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The Brides' Tragedy by Thomas Lovell Beddoes Edited by David Baulch

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

[The spelling and punctuation of the original have been maintained. The symbols used to indicate footnotes and the citation of material quoted from the play have been changed.]

A SIXTH LETTER TO THE DRAMATISTS OF THE DAY:

One word more, I beseech you.— Henry IV.

          Gentlemen,—It would be an easy, though somewhat invidious task, to prove by examples from the works of living writers, the almost universal diffusion throughout the passing world of verse, of the contagion of prose-poetry,—that thing whose absurd but mischievous principles were exposed in the preceding number. . . .

          How the bloom should gather on these two celebrated authors' cheeks, to find a woman and a boy instructing their skilless manhood in the vernacular language of the British Muse! Joanna Baillie and young Beddoes, a female extern and a freshman, teaching Byron and Barry Cornwall, after a regular graduation in the college of English Minstrels, their own poetical mother-tongue, the very elements of their native poetical dialect, which they have either forgotten, or corrupted with a base intermixture of foreign principles. . . . However: here is Minor Beddoes, born in the very zenith of this mock-sun of poetry, whilst it is culminating in the mid-heaven of our literary hemisphere, shining in watery splendour, the gaze and gape of our foolish-faced fat-headed nation: here is Minor Beddoes, I say, born amidst the very rage and triumph of the Byronian heresy,—nay, in a preface more remarkable for good-nature than good-sense, eulogizing some of the prose-poets,—let what does Minor Beddoes? Why, writing a tragedy himself, with a judgment far different from that exhibited in his panegyrical preface, he totally rejects, and therefore tacitly condemns and abjures the use of prose-poetry. But it was not the boy's judgment which led him to this; it was his undepraved ear, and his native energy of mind, teaching him to respue this effeminate style of versification. The Bride's Tragedy transcends, in the quality of its rhythm and metrical harmony, the Doge of Venice and Mirandola; just as much as it does Fazio, and the other dramas which conform to the rules of genuine English heroic verse, in the energy of its language, the power of its sentiments, and the boldness of its imagery—that is, incalculably. The impassioned sublimity of this speech of Hesperus (after he has murdered Floribel), is a nearer approach to the vein of our dramatic school of tragedy, than I can recognize in either the rhetoric or poetic:—

Scene— A Suicide's Grave.

Hail, shrine of blood, in double shadows veiled,
Where the Tartarian blossoms shed their poison
And load the air with wicked impulses;
Hail, leafless shade, hallowed 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' capital,
That by the river of remorseful 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 and future,
To lead her through the starry-blossomed meads
Where the young hours of morning by the lark
With earthly airs are nourished, 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!
Lay down awhile the infant miseries,
That to the empty and untenanted clay
Ye carry from the country of the unborn;
And grant the summoned soul one moment more
To linger on the threshold of its flesh;
For I would ask you.
                                                                                (2.6.36-74)

          There is a good deal of extravagance here, a good deal of hyperbolical rambling; the luxuriant growth of a fancy which maturer judgment will restrain. The author appears, also, to be making too evident a set at sublimity in this passage; it begins too designedly in the established form of solemnific invocation, and runs too long a gauntlet of second-person pronouns, the rhapsodist's right-hand monosyllable, time immemorial. Nevertheless, it betrays a mind in which the rudiments of tragic power are, to my eyes, eminently conspicuous,—tragic power of the very highest order. I have frequently mentioned the os magna sonans ; this is the first great qualification for a tragedist, and this qualification the Author of the Bride's Tragedy most undeniably possesses. Nay, more: considering the os magna as a quality as well as a qualification, there is one species of it only which is peculiar to tragedy; that which is proper to epic poetry is essentially different from this. But the rara avis among dramatists, is he who possesses the tragic species, and not the epic; for any one conversant with the English stage, from Shakspeare downwards, will easily perceive that almost all our dramatic writers mistake the epic for the tragic vein of magniloquence;* now, the Author of the Bride's Tragedy is a rara avis of this kind. Otway's hollow heroics, Lee's loud bombast, and Young's elaborate grandiloquence though they may be all species of the os sonans , are none of them of that species proper to tragedy, which can be defined mentally, not verbally,—but which may be said to be chiefly differenced and distinguished by passion, by being more dependant on sense than sound, on the things presented to the fancy than on the words bruited to the ear. It is from the appearance of this qualification in the Author of the Bride's Tragedy, that I would anticipate, with an expectation perhaps too sanguine, a better and more genuine tragedy from his pen than Venice Preserved, Theodosius, or the Revenge, which are all formed on the erroneous and epic principle. His tragedy is certainly a most singular and unexpected production, for this age; exhibiting, as it does, this peculiar knack in the author for the genuine os of the stage. After all the abuse my conscience has compelled me to pour forth on the plotlessness, still-life, puling effutiation, poetry, and prose-poetry of modern plays, it is grateful to my heart to acknowledge that this first great quality of legitimate drama is broad upon the surface of the Bride's Tragedy. I am almost tempted to confess after the perusal of our Minor's poem, that I have been premature in pronouncing the decline of English poetry from the Byronian epoch: and to express my confidence that tragedy has again put forth a scion worthy of the stock from which Shakspeare and Marlow sprung. But whilst I pay this cordial tribute of admiration to our author's genius, and indulge in this prospect of this eventual success as a dramatist, I cannot help avowing my fears that he is deficient in some qualifications, which, although not as splendid, are just as necessary to complete a tragedist, as that one which I have unreservedly allowed him. The os magna, alone, will not do; even that which is not epic or lyric, but strictly dramatic. He exhibits no skill in dialogue. He displays no power whatever in delineation of character. If it were possible, speaking of works of this kind, to make a distinction between the vis tragica and the vis dramatica, I should say that he possessed much of the former, but little of the latter. The energy, passion, terribility, and sublime eloquence of the stage, he appears perfectly competent to: his facilities in the artful development of story, the contrastment and individualization of characters, the composition of effective dialogue, the management of incidents, scenes, and situations, &c. are as yet under the bushel, if their non-appearance in his tragedy be not a proof-presumptive of their non-existence in his mind. In a word, the Bride's Tragedy does not exhibit any faculty in the author of representing or imitating human life in a connected series of well-ordered scenes, characters, and dialogues; but it exhibits that qualification of mind, which, if it informed such a ready-made series, would render it not only a mere work of genius, but a work of legitimate dramatic genius, an effective tragedy. We must, however, take off the edge of these exceptions to our author's flexibility of genius, by the recollection of two facts. First, that his tragedy was written premeditatedly for the closet, and not for the stage; hence poetic tragedy, more than dramatic, was his object. Secondly, he is a "Minor." With the hope that he will devote himself to the stage, and with the expectation that increasing years will multiply his dramatic powers which are now apparently confined to one, I conclude my observations on his work.

Notes

* Compare lady Macbeth's first and second soliloquies, with Zanga's first and last speeches, as instances of this. [return to review]

He may depend upon this, that no tragic writer declines this ordeal, but he who is inwardly conscious he should burn his fingers in the trial; Lord Byron to wit, who affects to despise the judgment of an audience, which would return the compliment upon his genius, if he gave them an opportunity by the production of a stage-tragedy. [return to review]

It may be necessary, perhaps, for me to disavow all intimacy with the Author of the Bride's Tragedy, his family, friends, or acquaintance. I was not even educated at the same University with him, nor do I personally know any one who was. J.L. [return to review]

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Published @ RC

August 2007

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