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Short poem

Robert Bridges (1844-1930)

The Testament of Love


      *from Book I, Introduction

            57Man's Reason is in such deep insolvency to sense,
            58that tho' she guide his highest flight heav'nward, and teach him
            59dignity morals manners and human comfort,
            60she can delicatly and dangerously bedizen
            61the rioting joys that fringe the sad pathways of Hell.
            62Not without alliance of the animal senses
            63hath she any miracle: Lov'st thou in the blithe hour
            64of April dawns -- nay marvelest thou not -- to hear
            65the ravishing music that the small birdës make
            66in garden or woodland, rapturously heralding
            67the break of day; when the first lark on high hath warn'd
            68the vigilant robin already of the sun's approach,
            69and he on slender pipe calleth the nesting tribes
            70to awake and fill and thrill their myriad-warbling throats
            71praising life's God, untill the blisful revel grow
            72in wild profusion unfeign'd to such a hymn as man
            73hath never in temple or grove pour'd to the Lord of heav'n?
            74    Hast thou then thought that all this ravishing music,
            75that stirreth so thy heart, making thee dream of things
            76illimitable unsearchable and of heavenly import,
            77is but a light disturbance of the atoms of air,
            78whose jostling ripples, gather'd within the ear, are tuned
            79to resonant scale, and thence by the enthron'd mind received
            80on the spiral stairway of her audience chamber
            81as heralds of high spiritual significance?
            82and that without thine ear, sound would hav no report.
            83Nature hav no music; nor would ther be for thee
            84any better melody in the April woods at dawn
            85than what an old stone-deaf labourer, lying awake
            86o'night in his comfortless attic, might perchance
            87be aware of, when the rats run amok in his thatch?
            88    Now since the thoughtless birds not only act and enjoy
            89this music, but to their offspring teach it with care,
            90handing on those small folk-songs from father to son
            91in such faithful tradition that they are familiar
            92unchanging to the changeful generations of men --
            93and year by year, listening to himself the nightingale
            94as amorous of his art as of his brooding mate
            95practiseth every phrase of his espousal lay,
            96and still provoketh envy of the lesser songsters
            97with the same notes that woke poetic eloquence
            98alike in Sophocles and the sick heart of Keats --
            99see then how deeply seated is the urgence whereto
          100Bach and Mozart obey'd, or those other minstrels
          101who pioneer'd for us on the marches of heav'n
          102and paid no heed to wars that swept the world around,
          103nor in their homes wer more troubled by cannon-roar
          104than late the small birds wer, that nested and carol'd
          105upon the devastated battlefields of France.
          106    Birds are of all animals the nearest to men
          107for that they take delight in both music and dance,
          108and gracefully schooling leisure to enliven life
          109wer the earlier artists: moreover in their airy flight
          110(which in its swiftness symboleth man's soaring thought)
          111they hav no rival but man, and easily surpass
          112in their free voyaging his most desperate daring,
          113altho' he hath fed and sped his ocean-ships with fire;
          114and now, disturbing me as I write, I hear on high
          115his roaring airplanes, and idly raising my head
          116see them there; like a migratory flock of birds
          117that rustle southward from the cold fall of the year
          118in order'd phalanx -- so the thin-rankt squadrons ply,
          119til sound and sight failing me they are lost in the clouds.


          599Time eateth away at many an old delusion,
          600yet with civilization delusions make head;
          601the thicket of the people wil take furtiv fire
          602from irresponsible catchwords of live ideas,
          603    sudden as a gorse-bush from the smouldering end
          604of any loiterer's match-splint, which, unless trodden out
          605afore it spredd, or quell'd with wieldy threshing-rods
          606wil burn ten years of planting with all last year's ricks
          607and blacken a countryside. 'Tis like enough that men
          608ignorant of fire and poison should be precondemn'd
          609to sudden deaths and burnings, but 'tis mightily
          610to the reproach of Reason that she cannot save
          611nor guide the herd; that minds who else wer fit to rule
          612must win to power by flattery and pretence, and so
          613by spiritual dishonesty in their flurried reign
          614confirm the disrepute of all authority --
          615but only in sackcloth can the Muse speak of such things.

from Book II. Selfhood

          531The Spartan General Brasidas, the strenuous man,
          532who earn'd historic favour from his conquer'd foe,
          533once caught a mouse foraging in his messbasket
          534among the figs, but when it bit him let it go,
          535praising its show of fight in words that Plutarch judged
          536worth treasuring; and since I redd the story at school
          537unto this hour I hav never thought of Brasidas
          538and cannot hear his name, but that I straightway see
          539a table and an arm'd man smiling with hand outstretch'd
          540above a little mouse that is scampering away.
          541    Why should this thing so hold me? and why do I welcome now
          542the tiny beast, that hath come running up to me
          543as if here in my cantos he had spied a crevice,
          544and counting on my friendship would make it his home?
          545    'Tis such a pictur as must by mere beauty of fitness
          546convince natural feeling with added comfort.
          547The soldier seeth the instinct of Selfhood in the mouse
          548to be the same impulse that maketh virtue in him.
          549For Brasidas held that courage ennobleth man,
          550and from unworth redeemeth, and that folk who shrink
          551from ventur of battle in self-defence are thereby doom'd
          552to slavery and extinction: and so this mouse, albeit
          553its little teeth had done him a petty hurt, deserved
          554liberty for its courage, and found grace in man.


          840What is Beauty? saith my sufferings then. --  I answer
          841the lover and poet in my loose alexandrines:
          842Beauty is the highest of all these occult influences,
          843the quality of appearances that thru' the sense
          844wakeneth spiritual emotion in the mind of man:
          845And Art, as it createth new forms of beauty,
          846awakeneth new ideas that advance the spirit
          847in the life of Reason to the wisdom of God.
          848But highest Art must be as rare as nativ faculty is
          849and her surprise of magic winneth favor of men
          850more than her inspiration: most are led away
          851by fairseeming pretences, which being wrought for gain
          852pursue the ephemeral fashion that assureth it;
          853and their thin influences are of the same low grade
          854as the unaccomplish'd forms; their poverty is exposed
          855when they would stake their charm on ethic excellence;
          856for then weak simulations of virtues appear,
          857such as convention approveth, but not Virtue itself,
          858tho' not void of all good: and (as I read) 'twas this
          859that Benvenuto intended, saying that not only
          860Virtue was memorable but things so truly done
          861that they wer like to Virtue; and thus prefaced his book,
          862thinking to justify both himself and his works.
          863    The authority of Reason therefor relieth at last
          864hereon -- that her discernment of spiritual things,
          865the ideas of Beauty, is her conscience of instinct
          866upgrown in her (as she unto conscience of all
          867upgrew from lower to higher) to conscience of Beauty
          868judging itself by its own beauteous judgment.

from Book III. Breed

          354How was November's melancholy endear'd to me
          355in the effigy of plowteams following and recrossing
          356patiently the desolat landscape from dawn to dusk,
          357as the slow-creeping ripple of their single furrow
          358submerged the sodden litter of summer's festival!
          359They are fled, those gracious teams; high on the headland now
          360squatted, a roaring engin toweth to itself
          361a beam of bolted shares, that glideth to and fro
          362combing the stubbled glebe: and agriculture here,
          363blotting out with such daub so rich a pictur of grace,
          364hath lost as much of beauty as it hath saved in toil.
          365    Again where reapers, bending to the ripen'd corn,
          366were wont to scythe in rank and step with measured stroke,
          367a shark-tooth'd chariot rampeth biting a broad way,
          368and, jerking its high swindging arms around in the air,
          369swoopeth the swath. Yet this queer Pterodactyl is well,
          370that in the sinister torpor of the blazing day
          371clicketeth in heartless mockery of swoon and sweat,
          372as 'twer the salamandrine voice of all parch'd things:
          373and the dry grasshopper wondering knoweth his God.

from Book IV, Ethick

              1Beauty, the eternal Spouse of the Wisdom of God
              2and Angel of his Presence thru' all creation,
              3fashioning her new love-realm in the mind of man,
              4attempteth every mortal child with influences
              5of her divine supremacy ... ev'n as in a plant
              6when the sap mounteth secretly and its wintry stalk
              7breaketh out in the prolific miracle of Spring,
              8or as the red blood floodeth into a beating heart
              9to build the animal body comely and strong; so she
            10in her transcendant rivalry would flush his spirit
            11with pleasurable ichor of heaven: and where she hath found
            12responsiv faculty in some richly favour'd soul --
            13L'anima vaga delle cose belle, as saith
            14the Florentine, -- she wil inaugurate her feast
            15of dedication, and even in thatt earliest onset,
            16when yet infant Desire hath neither goal nor clue
            17to fix the dream, ev'n then, altho' it graspeth nought
            18and passeth in its airy vision away, and dieth
            19out of remembrance, 'tis in its earnest of life
            20and dawn of bliss purer and hath less of earthly tinge
            21than any other after-attainment of the understanding:
            22for all man's knowledge kenneth also of toil and flaw
            23and even his noblest works, tho' they illume the dark
            24with individual consummation, are cast upon
            25by the irrelevant black shadows of time and fate.


          459Repudiation of pleasur is a reason'd folly
          460of imperfection. Ther is no motiv can rebate
          461or decompose the intrinsic joy of activ life,
          462whereon all function whatsoever in man is based.
          463Consider how this mortal sensibility
          464hath a wide jurisdiction of range in all degrees,
          465from mountainous gravity to imperceptible
          466faintest tenuities: -- The imponderable fragrance
          467of my window-jasmin, that from her starry cup
          468of red-stemm'd ivory invadeth my being,
          469as she floateth it forth, and wantoning unabash'd
          470asserteth her idea in the omnipotent blaze
          471of the tormented sun-ball, checquering the grey wall
          472with shadow-tracery of her shapely fronds; this frail
          473unique spice of perfumery, in which she holdeth
          474monopoly by royal licence of Nature,
          475is but one of a thousand angelic species,
          476original beauties that win conscience in man:
          477a like marvel hangeth o'er the rosebed, and where
          478the honeysuckle escapeth in serpentine sprays
          479from its dark-cloister'd clamber thru' the old holly-bush,
          480spreading its joybunches to finger at the sky
          481in revel above rivalry. Legion is their name;
          482Lily-of-the-vale, Violet, Verbena, Mignonette,
          483Hyacinth, Heliotrope, Sweet-briar, Pinks and Peas,
          484Lilac and Wallflower, or such white and purple blooms
          485that sleep i' the sun, and their heavy perfumes withhold
          486to mingle their heart's incense with the wonder-dreams,
          487love-laden prayers and reveries that steal forth from earth,
          488under the dome of night: and tho' these blossomy breaths,
          489that hav presumed the title of their gay genitors,
          490enter but singly into our neighboring sense, that hath
          491no panorama, yet the mind's eye is not blind
          492unto their multitudinous presences: -- I know
          493that if odour wer visible as color is, I'd see
          494the summer garden aureoled in rainbow clouds,
          495with such warfare of hues as a painter might choose
          496to show his sunset sky or a forest aflame;
          497while o'er the country-side the wide clover-pastures
          498and the beanfields of June would wear a mantle, thick
          499as when in late October, at the drooping of day
          500the dark grey mist arising blotteth out the land
          501with ghostly shroud. Now these and such-like influences
          502of tender specialty must not -- so fine they be --
          503fall in neglect and all their loveliness be lost,
          504being to the soul deep springs of happiness, and full
          505of lovingkindness to the natural man, who is apt
          506kindly to judge of good by comfortable effect.
          507Thus all men ever hav judged the wholesomness of food
          508from the comfort of body ensuing thereupon,
          509whereby all animals retrieve their proper diet;
          510but if when in discomfort 'tis for pleasant hope
          511of health restored we swallow nauseous medicines,
          512so mystics use asceticism, yea, and no man
          513readier than they to assert eventual happiness
          514to justify their conduct. Whence it is not strange
          515(for so scientific minds in search of truth digest
          516assimilable hypotheses) they should extend
          517their pragmatism, and from their happiness deduce
          518the very existence and the natur of God, and take
          519religious consolation for the ground of faith:
          520as if the pleasur of life wer the sign-manual
          521of Nature when she set her hand to her covenant.
          522    But man, vain of his Reason and thinking more to assure
          523its independence, wil disclaim complicity
          524with human emotion; and regarding his Mother
          525deemeth it dutiful and nobler in honesty
          526coldly to criticize than purblindly to love;
          527and in pride of this quarrel he hath been led in the end
          528to make distinction of kind 'twixt Pleasur and Happiness;
          529observing truly enough how one may hav pleasure
          530and yet miss happiness; but this warpeth the sense
          531and common use of speech, since all tongues in the world
          532call children and silly folk happy and sometimes ev'n brutes.
          533    The name of happiness is but a wider term
          534for the unalloy'd conditions of the Pleasur of Life,
          535attendant on all function, and not to be deny'd
          536to th' soul, unless forsooth in our thought of nature
          537spiritual is by definition unnatural.


] This epic argument builds a philosophy of beauty or aesthetics on scientific evolution. Book I (Introduction) discusses the relationship of beauty (what human life celebrates) and evil in the world. Book II (Selfhood) describes the spirit of man as reason exerting control over his two great instinctual drives: the self and breeding. Book III (Breed) focuses on the love of the two sexes. Book IV (Ethick) presents the essential role of moral reason in governing humanity.

60] bedizen: clothe in dubious taste.

65] birdës: the sounded es is archaic. Cf. Geoffrey Chaucer's "General Prologue" to the Canterbury Tales, lines 1-11.

98] Sophocles: classical Greek tragedian (496-406 B.C.), and his Oedipus Coloneus. the sick heart of Keats: John Keats (1795-1821), and the "sad heart of Ruth" in "Ode to a Nightingale."

100] Bach: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Mozart: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91).

118] order'd phalanx: Milton describes the winged fallen angels in Book I of Paradise Lost: "Anon they move / In perfect Phalanx to the Dorian mood / Of Flutes and soft Recorders" (549-51).

606] ricks: stacks of mown hay.

615] sackcloth: worn by penitents as a sign of remorse and self-humbling.

531] Brasidas: general (-422 B.C>) in the Peloponnesian War. David Hume in his Natural History of Religion (1757) tells this story, citing Plutarch's Apophthegmata Laconica.

532] An allusion to the historian of the war, Athenian Thucydides (471?-400? B.C.).

535] Plutarch: biographer (ca. 45-125 A.D.), to whose parallel lives of Greeks and Romans Bridges refers.

840] A quotation from Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine, V.1:

What is beauty, saith my sufferings, then?
If all the pens that ever poets held
Had fed the feeling of their masters' thoughts,
And every sweetness that inspir'd their hearts,
Their minds, and muses on admired themes;
If all the heavenly quintessence they still
From their immortal flowers of poesy,
Wherein, as in a mirror, we perceive
The highest reaches of a human wit;
If these had made one poem's period,
And all combin'd in beauty's worthiness,
Yet should there hover in their restless heads
One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least,
Which into words no virtue can digest.

841] alexandrines: metrical lines of six feet or twelve syllables.

859] Benvenuto Celllini (1500-1571), Florentine sculptor. Bridges quotes from the opening of his autobiography: "All men of whatever condition, who have done anything which is of real worth (virtuosa) or in good truth which resembles real worth (virtù), ought, provided they are truthful and honest, to describe their own life with their own hand" (cited by Nowell Charles Smith, Notes on The Testament of Beauty [London: Oxford University Press, 1931]: 27).

361] shares: ploughshares.

367] chariot: a threshing machine.

11] ichor: blood of the gods.

14] the Florentine: Michelangelo's eighth madrigal, "Gli occhi miei vaghi delle cose belle" (translated by Smith, p. 56, as "My eyes enamoured of beauteous things").

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text:
First publication date: 1929
Publication date note: Poetical Works of Robert Bridges with The Testament of Beauty but excluding the eight drama, 2nd edn. (London: Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, 1953): 565-699.
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: 2003
Recent editing: 1:2003/8/12*1:2003/8/12

Form: alexandrines
Rhyme: unrhyming

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