It is very possible that if Robert Bridges had not developed an appreciation for the poems of his friend Gerard Manley Hopkins (they met while at Oxford), we might not have the body of Hopkins poems we have today.
Paradoxically, Hopkins is now much more widely known than Bridges. Bridges (October 23, 1844 – April 21 1930) had money and became a physician, so he was not at all the “starving poet” of the romantic imagination. Better known in his day than ours, he is still quite worth reading for such poems as the one discussed here, one of the best “snow” poems in the English language, though it is set in an urban rather than a rural scene.
At least in this poem, Bridges seems to fall halfway between traditional English verse and more modern verse, and this is perhaps due in part to the influence of the poems of Gerard
Manley Hopkins. But Bridges uses a vocabulary much more ordinary than the often archaic and stretched meanings we find so frequently in Hopkins. Bridges is less adventurous with words, but also considerably easier to understand.
In fact, this poem is for the most part very straightforward and descriptive. It consequently requires little in explanation, but nonetheless I shall add a bit to it.
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.
It is worth noting that this poem is written in several long, extended sentences. The first segment describes how snow fell in London during the night, while all were asleep. It fell slowly, softly and continuously (“lazily and incessantly”) muffling all sounds. The snow hushed (made quiet) the “latest traffic,” that is, the last movement of vehicles during the night; and in 1890 those would have been horse-drawn vehicles, wagons, and carts. This was in the days before the automobile. It sifts down (as one would think of flour or sugar falling through a sifter in those days), covering (“veiling”) roads, roofs, and railings. One of the best phrases is the simple description of how the snow falls high and low, “Hiding difference, making unevenness even,” which is precisely what snow does. It fills in gaps and evens horizontal outlines.
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.
The snow fell all through the night, and when it had reached a depth of seven inches, the sky cleared, and at dawn the bright light reflected by the snow made everyone wake earlier than usual. People marvelled at how white everything was, and noticed how still the snow had made the city. One could not hear the customary rumbling of wheels on the streets nor the feet of passers-by, and even the sounds of human voices were fewer and seemed quieter than usual.
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!’
The poet suddenly heard schoolboys on their way to school, crying out to one another, picking up the “crystal manna” — that is, the snow — in their hands, chilling their tongues as they tasted it, chilling their hands as they made snowballs to throw at one another, or jumping into deep drifts of snow up to their knees; or they looked up from beneath the trees into the “white-mossed” — that is, the snow-covered branches, in wonder, crying, “O look at the trees!” Some suggest that in the repeated “O look at the trees” line, Bridges was influenced by these lines in The Starlight Night poem by Hopkins:
“Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!”
The metaphor “manna” for snow is a biblical reference. In the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt with Moses, manna was a miraculous white food substance that appeared every morning, and had to be gathered and eaten before the sun melted it.
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.
More people appear. Early on a few carts from the countryside creak by with difficulty, carrying lesser loads than usual to market because going through snow is more difficult. They pass along the “white deserted way,” that is, along the largely empty snow-covered street, and disperse and disappear long before the sun rises high enough to stand by the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, spreading its light and awaking more human activity.
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.
With the sun now higher in the clear sky, doors of houses and shops open, and people begin trying to clear away (“war is waged”) the snow as lines of innumerable men head off to work, making long brown paths in the whiteness. Yet even they, on seeing the world made new and different by the snow, find their thoughts taken away for a while from their ordinary worries about life and work, and they are unusually quiet. Why? Not only because of the unaccustomed beauty of the snowy morning, but also because they sense that by walking through it to work and disturbing — “spoiling” — the snow, they are breaking a beautiful spell.
In the first half of the twentieth century, a literary revolution occurred. Pound, Eliot, and their associates overpowered the previous genteel Victorian style of polite verse. To the advocates of this modernist revolution, the lyric poems of Robert Bridges seemed to represent everything corrupt in art: Bridges was traditional, a craftsman, controlled, impersonal, polished, moral, and optimistic. Although he had served as poet laureate from 1913 until 1930 and was a very influential and respected writer for the last forty years of his life, the use of modernism obliterated his fame within a few years after his death, so that he is virtually unknown by modern readers. This fall from favor is not justified, and probably Bridges will one day be restored to his rightful position as a counterweight to Eliot in the 1920’s, a worthy opponent of the new wave.
Bridges wrote only a few significant poems as a schoolboy. His serious inspiration came rather late, so that the poems collected in his first book, Poems, appear to have been written mainly in the preceding year. The 1873 collection is uneven, sometimes unsophisticated, and Bridges later tried to buy and destroy all the copies printed. He rewrote, added some poems, and deleted others entirely for his second series (1879) and his third series (1880). The Shorter Poems in four books published in 1890 grew out of the earlier volumes and established him as one of the leading poets of his time.
Poems, Third Series
The 1880 Poems, Third Series, contains the justly famous "London Snow." This poem, written in rhymed iambic pentameter, describes London under an unusually heavy snowfall. Characteristically, Bridges describes the scene with detachment and great attention to detail. He tries to be accurate and not to inject an “unreal” sentiment into the scene. He tries to avoid the “pathetic fallacy,” or the projection of imagined feelings onto nature. “When men were all asleep the snow came flying,/ In large white flakes falling on the city brown.” There is nothing supernatural in Bridges’s scene, nor is there any extravagant emotion. The snow falls until the city is buried under a seven-inch, bright white coating. The citizens of London awake early because of the unaccustomed light reflected from the whiteness. The city is strangely hushed, as business has come to a halt. Schoolboys taste the pure snow and throw snowballs. The trees are decked with snowy robes. Only a few carts struggle through the nearly deserted streets, and the sun gleams on the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Then, “sombre men, past tale of number” go forth to battle against the snow, trampling dark paths as they clear the streets and break the charm of the scene.
This moving poem in the plain style contrasts with the dark life in the city and the momentary ability of nature to create a miraculous transformation in the very heart of the urban environment. It suggests the momentary, but muted, spark of recognition of the city workers that there is some power of nature above human control. Bridges never resorts to any word or image in his text that is not plausible, easily understood, and “realistic.” Comparing his description of London to Eliot’s urban scenes, the reader easily sees a contrast between the modernist vision and the calm, controlled, delicate feelings of the more traditional work of Bridges.
Another highly praised poem in the 1880 Poems, Third Series is “On a Dead Child.” Bridges was for some years a terribly overworked young doctor in an urban hospital. He once calculated that he had less than two minutes to spend with each of his patients a day. There is no doubt that he saw much of death. Under the circumstances, it would be easy to become callous, to shut out feelings altogether. On the other hand, no topic is more likely to lead the artist into sentimentality than the death of a young child. Bridges’s poem delicately employs understatement. The speaker is probably a physician whose very young patient has just died. The poem is written in seven stanzas each of four lines rhyming abba. The length of the lines varies, probably following in a muted way the practice of sprung rhythm that Hopkins and Bridges developed in some of their lyrics. In the first three stanzas, the speaker notes how beautiful the dead child is and how the hopes of its parents have been disappointed. Then, as the speaker performs his last services to the corpse, it seems that the infant hand clasps and holds his fingers momentarily. He thinks then about the universality of death hanging over all people; “Little at best can all our hopes avail us/ To life this sorrow, or cheer us, when in the dark,/ Unwilling, alone we embark.” Bridges typically recognizes the hardness of the human lot, born to pain and death. He states plainly and directly humanity’s condition, then faces it without whining or screaming, but with optimistic courage. In the death of a child, he sees the death of all humankind. There is no use pretending that death is not fearful; still, the best course for humans is to face fate with whatever assistance reason can offer.
The poem that best exemplifies Bridges’s mind and art is “Low Barometer.” Written in seven stanzas, each of four lines rhyming abab, the poem imitates the long measure of the hymnal or the four-stress ballad line. Romantic poets frequently wrote poems about storms; typically they would imagine themselves standing on a mountain peak in the middle of lightning and rain, calling for their spirits to match the wild frenzy of nature. Bridges’s poem attacks such Romantic evocations. He does not want emotional storms; he prefers reason, control, and understatement. A low reading on the barometer signals a coming storm, and the first stanza describes such an impending gale. On such a night, when the storm beats against the house, supernatural fears arise in people, terrors of “god or ghost.” When a man imagines weird presences, his “Reason kens he herits in/ A haunted house.” Reason becomes aware of the feeling of guilt and fear normally suppressed in everyday life. This “Pollution and remorse of time” awakened by the storm is aroused in the depths of the mind, like some monster that, with “sightless footsteps,” mounts the stair and bursts open the door. Some people try to control such horrible feelings by religion, but the monstrous images roam the earth until nature itself at dawn withdraws the storm and thrusts “the baleful phantoms underground” once more. Nature restores calm and order in the end.
The Growth of Love
Many poets celebrate raw emotion: love, fear, or anger at its highest pitch. Bridges did not value emotion for its own sake. He felt that feeling should be restrained by reason, although reason itself knows that it is not sufficient to meet humanity’s ultimate crises, such as death. Wise people seek control and balance; only the ignorant give themselves over to uncontrolled emotion. Bridges wrote a sonnet sequence, The Growth of Love, first published in 1876 in twenty-four sonnets but extensively revised in later versions. This work is modeled on the sonnet sequence of William Shakespeare, although the individual poems are written more in the style of John Milton. The traditional erotic sonnet sequence takes the form of the utterances of a lover; some of the poems in the sequence are addressed to the beloved lady praising her beauty, some are poems of seduction, and some are laments...
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