Skip to main content

Robert Bridges: Against the Current

ISSUE:  Autumn 1986
The Selected Letters of Robert Bridges. Two volumes. Edited by Donald E. Stanford. Delaware. $130.00.

Robert Bridges is one of those poets, like Crabbe and Landor, who don’t quite fit into the literary canon that we seem to have created in the universities. Born in 1844, he was too old and temperamentally too different to be a member of the “tragic generation” of the 1890’s. He outlived the Georgians and the major phase of Modernism, and then in 1929, as poet laureate, he published The Testament of Beauty, a book-length poem that had an astonishing success. When he died in the following year, he was as much honored as any English poet could hope to be. But two years after that F.R. Leavis, in New Bearings in English Poetry, rather grudgingly mentioned Bridges by saying that “his kind of interest in technique was not a kind that can concern us much in this study.” It should be noted that Leavis, in what was a very influential book, gave place of honor to Hopkins, Bridges’ friend and exact contemporary, who had been dead since 1889. Leavis took the position that if Hopkins had “received the attention that was his due, the history of English poetry from the ‘nineties onward would have been very different.” The implication was that Bridges, who withheld the publication of Hopkins’ poems as a body till 1918, was somehow an obstruction in the main current of modern poetry.

But I think the facts of literary history are somewhat different. As Leavis realized, the first edition of Hopkins’ poems sold only a few hundred copies in a dozen years. A more important matter is that the leading poets of the early 20th century took very little interest in him—I refer to Yeats, Stevens, Pound, and Eliot, among others. The case of Yeats is especially instructive, because his earliest poems date from the 1880’s, and indeed he was briefly acquainted with Hopkins in Dublin. The real influence of Hopkins came after 1930, the date of the second edition of his poems. At that point Herbert Read and other critics (including Leavis) started a kind of Hopkins decade, and young poets as different as Dylan Thomas and Elizabeth Bishop eagerly responded to the situation. I am inclined to think that had Bridges published Hopkins in 1890, the poems would have sunk without a trace. Bridges’ instinct about them was correct. Hopkins may well have been ahead of his time, but to be effective his poems required a shift in the sensibility of the literary public. Eliot may not have cared much for Hopkins, whom he rated below Whitman and probably Tennyson, but he certainly prepared the way for his reception.

I mention the Bridges-Hopkins relationship because it was an issue even before Leavis’ New Bearings. Professor Donald Stanford takes up this matter, among others, in the long introduction to the two volumes of Bridges’ letters that he has recently published. With the advantage of an editor, he draws attention to Bridges’ letters to Hopkins’ mother and sister, here published for the first time, and persuasively disposes of the notion that Bridges harbored a certain jealousy of his friend’s work for 30 years. In a way the Hopkins relationship is a distraction. With these letters Professor Stanford creates a sense of the literary and social milieu which Bridges inhabited for so many years. Since he had the reputation of being a somewhat austere and remote figure, and he left instructions that no biography was to be written, this collection has an unusual interest for students of early modern poetry. Among Bridges’ many correspondents, after Hopkins, were Samuel Butler, George Saintsbury, Housman, Santayana, Yeats, and Roger Fry. The last name is unexpected, but Professor Stanford suggests that Fry’s Vision and Design (1920), a classic of modern art criticism, was actually a stimulus to the writing of The Testament of Beauty. What I thought rather odd was the virtual absence of references to Hardy, who, after all, was Bridges’ contemporary and who most successfully made the transition from the Victorian age to the 20th century. Bridges does not appear to have taken any interest whatever in prose fiction, and perhaps when Hardy the novelist turned to poetry Bridges didn’t feel impelled to follow him.

Bridges certainly had a charmed life, which took him from a happy childhood along the Kentish coast, to Eton, to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, to medical studies in London (followed by several years in practice), to a highly satisfactory marriage and family. His setbacks were few; even a near-fatal attack of pneumonia in 1881 allowed him to retire from medicine, and he had the financial means to live as a country gentleman for almost half a century after that. He published his first book of poems in 1873. By 1890 his volume of Shorter Poems created a considerable reputation for him. He then devoted much of his creative energy to a series of verse narratives and dramas which have had their admirers (notably Yvor Winters), and he became an occasional critic of great distinction. By the time he was appointed poet laureate in 1913, he surely had as much claim to that honor as any poet in England.

In 1936 Yeats, in the Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, described a moment in 1900, which he thought initiated the most important period in English poetry since the 17th Century:

Robert Bridges seemed for a time, through his influence on Laurence Binyon and others less known, the patron saint of the movement. His influence—practice, not theory—was never deadening; he gave to lyric poetry a new cadence, a distinction as deliberate as that of Whistler’s painting, an impulse moulded and checked like that in certain poems of Landor, but different, more in the nerves, less in the blood, more birdlike, less human; words often commonplace made unforgettable by some trick of speeding and slowing, or by some trick of simplicity, not the impulsive simplicity of youth but that of age, much impulse examined and rejected. Every metaphor, every thought a commonplace, emptiness everywhere, the whole magnificent.

(I omit the first stanza of Bridges’ “I heard a Linnet courting,” as quoted by Yeats.)

This seems to me an ideal place to begin a brief consideration of Bridges and the kind of influence he has had in the 20th century. Yeats very shrewdly, I think, mentions Landor, and one way of “placing” Bridges would be to regard him as a successor to Landor, who was still alive in Bridges’ youth. But the reference to Laurence Binyon points ahead. Binyon was a fine minor poet (Yeats includes his longish “Tristram’s End” in the Oxford Book), but his masterpiece was his translation of The Divine Comedy, which came out in the 1930’s and was much admired by Pound, who indeed had some small part in its composition. This was discussed by the late Robert Fitzgerald in a brilliant essay which appeared in Paideuma in 1981. What Pound, and later Fitzgerald, had to contend with in Binyon’s Dante was the archaic diction. Fitzgerald maintained that Binyon’s archaisms were deliberate and a means of expanding and elevating his style, I mention this problem because it is precisely the problem that most readers of Bridges come up against. Even Winters, his great champion in America, said that “the bulk of his work is corrupted by the facile diction of the 19th century.” Winters thought it was partly a matter of habit. I myself, in reading through many of the short poems, find the archaisms a minor distraction, and in the best poems they scarcely exist. I refer to such things as the charming set of Horatian odes called “Spring,” “London Snow,” “Elegy: The Summer-House on the Mound,” “Winter Nightfall,” and “Low Barometer.” There is a very real power operating at times, especially in the last-named poem.

If Winters and his school of poet-critics, including Professor Stanford, have made the strongest claims for Bridges in this country, what about England? (I leave aside Bridges’ daughter, Elizabeth Daryush, who continued something of her father’s work into her old age.) Rather surprisingly, it was Auden who, early and late, admired Bridges. In 1929 he read The Testament of Beauty and immediately proceeded to imitate it in a poem that begins “Which of you waking early and watching daybreak. . . .” This appeared in the original Poems of 1930 but was subsequently out of print till the posthumous English Auden that Edward Mendelson edited in 1977. Midway in his career Auden edited Poets of the English Language with Norman Pearson; he included eight poems from Bridges, rather more than most anthologists have done. Most interesting in Auden is a reference to Bridges in A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (1970). Under the heading “Unfavorites and Favorites” Auden lists Bridges as one of the “elder modern poets from whom I have learned the most.” By this time Auden had rejected Yeats and Rilke as bad influences, and he may well have returned to some of his youthful enthusiasms. On the next page, under the heading of “Verse, Quantitative English,” he makes the claim that “Bridges was the first to write quantitative verse in English which ignores stress altogether.” And then he quotes a passage from Bridges to prove his argument. I don’t think that Auden is one of Professor Stanford’s favorite poets. But there are certain affinities between Bridges and Auden which I have never seen discussed. Auden, unlike F.R. Leavis, had a very keen interest in formal technique, which is usually the mark of an essentially conservative poet (unlike the authors of the Cantos and The Waste Land). In the end he was closer to Bridges than he was to Eliot.

I have not sufficiently praised Professor Stanford’s work on these splendid volumes, which are part of a larger enterprise for him. He has already edited a Selected Poems of Bridges for Carcanet Press, and in 1978 he published In the Classic Mode, the most important critical study of Bridges that we have had. Finding the time to do all of this while co-editing The Southern Review is an achievement in itself.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading