The Testament of Beauty

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,
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
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
99see then how deeply seated is the urgence whereto
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
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
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 --
from Book II. Selfhood
533once caught a mouse foraging in his messbasket
534among the figs, but when it bit him let it go,
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.
.....
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
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
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,
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
12responsiv faculty in some richly favour'd soul --
13L'anima vaga delle cose belle, as saith
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.

Notes

0] 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. Back to Line
60] bedizen: clothe in dubious taste. Back to Line
65] birdës: the sounded es is archaic. Cf. Geoffrey Chaucer's "General Prologue" to the Canterbury Tales, lines 1-11. Back to Line
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." Back to Line
100] Bach: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Mozart: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). Back to Line
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). Back to Line
606] ricks: stacks of mown hay. Back to Line
615] sackcloth: worn by penitents as a sign of remorse and self-humbling. Back to Line
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. Back to Line
532] An allusion to the historian of the war, Athenian Thucydides (471?-400? B.C.). Back to Line
535] Plutarch: biographer (ca. 45-125 A.D.), to whose parallel lives of Greeks and Romans Bridges refers. Back to Line
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.
Back to Line
841] alexandrines: metrical lines of six feet or twelve syllables. Back to Line
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). Back to Line
361] shares: ploughshares. Back to Line
367] chariot: a threshing machine. Back to Line
11] ichor: blood of the gods. Back to Line
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"). Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
1929
Publication Notes: 
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 Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
2003
Rhyme: 
Form: