Robert Bridges : Literary Contribution

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      1. His Life : The wish of Robert Bridges that no biography of him should be published has left us with only the major facts of his life. He was born at Walmer, in Kent, of a well-to-do country family, and both the county of his birth and the good fortune which made it unnecessary for him to earn a living have left indelible marks on his work. In 1854 he went to Eton, and from there to Oxford in 1863. At both places he showed considerable academic prowess. He began as a medical student at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, in 1869, proceeded to his M.B. in 1874, and was for three years (1878-1881) a practising physician in London hospitals. An attack of pneumonia then brought his medical career to a close, and he retired to Yattendon, in Berkshire. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the Oxford chair of poetry in 1895, and twelve years later he moved to Chilswell, on the outskirts of Oxford, where he lived until his death, enjoying the friendship of many of the finest minds of his generation in an atmosphere of peace and prosperous, cultured leisure. He was made Poet Laureate in 1913, and in the same year helped to found the Society for Pure English.

In 1854 Robert Bridges went to Eton, and from there to Oxford in 1863. At both places he showed considerable academic prowess. He began as a medical student at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, in 1869, proceeded to his M.B. in 1874, and was for three years (1878-1881) a practising physician in London hospitals.
Robert Bridges

      2. His Poetry : Though Robert Bridges was writing poetry while still at Eton, little of his earliest work survives. His first volume, Shorter Poems, appeared anonymously in 1873, and further volumes under the same title were added in 1879, 1880, 1890, and 1894. They contained many of his best-known lyrics - A Passer-by, London Snow, I will not let thee go, and The Downs. His subjects, mainly love and nature, are handled with flawless taste and restraint, and with the delicate artistry of an accomplished technician. His is the art which conceals art, and his mastery of rhythms, sure ear for verbal music, and lightness of touch give to these lyrics something of the quality of the best Elizabethan songs.

      His sonnet sequence, The Growth of Love, privately printed in 1876, was published in 1889 after many alterations. The seventy-nine sonnets, a mixture of Petrarchan and Shakespearian forms, have all the technical excellence which we expect of Bridges, but they lack depth of feeling.

      Prometheus the Firegiver (1883) and Eros and Psyche (1885) are elaborate but over-lengthy poems. Fine pictures of the Italian countryside and an occasional pleasing lyric cannot compensate for the tedium of the earlier work, while the success of the elaborately constructed Eros and Psyche is largely one of metrical technique.

      A long period, mainly devoted to poetic drama and literary criticism, intervened before New Poems (1899), a volume, which, Lugh it contains some good landscapes and wonderfully clear recollections of his youth, is below the usual standard of Bridges. In Poems in Classical Prosody (1903) and Later Poems (1914) the poet enters the fields of politics and war, subjects which, as Bridges handles them, are unworthy of the technical skill lavished upon them. These volumes contain much of his poorest work.

      October and Other Poems (1920) and New Verse (1925) again show Bridges as a great lyric poet. Memories of his childhood and experiences of his later years are all handled with the artistry of Bridges at his best. Of the skill of this last period Cheddar Pinks, from New Verse, is a fair illustration:

      In 1929 Bridges published his long philosophical poem The Testament of Beauty, an attempt to show beauty as the supreme force in life, and to trace man's growth to perfect wisdom. He draws upon almost every field of knowledge, and the poem, over-lengthy and digressive, suffers from its unorthodox spellings and an unusual laxity in matters of technique. However, it contains many fine passages, and, in spite of its weaknesses, stands high among English philosophical poems on the grand scale.

      3. His Drama : Like most nineteenth-century poets, Bridges tried his hand at drama and with the same results. The Feast of Bacchus (1889), Palicio (1890), The Christian Captives (1890), The Return off Ulysses (1890), Achilles in Scyros (1890), The Humours of the Court (1893), Nero Part I (1885), and Nero Part II (1894) are merely literary exercises in drama in the Elizabethan or classical traditions. They reveal an almost complete ignorance of the craft of the theatre, and a complete inability to create characters, while they are devoid of real passion. His masque, Demeter, written in 1904 for the opening of Somerville College, Oxford, is equally academic. The gift of Bridges was for lyric, not dramatic poetry.

      4. His Prose : From 1887 to 1907 Bridges concentrated his attention on literary criticism. Apart from his regular leaders in The Times Literary Supplement and other occasional articles, he published On the Elements of Milton's Blank Verse in "Paradise Lost" 887), On the Prosody of "Paradise Regainea and Samson Agonistes" (1889), his essay on John Keats (1895), and The Influence of the Audience on Shakespearean Drama (1926). To the essays on Milton he brought all his own experience of metrical experiment, and his work on Samson Agonistes has ensured a truer appreciation of the qualities of its verse. Equally valuable was his examination of the revised version of Hyperion as compared with the original one, which appeared in his essay on Keats. His study of Shakespeare's audience consists mainly of a strongly biased attempt to blame the groundlings for anything in the plays which he felt to be coarse or in any way undesirable, and it is typical of the capricious unreliability of many of his opinions on literature. Thus, where Bunyan, Dryden, Pope, Browning, were concerned, he could see little that was good, and he maintained his opinions, some of them formed on a relatively slight acquaintance with the author, with a stubborn aggressiveness. His prose style is simple, lucid, unaffected, and workman like, and the essays are admirable in their use of copious quotations to illustrate his arguments.

      5. Features of his Poetry : (a) His Choice of Subject: Saved by his wealth from the economic struggles of the workaday world, aristocratic and conservative by inheritance, Bridges passed his life almost undisturbed by the ferment of ideas around him. His poetry is seldom concerned with the sterner issues of life, and then not usually with success. The beauties of nature, the charm of landscape in particular, the joy and romance of love, memories of an almost idyllic childhood, these are the themes which he treated with the good breeding and absence of passion demanded of a gentleman.

      (b) His Artistry: Bridges lived for poetry alone. To the study and practice of his art he devoted his whole life. Every effect, every word almost, at any rate in his lyrics, is the result of careful consideration. The result is a limpid clarity of style, a delicacy of touch, a perfection of musical appeal, and a subtlety of rhythmic pattern which give his work an easy 'rightness'. Yet this art, so wonderfully concealed, gives to his most personal poems a remoteness of feeling which betrays the careful craftsman lying behind them.

      (c) His Metrical Experiments: The use of metre was, for Bridges, the most important aspect of poetic technique. From his earliest publications he experimented ceaselessly in an attempt to throw off what he felt to be the shackles of conventional patterns and approach more closely to the rhythms of cultured speech. The attempt, so successfully made in his best lyrics, is seen in its latest and most extreme form in the "loose alexandrines" of The Testament of Beauty.

      6. Miscellaneous Publications : Brief mention should be made of his fine anthology of prose and verse, The Spirit of Man (1916), and of his publication in 1918 of Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Of the importance to English poetry of this volume, which, but for Bridges, had remained for ever unknown, we shall have more to say later.

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