In the first half of the twentieth century, a literary revolution occurred. Pound, Eliot, and their associates overpowered the previous genteel Victorian style of polite verse. To the advocates of this modernist revolution, the lyric poems of Robert Bridges seemed to represent everything corrupt in art: Bridges was traditional, a craftsman, controlled, impersonal, polished, moral, and optimistic. Although he had served as poet laureate from 1913 until 1930 and was a very influential and respected writer for the last forty years of his life, the use of modernism obliterated his fame within a few years after his death, so that he is virtually unknown by modern readers. This fall from favor is not justified, and probably Bridges will one day be restored to his rightful position as a counterweight to Eliot in the 1920’s, a worthy opponent of the new wave.
Bridges wrote only a few significant poems as a schoolboy. His serious inspiration came rather late, so that the poems collected in his first book, Poems, appear to have been written mainly in the preceding year. The 1873 collection is uneven, sometimes unsophisticated, and Bridges later tried to buy and destroy all the copies printed. He rewrote, added some poems, and deleted others entirely for his second series (1879) and his third series (1880). The Shorter Poems in four books published in 1890 grew out of the earlier volumes and established him as one of the leading poets of his time.
Poems, Third Series
The 1880 Poems, Third Series, contains the justly famous "London Snow." This poem, written in rhymed iambic pentameter, describes London under an unusually heavy snowfall. Characteristically, Bridges describes the scene with detachment and great attention to detail. He tries to be accurate and not to inject an “unreal” sentiment into the scene. He tries to avoid the “pathetic fallacy,” or the projection of imagined feelings onto nature. “When men were all asleep the snow came flying,/ In large white flakes falling on the city brown.” There is nothing supernatural in Bridges’s scene, nor is there any extravagant emotion. The snow falls until the city is buried under a seven-inch, bright white coating. The citizens of London awake early because of the unaccustomed light reflected from the whiteness. The city is strangely hushed, as business has come to a halt. Schoolboys taste the pure snow and throw snowballs. The trees are decked with snowy robes. Only a few carts struggle through the nearly deserted streets, and the sun gleams on the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Then, “sombre men, past tale of number” go forth to battle against the snow, trampling dark paths as they clear the streets and break the charm of the scene.
This moving poem in the plain style contrasts with the dark life in the city and the momentary ability of nature to create a miraculous transformation in the very heart of the urban environment. It suggests the momentary, but muted, spark of recognition of the city workers that there is some power of nature above human control. Bridges never resorts to any word or image in his text that is not plausible, easily understood, and “realistic.” Comparing his description of London to Eliot’s urban scenes, the reader easily sees a contrast between the modernist vision and the calm, controlled, delicate feelings of the more traditional work of Bridges.
Another highly praised poem in the 1880 Poems, Third Series is “On a Dead Child.” Bridges was for some years a terribly overworked young doctor in an urban hospital. He once calculated that he had less than two minutes to spend with each of his patients a day. There is no doubt that he saw much of death. Under the circumstances, it would be easy to become callous, to shut out feelings altogether. On the other hand, no topic is more likely to lead the artist into sentimentality than the death of a young child. Bridges’s poem delicately employs understatement. The speaker is probably a physician whose very young patient has just died. The poem is written in seven stanzas each of four lines rhyming abba. The length of the lines varies, probably following in a muted way the practice of sprung rhythm that Hopkins and Bridges developed in some of their lyrics. In the first three stanzas, the speaker notes how beautiful the dead child is and how the hopes of its parents have been disappointed. Then, as the speaker performs his last services to the corpse, it seems that the infant hand clasps and holds his fingers momentarily. He thinks then about the universality of death hanging over all people; “Little at best can all our hopes avail us/ To life this sorrow, or cheer us, when in the dark,/ Unwilling, alone we embark.” Bridges typically recognizes the hardness of the human lot, born to pain and death. He states plainly and directly humanity’s condition, then faces it without whining or screaming, but with optimistic courage. In the death of a child, he sees the death of all humankind. There is no use pretending that death is not fearful; still, the best course for humans is to face fate with whatever assistance reason can offer.
The poem that best exemplifies Bridges’s mind and art is “Low Barometer.” Written in seven stanzas, each of four lines rhyming abab, the poem imitates the long measure of the hymnal or the four-stress ballad line. Romantic poets frequently wrote poems about storms; typically they would imagine themselves standing on a mountain peak in the middle of lightning and rain, calling for their spirits to match the wild frenzy of nature. Bridges’s poem attacks such Romantic evocations. He does not want emotional storms; he prefers reason, control, and understatement. A low reading on the barometer signals a coming storm, and the first stanza describes such an impending gale. On such a night, when the storm beats against the house, supernatural fears arise in people, terrors of “god or ghost.” When a man imagines weird presences, his “Reason kens he herits in/ A haunted house.” Reason becomes aware of the feeling of guilt and fear normally suppressed in everyday life. This “Pollution and remorse of time” awakened by the storm is aroused in the depths of the mind, like some monster that, with “sightless footsteps,” mounts the stair and bursts open the door. Some people try to control such horrible feelings by religion, but the monstrous images roam the earth until nature itself at dawn withdraws the storm and thrusts “the baleful phantoms underground” once more. Nature restores calm and order in the end.
The Growth of Love
Many poets celebrate raw emotion: love, fear, or anger at its highest pitch. Bridges did not value emotion for its own sake. He felt that feeling should be restrained by reason, although reason itself knows that it is not sufficient to meet humanity’s ultimate crises, such as death. Wise people seek control and balance; only the ignorant give themselves over to uncontrolled emotion. Bridges wrote a sonnet sequence, The Growth of Love, first published in 1876 in twenty-four sonnets but extensively revised in later versions. This work is modeled on the sonnet sequence of William Shakespeare, although the individual poems are written more in the style of John Milton. The traditional erotic sonnet sequence takes the form of the utterances of a lover; some of the poems in the sequence are addressed to the beloved lady praising her beauty, some are poems of seduction, and some are laments...
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