from The Testament of Love

By Robert Bridges 1844–1930 Robert Bridges
from Book I, Introduction

Man’s Reason is in such deep insolvency to sense,
that tho’ she guide his highest flight heav’nward, and teach him
dignity morals manners and human comfort,
she can delicatly and dangerously bedizen
the rioting joys that fringe the sad pathways of Hell.
Not without alliance of the animal senses
hath she any miracle: Lov’st thou in the blithe hour
of April dawns—nay marvelest thou not—to hear
the ravishing music that the small birdës make
in garden or woodland, rapturously heralding
the break of day; when the first lark on high hath warn’d
the vigilant robin already of the sun’s approach,
and he on slender pipe calleth the nesting tribes
to awake and fill and thrill their myriad-warbling throats
praising life’s God, untill the blisful revel grow
in wild profusion unfeign’d to such a hymn as man
hath never in temple or grove pour’d to the Lord of heav’n?
      Hast thou then thought that all this ravishing music,
that stirreth so thy heart, making thee dream of things
illimitable unsearchable and of heavenly import,
is but a light disturbance of the atoms of air,
whose jostling ripples, gather’d within the ear, are tuned
to resonant scale, and thence by the enthron’d mind received
on the spiral stairway of her audience chamber
as heralds of high spiritual significance?
and that without thine ear, sound would hav no report.
Nature hav no music; nor would ther be for thee
any better melody in the April woods at dawn
than what an old stone-deaf labourer, lying awake
o’night in his comfortless attic, might perchance
be aware of, when the rats run amok in his thatch?
      Now since the thoughtless birds not only act and enjoy
this music, but to their offspring teach it with care,
handing on those small folk-songs from father to son
in such faithful tradition that they are familiar
unchanging to the changeful generations of men—
and year by year, listening to himself the nightingale
as amorous of his art as of his brooding mate
practiseth every phrase of his espousal lay,
and still provoketh envy of the lesser songsters
with the same notes that woke poetic eloquence
alike in Sophocles and the sick heart of Keats—
see then how deeply seated is the urgence whereto
Bach and Mozart obey’d, or those other minstrels
who pioneer’d for us on the marches of heav’n
and paid no heed to wars that swept the world around,
nor in their homes wer more troubled by cannon-roar
than late the small birds wer, that nested and carol’d
upon the devastated battlefields of France.
      Birds are of all animals the nearest to men
for that they take delight in both music and dance,
and gracefully schooling leisure to enliven life
wer the earlier artists: moreover in their airy flight
(which in its swiftness symboleth man’s soaring thought)
they hav no rival but man, and easily surpass
in their free voyaging his most desperate daring,
altho’ he hath fed and sped his ocean-ships with fire;
and now, disturbing me as I write, I hear on high
his roaring airplanes, and idly raising my head
see them there; like a migratory flock of birds
that rustle southward from the cold fall of the year
in order’d phalanx—so the thin-rankt squadrons ply,
til sound and sight failing me they are lost in the clouds.

       .....

Time eateth away at many an old delusion,
yet with civilization delusions make head;
the thicket of the people wil take furtiv fire
from irresponsible catchwords of live ideas,
      sudden as a gorse-bush from the smouldering end
of any loiterer’s match-splint, which, unless trodden out
afore it spredd, or quell’d with wieldy threshing-rods
wil burn ten years of planting with all last year’s ricks
and blacken a countryside. ’Tis like enough that men
ignorant of fire and poison should be precondemn’d
to sudden deaths and burnings, but ’tis mightily
to the reproach of Reason that she cannot save
nor guide the herd; that minds who else wer fit to rule
must win to power by flattery and pretence, and so
by spiritual dishonesty in their flurried reign
confirm the disrepute of all authority—
but only in sackcloth can the Muse speak of such things.

       from Book II. Selfhood

The Spartan General Brasidas, the strenuous man,
who earn’d historic favour from his conquer’d foe,
once caught a mouse foraging in his messbasket
among the figs, but when it bit him let it go,
praising its show of fight in words that Plutarch judged
worth treasuring; and since I redd the story at school
unto this hour I hav never thought of Brasidas
and cannot hear his name, but that I straightway see
a table and an arm’d man smiling with hand outstretch’d
above a little mouse that is scampering away.
      Why should this thing so hold me? and why do I welcome now
the tiny beast, that hath come running up to me
as if here in my cantos he had spied a crevice,
and counting on my friendship would make it his home?
      ’Tis such a pictur as must by mere beauty of fitness
convince natural feeling with added comfort.
The soldier seeth the instinct of Selfhood in the mouse
to be the same impulse that maketh virtue in him.
For Brasidas held that courage ennobleth man,
and from unworth redeemeth, and that folk who shrink
from ventur of battle in self-defence are thereby doom’d
to slavery and extinction: and so this mouse, albeit
its little teeth had done him a petty hurt, deserved
liberty for its courage, and found grace in man.

       .....

What is Beauty? saith my sufferings then.—I answer
the lover and poet in my loose alexandrines:
Beauty is the highest of all these occult influences,
the quality of appearances that thru’ the sense
wakeneth spiritual emotion in the mind of man:
And Art, as it createth new forms of beauty,
awakeneth new ideas that advance the spirit
in the life of Reason to the wisdom of God.
But highest Art must be as rare as nativ faculty is
and her surprise of magic winneth favor of men
more than her inspiration: most are led away
by fairseeming pretences, which being wrought for gain
pursue the ephemeral fashion that assureth it;
and their thin influences are of the same low grade
as the unaccomplish’d forms; their poverty is exposed
when they would stake their charm on ethic excellence;
for then weak simulations of virtues appear,
such as convention approveth, but not Virtue itself,
tho’ not void of all good: and (as I read) ’twas this
that Benvenuto intended, saying that not only
Virtue was memorable but things so truly done
that they wer like to Virtue; and thus prefaced his book,
thinking to justify both himself and his works.
      The authority of Reason therefor relieth at last
hereon—that her discernment of spiritual things,
the ideas of Beauty, is her conscience of instinct
upgrown in her (as she unto conscience of all
upgrew from lower to higher) to conscience of Beauty
judging itself by its own beauteous judgment.

       from Book III. Breed

How was November’s melancholy endear’d to me
in the effigy of plowteams following and recrossing
patiently the desolat landscape from dawn to dusk,
as the slow-creeping ripple of their single furrow
submerged the sodden litter of summer’s festival!
They are fled, those gracious teams; high on the headland now
squatted, a roaring engin toweth to itself
a beam of bolted shares, that glideth to and fro
combing the stubbled glebe: and agriculture here,
blotting out with such daub so rich a pictur of grace,
hath lost as much of beauty as it hath saved in toil.
      Again where reapers, bending to the ripen’d corn,
were wont to scythe in rank and step with measured stroke,
a shark-tooth’d chariot rampeth biting a broad way,
and, jerking its high swindging arms around in the air,
swoopeth the swath. Yet this queer Pterodactyl is well,
that in the sinister torpor of the blazing day
clicketeth in heartless mockery of swoon and sweat,
as ’twer the salamandrine voice of all parch’d things:
and the dry grasshopper wondering knoweth his God.

       from Book IV, Ethick

Beauty, the eternal Spouse of the Wisdom of God
and Angel of his Presence thru’ all creation,
fashioning her new love-realm in the mind of man,
attempteth every mortal child with influences
of her divine supremacy ... ev’n as in a plant
when the sap mounteth secretly and its wintry stalk
breaketh out in the prolific miracle of Spring,
or as the red blood floodeth into a beating heart
to build the animal body comely and strong; so she
in her transcendant rivalry would flush his spirit
with pleasurable ichor of heaven: and where she hath found
responsiv faculty in some richly favour’d soul—
L’anima vaga delle cose belle, as saith
the Florentine,—she wil inaugurate her feast
of dedication, and even in thatt earliest onset,
when yet infant Desire hath neither goal nor clue
to fix the dream, ev’n then, altho’ it graspeth nought
and passeth in its airy vision away, and dieth
out of remembrance, ’tis in its earnest of life
and dawn of bliss purer and hath less of earthly tinge
than any other after-attainment of the understanding:
for all man’s knowledge kenneth also of toil and flaw
and even his noblest works, tho’ they illume the dark
with individual consummation, are cast upon
by the irrelevant black shadows of time and fate.

       .....

Repudiation of pleasur is a reason’d folly
of imperfection. Ther is no motiv can rebate
or decompose the intrinsic joy of activ life,
whereon all function whatsoever in man is based.
Consider how this mortal sensibility
hath a wide jurisdiction of range in all degrees,
from mountainous gravity to imperceptible
faintest tenuities:—The imponderable fragrance
of my window-jasmin, that from her starry cup
of red-stemm’d ivory invadeth my being,
as she floateth it forth, and wantoning unabash’d
asserteth her idea in the omnipotent blaze
of the tormented sun-ball, checquering the grey wall
with shadow-tracery of her shapely fronds; this frail
unique spice of perfumery, in which she holdeth
monopoly by royal licence of Nature,
is but one of a thousand angelic species,
original beauties that win conscience in man:
a like marvel hangeth o’er the rosebed, and where
the honeysuckle escapeth in serpentine sprays
from its dark-cloister’d clamber thru’ the old holly-bush,
spreading its joybunches to finger at the sky
in revel above rivalry. Legion is their name;
Lily-of-the-vale, Violet, Verbena, Mignonette,
Hyacinth, Heliotrope, Sweet-briar, Pinks and Peas,
Lilac and Wallflower, or such white and purple blooms
that sleep i’ the sun, and their heavy perfumes withhold
to mingle their heart’s incense with the wonder-dreams,
love-laden prayers and reveries that steal forth from earth,
under the dome of night: and tho’ these blossomy breaths,
that hav presumed the title of their gay genitors,
enter but singly into our neighboring sense, that hath
no panorama, yet the mind’s eye is not blind
unto their multitudinous presences:—I know
that if odour wer visible as color is, I’d see
the summer garden aureoled in rainbow clouds,
with such warfare of hues as a painter might choose
to show his sunset sky or a forest aflame;
while o’er the country-side the wide clover-pastures
and the beanfields of June would wear a mantle, thick
as when in late October, at the drooping of day
the dark grey mist arising blotteth out the land
with ghostly shroud. Now these and such-like influences
of tender specialty must not—so fine they be—
fall in neglect and all their loveliness be lost,
being to the soul deep springs of happiness, and full
of lovingkindness to the natural man, who is apt
kindly to judge of good by comfortable effect.
Thus all men ever hav judged the wholesomness of food
from the comfort of body ensuing thereupon,
whereby all animals retrieve their proper diet;
but if when in discomfort ’tis for pleasant hope
of health restored we swallow nauseous medicines,
so mystics use asceticism, yea, and no man
readier than they to assert eventual happiness
to justify their conduct. Whence it is not strange
(for so scientific minds in search of truth digest
assimilable hypotheses) they should extend
their pragmatism, and from their happiness deduce
the very existence and the natur of God, and take
religious consolation for the ground of faith:
as if the pleasur of life wer the sign-manual
of Nature when she set her hand to her covenant.
      But man, vain of his Reason and thinking more to assure
its independence, wil disclaim complicity
with human emotion; and regarding his Mother
deemeth it dutiful and nobler in honesty
coldly to criticize than purblindly to love;
and in pride of this quarrel he hath been led in the end
to make distinction of kind 'twixt Pleasur and Happiness;
observing truly enough how one may hav pleasure
and yet miss happiness; but this warpeth the sense
and common use of speech, since all tongues in the world
call children and silly folk happy and sometimes ev’n brutes.
      The name of happiness is but a wider term
for the unalloy’d conditions of the Pleasur of Life,
attendant on all function, and not to be deny’d
to th’ soul, unless forsooth in our thought of nature
spiritual is by definition unnatural.

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Poet Robert Bridges 1844–1930

POET’S REGION England

Subjects Music, Arts & Sciences

Poetic Terms Epic

 Robert  Bridges

Biography

A Victorian who by choice remained apart from the aesthetic movements of his day, Robert Bridges was a classicist. His experimentation with eighteenth-century classical forms culminated in The Testament of Beauty, generally acknowledged as his masterpiece. He succeeded Alfred Austin as Poet Laureate in 1913 and was active in the Society for Pure English, which was founded largely through his efforts. He had an important . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Music, Arts & Sciences

POET’S REGION England

Poetic Terms Epic

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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