A Victorian for Grownups

An adult poet in the nineteenth century. There weren’t so many of them.” Graham Greene’s jaded protagonist in The Quiet American, Thomas Fowler, offered this praise for the little-known Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough. Greene himself counted Clough as a favorite poet, and, in fact, it was the novelist who brought him to the attention of philosopher Anthony Kenny, the master of Balliol College. During Oxford high-table conversation one day in the 1980s, Greene quoted “Easter Sunday,” a poem on the pain of religious doubt, and sparked the interest that took Kenny to a book-length comparison of Clough and Hopkins (God and Two Poets), the editing of the poet’s diaries, and now this biography.

An Oxford don, Anthony Kenny was a Catholic priest who, like Clough, experienced a crisis of faith precipitated by philosophic doubt. Clough had resigned his Oriel College fellowship in 1848 because of his increasing skepticism; over a hundred years later, Kenny left the priesthood, convinced that faith and dogma could not withstand rigorous philosophic analysis. But his biography of Clough does not belabor these parallels. On the contrary, the study is chastened and scholarly, simply mentioning in the introduction the author’s similar course in life. Kenny propels his account swiftly, following the very young Clough and his family from Liverpool to Charleston, South Carolina, where Clough’s father ventured as a cotton merchant, and then back to England and school at Rugby, where Clough began a lifelong friendship with Matthew Arnold, the far more renowned literary figure.

Clough’s academic career was stellar. From Rugby he matriculated to Balliol and, although he did not earn the First that was widely expected (“I have failed!” he asserted, characteristically), he won an Oriel Fellowship and seemed set on a solid career as a don. Kenny spends considerable time on this section of Clough’s life: the Oxford of the Tractarians with Newman and Pusey at odds with Dr. Arnold and his more liberal approach to the Anglican faith. Unlike Hopkins a generation later, Clough recoiled from Anglo-Catholicism; he also found increasingly impossible the position represented by Arnold.

Kenny deftly conveys the intense atmosphere of the lives of undergraduates and young scholars at the time. This was a male society, and Clough’s introspective verses focus the same longing and unease on the opposite sex that they do on his religious beliefs. At Oriel, Clough ultimately found himself unable to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith required for his fellowship and so resigned his position. Kenny suggests that Clough possessed a testy nature indeed, alienating the board of directors of the newly formed University Hall of London University, to which he had been appointed principal in 1849. After a year’s tenure marked by disputes over his baldly stated religious skepticism, they gladly accepted his resignation. Clough never found a proper focus for his intellect, although toward the end of his short life his volunteer work for the causes advanced by Florence Nightingale, his wife’s cousin, occupied him to the point of destroying his health.

There are so many extraordinary things about Clough and his writing that Greene’s epithet “adult” seems understated. He was in Paris during the unrest of 1848 and in Rome during the siege of 1849, and the fighting in and around Rome later figured as the focus of his verse novel, Amours de Voyage. The work he did for the causes sponsored by Florence Nightingale gained him that extraordinary woman’s great affection. While in Rome, Clough also befriended the American feminist Margaret Fuller (Kenny refuses to speculate on the nature of that relationship). In the course of his academic career, he read Emerson with deep appreciation and, as events unfolded, arranged for Emerson and Thomas Carlyle to meet in Oxford. Later, he accepted Emerson’s invitation to come to Boston; yet despite the general admiration he won among the Boston Brahmins, he was unable either to start a school or to gain a sufficient number of pupils to sustain himself as a tutor.

Clough returned hastily to England in 1853 with his bride-to-be, Blanche Mary Shore Smith, whose family secured him a position as inspector of schools, providing the means for him to marry. Blanche gave Clough domestic stability; he in turn gave her a problematic courtship and an anxious life. The poet failed ultimately to find and sustain a career; his principled stance in resigning his fellowship was followed by hesitant steps in any number of paths, and he died abroad at the age of forty-two, in Italy, where he had traveled to regain his health. His death left his wife to edit and publish the bulk of his poetic output. Characteristically, Clough composed and-too weak to write-dictated verses to his wife on his deathbed; in them, he paid tribute to a wife’s patient forgiveness of a wayward husband.

As a biographer, Kenny seems set not merely on recounting Clough’s life but on reviving an interest in his poetry. To that end he offers a new editorial arrangement of Dipsychus, a work Clough never saw published, along with detailed summaries of two other long pieces, The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich and Amours de Voyage. He is a careful exegete and explains some knotty verses that roughly parallel Hopkins’s “terrible sonnets.” All of this is revelatory, especially the examination of Clough’s prosodic experiments in hexameters and his fluent satiric commentaries on social injustice in Britain. The years in which Clough came of age were tense ones, with the revolutions of 1848, the movement toward reform in British politics, and the disastrous Crimean War.

Culling many examples from Clough’s long out-of-print poems, Kenny offers the complete texts of lyrics that show the pursuit of what we might call the honest life. Clough had the respect of his contemporaries and does not deserve the stigma often attached to the term “Victorian.” Arthur Hugh Clough: A Poet’s Life is not a light read-Kenny’s approach is scholarly and academic-and one is left with the sense that much more might have been made of the startling shifts in this enigmatic poet’s life. But Kenny’s biography gives testimony to the substance of the man and the demands of the verse; it makes clear why Clough’s formidable friend, the classicist Benjamin Jowett, asserted that Clough alone among his peers showed a “poet’s life in his poetry...[and] his poetry in his life.”

Published in the 2007-06-01 issue: 

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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