Robert Seymour Bridges (1844-1930) was the Poet Laureate of England for nearly
two decades, from 1913 until his death in 1930, and yet "his writing
suffered the singular and ironic misfortune of winning broad public favor at the
expense of understanding." Unfortunately, Bridges became known for his lesser
work, and then virtually not known at all; in an attempt to correct that injustice
we are showcasing
some of his better lyric poems. Bridges was also the man most responsible for
bringing the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins to the attention of the world, after Hopkins himself.
Bridges also published the poetry of his distant relative,
Digby Dolben, another
poet well worth reading. Today Bridges may be best known for writing the English
lyrics to the hymn "Jesu, Joy
of Man's Desiring." If you've never heard Josh Groban sing the Bridges lyrics
set to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, it's well worth a quick trip to
YouTube!―Michael R. Burch, editor, The HyperTexts
When Death to Either Shall Come
When Death to either shall come,—
I pray it be first to me,—
Be happy as ever at home,
If so, as I wish, it be.
Possess thy heart, my own;
And sing to the child on thy knee,
Or read to thyself alone
The songs that I made for thee.
Beautiful must be the mountains whence ye come,
And bright in the fruitful valleys the streams, wherefrom
Ye learn your song:
Where are those starry woods? O might I wander there,
Among the flowers, which in that heavenly air
Bloom the year long!
Nay, barren are those mountains and spent the streams:
Our song is the voice of desire, that haunts our dreams,
A throe of the heart,
Whose pining visions dim, forbidden hopes profound,
No dying cadence nor long sigh can sound,
For all our art.
Alone, aloud in the raptured ear of men
We pour our dark nocturnal secret; and then,
As night is withdrawn
From these sweet-springing meads and bursting boughs of May,
Dream, while the innumerable choir of day
Welcome the dawn.
When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled—marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.
Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder,
'O look at the trees!' they cried, 'O look at the trees!'
With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul's high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.
For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.
On a Dead Child
Perfect little body, without fault or stain on thee,
With promise of strength and manhood full and fair!
Though cold and stark and bare,
The bloom and the charm of life doth awhile remain on thee.
Thy mother's treasure wert thou;—alas! no longer
To visit her heart with wondrous joy; to be
Thy father's pride:—ah, he
Must gather his faith together, and his strength make stronger.
To me, as I move thee now in the last duty,
Dost thou with a turn or gesture anon respond;
Startling my fancy fond
With a chance attitude of the head, a freak of beauty.
Thy hand clasps, as 'twas wont, my finger, and holds it:
But the grasp is the clasp of Death, heartbreaking and stiff;
Yet feels to my hand as if
'Twas still thy will, thy pleasure and trust that enfolds it.
So I lay thee there, thy sunken eyelids closing,—
Go lie thou there in thy coffin, thy last little bed!—
Propping thy wise, sad head,
Thy firm, pale hands across thy chest disposing.
So quiet! doth the change content thee?—Death, whither hath he taken thee?
To a world, do I think, that rights the disaster of this?
The vision of which I miss,
Who weep for the body, and wish but to warm thee and awaken thee?
Ah! little at best can all our hopes avail us
To lift this sorrow, or cheer us, when in the dark,
Unwilling, alone we embark,
And the things we have seen and have known and have heard of, fail us.
Poor Withered Rose and Dry
Poor withered rose and dry,
Skeleton of a rose,
Risen to testify
To love's sad close:
Treasured for love's sweet sake
That of joy past
Thou might'st again awake
Memory at last.
Yet is thy perfume sweet;
Thy petals red
Yet tell of summer heat,
And the gay bed:
Yet, yet recall the glow
Of the gazing sun,
When at thy bush we two
Joined hands in one.
But, rose, thou hast not seen,
Thou hast not wept
The change that passed between,
Whilst thou hast slept.
To me thou seemest yet
The dead dream's thrall:
While I live and forget
Dream, truth and all.
Thou art more fresh than I,
Rose, sweet and red:
Salt on my pale cheeks lie
The tears I shed.
The south-wind strengthens to a gale,
Across the moon the clouds fly fast,
The house is smitten as with a flail,
The chimney shudders to the blast.
On such a night, when air has loosed
Its guardian grasp on blood and brain,
Old terrors then of god or ghost
Creep from their caves to life again.
And reason kens he 'herits in
A haunted house. Tenants unknown
Assert their squalid lease of sin
With earlier title than his own.
Unbodied presences, the packed
Pollution and remorse of Time,
Slipped from oblivion reenact
The horrors of unhouseld crime.
Some men would quell the thing with prayer
Whose sightless footsteps pad the floor,
Whose fearful trespass mounts the stair
Or bursts the locked forbidden door.
Some have seen corpses long interred
Escape from hallowing control,
Pale charnel forms—nay ev'n have heard
The shrilling of a troubled soul,
That wanders till the dawn hath crossed
The dolorous dark, or Earth hath wound
Closer her storm-spread cloke, and thrust
The baleful phantoms underground.
Why hast thou nothing in thy face?
Thou idol of the human race,
Thou tyrant of the human heart,
The flower of lovely youth that art;
Yea, and that standest in thy youth
An image of eternal Truth,
With thy exuberant flesh so fair,
That only Pheidias might compare,
Ere from his chaste marmoreal form
Time had decayed the colours warm;
Like to his gods in thy proud dress,
Thy starry sheen of nakedness.
Surely thy body is thy mind,
For in thy face is nought to find,
Only thy soft unchristen’d smile,
That shadows neither love nor guile,
But shameless will and power immense,
In secret sensuous innocence.
O king of joy, what is thy thought?
I dream thou knowest it is nought,
And wouldst in darkness come, but thou
Makest the light where’er thou go.
Ah yet no victim of thy grace,
None who e’er long’d for thy embrace,
Hath earned to look upon thy face.
The Apollonian Moment
by Jeffrey Woodward
Robert Bridges (1844-1930) led a charmed life of leisure, material
advantage and perfect adjustment as a member of the landed gentry of Victorian
and Georgian England. Yet, during his distinguished reign as Poet Laureate, his
writing suffered the singular and ironic misfortune of winning broad public
favor at the expense of understanding. "London Snow," "Noel: Christmas
Eve, 1913" and "The storm is over, the land hushes to rest," with their
metrical finesse and graceful depiction of the British scene, were eagerly
received and instrumental in lifting Bridges from relative neglect. The
masterly hand, indeed, shows throughout these performances, yet these verses are
little more than delicate and impressionistic mood-pieces. Such poems, however,
have become the darlings of the anthologists and their frequent reprinting, to
the exclusion of all else in the Bridges’ canon, has served to obscure his true
"Eros" belongs to a group of five or six shorter poems that I
would commend as major works. "Low Barometer," "Elegy among the Tombs," "Dejection,"
"Elegy for a Lady" and "Poor Poll" are the others. These
poems are so distinctive as to compare favorably with the best poetry of
the last two centuries and to assure Bridges of an important place in the
history of English literature.
The subject of "Eros" is the Greek god of antiquity. The verses
assume the conventional manner of an apostrophe to that god or, perhaps, to his
visible likeness in the form of a statue. Bridges eschews the cherubic and
playful Cupid of Latin literature and presents, instead, that archaic and potent
incarnation celebrated, in "Hymn of Orpheus V," as an “ineffable, occult,
all shining flower” (see Thomas Taylor, trans., The Hymns of Orpheus,
London, 1792). It is not without interest to our inquiry to note that the Orphics named Eros Phanes, i.e., “revealer,” and
credited him with a luminous presence and inscrutable nature.
Paraphrase, that modest but efficient endeavor, is necessary to rend
the veil and comprehend the subtle complexity of Bridges’ argument. He remarks,
in the first verse-paragraph, that Eros is devoid of human meaning (“why hast
thou nothing in thy face”). That the “exuberant flesh” of the deity is
comparable to the “chaste” marble statuary of Pheidias, a statuary that has yet
to suffer Time’s decay, clarifies the poet’s earlier assertion that Eros is an
“idol,” his youth being “an image of eternal Truth” for which we yearn, but
not that Truth itself.
The middle verse-paragraph expands upon Bridges’ claim that Eros is a
“tyrant” that rules human emotion and impulse, his naked beauty and power
inspiring a subversion of reason (“Surely thy body is thy mind”). The quiet and
restrained movement of this passage is remarkable for its clarity and precision
in depicting Eros and for a telling stroke of genius,
For in thy face is nought to find,
Only thy soft unchristen’d smile …
where “unchristen’d” reminds the reader that the god is wholly alien to the
prevailing Christian order and that his visage, concealing as it does a
“shameless will,” is unblest. Certainly, “unchristen’d” must be judged one of
the happier choices of an adjective in our literature.
The poem draws to its close with an exemplary economy of diction. The
reader is warned, by the apostrophe that opens the final verse-paragraph, that
Eros is, indeed, the “king of joy” but that we who partake of his potent and
seductive pleasures must participate in the subversion of our reason. That Eros
would “come in darkness,” his body his mind, reiterates the earlier statement
that the god is without reason, although he is the maker of light as that “image
of eternal Truth,” that ideal of beauty beyond decay. The deity’s celebrants,
those who long to participate in his passion and who, by making an idol of him,
would honor that passion as a good superior to reason, are truly his “victims”
and powerless before his ineffable countenance. The ideal and the illumination
"Eros" shares with the other major poems cited that rare
intellectual ardor so characteristic of Bridges while, unlike much of his
poetry, being composed in a simple measure (iambic tetrameter couplets) without
learned metrical variations. Its deviations from the iambic norm are infrequent
and slight: an occasional trochee for iamb in the initial foot (a practice so
universal in English iambic measures as to approximate no substitution
whatsoever); subtle elisions such as “exu-berant,” “Phei-dias,”
“marmor-eal” and “sen-suous” (chosen, in each instance, to hasten
the rhythm just perceptibly while suggesting, perhaps, the sinuous and supple
movement of the god); and the mild convention of treating “flower” and “power”
as monosyllables. Bridges relies on careful placement of pauses, alternation of
end-stopped and enjambed verses, and close attention to the quantity of his
syllables to provide a quiet rhythmic variety. This should be remarked, for a
common prejudice today asserts that metrical variation is good or necessary
in-and-of-itself and without reference to meaning. Such works as "Eros"
stand as a profound refutation of the prevailing prosodial view and demonstrate
the virtue of a wedding of meter and sense.
Bridges’ transgressions are few: the lamentable inversions in verses
four and ten and a superfluous comma closing verse seven. These are minor flaws
in a brief but difficult poem whose theme is of universal import. Contemporary
readers may object to the archaic diction, though I find it well-suited to the
matter of the poem. Wordsworth, Shelley and Tennyson, who enjoy greater
reputations, employ the same archaisms without, it must be added, the serious
purpose and broad scope that justify Bridges. Their practice, if compared to
"Eros," strikes one as a quaint and literary indulgence.
I have lov’d flowers that fade,
Within whose magic tents
Rich hues have marriage made
With sweet unmemoried scents:
A honeymoon delight,—
A joy of love at sight,
That ages in an hour:—
My song be like a flower!
I have lov’d airs that die
Before their charm is writ
Along a liquid sky
Trembling to welcome it.
Notes, that with pulse of fire
Proclaim the spirit ’s desire,
Then die, and are nowhere:—
My song be like an air!
Die, song, die like a breath,
And wither as a bloom:
Fear not a flowery death,
Dread not an airy tomb!
Fly with delight, fly hence!
’T was thine love’s tender sense
To feast; now on thy bier
Beauty shall shed a tear.
Among the Tombs
Sad, sombre place, beneath whose antique yews
I come, unquiet sorrows to control;
Amid thy silent mossgrown graves to muse
With my neglected solitary soul;
And to poetic sadness care confide,
Trusting sweet Melancholy for my guide:
They will not ask why in thy shades I stray,
Among the tombs finding my rare delight,
Beneath the sun at indolent noonday,
Or in the windy moon-enchanted night,
Who have once reined in their steeds at any shrine,
And given them water from the well divine.—
The orchards are all ripened, and the sun
Spots the deserted gleanings with decay;
The seeds are perfected: his work is done,
And Autumn lingers but to outsmile the May;
Bidding his tinted leaves glide, bidding clear
Unto clear skies the birds applaud the year.
Lo, here I sit, and to the world I call,
The world my solemn fancy leaves behind,
Come! pass within the inviolable wall,
Come pride, come pleasure, come distracted mind;
Within the fated refuge, hither, turn,
And learn your wisdom ere 'tis late to learn.
Come with me now, and taste the fount of tears;
For many eyes have sanctified this spot,
Where grief's unbroken lineage endears
The charm untimely Folly injures not,
And slays the intruding thoughts, that overleap
The simple fence its holiness doth keep.
Read the worn names of the forgotten dead,
Their pompous legends will no smile awake;
Even the vainglorious title o'er the head
Wins its pride pardon for its sorrow's sake;
And carven Loves scorn not their dusty prize,
Though fallen so far from tender sympathies.
Here where a mother laid her only son,
Here where a lover left his bride, below
The treasured names their own are added on
To those whom they have followed long ago:
Sealing the record of the tears they shed,
That 'where their treasure there their hearts are fled.'
Grandfather, father, son, and then again
Child, grandchild, and great-grandchild laid beneath
Numbered in turn among the sons of men,
And gathered each one in his turn to death:
While he that occupies their house and name
To-day,—to-morrow too their grave shall claim.
And where are all the spirits? Ah! could we tell
The manner of our being when we die,
And see beyond the scene we know so well,
The country that so much obscured doth lie!
With brightest visions our fond hopes repair,
Or crown our melancholy with despair;
From death, still death, still would a comfort come:
Since of this world the essential joy must fall
In all distributed, in each thing some,
In nothing all, and all complete in all;
Till pleasure, ageing to her full increase,
Puts on perfection, and is throned in peace.
Yea, sweetest peace, unsought-for, undesired,
Loathed and misnamed, 'tis thee I worship here:
Though in most black habiliments attired,
Thou art sweet peace, and thee I cannot fear.
Nay, were my last hope quenched, I here would sit
And praise the annihilation of the pit.
Nor quickly disenchanted will my feet
Back to the busy town return, but yet
Linger, ere I my loving friends would greet,
Or touch their hands, or share without regret
The warmth of that kind hearth, whose sacred ties
Only shall dim with tears my dying eyes.
Wherefore to-night so full of care,
My soul, revolving hopeless strife,
Pointing at hindrance, and the bare
Painful escapes of fitful life?
Shaping the doom that may befall
By precedent of terror past:
By love dishonoured, and the call
Of friendship slighted at the last?
By treasured names, the little store
That memory out of wreck could save
Of loving hearts, that gone before
Call their old comrade to the grave?
O soul, be patient: thou shall find
A little matter mend all this;
Some strain of music to thy mind,
Some praise for skill not spent amiss.
Again shall pleasure overflow
Thy cup with sweetness, thou shalt taste
Nothing but sweetness, and shalt grow
Half sad for sweetness run to waste.
O happy life! I hear thee sing,
O rare delight of mortal stuff!
I praise my days for all they bring,
Yet are they only not enough.
The Voice of Nature
I stand on the cliff and watch the veiled sun paling
A silver field afar in the mournful sea,
The scourge of the surf, and plaintive gulls sailing
At ease on the gale that smites the shuddering lea:
Whose smile severe and chaste
June never hath stirred to vanity, nor age defaced.
In lofty thought strive, O spirit, for ever:
In courage and strength pursue thine own endeavour.
Ah! if it were only for thee, thou restless ocean
Of waves that follow and roar, the sweep of the tides;
Wer't only for thee, impetuous wind, whose motion
Precipitate all o'errides, and turns, nor abides:
For you sad birds and fair,
Or only for thee, bleak cliff, erect in the air;
Then well could I read wisdom in every feature,
O well should I understand the voice of Nature.
But far away, I think, in the Thames valley,
The silent river glides by flowery banks:
And birds sing sweetly in branches that arch an alley
Of cloistered trees, moss-grown in their ancient ranks:
Where if a light air stray,
'Tis laden with hum of bees and scent of may.
Love and peace be thine, O spirit, for ever:
Serve thy sweet desire: despise endeavour.
And if it were only for thee, entrancèd river,
That scarce dost rock the lily on her airy stem,
Or stir a wave to murmur, or a rush to quiver;
Wer't but for the woods, and summer asleep in them:
For you my bowers green,
My hedges of rose and woodbine, with walks between,
Then well could I read wisdom in every feature,
O well should I understand the voice of Nature.