Arthur Hugh Clough.
Will there be any more Great Poets?
Arthur Hugh Clough was a notable though not a great poet, and considering how many of the qualities he possessed that go to the making of a great poet, it is interesting to speculate as to the unrealised might-have-been. A gentle yet robust soul, admiring the beautiful and the serviceably good, Clough was at the same time capable of noble indignations. The one does not follow the other as a matter of course. There is a guileless gentleness that thinks no evil even when it sees it; that seems to take the evil for granted, and passes it by. Whereas the true poet hates evil as a gratuitous smirch upon the essential goodness of humanity and the ideal social order, and his holy rage becomes vocal and musical. The great poet’s passion is begotten of sorrow and suffering, if not in his own person, then in the sorrow and suffering of others, with which he sympathetically identifies himself. To a young contralto singer the maestro said: ‘You have a beautiful voice: how can I get you to make the full use of it? Have you a sweetheart? If I can get somebody to break your heart, then you’ll sing.’
There does not seem to have been anything to break Clough’s heart. Son of a prosperous cotton merchant of Liverpool, favourite pupil at Rugby of the great Dr. Arnold, brilliant winner of the Balliol scholarship on going to Oxford, fellow and tutor of Oriel College, his cloistered life was tranquil beyond that of men in the rough world. Living through the period of sacerdotal ferment at Oxford in the thirties and forties of the last century, his strong, healthy mind took a deeply sceptical turn, natural enough in the circumstances, but not a fruitful mental attitude. Scepticism is well enough in a critic; though even here the critic of constructive ideals, who cleaves to positive beliefs and aims, is the only fruitful expositor. The great man - poet or other maker - is great because of the things he loves and does, not by reason of his denials and opposition. Greatness is a thing of affirmations and enthusiasms, of definite output to be tested by measures and standards of quantity and quality, not a career of negations and hostility. The sceptic as such is one bereft; the positivist as such is one endowed.
Of course the theological sceptic may be an ardent believer and worshipper in some other direction. Quite often he is so. One cannot help comparing the career of Clough with that of another Oxford poet - William Morris. Regarding the things over which the Puseyites were exercised, Morris was as sceptical as Clough; but Morris rid himself of superstition only that he might throw himself with the greater ardour into the cult of redeeming the lesser arts, and practising with inborn mastery the great art of poetry. He loved the earth and man, and the best work of man’s hands upon the earth, with a love that dwarfed all windy negations into insignificance. Clough was far from insensible to the beauty of the earth: his love of the Scottish highlands and of wild Nature in general is one of the outstanding features of his poetry. But the work of man’s hands does not possess for him the charm and interest which it had for Morris. Of Rome he wrote in ‘Amours de Voyage’ -
Marble I thought thee and brickwork I find thee.
St. Peter’s he found pagan rather than Christian in the spirit which its architecture expressed; and he is rather pleased than otherwise with its clear rationalism as distinguished from the Gothic mystery and grandeur of ‘Freiburg, or Rheims, or Westminster Abbey.’ Morris loved the Gothic, so to say, for its own sake, and apart from any general spiritual significance which grove-like vaulted roof, and vista of pillars, and infinite carved detail might have. The liveliness of his interest, borne of a knowledge of details, would save him from the soul-sick derisiveness of the non-practical man who takes the ensemble for granted and has not a thought to spare for the labours in detail of generations of long-dead craftsmen who were happy in the cunning work of their free, unhasting hands.
It is to be counted unto Clough for righteousness that he jibbed at the donnish seclusion of Oxford life, and resigned his comfortable fellowship. But somewhat of a don he remained; for on leaving Oxford he became for a time the Principal of University Hall, London, and was afterwards an examiner in the Education Office of the Privy Council. This is to have been divorced from reality, from things as distinguished from words, during a lifetime. Pedagogy has its inestimable value to the community and its great compensations to the teacher; but one of its penalties is to be always at school. Kings, judges, asylum attendants, and teachers stand in an abnormal relation to those with whom they associate, and it is greatly to the credit of human nature that the best of them should not only retain much naturalness and sweetness, but that the position should actually develop virtues peculiar to itself, in the case of the teacher patience, fairness, and a whole-hearted admiration for mental power for its own sake. The drawbacks are that while the spirit of youthful cameraderie is lost, the adult attitude of ordinary equality and sympathetic understanding is not always attained.
Clough was better than his circumstances. We are told that he hated political economy for its soullessness, and that during the Irish famine of the forties he published a pamphlet in which he advocated, among other things, the cutting down of donnish luxuries so that money might be spared for the stricken peasantry. His philosophy of plain living and high thinking was, on the showing of his friend F. T. Palgrave, the subject of ‘many a humorous and admirable lesson.’ This biographer continues:-
In all his dealings the most casual observer would have felt, here was a man who loved truth and justice, not coldly and afar off as most, but with passion and intensely; and against what he judged wrong and meanness in high places he fought with an unselfish courage and a spirit which did good to all honest hearts.
This moral passion makes it more difficult to understand how Clough failed of attaining the highest levels of poetry; for his faculty of utterance is undoubted, and he had otherwise many of the characteristics of poetic genius. Thus ‘Golden-Treasury’ Palgrave again says:-
A certain unaptness or want of shrewd rapidity (as shown in his honours examination), a sensitive fairness and chivalrous openness of dealing, marked him rather as the poet who walked the world’s way as a matter of duty, living a life, meanwhile, hidden with higher and holier things, with the friends and books he loved so fondly, with deep solitary thought, with Nature in her wildness and her majesty. Cast on days of change and development, his strong moral impulses threw him into the sphere of warfare; yet he was no ‘born reformer’; was diffident of his own conclusions; had no clean-cut decisive system, nay, thought experience proved the narrowness of such; and was beyond those fetters of ‘logical consistency’ which played so great a part in the controversies of the time.
The first part of that passage outlines some personal characteristics of the great poets; the concluding clauses probably contain the explanation of how Clough failed of the highest achievements in poetry. He was ‘diffident of his own conclusions.’ This is a very engaging characteristic in a friend; but after all, there are some certitudes in life, and we expect the poet to deal with these; to increase, if possible, the number of these; to put the bloom of artistic expression upon new thoughts that are good for the world, stamping them with that hallmark of conviction which a clear and graceful and ‘inevitable’ form of words goes so far to supply.
Donnishness and Poetry.
Doubtless the first quality in a great poet is the faculty of execution, the craftsman’s skill. But how came the skill; of what is it compacted? One feels that behind poetic genius especially there are qualities which we are obliged to regard as primarily moral. To acquire the faculty he must have greatly desired it. He must have been a worshipper of poetry - that is to say, a worshipper of beautiful things and ideas and the beautiful form of words in which they are expressed. In view of the pleasure which poetry gives to the reader or hearer, and considering how little kudos of money or honour the poet receives in comparison with the politician, pugilist, actor, centre-forward, or billiard champion, we must recognise the work of the great poet as less self-regarding than that of most workers for the community. The power to surrender self - or to realise oneself! - and become absorbed in a socially beneficent art must be regarded as essentially moral both in its nature and its consequences. It is because one artist has more of this capacity for self-surrender than another that he becomes a greater artist. And the reason why the academic person - the don - achieves less excellence in poetry than a young actor like Shakespeare, or a young surgeon like Keats, or a young farmer like Burns, is because he comes less in contact with the moving impulses of life than these practical men do, and on the other hand is more blasé on the subject of literary effort of every kind than they are, since he is handling literature daily as a matter of ‘shop.’
But nothing whatever in mere outward circumstances is more than a partial explanation of poetic or any other kind of genius. The rosebush must have a suitable soil and climate in which to unfold its perfect beauty; but it is not the soil or the climate or both together that make it a rosebush. And there is no explanation of genius either.
The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich.
If we did not think very highly of Arthur Hugh Clough and his work we should not have troubled to examine his antecedents or to regret the might have been. He is best known as the author of ‘The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich’; but that is by no means his best poem. The exploits of a company of English students and their tutor in the Highlands form the theme of the ‘Bothie,’ and the poem is all the better remembered because it is written in hexameters - that is, lines of six metrical feet. ‘Amours de Voyage’ is also written in hexameters; so is Longfellow’s ‘Evangeline,’ and both of these are better poems than the Bothie; but when anyone wishes to discuss hexameters it is always the Bothie he refers to. In spite, of its rugged abruptness the Bothie has some fine reaches of poetry, both argumentative and descriptive. Here is a passage, found at a casual opening, which shows something of Clough’s average good quality as descriptive poet:
As at return of tide the total weight of ocean,
Drawn by moon and sun from Labrador and Greenland,
Sets in amain, in the open space betwixt Mull and Scarba,
Heaving, swelling, spreading, the might of the mighty Atlantic;
There into cranny and slit of the rocky, cavernous bottom
Settles down, and with dimples huge the smooth sea surface
Eddies, coils, and whirls; by dangerous Corryvreckan:
So in my soul of souls, through its cells and secret recesses,
Comes back, swelling and spreading, the old democratic fervour.
That wholesome other-regarding feeling is immediately followed by a more self-regarding outburst, in which ‘primal Nature and Beauty’ serve as a mere background to the adorableness of the young student’s own sweetheart. And yet the following lines are unselfish too, in respect that they call our attention to the poetry of the common day and the place of common people in it. This is the very essence of the poet’s function.
But as the light of day enters some populous city,
Shaming away, ere it come, by the chilly day-streak signal,
High and low, the misusers of night, shaming out the gas-lights -
All the great empty streets are flooded with broadening clearness,
Which, withal, by inscrutable simultaneous access
Permeates far and pierces to the very cellars lying in
Narrow high back lane, and court, and alley of alleys:-
He that goes forth to his walks, while speeding to the suburb,
Sees sights only peaceful and pure; as labourers settling
Slowly to work, in their limbs the lingering sweetness of slumber,
Humble market carts coming in, bringing in, not only
Flower, fruit, farm-store, but sounds and sights of the country
Dwelling yet on the sense of the dreamy drivers; soon after
Half-awake servant maids unfastening drowsy shutters,
Up at the windows, or down, letting in the air by the doorway;
Schoolboys, schoolgirls soon, with slate, portfolio, satchel,
Hampered as they haste, those running, these others maidenly tripping;
Early clerk anon turning out to stroll, or it may be
Meet his sweetheart - waiting behind the garden gate there;
Merchant on his grass-plat haply, bareheaded; and now by this time
Little child bringing breakfast to ‘father’ that sits on the timber
There by the scaffolding; see she waits for the can beside him;
Meantime above purer air untarnished of new-lit fires;
So that the whole great wicked artificial civilised fabric -
All its unfurnished houses, lots for sale, and railway outworks –
Seems reaccepted, resumed to Primal Nature and Beauty:-
Such in me, and to me, and on me the love of Elspie.
Both of these citations are from the Bothie - descriptive passages from a poem that is narrative rather than descriptive. Such writing does not show our poet at his best. Clough is a speculative poet, a moralist, first of all, and his art reaches its highest levels when it is least objective, when it deals with principles rather than things, as we shall see. But there is argument, discussion, too, in the Bothie. Thus the Tutor, the grave man Adam, reproves the eager Philip for too boldly criticising the arrangements of society:-
When the armies are set in array and the battle beginning,
Is it well that the soldier whose post is far to the leftward
Says, I will go to the right; it is there I shall do best service?
There is a great Field-Marshal, my friend, who arrays our battalions;
Let us to Providence trust, and abide and work in our stations.
To this the young social critic makes prompt answer in terms that could not well be formulated in our own day, whether in nominal peace time or in time of recognised war:
O that the armies indeed were arrayed! O joy of the onset!
Sound, thou trumpet of God; come forth, Great Cause, to array us.
King and leader, appear! Thy soldiers sorrowing seek thee.
Would that the armies indeed were arrayed. O where is the battle!
Neither battle I see, nor arraying, nor king in Israel,
Only infinite jumble and mess and dislocation,
Backed by a solemn appeal, ‘For God’s sake, not stir there!’
These citations at least show the nature of hexameters as written by Clough. As already said, the Bothie, from which they are quoted, does not reveal our poet at his best. However suitable the hexameter may be to the Greek, we do not know of any really fine hexameters in English. As written by Clough they tend to be choppy and occasionally somewhat clumping. Long as is the line, we are often pulled up at the end abruptly, the cæsura in sound and sense occurring anywhere rather than at the end of the line. The men of Dryden’s day had a theory that every line ought to end at least with a comma. It was an artificial rule; but other things being equal, one would be inclined to say that the best poetry did have more or less of a pause at the end of the line. That the first word of a new clause should occur frequently at the end of a line is not good management. Thus in the ‘Amours de Voyage’ Clough writes:-
I was returning home from St. Peter’s; Murray, as usual,
Under my arm, I remember; had crossed the St. Angelo bridge; and
Moving towards the Condotti, had got to the first barricade, when –
Such lines are, of course, not poetry at all, and one is glad to say that they are not a fair sample of our poet’s quality, even in the hexameters. But they illustrate a fault in the writing of this metre to which others besides Clough are somewhat prone.
The Latest Decalogue.
Many who know nothing of Clough’s work as a whole are familiar with his sarcastic ‘Latest Decalogue,’ which shows how an essentially reverent nature has its own bitterness at the spectacle of professed sacred beliefs lightly held and, during a great part of the time, simply not acted upon at all.
Thou shalt have one God only; who
Would he at the expense of two?
No graven images may be
Worshipped, except the currency;
Swear not at all; for, for thy curse
Thine enemy is none the worse:
At church on Sunday to attend
Will serve to keep the world thy friend:
Honour thy parents; that is, all
From whom advancement may befall:
Thou shall not kill; but need’st not strive
Officiously to keep alive:
Do not adultery commit;
Advantage rarely comes of it:
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When it’s so lucrative to cheat?
Bear not false witness, let the lie
Have time on its own wings to fly.
Thou shalt not covet, but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.
Where Clough is at his best.
Our poet is at his best in the short pieces where his spirit of contemplative wisdom expresses itself on the higher problems of life and time. The piece headed ‘Qua cursum ventus?’ (Whither goeth the wind?) has found its way into some collections of devotional verse:-
As ships, becalmed at eve, that lay
With canvas drooping, side by side,
Two towers of sail at dawn of day
Are scarce long leagues apart descried;
When fell the night, up sprung the breeze,
And all the darkling hours they plied,
Nor dreamt but each the self-same seas
By each was cleaving, side by side:
E’en so - but why the tale reveal
Of those whom, year by year unchanged,
Brief absence joined anew, to feel
Astounded, soul from soul estranged.
At dead of night their sails were filled,
And onward each rejoicing steered –
Ah, neither blame, for neither willed,
Or wist, what first with dawn appeared!
To veer, how vain! On, onward strain,
Brave barks! In light, in darkness too,
Through winds and tides one compass guides -
To that and your own selves be true.
But O blithe breeze! and O great seas,
Though ne’er, that earliest parting past,
On your wide plain they join again,
Together lead them home at last.
One port, methought, alike they sought,
One purpose hold where’er they fare –
O bounding breeze, O rushing seas!
At last, at last, unite them there!
The picturesque conception which compares two living souls to voyaging ships reflects the theological doubts and strivings which belonged to Clough’s time and surroundings. In matters of speculative belief and thought mankind has a more hopeful and trustful outlook than that which belonged to the middle years of the nineteenth century before the evolution theory came with its immensely widening and cheering account of Nature and man’s ascending place in it.
The essential soundness of Clough’s nature and philosophy are splendidly expressed in the following verses, which we should be inclined to place highest among his writings both as regards their art and their ethics:-
Hope evermore and believe, O man, for e’en as thy thought
So are the things that thou see’st; e’en as thy hope and belief.
Cowardly art thou and timid? they rise to provoke thee against them,
Hast thou courage? enough, see them exulting to yield.
Yea, the rough rock, the dull earth, the wild sea’s furying waters.
(Violent say’st thou and hard, mighty thou think’st to destroy),
All with ineffable longing are waiting their Invader,
All, with one varying voice, call to him, Come and subdue;
Still for their Conqueror call, and but for the joy of being conquered,
(Rapture they will not forego) dare to resist and rebel;
Still, when resisting and raging, in soft undervoice say unto him,
Fear not, retire not, O man; hope evermore and believe.
Go from the east to the west, as the sun and the stars direct thee,
Go with the girdle of man, go and encompass the earth.
Not for the gain of the gold; for the getting, the hoarding, the having,
But for the joy of the deed; but for the Duty to do.
Go with the spiritual life, the higher volition and action,
With the great girdle of God, go and encompass the earth.
Go; say not in thy heart, And what then were it accomplished,
Were the wild impulse allayed, what were the use or the good!
Go; when the instinct is stilled, and when the deed is accomplished,
What thou hast done and shalt do, shall be declared to thee then.
Go with the sun and the stars, and yet evermore in thy spirit
Say to thyself: It is good; yet is there better than it.
This that I see is not all, and this that I do is but little;
Nevertheless it is good, though there is better than it.
These are among the certitudes which it is the poet’s business to command and enforce. Since Clough’s day we have become stronger upon pleasure than upon work; but we may very well have to return to the strenuous life once more, stipulating only that the work shall be worthy and, if possible, pleasant.
Clough, it will be seen, is no mere doubter, ever striving with sphinx riddles in a world out of joint. There is both wit and humour in him. A sample of the humour may be found in the verses on Columbus:-
How in heaven’s name did Columbus get over,
Is a pure wonder to me, I protest.
Cabot and Raleigh too, that well-read rover,
Frobisher, Dampier, Drake and the rest;
Bad enough all the same,
For them that after came;
But in great heaven’s name,
How he should ever think
That on the other brink
Of this wild waste, terra firma should be,
Is a pure wonder, I must say, to me.
How a man should ever hope to get thither,
E’en if he knew there was another side,
But to suppose he should come any whither,
Sailing straight on into chaos untried.
In spite of the motion,
Across the whole ocean,
To stick to the notion
That in some nook or bend
Of a sea without end
He should find North and South America,
Was a pure madness, indeed, I must say.
What if wise men had, as far back as Ptolemy,
Judged that the earth like an orange was round,
None of them ever said, Come along, follow me,
Sail to the West, and the East will be found.
Many a day before
Ever they’d come ashore,
Sadder and wiser men,
They’d have turned back again;
And that he did not, but did cross the sea,
Is a pure wonder, I must say, to me.
The poet had crossed the Atlantic four times as boy and man, and could not fail to be impressed with its immensity.
One more specimen we give as fitting the time, and striking the true manly note which was above all things characteristic of this fine spirit:-
Say not, the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front, the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.
In view of the long dearth of great poets, it is interesting to speculate if there will ever be a great poet in Britain again. The nineteenth century, with all the elements of the prosaic there were about it, was so prolific of great singers that it is not easy to understand how we should be so destitute of them in these latter days. There is Kipling, William Watson, John Masefield, and, till the other day, there were Mrs. Meynell and Rupert Brooke. Readers may each add a favourite to the list – ‘Sourdough’ Service, Richard le Gallienne, Henry Newbolt, Dr. Bridges, Dora Sigerson - and when all have been added that have the least claim, they make a poor figure by comparison with the poets of any decade we choose of the nineteenth century. The blank is so large and complete that it is no wonder if we should despair of ever again hearing noble numbers from a new poet. The war did not evoke a single notable poem so far as we know. Wars never do. Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade,’ which is not many removes from doggerel, is characteristic war verse.
But we need not despair. Our recent great wealth in poetry deepens our sense of present privation. The romance of the world is not less, nor is its beauty. Human loves and hates run as strong as ever they did. Blood is still red. And the perceptions are not blunted. But writing has become terribly commercial. Byron gave away, right and left, the substantial proceeds of his published poems, declaring, even in the midst of pecuniary embarrassments, that he would never accept money for his poetry; but the well to-do man of to-day clutches at literary gain on the plea that he likes to think that his writings are valued.
Yet the commercialising of literature does not wholly account for the dearth of singing birds. It must be accidental. There have been ages in the history of Britain when poetry was at so low an ebb that the public did not know the meaning of the word, and deliberately turned away from Shakespeare to pay homage to Pope. The obscure men who have held the laureateship in bygone days - men whose very names are unknown to-day, or are not to be connected with a single piece of pleasing verse - prove how often in the past there has been ‘a famine in the land.’
Life is larger and more romantic now than ever it was. Beauty is coming back to the world, even if it be only in the imitation of ancient forms. The immediate future will see great changes in the attitude of the public towards literature and the things of the mind generally. Following the bad example of Britain and America, the world has for long been obsessed with materialities that are immaterial. Books, theories, science, system, have had a bad time in Britain. The man of ideas has been made to feel himself superfluous on the stage of life. The stockbroker and the wholesaler have left their millions, while the poet has had a small pension to keep him out of the poorhouse. In the inevitable recasting of life and its values poetry will come into its own. An educated nation will have less use for mawkish fiction, drab drama, and financiers, and more use for poets, artists, and craftsmen. The poet was of old called a ‘maker,’ and to-morrow is with makers of all sorts. In the greater leisure of the future men will feel they have time to observe and to sing, and they will know there is a public for their songs. With life stripped of its superfluously coarse cares and pre-occupations the natural sentiments will have a better chance. Nor will the great poets of the future be men living apart from their fellows, like Shelley and Byron loafing in Italian solitudes, or secluded Tennyson dawdling in the country, smoking ‘infinite tobacco,’ and more concerned about the stars than the neighbours, but men in touch with the pulsing life of the world, as Shakespeare and Milton and Burns and Whitman were.
There can be little change in the poet’s themes; but a better way of life will beget an art in accordance. The recurring miracles of spring, of day, of new life and young love, the inescapable tragedies, the glories of high debate and dauntless deeds, the majesty of ocean, the sadness of the decaying year, the glamour of eld, the romance of failure, the pain and mystery of death and the grave will still be among the poet’s excitations; for these are the stuff of which life is and always must be made; though too often we live our lives unnoting and unheeding the meaning of events whose deeper significance it is the business of the poet to expound and to celebrate.
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