Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by Thomas Humphry Ward
Arthur Hugh Clough (18191861)
[Born at Liverpool, Jan. 1, 1819; passed some years of his childhood at Charleston, in Virginia; was at school at Rugby from 1829 to 1837; was Scholar of Balliol and afterwards Fellow and Tutor of Oriel; resigned his offices in Oxford in 1848; was Principal of University Hall, London, for a short time afterwards; again went to America; returned in 1853 to take a post in the Education Office. He died at Florence, Nov. 13, 1861. His poems were chiefly written between 1840 and 1850, The Bothie being published in 1848, and many of the shorter poems appearing in a volume called Ambarvalia in the next year.]
WE have a foreboding, says Mr. Lowell in one of his essays, that Clough, imperfect as he was in many respects, and dying before he had subdued his sensitive temperament to the sterner requirements of his art, will be thought a hundred years hence to have been the truest expression in verse of the moral and intellectual tendencies, the doubt and struggle towards settled convictions, of the period in which he lived. If doubt and struggle were the ruling tendencies of Cloughs time, this lofty estimate may well be true; for in no writer of that day are they more vividly reflected. They are the very substance of his verse, they give it strength, they impose upon it the limitations from which it suffers. Clough has never been a popular poet, and it may be doubted if he ever will be. His poetry has too much of the element of conflict, too much uncertainty, ever to become what the best of it ought to become, a household word. But from beginning to end it exhibits that devotion to truth which was in a special degree the characteristic of the finer minds of his epoch; a devotion which in his case was fostered by his early training under Arnold at Rugby, and by the atmosphere of theological controversy in which he found himself at Oxford. The warmth of his feelings, the width of his sympathies, the fineness of his physical sensibilities, made him a poet rather than a writer of prose treatises; but the other element, that element of impassioned search for reality, gives his poems their distinctive qualitynamely, an air of strenuous mental effort which is almost greater than verse can bear.
Clough was a philosophic poet in a sense in which no man since Lucretius has been so.1 This judgment, the judgment of a very competent critic, is at first unpalatable; one is not used to this matching of the men of our own time, and the men who are not among the most famous, with the giants of antiquity. The comparison however is no mere phrase. These two men were philosophers, not from the desire of fame, not from the pleasure of intellectual discovery, not because they hoped that philosophy would suggest thoughts that would soothe some private grief of their own, but because it was to them an overpowering interest to have some key to the universe, because all even of their desires were suspected by them until they could find some central desire on which to link the rest; and love and beauty, and the animation of life, were no pleasure to them, except as testifying to that something beyond of which they were in search. The unlikeness between the two poets is far more apparent than the likeness; for Lucretius has found his solution of the puzzle of existence, and Clough has not; the ancient poet believes that he has reached the point at which all contradictions are harmonised, the modern poet is sure that he has done nothing of the kind. But in this they are one, that both are philosophic, are lovers of the knowledge which reveals to them real existence, are content with nothing less. A reader of Cloughs poetry, marked as so much of it is by indecision and manifoldness of view, is startled when he comes upon such passages as these from his American letters
I think I must have been getting into a little mysticism lately. It wont do: twice two are four, all the world over, and theres no harm in its being so; tisnt the devils doing that it is; il faut sy soumettre, and all right.
What I mean by mysticism, is letting feelings run on without thinking of the reality of their object, letting them out merely like water. The plain rule in all matters is, not to think what you are thinking about the question, but to look straight out at the things and let them affect you; otherwise how can you judge at all? look at them at any rate, and judge while looking.
This is not the most obvious feature of Cloughs mind, but it is the most real; and it explains much in his work that is otherwise difficult to account for. It explains, for example, the scantiness of his production; as Mrs. Clough says in her memoir of him, his absolute sincerity of thought, his intense feeling of reality, rendered it impossible for him to produce anything superficial. When taken together with his sense of the infinite complexity of human life, it explains the play of conflicting thoughts and feelings which is the very essence of Dipsychus, and gives The Bothie its truth and charm. These poems, however, present the struggle between opposing views so strongly, that it is only when looked at from close by that we detect the positive element in them. It is otherwise with those short lyrics, than which nothing can be more perfect in form or stronger and surer in matter, those lyrics Say not the struggle nought availeth, and As ships becalmed at eve, and O stream descending to the sea,they have the note of certainty without which the poet, whatever else he may have, can have no message for mankind.
There will always be a great charm, especially for Oxford men, in the Long Vacation pastoral The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich. Humour, pathos, clear character-drawing, real delight in nature and a power of rendering her beauties, above all a sense of life, of the joy of eventful livingit has all these, and over the whole is thrown, through the associations of the hexameter, a half-burlesque veil of academic illusion that produces the happiest effect. Yet throughout there runs a current of controversy with the world; the hero Philip Hewson, the poet; Hewson, a radical hot, an idealist who ends by marrying a peasant girl and emigrating with her to New Zealandthis Philip is a type that is always present to Cloughs mind, as much in Dipsychus and Amours de Voyage as in The Bothie. Idealism triumphs in him, indeed, whereas in Dipsychus it is finally defeated by the world-spirit, and in Claude it is checked and baffled by the sheer Hamlet-like weakness of the man. But the likeness which the three bear to one another is too strong to be accidental; it springs from the unity of the poets thought. Clough was in the true sense of the term a sceptic; and his three heroes, whatever the difference of their destinies, are alike sceptics too.
Clough holds a high and permanent place among our poets, not only because, as Mr. Lowell says, he represents an epoch of thought, but because he represents it in a manner so rare, so individual. He is neither singer nor prophet; but he is a poet in virtue of the depth and sincerity with which he felt certain great emotions, and the absolute veracity with which he expressed them. His mind seems habitually to have been swayed by large, slow, deep-sea currents, says one of the best of his critics2currents partly general in their operation on his time, partly special to himself; and his utterances when so swayed are intensely real. But he never was driven by them into a want of sympathy with other natures; and it was this extraordinary union of sincerity and sympathy, of depth and breadth, that so endeared him to his friends, and that make it difficult even now for the critic of his poetry not to be moved by the personal estimate. We find in his poems all sorts of drawbacks; we find a prevailing indecision that injures their moral effect in most cases; we find fragmentariness, inequality, looseness of construction, occasional difficulty of rhythm. Yet what of this? one is tempted to ask. In the presence of that sincerity, that delight in all that is best in the physical and moral world, that humour at once bold and delicate, that moral ardour, often baffled, never extinguished, we feel that the deductions of criticism are unwelcome: we are more than content to take Thyrsis as we find him, though
the music of his rustic flute
Kept not for long its happy country tone;
Lost it too soon, and learnt a stormy note
Of men contention-tost, of men who groan,
Which tasked his pipe too sore, and tired his throat.