Episode 64

A Crocodile by Thomas Lovell Beddoes

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘A Crocodile’ by Thomas Lovell Beddoes.

Poet

Thomas Lovell Beddoes

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

A Crocodile

By Thomas Lovell Beddoes

Hard by the lilied Nile I saw
A duskish river-dragon stretched along,
The brown habergeon of his limbs enamelled
With sanguine almandines and rainy pearl:
And on his back there lay a young one sleeping,
No bigger than a mouse; with eyes like beads,
And a small fragment of its speckled egg
Remaining on its harmless, pulpy snout;
A thing to laugh at, as it gaped to catch
The baulking merry flies. In the iron jaws
Of the great devil-beast, like a pale soul
Fluttering in rocky hell, lightsomely flew
A snowy trochilus, with roseate beak
Tearing the hairy leeches from his throat.

 


Podcast transcript

Back in Episode 61 we looked at Herman Melville’s poem, ‘The Maldive Shark’, about the biological phenomenon of symbiosis in the relationship between a shark and the pilot fish that clean its body of parasites. And today we have a poetic treatment of another famous symbiotic relationship in nature, as described by generations of travellers – between the Nile crocodile and the trochilus, the white bird with a red beak, that hops into its mouth and cleans its teeth.

And this is another superb poem from a minor poet. No history of poetry is ever going to put Melville or Beddoes in the front rank of poets. Frankly, they’d be lucky to make the B team. But this poem, like ‘The Maldive Shark’, is an absolute delight.

Who could not love Beddoes’ gorgeous description of the crocodile?

Hard by the lilied Nile I saw
A duskish river-dragon stretched along,
The brown habergeon of his limbs enamelled
With sanguine almandines and rainy pearl:

Who could fail to admire Beddoes’ impressive powers of observation and his magnificently ostentatious diction: the ‘habergeon’, the hauberk or chainmail coat, of the crocodile is ‘enamelled / With sanguine almandines and rainy pearl:’. Apparently almandines are a form of iron garnet, of a reddish or purplish colour, ‘sanguine’, as Beddoes puts it.

And my inner etymologist can’t resist noting that the luxurious feel of this description is enhanced by the use of words with French origins – such as ‘habergeon’, ‘enamelled’, ‘sanguine’, and ‘almandines’ – and France, of course, would already have been strongly associated with the luxury industry in the 19th century, when Beddoes wrote this poem.

Then he follows up these first four lines with another four, where he zooms in to the detail of a baby crocodile asleep on the parent’s back.

And on his back there lay a young one sleeping,
No bigger than a mouse; with eyes like beads,
And a small fragment of its speckled egg
Remaining on its harmless, pulpy snout;

This is like David Attenborough, isn’t it? The knowledgeable voice directing our attention to the little detail of fragments of egg left after birth. And what delightful similes, comparing the baby croc to a mouse, ‘with eyes like beads’. Then we get that surprising adjective ‘pulpy’, applied to the baby crocodile’s snout, which the Oxford dictionary defines as ‘soft, fleshy, succulent’.

It is a little odd that Beddoes says that the baby is asleep on ‘his’ back; I don’t know much about crocodiles, but I’d expect it to be on the mother’s back, rather than the father’s. So we might be tempted to wonder whether Beddoes got close enough to the crocodile to be sure about this.

Next, in the ninth line of the poem, we get the speaker’s reaction to the baby croc:

A thing to laugh at, as it gaped to catch
The baulking merry flies.

Then we get the description of the trochilus, the white bird with a rosy-coloured beak, fluttering into the crocodile’s jaws and removing the leeches from its mouth:

                                              In the iron jaws
Of the great devil-beast, like a pale soul
Fluttering in rocky hell, lightsomely flew
A snowy trochilus, with roseate beak
Tearing the hairy leeches from his throat.

Beddoes was a trained doctor, and here he makes artful use of the Latinate vocabulary that is associated with biology, in the name of the ‘trochilus’ and the use of ‘roseate’ to describe the colour of its beak.

And I can’t help noticing some parallels with Melville’s ‘Maldive Shark’, where he described the pilot fish venturing into the shark’s mouth and finding ‘An asylum in jaws of the Fates!’. Beddoes compares the white bird darting into the jaws of the crocodile to a ‘pale soul’, ‘fluttering’ and flying ‘lightsomely’, even in hell.

And the final lines of the two poems seem to echo each other. You may recall me enthusing about the wonderful lack of music in the last line of ‘The Maldive Shark’:

Pale ravener of horrible meat.

The final line of ‘A Crocodile’, is every bit as ugly and unmusical:

Tearing the hairy leeches from his throat.

So on a first reading it’s tempting to admire ‘A Crocodile’ as a brilliantly observed piece of nature poetry. But it turns out, it’s nothing of the kind.

Because, unlike Melville, who wrote about the sea from bitter first-hand experience, Beddoes is not writing from observation and memory. I can’t find any evidence that he ever went to Egypt. So he probably never saw a crocodile and he certainly never saw the trochilus tearing the leeches from its throat.

It looks like he found the crocodile in the pages of the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, who wrote:

Since he has his living in the water he keeps his mouth all full within of leeches; and whereas all other birds and beasts fly from him, the trochilus is a creature which is at peace with him, seeing that from her he receives benefit; for the crocodile having come out of the water to the land and then having opened his mouth (this he is wont to do generally towards the West Wind), the trochilus upon that enters into his mouth and swallows down the leeches, and he being benefited is pleased and does no harm to the trochilus.

Herodotus, History, 2.68.4–5, translated by G. C. Macaulay

So what Beddoes seems to have done is to take the description and use it as inspiration for his poem, and embellish it with lots of plausible-sounding but fictitious details.

Re-reading the poem, even I noticed that crocodiles’ coats don’t really sparkle red and white, like almandines and pearls. And it’s less surprising that Beddoes describes the adult as a father rather than mother, once we realise he’s making things up.

And you know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Poets are supposed to use their imagination. It’s what poetic licence is for. And Beddoes has done a brilliant job of describing his crocodile, which is fabulous in every sense.

This poem reminds me of the artist Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of a rhinoceros, from 1515. It’s one of the most famous animal illustrations of all time, and it’s gloriously inaccurate. Because, like Beddoes, Dürer had never seen the creature he depicted. His rhino was based on a written description and an amateur sketch from someone who had seen it in Portugal. So he had to wing it a bit, and made lots of anatomical mistakes. And thank goodness he did, because his rhino is one of the most charming creatures never to walk the earth.

And so is Beddoes’ crocodile. Who could resist that ‘brown habergeon of his limbs enamelled / With sanguine almandines and rainy pearl’? Or wish it to be more scientifically accurate? The fantasy is even more magnificent than the reality.

And the plot thickens, because according to modern science, the trochilus may well be a myth. Although the story of the crocodile patiently opening its mouth and letting the birds hop about and give its teeth a good clean has been recounted by many authors and travellers, from ancient times onwards, recent scientific investigation has tended to pour cold water on the idea of a genuine ‘cleaning symbiosis’, as the scientists call it.

For one thing, it’s hard to identify any particular species with the trochilus, although the sandpiper, the Egyptian plover and the lapwing have been put forward as candidates. And apparently there is not sufficient evidence of birds actually cleaning the crocodiles’ mouths for it to be accepted as scientific fact.

So we may have to consign the trochilus to same category as the yeti and bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. Which is sad, really. I’d much rather live in a world where birds really do clean crocodiles’ teeth. But the good news is that in the timeless realm of poesy, they still do! Beddoes’ trochilus is alive and well inside his poem, so let’s have another look at it.

So your poetic antennae may have been twitching earlier, when you heard me talking about the first four lines, then the next four, then the change of direction at line nine… that’s right, this is another sonnet! What is it about sonnets that so many poets feel compelled to write them?

Well, one thing is the simplicity of the basic construction: eight lines, then six. One thing, followed by another. As Mimi Khalvati described it back in Episode 3, the octave is used to set the scene, then the sestet is where the director yells ‘action!’ and things start to happen. Or we get one perspective on things, one line of thought, followed by another.

In this case, the octave presents us with the crocodiles, laid out as if posing for their portrait:

Hard by the lilied Nile I saw
A duskish river-dragon stretched along,
The brown habergeon of his limbs enamelled
With sanguine almandines and rainy pearl:
And on his back there lay a young one sleeping,
No bigger than a mouse; with eyes like beads,
And a small fragment of its speckled egg
Remaining on its harmless, pulpy snout;

So the octave gives us the crocodile of the poem’s title, or rather both of them. If we were being pedantic, he should really have called it ‘Two Crocodiles’, instead of ‘A Crocodiles’. Then we get a response to the crocodiles, or rather three responses:

A thing to laugh at, as it gaped to catch
The baulking merry flies. In the iron jaws
Of the great devil-beast, like a pale soul
Fluttering in rocky hell, lightsomely flew
A snowy trochilus, with roseate beak
Tearing the hairy leeches from his throat.

The first response is the laughter, prompted in the speaker by the little crocodile trying to catch the flies.

The second response is that of the ‘baulking merry flies’. Isn’t that a great combination of adjectives? They are ‘baulking’, stopping short of, or swerving away from, the crocodiles, as they ‘merrily’ fly around them.

And the third response is that of the ‘trochilus’, which neither laughs nor baulks, but flies into ‘the iron jaws / Of the great devil-beast’, like a soul fluttering about in hell, and then, like a dentist getting down to business, starts ‘Tearing the hairy leeches from his throat’.

So contrast, as usual, is at the heart of the sonnet, and here Beddoes uses it skilfully to distinguish the crocodiles from the rest of us, the humans, insects and birds who have to reckon with their presence and their teeth.

If you recall the episode about ‘The Maldive Shark’, we saw how Melville used diction and rhythm to contrast the ‘phlegmatical’ shark with the ‘sleek little pilot-fish’; here Beddoes achieves a similar effect, by using the sonnet’s division into two parts to contrast the different species

‘A Crocodile’ is a bit of an odd sonnet though. It’s written in iambic pentameter, although the meter is a little rough and ready in places, starting with the first line, which is missing a foot, so it’s a tetrameter, it only has four ti TUMs instead of the pentameter’s five. And to get the third line to scan I had to use the slightly less common pronunciation, ‘haBERgeon’, instead of ‘HAbergeon’.

But the most remarkable thing about the sonnet is that it doesn’t rhyme: it’s a blank verse sonnet. So you may remember the mini-series I did on the podcast last year, about the development of blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, from the drama of Marlowe and Shakespeare to the narrative poetry of Milton and Wordsworth. And I pointed out that blank verse is great for dramatic expression or telling a long story.

But I didn’t mention the sonnet, because until quite recently, unrhymed sonnets were almost as rare as crocodile’s tears. Rhyme is one of the first things we think about when it comes to the definition of the sonnet; different types of sonnet are associated very closely with different types of rhyme scheme.

But Beddoes doesn’t use rhyme at all. His sonnet is like the cat that walked by itself. And it does so in a plodding, prosaic, unmusical manner that is very much in keeping with the plodding crocodile and the hairy leeches in its throat. Like Melville, Beddoes seems to be relishing the monstrous side of his subject, and doing his best to evoke it in a language that is at once gorgeous and ghastly. ‘Florid Gothic’, as Beddoes once described his own writing.

Sadly, Beddoes also walked by himself for much of his life, and often found himself the slough of despond. He studied medicine in the hope of finding evidence of an immortal soul, and was disappointed in his quest. He also spent many years working on a verse drama, Death’s Jest Book, but never completed it or managed to have it staged. It’s generally considered an artistic failure. He eventually gave into despair and committed suicide in 1849, at the age of 45.

Part of Beddoes’ tragedy is that he seems to have been oblivious to his genuine achievements as a poet. Several aspects of his poetry, such as the lack of rhyme in this sonnet, anticipate trends that would become more mainstream in twentieth century poetry. And he has occasionally prompted admiration and imitation in more distinguished poets, such as T. S. Eliot, who ‘borrowed’ the phrase ‘lipless grin’ from Beddoes, and used it for a famous line in his poem ‘Whispers of Immortality’.

Just as Beddoes lived much of his life at the margins of polite and literary society, so his posthumous reputation has hovered at the edge of obscurity. The scholar Christopher Ricks described him as ‘always hanging by his fingernails above literary history’s oubliette’. The word ‘oubliette’ is an archaic term for a dungeon, of the kind that prisoners were said to be dropped into and left to starve to death. ‘Oubliette’ is of course from the French verb ‘oublier’, ‘to forget’; so it feels a particularly appropriate term to describe the fate of this obscure practitioner of the ‘florid Gothic’.

But on the basis of ‘A Crocodile’ and several other poems and passages from his verse drama, I think we should reach down a friendly hand, pull Beddoes up from the mouth of the oubliette, and invite him to come and join the party. So maybe we can offer him a seat, pour him a drink, and ask him to recite ‘A Crocodile’ one more time.

 


A Crocodile

By Thomas Lovell Beddoes

Hard by the lilied Nile I saw
A duskish river-dragon stretched along,
The brown habergeon of his limbs enamelled
With sanguine almandines and rainy pearl:
And on his back there lay a young one sleeping,
No bigger than a mouse; with eyes like beads,
And a small fragment of its speckled egg
Remaining on its harmless, pulpy snout;
A thing to laugh at, as it gaped to catch
The baulking merry flies. In the iron jaws
Of the great devil-beast, like a pale soul
Fluttering in rocky hell, lightsomely flew
A snowy trochilus, with roseate beak
Tearing the hairy leeches from his throat.

 


Thomas Lovell Beddoes

Thomas Lovell Beddoes

Thomas Lovell Beddoes was an English poet, playwright and doctor who was born in 1803 and died in 1849. Born into a literary family, Beddoes displayed a remarkable talent for poetry at an early age. His most ambitious work, the play Death’s Jest-Book, explored themes of mortality and the afterlife, reflecting his obsession with death. Although his career was brief, his style left significant traces in English literature, in the work of other writers including Swinburne and T. S. Eliot. Sadly, Beddoes’ life was marked by personal struggles, and he committed suicide at the age of 45, leaving behind a body of work that continues to captivate those with a taste for the eerie and the melancholic.

 


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This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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