Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Was Robert Bridges a modernist?

Was Robert Bridges a modernist?

Naw.  No comment box agitation here!  Was T.S. Eliot a modernist?  Oh, sure!  Modern all the way!

But as Christopher Ricks notes, much in a Dantesque (a word dating, by the way, from the 19th century) passage of Little Gidding II owes its verse movement, its (dare we call it) mastery, to the old master, Bridges - in particular to a poem of 1880 which comes to mind just now as a snowstorm rages here in the cityscape...

London Snow

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.

Ooh, nasty-quiet!  Yet Eliot, Ricks notes, "may have found the example something to hearken to. Eliot's first five lines end with 'morning,' 'night,' 'unending,' 'tongue,' 'homing;' Bridges's with 'flying,' 'brown,' 'lying,' town,' 'failing.' True, what came flying in Little Gidding was not the snow but enemy aircraft. Little Gidding: 'First Complete Draft 7 July 1941.' This was the year in which Eliot became Bridges's publisher, when Faber and Faber issued Selected Poems by Robert Bridges, within their series Sesame Books. 'London Snow' is there."

And when Bridges died, Eliot wrote: "It is certain that his experimentation has served a valuable purpose.  It has helped to accustom readers of verse to a more liberal conception of verse technique, and to the notion that the development of technique is a serious and unceasing subject of study among verse writers; it has helped to protect other verse writers of less prestige, against the charge of being just 'rebels' or 'freaks'..."

Even if you are weary of it at last, the past is a bridge to the future.


Henry Gould said...

Don, ever read "Victorian & Modern Poetics", by Carol T. Christ?

Don Share said...

I haven't read it, but as it happens I know about it from your own blog, Henry! Folks can read what HG says here:

Henry Gould said...

Thanks - I'd plum forgot about that. She focuses on the continuity you describe.

That Bridges poem really scans!

puthwuth said...

'Always it is by Bridges that we live' (Philip Larkin).