BOOK REVIEW / You are old, Doctor Bridges: 'Robert Bridges' - Catherine Phillips: OUP, 25 pounds

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The Independent Culture
NO WRITER'S reputation can ever have plunged more steeply than that of the poet Robert Bridges, whose decline has been mirrored and mocked by the rise of his friend and contemporary Gerard Hopkins. Bridges would hardly have believed it. It was he who first prepared Hopkins' poems for publication, but not until the author had been dead for 30 years, and even then in the certainty that they would be ridiculed. His support was qualified, not only by his distaste for the flavour of Hopkins' religion (of 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' he wished 'that those nuns had stayed at home'), but by a fellow-craftsman's queasiness at the strains and extravagances we have come to admire. He seems never to have mentioned his dead protege without apologies for the 'very difficult and unpopular' nature of the work; and couldn't have guessed that a future generation would prize that very quality. Today the Jesuit's contortions are on the national curriculum, while smooth, lucid, Anglican Bridges - whose Testament of Beauty sold more than 65,000 copies - goes, with a vengeance, unread.

Bridges didn't want his biography to be written, and destroyed documents to obstruct it; but the surprise, in 1992, is that anyone should want to write one. It's not only that Bridges' artistic programme - to combine 'the Greek attainment (technical excellence) with the Christian ideal' - seems so fusty and alien; also that the life was an untroubled marriage of privilege (Eton, etc) and virtue (he is said, not excitingly, to have personified 'wisdom and temperance'). The last word of the book is 'religious', but, unlike Hopkins, Bridges' faith had no place for human suffering, and certainly involved him in none of his own.

Still, Catherine Phillips, herself first a Hopkins scholar, has laid out her unpromising materials with impeccable scholarship and the sort of good manners that Bridges would have approved. The highlight, as you would expect, is her subject's only significant intercourse with the world at large, his spell as a physician in St Barts casualty ward, which gives a vivid picture of the hospital before antiseptic practices became the norm. Bridges describes one surgeon of the old school in prose that is typically fluent and fascinated:

51So short-sighted was he (no doubt he saw more accurately for that) that he seemed to be working as much with his face as with his hands - like a dog at a rabbit hole - all that he did seemed to be a confused groping - and when he had done there was no more attempt at

cleanliness than what seemed a casual mopping up with odds and ends of sponges, before the walls were stitched together.

Alas for his biographer, the exhausted Bridges - for whom to see 150 patients in two hours at Barts was 'not unusual' - gave up his career in 1882, before he was 40, and thereafter his life was spent in the libraries of his various homes near Oxford, devoted, not exactly to poetry, more to the science of versification. All Phillips can do is to render this latter vocation straight, though even the specialist reader will find heavy going in the realm of enclitics and scazons ('Milton's extra syllables are always elidable into disyllabic units; anyone writing accentual trisyllabic feet, he said, would use unelidable monosyllables as well').

Given Bridges' careful protection (as in the poems) of his private life, and the absence of significant event, the charm of the poet's personality becomes the theme of the second half of the book. This can hardly be said to have come under much strain, expressing itself as it did in thank-you notes for presents of clavichords ('The gift is one that above anything else I should like to have, but if I had had to choose I should never have thought of'). None the less, Phillips' account manages to convey why almost all who met him - even Ezra Pound - were favourably impressed.

But he was 'class-bound', and he was old (for a long time), and his friends had eventually to defend him against snipers and iconoclasts (E M Forster, for instance, to Stephen Spender: 'Events moved too quickly for him, yes: now they move far quicker, and if in 20 years there is such a thing as an old man, he'll be infinitely more on the shelf').

The kiss of death was to have been made Poet Laureate in 1912, a Grand Old Man when there were a lot of them about. (Bridges was himself exasperated at the composition of Edward Gosse's geriatric 'Academic Committee of English Letters': 'I should be content if we could get two or three young men amongst us . . .') The poems he tried to write at the outbreak of the war were hostages to his detractors, coining the sort of slogan - 'To Beauty through Blood' - that the beautiful bleeders came to resent.

The First World War can now be seen to have killed off Bridges' kind of poetry, and indeed he seemed unable to function as a writer while it continued - 'as if', as a contemporary put it, 'his words had hibernated during the war'. But Bridges was lucky, at least in life, and the words came back. His last four years - his mid-eighties, no less - were spent on his most ambitious single work, though The Testament of Beauty (1929) has shed most of the interest it might once have had. Even more remarkable, perhaps, is the spurt of 1921, which produced a dozen or so pieces - 'Melancholy', 'Poor Poll', 'Kate's Mother', 'Lou Barometer' (a tremendous war poem in disguise), the weird but delightful sonnet 'To Francis Jammes', the glorious opening of 'Come Se Quando' and others, each surprising and rewarding in a different way - with claims to be among the best unknown poems of the century.

What they suggest is that Bridges, for all his archaisms, for all his age, and above these his constant lack of worthwhile subject matter, had mastered supple new metres that really might have influenced the course of English verse - had it not by then already changed so violently in another direction. Now it's unlikely that poetry will ever take him seriously again.

(Photograph omitted)