Monday, December 08, 2014

`The Great Temptations of My Life'

A writer still deeply unfashionable is Robert Bridges (1844-1930), once the poet laureate of England, whose reputation has been eclipsed by a poet whose work he championed, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The latter is more to our taste, more daring and difficult, a proto-Modernist. Bridges’ work was merely sane, restrained and non-aligned with movements and schools. Take a poem much admired by Yvor Winters, “Low Barometer,” with a theme that reminds me of Winters’ one published work of fiction, “The Brink of Darkness,” and also the opening sentences of Robert Musil’s vast, unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities: “A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction.” A storm is coming. For Musil, the tempest is global. For Bridges (and Winters) it comes from within: 

“On such a night, when Air has loosed
Its guardian grasp on blood and brain,
Old terrors then of god or ghost
Creep from their caves to life again.” 

Writing to Donald Davie on April 10, 1950 (ed. R.L. Barth, The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, Swallow/Ohio University Press, 2000), Winters recommends the poem, along with “Dejection” and “The Affliction of Richard,” and taunts Davie: “I suppose you don’t like Bridges, since he is nothing more than a respectable Briton.” Then he makes fun of a favorite target, “the temptations of the romantic tradition,” and rises to a great crescendo of defiant celebration:  

“I am constantly being bewildered by romantic lovers of the bucolic who have never milked a cow or goat, who have never trimmed a terrier, who cannot tell a finch from a thrush, who have never pulled a carrot fresh from the ground and eaten it raw, who have never had to battle with a natural and impulsive love for too much alcohol, and who never got any pleasure out of a fight with their bare fists. These things and others loosely related have been the great temptations of my life.”


Henry said...

There is an excellent critical book, 'Laureates and Heretics' by Robert Archambeau, in which he investigates the genesis of Winters' poetics and his influence on five of his famous and not-so-famous students: Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, John Peck, John Matthias, and James McMichael. Archambeau makes an interesting case for Winters' early Imagist poetry, and demonstrates how he reacted against the temptations of the Romantic tradition (as he conceived it). It's a highly readable study.

Subbuteo said...

I enjoyed 'Low Barometer' but there's some strange scansion in the last stanza of 'The Affliction of Richard' on the word "shadow" that kind of spoils it.