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Two Traditionalists

ISSUE:  Winter 1943

Robert Bridges. A Study of Traditionalism in Poetry. By Albert Gudrard, Jr. Harvard University Press. $3.50. Housman, 1897-1936. By Grant Richards. Oxford University Press. $4.00.

“Housman, 1897-1936,” by his publisher and friend, Grant Richards, is as much about the author as about the subject. Publisher, novelist, gourmet, and dilettante, Mr. Richards has never been able to write so much as a blurb for a book jacket or an advertisement in the Times Literary Supplement which was not partly autobiographical. He has told something of his association with the author of “A Shropshire Lad” and the editor of Manilius in “Author Hunting.” The present book is a chronological elaboration of that association and a corroboration of Mr. Laurence Housman’s account of his brother.

It consists essentially of a chatty commentary on the poet’s correspondence with his publisher and frequent travelling companion. Although a very great deal of it is concerned with proof reading, new editions, permissions, and the like as well as Housman’s taste in wine, food, and contemporary literature, it does not convey the human side of the supposedly unapproachable don. If not exactly Hous-man en pantouffles, it is Housman in the cricket cap he wore on country outings and when crossing the Channel.

A few chapters at the end on “The Genesis of a Shropshire Lad,” “Influences,” and on various critical estimates of Housman’s poetry belong more definitely to the realm of literary studies. Most of what is new in this line is contained in one of the Appendices, by Professor G. B. A. Fletcher, dealing with reminiscences, repetitions, and parallels in Housman’s poetry.

This is the only part of the book which can be compared with the study of Robert Bridges by Albert Guerard, Jr. This is a well organized and completely worked out analytical and critical survey of Bridge’s poetry, including not only the lyric poetry and “The Testament of Beauty,” but the neglected dramatic poetry as well. It is a model of scholarship and high seriousness, and were it about Milton or Wordsworth could be hailed as an outstanding work of literary criticism. It would take more than a short review to do justice to the merits of Mr. Guerard’s book and at the same time to show what appear to be its flaws. In brief, Mr. Guerard suffers from an unresolved conflict in his premises.

He begins by saying that “English criticism has seldom been favorably disposed toward Addison’s second class of genius, toward poets who are not only traditionalists, but primarily craftsmen.” He ends by quoting with evident agreement Mr. Robert Hillyer’s dictum that in “The Testament of Beauty” Bridges achieved “one of the great philosophical poems of the world.” This, needless to say, could not have been done by the second class of genius. Favorably disposed as Mr. Guerard is, and rightly, toward poets who are traditionalists and craftsmen, he cannot quite make out that this is equivalent to being a genius of the first class, and when he tries to show that a poet who was primarily a craftsman was also a great dramatic and philosophical poet, he involves himself in contradictions. Granted that it does not matter that Bridges was not an original philosopher, it does matter that the philosopher whom he follows most closely, George Santayana, is himself a philosopher of the second class and that what Mr. Guerard calls Bridges’s “Ciceronian eclecticism” and his less than Ciceronian vagueness in defining his terms make the philosophical content of the poem undistinguished to say the least. Poetically it is undistinguished, in spite of its interesting technical features and its passages of lyric beauty, because it lacks what Milton, whom Mr. Guerard likes to find echoed in Bridges, knew a long poem must have, passion.

But this is an element in poetry which Mr. Guerard does not appreciate sufficiently: He has a “position” which he must maintain against the pitfalls of “Rousseauistic primi-tivism” and against anything labelled Romanticism. Mr. Guerard possesses brilliant gifts of mind and heart, enriched by real learning. To these he owes the distinction of his book. Its defects are due to a preconceived thesis into which he is too intelligent to be able to fit all the facts.

Apropos of the “Shorter Poems,” Mr. Guerard says that “a great many of Bridges’s short vignettes attain the same kind of success, but it is the success of A. E. Housman; that is to say, facile and obvious.” I for one will let Housman have the last word. He spoke of Bridges’s “Shorter Poems” as “probably the most perfect single volume of English verse ever published.” He regretted that after achieving this Bridges had written too much that was merely exercise of skill. “The Testament of Beauty” is more than that, but it is certainly not to be compared to Lucretius.


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