Charles Williams and Robert Bridges and Some Reflections on Poetry: Guest Post by Jared Lobdell

Here is the first half of a two-part guest post by Jared Lobdell. Jared is the editor of Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams (McFarland, 2003); the Chairman of Papers & Panels for MythCon 1987; author/editor of three books on Tolkien, two on Lewis (one forthcoming 2015: Eight Children in Narnia, Open Court), and a forthcoming chapbook/article on Nevill Coghill. Here he talks about the poetry of Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate of Britain from 1913-1930. Bridges was a friend  of Gerard Manley Hopkins and was responsible for the publication of Hopkins’ verse after GMH’s death. Williams and Bridges worked together, which Lobdell discusses in this post.

Robert Bridges

Robert Bridges


by Jared Lobdell

Some years ago I purchased ten (mostly slim) volumes of the Collected Essays, Papers, &c., of Robert Bridges for $5.00 (total) from the discard shelf at the University of Wisconsin Library – or perhaps (less probably) the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (but I’m almost sure it was the S.H.S.W.). They were published (in fascicles) by the Oxford University Press more or less at the time of the Laureate’s death (actually up to 1935), in his special “reformed” spelling (courtesy of the Society for Pure English), and proofed by Charles Walter Stansby Williams.

The Laureate was a pretty fair essayist, and following his idiosyncratic spelling and printing style would (from my experience in proofing) have concentrated CW’s attention to a degree that may help explain the relative readability of Williams’s detective fiction reviews written in those years. John Rateliff observed to me just the other day (by email) that they are among CW’s most readable prose writings, and they were written when he was proofing Bridges.

Of course, Williams was by way of collaborating with the Laureate on one book, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited with notes by Robert Bridges, with an appendix of Additional Poems and a critical Introduction by Charles Williams (London: Oxford University Press, Humphrey Milford, 1930). And this was at the Laureate’s suggestion. He was, perhaps, the first to appreciate Williams as a scholar. Curiously, CW’s appreciation of Bridges (if we are to judge by the quality of the poetry in the Laureate’s manner that CW contributed to Poetry at Present) was markedly inferior to his appreciation of Chesterton or Kipling. (Williams wrote a poem in each poet’s manner to round off his essay on that poet in Poetry at Present: most are not especially good, and he came – and has come – in for a good deal of sniping for his presumption – but have not poets often imitated their favorites – or tried to? In fact, my recent essay on Nevill Coghill includes a poem – though written years ago – somewhat in Coghill’s manner).

One thing Bridges did provide to Williams: the figure of the poet, remote and even hieratic. Lewis found his parallel in Yeats, but then, Lewis was Irish. On the other hand, so was Coghill, and he was one of those who gathered around the soon-to-be Laureate, the new Laureate, the one I remember from my youth, not with The Testament of Beauty, but

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days
With a cargo of Tyne coal
Road-rails, pig-lead
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

And on the other hand, there is The Testament of Beauty. Though all the words of his poems may be utterly forgotten by men that come after, yet Bridges, on his hill above Oxford, was a great figure, and it is possible – for all the 18th century diction mixed with the Society for Pure English – that he was a great poet. Listen:

Then fell I in strange delusion, illusion strange to tell;
for as a man who lyeth fast asleep in his bed
may dream he waketh, and that he walketh upright
pursuing some endeavour in full conscience-so ’twas
with me; but contrawise; for being in truth awake
methought I slept and dreamt; and in thatt dream methought
I was telling a dream; nor telling was I as one
who, truly awaked from a true sleep, thinketh to tell
his dream to a friend, but for his scant remembrances
findeth no token of speech – it was not so with me;
for my tale was my dream and my dream the telling,
and I remember wondring the while I told it
how I told it so tellingly. And yet now ‘t would seem
that Reason inveighed me with her old orderings;
as once when she took thought to adjust theology,
peopling the inane that vex’d her between God and man
with a hierarchy of angels; like those asteroids
wherewith she later fill’d the gap ‘twixt Jove and Mars.
Verily by Beauty it is that we come as WISDOM,
yet not by Reason at Beauty;

The hierarchy of angels between God and Man that theology adjusts like the asteroids between Jupiter (but in the poem, Jove) and Mars, gods and planets, shows us not CW’s poetic diction, I think, so much as a kind of thought not far from Williams’s (and Lewis’s in the so-called Space Trilogy (?Ransom tetralogy?). And being awake and thinking one is in a dream, and in that dream thinking one is telling a dream, but “the tale was my dream and the dream the telling” and he wonders “while I told it how I told it so tellingly.” This is something between Metaphysical punning (with archaic as well as S.P.E. spelling or diction), on the one hand, and the wordplay of James Joyce, almost, on the other.

Masefield is recorded as having settled on Boar Hill outside (but not far from) Oxford – as, indeed is Robert Bridges (both on that grand compendium Wikipedia). Williams visited Bridges when he was working with him on Hopkins (and at the beginning of his work on the Essays). Coghill and others of the Cave (and the Inklings) visited Masefield.

But back to the Collected Essays, Papers, &c. I’m looking at fascicles II and III (bound together is a slim deckle-edged volume in boards (1930, originally 1928). Fascicle (or Essay) II is “Humdrum & Harum-Scarum: A Lecture on Free Verse” (originally 1922) and Fascicle (or Essay) III is “Poetic Diction” (originally 1923). They are printed in a type designed and cut by Stanley Morison in the phonetic alphabet invented by “Mr. Robert Bridges” (though a physician out of St. Bart’s he, like Conan Doyle, was not a Doctor though he may have been a “Doctor”).

The “Harum-Scarum” essay takes on the problem of “free verse” and comes at it from the work of the French critic Dujardin (Les Premiers Poètes du Vers Libre), distinguishing not between poetry and prose but between verse and prose, and concluding that “diction in free verse will needs be far more exacting than the diction of metrical verse” (p. 54).

In his piece on “Poetic Diction” the Laureate borrows the term “Properties” from the Stage, and the term “Keeping” from Printing. “Keeping” he explains as the harmonizing of the artistic medium and “Diction” as the chief means in the harmonizing of Properties – so that “any restriction or limitation of the Diction must tend to limit the Properties” (p. 65).

This is only a very preliminary suggestion – but I think we can find here an opening for a fruitful approach to CW’s use of Properties and his Diction in the Arthurian poems. Anyone up for an essay on “Keeping Arthur”? Or would it be “Keeping Taliessin”?

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a PhD student in English and Presidential Scholar at Baylor University. She also serves as Chair of the Language and Literature Department at Signum University, online. Her latest publication is an academic essay collection on "The Inklings and King Arthur" (Apocryphile Press, December 2017). Her interests include British Modernism, the Inklings, Arthuriana, theatre, and magic. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina blogs about British poet Charles Williams at The Oddest Inkling, wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’s "Taliessin through Logres" (Apocryphile, 2016), and edited Williams’s "The Chapel of the Thorn" (Apocryphile, 2014). As a creative writer, Sørina has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" (2007) and "Caduceus" (2012).
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6 Responses to Charles Williams and Robert Bridges and Some Reflections on Poetry: Guest Post by Jared Lobdell

  1. Stephen Barber says:

    I remember the secondhand bookstalls of my youth being cluttered with copies of The testament of Beauty. The only person I ever heard of who had read it was W. H. Auden. It was amazing that Oxford Standard Authors included Bridges’ works in their august series even during his own lifetime. The best of his work is his hymn translations, which he said should be credited to Yattendon Hymnal rather than to his own name.


    • Joe R. Christopher says:

      Mortal Prudence, handmaid of divine Providence,
      hath inscrutable reckonings with Fate and Fortune:
      We sail a changeful sea through halcyon days and storm,
      and when the ship laboureth, our stedfast purpose
      trembles like as the compass in a binnacle.
      Our stability is but balance, and wisdom lies
      in masterful administration of the unforeseen.
      –first verse paragraph of _The Testament of Beauty_
      It’s a didactic poem, like Pope’s _Essay on Man_ and other classical models, but it was completely out of step with the Modernism of its day. Who knows what the future will think of it? The one thing I can say is that it’s not for fast reading.


      • Stephen Barber says:

        Actually some of the principal modernists went on to write didactic poems themselves: Eliot’s Four Quartets, Auden’s New Year Letter, Stevens’ Notes towards a supreme fiction. What strikes me about the passage from Bridges is its diction and the number of unstressed syllables. Compare it with the opening of Burnt Norton.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          What a poor prosodic analyst I am… Any element of Old and Middle English verse in this phenomenon, as we find consciously in some of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s verse (and what of the late C.W.)?


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you! Someone I have too much neglected, whether in attending to his and Williams’s relations with each other, or in his own right – except for singing “All my hope on God is founded” often during services.

    Anyone wishing to follow you in more detail and in context (which I have not yet attempted), can go here:

    They seem to have scans of all of the Collected Essays, Papers, &c. except (for whatever reason) volume 5. (They also have a scan of copy 121 of a Daniel Press edition of Hymns from the Yattendon Hymnal limited to 150 copies!)


  3. Pingback: Almost a Great Poet: CW Edits Gerard Manley’s Hopkins | The Oddest Inkling

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