Bill Kerwin's Reviews > Death's Jest Book

Death's Jest Book by Thomas Lovell Beddoes
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's review
Mar 12, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: 19th-c-brit, gothic, weird-fiction, 16th-17th-c-brit, libertines-dandies-decadents
Read from March 12 to 21, 2011

This imitation Jacobean tragedy--written in the early 19th century by an openly homosexual, death-obsessed, alcoholic physician and democratic revolutionary--is unique in English literature. Even in this shorter 1829 text, the plot quickly descends into chaos, and I doubt that an effective performance text could be fashioned from it, even with a score or two of judicious cuts. Beddoes' lyrics lack the purity of 17th century song, and even much of the blank verse--particularly when it treats of quotidian matters or human love--is unremarkable and flat. Yet whenever Beddoes writes of the subjects dearest to his heart--loss, power, universal corruption, death and decay--he creates poetry of astonishing power, worthy of the concentrated majesty of Webster, Tourneur or the later Shakespeare.

Here are some gobbets:

1) On what pleasures remain to a person deprived of love and friend:

Speak thou no more of love,
No more of friendship here. The world is open:
I wish you life and merriment enough
From wealth and wine, and all the dingy glory
Fame doth reward those with, whose love-spurned hearts
Hunger for goblin immortality.
(DJB: I.ii.290-295)

2) A wish for the end of this corrupt world:

Be merry, ye rich fiends! Piety's dead,
and left the world a legacy to you.
Under the green-sod are your coffins packed,
So thick they break each other. The day's come
When scarce a lover, for his maiden's hair,
Can pluck a stalk whose rose draws not its hue
Out of a hate-killed heart. Nature's polluted:
There's man in every secret corner of her
Doing damned wicked deeds. Thou art old, world,
A hoary atheistic murderous star.
I wish that thou wouldst die or could be slain,
Hell-hearted bastard of the sun.
(DJB: II.iii.348-359)

3) Reflecting on the fact that we are born and die alone:

Our middle life is broad,
But life and death, the turnstiles that admit us,
On earth and off it, send us one by one
A solitary walk.
(DJB: IV.iv.36-39)

4) A power-mad man speaks to the heavens:

Oh you small star-mob, had I been one of you,
I would have seized the sky some moonless night
And made myself the sun.
(DJB: IV.iv.189-191)

You like? There's plenty more where this comes from.
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Reading Progress

08/06/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus Wow! Just...amazing. I think I know who I was in a past life: This guy speaks my mind for me.

Bill  Kerwin I am so happy this speaks to you. It speaks to me too. Give the whole play a try. It's a little like picking through a crazy man's beautiful junk shop . . . but the treasures are there, all around.

message 3: by Uncle (new) - added it

Uncle I had never even heard of this writer, let alone this book. It sounds amazing.

Bill  Kerwin Uncle wrote: "I had never even heard of this writer, let alone this book. It sounds amazing."

Glad you're intrigued by it. As I indicated, it has many flaws, but it is unique and memorable.

message 5: by Linda (new)

Linda Harkins One of the most interesting reviews I've read! Are you an educator?

message 6: by Bill (last edited May 10, 2014 07:26AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bill  Kerwin Linda wrote: " Are you an educator?"

Yes. I teach 10th grade English and Creative Writing at a Catholic high school in Columbus, Ohio. I retire this June.

message 7: by Anna (new)

Anna Really interesting review Bill, thanks. I'll have to check it out? A shame you're retiring this June we could have got our classes to exchange some work :)

message 8: by Estott (new) - added it

Estott There's always "Dream Pedalry". I think the first verse is exquisite, the second a rather conventional letdown-until you realize he's wishing for death and a grave.

667. Dream-Pedlary

IF there were dreams to sell,
What would you buy?
Some cost a passing bell;
Some a light sigh,
That shakes from Life's fresh crown 5
Only a rose-leaf down.
If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the crier rang the bell,
What would you buy? 10

A cottage lone and still,
With bowers nigh,
Shadowy, my woes to still,
Until I die.
Such pearl from Life's fresh crown 15
Fain would I shake me down.
Were dreams to have at will,
This would best heal my ill,
This would I buy.

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