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Bridges and Housman as Elegists: The Modem Threshold John B. Vickery University of California, Riverside ROBERT BRIDGES AND A. E. HOUSMAN were centrally involved with the elegy as a poetic genre. Bridges lacks any sustained sign of the modern elegiac temper. By this I mean that he was not part of the modern change in the elegy from basically a confrontation with death to a dealing with all the forms of personal, intellectual, and cultural loss suffered by mankind. Housman, on the other hand, reveals clear signs of the modern temper in which loss is endemic, no compensatory resolution possible, and death without any afterlife the ultimate end of human beings. By looking at certain of their representative poems, I chart this seminal difference. ♦ ♦ ♦ While Robert Bridges's elegies do betray signs of unease with and fugitive efforts to modify the late-Victorian and Edwardian elegiac tradition and its conservative stance toward that tradition, in the main they adhere to it and the culture which enshrined it.1 Thus, in his elegy "Clear and gentle stream," he skillfully strikes the customary pastoral note of the genre. The theme of the return or retreat to a familiar country scene in order to reflect seriously on the speaker's life is as commonplace as it is frequent in the period. The speaker feels a nostalgic pleasure muted by a gentle intimation that such a past is irrecoverable. The rhythmic and musical balance of the poem's couplets concludes with a repetition of the three lines ending the first stanza. This device together with the general aura of tranquillity developed suggest the speaker's resolution of the problem that brought him back initially to the pastoral setting. The mood generated is premonitory of revelation, peacefully plangent, and reflective of habitual pleasures. 404 VICKERY : BRIDGES & HOUSMAN And yet apparently nothing is revealed, no fugitive sorrow or regret reconciled, and no decisive acceptance of loss made. The speaker's aim in returning to the countryside is to reenact an early prized, contemplative experience. But what the "old lament" and "idle dream" were about is never made explicit.2 Instead, the speaker enjoins only the stream, which is the focal point of the whole natural scene, to emulate him by remaining content with both lament and dream.3 To many readers today this may appear rather thin fare with which to bulk out the elegy's traditional reactions to major personal or communal losses. They may suspect that Bridges is simply playing with their emotions , arousing feelings that anticipate profound experiences, and then thwarting them by circling back around essentially vague generalities. Yet this view may incline us to under-read and so to miss his central achievement here. His gradual filling out of the pastoral scene draws the reader into the very tradition of the elegy itself.4 In effect, the scene calls up not so much a present reality as the past ideal iconic scene of the pastoral elegy per se. So too are the activities sought and celebrated by the speaker. Neither lament nor dream are immediate experiences of the poet so much as they are conventional images drawn from the elegiac tradition. What he does in this poem, as in others, is to sum up the established form and conventional attitudes of the gradually weakened elegy as it has come down to him through Milton, Shelley, Tennyson, and Arnold. He does so by reiterating the central elegiac foci of his age: the loss of a beloved, the celebration of death through a broken heart, the broadly philosophical contemplation of the impact of death on human affairs, and the pathos of premature death.5 In other elegies, such as "The wood is bare: a river mist is steeping," the same strategy is employed. The landscape functions as a mnemonic device reminding the speaker of the cyclical course of nature, human love, and life.6 Once again, Bridges is almost deliberately vague as to the nature and occasion of the speaker's loss. Whether it is due to a commonenough change of affections on the beloved's part or a result of her death is not determined: For on this path, at every turn...


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pp. 404-419
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Will Be Archived 2021
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