Poem of the Week: “Sonnet: To Tartar, a Terrier Beauty” Thomas Lovell Beddoes

I chose this poem for no clear reason, other than Thomas Lovell Beddoes opens The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, which I happen to own — and I had never read anything of his, which seemed strange.

Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849) was a trained physician who wrote drama and poetry. He committed suicide at the age of 45.

Sonnet: To Tartar, a Terrier Beauty

Snowdrop of dogs, with ear of brownest dye,

Like the last orphan leaf of naked tree

Which shudders in bleak autumn; though by thee

Of hearing careless and untutored eye,

Not understood articulate speech of men,

Nor marked the artificial mind of books,

­The mortal’s voice eternized by the pen, ­

Yet hast thou thought and language all unknown

To Babel’s scholars; oft intensest looks,

Long scrutiny o’er some dark-veined stone

Dost thou bestow, learning dead mysteries

Of the world’s birth-day, oft in eager tone

With quick-tailed fellows bandiest prompt replies,

Solicitudes canine, four-footed amities.

First of all, the apostrophe “Snowdrop of dogs” is an absolute delight. It is followed by a comparison of the dog’s ear to a quivering autumn leaf. These two contrasting images almost overwhelm the meaning of the first three lines of the poem. However, the snowdrop and the brown leaf form a lovely unity with the landscape in which the speaker must have taken long walks with his terrier. It suits the January landscape in the UK this week: walking in a park I have spotted both snowdrops and brown leaves.

Moving away from the physical beauty of the dog, we have a description of the mind of the “untutored” pooch, who is unaware of human literature or philosophy.   I am somewhat frustrated by the line that suggests that the terrier does not understand the “articulate speech of men”. I am quite positive that Tartar, the terrier, would object to it too. Perhaps the dog can’t articulate the speech of men, but they understand quite a substantial portion of it ( a maximum of 165 words, according to the internet).

The lines “the artificial mind of books/The mortal’s voice eternized by the pen” seem a bit contradictory in terms. The word “artificial” suggests the contrast between the natural world and the artifice of mankind  (a contrast particularly beloved by the Romantics). However, the eternity of the “mortal’s voice” suggests some sort of value ascribed to books.

Also, I don’t like the word “eternized”. What was wrong with eternalized? The only justification I can think of for this particular word choice is the association with “aether”–  “luminiferous aether“, which in the 19th century was understood to be the way in which light propagated.  Therefore “the mortal’s voice” in books would be not only transferred to eternity but also propagated to future audiences. This is a theory which would work, provided that I could prove that “eternized” was as unusual a form in the 19th century as it is now.

The last seven lines of the poem contain a comparison I really like: the dog is like a geologist “learning dead mysteries/Of the world’s birthday” with “intensest looks” and “long scrutiny”.  It works by reminding one of how a curious dog will spend ages seemingly analyze a seemingly innocuous stone. Thanks to the contrast with the first half of the poem, the dog becomes a natural scientist, and the human becomes a bookish scholar. Not only is the terrier returned to the dignity of his intellect, but the speaker is even allowing the dog’s capacity for speech and friendship in the last couplet of the poem.

I rather like this little sonnet: possibly because of its subject matter. It’ line and verse divisions are not as neat as we saw in Hopkins’s poem last week: in the first section of the poem, which, in more usual Petrarchan sonnets, would divide into two equal quatrains, we have a change of subject by line three, instead of it occurring in line four. Another change of subject occurs between l.7 and l.8, rather than after the octave.

The rhyming pattern is also slightly changed to emphasize the change of subject. For a Petrarchan Sonnet, we would have ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. For a Shakespearean sonnet, it is usually ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Here, we have ABBA CDCE DEF EFF.  This rhyming pattern reinforces the thematic ties of line eight with the sestet.

Perhaps that’s why Beddoes felt the need to title his poem “Sonnet”?

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