In the deep heart’s core

Mary (Baroness) Warnock has been issuing reports and pronouncing on overweight domestic issues throughout my professional life. In addition to this, she is a philosopher (I read her book on existentialism) and one of the current stony outcrop of the Great and the Good. I was on a Newsnight programme with her some years ago, when in the hospitality room Jeremy Paxman interrupted us obsequiously to solicit her opinion about his book, The English. She obliged, as I recall. Anyway, I happened to hear her in interview on the radio, enthusing about Robert Bridges’ The Spirit Of Man (1916), which was the main poetry anthology around in her girlhood and which influenced her throughout her life.

Robert Bridges, poet laureate

Robert Bridges, poet laureate

This aroused my curiosity and I obtained a copy which I read from cover to cover. Bridges was acknowledged in 1932 by FR Leavis in his New Bearings as a brave early patron of Gerard Manley Hopkins, though as I recall he chided him also for not exposing Hopkins more and interfering editorially with him less. It is true that a great many of the items in The Spirit Of Man have been fussed and fiddled with by Bridges, sometimes profitably, sometimes unnecessarily, including translations from the Latin and Greek which Bridges wanted to do all over again.

I don’t think anybody reads the poems of Robert Bridges today. His grandson (or great grandson) is a friend of mine and he certainly doesn’t read his ancestor. The Collected Poems is the sort of thing one could find quite easily in the little second-hand bookshops of yesteryear, like those of John Masefield and John Greenleaf Whittier. TS Eliot was still reprinting him in 1941, according to the cover of Harold Monro’s The Silent Pool. But De la Mare and the Georgians were rubbing shoulders with Ezra Pound, Robert Graves, Stephen Spender, WH Auden and Louis MacNeice, Edith Sitwell and Roy Campbell at this point. It is interesting that Eliot kept Bridges, Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas in play. How time has sorted this list out, to be sure.

John Masefield

John Masefield

Nevertheless, the following short poem by Bridges seems to me both deft and intriguing:

The Evening Darkens Over

The evening darkens over

After a day so bright,

The windcapt waves discover

That wild will be the night.

There’s sound of distant thunder.

~-~

The latest sea-birds hover

Along the cliff’s sheer height;

As in the memory wander

Last flutterings of delight,

White wings lost on the white.

~-~

There’s not a ship in sight;

And as the sun goes under,

Thick clouds conspire to cover

The moon that should rise yonder.

Thou art alone, fond lover.

John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier

Bridges keeps all his 449 anthology entries anonymous, though he provides both a key and some scholarly notes at the back of the book. Many of the items are in French, some medieval French, though presumably this would not have troubled young Mary, at school in Winchester. The method of anonymity enables the reader to approach each offering with a modern but unglazed eye. Many chestnuts, to be sure, are easily recognisable but the playing field is surprisingly level.

I thus came to notice, as I read, that one figure loomed head and shoulders above the contemporary and now forgotten fustian of the likes of Dixon, namely that of the young WB Yeats. This seemed to me an essentially novel way of coming at the irruption of the talented and confident young poet in the years just before the First World War. I mentioned this to a friend who is a Yeats and Celtic Twilight scholar at Trinity College, Dublin, and to my amazement she obtained a copy of The Spirit Of Man and hunted up precisely the poems I meant.

Perhaps this is another example of Bridges spotting a significant winner. He was not entirely up-to-date with Yeats, since another two books had been published before he came to compile The Spirit Of Man, but he drew from the first four (1889-1904). The poems in question are as follows:

  1. The Lake Isle of Innisfree
  2. The Man Who Dreamed Of Faeryland
  3. The Sad Shepherd
  4. He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven
  5. The Lover Tells Of The Rose In His Heart (Bridges breaks up the long lines into two)
  6. The Ragged Wood (Bridges seems to have been working here from an early variant subsequently revised)
  7. Into The Twilight (Bridges extracts the first quatrain only)
  8. The Pity Of Love.

Bridges does not allow Yeats any of his titles, perhaps to enhance the anonymity. But the impact of these early poems, among the patinas of the museum and the featureless modern sawdust alike, is remarkable. They afford us a sidelong glance at an over-familiar eminence. Most of these poems are a century old, though Yeats seems distinguished enough now to be considered the foremost poet of the first quarter of the last century. If he is old, why so is Beethoven, whose youthful piano concertos also remind me of a young colt frisking in an empty Swiss meadow, running up and down, with mountains all around, tossing his mane.

The frisky young Beethoven

The frisky young Beethoven

Perhaps it is Yeats’s confidence. If ‘Innisfree’ is already familiar, and I want to come back to that poem, then we first meet an unfamiliar Yeats, like the Unknown Knight coming forward under a inscrutable gage at a tourney, in the following lines:

He stood among the crowd at Dromahair;

His heart hung all upon a silken dress,

And he had known at last some tenderness […]

Immediately, as sometimes with Browning, one comes across a level of unafraid emotional maturity. This poem consists of four 12-line stanzas, all purposefully but easily handled, and ends:

The man has found no comfort in the grave.

Yeats does a standard fin-de-siècle poem as well as anybody, as in the Dowson-like ‘The Lover Tells Of The Rose In His Heart’ (he dedicated his second book to Lionel Johnson of ‘The Dark Angel’), but one feels he is already beyond this. He works within an assumption of ─ not form: that has never gone away ─ but metre and rhyme, bit and bridle. But he handles classical models with an assurance bordering on sangfroid. Once again, the young stallion is tossing its head in the meadow. For instance, ‘He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven ‘ opens:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with gold and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of the night and light and the half-light […]

WB Yeats by Augustus John 1907

WB Yeats by Augustus John 1907

(the monosyllables and spondees here arousing the reader to un-classical fervour) and ends:

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Notice how the rhetorical overpowers the metrical. It is hard to see AE Housman, a near contemporary, allowing himself such liberties and prospectively inspiring Malcolm Muggeridge.

AE Housman

AE Housman

This poem seems to have been conceived as a whole before ever pen was set to paper, like the remarkable ‘The Pity Of Love’:

A pity beyond all telling

Is hid in the heart of love:

The folk who are buying and selling,

The clouds on their journey above,

The cold wet winds ever blowing,

And the shadowy hazel grove

Where mouse-grey waters are flowing,

Threaten the head that I love.

Here, the full force of rhetorical drive piles up in the initial dactyl of the final line. Similarly, the first stanza of ‘Into the Twilight’ ─ the only one admitted by Bridges ─ exemplifies a moody, pensive exploratoriness that is hard to match among his contemporaries in 1899:

Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,

Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;

Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight,

Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.

One can see that this might lodge in the auditory imagination of Robert Bridges.

WB Yeats, the romantic idealist, by John Singer Sargent

WB Yeats, the romantic idealist, by John Singer Sargent

Which brings me to that dreadfully familiar poem, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ Here one has to forget the remarkable crackly recording of Yeats’s own reading and forget, too, the anaesthetic effect of meeting it in innumerable anthologies, and read it afresh, so that one can notice that this is a wholly unsentimental poem. Indeed it is primarily an acoustic poem, one that alludes to the effect of sound while not especially contriving such effects. Although the linnet’s wings are a visual exception, we are invited to consider the sound of bees and cricket and water lapping. The poet returns to the city, to tread the roads and pavements, but he still carries the echoes within him:

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

This is a daring and irresistible plunge to the heart of poetic sensibility. Experimental psychologists have not, as yet, had anything illuminating to say about this most central aspect of human linguistic capacity, what Eliot called ‘the auditory imagination’ and what many poets, Pasternak and Bunting among them, have isolated as the matrix of poetic creativity.

WB Yeats 1923 after winning the Nobel Prize

WB Yeats 1923 after winning the Nobel Prize

It may, too, be relevant to evaluate Yeats’s writing ability (not his attitudes and beliefs, which are another story altogether), his artistic and rhetorical power, in relation to these gusts of prophetic current issuing from what he himself called “the deep heart’s core”.

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