Monday, May 18, 2015

I too will something make - Robert Bridges makes poems

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.


  1. If I'd been Bridges, I'd have burned down Lionel Johnson's house. Nobody since the start of the 19th century wanted to write poems that would never "outrage fine taste."

    Although I have to say, the two poems you quote here lack verve, or any sort of energy. These just look like phrases unstitched from other poems. Maybe Johnson should've burned down Bridges' house.

  2. bridges was a nice guy, noncombative and thoughtful of others. i wonder if one has to believe in an afterlife to be that way. probably helps. interesting contrast with hardy who was also quiet, but probably not as gemutlich.

  3. These are great comments. Right on point. Bridges did have a real problem with poetic energy, whatever that is - but I can see that often it ain't there. Thomas Hardy did not have that problem.

    I left out the best bit of Yeats: "more in the nerves, less in the blood, more birdlike, less human; words often commonplace made unforgettable by some trick of speeding or slowing..." Yeats was a fine reader of his peers.