May 3, 2007

The New Criterion on Robert Bridges

Like the typical New Criterion overview, the purpose of its recent piece on Bridges, I surmise, is to encourage us to read the poetry of Robert Bridges, one of the supreme poets of the English language according to Yvor Winters. Such is not an unworthy objective, of course, but the short essay on Bridges in the NC’s 2007 poetry issue, the annual affair that I much appreciate, doesn’t offer us any strong motivation for the endeavor. Eric Ormsby, the author of the piece, recommends Bridges’s poetry for little more than that Bridges wrote in meter skillfully and musically.

The NC regularly puts out this kind of essay, and I also appreciate the results quite a bit: short, breezy overviews of the writings of novelists, poets, thinkers, philosophers who deserve our attention but are often overlooked. They are an excellent way to decide whether to give one’s attention to the work of someone we might have neglected. Yvor Winters was the subject of one such NC overview in 1997 (by the formalist poet-critic David Yezzi, an essay which I plan to study more closely some time soon). The April, 2007, essay, “Robert Bridges’s New Cadence” by Eric Ormsby, is posted online and can be found at:

Ormsby sets out, first, to portray Bridges as a “happy poet,” a view that is defensible, I suppose, but will hardly do much to inspire many to read him. The word “happy” in such a context connotes, nowadays, a touch of na├»ve silliness -- even screwiness. So it’s hard to see why Ormsby begins with a characterization of Bridges that might put most readers off (though perhaps he thinks this tactic will appeal to NC readers, an issue to which I cannot speak). I would say that Bridges wasn’t a particularly happy poet, but that the way he took life in his art, generally, could certainly be said to be joyful and enriching, despite his astute recognition of the many sorrows of life and death. Ormsby points out that Bridges’s work does portray and confront life’s grave pains and troubles, but that Bridges also expressed the consolations he discovered for them.

Following a quick summary of Bridges’s moderately wealthy and successful life as a writer, Ormsby offers a slightly deeper look at the reasons we might wish to take up Bridges’s poetry. By implication, Ormsby principally urges us to read Bridges because of his “textured rhythms.” Now, it is unquestioned that Bridges could write “formalist” poetry (as we now call what was once called, plainly and obviously, “poetry”) with great craft and a deep knowledge of metrics. Ormsby reviews a few of the issues surrounding Bridges’s use of and experiments with various unusual meters, in which he wrote with considerable literary beauty. But Ormsby leaves the impression that the principal benefit to Bridges’s work is the musicality of his writing. Ormsby even implies that the pleasures and profits of Bridges’s poetry are “almost entirely aural,” as he says of just one poem but leaves the impression that the comment applies to Bridges’s whole oeuvre. It’s certainly true that Bridges’s poetry reads very well. But the recommendation is oddly skewed. For though Bridges wrote plenty of skilled verse, his greatest poems -- some of great poems of the English language according to Winters -- are exemplary because they are complete works of art, uniting emotion with intellect and aptly and compellingly using all the resources of the language. The “aural” charms of Bridges, in his best work, are fused with the intellectual refinement of his ideas into artistic wholes. Ormsby seems to not recognize this. Even the philosophical ideas of one of the few poems he discusses, “Come so Quando,” a meditation on our profound sense of eternity, comes off in Ormsby’s piece as worth reading only for its poetic musicality.

Ormsby concludes his short essay by recommending a few beautiful poems to us and mentioning that Bridges also wrote finely wrought ballads and descriptive poems. But Ormsby nowhere gives any impression that Bridges’s ideas are of much importance or value. I will not deny that it is highly gratifying to see a national journal putting out a discussion of one of our great poets, as Wintersians judge Robert Bridges, but this appeal to read him is, to say the best, rather wanting. Finally, in passing, I have no idea what “new cadence” Ormsby is talking about. It seems that he was just looking for an eye-catching title.

A small selection of Bridges’s best work (though not all his great poems, a matter which we will come to in time as we review the Winters Canon poem by poem over the next year) can be found in John Fraser’s quasi-Wintersian anthology A New Book of Verse, which is linked on the front page of this blog. If you would like to study Bridges more deeply after reading some of his poetry available online, I recommend Winters in Forms of Discovery and Donald Stanford’s superb study of the poet’s entire oeuvre, In the Classic Mode, published in 1978. You might have difficulty finding that book, but I think most university libraries will still have it. Stanford, who died a couple years back, was a professor of English at LSU and co-editor of the Southern Review, Second Series, was probably the critic who most ably and resiliently carried on and built far and firmly upon the foundation of Yvor Winters’s critical theory. He was also the poet-critic whom John Fraser worked with in fashioning A New Book of Verse. Another work of Stanford’s worth chasing down is his essay “Classicism and the Modern Poet,” in which he classifies Bridges as a true classicist, in contradistinction to Eliot, Pound, and T.E. Hulme, who critics claimed to be classicists but who were a very flimsy variety, if they were any kind at all. This valuable Wintersian essay was published in the Southern Review, 1969, volume 2.

The two poems that Eric Ormsby pays closer attention to in his NC piece, “Nightingales” and “Come se Quando,” are two poems that Stanford praised quite highly in his study. Winters himself rated “Nightingales” highly, but had little to say in print about “Come so Quando.” Winters chose neither poem for the Winters Canon, though he listed “Nightingales” among Bridges’s better poems. Without question, Winters judged Bridges to be a great poet, one of the greatest of the 20th century. Winters scattered his varied comments on Bridges’s poetry, much of it very important to his overall critical theory, across his essays and letters. His most concentrated analyses of Bridges’s achievement are found in two essays: “Traditional Mastery,” a piece published in Hound and Horn in 1932 and reprinted in The Uncollected Essays and Reviews of Yvor Winters, and in Forms of Discovery, his last book, published in 1967. Both of these are available in most major academic libraries and occasionally in community libraries.

In the 1932 essay for the Hound and Horn, of which Winters was the western editor in the early 1930s, Winters cautioned that Bridges’s experiments in new or unusual meters have often been misunderstood, which should make us cautious of accepting as fact what Eric Ormsby has to say about those experiments (Winters’s first brief overview of Bridges was occasioned by the publication of The Shorter Poems of Robert Bridges by Oxford University Press back in the 1930s):

Dr. Bridges’ meters have been so often and so fruitlessly discussed that I shall omit entirely to analyze them, though his important as a subtle and learned renovator of English meters is sufficiently great. It is my belief that he has been long enough patronized as a sugar-coated pill for those who wish to brush up on their metrics, as a minor manipulator of outworn graces, and that he should be recognized once and for all as the sole English rival of Hardy in nineteenth-century poetry, as, in all likelihood, considering his formal versatility, the range of his feeling, and the purity of his diction, a diction so free from any trace of personal idiosyncrasy, that a successful imitator of it could never be detected as an imitator but would appear only as that most unlikely of phenomena, a rival, that he should,, I say, in all likelihood, be recognized as the most valuable model of poetic style to appear since Dryden.

I don’t consider “Nightingales” to be among the great poems, but it’s a strong, sound, and valuable poem. Here it is. When we come around to Bridges’s poems in the Winters Canon, perhaps we shall come back to this one:

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.

No comments: