Robert Bridges: a dreamer, but not tongue-tied

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. 

On Monday, April 22nd, 1930 Robert Bridges, the poet laureate, died at his home, Chilswell House, in Oxford. The following day The Nottingham Evening Post published an appreciation of his life. “The popular conception of him was that of a silent, tongue-tied dreamer, living a hermit’s life on a lonely Berkshire hill. He was certainly a dreamer, but he was neither tongue-tied or lonely. His manner was often forbidding; he had a horror of humbug and those who asked him silly questions fled from his caustic tongue.”

Having read a number of his poems in the collected edition of 1913, the year when he was made poet laureate, I would have been one of those erring in this view of Robert Bridges. Being prone to humbug, I would doubtless also  have fled from his caustic tongue. There are in his poems many thous, thees, thys and words such as shouldst, knoweth and confest. Love is frequently described, as are clouds, seagulls and maidens display a skill in assembling before their lady which I feel would probably be lacking in young women of today. All an easy target for our cynical age. But I will not be the first to fire.

Two poems caught my eye and that stayed my hand. First Triolet:
When first we met we did not guess
That Love would prove so hard a master;
Of more than common friendliness
When first we met we did not guess
Who could foretell this sore distress,
This irretrievable disaster
When first we met?—We did not guess
That Love would prove so hard a master.

Next, Indolence:
We left the city when the summer day
Had verged already on its hot decline,
And charméd Indolence in languor lay
In her gay gardens, ‘neath her towers divine:
‘Farewell,’ we said, ‘dear city of youth and dream!’
And in our boat we stepped and took the stream.

All through that idle afternoon we strayed
Upon our proposed travel well begun,
As loitering by the woodland’s dreamy shade,
Past shallow islets floating in the sun,
Or searching down the banks for rarer flowers
We lingered out the pleasurable hours.

Till when that loveliest came, which mowers home
Turns from their longest labour, as we steered
Along a straitened channel flecked with foam,
We lost our landscape wide, and slowly neared
An ancient bridge, that like a blind wall lay
Low on its buried vaults to block the way.

Then soon the narrow tunnels broader showed,
Where with its arches three it sucked the mass
Of water, that in swirl thereunder flowed,
Or stood piled at the piers waiting to pass;
And pulling for the middle span, we drew
The tender blades aboard and floated through.

But past the bridge what change we found below!
The stream, that all day long had laughed and played
Betwixt the happy shires, ran dark and slow,
And with its easy flood no murmur made:
And weeds spread on its surface, and about
The stagnant margin reared their stout heads out.

Upon the left high elms, with giant wood
Skirting the water-meadows, interwove
Their slumbrous crowns, o’ershadowing where they stood
The floor and heavy pillars of the grove:
And in the shade, through reeds and sedges dank,
A footpath led along the moated bank.

Across, all down the right, an old brick wall,
Above and o’er the channel, red did lean;
Here buttressed up, and bulging there to fall,
Tufted with grass and plants and lichen green;
And crumbling to the flood, which at its base
Slid gently nor disturbed its mirrored face.

Sheer on the wall the houses rose, their backs
All windowless, neglected and awry,
With tottering coigns, and crooked chimney stacks;
And here and there an unused door, set high
Above the fragments of its mouldering stair,
With rail and broken step led out on air.

Beyond, deserted wharfs and vacant sheds,
With empty boats and barges moored along,
And rafts half sunken, fringed with weedy shreds,
And sodden beams, once soaked to season strong.
No sight of man, nor sight of life, no stroke,
No voice the somnolence and silence broke.

Then I who rowed leant on my oar, whose drip
Fell without sparkle, and I rowed no more ;
And he that steered moved neither hand nor lip,
But turned his wondering eye from shore to shore;
And our trim boat let her swift motion die,
Between the dim reflections floating by.

Triolet because of its completeness; Indolence because I’ve always had a soft spot for narrative poetry, particularly when expressed in the first person; of T.S.Eliot’s poetry the only one I’ve been able to understand is Journey of the Magi.

Robert Bridges was made poet laureate in July of 1913 – “Dr. Bridges’ appointment will delight all who take poetry seriously and should abash jocular gentlemen in the House of Commons,” noted Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University. A year later, on the 28th of July, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and Britain declared war on Germany on August the 4th. In the 1915 Christmas edition of Blighty, the magazine of the British soldier, published a poem by Robert Bridges, the first verse being:

To the men of spirit unconquerable
Who battle to shield our homes from hell,
This tenderest greeting of love and pride
From those who at home must watch and abide.

You can almost hear him saying “Will this do?” But what else was he going to write? If part of the remit of the Poet Laureate  is to capture and express something of the national spirit, then the above may just have done that for many people. He was seventy years old when war broke out. When he was born Queen Victoria was still a young queen and he grew up in a Britain that avoided, after the Crimean War, any involvement in European conflicts. As a doctor he had witnessed death and had also acted decisively during an outbreak of smallpox in the Great Northern Hospital in 1876. But how would that help an elderly gentleman living in the outskirts of Oxford understand the new type of warfare then being fought?

He was not alone in this type of response to the war. In 1916 Soldier Poets: Songs of the Fighting Men was published and in 1917 More Songs by the Fighting Men was also published. Written by serving soldiers, these poems were described by the Western Daily Press in the January of 1918 as forming part of a springtime of “Georgian Verse” in which new poems were bursting into verse like trees in bud. To A Fallen Comrade, written by 2nd Lieutenant Murray McClymont, begins:

I heard the voice of Spring come softly pleading
Across the fresh and breathing wold today:
The Sun set free from cloudy bonds, was speeding
To greet the earth with each impassioned ray.

Another 2nd Lieutenant, Owen, Wilfred, of the Manchester Regiment would become, in his death, much more famous for his poetry than McClymont. Yet, like the poetry of Bridges, we would would err should we ignore him and his companions. Their voices may not be fashionable, but they are nonetheless the voices of men who served, and died, in the trenches.

In 1920, Horatio Bottomley, M.P. for South Hackney asked the Prime Minister, LLoyd George, if the Poet Laureate had written any of the hymns sung  in the recent unveiling of the Cenotaph, or indeed any of the large public events associated with the war. If not, then should “…he [the PM] consider the question of the appointment of a national poet whose muse is more attuned to the soul of the British nation?” Lloyd George answered by reminding Mr Bottomley that the post of Poet Laureate was for the lifetime of the incumbent, before being interrupted by a Colonel Lowther, demanding to know whether the post should be offered to Rudyard Kipling. Perhaps Robert Bridges was tired of the war by then. A lover of nature, what could he have found to inspire him in the desolation and mud of No-Man’s Land? Perhaps he was working on The Testament of Beauty, a philosophical poem in four books, which I shall not be reading.

It is an oddly reflective reader who considers the creation of literary taste, before deciding on a sad and lonely (7,8). We are back in Virginia Woolf territory. Next, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

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  1. I cannot take Bridges seriously: he just sounds like a wannabe Tennyson, who is also daft. I think I stopped listening to poetry after John Clare until Kipling got going. Victorian romantic wallowing does absolutely nothing for me!

    • We lump the likes of Bridges and Tennyson together as Victorian but for literary folk such as Quiller-Couch, he represented a break from the more strident voice of Tennyson. As for me, my incipient sentimentality always gets the better of me and will, no doubt, form part of my downfall. Bridges did, however, wear a cloak and a big hat, probably floppy, and that I would find hard to take seriously.


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