Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Strong with strength that puts my strength to scorn - the voices of Robert Bridges

Robert Bridges had a scholar’s mastery of poetic form and a fine aesthetic sense.  He did not have a strong voice of his own – he barely had a weak voice – and had little to say that was original.  He made an ideal Poet Laureate.  Why waste the energies of a better poet.

Early on in the little Bridges collection I read there are twelve sonnets from an 1876 sequence that kept growing until there were almost eighty.  The sonnets sound like modernized Shakespeare.  Credibly imitating Shakespeare – impressive.  But it is an example of what I meant by Bridges having no voice:

I have no care for what was most my care,
But all around me see fresh beauty born,
And common sights grown lovelier than they were:
I dream of love, and in the light of morn
Tremble, beholding all things very fair
And strong with strength that puts my strength to scorn.  (ll. 9-14)

If I only quote from poems that contain the word “beauty” I will give an unbalanced – correct, but unbalanced – idea of Bridges.  “Low Barometer” (1921) is substantive and original.  A storm brings out a man’s restlessness:

On such a night, when Air has loosed
Its guardian grasp on blood and brain,
Old terrors then of god or ghost
Creep from their caves to life again;

And Reason kens he herits in
A haunted house.  Tenants unknown
Assert their squalid lease of sin
With earlier title than his own.  (ll. 5-12)

He torments himself until the barometer and sun rise and “thrust / The baleful phantoms underground.”  The poem is pure pathetic fallacy made psychologically sharp.

A different kind of sharpness:

Would that you were alive today, Catullus!
Truth ’tis, there is a filthy skunk amongst us,
A rank musk-idiot, the filthiest skunk,
Of no least sorry use on earth, but only
Fit in fancy to justify the outlay
Of your most horrible vocabulary.  (“To Catullus,” ll. 1-6)

Bridges does not say who he is attacking (“Ev’n now might he rejoice at our attention, / Guess’d he this little ode were aiming at him”), and if he encodes the name I cannot decipher it.  As good as this poem is, it is an imitation of Roman satire.  Bridges was an expert mimic, not a skill that is valued so highly now.

He was good with weather.  Look at the “London Snow

Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
      Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
      Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.  (ll. 3-9)

It is snowing present participles; very clever.  The rhymes in this poem are clever, too.  Once people appear, the poem becomes less of a nature study and more of a ballad, the Ballad of the Winter Commuters:

    For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
      But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.  (ll. 31-7)

There it is again, “beauty.”

The selection of Bridges included at the Poetry Foundation site, just nine poems, is ideal.


  1. the friendship between bridges and hopkins must have been poetically productive for both; in spite of the tendency for the former's poetry to resemble clouds and the latter's like an axe in the sky.

  2. Their friendship has been productive for me. Their letters critiquing each other's poems are of high interest.

    Your descriptions of each man's poetry, those are good.

  3. I really love what he does with alliteration, especially when it leads to an unexpected but fitting pairing of words.

  4. Me too. Bridges is a musical poet. A quieter music than some of his peers, I guess.

  5. It's as if Bridges spent all his time learning the technical skills so he knew how to say what he had to say but didn't have anything to say to begin with.

    1. Funny; I have been idly browsing a book of Portuguese Baroque poetry and I see that complaint a lot in some academics: technically excellent, incredible at vivid imagery, masters at word games, but futile. Too elaborate for poems so meager on meaning. That's one of way of seeing things; another is that they pioneered art for art's sake; it's like Robbe-Grillet said, artists don't have anything to say, just a way of saying it. I don't agree with that absolutely, but I prefer empty technical show-offing to so much of contemporary poetry, which is just prose pieces chopped up into verses, and voilá, a poem!

    2. I enjoyed reading Bridges a lot, and will presumably return to him, and in a sense the reason is that his poems are not prose - they are real poems. He does have one thing to say, in a sense, which is that poems are worth making. So he kept making them.

  6. Yes, that is a good description of Bridges.