Robert Bridges 1844-1930
English poet, dramatist, and critic.
Having initially trained and worked as a physician, Bridges ultimately became prominent in English letters during the late Victorian and early twentieth century as a writer of lyrical verse. The English poet A. E. Housman described the lyrics in Bridges's famous collection, The Shorter Poems (1890-94), as universally excellent. While Bridges experimented with prosody and free verse, he is generally regarded as a classicist. His investigation into eighteenth-century classical forms culminated in The Testament of Beauty (1929), a long philosophical poem considered by many to be his masterpiece. Bridges served as England's poet laureate from 1913 until his death in 1930.
Bridges was born into a family of small landowners in Walmer, Kent. This port town and its famous resident, the Duke of Wellington, would be featured in some of the poet's lyrics. Bridges received his education at Eton and then at Oxford, where he befriended the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins's experiments with an unusual type of meter he called “sprung rhythm” mirrored Bridges's own, somewhat more conservative attempts at “stress prosody,” which he used in such well-known poems as “On a Dead Child” and “London Snow.”
Bridges did not embark on his poetic career immediately. His first impulse was to train as a cleric in the Church of England, but in 1869 he opted instead to enroll in medical school. After graduation in 1874, Bridges became a physician at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London and later worked at the Hospital for Sick Children. Bridges retired from medicine in 1881 after becoming seriously ill with pneumonia. He moved with his mother to Yattendon, Berkshire, where he met and married Monica Waterhouse. While in Yattendon, from 1882 to 1904, Bridges wrote some of his most popular short lyrics as well as his narrative poem, Eros and Psyche (1885). In 1907 he moved back to Oxford with his family and into Boar's Hill—a house that he had designed himself. In 1914 when England entered World War I, Bridges felt it was his duty as newly appointed poet laureate to contribute to the war effort through his writing. His war poems were collected in October and Other Poems, with Occasional Verses on the War (1920). After his daughter Margaret died from a prolonged illness in 1926, Bridges tried to cope with his grief by embarking on a long philosophical work. The resulting Testament of Beauty was to be his final poetic work before his death in 1930.
Although Bridges wrote several long poems, he is perhaps best known for his shorter works. His sonnet sequence, The Growth of Love (1876), reveals Bridges's facility for the Italian and English sonnet forms and, indeed, are clearly influenced by the sonnets of Shakespeare and John Milton. The publication of The Shorter Poems (1890-94), selected from the best of Bridges's lyric poems up to that date, marks the summit of his growing fame as a poet. In addition to those written in irregularly stressed syllables, Bridges's lyrics also include many written in more conventional metric forms. The subjects of these short poems include the nostalgia of childhood, elegies on death, reflections on love, meditations on religious issues, and—what was of particular interest to Bridges—the nature of beauty and the beauty of the natural world. Bridges's collection of war poems, October and Other Poems, reflects the prolonged and unexpected course of World War I as well as the poet's concerns about his son, Edward, who was stationed at the western front. Accordingly, the earlier war poems are stirringly patriotic, while the later poems depict the appalling conditions of trench warfare. Bridges's New Verse (1925) offers examples of his interest in classical Greek and Latin poetry; several of the poems in this collection are experiments in what he described as classical, “neo-Miltonic syllabics.” Bridges's final work of poetry, The Testament of Beauty, consists of over 4,000 lines and is divided into four books. It has been described by critic Donald E. Stanford as a “spiritual autobiography depicting the development of a poet's sense of beauty, his response to beauty wherever he finds it.”
Bridges's poetry received little notice before 1912 when a collection of his poetry was published by Oxford University Press and garnered praise from critics and public alike. Critics of the mid-twentieth century, however, did not hold him in high regard. Some described him as a minor poet; others criticized his conservative, Victorian values. The subject matter of Bridges's poetry has also been condemned as trivial or empty; scholars have argued that it focuses on the prettiness of nature and the details of prosody rather than delving into more important topics. More recently, critics have commended Bridges for his experimentation with verse form and have praised him for his skill as a poetic technician. Most critics are united in assessing Bridges's final poem, The Testament of Beauty, as a masterpiece of both form and content.
The Growth of Love 1876
Poems by the Author of ‘The Growth of Love’ 1879
Eros and Psyche 1885
Shorter Poems 1890-94
The Humours of the Court 1893
October and Other Poems, with Occasional Verses on the War 1920
New Verse 1925
The Testament of Beauty 1929
Prometheus the Firegiver (drama) 1883
John Keats, A Critical Essay (essay) 1895
Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (editor) 1918
Three Friends (memoirs) 1932
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SOURCE: “An Oxford Poet,” in The Nation, Vol. 96, No. 2482, January 23, 1913, pp. 83-84.
[In the following review of the Poetical Works of Robert Bridges, the poet's verse is positively described as “slow-moving” and underscored with a “dreamy languor.”]
Outside of Oxford, where he now resides as a retired physician, Mr. Bridges has, we believe, never attained anything like popularity, and in this country he has scarcely been known except as a shadowy name. Yet his reputation has been spreading quietly among the refined for many years, and this cheap and attractive volume of his poems from the Oxford University Press will no doubt introduce him to many new readers.
It is not difficult to explain the exclusiveness, so to speak, of Mr. Bridges's fame. The fact is, his work falls between two stools. On the one hand, it has neither the swiftness of motion, the immediate impressiveness, the narrative zest, and facile emotionalism, which go to make up the style which is popularly and rather naïvely admired as “creative”; nor the esoteric intricacy and obscurity which commonly pass for profound. Lacking these qualities, it misses the great body of readers of verse. On the other hand, it does not quite hit such an audience as Matthew Arnold satisfied: it is intellectual without touching to the quick the deeper beliefs and doubts of the age; it is highly self-critical...
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SOURCE: “The Spirit of Man,” in The Spectator, Vol. 5288, November 2, 1929, pp. 635-36.
[In the following review of The Testament of Beauty, Porter asserts that the poem reflects Bridges's belief that humanity and nature are “interdependent” and that they are “linked” together by beauty.]
The Testament of Beauty is, I think, the greatest English poem of our time. It is a poem not of romance but of “high argument,” Dr. Bridges' essay de rerum natura. If it seems to lack heat and variety of fancy, to be too austere for popularity, the reason lies mainly in its seriousness and philosophic import. To Schopenhauer interest as an aim in writing was fatal to beauty; and Dr. Bridges himself professes the aristocratic attitude—he writes for the few, he does not invite the applause of democracy. The poem is fittingly dedicated “To The King.”
From the beginning of the first canto we are aware of the high ground from which the poet speaks. He echoes both Milton and Dante, and sets himself in their company:—
“'Twas late in my long journey, when I had clomb to where the path was narrowing and the company few, a glow of childlike wonder enthral'd me, as if my sense had come to a new birth purified, my mind enrapt re-awakening to a fresh initiation of life; with like surprise of joy as any man may know who rambling wide hath...
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SOURCE: “The Testament of Beauty,” in The Nation, Vol. 130, No. 3371, February 12, 1930, pp. 193-96.
[In the following review of The Testament of Beauty, Walton describes the poem as Bridges's attempt to reevaluate his beliefs in beauty and human spirituality in the face of a society that has changed dramatically since his youth.]
Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate of England, was born in 1844; he has lived, therefore, through three literary periods and has seen three well-defined shifts of scene. As a young man he must have been influenced by all that concerned Alfred Tennyson in his poetical epitomizing of the Victorian Age: its religious doubt and insecure faith, its attempt at fortification against the scientific revolution, its moral primness and ugly industrialism. Later he endured the nineties, fin de siècle, a period of pessimism and sensualism whose main dogmas were Impressionism and Art for Art's Sake; and at last he came upon the contemporary scene: he saw Science conquer, and a new Psychology begin to question even the integrity of the thinking mind; he saw Industrialism in complete command of human lives, and, worst of all, he lived to watch a war blot out all evidence of spiritual progress. He has continued after that war to observe a disillusioned group of men who have never known youth or idealism. Now, in the face of all this evidence against faith and hope, he has had the courage...
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SOURCE: “Robert Bridges,” in his Poetry at Present, The Clarendon Press, 1930, pp. 18-29.
[In the following excerpt, Williams praises Bridges's lyric poetry, asserting that it succeeds in communicating both the ideals and physical existence of such abstractions as beauty and joy.]
Of the fourteen laureates from—and including—Dryden, if we take him as the first, some five (if we include Southey) have been notable poets. With the exception of Dryden himself and of Wordsworth none of them has been a greater than Mr. Robert Bridges. Tennyson is not to be considered a greater, for his verbal achievement is no finer, and his philosophic (if the two can be divided) is very definitely less. None of them has contributed a greater mass of lyric beauty to our literature.
It may very well be held that Mr. Bridges is not only a lyric poet; he has written dramas, a sonnet-sequence, a long narrative poem, and of the volume New Poems at least four are more in the nature of philosophic poems than of lyric. But as his lyric verse is more popular, so also it contains so much of intellect that attention may, in such a short tribute as this, be very well concentrated upon it.
Mr. Bridges has been said, by various good judges, to be our greatest lyric poet since Shelley. He was born twenty-two years after Shelley died. But the poetic difference between him and Shelley is...
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The Times Literary Supplement (review date 1931)
SOURCE: “Bridges's Shorter Poems,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1534, June 25, 1931, p. 505.
[In the following review of Bridges's Shorter Poems, the poet is seen as responsible for keeping alive the heritage of a rapidly changing English Countryside.]
Tasteful as is the form in which these poems are printed, another half-inch of width and height would have given us a sister-volume to The Testament of Beauty in its original and most popular dress. The type might then have been slightly larger, and there would have been more scope for thoughtful placing of the lyrics on the page. How much, in our impression of a lyric, depends on the printing, on the spacing even! The more fragile its structure the greater the risk of loss. A pretty trifle like “Gay Robin” loses step by being cut in two at the fourth line of the stanza, and without its step, what is it? Several poems immediately afterwards give their last stanza to a fresh page. These are small drawbacks, which work of classic soundness will surmount; but why should it have to surmount anything? Let us mention, while complaining, that we have noticed a misprint on page 202, a bad one, and that the second stop in the first poem is in the wrong place.
Perhaps the most striking quality of these lyrics is their versatility of mood and...
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SOURCE: “The Shorter Poems of Robert Bridges,” in New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1931, p. 5.
[In the following review of The Shorter Poems of Robert Bridges, Walton contends that while Bridges was not an innovative poet, he was in fact “a marvelous technician,” especially in regard to the short, lyric form.]
Robert Bridges was born in the Victorian age, the period given over to moral rectitude and to the polishing of English manners and English verse. One feels that he went to school to Tennyson, the master craftsman. He lived through the somewhat decadent and very rebellious '90s, but he joined none of the movements that rated Tennyson and Queen Victoria as out of date. He became neither esthete, pessimist nor catholic, for his spirit was profoundly British, and, despite his amazing facility in all the dainty French verse forms, he remained essentially English in his choice of material for poetry. The twentieth century found him still the lutanist faithful to his theme of delicate and remote beauty, the decorous pursuit of which was a poet's only objective. Finally, just before his death, he summed up his platonic idealism in the Testament of Beauty. In this long scholarly poem he was hard beset to fit into the scheme of his theory of man's continuous development toward perfection the hard reality of the World War. Only the superb technique always at his command saved him...
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SOURCE: “Robert Bridges,” in his Oxford Lectures on Poetry, Oxford University Press, 1934 (and reprinted by Books for Libraries Press, Inc., 1967), pp. 207-32.
[In the following essay, De Selincourt describes the central theme in Bridges's poetry as the beauty of nature and compares Bridges's treatment of this theme with that of other poets such as Keats, Browning, and Swinburne.]
Only a few months before his death Mr. Bridges bequeathed to us his Testament of Beauty. That great poem was, as he said, ‘the intimate echo’ of his life; it reflected his alert interest in the intellectual movement of his time, his deep knowledge and love of nature and the arts, his lyrical ecstasy, his pregnant humour, his fastidious taste—all that went to make up his lofty, distinguished personality. No revelation of the poetic mind, so complete and so illuminating, had appeared since Wordsworth's Prelude. The warmth of its reception surprised no less than delighted him, for he had never been widely popular. Though he had written a sonnet sequence, a long narrative poem, a series of masques, a sheaf of lyrics, matched by no living poet, the number of his readers had borne no relation to the value of his achievement. The Testament of Beauty won him many fresh admirers, and the reading of it sent them back to those earlier poems of his which they had neglected; they found in them the same genius...
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SOURCE: “Victorian Afterglow,” in his The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry, Macmillan Company, 1936 (and reprinted by Pageant Book Company, 1956), pp. 522-46.
[In the following excerpt, Beach observes that Bridges's poetry reflects his training as a physician as well as his conservative Victorian background.]
It is Robert Bridges who has the most to say of nature, and who, most persistently, develops the Meredithian view of the evolution of man's spiritual life out of natural instinct itself. Bridges was a trained physician; his philosophical poems are full of scientific lore; they are written with a mild, genial idiosyncrasy of thought and expression which makes them highly interesting reading. But these Poems in Classical Prosody and The Testament of Beauty (likewise in classical metres)—in which his theories are mainly developed—are poetry in form only—and that outlandish and irritating; the complacent Toryism of his sentiment given him in our day a curiously antediluvian air; and—what is more important for our purpose—he has failed to make a more than plausible synthesis of his evolutionary positivism and his religious-platonic cult of Eternal Essences.
As for his evolutionary positivism, this is displayed at length in the first and second of the Poems in Classical Prosody. The main problem here is to reconcile the goodness of...
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SOURCE: “The Old Main Line,” in his The Time of Yeats: English Poetry of To-Day Against an American Background, D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1937 (and reissued by Russell & Russell, 1969), pp. 67-120.
[In the following excerpt, Weygandt describes Bridges as a talented but nevertheless minor poet whose works can best be understood and appreciated after four or more readings.]
There has never been any general acceptance of Robert Bridges (1844-1930) by the reading public. That is a lot which has fallen to few poets. There has not been even any large acceptance of him by that smaller reading public which cares for poetry. That is a lot which has fallen to fellows of his no better poets, but of less severe and bare a style. Bridges was made laureate at the wish of the poets of England, a large number of whom felt that he was the man for the place. Those of the public who were at all interested, whether in England or America or the Colonies, were willing to agree that the poets should know, that since such men as Yeats and Newbolt, Stephen Phillips and Binyon, had said that Bridges was the proper choice, that he was the proper choice.
Certainly Bridges looked the part. Certainly he had the dignity and position and traditions that made him a worthy representative of the English poets of his time. Certainly he had been an influence, technically, on many of the younger generation...
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SOURCE: “Old Wine, New Bottles,” in his Religious Trends in English Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1962, pp. 13-36.
[In the following excerpt, Fairchild characterizes Bridges as a “noble bore” whose poetry reflects a central concern for preserving Victorian values and beliefs.]
How highly we value the conservative art of Robert Bridges depends on our readiness to admire serene, high-minded, eloquently incantatory poetry which does very little to stretch our experience in any fresh direction. Within the whole period of this volume, he is doubtless the best poet of his well-bred, inky-blooded kind. In a few poems like “A Passer-by” (“Whither, O splendid ship”), “London Snow,” “Nightingales” and “My delight and thy delight” he transcends his kind and touches the verge of greatness. On the whole, however, it seems to me that Bridges is a noble bore, and that Yvor Winters grows extravagant in asserting, “It is harder to imitate Bridges than it is to imitate Pound or Eliot, as it is harder to appreciate him, because Bridges is a finer poet and a saner man; he knows more than they, and to meet him on his own ground we must know more than to meet them.”1 But Winters' characteristic emphasis on sanity and knowledge suggests that he is thinking primarily of what he would call Bridges' “paraphrasable content”—a criterion which the poet himself, despite his...
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SOURCE: “Profundity Revisited: Bridges and His Critics,” in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 44, No. 2, Summer 1964, pp. 172-79.
[In the following essay, Beum argues against the modern opinion that Bridges's poetry is merely concerned with “flowers” and meter rather than with serious and complicated ideas.]
“The fact is that Bridges' poetry is a curious combination of consummate style, pure formal beauty, and a complete lack of profundity of thought”.1 This scarcely intelligible comment from one of the Kunitz and Haycraft dictionaries is representative of the kind of sentiment one is likely to hear whenever Bridges' name crops up. We make legends about the authors we never read, as well as about those we do. The Bridges legend is two stories. In one of them he is a late-Victorian flowers poet, one of the mob of laureates who write with ease lyrically descriptive verse, a Palgrave darling goldenly diffuse; in the other he is a leisured classicist who cares more for metres than for flowers, an unfeeling prosodist, indeed a tinkerer as mechanical as Poe but lacking even Poe's boldness and atmosphere. The two stories merge without ever cancelling each other out. Here is a writer—Tory, laureate, pastoral, austere but not sensationally austere—best left to legend and the literary dictionary and Ciardi's parodies.
It is true enough that for the modernist...
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SOURCE: “Robert Bridges and the Free Verse Rebellion,” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 2, No. 1, September 1971, pp. 19-32.
[In the following essay, Stanford suggests that while Bridges was actively interested in the free verse movement of much younger poets such as Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound, the older poet nevertheless held to the traditional belief that the subjects of poems should be weighty matters rather than “trivial” items, such as a wheelbarrow, which interested the younger poets.]
It is not generally recognized that Robert Bridges was (in his own way) involved in the free verse rebellion of the 1910s and 1920s. Although he was seventy years old in 1914 when one of the most important volumes of the new movement, Des Imagistes, appeared, he was still keenly aware of what was going on among the younger poets of his time, and like them, he had become dissatisfied with conventional rhythms based on the iambic foot. In this year he wrote “My own opinion is that, especially in the present condition of English verse, all methodical experiments are of value, and that a competent experiment is of value even though it may not please.”1 The Printer's Note to The Tapestry, published privately in 1925, carries this statement:
Mr. Bridges has generously authorized the printing of the following complete collection up to the present...
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SOURCE: “The Traditionalist Poet,” in his In the Classic Mode: The Achievement of Robert Bridges, Associated University Presses, 1978, pp. 19-79.
[In the following excerpt, Stanford examines Bridges's shorter poems, sonnets, and philosophical poems, and concludes that these works display a complexity and attention to poetic craft that is missing in the works of other poets of his era.]
Bridges's collection of Shorter Poems (1890)1 established his reputation as one of the great lyric poets in English. Of this book A. E. Housman said that no volume of English verse had ever attained such perfection and anthologists of the future would have immense difficulty in making a selection.2 In this first collection of the Shorter Poems there were a few experiments in accentual meters, and later Bridges wrote poems in classical prosody and in neo-Miltonic syllabics. These experiments and Bridges's explanations of them are important contributions to the theory and history of English prosody, and they resulted in a few beautiful poems that will be discussed in a later chapter. But the bulk of Bridges's lyric poetry is in what Bridges called common or running meter or “old style.” It may be more precisely referred to as accentual syllabic verse. The accentual syllabic line (usually with an iambic movement), in which the rhythm is measured by a predetermined number of...
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Bacon, Leonard. “The Old Lion's Voice.” The Saturday Review VI, No. 38 (April 12, 1930): 913-14.
Reviews Bridges's Testament of Beauty, calling it both beautiful in itself and original in its prosody.
Bush, Douglas. “From the Nineties to the Present. I.” In his Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry, pp. 429-56. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937. Reissued, with a new preface, 1969.
Argues that in his long poems such as Eros and Psyche, Bridges reveals his aptitude for experimentation in verse form as well as his continuing interest in beauty, joy, and love.
Freeman, John. “Robert Bridges.” In his The Moderns: Essays in Literary Criticism, pp. 319-41. London: Robert Scott, 1916.
Asserts that Bridges's most effective poetry is “simple and straightforward” in its celebration of beauty and of the English countryside.
Gorman, Herbert S. “Poets Who Recall Glowing Verse of the Nineties.” The New York Times Book Review and Magazine (August 29, 1920): 13.
Reviews October and Other Poems,focusing on the poet laureate's “dignified” treatment of World War I.
Grierson, Herbert J. C., and J. C. Smith. “The Nineties.” In their A Critical History of English...
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