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Robert Bridges

ISSUE:  Summer 1936

Six years have passed since the death of Robert Bridges; almost a century since his birth. His career provides an amazing link with the past: in the year of his birth, 1844, Charles Darwin published his “Geological Observations on Volcanic Islands.” When the “Origin of Species” appeared, Bridges was a boy of fifteen. Only four years later he was to enter Corpus Christi College, Oxford, to become a clergyman. The date of the “Origin of Species” is significant: Bridges’ interests quickly turned to science. In 1871 he entered St. Bartholemew’s as a medical student, and remained there seven years. His career as a doctor, which was distinguished by rapid success, ended in 1881, when he suffered an attack of pneumonia, and resigned his position as Physician at the Great Northern Hospital. Thus in his thirty-seventh year he gave up medicine, and devoted the remainder of his life to poetry.

His career as poet spans almost six decades. The first book of poems appeared in 1878; “The Testament of Beauty” was published on October 4, 1929. The work of Bridges falls into several distinct categories: one may even divide his career into “periods.” But these are not the familiar ones of experiment, maturity, and decline. None of his published work is immature: the 1873 volume contains perhaps his greatest short poem, the “Elegy on a Lady Whom Grief for the Death of Her Betrothed Killed,” a poem comparable only to Dryden’s “Ode to the Memory of Mrs. Ann Killigrew.” And “The Testament of Beauty” shows no decline in power; it is, indeed, his most youthful poem. The later poetry deepens in significance, its moral implications are more profound, but in grace and technical perfection there is nothing to exceed a few poems in the 1873 volume. Bridges ranks with Chaucer, Herrick, and Milton as a metrist, and this command over the formal aspect of poetry was complete from the first.

The contemporary position of Bridges is secure: he is definitely a classic, and quite as surely not “the frailest of our classics.” Although the infallible Mr. Eliot has termed him a “lesser Shenstone,” Bridges is commonly regarded as a perfect, if at times pedantic, lyric poet. More than a dozen of his shorter poems are certain to survive: they have passed the pragmatic test of the responsible anthologies. The critical essays have had a small appreciative audience. His scholarship, as embodied in the edition of Hopkins’ poems and in the studies of Milton’s prosody, is recognized as almost final. Until “The Testament of Beauty” appeared, Bridges was never a popular poet, though he received the Laureateship in 1914. But this last poem has sold more than thirty thousand copies, and its author is now regarded as one of the greatest philosophical poets in the language. Only his dramatic works—and these are among his most perfect achievements—are almost wholly unknown.


Form and convention, technical excellence, and an avoidance of strained originality are the most obvious characteristics of Bridges’ shorter lyrics. A sense of beauty is the key to all of Bridges’ poetry: beauty, in its relation to physical nature, to love (first embodied in the sonnet sequence “The Growth of Love”), and finally (in “The Testament of Beauty”) to God. This love of beauty is first expressed in the early narrative poems. As a poet of the English countryside, Bridges is without peer. His poems recall, inevitably, “Lycidas” and “The Ode to Evening.” But he is more purely a descriptive poet than either Milton or Collins: description is seldom accompanied by formal reflection. No poet’s love of nature was ever less “literary” than that of Bridges: each vicissitude of season, each trace of harmonious color, was an emotional experience of great (though controlled) intensity. In 1873, he watches the “fleecy trains”

That piling all the south with light, Dapple in France the fertile plains.

In 1929, these same clouds, which appear in so many of the poems, are still a source of intense joy. One may directly attribute this preservation of the original feeling—the long vitality of the poet’s perception—to his early and lifelong restraint, the careful husbandry of his emotional experiences. The romantic poet who sentimentalizes about clouds or flowers, basing his rhetoric on an immature feeling, soon finds his capacity for enjoyment gone: he sees in real nature only the frail sickly flowers of his early apostrophes. But for Bridges, the joy in nature remained real: the clouds in “The Testament of Beauty” are, if possible, more beautiful than those which dappled in France the fertile plains:

The sky’s unresting cloudland, that with varying play sifteth the sunlight thru’ its figured shades, that now stand in massiv range, cumulated stupendous mountainous snowbillowy up-piled in dazzling sheen, Now like sailing ships on a calm ocean drifting, Now scatter’d wispy waifs, that neath the eager blaze disperse in air: Or now parcelling the icy inane highspredd in fine diaper of silver and mother-of-pearl freaking the intense azure; Now scurrying close o’erhead, wild ink-hued random racers that fling sheeted rain gustily, and with garish boughs laughing o’erarch the land. . .

The poems of personal experience have been said to lack vitality and immediacy; to eschew real emotion for reflection about emotion. The love poems, the poems of mood and feeling, have been termed academic, and academicism is today in singular disrepute. Determining to what extent a given poem by Bridges, or anyone else, is the expression of an intimate personal experience is hazardous, and, to my mind, irrelevant. Of greater importance is the broader problem of whether directness or detachment, in the expression of a real or hypothetical experience, is to be desired. Should the poet endeavor to give a precise immediate reflection of his experience, or should he attempt, rather, a coherent patterned account of that experience? Eliot and Pound have sought, above all, emotional actuality and immediacy: Eliot by the use of particularizing detail, precise detail which will define the emotion; Pound by the fresh and supposedly exact use of words, and by the elimination of all words not immediately related to the subject of the poem. Rather than state the general as general, they have endeavored to suggest the general through the use of the particular. The frequent result is that very little, either of the general or the particular, is conveyed to the reader. Of Joyce, Eliot once remarked that “intensity is gained at the expense of clarity,” and, as Professor Matthiessen says in “The Achievement of T. S. Eliot,” there could be no closer annotation of Eliot’s own method.

If clarity characterizes all of Bridges’ shorter poems (he objected, over a period of years, to the obscurities of Hopkins ), there is no loss in real intensity. The intensity is more real because it is sparingly indulged in, and it is more significant because the poet never fails to share it with his reader. There is, in addition, a wider range of feeling and perception in Bridges than in Hopkins, Eliot, or Pound. This range of feeling is determined, in part, by his extraordinary technical versatility. Hopkins is notably incapable of mastering more than one kind of emotional experience, the religious; Eliot’s feelings are partly blurred by his restricted symbolism; and the original intensity which Pound secured is sterilized by his search for novelty, and the enslavement to mannerism which this search involves.

In the interests of range and clarity, Bridges employs not only most of the best traditional meters, but a large store of traditional language. His poems recall (as Hopkins more than once remarked in disgust) specific works of the greatest English poets. An example of traditional language and imagery, seeking a very familiar effect, yet fresh and vital by virtue of the complete success of the poem, may be found in the following lyric:

The evening darkens over After a day so bright The windeapt waves discover That wild will be the night. There’s sound of distant thunder.

The latest sea-birds hover Along the cliff’s sheer height; As in the memory wander Last flutterings of delight, White wings lost on the white.

There’s not a ship in sight; And as the sun goes under Thick clouds conspire to cover The moon that should rise yonder. Thou art alone, fond lover.

The last line of the poem draws together, and justifies, the other fourteen. And it gives to the imagery which precedes it—imagery which might very easily have been trite—a new grace and significance.

Although his meters and his language may at first appear to be uncritically traditional, Bridges is, as a matter of fact, a more important experimenter than any poet of our time. He achieves subtleties-! in cadence and variations in rhythm so perfect that at first reading they do not appear to be new at all. But if he is a great master of prosody, Bridges is even more important as a master of the language. His interest in correct diction was preserved throughout his long lifetime: he was co-founder and first chairman of the Society for Pure English. Few poets since Shakespeare, perhaps none since Dryden, have discerned more successfully the essential properties of words.

The laborious care, the formal perfection of Bridges’ poetry, is often veiled, as it should be. Except in a few delightful tours de force, like the triolets and rondeaux, the reader is not conscious of the careful scansion of lines and the scrupulous selection of words: there are no creakings back-stage. Subtleties in form are seldom employed for their own sake: they are used as a necessary discipline, of course, but chiefly and finally for definite desired effects. Consider, for instance, the second stanza of “A Passer-By”:

I there before thee, in the country that well thou knowest, Already arrived am inhaling the odorous air;

I watch thee enter unerringly where thou goest,

And anchor queen of the strange shipping there, Thy sails for awnings spread, thy masts bare;

Nor is aught from the foaming reef to the snow-capped grandest

Peak, that is over the feathery palms more fair Than thou, so upright, so stately, and still thou standest.

The reader is conscious, in the last three lines, that his eyes rove from the shore to the highest skyline; then swiftly back to the ship anchored nearby. But he may not discern, at first, how skillfully the rhythms of the poem control his vision ; how they impose the slow upward gaze, and the sudden fall. Nor is he certain to perceive, at first, how fully the st sounds (stately . . . still . . . standest) objectify and photograph the upright appearance of the ship.

In all the shorter poems, the same precision and care may be observed. If such preoccupation with form militates against that “spontaneity” so cherished by the Romantic poets, it at least assures a flawless technical perfection and an absence of confused feeling.


Between 1885 and 1894, Bridges turned his attention to dramatic writing, and during this period eight plays were published. Although all but the first part of “Nero” were intended for the stage, none has achieved professional production. This decade of play writing was, from the point of view of popular and critical reception, barren. Like the dramatic period of James, it has been deplored, even by Bridges’ admirers. The common judgment has been false in both cases. The plays of James served as a necessary transitional phase between his early work and his later novels; they helped him to discover, at long last, that his own genius was less suited for photographic realism, the “directed impression of life,” than for architectural fiction which would reflect, most of all, his intense preoccupation with form. The critical error in the case of Bridges is even more serious, for his plays are great drama, whereas those of James are not. The eight poetic dramas of Bridges are as mature and splendid, in their way, as the best short lyrics, the narrative poems, or “The Testament of Beauty.”

His theory of drama, and his attitude toward the popular stage, are expressed in the following lines from the first part of “Nero”:

Nay, even of drama Aristotle held,

Though a good play must act well, that ‘tis perfect

Without the stage; which shows that poetry

Stains not her excellence by being kind

To those encumbrances, which, in my judgment,

Are pushed to fetter fancy . . .

The number of wholly satisfactory closet dramas (plays whose virtues are dramatic rather than theatric) is necessarily small, for the good closet dramatist must combine a sense for history, an awareness of fine psychological distinctions, and, of course, a poetic talent adequate to his task. Such a dramatist was Robert Bridges, and in the best of his plays he achieved not precisely a manner or idiom of his own, but one which might be called the common idiom of modern drama. His method may be summarized very briefly: a timeless aesthetic isolation results in the application of universal moral principles to time-determined mores: thus we have a kind of universal vision, based upon the historical wisdom of the race, dispelling the obscurations of history. And what is revealed is not our world of today, or any other actual world, but a strange world of aesthetic illusion; a world in which individualized puppets strut in the costumes of their day, are bound by prejudices even more particularly their own, yet think and act in a manner common to all times.

Each of Bridges’ eight plays possesses great individual merits, but the two Nero plays and “Achilles in Scyros” are those most likely to assume a permanent position in English literature. The Nero plays are psychological tragedies. “Achilles in Scyros” is part masque, part play. It contains more lovely lyric poetry than any of the others, and a passage of sustained descriptive rhetoric (beginning “The next day at dawn . . .”) almost without equal.

The virtues of Bridges as a poetic dramatist consist chiefly in an extraordinary comprehension of human character, and in an acknowledged mastery of dramatic blank verse. These virtues cannot be shown by plot summary or brief quotation. The characterization of Nero, as embodied in two long plays, is a pathological study of insanity, and of the destruction of artistic sensibility. In these two plays, more than in the others, the poet makes use of blank verse to accomplish fine distinctions of character, distinctions which are further objectified by ironic subtleties of action, and even by the most casual turns of phrase.

The finest effects of psychological tragedy are obtained through a character’s awareness of himself in a dramatic sense. Nero possesses such an awareness. There is an inevitable connection between Nero’s loss of sensibility and his capacity for self-appreciation. In the scenes prior to the death of Britannicus, Nero has not yet refined this contemplation of self. It is couched in crude terms: he almost seems to lack a sense of humor. He is a hedonist forcing joy upon the world; a liberator imposing liberty with the sword and hemlock. The problem of the drama—its real action— is determined by the gradual growth of Nero’s perception as he comes to realize the paradox of his own philosophy, and by the manner in which this realization—itself an aesthetic triumph—is finally lost Such concentration on psychological phenomena is rarely found in English drama: “Nero” recalls Racine’s “Britannicus” rather than “Sejanus” or other English plays dealing with a kindred theme. “Britannicus” is beyond doubt a greater play than “Nero,” but it would be hard to find greater English tragedy outside of Shakespeare.


Ours is an age of brief poetic careers. The poet who attains sudden fame by virtue of novel experiment generally suffers an even more rapid decline. When his “radical departure” ceases to be radical, it becomes mannerism; the poet finds that his range of perception, as well as his talent for formal composition, is inevitably narrowed to the one medium which he has mastered. Thus we have had, over a period of thirty-five exciting but fruitless years, numerous movements and innumerable glorious reputations, each enjoying its own brief day. Where are the Sandburgs of yesteryear? Behind the welter of changing fashion, securely above the flux of exciting novelties, have stood three poets writing in English, Robert Bridges in England, Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson in America; three poets serenely oblivious to the passing tide, and adhering at all times to the classical principles of form and reason which they established in their earliest work. This detachment from the literary politics of their time accounts, in part, for the vitality of Frost, Robinson, and Bridges. There are further reasons, however, and this is particularly true of Bridges, who in his eighty-second year began what was to prove not only his greatest single work, but his most youthful poem.

Nowell Charles Smith, in his “Notes on The Testament of Beauty,” states that Bridges’ long poem bases itself upon the theory of evolution as definitely as the “De Rerum Na-tura” based itself upon the atomic theory of Democritus as developed by Epicurus. In a footnote, Smith qualifies his assertion by saying that Bridges follows no particular philosopher with the literal fidelity with which Lucretius follows Epicurus.

A necessary reservation! For the philosophical sources of “The Testament of Beauty” are as varied as they are profound. A first reading of the poem will immediately recall the “De Rerum Natura,” the “Ethics ” the “Timaeus,” Bruno’s “Dell’ infinito universo e dei mondi,” “The Prelude,” “Nosce Teipsum,” the “Essay on Man.” The poets and philosophers who had their share in Bridges’ poems very nearly constitute the historical wisdom of Western civilization— Jesus, Dante, Aquinas, St. Augustine, Leibniz, Spinoza, St. John, Milton, Chaucer, Bosanquet, Santayana. In its final implications, “The Testament of Beauty” invites a marriage of all true philosophic minds.

Although Lucretius suggested the original title—”De Hominum Natura”—a prose work most nearly resembles “The Testament of Beauty” in purpose and scope: Plato’s “Timaeus.” That too was a hymn to the universe, and the concept of a beneficent purpose had the same relationship to the technical exposition of the dialogue as did Bridges’ faith to his scientific awareness and observation de rerum natura and de hominum natura. It is in this attempt to compromise his faith and his science that Bridges departs from the philosopher who most influenced him, George Santayana: there only. For Santayana’s skepticism, which he used, strangely enough, as a defense of orthodoxy, rebelled at the false connection between mythology (religion) and science.

While “The Testament of Beauty” resembles, most of all, the “Timaeus,” the essential Platonic contribution to the poem is found in those portions of the “Phaedrus” and the “Symposium” which describe the nature of the soul and the growth of love. (It is interesting to note that the sonnet-cycle “The Growth of Love,” 1876, is a miniature “Testament of Beauty.”)

Yet great as the influence of Plato may have been, that of Santayana was even more definite. For although Nowell Charles Smith rightly describes Bridges’ poem as the first attempt of a poet to express a reasoned aesthetic theory of life, this is surely the purpose and accomplishment of Santayana’s “Life of Reason” and “The Sense of Beauty.” For a brief summary of the theory outlined in “The Testament of Beauty” one need go no further than the closing passage of “The Sense of Beauty”: “Beauty therefore seems to be the clearest manifestation of perfection, and the best evidence of its possibility., If perfection is, as it should be, the ultimate justification of being, we may understand the ground of the moral dignity of beauty. Beauty is a pledge of the possible conformity between the soul and nature, and consequently a ground of faith in the prevalence of the good.”

There are numerous passages in the poem which may be traced to their origin in Santayana, and in Santayana’s master, Spinoza. More interesting still, the American philosopher very probably suggested to Bridges the writing of a long philosophical poem. In a review of Santayana’s “Little Essays,” Bridges, after professing himself to be in general accord with the American philosopher, wrote: “It is Mr. Santayana’s opinion that it is the function of poetry to emotionalize philosophy; and that the great poem must be the aesthetical exposition of a complete theory of human life, so far as that is understood; and that there is therefore at present a finer opportunity for a great poet than the world has hitherto offered.” Did this suggestion bear fruit in “The Testament of Beauty”? We have, as affirmative evidence, the friendship of the two men, the similarity of their philosophical conclusions, and, most important of all, the organization of Bridges’ poem: the selection of subjects considered, and the treatment of these subjects.

However much Bridges may have been influenced by other poets and philosophers—even if “The Testament of Beauty” was written as a commentary on “The Life of Reason”—its chief sources are internal: there is an intimate connection between all of the poet’s activities and interests, and the sudden spiritual elation which came upon him in his eighty-second year. The essence of the poem is contained, as I have said, in the early sonnet-cycle, “The Growth of Love.” It is still evident in “New Verse” (1921), the metrical proving ground for “The Testament of Beauty.” At the conclusion of his essay on “The Testament of Beauty,” Professor H. W. Garrod wrote: “Only out of ourselves can we create beauty, out of some beauty and reasonableness in our lives. ‘The Testament of Beauty’ beareth witness with me. When we throw up our hands to think that Mr. Bridges wrote this poem at eighty-five, at least let us remember that he took eighty-five years to write it; that is, to live it.”

The beauty and reasonableness in Bridges’ life was a lifetime preparation for the philosophical serenity of “The Testament of Beauty.” A more definite preparation may be observed: preparation for the prosody of the poem. Not only certain of Bridges’ own experiments, but Hopkins’ “sprung-rhythm,” William Johnston Stone’s theory of quantitative verse, and, above all, the studies in Milton’s prosody, contributed to the final metrical achievement. From each of these sources, as from many others, Bridges selected a few elements, and rejected far more. The “loose Alexandrines” are a composite form based on careful study over a period of sixty years.

In spite of this obvious care, it has been contended that the meter of “The Testament of Beauty” is loose and careless. Professor Garrod affirms that in this poem “Mr. Bridges . . . withheld . . . the deeper pains of art,” and that in “no other poem has he brought so little study to his metre.” A careful scansion of the poem will show, however, on how exact a form its accentual meters are based. It is my own belief that every poem which Bridges wrote, and every scanned line in his careful studies of prosody, had their share in the ultimate success. And this success was a metrical form toward which Bridges had been striving, perhaps unconsciously, throughout his long career.

What were the results of this life-long effort?

In 1921, amid far better passages, Bridges could still stumble:

Now, bean, button, or boterfly, pray accept of me for my parrot verses this after apology: making experiments in versification I wrote them as they came in the mood of the day whether for good or ill—it was them or nothing.

In 1929, the parrot verses read:

Long had the homing bees plunder’d the thymy flanks

Of famed Hymettus harvesting their sweet honey:

agelong the dancing waves had lapp’d the Aegean isles

and promontories of the blue Ionian shore

—where in her Mediterannean mirror gazing

old Asia’s dreamy face wrinkleth to a westward smile.


Robert Bridges is not likely to come to his full deserts in the present generation. That this should be true is largely a criticism of the generation itself. Bridges never practiced the arts of publicity: the laureateship in 1914 came as a rather unwelcome surprise; the popularity of “The Testament of Beauty” was wholly unexpected. Nearly all of his poetry appeared originally in expensive limited editions. Poet laureate—but he would not be, like Tennyson, a public hero. His own letters he scrupulously destroyed, and in his will he expressed the wish that no biography be written.

Yet a biography—at least a critical study—will have to be written at last. For Bridges has more to teach us concerning our present literary failings than any writer of the century: as a lyric poet he shows by contrast the defects of contemporary poetry; as a dramatist, he stands not in the tradition of Pinero and Jones, but of Racine and Shakespeare; as a philosophical poet he has been compared, more than once favorably, to Wordsworth and Lucretius. A new renascence of poetic drama, as well as a new mastery over blank verse, might result from an extensive knowledge of his works.

His influence, this early, has not been negligible. It may be traced not only in Robert Frost, but in two of the most distinguished American poets of a younger generation: Robert Hillyer and Howard Baker. The latter is almost wholly unknown, but Mr. Hillyer has already received a Pulitzer Prize award. The grace and classical perfection of his work, and of Mr. Baker’s, is essentially kin to that of Bridges. In England, the poet’s daughter, Elizabeth Daryush, has been writing verse obviously influenced by that of her father; verse of a more limited scope, but of a quality scarcely less fine.


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