Robert Bridges: Literary Contribution to Modernism

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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.

Major Poet of The Modern Age : (1) The poetry of Robert Bridges covers a long span in modern literature. His first volume of verse, a small collection of lyrics appeared in 1873. His poetic career ended in 1929 with the publication of The Testament of Beauty. He succeeded best in lyrics.

      (2) He was too objective minded in his outlook to treat the ineffable mystery of love or nature. What really led Bridges to poetry was, as he himself says, "the inexhaustible satisfaction of form, the magic of speech, lying, as it seemed to me in the masterly control of the material".

      (3) In poems like the Douwns, The London Snow, The Storm is over and in numberless short lyrics of exquisite beauty and simplicity, he displays that "instinctive rightness" of selection which is essential to all good poetry.

      (4) With Robert Bridges joy is a deep spiritual experience. It is an article of faith... When the heart of man is made glad, the spirit doth bless, and so even if joy is short-lived as a dream, it is yet the reward of the poet's quest of beauty.

      (5) Much of Bridges' thought has been occupied by a consideration of the principles of Beauty. According to him earthly beauty, beauty that perishes is only a stepping stone to the heavenly Beauty. The pursuit of beauty is the moral function of man's nature. Divorced from beauty, life has no meaning.

      (6) What has endeared Robert Bridges to the heart of countrymen is his "nature poetry" In his pictures of the English landscapes, he shows a freshness of vision, a masterly control of detail, and a command of intensely vivid imagery.

      (7) Bridges has been described as a "traditionalist" and a "victorian" in his outlook. In matters of verse form he was certainly an innovator, if not a revolutionary and his name will be remembered for the development of a technique in which success and recognition came to him after years of patient practice.

      (8) Bridges opines that there is no essential difference between the emotions of a poet and those ot an ordinary man. The poets distinction lay in his gift of expression, in the "magic of speech" which Bridges had cultivated from the very beginning of his career.

      (9) Bridges most startling innovation was the successful handling of Hopkins' stress prozody which in our own day, has been elaborated in the work of some young poets, specially W.H. Auden, besides Bridges had a fine ear for word musie and had a command of minute subtleties.

      (10) The experiments in stress prozody were collected in his Shorter poems in 1890. His study of Milton's prozody, specially Milton's use of Samson Agonistes, has suggested to Bridges that a successful compromise betweena stress prozody and Milton's syllabic verse could be effected, if he made a freer use of elision and substitution and admitted a more frequent change in pause and stress.

      (11) Robert Bridges had all the gifts and limitations of an artist. His genius was reflective but his instincts led him constantly to invent new patters of dress to suit his thought.

Robert Bridges - A Revaluation : (1) Bridges has been described by various competent judges as the greatest lyric poet of English since Shelley. When his shorter Poems in four books were published in 1890, it was described by Housman as the most perfect book of verse ever written".

      (2) The lyrics of Bridges are impersonal - "The lyrics sprang spontaneously out of emotion or vision, but the man who felt or saw has fallen out of right; he gives, his readers few glimpses of himself. His lyrics are "pure poetry if such a thing exists". His emotionis emotion recollected about the musical quality of the lyrics of Bridges He gave to lyric poetry a new cadence, a distinction as deliberate as that of Whistler's painting.

      (3) Bridges is sometimes compared with Shelley as a lyrical poet but the comparison will bring out the immense poetie difference between the two poets. While Shelley's imagination soar high and he loves to paint the objects of the sky, rather than of the earth, Bridges is more of the earth, and loves to describe the beautiful manifestations of nature. Even when Bridges speaks of abstractions he describes them in terms of living and significant things.

      (4) Bridges is the least personal of poets and this accounts for the utter lack of lyrical rapture and lyrical cry which are the characteristics of Shelley. In the Shorter poems of Bridges one misses, "the still, sad, music of humanity," "the soothing thoughts that spring out of human suffering". The poignant description of the world "where but to think is to be, full of sorrow.

      (5) To Shelley the sweetest songs of human beings are those that tell of saddest and the poet in the Ode to the West Wind, has, been described as "Sweet though in sadness". Sorrow and sadness find no place in the world of Bridges.

      (6) Bridges liked the ordered peace in which his lot was cast, temperance thought and personal habit was his by choice as well as inheritance and training A critical analysis of the well-known lyric, nightingale shows us the thought and style of Bridges at their best.

      (7) In the poem, nightingale stand for those creative artists and poets who feel that the source of their artistic inspiration lies nowhere in the world outside but in their own souls. The poet's song is the outcome of their desire for those things that are incapable of being fulfilled.

      (8) A throne of the heart' in nightingales reminds us of Shelley's description of the best songs of human beings, "Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts". Bridges has suggested in the poem the thought of the incommunicability of the aesthetic experience when he makes the nightingales say:

No dying cadence nor long sigh can sound
Far all our art.

      (9) The form of nightingales is as beautiful as the quality of the thought is right. The haunting melody of the lines is unfailing from the beginning to the end and what is most deeply moving about the poem is its classical restraint and economy. The sensibility in this poem is romantic but the expression is in a classical pattern and it combines in a 'happy manner the romantic and classical qualities of poetry.

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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