Robert Bridges

1844-1930

London Snow

When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
      Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
      Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
      All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
      And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled—marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
      The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.
      Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
      Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder,
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’
      With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
      When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.
      For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
      But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.

(1890)

Robert Bridges is another unsung character from the annals of British poetry – a relative foot-slogger in the literary infantry rather than a commanding General, but one who accumulated sufficient mentions in dispatches to become Poet Laureate in 1913 until his death in 1930. He was succeeded by John Masefield who became a bit of a household name through his accessible and popular work and this probably further contributed to the eclipse of his reputation.

Robert Bridges
Robert Bridges

He trained as a doctor and intended to write full time after retirement, but was forced to retire early through ill-health. He had a strong Christian faith and made significant contributions to church music through his transcription and translation of hymns; Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is perhaps the most well-known of his works, translated from the original 1661 verse in German by Martin Janus, and set to music by J S Bach in 1723.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Robert Bridges most important achievement though was to establish the reputation as a poet of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Bridges had been a friend of Hopkins at Oxford and they shared a commitment to writing poetry but Hopkins, a parish priest, had died in Dublin in 1889 at the age of 44. Hopkins had had had a torn conscience between the urge to write and the need to sublimate his ego before God by refusing to publish; however, with the publication in 1918 of a selection of his verse, the genius of Hopkins was revealed and he’s now established as a important contributor to 19th century poetry. I’ll write more about Hopkins on another occasion.

And London Snow? February was often the time when we’d get snow in the “olden days” before the weather, the climate went a bit haywire. I’ve been snowed on in April too during the Easter holidays, in Snowdonia appropriately enough.

Do you remember how you could tell if it had snowed overnight as soon as you woke up because of the muffled silence? It wasn’t just that it was quiet, none of the usual morning sounds coming through the bedroom windows, but the bit of noise there was had a distinctive muffled quality caused by the snow. Bridges captures that experience here ‘deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs‘ and also the initial exhilaration of the unexpected white blanket.

Certainly the excitement of the schoolboys is there (as it was for John Clare’s Schoolboys in Winter a century earlier, and for me a century later) and for adults too, their eyes ‘marvelled at the dazzling whiteness, the ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air’ – before the reality sets in – with references of waging war with snow and of the war waged with snow by trains of sombre men treading long brown paths towards their daily toil. Also, topically, he describes London as brown rather than grey, as it would be from the smoky coal fires that heated the city in those days.

I was pleased to discover Robert Bridges hiding in the footnotes of literary history. So far I haven’t discovered anything brilliant, and some of it is a bit mawkishly sentimental for my taste, but everything is quietly competent and expressive – and we’ll always be in his debt for revealing the genius of Gerard Manley Hopkins.