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Justice for Robert Bridges.

OF all the poets of this century to whom least justice is done Robert Bridges (1844-1930) stands out foremost. And the reason why has significance both literary and sociological. Indeed the estimation, or rather under-estimation, of his work throws an unfavourable light on the society of today. Of course he was a Victorian, with the values and higher standards of that great creative age, but most of his work was published in this century, and be lived into it long enough to express a highly relevant reaction to it.

Bridges was a very professional poet, and professional poets are apt to write too much. Look at Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, William Morris, or the garrulous Browning (whom Bridges could not abide). So we do not lose much by neglecting Bridges' closet dramas and masques, his sonnet sequence The Growth of Love, and the tale Eros and Psyche, which he described as |little more than a translation of Apuleius', i.e. The Golden Ass, though there is good work in all of it. Most of this was written before 1900; it is the later work that holds most interest for us.

Before that we, have the five Books of the Shorter Poems. A. E. Housman, an exacting critic, held that they contain the best poetry of the time. Along with the poems familiar from appearing in anthologies: London Snow, Whither, O splendid ship, with white sails crowding, the epitaph On a Dead Child, and a few others sufficiently celebrated. Fundamentally, Bridges was a Platonic Idealist. Though I am neither a Platonist nor an Idealist, a conscientious critic must be ready to do justice to both terms in the equation. Before he dedicated himself to the profession of poet Bridges was a doctor. One must not forget that he spent thirteen years doctoring in London and walking the hospitals. So he knew well enough the fell facts of life -- people entirely overlook that -- though he chose to dedicate his poetry otherwise:

For, certes, hath the goddess [Nature] also her hinder parts

which men of all ages have kindly thought to hide

... but these making no part of beauty's welcome face,

these we turn to the wall, hiding away the mean

ugly brutish obscene clumsy irrelevances

... since without such full knowledge can no man have faith

nor will his thought or picture of life be worth a bean. The doctor had full knowledge of life all right, but was turning his face away from the binder parts, not from reality, but from the sheer ugliness of so much in life. What a contrast with Larkin, much admired today, keeping his face deliberately screwed to the hinder parts, in fact making a cult of them. This, in the squalid society of today, is a prime factor in his popularity.

Bridges' cult was that of beauty in all its forms, especially the beauty of the external world, flowers and fields and trees, downs and vales, sea and sky. He knew the names of all the wild flowers around where he chose to live -- in the old manor house at Yattendon in the Berkshire hills; later, around Powder Hill the unbuilt-on spur of Boar's Hill looking down on his beloved Oxford. He appreciated as much the varied beauty of birds and animals, of handsome men old and young, women especially maidens, though it would be unthinkable of him to write Larkin's phrase, |the wonderful feel of girls'. Bridges had the Victorian feel of courtesy, gallantry, nobility towards women.

All his life he was addicted to music, with a scholarly passion; for he was a performer on ancient instruments, harpsichord and clavichord. He was well versed in it technically and historically, particularly the splendid music of the English Church. He took his part in the parish church at Yattendon, where he compiled the Yattendon Hymnal, a choice precursor of the English Hymnal.

Kingsley Amis tells us that Larkin's life-long passion was for jazz. Indeed, he compiled a whole book of his articles and reviews under the ungrammatical title, All What Jazz, by way of sucking up to its low-brow public. This was quite out of Bridges' ken -- rather comic to think what his attitude would be, for he was not only a fastidious but a formidable aesthete. He went only once to America, when his notably handsome presence was solicited by some university -- he went to get |something of the Debt back', for he was an old-fashioned patriot, a lover of his country.

Twas very England herself as I grew to love her,

England in the peace and delight of her glory. This was the England of his childhood, of the Victorian heyday, the peace secured by her naval ascendancy around the world. Bridges grew up in sight of Dover, the flag on the Castle, the beauty of the sailing ships in the Channel, the ironclads of the Royal Navy, with their resplendent nostalgic names. It all appears in the poems -- alas, a vanished world, its security gone.

Oddly enough, Bridges kept a correspondence with the pro-German American, H. L. Mencken, for they had a common interest in words. Bridges' interest was scholarly. He founded the Society for Pure English, to keep the |well of English undefiled'. In his work we find him reviving rare old words. Besides that he had a mastery of the best in European literature. In the poems there are occasional lines from Greek or Latin, Italian, German, French. Eliot followed suit with foreign phrases cited in his poems, but Bridges was altogether the more finished scholar.

His linguistic fixation sprouted into further fields. An accomplished technician, he made many experiments in classical prosody, especially Milton's, to which he devoted a book. He seems to have thought that such common measures as iambic pentameter and heroic couplets were worn out, and he considered Pope and Dryden |dull'. So he came to favour his own free-flowing alexandrines, with their colloquial flavour and potentialities, as against free-verse.

To this he added his own forms of reformed English spelling. This makes much of his later work look somewhat rebarbative on the page, until one gets used to it and takes no notice. He must have known that this erected something of a barrier between his poetry and the public, but of that he took no notice. He was alarmingly independent not only intellectually but in all his ways -- the most truly independent mind I have ever known; he had the integrity of an indubitably great man.

People found the handsome old man, with his leonine appearance, alarming. He never minded what he said or did. Out walking on a hot summer day, coming to a cooling stream he just took off all his clothes and lay down in it. The doctor in him was never afraid of exposing himself or his opinions -- not that he had any modern cult of nudity, though he lay about a lot. He had in fact a Victorian prudishness, and couldn't bear the bawdy in Shakespeare. This I regard as a defect. Again, in spite of his strong Greek inflexion he thoroughly disapproved of homosexuality.

This did not interfere with his male friendships with his fellow-Etonian poets, Dolben and R. W. Dixon, or with Hopkins, whose erotic inflexion he knew. Bridges' prejudices were strong and vigorously expressed. He cared for nobody's opinions, except in artistic and linguistic matters. There he unexpectedly sought criticism (as did Eliot). His correspondence with Hopkins was almost entirely devoted to poetry and metrics. Bridges may not have cared for Hopkins' |sprung rhythm', but he appreciated his originality and did everything to bring him forward, while disapproving of his mewing himself up in his Jesuit vocation, from which he suffered so much. Like Milton, Bridges was anti-Roman Catholic. He was a staunch undogmatic Anglican.

He was a complete and utter aesthete, not only in his intellectual creed but in his way of life. This meant that he abnegated the compromises and mixed-up conventions of ordinary life. Everything had to be |pure' -- that dominating, ubiquitous word in all Victorian writing, prose as well as verse, if one notices. This cut him off from ordinary, not only lower-class, life -- for which Bridges has been criticised. Perhaps as a doctor he had seen enough of the other -- what he called the |murky' -- side of life. But, as Poet Laureate, he was prepared to do what he thought his duty. He occasionally gave a lecture to working-class audiences, at Swindon for example to the operatives, and once in South Wales. What they must have thought of his uncompromising addresses on metrics and such -- he published them -- is comic to think.

His poetic creed is unhesitatingly expressed. His devotion to poetry (and to the life of a poet) was to it as an art, almost as an artisan, working at it the whole time. He set out to make himself the complete poet. He did not wait for |moments of vision', or the visitations of inspiration any more than Hardy did (in consequence they both wrote too much, Housman not). Bridges wrote of his friend Dolben, what could also be said of Hopkins, |he had a much intenser poetic temperament than I. What had led me to poetry was the inexhaustible satisfaction of form, the magic of speech, lying in the masterly control of the material: it was an art which I hoped to learn'.

This is analogous to Auden's attitude, who told his tutor at Oxford that he meant to be a |great poet'. (But was he?). It was contrary to such poets as Hopkins and Housman, who wrote only when emotionally moved. My sympathies are with them. The result is that we have long stretches of descriptive verse, sometimes too long, where they would settle the matter, move the heart, with an evocation, a striking phrase or line.

This does not happen often in Bridges, though some poems do move the heart, not only the mind. One can always admire the sheer artistry that Bridges most cared for, while one can regret the emotional reticence. This was true to his nature, but he imposed further restraint upon himself, subordinating himself to the Idea that possessed him: the pursuit of beauty in all things, conduct as well as appearances.

Beauty is the highest of all these occult influences

The quality of appearances that thru' the sense

Wakeneth spiritual emotion in the mind of man.

Such is the gospel by which he wrote and lived: the redemption of the slime of life by the cult of all that is beautiful in it, leading upwards to a spiritual condition, such as medieval religion described as amor intellectualis Dei.

This was Bridges' religion. On the intellectual plane be was in agreement with Ruskin, Proust and Joyce. He cited to me Joyce's philosophical disquisition in Portrait of the Artist, adding, for Joyce's aesthetics are my aesthetics'. It was the whole theme of his great poem, The Testament of Beauty, which he finished in his eighties. He told me that he was sending it to King George V, to Joyce and Maxim Gorki. What a troika! Everything about Bridges was sui generis, absolutely true to himself and like nobody else.

To Bridges' surprise, the grand old man found himself at eighty-five a best-seller. He was not displeased, but took it, as he did everything, in his long cool stride. Even Eliot -- for whose younger generation Bridges had no allure -- paid tribute to the astonishing production. At the time Bridges' free alexandrines bothered me, I felt that the long poem would have done better in blank verse, iambic pentameter, like Wordsworth's The Prelude. Now I am not so sure: one can become accustomed to Bridges' odd measure, and it goes at an informal conversational pace. But I still do not care for his experiments in Miltonic prosody. In one of Robert Frost's letters there is an effective demolition of them: he thought them sterile academicism, contrary to the nature of the language, and I fear the New Englander was right. (John Sparrow missed this remarkable stricture in his critical volume on Bridges.)

As time went on Bridges had moved out into wider fields. in his earlier verse he was dominantly, almost monotonously, a poet of Love--heterosexual love, and that consecrated by marriage. He was most happily married, blissfully and devoutly. Though writing all through the naughty Nineties he was quite untouched by its prevalent form of aestheticism, and one doubts if the name of Wilde--which so frightened Housman--ever passed his lips. He did however come to comment on other aspects of the life of the time. Like Tennyson, Bridges was an unreconstructed Tory, with liberal instincts. Blood sports, for example: he did not condemn hunting, but his sympathies were with the |rogueish fox'. In the South African war his views were simple: the Boers were in the wrong.

The war of 1914-1918 was an agony for English people who never expected the return to barbarism and the appalling blood-drain that weakened Britain and decimated France.

As when on an Autumn plain the storm lays low the wheat,

So fell the flower of England, her golden grain,

Her harvesting hope trodden under the feet.

My heart gave way to the strain . . .

There are several touches of that war in the poems, though nothing is

said of his only son Edward, who was in the thick of the fighting, and

wounded. For a time I shared rooms with him at All Souls. He too never

said anything about his experiences -- reticence was the habit of that

household. Also they were all aesthetes, each had the most exquisite,

consciously formed handwriting, rather Elizabethan. Edward did say one

revealing thing about his father: he thought that, just as Hopkins was

now over-estimated, so Bridges was under-estimated, but that would

right itself in time. Will it?

In 1916, in his early seventies, the old Poet Laureate made his first impact on the nation at large. He produced his very characteristic anthology, The Spirit of Man, its aim to give consolation and strengthen morale when the flower of the nation was being killed off on the battlefields in France. His message was that 'spirituality is the basis and foundation of human life. Man is a spiritual being, and the proper work of his mind is to interpret the world according to his higher nature, to conquer the material aspects of the world so as to bring them into subjection to the spirit'. (What a contrast with the laureate of today's society, Larkin!).

But in 1914 'the progress of mankind on the path of liberty and humanity has been suddenly arrested and its promise discredited by the apostacy of a great people, who now openly avow that the ultimate faith of their hearts is in material Force'. This is what the best minds in England diagnosed at the time, and it was no less than the truth, confirmed by a second exhibition of apostacy in far worse terms, in keeping with the lower standards of a demotic age. He saw that |the destruction of her neighbours' was Germany's aim, and that 'she will shrink from no crime that may further its execution'. This was the appalling truth, carried further unimaginably in 1939-1945.

The book spoke for the inner heart of the nation in its agony and grief, the 'sickness of hope deferred' we were to go through yet again. I find my note at the time says, The Spirit of Man is a strangely gripping work and only a very remarkable man could have done it'. There is the high plateau on which he lived his life, and 'the wide idiosyncratic Reading.

This ranges from Spinoza to Rupert Brooke. The authors most quoted are Shelley, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge; then, strangely enough, Amiel. Still stranger we find the Indian mystic, Kabir, with Jellaludin the greatest Sufi poet of Islam, and the Quaker martyr, James Naylor. Plato and Plotinus, of course, along with passages from the Bible and the Anglican Liturgy. Among the French poets are Rimbaud, Heredia, Ronsard. Then, oddly enough, Rivarol. Among Americans, Abraham Lincoln, and again oddly, Sidney Lanier, descended from the brother-in-law of Shakespeare's Dark Lady, Emilia Lanier; however, he was a musician and that spoke specially to Bridges, for whom music -- not jazz -- was his passion. He brings forward his friends loyally, Hopkins, Dolben, Dixon, even his neighbour, Masefield. No Hardy. I had the impression that he did not think highly of Hardy or Masefield -- insufficiently aesthetic.

Bridges was very grand. What would he have thought of Larkin and our time? Disgusted, of course -- and turned his back. Bridges admired Yeats's poetry, but thought his Rosicrucianism and spiritualism stuff and nonsense -- as it was; for underneath everything the doctor-poet had a strong

fund of commonsense.

At some point he referred to the cult of force in German militarism, and disapproved strongly of its prominence in German thought, as did his friend Santayana contemporaneously in his classic Egotism and German Philosophy. Bridges went further, with perhaps prophetic insight, to wonder whether there might not be a recurrence of barbarism with a second war. Fortunately he did not live to see that. He was even more concerned with the general lowering of standards which it let loose, along with the levelling down encouraged by the Russian Revolution. Though socialism was on the upward move in his later days he had at no time any sympathy with it, and wrote of its deteriorating consequences for society.

Thus 'tis that levellers, deeming all ethick one,

and for being Socialists thinking themselves Teachers,

can preach class-hatred as the enlightened gospel of love.

The doctor in him saw the danger in the population explosion no less than that the poet saw its fell consequences:

For sure the procreant multitude

would riot to outcrowd the earth wer't not for lack of food,

and thus the common welfare serveth but to swell

the common woe...

Then comes a regression in civilisation:

|Thus Culture doeth herself to death reinforcing hell

and seeth no hope but this, that what she hath wrought in vain

since it was wrought before, may yet be wrought again

and fall to a like destruction again and evermore.'

He pointed to those in our time

|who shall have quite dismember'd and destroy'd

our temple of Christian faith and fair Hellenic art.'

If you undervalue art and culture, you put away

|Those ravishings of mind, those sensuous intelligences,

By whose grace the elect enjoy their sacred aloofness . . .'

The Elect! Their 'sacred aloofness'! How unlike today! But who shall say that he was wrong, for what is the truth? --

|all eminence is unequal, unequal is unjust --

should that once come about, then alas for this merry England,

sunk in a grey monotone of drudgery.'

Who shall say that he was wrong?

And what for hope? -- the same as his was:

|from infancy a nursling of great Nature's beauty

which keepeth fresh my wonder as when I was a child.' [Dr. A. L. Rowse is a distinguished poet as well as an eminent historian.]
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Title Annotation:20th century British poet
Author:Rowse, A.L.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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