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APRIL, 1915

[No. 2


The choice of Robert Bridges as Poet Laureate in July, 1913, was a surprise to many. His name was totally unknown to a great army of poetry readers who were familiar enough with Kipling, Watson, Phillips, Masefield, and Noyes. Indeed, one may begin by saying that the name of Bridges is of a kind which need never hope-or in his case it is perhaps fitter to say dreadgeneral popularity. The contrast with Tennyson is obvious. The contrast with the immediate predecessor in the laureateship is, however, no less real. For Bridges certainly received the laurel dustier from the brows of one that uttered nothing either base or in any other way memorable.

The poetry of Robert Bridges falls as far below that of Tennyson in creative force, wideness of scope, and popular appeal as it rises above that of Alfred Austin in such qualities as I shall try here to make apparent. In spite of the public's ignorance it had been long known to certain discriminating critics. Georgian Poetry, a small volume of selections from such younger singers as Chesterton, Davies, Gibson, Masefield, and James Stephens, was dedicated to Bridges in 1912. Long before that his personal friend Andrew Lang had praised his work, and the present writer remembers reading the encomium and vaguely confusing its subject with "Droch," then writing for Life. Later, in a delightful article of the Contemporary Review for 1895, Lang, in his own vein of whimsical, sane, goodnatured prejudice, complained of his inability to appreciate any of the younger men with the exception of Bridges and Kipling. Bridges and Kipling - the work of these two stands in start

ling and illuminating contrast, and between them one can apportion all the more important types of contemporary English poetry.

The first difference between the work of the Laureate and the best known of his contemporaries is evidently that between the classical or scholarly tradition and the modern spirit. Mr. Kipling is scarcely further from the actual times "when 'Omer smote his bloomin' lyre" than he is from that English tradition of the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome which the history of English letters reflects in unbroken continuity since the sixteenth century. A neo-classic tradition, which it is interesting to notice in passing, has as yet taken no vital root in America. Indeed, the poetry of Bridges could be produced by no country save his own. Nor if England were the land she seems to many a cockney and Cook's tourist, and not the England of the dreams of scholar and seer, would this poetry be, properly speaking, English; yet English it is, with a quality as truly national as that of Kipling himself.

The life of Bridges is no less characteristically English than his work.' In a pleasant autobiographic poem he pictures a boyhood whose setting recalls that of Pater's Child in the House, or Charles Lamb's Mackery End. Eton and Oxford, cricket and rowing-he was a noted oarsman-classical studies, and foreign travel, and friendship with men of promise, all these contributed to a type of culture as national as it is noble. Perhaps it is not too much to say that one feels the soil to be a richer and worthier thing than the flower which it nourishes. There is a certain weakness in the creative power as well as a reticence in the personal note of the poet which islike so much contemporary poetry-in marked contrast with the larger utterance of the earlier gods of the nineteenth century. What a difference between the vulgar yet splendid self-revelation of Byron's muse- that "pageant of his bleeding heart"- and the proud elusiveness of the later singer! It is another example of how facts disprove Ruskin's theories, and the worthier life does not produce the worthier poetry.

'An account of the poet's life is to be found in "Robert Bridges," a public lecture, by T. Herbert Warren (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1913).

Bridges abandoned an earlier intention to enter the ministry and studied medicine. After an apparently successful career he retired at the age of thirty-eight. He is now seventy years old. The portrait in the front of his collected poems' shows a peculiarly attractive combination of strength and refinement of feature.

The classical quality of Bridges's poetry is significantly indicated by the three longer poems which introduce his works. Of the two works, Prometheus the Firegiver and Demeter, although the blank verse is of a sonorous Miltonic character, there are few lines which demand quotation. The full enjoyment of such works belongs to the classical scholar who can appreciate the finely wrought rendering of familiar Greek and Latin passages. The less erudite reader may well be repelled by the severity and restraint of the classical method. He may complain that “a common greyness silvers everything."

In brighter hues is the version of Eros and Psyche, the story which Marius the Epicurean read in the Golden Book of Apuleius. Here both metre and diction, as well as the transmigration of classic material into more variegated and fantastic forms, suggest Spenser. The quality of that poet's quaint but harmonious stateliness, that strange renaissance beauty of pagan pomp, in which the very names of antiquity are uttered with a loving accent, is evident in these stanzas describing Aphrodite upon the sea:—

Behind came Tritons, that their conches blew,
Green-bearded, tail'd like fish, all sleek and stark;
And hippocampi tamed, a bristly crew,

The browzers of old Proteus' weedy park,
Whose chiefer Mermen brought a shell for boat,
And balancing its hollow fan afloat,

Push'd it to shore and bade the queen embark :

And then the goddess stept upon the shell
Which took her weight; and others threw a train
Of soft silk o'er her, that unfurled to swell
In sails, at breath of flying Zephyrs twain ;

"Poetical Works of Robert Bridges, excluding the eight dramas (Oxford University Press, 1913). The dramas are included in an edition of six volumes published by Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1898-1905.

And all her way with foam in laughter strewn,
With stir of music and of conches blown,
Was Aphrodite launch'd upon the main.

The poem is divided first into four parts, named according to the seasons, then into divisions corresponding to the months, and finally into stanzas varying in number according to the days in the month. Such concern for the carving of the cup which holds his wine reveals a significant aspect of the author. He is a poet of form no less than of substance. In the poem considered this sometimes takes a whimsical turn, as when a stanza dealing with music becomes an acrostic on the name of the composer Purcell, or when another is composed entirely of the names of sea-nymphs. In this connection may be mentioned the fact that the poet's poems were first issued from the private press of a friend, and doubtless in suitable and beautiful dress. Whether this concern for beauty in externals will suggest a chilling artificiality or æsthetic harmony must depend on the temperament of the individual reader.

The sonnet sequence, The Growth of Love, some of which was published as long ago as 1876, is like Rossetti's House of Life, a series of more or less connected suggestions of personal experience. Shakespeare's sonnets are doubtless the original, only begetter of this species of literary form, and it is worth remembering that it is dubious whether a connected story or sequence was intended by him. The growth of love or any other process is hard to discover in the present poem. Nevertheless the author handles the sonnet with the same fine workmanship which marks all his productions. Here, too, the thought is deeper and more personal than in the dramatic and narrative pieces already considered. The creed of the author is a Platonism like Spenser's:

All earthly beauty hath one cause and proof
To lead the pilgrim soul to beauty above.

Perhaps the most striking sonnet for quotation is, however, one dealing with the very alien subject of the modern ocean liner:

The fabled sea-snake, old Leviathan,

Or else what grisly beast of scaly chine

That champ'd the ocean-wrack and swash'd the brine,

Before the new and milder days of man,
Had never rib nor bray nor swindging fan
Like his iron swimmer of the Clyde or Tyne,
Late-born of golden seed to breed a line
Of offspring swifter and more huge of plan.

Straight is her going, for upon the sun
When once she hath look'd, her path and place are plain;

With tireless speed she smiteth one by one

The shuddering seas and foams along the main ;

And her eased breath, when her wild race is run,
Roars thro' her nostrils like a hurricane.

It is, however, upon his shorter poems that the fame of Bridges chiefly rests. Here stands his most characteristic and enduring work. Although it is an ungracious task for that continual plodder, the critic, to be ever picking out the base authority of others' books, the poetry of Bridges is so essentially that of a reader of books as well as of nature, that one is forced to call attention to certain of its affinities. If the blank verse contains suggestions of Milton and the longer narrative and sonnets of Spenser, it is no less obvious that the models for many of the lyrics are to be found in the Elizabethan and Jacobean songwriters. The following verses, so typical of the author's finished art, deserve quotation in full:

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