Most assessments of Arthur Hugh Clough’s achievements raise the question, “Why did he not achieve more?” This question originated with his contemporaries and reflects the social attitudes and professional expectations of Victorian times. A young man who was well begun, that is, one who graduated from Oxford or Cambridge and who enjoyed the respect of his colleagues, was expected to rise to eminence in his profession. Clough began with these high expectations. Subsequently, however, he surrendered a fellowship at Oxford, took an administrative post at the University of London, became an examiner in the Education Office, and, finally, an aide to the famous nurse Florence Nightingale. Contemporaries saw this path as a continual falling off. Furthermore, his real accomplishments in poetry occur in just a single decade of his life. Perhaps a more generous way of assessing Clough’s achievement is to concentrate on his creative work itself.
His writing reveals a ferocious intellectual honesty that, by its clarity of vision, allows subsequent generations to see more clearly what were the inner tensions of the reflective person in an age of religious, scientific, and political ferment. Clough is an articulate observer of the age that witnessed the rapid spread of evangelicalism, the sharp reaction against it by the Oxford Movement, the open attacks on historic Christianity, and the fervent reply of a beleaguered orthodoxy. Moreover, he is not only an observer; he is also a sympathetic participant drawn in painfully divergent directions by the conflicts of his times.