Saturday, October 23, 2010

`When Death to Either Shall Come'

In the middle of a multiplication drill my fifth-grade student said she was “culturally different” from most of her friends. I pointed out that our school is a veritable Finnegans Wake of diversity, that we hear a dozen languages spoken in the halls, that “different” is meaningless here. She said her father “was black,” and I noted the past tense. She said he died last year. He was forty-two and had a heart attack. I asked if he had been sick a long time or was his death sudden. “He drank a lot,” she said. “He had brain damage too. He fell down on the sidewalk.”

Such matter-of-factness. No tears, no hint of grief or shame, and we returned to multiplication. I shared the information with her classroom teacher and he seemed shaken. This was news to him.

Robert Bridges, friend and editor to Hopkins, was born on this day in 1844. As with my student, his father died when Bridges was nine years old. The natural order is for one’s parent to die first, but not so soon, perhaps when we have children. Who’s to say whose grief, parent’s or child’s, is greater? Bridges writes:

“When Death to either shall come,--
I pray it be first to me,--”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Thanks for tying your poignant anecdote from work to today’s birthday poet, Robert Bridges, with yet another perfect bow of a quote.

We literary types always imagine a world where we are rich enough to devote all our time to writing – O the wonders we could create! But the side of that road is littered with languid dandies for whom the pleasures of the flesh were always more important than the virtue of the muses. Not so for Robert Bridges, who used his wealth (like James Merrill after him) to obsessively devote himself 24/7 (as we like now to say) to poetry. Such devotion allowed him to attempt the hat trick of verse: fusing intellect, feeling and form into readable poems. This brave ascent of the poetic Matterhorn was profoundly inspiring to Yvor Winters, for one, who thought that Bridges was the greatest modern poet, better than T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, or even his beloved Hart Crane. In fact:

“he should be recognized once and for all as the sole English rival of Hardy in nineteenth-century poetry, as, in all likelihood, considering his formal versatility, the range of his feeling, and the purity of his diction, a diction so free from any trace of personal idiosyncrasy, that a successful imitator of it could never be detected as an imitator but would appear only as that most unlikely of phenomena, a rival, that he should, I say, in all likelihood, be recognized as the most valuable model of poetic style to appear since Dryden.”

But such a classical approach is not much appreciated in the modern age, which values authenticity over skill. We used to pony up to the bard to salivate over the precision of his meters, whereas today we pony up to the bard to share the singularity of her pain. It’s a matter of taste, I suppose, for the competing claims of fancy and reality have been arguing at least since Apollo and Dionysus were pups. The practical result for the reputation of Bridges is that he is far better known today as the handsome poet laureate single-handedly rescuing Gerard Manley Hopkins from obscurity than for his own work. Which is truly ironic, for Bridges had precious little understanding of what Hopkins was doing, so little he didn’t seem to realize that Hopkins was making the pure verse Bridges built from obsolete. But such, after all, is part of the job requirement, when one is working for the muses.