Were I a cloud

Patricia Beer

  • Robert Bridges: A Biography by Catherine Phillips
    Oxford, 363 pp, £25.00, August 1992, ISBN 0 19 212251 7

Ever since 1930, the year Bridges died, there has been a poet-shaped hole in English biography. Over the years we have been offered a few slight critical articles and studies and many significant references in such biographies as Ann Thwaite’s of Edmund Gosse and, of course, the two recent books on Gerard Manley Hopkins, one by Robert Martin and one by Norman White, but there has been nothing comprehensive. There is now. In Robert Bridges Catherine Phillips tells us everything we could reasonably wish to know about his life. About his poetry there is more still to be said, but one of the merits of this book is that the writer clearly points the way to anyone who may feel like such an undertaking.

One of the reasons Bridges has been neglected is probably the prevalent though quite inaccurate idea that his life was serene and sheltered; readers do not like that sort of thing. Certainly he was wealthy, happily married, fêted and honoured in both his professions, surrounded by distinguished men and women whose friendship he was able to win and keep, and Poet Laureate for 17 years. He was likewise good-looking. Almost without exception anybody who has spoken about him has stressed what a very handsome man he was at every age, and photographs bear this out. One dissenting voice was that of Virginia Woolf, who, at the time of her visit to him in 1926 and indeed at most other times, was in a warts-only mood, and did not appreciate the fine build and the splendid shock of white hair, concentrating rather on the ‘reddish ravaged face’ and the hoarse voice. But Catherine Phillips, without attempting to turn him into a man of sorrows, shows that in the course of his long life – he was born in 1844 – he in fact endured a great deal of misfortune. Frightful things happened to his relatives, of whom he was mostly very fond. His sister Harriett and her family were attacked in their home one night by a man who held an unreasonable grudge against them; her husband and her baby were battered to death and she herself was so badly injured that she died within the year. His son Edward fought in the thick of the First World War and was badly wounded. His daughter Margaret died agonisingly of tubercular meningitis. His house burnt down. His wife Monica, a woman of spirit and intelligence, was physically delicate and the constant prey of such serious illnesses that Bridges often stayed at her bedside for weeks at a time.

This unfounded widespread assumption that Bridges led a charmed life cannot be the result of simple ignorance, natural as that would have been given the dearth of biographical information. The greater knowledge now available seems to have made little impact: in his comments on Phillips’s book one reviewer actually describes the poet’s life as untroubled; given the biographer’s revelations, one dreads to contemplate what his notion of a troubled life would be. It is also odd, considering the vagaries of personal response to poets and poetry in general, that nobody has set out to prove that in fact Bridges was unremittingly wretched. One way or another the impression must stem from the work and is therefore important to any examination of it.

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