Bridges, Robert Seymour


b Walmer, Kent 1844, d Boars Hill, nr Oxford 1930. After his country squire father died when Robert was 10, his mother remarried and the family moved to Rochdale, from where RSB was sent to Eton Coll; then Corpus Christi Coll Oxford where his friendship with Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89) began. He trained as a doctor at St Bartholomew’s Hosp, London (MB 1874, and for a time its casualty physician), and while holding various hospital appointments he wrote much verse, the first of many published vols appearing in 1873 as Shorter Poems. In 1882 he changed course to concentrate on literature and music, in both of which he excelled. He lived at Yattendon (where from 1885 he trained the choirboys), a village nr Newbury, Berks, from 1882 to 1904, and at Boars Hill, Oxford, from 1907 until his death. His early ‘catholic’ leanings merged in later life to a broader view, combining an emphasis on beauty and excellence in the arts with a deep affection for what was historic, even archaic. Contemporaries noted his ‘extraordinary personal charm’ and called him one of the most remarkable figures of his time; ‘there is no company in which he would not have been distinguished’. Others point to the audacity, ‘opinionated brusqueness’ and worldly substance without which his achievements would have been impossible.

In 1913 he was appointed Poet Laureate, co-founding The Society for Pure English, and for many years advised the Oxford Univ Press on style, spelling, typography etc. The Testament of Beauty (1929) was a philosophical poem wedding contemporary science and Christian faith, a kind of mature credo published a year before his death and widely acclaimed. The 100 hymns and tunes in the 4 parts of The Yattendon Hymnal, which he compiled between 1895 and 1899 with the artist and musician Prof Harry Ellis Wooldridge, (who also helped to compile the ill-fated 1904 A&M at around the same time), were not intended as a commercial best-seller. Most of the texts were his own; most of the music pre-1750. But the ideals the book embodied both in its selection of words and tunes and by its editorial comments had a profound influence on the EH of 1906 and the Oxford Hymn Book of 1908; ‘good melody is never out of fashion’. In 1979 Erik Routley chose 5 of these texts for his A Panorama of Christian Hymnody. Bridges’ wife Monica provided many of the harmonies. He had, however, resigned from his post as precentor at Yattendon in 1894 because of his growing dislike of the vicar’s sermons.

Among other publications were plays, essays such as A Practical Discourse on some Principles of Hymn-Singing, further lyrics, and the first collected edn (in 1918) of the poems of Hopkins. His prose was collected and reissued between 1927 and 1936. Some of his work was consciously archaic even in its time; hymn-book editors differ in recent approaches to his language. 19 of his hymns are found in Songs of Praise (1931 edn); 13 appeared in EH (whose committee he declined to join); 10 in the 1950 Congregational Praise, the same number in the New English Hymnal of 1986, and 8 in Common Praise (the 2000 A&M). He is represented by two 4-line poems in the current (1999) Oxford Book of English Verse (a ration reflecting changes in literary taste), but is treated more generously in many other anthologies. As well as the hymns included here, other favourites include Happy are they, they that love God; Rejoice, O land, in God thy might; and The duteous day now closeth. See also Hymnwriters 3 by Bernard Braley, 1991, and Robert Bridges: a biography by Catherine Phillips, 1992. Bridges was also responsible for the preservation and later publication of the ground-breaking poems of his friend Gerard Manley Hopkins. Nos.412, 775.

Hymns and songs by Bridges, Robert Seymour

Number Hymn Name
412 Ah, holy Jesus, how have you offended
775 All my hope on God is founded