The well-established association of Beddoes’s drama with Modernist styles was lent renewed force recently, when the editors of the Penguin selection of Hood, Praed and Beddoes chose to use the 1890 Edmund Gosse edition as their copy text, arguing that it significantly reflects the poet’s relative prominence at the end of the nineteenth century, ‘its readers on the verge of the modernist consciousness that would bring a fresh appreciation to Beddoes’s strange and compelling sensibility’.13
Beddoes’s first commentators, the reviewers of The Bride’s Tragedy, were quick to identify a problem with his dramatic style: although they were highly approving of the poetry, they also remarked how Beddoes does not really succeed in differentiating the ‘voices’ of his various characters. In bringing this charge, they contributed to a debate about Romantic drama which still continues today: are poets such as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelley constitutionally unsuited to the writing of drama since, in their unwillingness ever to relinquish intensity, they seem to give all dramatic speech the qualities of ‘overheard’ soliloquy? An intensity of image which produces this consistent impression of an internalised action then raises further problems relating to the location of an immaterial ‘stage’. Several modern critics have interpreted the difficult question of Beddoes’s ‘theatre’ in mental terms, arguing that the Jest-Book and other writings dramatise the problematics of subjectivity. Eleanor Wilner (1975), who gives a psychoanalytic/mythological reading, and Alan Richardson (1988), who relates the drama to the legacy of Byron’s ‘mental theatre’, are two interesting examples from this field of enquiry.
Some understanding of both the scientific and occult principles at work in Death’s Jest-Book is clearly essential to any serious reading. There is a complementary tension between these strands, and both are integral to the drama’s struggle with itself to articulate a mythic meaning. Once again, these are interpretative themes with early roots in Donner. Studies of Beddoes’s ‘Romantic science’ generally attempt either to draw lines of intellectual descent from the researches of Thomas Beddoes Senior, or to focus on documented sources of his medical studies in Germany and Switzerland in an attempt to elucidate key principles in the text. The theme will no doubt continue to exert a powerful hold on readers (recent studies include those by Christopher Moylan, 1991; and Michael Bradshaw, 2001). Similarly, the presence of occult imagery and structures in Death’s Jest-Book has long been