First off, The Poem of the Week apologizes for last week’s radio silence. Like many of us in the vicinity of the Graduate Center, we were caught up in the excitement of the English Student Association conference, which was brilliantly executed by the Long Nineteenth Century’s Mia Chen and Leila Walker, not to mention sundry other mid-semester tasks all bearing down in a single, snowy week.

This week finds your comrade in scansion experiencing a bout of insomnia rather inconveniently placed the night before a teaching day that lasts from 8am-noon. Having tried and failed to fall asleep for two hours–the reading of the penultimate chapters of Trollope’s Cousin Henry notwithstanding–the Poem of the Week has decided that if one can’t be happy and well-rested, one might as well be somewhat useful.

And so, without further ado, a loosely topical poem from Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-49), published posthumously in 1851.

86. 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

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?

A cottage lone and still,

With bowers nigh,

Shadowy, my woes to still,

Until I die.

Such pearl from Life’s fresh crown

Fain would I shake me down.

Were dreams to have at will,

This would best heal my ill,

This would I buy.

So my first thought is, “hey, it’s like ‘Goblin Market‘ without all the fruit-sucking.” I am not, of course, certain that this is a helpful critical response, and this is no doubt why it’s a dubious proposition for me to be blogging right now anyway. Nevertheless. I assume my reaction has something to do with the idea of transactional language used in strange and striking ways–and also, I think, with how the metaphor of exchange is also somehow muted at the same time. This isn’t the vision, say, of Coleridge’s “The Pains of Sleep” where you have this horrible sense of outsized responsibility, of being held to account for things over which you have absolutely no control (or do you?). Yet, like Coleridge waking to his own screams (is that even possible? One of my friends swears it isn’t.) I somehow sense that same foreboding in this poem, perhaps because the first stanza especially makes it sound…if not exactly easy, at least so smooth, so much like a convenient, everyday transaction. (In a certain sense, of course, it is. Unless you’re me tonight.)

And what of this second stanza, this cottage to heal all ills? This, too, seems like a throwback to Romantic imagery, at least on the surface.* But something seems…off. It’s too much like a grave, with all that stillness and all those shadows. And the sentiment seems rather suspiciously certain that all of one’s woes come from being in the world and that they can be avoided in retreat. It may just be me–or it may be my love for the “Victorian double poem” as a heuristic advice, but that all seems a bit too easy to me. After all, we’re buying dreams, not auctioning off our woes.

…and, I see that I’ve been somewhat anticipated by Thomas Lovell Beddoes himself. Turns out that the stanzas above are not actually the whole of “Dream-Pedlary.” The whole thing can be found here on the Thomas Lovell Beddoes Society Homepage. Somehow, this makes me feel better. About Beddoes, that is. Not about Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Though I am finding his taste in poetry much more palatable than I thought I would, I confess that I’m also finding his lack of even the most minor trappings of scholarly apparatus to be somewhat maddening. I’m not even talking about fancy notes. I would content myself with first publication dates of the poems and, you know, perhaps a quick nod to let us know when we’re reading an excerpt from a larger poetic work. And someday when I’m not rocking out with the insomnia (and beginning to obsess over the fact that if I fell asleep right at this very moment, at my desk, with this window open, I would get at the most four hours of sleep, which is as many hours as I have to teach tomorrow, et cetera), I’ll ask myself why this bothers me so much.

For now, though, the obligatory biographical jaunt. Beddoes’ Wikipedia page is a bit thin, though I’m rather intrigued by the turn his medical studies took. For what it’s worth, Daniel Karlin’s biographical note in the Penguin Book mentions that he had to flee to Berlin in 1841 “because of his liberal political sympathies” and, as both sources note, he killed himself in 1849. The aforementioned Thomas Lovell Beddoes website–The Phantom Wooer–includes more biographical background and letters. You should probably also click on the video. Just saying.

I’m now going to hope that, having dispatched my weekly responsibilities towards the Long Nineteenth Century, I will be able to sleep the sleep of the just, or at least the exhausted.

*And, okay, I do apologize a bit for my lingerings in this sort of transitional space, for all these dalliances with figures who might be better classified as second or post-second generation Romantics, of whom Beddoes is definitely one. Though this poem does appear in the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse, too. Perhaps next week I’ll reach for something less periodically ambigous, like a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

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