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.
CHARLES WILLIAMS AND ROBERT BRIDGES
AND SOME REFLECTIONS ON POETRY
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
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”?