The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

IV. Matthew Arnold, Arthur Hugh Clough, James Thomson

§ 11. The Bothie

The record of Clough’s literary activity is mainly concerned with poetry; he wrote but little prose of permanent value and interest, and that only in the form of scattered articles, which his wife collected and reprinted long after his death. His first poem to appear in print was the “long-vacation pastoral” in hexameters, The Bothie of Toper-na-Fuosich, composed immediately after he left Oxford—the liberation song of an emancipated soul. He had already written short poems, and these were, soon afterwards, published (1849), first in a volume called Ambarvalia, the joint production of Clough and his friend Thomas Burbridge, and, subsequently, in a separate form. These poems include several of the best of his shorter lyrics, such as Qua Cursum Ventus (recording the break of his friendship with W. G. Ward), Qui Laborat Orat, The New Sinai, The Questioning Spirit, Sic Itur, Duty, The Higher Courage—all poems which bear the marks of the spiritual conflict of his Oxford days.

During a visit to Rome in 1849, Clough composed his second hexameter poem, Amours de Voyage, and, in the following year, at Venice, he began Dipsychus. This latter poem, like Mari Magno—a series of “modern” tales introduced and told in manner reminiscent of Chaucer—“was not poet’s works, “during the author’s lifetime, and should not be regarded as having received his finishing touches.” The works recorded here, together with a number of other lyrics—of which the group entitled Songs in Absence are the most notable—and a few satirical and reflective pieces, constitute the sum of Clough’s poetical productions.

Of few poets can it be said more positively than of Clough that his appeal is, and always must be, to a select and limited audience. His poetry can never be popular, not only because much of it is too introspective, but because the form of two of his most elaborate poems will remain a stumbling-block to the average English reader of poetry. “Carmen Hexametrum,” says Ascham in The Scholemaster, “doth rather trotte and hoble than runne smoothly in our English tong,” and his words are still true in spite of nineteenth-century efforts to establish that measure in our common prosody. Neither Matthew Arnold’s advocacy of it as the fit medium of Homeric translation, nor Bagehot’s description of it, in discussing Clough’s hexameters, as “perhaps the most flexible of English metres,”disposes of the hard fact that, to quote again from Bagehot, no “consummate poem of great length and sustained dignity” has ever yet been written in it in English. To say, as one of his admirers does, that Clough’s hexameters “are unlike those of any other writer in any language and better than those of any other English author,” and that he had in his mind a very subtle and consistent conception of the harmonies of the measure, is but to emphasise the charge that the poet was remote and required a specially instructed class of readers to appreciate him. But it will not do to dismiss him, as Swinburne, markedly appreciative of Arnold’s Attic grace, did, as being no poet at all. In actual achievement, he is, indeed, but one of “the inheritors of unfulfilled renown.” Time conquered him before he attained to full clearness of poetic utterance.

  • When we have proved, each on his course alone,
  • The wider world, and learnet what’s now unknown,
  • Have made life clear, and worked out each a way,
  • We’ll meet again,—we shall have much to say
  • he signs in one of his most touching lyrics. But “the future day,” on which he was to full this covenant with readers of his poetry, never dawned for him. His later poems, however—particularly Mari Magno—show that he was gradually feeling after a mellower and a richer note. His brief married life was beginning to enlarge and to deppen his experience, had he lived to write more, his poetry would have embodied a more profound “criticism of life.” It would certainly have become less slef-centred and less preoccupied with the questionings and doubts of the solitary spirit.

    These doubts and questionings form the substance of what was probably his most ambitious work, Dipsychus poem consisting of a series of dialogues between the poet himself and an attendant spirit, who is an obvious, though distant, relative of Goethe’s Mephistopheles. Clough, like Arnold, was largely a disciple of Goethe; and the influence of Hermann und Dorothea is to be clearly seen both in the form and in the thought of The Bothie. But, both The Bothie and Dipsychus reflect far more of the intellectual atmosphere of Oxford and of the free openair life of England than they do of either the art or the philosophy of Goethe. The best expression of Clough’s own character and genius is, undoubtedly, to be found in the “long-vacation pastoral.” The poet’s humour tempers the hexameter with mercy, and gives it, in places, a semi-burlesque effect which is not without is not without suggestion of the best uses to which the measure may be turned in English. The poem, however, is thoroughly serious in its main drift and purpose, dealing, as it does, with social problems which were then being eagerly discussed by the more thoughtful minds of the time, and, particularly, with the ideal of true womanhood. That ideal Clough himself finds in

  • Meanest utilities seized as occasions to grace and embellish;
  • and the whole poem is a protest against the conception of feminine grace and embellishment as consisting of vulgar decoration and intellectual insipidity. But the most charming features of The Bothie are its delightful pictures of nature, which show how fresh was Clough’s enjoyment of natural scenery, and how deep and intimate was his communion with the very soul of the Highlands. Many discerning readers express a preference for some of Clough’s shorter lyrics to everything else he wrote, and they are probably right. He wrote nothing so likely to keep his name and memory alives as the best of Songs in Absence. A host of readers, who know little else of his work, know him by Say not the struggle nought availeth; and, during the period of the greatest national stress ever endured by his countrymen, few lines have been more frequently quoted for consolation and hope than
  • 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.