The Testament of Beauty
THE MAN of the MONTH
[Oxford University, $3.50]
IT is not remarkable that so studious a poet as Mr. Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate of England, trained originally in medicine and deeply versed not only in the natural sciences but in human literature and history, should write his great work in the latter years of his life. It would be only then that his learning, rarefied by poetic meditation, could bring him to that height of outlook which a few other poets, implicated more than he in the immediate happenings of life, have reached earlier. It is nine years since be composed his last published work, and in general in his life he has written little. In the four books and four thousand lines of The Testamentof Beauty, using a loose metre of six feet with great variety and power, Mr. Bridges gives to the world what is avowedly the gathered conclusion of his life concerning the development and meaning of the human soul.
He has climbed, he says, to that high slope of life from which he can see the country of his earlier travel out - spread at his feet. It was there that he felt a relaxation from the struggle of climbing and a new communion with the things of life, great and small. Natural objects took on a double significance; in addition to their beauty in nature, they possessed a beauty of spiritual meaning, by which they addressed the soul. Wrapt in that vision, the poet understood that all higher and lower forms of life are alike children of the common parent Nature, and that the soul is at home in the universe, since beauty speaks to it.
In the second and third books, Mr. Bridges expounds the myth told, in the Phœdrus of Plato, by Socrates to the boy Pinedrus on the banks of the Missus. The human soul is a chariot drawn between earth and heaven by two winged horses; the charioteer is Reason, the two horses, unnamed in Plato, are Selfhood and Breed. Selfhood, the older horse, is the instinct of life, which, struggling in the young of all species, would seize for itself everything within its reach. Were human infants not cared for lovingly by their mothers, they would show the same instinct unmitigated. As it is, the love which surrounds a child makes him subject to spiritual influences, which, softening his egotisms and wakening his mind, bring him slowly to a larger awareness. It is just so with the younger horse, Breed, the sexual instinct. In animals it. is transient; in man, purified bylove, it can he his second awakening to the influence of beauty. Reason, then, with Will as his rein, must guide the two horses. His goal, told of in the fourth hook of Ethick, is the vision of God. In that vision he discerns the cause of the benign influences which, in childhood, in love, and in the beauty of the natural world, solicit the soul to its true life.
No such summary describes the poem’s range and beauty. In treating of men’s natural functions, the poet writes with the most detailed insight into the lives of plants of creatures, and especially of birds, which he loves. In tracing developments and seeking illustrations, he cites the authority of history, often verbally, in the sayings of poets and great men, His beautiful lines of understanding of former eras are such things as before have not found place in poetry; they must seem words of inspiration to many readers of a generation trained in the historical method of study. The frequent descriptions of nature, the accounts of childhood and motherhood, the parts concerning marriage and man’s and woman’s differing function in it, the passages on sin and error — all these are of a sustained and lofty beauty. In general, the sweeping power of the thought, as in the Paradise Lost, seeks its unit of expression in the paragraph rather than in the line. It will be seen, however, that although the poem, in spirit, resembles rather Dante’s than Milton’s, it resembles neither in its lack of definite scenes and characters. It is inevitable that a modern poet should lack the accepted symbolism possessed. in common with his time, by a poet of a simpler age. There is, therefore, an abstractness in the poem which differentiates it from the great poems of the past. It has for compensation a breadth and sublimity which are the direct products of a mind of extraordinary attainments brooding in love upon the facts of its experience.
The Testament of Beauty has the apocalyptic force which is the quality of great works. It raises facts hitherto unrelated to a high unity of poetic vision, and in that act acquaints the reader with a standard of character and insight which may well take a place in his mind beside similar standards received by him from the great works of the past.
JOHN FINLEY, JR.