One cannot read the poetry or dramas of British poet, dramatist and physician Thomas Lovell Beddoes for very long without the sense of sinking, of being immersed in a murky underground landscape, a netherworld where the living mingle comfortably with the dead, a place, in short, in love with death. Thomas Lovell Beddoes was not, of course, alone in his fixation on the question of death or, to be more precise, on the eroticization of Thanatos. Like other gothicists and late romanticists, Thomas Lovell Beddoes mediated a myriad of social, political, cultural, and religious anxieties through his poetry and dramas, depicting a realm that enacted on a microcosmic scale the larger ideological issues of his era.
Clearly, Thomas Lovell Beddoes was imaginatively drawn to the possibilities of creating something of an alternative locus in his works, a city of the dead, a place where the dead would continue to exist in a world not radically unlike the one they were accustomed to inhabiting while living. And so, in some ways his poetry and two major dramas circle that city of the dead, imagining it and fantasizing about various ways to inhabit it and to live there with or (preferably) without women. I would contend that Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ city of the dead appears, in some of its manifestations at least, as a world of men, a utopia beyond the realities of the flesh while its existence stands as a rabid denunciation of female fertility. In order to support this claim, this article will explore some of the overlooked sources for Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ death-fetish, focusing on his presentation of dead cities, dead women, and finally dead religious beliefs.
It is necessary to begin, then, by noting that it is no coincidence that scenes of burial and literal graveyards are lovingly described throughout Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ poetry and dramas. And although such an obsession may seem macabre to us, it is important to remember that from the 1780s and continuing through the 1830s, throughout the parishes of Paris, dead bodies began floating to the surface of the graveyards that encircled a number of city churches. In the marshy grounds along the Seine, bodies of the poor, who had been buried without coffins, simply appeared in spring as if in full bloom, like perennials that no one remembered having planted. In London, along with the Thames, a similar problem occurred; and it is the meaning of these dead but suddenly resurrected bodies, emerging and competing for space in the major urban capitals of Europe, that I think provides us with the first clue to Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ concern with “dead cities.” In particular, I want to interrogate what appears to be a strangely persistent leitmotif of dying brides or women clutching dead babies, or forms of blasted fertility in all their horrific manifestations, in selected works by Thomas Lovell Beddoes.
First of all, it is necessary to observe that the representation of the dead and living co-existing on one and the same plane, so to speak, was deeply disconcerting to the cultural and religious imagination of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century European population. As you will recall, the Western religious imagination had constructed a “great chain of being,” and all of us had a particular place on this chain and where to stay in our assigned spaces. The reappearance of the dead, as if they were living, as if they had the power to will their reappearance on the surface of the earth, was unacceptable to the European mind, whether Protestant or Catholic. And so literature steps in, as it is would not to do, and mediates this phenomenon by depicting the nauseating mixture of the living and the dead and then resolving the crisis by consigning each to its proper sphere by the conclusion of the text.
Critics have been puzzling over the meaning of the death-fetish in Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ works ever since he first entrusted his work for review to the ever-so-critical ‘Barry Cornwall.’ Contemporary critical studies have addressed the theme by resorting to biographical, psychological, and literary source analyses, all of which I think are valuable and which I will employ where relevant. Clearly, however, there are also what I would designate as buried and gothic levels of political and religious anxiety that have not been addressed or even recognized in reading Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ works. Consider, for instance, one of the more famous, or perhaps more infamous, scenes in the gothic canon. Agnes, the fallen and pregnant nun in Matthew Lewis’ ‘The Monk: A Romance,’ gives birth alone in her underground cell, and the premature baby soon dies because the new mother is unable to feed him. Agnes is later found and rescued, but she is clasping her dead baby in her arms, desperately trying to awaken and feed the hideously rotting child. The scene reads like a grisly and perverted parody of a Raphaelesque Madonna and Child, absolute beauty transformed into absolute ugliness. This scene, horrific and compelling as it is, also spoke to the increasingly anxious mixture of the living and the dead that was occurring throughout London and Paris. The dead, who should by all rights stay below ground, were instead dragging the living down below ground with them. Or, even worse, the dead were refusing to stay underground; hence the appearance of vampires or white worms in all their sickening permutations on the streets of London and Paris or the even British countryside.
But consider now another scene from ‘The Monk,’ the famous meditation of Ambrosio in front of a portrait of the ‘Virgin Mother,’ recently sent to him by an admirer who shows up shortly as a young man,woman, and demon with the name of Rosario, the rose, the Virgin Mary’s iconic flower. And in addition to the name’s loaded associations, the young man bears a striking resemblance to the Virgin’s portrait. The youthful acolyte transforms first into a wanton seductress and then finally into a demon, a curious line of anti-evolutionary descent suggesting that in the Protestant imagination the Virgin Mary should actually be understood as the Whore of Babylon. This demonization of the Virgin Mary’s mother, as well as the almost uncanny obsession with her miraculous fertility, and then the need to blast this quality, repeats over and over again in Beddoes. Dying brides, thwarted fertility, dead babies, these representations permeate Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ works, and the question for the literary critic is why?