Arthur Hugh Clough’s poetry is the effort of a man reared in deep religious faith to discover whether, following his apostasy, an honest skepticism could produce high-minded contentments equal to those of the idealism he had repudiated.
The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich
Although he wrote occasional poems throughout his life and published a number in the school magazine at Rugby, Clough’s career as a serious poet extends only from 1848 to 1858, with a resurgence of activity in the last year of his life, 1861. The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich, his first major work, appeared at the end of a long year of soul searching. Early in 1848, he had resigned as tutor, and in October, he resigned his fellowship at Oriel. In November, the poem appeared. It is a long account of a group of Oxford scholars who retire to the Scottish highlands to read for examinations. The most distinctive member of the party, Philip Hewson, is a freethinking radical who falls in love three different times during the extended stay—the last time with the girl who lives in the bothie (cottage) at Tober-na-Vuolich. Philip’s various personal experiences have a softening effect on his political views. Early in the poem, he makes a high-strung and doctrinaire attack on the privileged classes, but the women he meets have to be dealt with as actual and complex beings. When he finally falls in love with the peasant girl Elspie, he comes to realize that his economic account of the peasantry is far too simple to explain the living person. In the belief that Oxford scholasticism is too far removed from the life of experience, Philip declines to return—for reasons similar to those of the poet himself. Even Philip’s skepticism now seems to him too doctrinaire to account for the stress of his inner life, and the poem ends with Philip and Elspie emigrating to New Zealand where he “hewed and dug; subdued the earth and his spirit.” Clough suggests that his late skepticism might be as doctrinaire as his early faith, and he looks to the leavening of actual experience to moderate his own abstract scholasticism.
The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich is written in hexameters. This fact has produced a long-running controversy over the metrical effects of the poem. Wendell Harris has given a comprehensive account of the arguments (Arthur Hugh Clough, 1970). Clough’s defenders—such as Matthew Arnold—believe that his use of hexameters gives his poem the primitive, homespun forcefulness that is also to be found in the poetry of classical antiquity—in Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) for example: “So in the golden morning they parted and went to the westward.” Critics of the poem believe that for a sustained work the meter, tending to “break down into anapests" (Harris), flows against the natural iambs of English narrative discourse. It falls somewhere between prose and poetry: “So in the cottage with Adam the pupils live together/ Duly remained, and read, and looked no more for Philip.” If there is to be found a justification for the meter, it is in Clough’s expectation that the rough-hewn meter would reinforce his theme: the rejection of doctrinaire scholasticism (and the modern poetic conventions) in favor of an experientially authenticated sense of love and social justice.
Ambarvalia appeared in January, 1849—only three months after The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich. Ambarvalia is a collection of poems on several topics. The title refers to an ancient Roman festival in which animals were sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the fields. By this title, Clough may have intended to remove himself from a sectarian Christian ideal of the world and to evoke the image of a mythology at once more primitive and closer to nature. The leading poem of the collection implies this sort of skepticism; it is called “The Questioning Spirit.” In it, one human spirit confronts all the others with troubling questions, and they reply that they neither know nor need to know the solution to such rarefied philosophical problems. The poem is an attack on a mindless sort of orthodoxy: “Only with questionings pass I to and fro,/ Perplexing these that sleep, and in their folly/ inbreeding doubt and sceptic melancholy.” That melancholy questioning, coupled with a persistent but vague hope that always attends his agnosticism, could be the theme of Clough’s entire poetry. The poem “Why Should I Say I See the Things I See Not” is a well-nigh militant refusal to say that reality rests on things not manifest, “Unfit, unseen, unimagined, all unknown.” The last of the twenty-nine poems in Ambarvalia asks the ancient...
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