413px-Painting of Thomas Lovell Beddoes by Rosalind Bliss 2007

Thomas Lovell Bedoes (1803-1849). Portrait by Rosalind Bliss, 2011, after Nathan Cooper Branwhite (1775-1857), 1824. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Lovell Beddoes
Born June 30 1803(1803-Template:MONTHNUMBER-30)
Clifton, Bristol, England
Died January 26 1849(1849-Template:MONTHNUMBER-26) (aged 45)
Basel, Switzerland
Nationality United Kingdom English
Occupation physician, poet, dramatist

Dr. Thomas Lovell Beddoes (June 30, 1803 - January 26, 1849) was an English poet.[1]

Life Edit


Beddoes was the son of Dr. Thomas Beddoes, an eminent physician, and nephew of Maria Edgeworth. Educated at the Charterhouse and Oxford, he published in 1821 The Improvisatore, which he afterwards endeavored to suppress. His next venture was The Bride's Tragedy (1822), which had considerable success, and won for him the friendship of "Barry Cornwall." Thereafter he went to Göttingen and studied medicine. He then wandered about practising his profession, and expounding democratic theories which got him into trouble. He died at Bale in mysterious circumstances. For some time before his death he had been engaged upon a drama, Death's Jest Book, which was published in 1850 with a memoir by his friend, T.F. Kelsall.[2]

Youth and educationEdit

Beddoes was born at Rodney Place, Clifton, Somerset, the eldest son of Dr. Thomas Beddoes, a celebrated physician, who died when his son was 5 years old. His mother, Anna, was the daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, of Edgeworthtown, and the poet was therefore the nephew of novelist Maria Edgeworth.[3]

At the death of his father T.L. Beddoes was left in the guardianship of Davies Giddy, afterwards known as Sir Davies Gilbert, PRS, who died in 1839. He was sent sent to Bath Grammar School, and on 5 June 1817 entered the Charterhouse. During his stay at this school he distinguished himself by his mischievous deeds of daring, by the originality of his behavior, and by his love of the old Elizabethan dramatists, whom he early began to imitate. He wrote a novel called Cynthio and Bugboo, and in 1819 a drama called the Bride's Tragedy. The former was never printed; the latter remained for some years in his desk. His earliest verses belong to 1817; in July 1819 his name appears as the contributor of a sonnet to the Morning Post.[3]

On leaving Charterhouse, Beddoes went to Oxford, and was entered a commoner at Pembroke College, Oxford on 1 May 1820. At Oxford he was eccentric and rebellious, priding himself on his democratic sentiments, which he preserved through life. In 1821, while yet a freshman, he published his debut volume, the Improvisatore, a pamphlet of 128 pages, printed in Oxford. Of this jejune production he speedily became so much ashamed that he endeavored to suppress it, and with such a measure of success that very few copies of it are now known to exist.[3]


In 1822 he published in London his boyish play, the Bride's Tragedy, a work of extraordinary promise, modelled very closely on such Jacobean writers as Webster, Marston, and Cyril Tourneur. In this drama the principal features of Beddoes' later style are all clearly to be discerned.[3]

The Bride's Tragedy enjoyed a success such as rarely rewards the ambition of so young a writer; it was favorably noticed by the principal reviews, and in particular by Barry Cornwall and George Darley, who welcomed the new poet with effusion. Cornwall, then 35 years of age and at the height of his reputation, extended to the young Oxonian his valuable friendship. in 1823 Beddoes became acquainted with Thomas Forbes Kelsall, a young solicitor, afterwards his biographer and posthumous editor. He now planned, and partly wrote,[3] several other dramas; of Love's Arrow Poisoned, considerable portions still remain unpublished: another, the Last Man, which is frequently referred to in Beddoes' correspondence, has entirely disappeared.[4]

He became deeply interested in Shelley, and in 1824 became guarantee, in common with several other friends, for the 1st edition of that poet's Posthumous Poems.[4]

In person Beddoes was like Keats, short and thick-set.[5] In an unpublished letter in 1824 Cornwall describes Beddoes as "innocently gay, with a gibe always on his tongue, a mischievous eye, and locks curling like the hyacinth;" and it appears that this was by far the brightest and happiest part of his career, though even at this time his excessive shyness made him averse to society.[4]

His mother's health was now breaking up, and in the summer of 1824 he was called to Florence, where she was residing; but she was dead before he could reach her. He spent some time in Italy, where he became acquainted with Walter Savage Landor and Mrs. Shelley, and he then brought his sisters back to England. These interruptions delayed the preparation for his bachelor's degree, which he eventually took on 25 May 1825. During this year he wrote the dramatic fragments, the 'Second Brother' and 'Torrismond,' which appear in the 2nd volume of his works, and he began his great poem, Death's Jest-Book, upon the polishing of which he was engaged for more than 20 years. He planned to publish a volume of lyrics, entitled Outidana; or, Effusions, amorous, pathetic, and fantastical; but he was dissuaded from doing so by his unpopularity with a certain clique at Oxford, Milman, in particular, denouncing him as belonging to "a villainous school."[4]

He now determined to abandon literature, which he had thought of taking up as a profession, and to give his whole attention to medicine, and particularly to anatomy. Accordingly, in July 1825, he went to the university of Göttingen, where he remained in residence for 4 years, studying physiology under Blumenbach, surgery under Langenbeck, and chemistry under Stromeyer. All this time he was slowly completing Death's Jest-Book, which was finished, in its initial form, in February 1829. During these 4 years Beddoes only left Göttingen once, to take his M.A. degree at Oxford on 16 April 1828.[4]

In the winter of 1829 he transferred his residence to Würzburg, in Bavaria, where he continued his medical studies, and in 1832 obtained the degree of doctor of medicine at that university. He had, however, by the open expression of democratic opinions, made himself obnoxious to the government, and before the diploma was actually conferred upon him he was obliged to fly out of the Bavarian dominions, and to take refuge at Strassburg.[4]

In 1833 he visited Zurich, and was so much pleased with it that, when his political intrigues had again made it impossible for him to remain in Germany, he settled down at Zurich in June 1835. He brought with him a considerable reputation as a physiologist, for Blumenbach, in a testimonial which exists, calls him the best pupil he ever had; and he now assumed his degree of M.D. The surgeon Schoelien proposed him to the university as a professor, and he was elected, although the syndic, for a political reason, refused to ratify the election. Beddoes, however, continued to reside in Zurich for several years, and amassed there a scientific library of 600 volumes. He was at Zurich on 8 September 1839, when the peasantry stormed the town, and deposed the liberal government. He observed the riot from a window, and witnessed the murder of the minister Hegetschweiber, who was among his best friends. Beddoes had taken an acute interest in the cause of liberal politics, supporting it with his purse and his pen, for he now wrote German with complete fluency. After the defeat and dispersion of his friends, Zurich was no longer safe for him. In March 1840 his life was threatened by the insurgents, and he was helped to fly from the town in secret by a former leader of the liberal party named Jasper.[4]

He proceeded to Berlin, where, in 1841, he made the acquaintance of one of Dr. Frey. From this time to the date of his death he was a wanderer, still carrying about with him everywhere, and altering, his Death's Jest-Book. In August 1842 he was in England; in 1843 at Baden in Aargau, and again at Zurich; from 1844 to 1846 at Baden, Frankfort, and Berlin.[4]

In the summer of 1846 he came once more to England for nearly a year. His friends found him very much changed, and most eccentric in manner. He complained of neuralgia, and shut himself up for 6 months in his bedroom, reading and smoking. In June 1847 he finally quitted England, and settled for 12 months at Frankfort in the house of an actor named Degen, practicing a little as a physician. Here in the early part of 1848 his blood became poisoned from the virus of a dead body entering a slight wound in his hand. This was overcome, but seriously affected his health and spirits. His republican friends had deserted him, and he felt disgusted with life.[4] In the last year of his life he allowed his beard to grow, and "looked like Shakespeare."[5]

The circumstances which attended his death were mysterious, and have not been made known to the public.[4] The published account was founded on a letter from Beddoes to his sister, in which he says: "In July I fell with a horse in a precipitous part of the neighbouring hills, and broke my left leg all to pieces." This is the version which he wished to circulate, and this may be accepted in silence. The incident, however, whatever it was, occurred not in July, but in May 1848, and in the town of Bâle, where he had arrived the previous night. He was immediately taken to the hospital, where he was placed under the charge of his old friend, Dr. Frey, and of a Dr. Ecklin. The leg was obstinate in recovery, and eventually gangrene of the foot set in. On 9 September it became necessary to amputate the limb below the knee-joint; this operation was very successfully performed by Dr. Ecklin. Beddoes had not, until this latter event, communicated with his friends in England, but during October and November he wrote to them very cheerfully, declining all offers of help, and chatting freely about literature. His friends in the hospital spoke of his fortitude under suffering, and said that he always showed "the courage of a soldier."[5]

In December he walked out of his room twice, and proposed to go to Italy. His recovery was considered certain when, on 26 January 1849, Dr. Ecklin was called to his bedside, and found him insensible. Beddoes died at 10 p.m. that night. On his bed was found a paper of directions, written in pencil with a firm hand, leaving his manuscripts to Kelsall, and adding: "I ought to have been among other things a good poet." He was buried in the cemetery of the hospital.[5]


The Bride's Tragedy, written in 1819 when Beddoes was 16, and published in 1822, was a work of extraordinary promise, modeled very closely on such Jacobean writers as Webster, Marston, and Cyril Tourneur. In this drama the principal features of Beddoes' later style are all clearly to be discerned.[3]

After Beddoes' death his old friend, Thomas Forbes Kelsall, undertook the task committed to him with the greatest zeal and piety. He published the poem of Beddoes' life, the famous Death's Jest-Book; or, The fool's tragedy, in 1850. This play attracted instant attention. It is a story of the 13th century, founded on the historical fact that a Duke of Munsterberg, in Silesia, was stabbed to death by his court fool; the latter personage Beddoes has made the hero of his play under the name of Isbrand.[5]

The Jest-Book was so successful that Kelsall followed it in 1851 by the publication of Poems by the late Thomas Lovell Beddoes, including several dramatic fragments mentioned above, and introduced by an anonymous memoir of Beddoes written by Kelsall. This memoir, which is a very accomplished and admirable piece of biography, contained a large number of interesting letters from Beddoes.[5]

In 1838 Beddoes had translated into German Grainger's work on the Structure of the Spinal Cord; but it is supposed that he failed to find a publisher for it. He is known to have contributed largely to the political literature of the day in German prose and verse, but anonymously, and these fugitive pieces are entirely lost, with the exception of one unimportant fragment.[5]

Beddoes had not the true dramatic instinct.[2] According to Arthur Symons, "of really dramatic power he had nothing. He could neither conceive a coherent plot, nor develop a credible situation."[6] Beddoes' work shows a constant preoccupation with death. His plots are convoluted, and such was his obsession with the questions posed by death that his characters lack individuation; they all struggle with the same ideas that vexed Beddoes.[7]

However, his poetry is full of thought and richness of diction,[2] and for this Lytton Strachey referred to him as "the last Elizabethan".[8] Some of his short pieces, e.g.: "If there were dreams to sell," and "If thou wilt ease thine heart," are masterpieces of intense feeling exquisitely expressed.[2]

Critical introductionEdit

by Edmund Gosse

It has been the fate of Beddoes to be made the subject of praise and blame exaggerated enough to fill his proud and indifferent spirit, could he revisit the moonlit world of journalism, with a fund of sardonic merriment. He would certainly be the 1st to see the jest of his being treated as a profoundly original philosophic poet, and probably more amused than annoyed at being confounded with his own

‘bodyless child full of life in the gloom,
Crying with frog-voice, “What shall I be?”’

There is certainly nothing vague, nothing misty or dubious about the poetic entity of Beddoes; he has scarcely left a page behind him of which it cannot be said that he alone in recent times could have written it. His own caustic definition of his poetry pronounces it to be ‘entertaining, very unamiable, and utterly unpopular.’ We may paraphrase this by saying that it is entertaining because so skilful and nervous in style, so full of surprises, and so unconventional in its aspect of life; but unamiable because of its entire indifference to the ordinary interests of life, and unpopular because it deals with passions and events of a wholly foreign and unfamiliar type.

Beddoes is in poetry what the Helsche Breughel is in painting. He dedicates himself to the service of Death, not with a brooding sense of the terror and shame of mortality, but from a love of the picturesque pageantry of it, the majesty and sombre beauty, the swift, theatrical transitions, the combined elegance and horror that wait upon the sudden decease of monarchs. He was scarcely a born singer; he was a man of consummate natural ability, who chose to walk through the world in the masquerade of a tragic dramatist, and who carried his antique robes so consistently and so skilfully, that at last his artificial presentment was almost as interesting as the real thing would have been, and the mummer himself almost forgot that he was mumming. The reader who carefully analyses his passages of declamatory fancy, is equally startled by the unreality and by the consummate cleverness of the style.

The blank verse of Beddoes is always admirable; it was not as a craftsman that so accomplished a personage was likely to fail; it is even more than admirable, it occasionally approaches closer to the grand manner of the Elizabethan iambic movement than almost any modern verse. But under it all there lies no deep murmur of poetry, no ground-swell of momentous music, making itself dimly heard when the march of the lines is silent, none of that wonderful mystery of sound that we catch in the best passages of Webster and Marston, and even of Cyril Tourneur.

Beddoes succeeds, in my judgment, much more truly as a song-writer than as a constructor of blank verse. His songs are very plainly modelled upon 2 types, that of Shakespeare and his school and that of Shelley. It was no honor to Beddoes, it was merely characteristic of his extraordinary intellectual vigour and perspicacity, that he was the earliest Englishman, outside the circle of personal friends, to perceive the momentous character of Shelley’s genius. In his lyrics he sat at Shelley’s feet, always with too much cleverness to fall into the tricks of imitation; and it would perhaps not be very easy to trace the likeness, if he had not unwarily left a palpable specimen of his method in the song ‘The swallow leaves her nest,’ where the movement of Shelley’s verse is borrowed, not adapted. Yet, if we are content to take the best of his songs for what they are worth, as marvellously clever tours de force, they are as enjoyable as purely artificial exercises in verse can ever be.

Beddoes expended thought and labour for 4 years on the poem which he meant to be his masterpiece, Death’s Jest Book. It is a tragedy of the same class as the Duchess of Malfy and Antonio and Mellida; indeed there are whole scenes which might have been taken bodily out of Marston. There is no doubt that Death’s Jest Book is a poem which will reward perusal; it can scarcely be said to invite it. The plot is founded on the story of a Duke Boleslaus of Münsterberg in Silesia, who was killed by his court-fool in 1377. Some months before Beddoes actually commenced the composition of the piece, he wrote, in one of his charming letters, the following extremely sage words about the mode in which to approach modern tragedy: "Say what you will, I am convinced the man who is to awaken the drama must be a bold trampling fellow, no creeper into wormholes, no reviver even, however good. Such ghosts as Marlowe, Webster, etc., are better dramatists, better poets, I dare say, than any contemporary of ours, but they are ghosts; the worm is in their pages; and we want to see something that our great-grandsires did not know." It would have been salutary indeed for the poor poet himself to have practised what he preached; as it is, nothing is more curious than the contrast between what he wished to do and what he did. Death’s Jest Book is the most eminent specimen existing of poetical spirit-rapping; those very ghosts, whose presence on the modern boards Beddoes so wisely deprecated, were called up more lustily and pertinaciously by none than he. Sometimes, as notably in the scene where the Duke watches by his wife’s grave, the modern poet almost attains to the genuine horror of his master’s touch, but even here something mechanical reminds us of the deception.

In Death’s Jest Book, as elsewhere in Beddoes, the lyrics appear to me fresher and more enjoyable than the blank verse, and some of the grim and humorous songs have the spell of real genius upon them. That containing the stanza —

  ‘From the old supper-giver’s pole
  He tore the many-kingdomed mitre;
To him, who cost him his son’s soul,
  He gave it, to the Persian fighter,’

seems to me of an extraordinary force and horror. My friend Mr. Browning, from whose subtle pen we may yet hope to receive the final and authoritative judgment on Beddoes, informs me that many songs of this ghastly comic cast still remain unprinted, and throw an interesting light upon the character of this problem of a poet.[9]


3 of his poems ("Wolfram's Dirge", "Dream-Pedlary", and "Song") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[10]



  • The Improvisatore: In three ffytes, with other poems. Oxford, UK: J. Vincent, 1821.
  • Poems, Posthumuous and Collected (edited by Thomas Forbes Kelsall). (2 volumes), London: William Pickering, 1851. Volume I (Poems by the late Thomas Lovell Beddoes), Volume II
  • Poetical Works (edited by Edmund Gosse). (2 volumes), London: Dent, 1890. Volume I, Volume II
  • Poems (edited by Ramsay Colles). London: Routledge / New York: Dutton, 1907.
  • Selected Poems (edited by Judith Higgins). Manchester, UK: Carcanet Press, 1976.
  • Selected Poetry. Manchester, UK: Fyfield Books, 1999.[11]
  • The Ivory Gate: Later poems & fragments (edited by Alan Halsey). Hastings, UK: ReScript Books, 2011.


  • The Brides' Tragedy. F.C.& J. Rivington, 1822.
    • Oxford, UK, & New York: Woodstock Books, 1973.[11]
  • Death's Jest-Book; or, The fool's tragedy. London: William Pickering, 1850.
    • Death’s Jest-Book: Or, the Day Will Come (edited by Alan Halsey). Sheffield, Eng.: West House Books, 2003.
    • Death’s Jest-Book: The 1829 Text (edited by Michael Bradshaw). New York: Routledge, 2003.


  • Dream Pedlary. Edinburgh: Tragara Press, 1968.
  • The Phantome-Wooer. Warren, OH: Fantom Press, 1977.

Collected editionsEdit

  • Complete Works (edited by Edmund Gosse). (2 volumes), London: Fanfrolico Press, 1928.
  • Thomas Lovell Beddoes: An anthology (edited by F.L. Lucas). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1932.
  • Works (edited by Henry Wolfgang Donner). London: H. Milford / Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1935.
  • Plays and Poems (edited by Henry Wolfgang Donner). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950.


Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Thomas Lovell Beddoes Society.[12]

See alsoEdit

Thomas Lovell Beddoes "The Phantom-Wooer" Poem animation

Thomas Lovell Beddoes "The Phantom-Wooer" Poem animation


  • PD-icon.svg Gosse, Edmund (1885) "Beddoes, Thomas Lovell" in Stephen, Leslie Dictionary of National Biography 4 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 95-97  Wikisource, Web, Feb. 23, 2020.
  • Ute Berns & Michael Bradshaw (eds), Ashgate Research Companion to Thomas Lovell Beddoes. Aldershot: Ashgate (Nineteenth Century Series), 2007.


  1. Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web, Dec. 12, 2017.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 John William Cousin, "Beddoes, Thomas Lovell," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 31-32. Web, Dec. 12, 2017.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Gosse, 95.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 4.9 Gosse, 496.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 Gosse, 497.
  6. Donner 1950, lxxix.
  7. Donner 1950, pp. xxxii–xxxiii.
  8. Donner 1950, xi.
  9. from Edmund W. Gosse, "Critical Introduction: Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803–1849)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Mar. 17, 2016.
  10. "Alphabetical list of authors: Addison, Joseph to Brome, Alexander, Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 15, 2012.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Search results = au:Thomas Lovell Beddoes, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, July 3, 2013.
  12. [1], Bibliography, Phantom-Wooer: The Thomas Lovell Beddoes Website, Thomas Lovell Beddoes Society. Web, July 4, 2013.

External links Edit

Audio / video

PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the Dictionary of National Biography (edited by Leslie Stephen). London: Smith, Elder, 1885-1900. Original article is at: Beddoes, Thomas Lovell

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.