Robert Bridges is the poet I have at hand. He had a long career, with his first book published in 1873 and his last in 1929. He was close friends with Gerard Manley Hopkins, and his great contribution to poetry, greater than his own poems, was his 1918 edition of Hopkins’s work, almost thirty years after that poets death. Somehow Bridges knew to wait for the perfect moment, when an audience trained on Modernism was ready for the sprung weirdness of Hopkins.
Bridges’s other great contribution, perhaps, was as a writer of hymns. The Bridges collection I read, the 1955 Poetry & Prose, ed. John Sparrow, contains none of the hymns and makes no mention of them; nor does the Poetry Foundation biography.
I am just going to write about the lesser achievement of Robert Bridges, his regular old poems. First, let us look at the testimonials of his contemporaries. A poetry book of 200 pages includes 25 pages of the poet’s peers praising but also subtly belittling him. Odd.
Yeats: “an emotional purity and rhythmical delicacy no living man can equal… the only poet, whose influence has always heightened and purified the art of others” (p. xxxvii).
Lionel Johnson: “These poems then, represent, with much else that is admirable, the scholarship of poetry… he preserves discretion and propriety… making it impossible for him to outrage fine taste” (p. xxiv).
Arthur Symons: “It is a kind of essence; it is what is imperishable in perfume; it is what is nearest in words to silence.”
Now there is some fine English Decadent twaddle.
Laurence Binyon: “His beauties are not easily detachable, but inhere in the substance of his work; he cannot be known in quotations” (p. xxx).
Which will be trouble for me, so I will at this point include a complete poem:
I Love All Beauteous Things
I love all beauteous things,
I seek and adore them;
God hath no better praise,
And man in his hasty days
Is honoured for them.
I too will something make
And joy in the making;
Altho’ to-morrow it seem
Like the empty words of a dream
Remembered on waking. (1890)
Given the poem’s date, this may look like a standard declaration of Paterian art for art’s sake Decadence, but I do not think that is the case; I think that Bridges means every word. He had fallen in love with and mastered the art of poetry even though he had little to say, he spent sixty years making beautiful things, culminating in his last poem, published on his 85th birthday, The Testament to Beauty. Such is the well-lived life.
Die, song, die like a breath,
And wither as a bloom:
Fear not a flowery death,
Dread not an airy tomb!
Fly with delight, fly hence!
‘Twas thine love’s tender sense
To feast: now on thy bier
Beauty shall shed a tear. (“I have loved flowers that fade, ll. 17-24, earlier than 1890)
I will see what I can do in one more post to breathe some life back into Bridges’s dead songs.