decades have drawn attention as the era of that new, commercially potent, author-attracting phenomenon of the annuals, in which everyone published, including some of our "old canonicals" (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott—and posthumously, Byron and Percy Shelley)—and in which our newer canon of Romantic-era women poets and tale-tellers (Hemans, L.E.L., Mary Shelley) found welcome. It was in these decades that their professional careers took off and became cultural events.

3

Our new, much needed attention to women writers—not only Hemans, L.E.L. and Shelley, but a wealth of others—frames another problem with bringing attention to Hood, Beddoes, Praed: however appealing their poetry is on the level of craft, wit, and social vibrancy, these poets are marginal (or coterie) and "male." This is not a complaint, just a fact (as my other essay in this issue of Romanticism on the Net makes clear, I have been an energetic participant in the she-revival). Even so, our lively (re)discovery of women's poetry has had the effect (inevitable, in a finite world) of submerging the male poets whose canonical status in representations of the field, from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth, has never been securely anchored. The field is expanding but our teaching semesters or quarters are not, and our new, revisionary classroom anthologies have had to make substitutions even as they have increased modestly in size. Some brief measures, across the last few decades of the last century, may help to put the case in quantitative shorthand. The 725-page Romantics unit in the second edition The Norton Anthology of British Literature (1968), the one I used as an undergraduate, had one page of writing by a woman, from Radcliffe, this in the chorus of a section on "The Byronic Hero." It had twenty pages of Burns (at this point, the canon was a "Big Six and a Half"), and 115 pages of "Romantic Lyric Poets" and "Romantic Essayists" that gave scope to Scott, Southey, Landor, Moore, Hunt, Peacock, Clare, Darley, Beddoes, Hazlitt, DeQuincey, Lamb. The 926-page unit in the fourth edition (1979), the one I used for survey courses at the beginning of my career, had about 25 pages of Wollstonecraft, 15 of Dorothy Wordsworth, and 10 of Mary Shelley; it kept Scott, Southey, Landor, Moore, Hunt, Peacock, Clare, Darley, Beddoes, Hazlitt, DeQuincey, Lamb, and added Bowles and Clare. In the latest, seventh edition (2000) the Romantics unit is more than 100 pages longer and on bigger pages, to accommodate all the women writers who have returned to study; but gone were Bowles, Hunt, Peacock, Darley and Beddoes, all having made their last bow in the 6th edition of 1993.

4

Alongside the survey courses, the classrooms of Romantic study and their anthology resources have also been reconfigured. David Perkins's wonderfully capacious English Romantic Poets (1967), the one everyone in my generation grew up on and used into the mid 1990s, included only one woman in its 1265 pages, Dorothy Wordsworth, with half dozen pages from her journals as a supplement to "William Wordsworth." Perkins's value was not on this gender front (scarcely sensed in the 1960s) but in supplying rich enhancements to the main course of the Big Six, with side-dishes of Crabbe, Scott, Southey, Landor, Lamb, Campbell, Hazlitt, Moore, Hunt, De Quincey, Peacock, Haydon, Clare, Beddoes. In the next edition, revised with a sensitivity to new-historicist and feminist interventions in the field (1995), Perkins added about a hundred pages to accommodate several independent units on women (Barbauld, Smith, Robinson, Wollstonecraft, Baillie, Williams, Wordsworth [now on her own], Tighe, Hemans, Shelley, Landon) as well as units on Burns and Godwin. Then came Anne Mellor and Richard Matlak's polemically not-Perkins production, British Literature 1780-1830, which did not just accommodate, but featured women's writing and sociocultural arenas. Its nearly 1500 pages embraced a substantial representation of women writers and previously noncanonical male writers—a real wealth of texts, many republished for the first time in nearly two centuries and freshly, singularly available here; but not among their offerings any Bowles, Crabbe, Darley, Campbell, Hunt, Peacock, Moore, Landor, Haydon, with just a smidge of Hazlitt and Southey—and no Hood, no Beddoes, and (need I say it?) no Praed.

5

I offer this report not as a critique but as a story of facts. Doing the math, we can see that the story shapes a kind of reverse history: of the emergence of women writers and sociohistorical concerns, of a corresponding suppression and now seeming loss of a host of now "minor" male poets. As these minor men have fallen out of anthology pages, so, too, have they fallen out of print elsewhere, especially in independent editions. It is an unsurprising but still sad sign of the times that even as Penguin UK was interested in developing Selected Poems of Hood, Praed, and Beddoes, their free-thinking western partner, Penguin USA, was flat-out, categorically not interested in publishing (let alone marketing or advertising) any of the Penguin UK "three-packs," including this volume. Their argument was a list of market disincentives: a) poetry, b) poetry written almost two hundred years ago, and c) now-forgotten poets who were not women.—none of this redeemed by d) non-celebrity editors. (Kenneth Branagh's Beddoes, Patrick Stewart's Hood, Prince Harry's Praed, maybe).

6

Of the three poets under consideration, Thomas Hood (1799-1845) was best known in his day and has had the longest legs across his century and the next. He began as a belated Keatsian (he married John Hamilton Reynolds's sister), but by the 1820s, as subeditor for the London, he found his talent for comic verse, combining social satire with outrageous and sometimes just plain silly verbal play. The ingenuities and relentlessly inventive punning did not conceal (and often advertised) a set of phobias and fears about the vulnerability of the human body to catastrophes of various kinds, and the agonies of poverty and the brutally exploited working class concentrated his energies in his last decade. The Song of the Shirt (published in the 1843 Christmas issue of Punch) won international fame (even Engels commented on it), and The Bridge of Sighs (based on a story of attempted suicide that played in the Times throughout the spring of 1844, and cherished by Poe and Baudelaire) remained an anthology favorite well into this century. (my father, a history major, was able, a half century after his pre-war degree, to recite most of it from memory).

7

Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849) has always had a coterie, then a cult following, more so now that his heterodoxies—radical republicanism, political agitation, and homosexuality—are part of the discussion. When he committed suicide, he left behind pages and pages of fragmented and incomplete projects, the most well known today a work with which he struggled for almost three decades, Death's Jest-Book, published posthumously in the same year that Wordsworth's Prelude appeared, 1850. The strange, modern-gothic surrealism of his poetry, and its stark imagistic concentrations and deliberately extreme voices, accounted for its initial, though specialized appeal. There had been decades of silence, however, despite an auspicious debut as an Oxford undergraduate. When his second lifetime volume, a modern Jacobean exercise in crime, guilt and retribution, rendered in dazzling poetry, The Brides'Tragedy, was published in 1822, it won raves from notable reviewers in widely read venues: "Christopher North" in Blackwood's, "Barry Cornwall" in London Magazine and then the Edinburgh Review, and "John Lacy" in the London. Beddoes was heralded as the next Shakespeare, or if that seemed a stretch, then the next Marlowe. But his erratic career, which took him almost immediately and permanently out of England, left most of his subsequent work unpublished until after his death. A posthumous edition appeared in the 1850s, attracting the praises of Tennyson and Browning, but it was remaindered, and it was not until the end of the century that Beddoes won a new, protomodernist following.

8

But who, pray tell, is this Praed? When Christopher Ricks proposed my undertaking this edition for his series of "trios" for Penguin Classics, I was too embarrassed to mumble my total ignorance of Praed, but I was not able to fake any sure acquaintance. I demurred on his invitation and grabbed the anthologies off my bookshelves. David Perkins' anthology had no Praed (no Hood, either, I observed; and just a half dozen pages of enchanting Beddoes). So I went deeper, back to the grandfather of the post-war anthologies, Russell Noyes's capacious English Romantic Poetry and Prose (1956), and was happy to discover that at least as late as the middle of the last century, Hood, Praed, and Beddoes, all had representation, including eight poems by Mysterious Winthrop Mackworth Praed (1802-1839). I read them, loved them, laughed out loud. This is the best vers-de-société of Jane Austen ever not written by her, I thought—a sharp sparkling light on the social scene of the day (its flirtations, its political maneuverings, its elegancies and trivial gameplaying), all done with a wit as self-deprecating as it was incisive: without a Byronic worldly-and-world-weariness, but at home enough in the wry ironies of the Austenian English cantos of Don Juan, or of Austen's own novel-worlds, if these were to concentrate on the card games, the watering holes, the ballrooms, and be rendered in punning couplets. It then occurred to me that since Praed (I discovered) had published during his lifetime almost entirely in the popular culture of the periodicals (especially the London and the New Monthly) and the annuals (especially the Literary Souvenir, often in the same volume as Hemans and L.E.L., even writing a poem to the latter), it was likely that an innovative anthologizer with a strong historical sense and commitment to the material culture of publication would have taken notice. I was right. Jerome McGann, his taste akin to Noyes's, included a half dozen poems by Praed in The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse (1994), which also included less Hood and, true to Beddoes's absenting of himself from England, none of him. Freshly versed on Praed, I called Ricks back to say "yes." Editing Praed would be the most flagrant of my learn-as-you-earn situations (ones in which we all, if we are lucky, find ourselves from time to time).

9

That was my education, but I realized that in designing this volume, I would need to interest readers who were not already predisposed to these writers and awaiting their capable representation. Penguin had given us about four hundred pages, which was sufficiently generous to allow detailed endnotes. We wound up with over sixty pages of these, in which we supplied excerpts from the critical literature and letters, as well as research-level information on textual history and variants, in addition to the more routine genre of glosses, explanations, sources and allusions. Our editorial service also involved a twelve-page chronology, running from 1798 to (selectively after 1850, by which time all three had died) 1896, with Edmund Gosse's shepherding of a Beddoes-revival. This chronology not only wended through the lives and publications of the poets and followed the first half century of posthumous publication, but also tracked key historical and cultural events during their lives, ones that sometimes shaped the subjects their poetry and the forces of their reception. We also developed a bibliography, which is not only a service but a revealing short story. Beddoes, with a strong assist from champions such as Ezra Pound, John Ashbery, Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, and Christopher Ricks, has attracted lively critical commentary in the last half century (less so in recent decades), but there is nothing on Praed and scarcely any on Hood, except by their editors. Our splurge was to indulge Hood (150 pages, to 95 for Praed and 115 for Beddoes) in order to present all of his splendid comic-epic, Miss Kilmansegg and Her Precious Leg, A Golden Legend, a sharp and hilarious satire on life in the material world. For both Hood and Praed, our innovation over editors of their collected poems was to follow McGann's practice, and present the texts of the lifetime publications in periodicals and annuals (in Hood's cases, alas, without his wry and wonderful illustrations). In another version of this contextualism, we decided for Beddoes, and against standard anthology practice, to present the much-loved songs from his plays (from sweet to ghoulish) not in free-standing form, but with some lines of connection to their dramatic contexts (the dialogue before and after), by which the songs can appear in surprising new lights (the sweet ones often far less sweet, the ghoulish ones countered by melancholy). Beyond these stimulating policy decisions, however, there were specific challenges with each of the poets.

II. Representing Hood [1]

10

The strangest but inescapable feature of Hood's imagination is his seemingly helpless attraction to puns and wordplay, in all kinds of situations, even at the risk of offending—or with the effect of satirizing—decorum. This would be the basic fuel of his fame as the leading English comic poet of the 1830s and 1840s, and it even inflects his first ventures, a poetry of belated Keatsian romanticism, with homages to Keatsian genres, subjects, themes, even titles. One of the most controversial instances occurs near the end of a long Ode to Melancholy (1827):

Even the bright extremes of joy

Bring on conclusions of disgust,

Like the sweet blossoms of the May,

Whose fragrance ends in must.

113-16

Depending on temperament, readers have admired the extra verbal senses of May and must or have been put off by the tonal rupture—the random grammatical jest of punning these nouns into verbs as a way of enforcing the grimly deterministic wit.

11

As the occasion of Melancholy suggests, Hood's wit is frequently animated by a sense of the inevitability and the pervasiveness of death. Most of his immediate family died of consumption by the time he was twenty-one, and throughout his life his health was at best precarious, and often quite poor. (His son Tom later said that as a boy he thought one of the advantages of being an adult was that one could spit blood.) Living longer than most consumptives in his day, Hood died just before his forty-seventh birthday. Across his first poems the shadow of death falls with a melancholy intensity, and his comic verse is typically sharpened by a vivid imagination of death and a mordant wit about its ghastly events. His cartoon illustrations for his verses are rendered in a similar spirit. Not just embellishments, they are often perverse textual supplements and visual puns.

12

Thackeray gives a telling portrait of the poet as a young man. He recalled seeing Hood

once as a young man, at a dinner. [. . .] I quite remember his pale face; he was thin and deaf, and very silent; he scarcely opened his lips during the dinner, and he made one pun. [2]

That a pun is the sole issue of this near death-in-life aptly indicates a body of work that might, as much as Beddoes's, be called "Death's Jest-Book." Though other fine poets are (in)famous punsters (Shakespeare) and other fine punsters are sometimes poets (Lear, Carroll, Gilbert), Hood's imagination is distinct in its devotion to the impulse, especially its morbid events. The word becomes double, splitting in two, often as the poetry describes a body dismembered, becoming a dispensable or marketable inventory of parts ("a cannon-ball took off his legs, / So he laid down his arms!"). A "pun," Hood remarks in an "Address" that he added to the second edition of Whims and Oddities(1827), "is an accommodating word, like a farmer's horse,—with a pillion for an extra sense to ride behind;—it will carry single, however, if required. The Dennises are merely a sect, and I have no design to please, exclusively, those verbal Unitarians" (p. x); (he's referring to neoclassical critic John Dennis, who had objected to Pope's punning). In the preface to the second series of Whims and Oddities (1829), Hood elaborated his defense, with an implicit apology for an admittedly acquired taste: a pun "is somewhat like a cherry: though there may be a slight outward indication of partition—of duplicity of meaning—yet no gentleman need make two bites at it against his own pleasure." But he was not about to recall the offer: "A double meaning shows double sense," he insists (Miss Kilmansegg). Deploying such verbal shifts and densities, Hood's comic verse often treats his early romantic themes to farce or morbid humor or, as in his epic extravaganza Miss Kilmansegg, infuses potentially serious subjects with mocking jeremiad.

13

Such effects may jar sensibility, even one as receptive to wordplay as William Empson's. "It is difficult to see why a man like Hood, who wrote with energy when he was roused, should have produced so much verse of a trivial and undirected verbal ingenuity," he complains regretfully, explaining that he says "trivial," because Hood "uses puns to back away from the echoes and implications of words, to distract your attention by insisting on his ingenuity so that you can escape from sinking into meaning." [3] Poe, for whom Fair Ines and The Bridge of Sighs mark Hood's highest achievement, hated the sinking into puns: "they leave upon us a painful impression; for evidently they are the hypochondriac's struggle at mirth—the grinnings of the death's head." The "peculiar genius [. . .] of vivid Fancy impelled by Hypochondriasis" was betrayed by puns, Poe insisted, for Hood's "true province was a very rare and ethereal humor, in which the mere pun was left out of sight, or took the character of the richest grotesquerie; impressing the imaginative reader with remarkable force, as if by a new phase of the ideal." [4] Poe's concession to puns of "glowing grotesquerie" means to define a categorical difference, but for Hood it was all connected. It is utterly characteristic of the man who said "I have to be a lively Hood for a livelihood" that his poignant deathbed stanzas, Farewell, Life!, are matched in the lore of Hood's deathbed by his remark to a friend that he was dying really "to please the undertaker, who wished to urn a lively Hood." [5] G. K. Chesterton understood the reaction but read a larger text with compassion: "The tragic necessity of puns tautened and hardened Hood's genius." [6] As Chesterton recognizes, Hood's motivation for punning arose from the same sensibility that could abandon puns, to tune a music of haunting moods, whether of supernatural possession, elegy, or social anger. Hood "was deeply engaged in pleading the case, in comedy and pathos, for the victimized lower classes, the seamstresses, displaced craftsmen, and the impoverished, over whom the fast-rising Victorian economy was running roughshod." [7] Towards the end of his career he was writing influential poems of passion and protest on behalf of these socially oppressed classes. "When he laid down his puns and pranks, put the motley off, and spoke out of his heart, all England and America listened with tears and wonder!" said Thackeray. [8] Hood evoked these tears with subjects already in the public domain, ripe for his sharp voicing. His inspirations, indeed motivations, came from newspaper accounts and actual events: The Dream of Eugene Aram (1829) draws on a famous historical anecdote, and the powerful protest poems of the 1840s—The Song of the Shirt, The Lay of the Labourer, The Workhouse Clock—were sparked by reports of workers' plights in The London Times, as was the tragic elegy, The Bridge of Sighs.

14

Wanting to indicate the culturally potent sites of Hood's publications, we decided to be eclectic about our base texts, often going to the sites from which Hood first reached wide audiences: the early London Magazine ballads; annuals such as Friendship's Offering, Forget-me Not, Hood's Comic Annual; later periodicals (Punch, Hood's Magazine); and Hood's own volumes of poetry. We also decided to be historical in another way. With the exception of Walter Jerrold, most editors parse Hood's work into genres (romantic, comic, narrative, social protest). Like Jerrold, we decided on a chronological arrangement, to show the trajectory of Hood's career, as well as its various, often incongruous commitments, even in phases dominated by a particular mode. [9] So that, for instance, the quietly hushed lyric, The Death-Bed, is succeeded by the exuberant satire, A Friendly Epistle to Mrs Fry in Newgate, then the romantic elegiac stanzas of "I remember, I remember," then the Keatsian Autumn, then the exuberantly grimly-silly Faithless Nelly Gray.

III. Representing Praed

15

The challenge of representing Praed's poetic virtues is that he is too unwilling to participate in his own defense. He insistently discounts himself as a poet, runs down his poetry as mere ephemera, a trivial entertainment. He never thought of himself as having a poet's career, even though he was a regular contributor to the magazines, annuals, and newspapers. If Beddoes was unable to shape a volume of his poetry, he kept trying, and hoped that his friends, Bryan Waller Procter and Thomas Forbes Kelsall, would. But Praed could not be bothered. It was all fun for the moment. "Having been favoured by nature with a long face, a short purse, and two elder Brothers, I find no way of making myself popular in the circle in which she has placed me, except versifying," he wrote to his school friend and future (posthumous) editor, Derwent Coleridge. [10] This generously self-deprecating wit was taken by nineteenth-century readers as a Praed hallmark. Looking back a half century after his death, George Saintsbury proposed that

playing with literature and with life, not frivolously or without heart, but with no very deep cares and no very passionate feeling, is Praed's attitude whenever he is at his best. And he does not play at playing as many writers do: it is all perfectly genuine. [11]

Echoing this judgment, one of Praed's best editors, Kenneth Allott remarks,

Plainly his world fitted him like a glove, but it is equally plain that he looked on its proceedings—from Parliamentary divisions to flirtations, from the Duke of Wellington's friendly salutes to the confidences of match-making dowagers—as an immensely complicated and highly pleasurable game. [12]

Like Hood, Praed was consumptive, but like Hood, too, he was determined not to give in to weak health, even when its exhaustions were apparent to his colleagues in Parliament in his last years. Throughout his life he reveled in the fun of what his son-in-law, George Young, describes as his "sparkling versification." [13] In their earlier days together at Cambridge, classmate Edward Bulwer noticed "a face pale, long, worn, with large eyes and hollow cheeks, but not without a certain kind of beauty"—"a restless exuberance of energy and life, all the more striking from its contrast with a frame and countenance painfully delicate." [14]

16

This restless exuberance marked Praed's remarkable precocity as a student, his striking aptitude for languages and verse-writing, his elegant wit and skilled debating. Here is Bulwer again:

What's the last news?—the medal Praed has won;

What's the last joke?—Praed's epigram or pun;

And every week, that club-room, famous then,

Where striplings settled questions spoilt by men,

When grand MACAULAY sate triumphant down,

Heard PRAED'S reply, and long'd to halve the crown. [15]

Praed's rapid wit follows the tone of Prior's poems, of Pope's satires, and of eighteenth-century vers de société, a genre in which he is routinely classed, even self-classed—calling himself a "rhymer" rather than a poet. [16]

17

The society to which the verse is turned and the rhymes are tuned may seem a world whose nuances are too faint for full modern comprehension. Writing in the 1820s and early 30s—during the post-Regency / pre-Reform reigns of George IV and William IV, when he was studying law and entering political life—Praed found his sharpest inspirations in the elite circles of Eton (he founded and coedited the Etonian in 1820) and Cambridge, in the suburban society resorts and watering places, in urban ballrooms, and in the whirl of Whig and then of conservative Parliamentary politics. Looking back from only a half century or so, in 1872, H. G. Hewlett, writing for the Contemporary Review, confessed to finding these scenes somewhat remote in their uncontemporary quaintness, evoking a time

when terms for which we have now to consult a dictionary—Spadille, Loo, Quadrille, Vole,—and others fast becoming archaic, buck, exquisite, blue—were in common use—when ladies played the harp, kept 'albums,' and ordered dresses of a 'mantuamaker'; and gentlemen wore pumps, buckles, stays, and cravats. [17]

"I have sometimes believed it useful to think of Praed's verses as being produced by a composite character out of Mansfield Park, two-thirds Henry Crawford and one-third Edmund Bertram," Kenneth Allott suggests helpfully, with a similar sense of historical distance (introduction, p. xxxvii).

18

But if Jane Austen's grammar is never truly opaque, whatever its specific syntax and vocabulary (to the contrary, it has proved resiliently current), neither is Praed's. Without a dictionary, Hewlett could delight in the sharp social observation, especially of the ballroom and watering-place poems, which "might belong to our own day." The superstructure may need a gloss, but its basis—social and political ambitions, rituals and balls, matchmaking and lovemaking, flirtations and seriously superficial calculations, self-confessed triviality and political sparring, and occasionally, some quiet desperation—is legible enough and thoroughly enjoyable in all its sharp wit and light-hearted fun:

Good-night to the Season!—the rages

     Led off by the chiefs of the throng,

The Lady Matilda's new pages,

     The Lady Eliza's new song;

Miss Fennel's Macaw, which at Boodle's

     Is held to have something to say;

Mrs. Splenetic's musical Poodles,

     Which bark "Batti, batti!" all day.

     . . .

Good-night to the Season!—another

     Will come with its trifles and toys,

And hurry away, like its brother,

     In sunshine, and odour, and noise.

Will it come with a rose or a briar?

     Will it come with a blessing or curse?

Will its bonnets be lower or higher?

     Will its morals be better or worse?

Will it find me grown thinner or fatter,

     Or fonder of wrong or of right,

Or married, or buried?—no matter,

     Good-night to the Season, Good-night!

Good-Night to the Season, in New Monthly Magazine, August 1827

Praed liked this patter form. It has a modern tone all its own, even as it depends for its effect on a certain kind of familiar inevitability. The rhymes delight in part from a sense of expectation, the momentum of rhythm and alliteration, but the lines that bear them are also typically surprising in Praed's turns and flourishes, the flashes of puns, the deft shifts from romance to bathos.

19

Selecting from the early Etonian verses to the periodical publications of the 1820s and 30s, we chose poetry not only from these exuberant records of the social season, but also tales, lyrics, more bitter satires, and political verses. As the site of Good-Night indicates, Praed published chiefly in newspapers, weekly and monthly magazines, and the annuals, and did not think of poetry either as his vocation or as his profession. He did not devote his attention to the sort of self-presentation entailed in collecting his verses and supervising a career of publication. Except for a privately printed and coterie-circulated collection of Tory Political Poems in 1835, the editions are all posthumous. And because the first, and often thereafter authoritative editions, were assembled with Victorian protocols of editing, which licensed a lot of interference to regularize style and diction, these tend to present "The Victorian Praed." The "authorized" nineteenth-century edition, published a quarter century after Praed's death, is Derwent Coleridge's two-volume Poems (1864), a collection almost devoid of the edgy, anti-Reform political poetry, often larded with a lot of personal invective. This partiality was remedied in 1888 by George Young's edition of Political and Occasional Poems, more scrupulous than Coleridge's, moreover, in giving a source for each of its selections. Yet because both Coleridge and Young apply numerous silent emendations to both accidental and substantive matters (altered titles; dropped stanzas, notes, and epigraphs; errors of transcription and misprints), we went (as with Hood) to the original sources in the periodicals and annuals—with the added value of presenting the versions that delighted Praed's contemporaries. Praed's editors (Coleridge and Allott) have preferred, like Hood's, to arrange their contents by genre or tone ("verse tales," "poems of love and fancy," "poems of life and manners," "political poems"); as with our Hood, we opted for a chronological arrangement in order to display the arc of Praed's career of writing and its various commitments at any given phase.

IV. Representing Beddoes

20

Beddoes, like Praed, made it difficult for those who wanted to cultivate his poetic career. He was as erratic as he was brilliant, habitually solitary, obstinate, temperamental, always passionate, and ultimately suicidal. "Mr Beddoes / (T. L.) prince of morticians"—so Pound dubbed him (Canto LXXX)—found his ultimate client early in 1849. After an unsuccessful attempt at suicide the year before, using a razor to sever an artery in his leg (a mutilation that soon required amputation below the knee), he prevailed with poison, ending his life at age forty-five. A poet of powerful, haunting imagination, Beddoes, like the other morbidly witty poets in our volume, is most characteristic for his defiance of easy characterization. He has been slotted, variously, as the last Elizabethan, a Jacobean scion, an eighteenth-century graveyard poet resurrected in the Romantic age, an original interpreter of the English-German vogue of "Gothic" terror, the dark rear-guard of second-generation Romanticism, a soul-mate of Baudelaire and Poe, the first modernist and, with his comic grotesqueries, a precursor of the twentieth-century theater of the absurd. "Death's Jest Book" is an apt enough genre for a career of scenes and songs devoted to ghoulishly comic effects, macabre turns of events, grotesque conjunctions, original interviews of the porous boundaries between life and death. But "Beddoes is as good a poet as he is," Christopher Ricks suggests, "because the romantic, lyrical, and assuaging things in him are as real in the best of his work as the antiromantic, harsh, and feverish things." [18]

21

His mother was the sister of prodigious novelist Maria Edgeworth, his father, Dr. Thomas Beddoes, a Lecturer in Chemistry at Oxford until his political opinions, including support of the French Revolution and opposition to the British government, created a scandal that forced him to resign the post. Beddoes père then became an eminent medical practitioner and scientific writer, a friend to many, including Coleridge and Southey. "What a good Man, and good physician Dr Beddoes is!" wrote Dorothy Wordsworth to her friend Mrs. Thomas Clarkson (wife of the famous abolitionist), who was under his care (1 June 1804); " I have such a faith in the eye of Dr Beddoes that I feel assured that you cannot possibly do as well when he does not daily overlook you. . . . I have been quite well ever since I wrote to you, as if the very name of Dr Beddoes had acted upon me like a charm" (24 June). [19] But charming Dr. Beddoes died when his son Thomas was quite young.

22

Thomas eventually entered Pembroke College, Oxford, where he studied medicine and poetry. As a freshman, he published a volume of verse and drama The Improvisatore (1821), a preliminary exercise, but with some fine, lush moments. He then astonished everyone the next year with The Brides' Tragedy. In early 1825 Beddoes was fully energized for the reception that dubbed him the modern heir of Shakespeare and Marlowe, declaring, with patent self-reference, that

the man who is to awaken the drama must be a bold trampling fellow—no creeper into worm-holes—no reviser even—however good. These reanimations are vampire-cold—such ghosts as Marlowe—Webster &c are better dramatists, better poets, I dare say, than any contemporary of ours—but they are ghosts—the worm is in their pages—& we want to see something that our great-grandsires did not know. With the greatest reverence for all the antiquities of the drama, I still think that we had better beget than revive—attempt to give the literature of this age an idiosyncrasy & spirit of its own, & only raise a ghost to gaze on, not to live with—just now the drama is a haunted ruin. [20]

Beddoes began four new plays almost immediately in the wake of The Brides' Tragedy, but finished none; the play would be the last lifetime volume. Almost as suddenly as he astonished the world with the Tragedy, he left Oxford, left England, and matriculated as a medical student in Göttingen, Germany.

23

By 1827 he declared his "preference of Apollo's pill box to his lyre," choosing "Göttingen instead of Grub Street for [his] abode." [21] Even so, he could not let go of a play begun in 1825, his "never-ending" Death's Jest-Book, writing for and wrestling with it for the rest of his life. If Wordsworth's Prelude is the preparatory poem that became synonymous with his life and then his chief posthumous publication, Beddoes's jest of death became the work of his life and then the birth of his reputation with its posthumous publication in 1850, the same year as The Prelude. Beddoes's allegiance to Apollo's pill box, moreover, was inconstant. He moved around Germany and Switzerland, enrolling in various universities, attending lectures on literature and history, reading German poetry and Elizabethan drama, getting involved in republican politics and in trouble for revolutionary agitation, all the while enjoying the company of actors, journalists, politicians, and doctors.

24

"At the feast of the Muses," wrote Edmund Gosse in the introduction to his edition of 1890, Beddoes "appears bearing little except one small savoury dish, some cold preparation, we may say, of olives and anchovies, the strangeness of which has to make up for its lack of importance." [22] Beddoes's suicide note, left folded on his bosom after he had ingested poison, is his final dish of epicurean, self-parodic poignancy:

I am food for what I am good for—worms [. . .] Love [. . .] to Kelsall whom I beg to look at my MSS—and print or not as he thinks fit. I ought to have been among other things a good poet; Life was too great a bore on one peg & that a bad one.—Buy for Dr Ecklin above mentioned Reade's best stomach pump.

In addition to the final sarcasm, he could not resist the witty rhyme of "I am food for / I am good for," nor what Ricks calls the "retrospective contraction of 'f or what I am good' into food," [23] nor a last rueful chime of "beg" and "peg." Among other things, he was, to the end, a poet.

25

The textual situation of Beddoes' work is at once straightforward and for the most part heavily mediated. He did publish The Improvisatore but then went about suppressing it, destroying every copy he could find. He also published The Brides' Tragedy. Otherwise, except for a few pieces for which friends secured publication in his lifetime (three poems in The Athen¾um), everything else is posthumous. Kelsall, Beddoes' lifelong friend and literary executor, assembled a text of Death's Jest-Book which appeared anonymously in 1850; for his complete edition of Beddoes (now named) the next year, he edited the poems and devised titles as he saw fit. His store of manuscripts was bequeathed to a Beddoes-enthusiast, Robert Browning, but he did nothing with them, and at his death these materials devolved to son Robert Barrett Browning, and then were lost. Fortunately, meticulous transcriptions of the manuscripts had been made by Dykes Campbell, and these were eventually received by Edmund Gosse, along with a box of correspondence from Robert Browning, which probably appalled Browning with the revelation (not publicly known) of Beddoes's suicide. From this store Gosse developed his important editions of the poems (1890 and 1928), with more fidelity to Beddoes' manuscripts than Kelsall, and produced editions of the letters. In 1935, H. W. Donner re-edited Beddoes' poems and letters from the manuscript sources.

26

We decided to complement Donner's labor by presenting the versions that shaped the fin de siècle revival of interest in Beddoes (just over a century ago), its readers on the verge of the modernist consciousness that would bring a fresh appreciation to Beddoes's strange and compelling sensibility. For this purpose, we used Gosse's landmark 1890 edition, with only a few exceptions: The Brides' Tragedy, for which we use the first edition of 1822; a poem on Shelley that Kelsall placed in The Athenaeum in 1833; and a poem on the French Revolution that appears only in Kelsall's memoir of 1851, not reprinted by Gosse. With our selection spanning Beddoes's career of writing, from his first volume of 1821 to his last revisions of Death's Jest-Book, we decided to keep a generally chronological ordering, but specified where we could groupings of poems for volumes that Beddoes projected (but did not publish): Outidana, Death's Jest-Book, and The Ivory Gate.

27

Like Beddoes's previous editors, we wanted to present some manuscript "fragments" as independent compositions; "There is something fragmentary in the very mind and genius of Beddoes," Donner remarks in his introduction to the Works (p. xxiii). This genius by fragments is perhaps what left Ian Jack closing a very qualified appraisal of Beddoes in a standard reference with the remark that Beddoes was "a man of genius who wrote nothing that is commonly remembered." [24] We wanted to improve and inspire memory with a selection that varied from previous ones in two chief ways. We present the songs for which Beddoes is most admired not independently but in the dramatic contexts for which he intended them and by which they are (sometimes subversively, satirically) inflected. We also excerpt passages from the plays capable of standing independently, which we offer for their compelling conception, power of imagination and verbal artistry. Our edition is the first presentation of some of these texts in this form. In so doing, we meant to recognize what the reviewer for Blackwood's expressed in 1865, with Death's Jest-Book in hand: "In this mad and plotless play there are finer passages than any living dramatist has composed . . . grandeur, tenderness, and a poetry of description totally unequalled," and that "it is in the short, brilliant, almost epigrammatic phrases with which the play is studded, that we find this writer's strength." "Beddoes' genius was essentially lyrical," Arthur Symons put it more succinctly. "Now, as to the extracts which might be made," Browning suggested to Kelsall, "why, you might pick out scenes, passages, lyrics, fine as fine can be: the power of the man is immense & irresistible." [25]


 

Notes

[1]

The sections that follow are adapted from my introductions in the Penguin Classics Selected Poems of Hood, Praed and Beddoes (London: Penguin, 2000).

[2]

William Makepeace Thackeray, "On a Joke I once heard from the late Thomas Hood," Roundabout Papers, 1863 (rpt. The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, 12 vols. [London: Smith, Elder; Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1878] vol. 10, p. 69).

[3]

William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (Cleveland: Meridian Press, 1955 [1930]) p. 125.

[4]

Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia, in vol. 16 of The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (NY: AMS, 1965) pp. 177-78.

[5]

The first remark is quoted by John C. Reid, Thomas Hood (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963) 7; the second is reported by William Henry Hudson, "Thomas Hood: the Man, the Wit, and the Poet," A Quiet Corner in a Library (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1915) p. 25.

[6]

Chesterton, The Victorian Age in Literature (London: Oxford University Press, 1955 [1913]) pp. 18-19. Chesterton cites "Sewing at once with a double thread a shroud as well as a shirt" and "Oh! God! that bread should be so dear, / And flesh and blood so cheap" (The Song of the Shirt); "We thought her dying when she slept, / and sleeping when she died" (The Death-Bed); and "A cannon-ball took off his legs, / So he laid down his arms" (Faithless Nelly Gray).

[7]

Roger B. Henkle, "Comedy as Commodity: Thomas Hood's Poetry of Class Desire," Victorian Poetry 26 (Autumn 1988): 301.

[8]

Thackeray, "On a Joke," Works vol. 10, p. 70.

[9]

The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hood (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1906). The other wonderful edition of Hood, one that arranges the poems by genre, is John Clubbe's Selected Poems of Thomas Hood (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970). This edition is finely annotated, and with numerous illustrations.

[10]

Quoted by Derek Hudson, A Poet in Parliament: A Life of Winthrop Mackworth Praed (London: John Murray, 1939) p. 78.

[11]

George Saintsbury, Macmillan's Magazine, 1888; rpt. Essays in English Literature, 1780-1860 (London: Percival, 1890) p. 401.

[12]

Kenneth Allott, Selected Poems of Winthrop Mackworth Praed (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953) p. xvii.

[13]

Sir George Young, ed., The Political and Occasional Poems of Winthrop Mackworth Praed (London, 1888) p. xi.

[14]

Quoted by Derek Hudson, Poet in Parliament, pp. 67-69.

[15]

Edward Bulwer, St. Stephen's (anon. 1860); quoted by Hudson (p. 79) and Allott (p. lxiii).

[16]

Letter to his sister, Susan Praed, quoted by Allott p. xxxii.

[17]

Hewlett, "Poets of Society," Contemporary Review 20 (1872): 256.

[18]

Ricks, "Thomas Lovell Beddoes: 'A dying start,'" The Force of Poetry, (Oxford Univ. Press, 1984) p. 146.

[19]

The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth; The Early Years, 1787- 1805, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, 2d edn. rev. Chester L. Shaver (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967) pp. 479 and 485.

[20]

Letter to Thomas Forbes Kelsall, 11 January 1825, quoted by H. W. Donner, The Complete Works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935) p. 595; the letter was first published in Thomas Forbes Kelsall's "Memoir," in his edition of The Poems, Posthumous and Collected, of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, 2 vols. (London: William Pickering, 1851) vol. 1, p. xxxviii.

[21]

Letter to Kelsall, October 1827; quoted from Donner, Works, p. 636; this was first published in Kelsall's "Memoir," Poems (1851) vol. 1, p. lxxvii.

[22]

Gosse, The Poetical Works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, 2 vols. (London: Dent, 1890) vol. 1, p. xxxvi.

[23]

Ricks, Force of Poetry, p. 151; the note is quoted from Donner, Works, p. 683.

[24]

Jack, English Literature 1815-1832 (Oxford Univ. Press, 1963) p. 144.

[25]

"Mr. Buttle's Review," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 80 (October 1856): 448. Symons, "Thomas Lovell Beddoes," The Academy (1891); rpt. Figures of Several Centuries (London: Constable, 1916) p. 124. Browning's remark is from a letter to Kelsall, 22 May 1868, in The Browning Box: Or, the Life and Works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes as Reflected in Letters by His Friends and Admirers, ed. H. W. Donner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935) p. 105.

Auteur : Susan J. Wolfson
Titre : Representing some Late Romantic-Era, Non-Canonical Male Poets: Thomas Hood, Winthrop Mackworth Praed, Thomas Lovell Beddoes
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 19, août 2000
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005932ar
DOI : 10.7202/005932ar

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