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.

Before the Sixties took hold, young students were likely to come across ‘London Snow’ and ‘Whither O splendid ship’ in anthologies: poems which call for nothing in the way of anguish. To expect anything more painfully personal from ‘Whither O splendid ship’ than the lazy ghost of a sad hint (‘Thy port assured in a happier land than mine’) would be as unreasonable as to look for it in Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’. But those who in later life pursued and widened their reading of Bridges would soon have met poems that did call for anguish and were not granted it. One example is ‘On a Dead Child’, which is a mosaic of cliché and platitude that cheats the reader and demeans the poor baby. Another example is the poem which begins:

I never shall love the snow again
     Since Maurice died.

In both cases the reader would be justified in assuming that Bridges had no more than cerebral experience of what he was describing, but in fact these things really happened to and were deeply felt by him. As a doctor and a family man he had seen and tended to many mortally sick children, and had never seemed insensitive to the pain of the situation, but as a poet though he stated his feelings he could not convey them. It was as a sincerely affectionate brother-in-law that he mourned the ill-fated young Maurice, yet one reads the poem with little or no distress. It is excusable that his conversational remarks to Mrs Humphry Ward about the bereavement should be banal: ‘Maurice’s death was a terrible misfortune. I never met a nicer fellow. Great natural gifts of all kinds and a most gentle nature,’ but one might ask more from a poem on the subject. As it is he still seems to be addressing Mrs Humphry Ward. (He often sounds as though he is.) He concludes:

The best of us truly were not brave
When we laid Maurice down in the grave
    Under the snow.

I do not feel quite the same about the snow myself when reading these verses.

Those who knew Bridges personally did not support the unruffled fat-cat image which he was to acquire. Their comments can be illuminating. E.M. Forster, though he could speak larkily about him and indeed once described him as naughty (not the adjective which would leap instantly to mind), never forgot that when the Great War ended Bridges ‘was the first person with any reputation to risk who said we’d better not be vindictive.’ More startling is Sir Hugh Allen’s tribute: ‘I like him best when he’s violent but then he usually is,’ In a way he undermines this praise by revealing that what Bridges was being violent about was the use of Gregorian chants for the English Psalter, the grounds of his wrath being ‘that it was using tunes made for a language with the accent usually on the penultimate syllable for a language with quite different accentuation.’ At the same time, however, he is directing our attention to the poet’s lifelong and passionate involvement with the theories and practice of prosody, which turned out to be his real contribution to literature.

The great strength of Phillips’s biography is the importance which she gives to this theme. Her account of her subject’s early career is less than riveting: from various sources we already know too much about life at Eton and Oxford in the middle of the 19th century; and at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, too, though of course there is always room for one more horrifying medical detail, and this she supplies. She seems to have an unnecessary fixation, too, on what people ate for breakfast at all these institutions. But when Bridges enters the world of writers, though inevitably we are told many things we already know (for example, about the association between him and Hopkins which has been so thoroughly gone over recently), in general the interest mounts and is maintained. There are very many good moments. It is intriguing to see Bridges running his doctor’s eye over Yeats and concluding him to be overworked, under-nourished and badly in need of a Lady Gregory, and looking back on Keats’s fatal illness with expressions of expert surprise not that he died so young but that he lived as long as he did, having clearly wrestled with ‘a phthisical laryngeal affliction for nearly two years before he first spat up blood’. There are also many sustained passages which give a persuasive picture of literary life in England during the relevant decades, and particularly of the years of the Fin de Siècle (Chapter 11) not long before the outbreak of modern poetry and not much longer before the outbreak of modern war. The atmosphere is almost cosy but somehow charged with impending shock. Ezra Pound had not yet arrived but he was on the way, and Laurence Binyon, quietly running the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, was unknowingly preparing himself to write ‘For the Fallen’. Catherine Phillips expresses herself in her usual seemly style throughout, but somehow one cannot help fantasising about what a godsend this material would be to the ‘Bonjour, Baudelaire’ school of scriptwriters; and indeed the conversation between Bridges and Newbolt on the subject of ‘Drake’s Drum’ gets dangerously near it.

Robert Bridges is subtitled ‘a biography’ not ‘a literary biography’. We do not expect and we do not get any searching appraisal of his poetry. What it would have to be in any case is a reappraisal, if that could be done, for posterity has uttered, and though it has not necessarily had the last word, it has brought Bridges and his professional reputation very low. In a way he has been just plain unlucky, for 20th-century readers of his work have lived through at least one epoch in which poets, past and present, were required to scream and wring their hands if they were not to be dismissed as academic and cold. In my schooldays, certainly, a rowdily miserable poem like Shelley’s ‘Stanzas written in dejection near Naples’ was the favourite of anybody who had any views at all. There have been other similar epochs in this century and Bridges had no place in them either, and this is ironical as I feel sure that in several of his own poems he thought he was screaming and wringing his hands but, as can happen in bad dreams, no sound or movement came through to the waking world. But there is obviously more to it than that, for at other times poets, instead of wringing their hands, sat on them, and Bridges fared no better then.

It must be admitted that Bridges as a poet had grave faults which no power on earth could now reappraise. Most important, he was handicapped by a lethal inability to notice what he had just said; for example:

Were I a cloud I’d gather
My skirts up in the air.

Well, really, Dr Bridges. It would not help to explain that he was speaking in the person of the ocean or that in the fashion of the times he might use the word ‘skirts’ for men’s coat-tails. From any point of view, these are two truly terrible lines. Sometimes, when he was pursuing a reasonably sensible theory, his judgment similarly failed him. He was convinced that there were far too many ‘s’s in the language and so persisted in using ‘th’ instead whenever possible. Speaking of the North Wind he writes ‘Gold and snow he mixeth in spite’, without apparently realising that the archaism merely makes the line difficult to say. It presents, in fact, the same trap as does ‘The Leith police dismissed us’ which was once allegedly used to discover whether people were drunk or not.

Though currently neglected, in his lifetime Bridges had far more than his fifteen minutes. For decades he was in everybody’s top three and frequently top, as in the case of the Laureateship. The good opinions of his fellow poets were no doubt the ones which meant most to him. In the Nineties, Yeats deferred to him, in a very flattering way, on the question of rhythm, feeling that without the sound principles on which Bridges was an authority it was ‘difficult to distinguish between licence and freedom’, and twenty years later he was still speaking of Bridges as ‘the head of my craft in England’. Ezra Pound, not long after he hit the English literary scene, declared that the command Bridges displayed ‘of the sheer mechanics of quantitative verse can be looked on with nothing but envy’; adding: ‘I have a grave respect for any man who is restless and persistent in the study and honour of his craft.’ Though later he descended from this grave respect into making some very nasty remarks about the Laureate and, characteristically, referring to him as Britches, his admiration had firm and perhaps enduring roots. Pound had, very early in life, waged war on traditional iambic meter and so, in a calmer and less consistent way, had Bridges.

The tributes I have quoted were undoubtedly worth having but they were noticeably loaded. Neither Yeats nor Pound was praising anything about Bridges except his expertise and dedication in matters of prosody. Catherine Phillips has the same kind of predisposition and she turns it to very good account. Her theme builds up. In the examples she gives of his early work we are left to see for ourselves that his youthful departures from iambic meter were little more than a roughing-up of the traditional line, with not much principle behind it; and we already know from studies of Hopkins that as far back as ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, Bridges could imitate sprung rhythm even to the point of parody. As her story develops, however, she documents and illustrates, more and more scrupulously, the process by which Bridges acquired the innovatory techniques of his maturity. We see him studying foreign models, both Classical and modern European, discussing them among fellow poets and, with a mixture of humility and excitement, trying to learn from them. Some readers might wish for more help in the way of value judgment, on the simple grounds that nor every poetic experiment can result in a good poem. For example, the poems that Bridges wrote in syllabic verse suggest that he thought it was just a question of counting syllables (which of course is very far from being the case) and anyway he sometimes got even that wrong. Other readers, especially those educated during or after the Sixties, might need further explanation of, say, quantitative verse. Personally I should have welcomed much more about Elizabeth Daryush, née Bridges, the poet’s elder daughter. Her poetry is not unknown; on the contrary Roy Fuller devoted an entire Oxford Lecture to it. But in this connection – she and her father worked together on metre – more could have been said perhaps. For one thing her syllabic verse is much better than his.

All his devotion to the science of versification did not necessarily help his own poetry. Sometimes his breakaway experiments made him sound like William McGonagall, and his most studiously beautiful rhythms, as in ‘How thickly the far fields of heaven are strewn with stars!’ seem indolent compared with such a line as Hopkins’s ‘Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!’, an energetic imperative which makes us raise our heads even in daylight. In his lifetime Bridges had a highly enviable number of readers but, when it came to matters of prosody, not enough disciples. In 1917 T.S. Eliot, reflecting on the new vers libre, hoped there might be no conflict between the two traditions. ‘In an ideal state of society one might imagine the good New growing naturally from the good Old, without the need for polemic and theory.’ This did not happen then and I feel it has not happened yet. The technical experiments of Bridges at his best might well have forwarded the reconciliation and organic development that Eliot had in mind, but somehow the moment went by. Critics have often speculated about what would have happened in English poetry if Wilfred Owen and the other great poets of the First World War had not been killed. They might well wonder what would have happened if more attention had been paid to Robert Bridges.