This poem, written in 1849 and published in 1855, is written to encourage those who were disappointed and discouraged by the failures of the 1848 revolutions in France and Italy. Many, like Clough, who had an evangelical background, hoped the uprising would bring needed reforms to help the working classes and the poor.
The poem can seem difficult because of the archaic language, but it is actually very straightforward. In the first stanza, Clough answers the naysayers who are despairing. He contradicts those who are say that nothing will change. That is not true, he states. The "struggle," "labor" and "wounds" suffered were not worthless ("in vain").
In the second stanza, he continues this theme. If people say they were betrayed by false hopes, maybe the fears they now feel are also lying to them. Maybe, though we cannot see it—here Clough uses the image of smoke—the people on the side of revolution and change are almost at the victory point and only need us to join in order to win the day. In other words, he is saying that rather than despair, people should keep on struggling for change.
The third and fourth stanzas use nature images to make the same point: while it may seem as if nothing is changing, out of view great things may be happening. The ocean waves seem never to gain an inch, no matter how many times they break on the shore, but waters may be flooding fields out of view, bringing new contours to the land. Likewise, playing on the idea that it is always darkest before dawn, the final stanza says that it can seem as if the sun will never rise—and then it does.
Clough suggests in this poem that the defeats suffered are temporary setbacks. Margaret Drabble, a writer and critic, says the poem never fails to bring tears to her eyes, and it does have a sincere simplicity that moves our emotions. Further, its language is general and universal, so that it is applicable to any struggle.