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Robert Bridges - Biography & Selected Products

Robert Seymour Bridges, OM was born on 23 October 1844 at Walmer in Kent where he spent his early childhood in a house overlooking the anchoring ground of the British fleet. He was the fourth son and eighth child of John Thomas Bridges (1805–1853) and Harriett Elizabeth Affleck (1807–1897).

His father died at the age of only 47 in 1853 and a year later his mother remarried and the family relocated to Rochdale, where his stepfather, John Edward Nassau Molesworth, was the vicar.   In 1854 Bridges was sent to the elite public school of Eton College and attended there until 1863.  Whilst there he met the poet Digby Mackworth Dolben and Lionel Muirhead, who became a lifelong friend.  After Eton he went to Oxford and the Corpus Christi College. Whilst studying he became good friends with Gerald Manley Hopkins.  Hopkins is now considered the superior poet and Bridges probably knew this or at least was a great admirer as he was essential in ensuring the publication of the complete works of Hopkins in 1918.  His edition of Hopkins's poems is considered a major contribution to English literature.  He received his degree and graduated from Oxford in 1867 with a second class in literae humaniores.  His initial thought was to enter religious life with the Church of England and he travelled to the Middle East in furtherance of his knowledge on the subject.  But instead he decided that life as a physician would be a better path and after learning German for eight months in Germany (that being the language of many scientific papers at the time) he began his study of medicine at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in 1869.  His long term hope was that by the age of forty he could retire from medicine to devote himself to writing.  Bridges failed his final medical examinations in 1873 and as unable to immediately retake the papers, spent six months in Italy learning Italian and as much as he could about Italian art. In July 1874 he went to study medicine in Dublin. Re-examined in December of that year, he obtained his MB and became a house physician to Dr Patrick Black at St Bartholomew's Hospital.   He practised as a casualty physician at this teaching hospital where he also engaged in a series of highly critical remarks about the Victorian medical establishment. Such was his workload that he claimed that whilst working as a young doctor he saw a staggering 30,940 patients in one year.  After being a house physician at St Bartholomew’s he later became casualty physician and later assistant physician at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, and then physician at Great Northern Hospital, Holloway.

A bout of severe pneumonia and lung disease forced his retirement from the medical profession in 1882 and so slightly ahead of schedule he began his literary career in earnest.  However he had, prior to this, been writing for several years. His first collection of poems having been published in 1873. Indeed its worth pointing out that his early materials were published privately, mainly to be given away to friends and his small circle of admirers as they sold little. It took Bridges some time to gain traction and a wider audience.  After his illness and a trip to Italy with Muirhead, Bridges moved with his mother to Yattendon in Berkshire.  It was during his residence in Yattendon, from 1882 to 1904, that Bridges wrote most of his best-known lyrics as well as eight plays and two masques, all in verse.

It was here that he first met and then in 1884 he married Monica Waterhouse, daughter of Alfred Waterhouse R.A., the famous architect.  The couple had three children: Elizabeth (1887–1977), Margaret (1889–1926), and Edward Ettingdene Bridges (1892–1969). They would spend the rest of their lives in rural seclusion, in an idyllic marriage, first at Yattendon, Berkshire, then later at Boars Hill, Oxford. 

Bridges made an important contribution to hymnody with the publication in 1899 of his Yattendon Hymnal, which he created specifically for musical reasons. This collection of hymns, although not a financial success, became a bridge between the Victorian hymnody of the last half of the 19th century and the modern hymnody of the early 20th century. He was a chorister at Yattendon church for 18 years. 

In 1902 Monica and his daughter Margaret became seriously ill with tuberculosis, and a move from Yattendon to a healthier climate was in order.  After living in several temporary homes they moved abroad to spend a year in Switzerland, and finally returning settled again in England at Chilswell House, which Bridges had designed and which was built on Boar's Hill overlooking Oxford University.   Bridges was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1900.

His greatest achievement though was still some years ahead of him.  The office of Poet Laureate was held by Alfred Austin but with his death it was offered first to Rudyard Kipling, who refused it, and thence to Bridges. He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1913 by George V, the only medical graduate to have ever held the office. It seems a strange choice given the ‘write to order’ brief of Poet Laureate but Bridges accepted and must have known of the strictures.

That same year along with Henry Bradley and Walter Raleigh he founded the Society for Pure English.

Bridges received advice from the young phonetician David Abercrombie on the reformed spelling system he was devising for the publication of his collected essays (later published in seven volumes by Oxford University Press, with the help of the distinguished typographer Stanley Morison, who designed the new letters). Thus Robert Bridges contributed to phonetics.

The office of Poet Laureate has been held by many great and well known poets such as John Dryden, William Wordsworth and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Bridges at this stage was not highly regarded nor well known but more a safe pair of hands in a World rapidly being overshadowed by the storms about to erupt over Europe and the First World War.

The events of the First World War, including the wounding of his son, Edward, had a sobering effect on Bridges' poetry. He composed fiercely patriotic poems and letters, and in 1915 edited a volume of prose and poetry, The Spirit of Man, intended to appeal to readers living in war times.

One area where his work did resonate though was with a great many composers and specifically British.  Many set his poetry to music and among them were Hubert Parry, Gustav Holst and Gerald Finzi.

Despite being made poet laureate Bridges was never a very well-known poet and only achieved his great popularity shortly before his death with The Testament of Beauty. 

His best-known poems are found in the two earlier volumes of Shorter Poems (1890, 1894).  His talents did not stop at poetry and his works include verse plays and literary criticism, including a study of the work of fellow poet John Keats.

As a poet Bridges stands rather apart from the tide of modern English verse, but his work has had great influence in a select circle, by its restraint, purity, precision, and delicacy yet strength of expression. It embodies a distinct theory of prosody. Bridges' deep faith underpinned much of his work.  In the book Milton's Prosody, he took an empirical approach to examining Milton's use of blank verse, and developed the somewhat controversial theory that Milton's practice was essentially syllabic. He considered free verse to be too limiting, and explained his position in the essay "Humdrum and Harum-Scarum".

Bridge’s own efforts to "free" verse resulted in the poems he called "Neo-Miltonic Syllabics", which were collected in New Verse (1925). The metre of these poems was based on syllables rather than accents, and he used the principle again in the long philosophical poem The Testament of Beauty (1929), for which he received the Order of Merit.  Perhaps The Testament of Beauty is his most highly regarded work but he also wrote and also translated historic hymns, and many of these were included in Songs of Syon (1904) and the later English Hymnal (1906). Several of Bridges' hymns and translations are still in use today.  Bridges work with the Society for Pure English (S.P.E.) was interrupted by the War but resumed in 1919. The work for the S.P.E. led to Bridges' only trip to America in 1924, during which he increased interest in the group among American scholars.

As previously mentioned his masterpiece, a long philosophical poem entitled The Testament of Beauty, was begun on Christmas Day, 1924, with fourteen lines of what he referred to as "loose Alexandrines." He set the piece aside until 1926, when the death of his daughter Margaret prompted him to resume work as a way to ease his grief. The Testament of Beauty was published in October 1929, one day after his eighty-fifth birthday and six months before his death.  A Victorian who by choice remained apart from the aesthetic movements of his day, Robert Bridges was a classicist and experimented with eighteenth-century classical forms.  On December 2nd 1929 he was pictured on the cover that week of Time Magazine

Robert Seymour Bridges' health was failing and undermined by cancer and its complications he died at his home, Chilswell, on 21 April 1930.  His ashes are buried near the family cross in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul's Church, Yattendon, Berkshire.

The cross was originally erected by Bridges in memory of his mother Harriet Elizabeth. There is also a memorial tablet to him inside the church.