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Victorian Poetry 40.3 (2002) 261-266



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"Toms Laocoön":
A Newly Discovered Poem by Thomas Lovell Beddoes

John Haydn Baker


On August 10, 1821, Keats had been buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome for six months and Shelley was Byron's guest at Ravenna. Their rather younger contemporary Thomas Lovell Beddoes was staying with his friend, the Rev. Henry Card, at the somewhat less romantic location of Great Malvern, near Worcester. He was then eighteen years old and a highly intelligent youth of considerable promise. An undergraduate student at his father's old Oxford college, Pembroke, he was already a published (if not yet well-known) poet; his outrageously lurid Gothic volume, The Improvisatore, had appeared in March. His widowed mother, Anna Maria Beddoes, a younger sister of the novelist Maria Edgeworth, was living with her two daughters on the British island of Jersey off the French coast. 1

Very little is known of Beddoes' time at Oxford. He would publish his precocious verse drama The Bride's Tragedy to considerable critical acclaim in 1822 and be awarded his B.A. in 1825, but further information about his undergraduate years is scarce. However, a letter of August 10, 1821, from his mother to her sister, Emmeline King, now on deposit in the Bodleian Library and hitherto unnoticed, sheds considerable light on Beddoes' poetic activity during this period. 2 It also contains Anna Maria Beddoes' transcript of a previously unprinted—and unnoticed—Beddoes poem.

After discussing matters unconnected with the young poet, his mother goes on to write that she is

much pleased with Toms prize failure, rather I should say with his good sense, and proper temper on the occasion—Mr Howard must be a charming youth, so elegant, so easy a poet—Tom has sent me some lines on the Laocoön which he had believed was to have been the subject proposed instead of the ruins of Paestum, and here he has shewn much greater talent—Tom is at the Abbey House at Great Malvern, one amongst 15 Boarders, two Miss Harkers are there whom you know. (Bod. Dep. c.135/1) [End Page 261]

The Prize that Beddoes had tried for and failed to win was Sir Roger Newdigate's Prize for English Verse, which had been founded in 1806 as a memorial to Sir Roger, the 5th Baronet and well-known arch-Tory Oxford University politician. Each year the Professor of Poetry would set a topic, usually from Classical history or mythology, and invite entries of poems of fewer than 300 lines. Entries were traditionally written in heroic couplets, and "dramatic compositions" were not allowed. The Professor would choose a winner, and the lucky poet would read his verses to the gathered University at the end of the academic year in June. If he felt no entry was worthy of the award, the Professor was not forced to pick a winner—this happened several times over the nineteenth century, no doubt to the considerable mortification of the entrants that year. The prize continues to be awarded to this day; the vast majority of its winners have been long forgotten, but its nineteenth century winners included John Wilson ("Christopher North") in 1806, John Ruskin in 1839, Matthew Arnold in 1843, and, most famously, Oscar Wilde in 1875. Swinburne was an unsuccessful entrant in 1857.

The topic chosen for the 1821 Prize was the ruins of Paestum, in Southern Italy, and the winner was a young aristocrat only a year older than Beddoes. 3 George Howard was the grandson of the Earl of Carlisle (Lord Byron's cousin and his unsatisfactory guardian in Chancery) and had been educated at Eton before matriculating at Christ Church on October 15, 1819. He was a precocious youth, also winning the Chancellor's Prize for Latin Verse in 1821; he would go on to take a first in Classics the following year. An amiable man, as Anna Beddoes correctly surmised, he would take up a political career as a liberal Whig and twice serve as a successful Lord...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-7190
Print ISSN
0042-5206
Pages
pp. 261-266
Launched on MUSE
2002-10-01
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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