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Big and Little Poetry

ISSUE:  Spring 1930

The Testament of Beauty. A Poem in Pour Books. By Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate. New York: Oxford University Press. $3.50. The Compleal Workes of Cini IVitloughby Bering. New York: Payson and Clarke (Brewer and Warren). $5.00.

It is of course an accident that two volumes as different as these should have come from England together. But it is a happy accident in that it suggests the method whereby each of them may be criticized; each of them being poles away from the other, each of them supplies a test for the other, if only the test of contrast. The intention in both cases becomes an important consideration, since its very clear implication by the poet makes possible some kind of statement concerning the degree of success achieved.

The poet laureate’s intention, though not expressed in so many words, was to write a noble philosophical poem with its application to our day but with its wider reference to that one day of the soul addressed at various moments by Lucretius, Dante, Milton, and Wordsworth. Mr, Bridges has always been a derivative poet—which is not at all to deny that he has been at times a very fine poet—and a scholarly one. He has studied prosody, he has published pamphlets on proper and improper rhymes, and he has even given thought to the reformation of spelling—thought which bears fruit in certain modifications here. And of course he has read the great poets with diligence. That diligence is discernible in “The Testament of Beauty,” which constantly reminded me of the masters. The eighth line, beginning ” ‘Twas late in my long journey,” is something like the first line of the “Divine Comedy”; the passages in which Mr. Bridges struggles with modern physics and psychology are like certain passages in the “De Rerum Natura”; the diction in places and the historical disgressions are Miltonic; the diction in other places and in general a pervasive, patient benevolence towards the reader who is being soothed even while he is taught—these are Words-worthian.

Now these are not charges against Mr. Bridges. Ambition is a godlike sin, and poetic ambition is particularly pardonable. Did not Milton dream of writing a great poem long before he hit upon its subject, and did not Wordsworth write like Milton in the preamble to “The Prelude”? If Mr. Bridges is to be charged with anything, it is with a failure to make us feel that anything has been added to those other poems. A serious failure, and a serious charge. It seems to me that Mr. Bridges has nobly and impressively failed to write the great poem so many English critics are at present saying this one is.

One of at least two reasons is that the poem is not passionate. Most of its six-foot lines read like prose; it has more dignity than feeling, more taste than touch; its serene, bemused, and rather fragile pace is almost nowhere varied by a chance footstep of panic; it simply, does not rise and fall. I was everywhere aware of a faithful student conning his themes and caressing his stops; I was not for a moment under the illusion that this was great poetry. To answer that Mr. Bridges is eighty-five would be to make no answer; it would not be relevant to the question, and there is the fact that Mr. Bridges has always written like this.

The other reason, and I consider it no more important than the first one, is that the subject matter lacks simplicity. The “philosophy” is confused, or at any rate confusing. Lucretius had just one thing to say, and there has never been any doubt what it was. Milton may be subject to re-interpretation from time to time, and in our own day he has been in a sense remade by M. Saurat, but his story and his moral are both clear. Dante brought many ideas to bear upon his picture, yet it was a picture, and he took pains to let us see him painting it. Wordsworth did nothing more than write the history, of his imagination in terms of things seen and remembered. But Mr. Bridges, commencing though he does with the promise that he will reveal what he saw in a kind of vision some time around his eightieth year—a vision which reduced all things to their proper hue and perspective in place and time and ethical relation—does not go on and do so. He devises myths and symbols which for me are not effective; I still do not know what they imply. He wanders through history, biology, astronomy, physics, psychology, and Aristotle—and emerges with a creed rather conventionally Christian to all appearances. I may be unfair here. Further readings, which I hope to make, may resolve these doubts. But I suspect not. I can merely say that I read the entire poem slowly, with respect and with due regard for the craftsmanship. It gave me no intellectual experience whatever—and in the world of poetry I take that to mean that it gave me no emotional experience either.

“The Compleat Workes of Cini Willoughby Dering” are misspelled too, but in the direction of Robert Herrick, whose genius presided over every other aspect of their birth. They are a charming series of little poems on the pagan loves of Cini and Colin for each other. Cini and Colin fall in love; marry, or whatever is the equivalent of that; live together in a little house where Cini cooks meals for Colin and makes their common bed while he goes forth in the world to work; have three children whom both of them love as Herrick loved all small things; and sing from time to time like happy birds of their affection. I know nothing of the author except what is apparent—that she (or he?) desired to make a little book in the spirit of a long gone day, did so, and got it printed without any other pretension than that it was the perhaps perfect expression of a little and obscure way of life. This lack of pretension is of course nothing in itself for praise; good poets on the whole have not bothered to be unpretentious. But it does throw the failure of Mr. Bridges into sharp relief. Not that it puts Mr. Bridges in his place. I should rather have failed like the poet laureate than succeeded like Cini. But there is at least a temporary satisfaction in seeing a small job done well.

Not that Cini has done it perfectly. Herrick, for instance, who loved quaint stanza forms and toyed with alternations of long and short lines, did in fact justify these forms. He would not have wasted paper as Cini does in this stanza:

Had I the Spoiles of Anaby, ‘Twou’d be The clearest Ill

To surfeit thee wyth Jewellrie— ‘Twere yett Forsaked Still.

I can see no reason why that should not have been printed thus:

Had I the Spoiles of Araby, ‘Twou’d be the clearest ill To surfeit thee wyth Jewellrie— ‘Twere yett forsaked still.

Yet it is quibbling to say so, and I do want to confess that the volume, typographically as well as otherwise, charmed me. The cumulative effect of the poems, none of which by itself would be especially noteworthy, is to arouse a great deal of interest in the two persons therein set forth. Also it is a reminder that faithful love between two fairly, simple persons can be quite as exciting to contemplate as the more complicated if not more convincing relationships that literature has recently been begging us to understand.


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