A REVIEW OF SONNETS SONGS AND BALLADS BY THE REVEREND E. E. BRADFORD
Sonnets Songs and Ballads was the first of twelve books of verse by the Reverend Edwin Emmanuel Bradford (1860-1944), published by Kegan Paul in London in 1908.
Note that thirteen of the best of the seventy-five poems in this rare book were selected by C. Caunter for inclusion in his anthology of Bradford’s poems, My Love is Like All Lovely Thing: Selected Poems of E. E. Bradford, published by Arcadian Dreams in London in 2023.
“Note the notes and not the words”
by J. M. Thian, 3 July 2023
I. DAYS AND NIGHTS
Bradford’s first collection of poems gives birth to a universe set against a background of rich blue seas, foamy breakers, shores, streams of glory rain. Water is omnipresent in this universe. To the elements already mentioned, we can add the (streams of) rain, the whiffs of sea air, stormy clouds, cool air and breezes, gilded skies, bright dawns, thunderbolts and fires and rainbows. Also frequently mentioned: a teeming forest here, sunny moors there, a fire, a rainbow, more woods, a winding road… Air, water, fire, earth: all are accounted for.
The stars and the sun are also omnipresent. Be it winter, summer or spring, Bradford rarely omits mentioning when the actions in his poems take place: at night most of the time; between sunrise and sunset in general; and sometimes in between, when “night is now over and daylight is peeping” as in A French Boy.
In Bradford’s poetic universe, the transition between nights and days is nearly always smooth, when the sun is not hidden, it is constantly shining “rays of glory.” In Lines on Seeing a Child Bathing, for instance, it “lights up [the boy’s] curly hair with just that same bright gold which gilds the skies” and in Rain and Sunshine, even though it is hidden by the clouds, it manages to make its presence known in the face of Teddy, who, with his friend Boy, is stuck indoors:
But when my young friend, Teddy,
This summer came to stay,
Alas the rain was steady,
It streamed day after day.
The dripping quays looked dreary,
Clouds darkened every place,
Yet sunshine bright and cheery
Still shone in Teddy’s face.
In Bradford’s universe, the night is rarely a source of anguish or fright, quite the contrary. In Boy Friends, in my opinion the most moving poem in this volume, the main character, a young boy, realises that he had “ceased to be a child, and first became a boy” not long after his friend Jack had, at dusk, “pointed out to [him] each star that glimmered in the sky.” No existencial pangs of consciousness here, no deep existencial crisis put to the fore. A boy and his friend who leads him from childhood to boyhood.
Same optimism in A French Boy: the phantoms of the night are easily disposed of and the young hero, who has “heard to satiety / Maxims of piety” from a mother who smothers him, finally manages to make his voice heard and has the strength to rebel against her, dispelling the phantoms of the night (the illusions of youth) just as light is rising, a light presented here as a carrier of truth:
… the dawn’s growing bright`
And the light
of plain Truth
is putting to flight
all illusions of youth
these vague, phantomlike forms of the night
Bradford’s poems are genuinely appeasing, even soothing (and downright funny at times). Death, gloom, terror are not absent: they just seem to have been contained in one and only one poem, The Mad Wolf, whose nightmarish atmosphere and Biblical reference to David make it stand alone among its peers. The background? Same as usual: a river, a winding road, a teeming forest, a starry dome. What differs in this poem is the tone, which is dark and threatening:
One streak of red alone now showed the death bed of the sun
Off skated Boris and Ivan beneath the starry dome…
The sun has been killed, blood is oozing out, the night has fallen. School is over and Boris, with his friend Ivan, are walking back home, when they are suddenly attacked by a mad wolf, with its “gleaming eye and foam-flecked jaw.” The poem could have finished on a very pessimistic note, but Bradford chose not to and ended his fable with a happy ending:
Down Boris fell. Then turned Ivan to brave the frenzied foe.
A heavy stone was in his hand to strike at least one blow –
One blow – but one! The wolf came on with tusks laid bare for war,
The stone fell crashing through his skull – he sank to rise to more.
Mad Wolf is not the only poem in which hate and destructive passion are immediately confronted and destroyed. The same pattern is to be found in So as by Fire: “Sir, your only hope is flight!” says Sidney Swann, Count Dimitri Galitzin’s motor-driver. To which the latter answers: “Flight? They would never let me pass!” Hearing this, Sidney rapidly rips a pathway through the menacing crowd that was threatening their lives and they manage to escape.
Peace, quiet and harmony under the stars and the sun, and the four elements, are the key words here. One absence worth pointing out is that of the moon. Another absent is autumn, never mentioned, not even once. Why ? Probably because their ambivalence and the negative symbolism they carry could not fit in Bradford’s optimistic world.
Yes, Bradford’s poetic universe is resolutely positive: it is a peaceful world, devoid of disruptive passions, a world peopled by teenagers and boys, divine and innocent, who seem to be an integral part of Nature, and whose purpose is to reflect God’s presence on earth.
II. GALLERY OF (MOSTLY) BOY PORTRAITS
Many different boy (and female) characters in these poems…
There is Sidney Swann, Count Galitzin’s 17-year-old motor-driver, whom we have already met. He will, after quite a few (rather funny) ordeals, be adopted by said Count who will find in him somebody to love, somebody who will free his soul, somebody to cherish after having lost his entire fortune.
Then there is Jack, the fisherboy. He is around the same age as Sidney. He is a “sturdy looking chap,” with stubby shocks of curly locks and a skin which is “a lady’s just a little lower down.” Indeed, “not a baby in the land has fairer skin than he.” Jack doesn’t drink, we are told, and “there is not a boy in England works more heartily than he.”
Much younger than Sidney and Jack is 7-year-old Paddy Malloy. He is “prettier than a girl”, refuses to be touched by ladies, says he will never get married. According to the wise man whose advice has been sought by those anxious to reform the boy, Sidney is “too late to change at his age.”
There is Boris, the bold and courageous boy who saved his younger friend from the mad wolf and a certain death; Boy (no other name), a shy chorister endowed with “the frank simplicity of twelve” whose “upper notes [are] good and [have] a silv’ry ring” to them ; a slender curly haired child whose “deep dark eyes, long lashed, are shadowed like the sea that lies beneath his feet, and from the same rich blue”; and Teddy, who is always laughing, never cross, never surly. When the rain is steady, “sunshine bright and cherry still [shines] in [his] face.”
Playing with his beloved dog, there is beautiful Reggie with his “soft, silky fair hair, eyes grave, tender and wise that grow dewy in sorrow and sparkle in play and flow with devotion in love.” Reggie’s heart is “set on delighting his pet” because “what is there on earth that is sweeter than this – giving pleasure to one whom we love?”
There is Boy (once again, no other name than this). Boy is a new pupil in a boarding school who befriends Jack, goes for a walk with him, is impressed by his knowledge in ships, stars, birds and by the way he makes him dream, the same Jack we have already met awhile ago: it is he who, by speaking of life and love and God to Boy, helps him transition from child to boy.
And then, there’s Willie, who is...
… like a cool breeze
He braces us up as a whiff of sea air
He’s so thoughtful and helpful and eager to please
We never feel weary when Willie is here…
His temper’s so sunny, so steady and calm
He’s so kind to his sisters and poor little mum.
Mother’s Boy 5
Some female characters are present, but the portrait Bradford draws of them is rather shabby, if not downright unflattering. In Mother’s Boy, the governess is “huffy” and the older girls “suffer from nerves.” In French Boy, the mother keeps lying to her boy: when her son asks her about “this world, she talks of the other” and “smothers all yearning for knowledge in [him] and [his] brother.” The boy has no choice but to rebel and reject her:
To the trash I have read
I have said my adieu
I am not to be led
By old women…
… says the boy, and, instead of relying on “old women,” he will turn to men to seek and get the wisdom and knowledge he is craving for:
I will now learn from your lips instead…
Come, open my eyes
Make me wise
To know evil
Throw off all disguise
Show the beast and the devil –
Tell the truth – I am weary of lies.
Now, what type of knowledge which involves “the beast” and “the devil” might come from the lips of the men whose help he is asking for is something we will deal with later on… First, let’s go back to the boys…
III. GOD, LOVE AND BOYS
Each boy has his own identity, character, qualities and passions… Not a single flaw in any of them. Another thing they have in common, something which Bradford makes no mystery of: if they are all different, they are all one and the same, all of them being the reflection of God’s presence on earth, as is made plain in Lines in Seeing a Child Bathing:
Divine of innocence that children gain
Such spotless splendour. Standing in the light
Of God’s once face whence rays of glory rain,
Like Nature, they reflect them without stain.
Add to this what Bradford adds in The Child Divine, and we may very well have a key, if not the key, which will open the door to Bradford’s vision of childhood:
Methought I saw in visions of the night
The Child Divine, concealed in mortal guise [… ]
Since then I seek Him. Here and there I find
In one His smile, in one His tone of voice,
And in a third signs of His mighty mind
The way I understand this, is that each boy is a horcrux. In each one of them, there is a trace, a part of this Child Divine. Which leads us to the following question (again, my interpretation): why search for Him who is unreachable when you can reach Him each time you meet one of His incarnation under the guise of a boy? This idea is best laid bare in O Love, My Love, when Bradford writes that:
The passion poets hymned of yore
Seems worship of a vague ideal;
None ever knew or dreamed before
How sweet, how perfect was the real.
My take is that Bradford here is telling us that we needn’t bother with any vague ideal. Children are real, sweet, perfect, innocent and reachable. God, he adds, has created boys who are even more beautiful than women, and are, as such, “bait for love.” Don’t look up, and seek for answer up in the skies, look down and enjoy the presence of the boys:
Some say man’s beauty is but bait for love,
As birds in breeding time wear plumage bright:
How can this be, when He who rules above
Still makes a child like this more fair to sight
Than any woman?
Seeing a Child Bathing
Jack the fisherboy is such a boy, with his skin which is “a lady’s just a little lower down… not a baby in the land ha[d] fairer skin than he.” So is Paddy Malloy, who “tosses his curls in disdain at the girls / For not one is so pretty as he.” And so is Reggie, with his soft, silky hair, and Willie, who is like a cool breeze, and Teddy with the sun in his eyes, and the slender child bathing, with his deep dark long lashed eyes… If loving the God, or the Child Divine, is an ideal which may seem unreachable, not so is the possibility to love Him through His children. To love a boy, a pretty boy, is to love God. And Bradford hammers it in, in The Child Divine:
When in one I see revealed His heart,
Him from my love nor death nor hell can part!
IV. HELL, OR THE BEAST AND THE DEVIL
One thing I found striking in the poems is that the boys are always seen from afar. Each time the poet is reaching for the sun or the beauty of a boy, he does so from a distance. An Icarus complex of some kind? Sheer puritanism or what’s left of it? I don’t know… What is sure is that poet is like a bird flying up and down from one scene to the other, up and down again, this time from one boy to the next, watching, glancing, respectfully observing Nature, the skies, and the boys in the beauty of their everyday lives, seemingly amazed by the courage they show, the love that inhabits them, the friendship they are capable of… Some poems bring forth in the reader’s mind visions of boys (perhaps) holding hands or with their arm over a friend’s shoulder, but that’s it.
Or is it?
My guess is that more physical scenarios, far less psychological and distant, far less mystical ones, are at work, but in a subterranean, unconscious way, in these 13 poems. Here is one such vision or scenario. All the elements used to create it are from the poems themselves, mostly A French Boy, Mother’s Boy, and Reggie and Rover:
Imagine a lad who is prettier than a girl: he has a lady‘s skin, deep dark eyes and soft, silky and fair hair with curly locks. Fine… Now, imagine him refusing to be led by old women. He is eagerly waiting for a man, a man who will not be afraid to back him against any little maid; a man who will open his eyes, make him wise to know evil, a man who will speak the truth to him and show him “the beast and the devil”… A man, last but not least, who will speak to him of what his mother refuses to tell him about…
Imagine the lad: he is impatient, he is counting the days until this man arrives, and when the man finally does arrive, the lad falls in love with him and the man falls in love with the boy’s beauty and his eagerness to learn. And they will talk, and the man will teach the boy about the mysteries of love and the lad will at last learn from the man’s lips! My guess is that, at this stage, the man’s lips have been put to better use than uttering words of wisdom.
“Naming an object removes three quarters of the poem’s power, which is made up of the joy of gradually guessing; suggesting it, here is the dream,” wrote the French poet Mallarmé. It is not taking too great a risk to say that the unnamed object in Bradford’s poetry is the pleasure of physical contact and sex. “Because what is there on earth that is sweeter than this – giving pleasure to one whom we love?”
Moving on to Bradford’s next volume of poetry, it will be interesting to see, among other things, if his puritanism in this domain has been dealt with…
 Mallarmé, Stéphane, French poet, 1842-1898. “Nommer un objet, c'est supprimer trois quart de la puissance du poème qui est faite du bonheur de deviner peu à peu; le suggérer, voilà le rêve.”
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