In the summer of 1849, Arthur Hugh Clough went to dinner with the writer Jane Octavia Brookfield. ‘I tried to talk with him, but he has the most peculiar manner I almost ever saw,’ she wrote to Thackeray the following day. ‘Mr Clough sat at the foot of my sofa with this keen expression of investigation, which I determined not to mind, & only thought him un-understandable.’ Part of what unnerved Clough’s contemporaries – in his verse as well as in life – was his talent for scissoring through the evasions and impostures of Victorian morality: ‘Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive/Officiously to keep alive’; ‘Thou shalt not covet; but tradition/Approves all forms of competition.’ Just as unsettling was the sense that, despite his destructive energy, Clough never seemed to arrive anywhere. ‘You are too content to fluctuate,’ his friend and rival Matthew Arnold once rebuked him, ‘to be ever learning, never coming to the knowledge of the truth.’ As one of Clough’s most sympathetic 19th-century readers, the philosopher Henry Sidgwick, observed, he was a man who would neither ‘heartily accept mundane conditions and pursue the objects of ordinary mankind’ nor ‘reject them as a devotee of something definite’. The poems themselves are persistently drawn into this bind, counting the cost of submission and resistance: ‘What incense on what altars must I burn/And what abandon, what unlearn or learn?’
During his lifetime, Clough was chiefly known for disappointing the expectations of his friends, many of whom went on to occupy high places. He was born in 1819 in Liverpool, though his family moved soon afterwards to South Carolina. His father, a cotton trader, sent his two sons to school in England, and to Wales for the holidays. Clough’s abortive career as an Oxford don and his perceived failure to make something of his gifts damaged his personal and literary reputation. Many years after he left Oxford people still knew him only as the author of half a volume of fiddly, soul-searching, at times deeply impressive poems characterised by moral austerity and expressive incontinence, and one politically feisty and unpronounceable narrative poem, The Bothie of Toper-na-Fuosich (1848), valued principally for its depiction of Highland scenery. His death in 1861 at the age of 42 elicited sighs over his ‘wasted genius’, ‘baffled intellect’ and ‘unfulfilled purpose’ from those who recognised the force of his talent – and bemusement from those who did not. ‘He was one of the prospectuses which never become works,’ G.H. Lewes wrote, ‘one of that class whose unwritten poems, undemonstrated discoveries, or untested powers, are confidently announced as certain to carry everything before them, when they appear. Only they never do appear.’ Clough’s premature demise seemed in keeping with this general impression of hopelessness. ‘I cannot say his death took me altogether by surprise,’ Arnold confided to a friend. ‘I had long a foreboding something was deeply wrong with him.’
Though his biographers have never been able to decide whether Clough was an utterly singular or thoroughly representative figure (Mr Mid-Victorian Doubt), as a poet his place has proved stubbornly marginal. The full range of his poetic activity became clear only after his death: two blazing unfinished verse dramas, Adam and Eve and Dipsychus and the Spirit; a fantastically spiky novel in verse, Amours de Voyage (in his lifetime published only in America); a Chaucerian collection of verse tales told by the passengers on a transatlantic steamer, Mari Magno; and a welter of more or less polished lyrics. But the mythology of failure persisted and Clough found himself transmitted to posterity as a minor moon in Arnold’s orbit, a useful illustration of everything his friend thought amiss with modernity – its absence of heroic action, its subjectivity, its fragmentation and confused multitudinousness. Even after these qualities were re-evaluated in the early 20th century, Clough nonetheless shared in the slump in Victorian poetic fortunes. There is little distance between the incomprehension of his most conservative contemporary readers and Lytton Strachey’s scorn for the overgrown adolescent ‘with the weak ankles and the solemn face’, labouring under an unhealthy ‘stress of spirit’.
Clough’s targets provoked in him an unease that makes his writing something more than satire and wrongfoots readers who try to understand him too quickly. ‘Is it conceivable,’ he once wondered, ‘that (by a strange Nemesis) a parodist may become his own original? Can type and anti-type, parody and anti-parody be thus combined in one person and one poem?’ Inside Clough’s most scathing ironies there’s an uncertainty about who is getting the better of whom. It led him to put some of his most cherished convictions into some wildly unsympathetic mouths, to see how it made them sound. Arnold abhorred this sort of thing, intoning against ‘the dialogue of the mind with itself’. But Clough saw that self-dialogue could be a cure as well as a disease, or at least a way of being less dutiful towards your discontentments. Throughout the poems you can sense the secret glee of the pious schoolboy who once confessed in his diary: ‘Feel almost inclined to sin because it seems monotonous to be good all day.’ Arnold dreamed of expunging ‘all feelings of contradiction and irritation’ from poetry, but Clough wanted poems ‘in all points tempted as we are’, and his writing craves the drama of temptation, ‘the Appetite,/The enjoyment, the aftervoid, the thinking of it’.
Claude, the protagonist of Amours de Voyage, hopes that travelling to Rome might allow him to live a ‘freer and larger existence’. The year is 1849 and Garibaldi is defending the newly established Roman Republic against the besieging Habsburg and French armies. Observing from the fringes (in cafés and hotels), Claude writes a series of letters in which he rehearses his political uncertainties and his bungled love affair with another English tourist, Mary Trevellyn, whom he chases in vain across Europe. Claude’s own name, as Adam Phillips has observed, suggests ‘someone being got at’, and early on he rejoices that
It is a blessing, no doubt, to be rid, at least for a time, of
All one’s friends and relations, – yourself (forgive me!) included, –
All the assujettissement of having been what one has been,
What one thinks one is, or thinks that others suppose one
Like the city itself, however, Claude soon finds himself under siege. Temptation comes in many guises (and disguises). He is tempted by engagement and withdrawal, indifference and obligation; tempted to fit in and tempted to stand out. Should he ‘incarnadine ever this inky pacifical finger’ for the ideals of the Roman Republic, for its poor, for the visiting English ladies? As his jauntiness suggests, it’s a sacrifice he’s unlikely to be asked to make, but the problem stirs up troubling questions about love and political action: whether to ‘wait, unhurried, unprompted’ or take the tide at the flood (whatever that might involve), and how to weigh these aspirations against the rival claims of nature, the cloister, art, antiquity, the absolute, each of which vexes and lures him in turn. As in Clough’s Faustian dialogue Dipsychus and the Spirit, the poem becomes a theatre of devil’s advocacy, an attempt to work out when justification becomes special pleading and conviction becomes cant, and whether it’s possible to live an ‘untraitored’ life.
Clough felt keenly the intellectual pressures of his age. He witnessed two European revolutions (Paris in 1848 as well as Rome in 1849) and was acquainted with everyone from Carlyle to Thoreau, Newman to Mazzini, Wordsworth and Tennyson to Spencer and Lyell. He contemplated launching himself as the ‘Apostle of Anti-Laissez-Faire’, got stuck into (as well as stuck on) the historical and philosophical problems rattling Christianity, and, in his later roles at Whitehall and as a close associate of Florence Nightingale, made important contributions to the welfare of soldiers. At the same time, he wrote frankly about sexuality and raised a proto-ecological voice on behalf of a world ‘not made with hands, not capable of duplication’. This parcelling up of his interests can obscure the peculiar manner that makes Clough so worth listening to. As he once advised his students, ‘a man’s way of saying things will very often tell you more about him than all the things he says to you.’ His way is one of ‘blest expansion’, which identifies pleasure in plight and suspects that our pleasures are never pure; which thrives by ‘fusion, and mutation, and return’.
Mash-ups and medleys sustain, as well as compromise, Clough’s poetry at every level: verse form (elegiac hexameter, blank verse heroic hudibrastic); genre (pastoral epic romance satire novel, tragicomic melodramatic epistolary lyrical); rhetoric (Homeric Pickwickian, music hall biblical, kinky political). He is credited by the OED with coining the term ‘poetism’, which suggests his misgivings about what poetry had the potential to become as well as his willingness to screw up his own aspirations to poetical effect. But screwing up is also the enduring subject of his poems. As the Spirit scolds the ‘two-souled’ Dipsychus, ‘You’re this and that,/And here and there, and nothing flat.’ Ditto Claude, spooked by the unexpectedness of life:
Yes, I am going, – I feel it, I feel and cannot recall it,–
Fusing with this thing and that, entering into all sorts of relations,
Tying I know not what ties, which, whatever they are, I know one thing,
Will and must, woe is me, be one day painfully broken,-
Claude’s pursuit of singlemindedness is foiled by his fears of entanglement, which ruffle his composure (‘woe is me’ is self-mocking, but also self-indulgent). The tense jumps back and forth between the continuous and the simple present, as though placing a barrier between the man who suffers and the mind which sedates. But although he trusts to certainty – ‘when we know, we are happy,’ he declares later on – the reckless energy of his verse, its rhythmic elasticity, tells another story. Never knowing what Claude will say next becomes one of the things we know him by. His long lines stretch out like runways.
Walter Bagehot, a friend of Clough’s, said that the problem with such minds is they ‘will not make their image’; he was talking about Clough’s iconoclastic religious opinions, but the remark also relates to his poetic practice. What he made was often a mess, and there’s no rescuing lines such as: ‘Is it, O marvel of marvels! he too in the maze of the mazy.’ But what Clough observed of Wordsworth was also true of himself: had he been ‘more capable of discerning his bad from his good, there would it is likely enough have been far less of the bad, but the good perhaps would have been very far less good.’ Arnold charged him with a ‘deficiency of the beautiful’, but such criticism misfires. Dipsychus finds solace and repose in the ‘calm Campanile’ and the sway of a gondola, but his insipid refrain (‘How light we go, how softly! Ah!’) suggests beauty can enervate as well as enliven. Something better than perfection is always beckoning: ‘Hints haunt me ever of a More beyond:/I am rebuked by a sense of the incomplete.’
Much has been made of the personal and intellectual strains that fed the myth of failure first promoted by Clough’s well-meaning friends. But unlike his precursors Byron and Goethe, Clough declined to romanticise his disenchantments. There was no need, when they possessed attractions of their own: ‘To move on angels’ wings were sweet;/But who would therefore scorn his feet?’ This didn’t stop others doing it for him, most notably Arnold, who commemorated him with a long, withdrawing snore in his dirge ‘Thyrsis’. Years earlier, Clough had been the golden boy of Arnold’s father, Thomas, the charismatic headmaster of Rugby. Arnold senior had sent Clough off to a scholarship at Balliol, only for him to postpone his final exams and emerge with a disappointing second. He eventually won a fellowship at Oriel (following in his mentor’s footsteps), but found the Oxford curriculum stultifying and his colleagues full of odium theologicum.
Oxford insisted that fellows subscribe to the Church of England’s 39 Articles. Having swallowed his scruples to take his MA and again when awarded a fellowship, Clough finally decided he couldn’t stomach it any longer and resigned before his thirtieth birthday. ‘If I begin to think about God,’ he wrote, ‘there arise a thousand questions, and whether the 39 Articles answer them at all or whether I should not answer them in the most diametrically opposite purport is a matter of great doubt.’ After he left, his poetry prospered, and his better work springs from a remarkably brief and lively period in his late twenties and early thirties, roughly between 1848 and 1854.
Clough early on began to use the hexameter, the six-foot line of classical epic. Klopstock had led a revival of the form in Germany and it enjoyed a brief vogue in England following Southey’s paean to George III, The Vision of Judgement (1821). But its fortunes were transformed in the 1840s by controversial new translations of the Iliad by Lancelot Shadwell and John Gibson Lockhart, and by Longfellow’s Evangeline (1847). Like Arnold, Clough was interested in the way effects of ancient prosody might be reproduced in translation, but since English is a stress-timed language, with no stable concept of syllable ‘quantity’, the vernacular form is worlds away from its classical model (especially given the liberties taken with substitutions). It’s tempting to see Clough’s hexameters as part of the wider Victorian mania for fancy metrics. Still, they’re not fiendishly tricky, as this very sentence can witness.
In Clough’s case they perhaps came too readily. Consider The Bothie of Toper-na-Fuosich, with its tumble of adjectives and participles. It impressed the Brownings and was well enough known that Kipling could later parody it (pretty effectively) as The Bother. The poem is a 19th-century sentimental education: hot-headed Philip learns through a series of flirtations not to overrate beauty, not to be dazzled by wealth or to idealise poverty. For all its innuendoes and argumentative brio (including some daring discussions of class and sexual politics), the poem is an oppressively wholesome affair. Philip eventually settles down to farming and fatherhood in the antipodes, where, we are told, he ‘subdued the earth and his spirit’, as though these activities were identical. The poem’s title was a little less wholesome, it turned out. In a letter to Thomas Arnold the younger in New Zealand, Clough wrote that it was only now, having ‘published the name to all the drawing-rooms and boudoirs (of course) of all the world’, that he’d discovered it was a Gaelic circumlocution for ‘vagina’. ‘O Mercy! – It is too ludicrous not to tell someone, but too appallingly awkward to tell anyone on this side of the globe.’
Dipsychus, begun two years later, has an exquisitely awkward sexual temptation scene, but the tempter’s rough handling of sexual ethics makes it seem more nihilistic than emancipatory. At first the Spirit rallies Dipsychus:
Come now: it’s mainly your temptation
To think the thing a revelation
A mystic mouthful that will give
Knowledge and death, – none know and live;
Yet he immediately falls foul of his own counsel, archly declaring that sex teaches ‘the emptiness of things’. The danger with every vein of strong feeling, Clough keeps telling us, is that we may ‘overrate it/First canonise, then reprobate it/And in all kinds exaggerate it’. Clough’s real achievement with the hexameter lies not in the facility of his scansion, but in the way he teases from it the shambling sound of second thoughts and second guessing: ‘After all perhaps there was something factitious about it:/I have had pain, it is true; I have wept; and so have the actors.’
It’s a pity these lines from Amours de Voyage are relegated to the endnotes in Gregory Tate’s new edition of Clough’s writings, which opts for the first published versions of the texts. Given that Clough was pre-eminently a poet of ‘after-thoughts’ and ‘counter-thoughts’, this seems a questionable choice. It’s true that his revisions were often bowdlerising, but while few would prefer the sanitised Bothie, many of the most striking lines in Amours de Voyage are the result of revisions made in 1859, a year after it was published in the Atlantic Monthly. In the main, these were restorations (or adaptations) of passages previously cancelled in manuscript – second thoughts about second thoughts, in keeping with the poetry’s own tergiversations. But Tate’s edition deserves praise for its generous selection of the poems (the only ones I miss are Adam and Eve and Clough’s dramatic monologue on Louis XV, ‘Sa Majesté Très Chrétienne’) as well as the judicious selection of letters and prose that accompanies it. The notes lucidly set Clough’s life and work in context.
Part of that context is the trouble Clough ran into after leaving Oxford. Things at first looked bright: he accepted the management of a small student residence at the fledgling University College London, which went on to appoint him to a chair in English language and literature (a more precarious position than it sounds since it paid next to nothing). After two unhappy years he packed both jobs in and sailed to America to see if he could make a go of teaching and lecturing with the help of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. He couldn’t. He was also rapidly discovering that life outside the Anglican establishment was no paradise of free thought. The London nonconformists were, if anything, even less tolerant than the patriarchs of Oxford; the Unitarians of New England were so ‘awfully rococo’ in their notions that they put the Tractarians to shame; a promising chair in classics at Aberdeen turned out to hinge on making a different statement of faith – the Kirk’s Westminster Confession, a creed which made the 39 Articles look broad-minded.
One person who shared Clough’s unconventional religious attitudes was Florence Nightingale, his cousin by marriage. Nightingale was delighted when Clough and Blanche Smith first got together and asked Richard Monckton Milnes, a respected family friend and one of the most well-connected men in London, to give Clough a formal introduction to her family. ‘There will be six objections in the minds of my people,’ she wrote to him, in her magnificent and rather frightening way:
1. An instructor of youth;
2. Without a sou;
3. Or a relation;
4. Or orthodoxy;
Despite these obstacles, the couple married in 1854 (Milnes, himself a former suitor of Nightingale’s, had at first assumed she meant to wed Clough herself).
A post at the Education Office enabled Clough to marry, but his volunteer work for Nightingale and her fund to support the training of military nurses proved far more demanding. Clough was closely involved not only in the minutiae of administration but also in preparing Nightingale’s voluminous writings – with their battery of statistical tables and infographics – for publication, including the landmark 800-page report on army health issued in 1858. The project took its toll on them both and Nightingale, bedridden and convinced she was dying, made a will bequeathing Clough the bulk of her estate. But he never recovered his health after an attack of scarlet fever in 1859. Nightingale lived for another fifty years, but Clough died in Florence in 1861. Blanche blamed the pressures of ‘the Fund and Flo’.