Arthur Hugh Clough

The Poetry of a Questioning Spirit

by Renzo D'Agnillo (Author)
©2017 Monographs 301 Pages


This study traces the poetic development of Arthur Hugh Clough through a methodological approach based on close readings of his most important works with separate chapters devoted to the three great poems of his maturity: The Bothie of Toper-na-Fuosich, Amours de Voyage and Dipsychus. Attention is also given to the socio-cultural context and the religious and political debates which contributed in shaping Clough’s artistic and ideological vision, particularly through the influential figures of Thomas Arnold, John Henry Newman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. That Clough remains to this day one of the most neglected nineteenth-century writers is all the more remarkable given the importance of his intellectual contribution to his times and his radical questioning of religious faith, traditional values and poetic norms.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1: Rugby Verses
  • 1.1 Childhood, Rugby and Thomas Arnold
  • 1.2 Thoughts from Home: An Incident
  • Chapter 2: Oxford Verses
  • 2.1 Newman and Tractarianism
  • 2.2 Truth is a Golden Thread; Blank Misgivings
  • Chapter 3: A Questioning Spirit
  • 3.1 The New Sinai
  • 3.2 The Mystery of the Fall
  • 3.3 Easter Day I and II
  • Chapter 4: Political and Satirical Verses
  • 4.1 Carlyle, Emerson and Republicanism
  • 4.2 Matthew Arnold: Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth
  • 4.3 Duty – that’s to say complying; The Latest Decalogue; Natura Naturans
  • Chapter 5: The Bothie of Toper-na-Fuosich
  • 5.1 Clough’s Hexameters
  • 5.2 The Bothie of Tober-na-Fuosich
  • Chapter 6: Amours de Voyage
  • 6.1 Clough’s Poetic Persona
  • 6.2 Amours de Voyage
  • Chapter 7: Dipsychus
  • 7.1 Clough’s manuscripts
  • 7.2 Dipsychus
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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Arthur Hugh Clough remains one of the most elusive figures of the Victorian age. Despite being ranked among the major poets of his lifetime, his reputation declined during the twentieth century and, besides a brief, albeit intense, critical revival from the 1960s till the early 1970s and a slighter resurgence of interest during the early years of the present century, he is still largely unread. If he is known by anybody at all today, it is most likely within the context of marginal or specialist interests. This is particularly ironic in view of the recent proliferation of studies on Victorian life and culture, including aspects of the most minor and marginal nature. Like his friend Matthew Arnold, Clough has virtually disappeared from the literary map. Yet, for any reader today who discovers his verse there is the inevitable praise and astonishment at its versatility and modernity. So why the critical neglect? Especially since Clough’s hypersensitivity, so profoundly in opposition to the temperament of the intellectual and artistic climate of his time, should in itself be grounds for an interest in his poetry.

Clough was drawn to people who had the courage of their convictions as well as the quality to be leaders. Arnold, Newman, Carlyle, Emerson, Mazzini, Nightingale, all of them, in their different ways, were highly independent-minded figures and perfect role-models for a man whose psychological traits were a composite of double-mindedness and doubt. What Clough lacked was a sense of his own worth as a man and an artist. Yet these two dimensions were at opposite poles. As a man, he could be almost exasperatingly indecisive about his social obligations. As a poet, however, he found himself free to scrutinise the most disparate epistemological, moral and spiritual aspects of human existence without displaying the typical Victorian need to draw definite conclusions about them. This indeterminacy – which is ultimately the strongpoint of his questioning spirit – points to a poetry of fragmentation, the dialogical and multiple perspectives of which are very different in effect to the kind of psychological dramatisation that characterises Browning’s ← 7 | 8 → monologues. For Clough does not so much stage a scene as explore the thresholds between morality and immorality, belief and unbelief, innocence and experience. The fact that the questioning voice of his poetry exposes the deep-rooted uncertainty and scepticism of a fractured conscience is precisely why his works are still so relevant and appealing for readers today. For Clough’s temperament anticipates the moral and psychological transformations that would characterise the cultural climate of the 20th century and beyond, and, although his dilemmas were those of many of the young Victorian intellectuals of his generation, he clearly understood their universal significance. The dilemmas he tirelessly sought to confront in his best poetry remain as elusive now as they did then.

This study has been long overdue. I have had the fortune to benefit from the ever-generous and profoundly inspirational guidance of Prof. Francesco Marroni. Without his encouragement this book would have been even longer in the making. I am grateful to colleagues and scholars with whom I have engaged in lively and stimulating discussions on Clough’s poetry down the years. These include, Ilaria Malozzi, Alan Shelston, Norman Page, John Chapple, Allan C. Christensen and Roger Ebbatson. I wish also to thank the curators at the Balliol College Archives of Oxford University for permission to consult Clough’s manuscripts and the staff at the Arts and Social Services Library at Bristol University for their kindness and help.

Finally, I dedicate this book with love and affection to my wife Tatiana, our children Maria and Nikolay and, last but not least, Ignazio.

Bristol-Pescara, January 2016

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Chapter 1

Rugby Verses

I don’t know which to think the greatest, the blessing of being under Arnold, or the curse of being without a home (Clough to J. P. Gell, Nov 15 18351).

1.1   Childhood, Rugby and Thomas Arnold

The religious uncertainty and moral scepticism that pervades the poetry of Arthur Hugh Clough has its foundation in the displacement and social alienation that marked the early years of his life. He was only four years old when his family emigrated to Charleston, South Carolina in 1823 in order for his father, James Butler, to pursue his successful cotton trading business. With the industrious Butler frequently away from home, Arthur Hugh was left largely in the care of his mother, Ann Perfect, who, in line with the family’s isolationist standpoint as English émigrés,2 took on herself the responsibility for her children’s education. It was under her influence that Clough developed an early passion for European literature which included the novels of Walter Scott and Pope’s translations of the Odyssey and the Iliad3. ← 9 | 10 →

On the family’s return to England in the summer of 1828 Clough was sent to a school in Chester for a year before being registered at Rugby School whilst the rest of his family returned to the United States4. The psychological and emotional repercussions of this abandonment, which would have a significant effect on his intellectual and artistic development5, were partially alleviated by the charismatic presence of Thomas Arnold who, as headmaster of Rugby School, also came to represent a sort of surrogate father-figure6. During the period Clough spent at Rugby (1829–37) Arnold not only closely monitored the boy’s progress but also sought to make him an outstanding example of his new educational programme. In a society in which the church had become “a temple in ruins”, Arnold, influenced by the spirit of the late-Eighteenth century Evangelical revival under George Whitefield and John Wesley, felt it his special vocation to make what good use he could of the “vestiges of it still left”7. With a shrewd combination of tradition and innovation, underpinned by teachings from the gospel, Rugby school became the platform from which he preached a muscular Christianity in order to prepare his army of young Christian soldiers for the outside world8. His dogmatic stress on religious virtue was in stark ← 10 | 11 → contrast with a public school system which, in Lytton Strachey’s wry words, was a life of “[…] freedom and terror, of prosody and rebellion, of interminable floggings and appalling practical jokes”9. Arnold’s utilitarian agenda was designed to satisfy the public desire for change. At the same time, he created a decidedly more liberal curriculum which comprised sporting activity and modern subjects such as foreign languages and history. Arnold’s intrinsic association with the school was such that, in the words of his biographer, Stanley: “From one end of it to the other, whatever defects it had were his defects; whatever excellences it had were his excellences”10.

The hypersensitive Clough was immediately affected by the atmosphere of moral earnestness that pervaded the school and set about diligently observing the three precepts of Arnold’s programmatic aims: religious and moral principles; gentlemanly conduct and intellectual abilities11. The order is significant. For Arnold’s prime concern was to turn undisciplined boys into Christian gentleman12. His liberal humanism, which was qualified by a high degree of tolerance and respect, aligned itself with the ethics of Oxford University and was diametrically opposed to the rational utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill that dominated the philosophical milieu of London University. Bentham’s advocacy of the greatest happiness of the greatest number self-evidently pointed to the impossibility of pleasing everyone, since it would mean the subjugation of the weakest and poorest members of society through the creation of a centrally controlled state. Arnold’s experiment, in contrast, aimed to effect the moral and social regeneration of society through Christian virtue and charity. He was firmly convinced that the intellectual abilities of his pupils would develop as a result of religious devotion and good conduct rather than the opposite. Therefore, rather than the idea of a short-cut taming of wild unruly natures, the disciplinarian tactics he imposed stemmed from a sense of social justice: ← 11 | 12 →

When he thought of the social evils of the country, it awakened a corresponding desire to check the thoughtless waste and selfishness of schoolboys; a corresponding sense of the aggravation of those evils by the insolence and want of sympathy too frequently shown by the children of the wealthier classes towards the lower orders; a corresponding desire that they should there imbibe the first principles of reverence to law and regard for the poor which the spirit of the age seemed to him so little to encourage13.

As for intellectual abilities, these were deemed pointless without the basis of humane Christianity, in which case intellect could become an invincible tool against the forces of corruption and evil. Naturally, to attain this calibre of moral integrity, conscientious effort was of the utmost importance. Orando Laborando (“By praying, by working”) was the school’s motto. The extreme emphasis placed on ethics found a successful terrain in a susceptible young spirit like Clough’s.

Although Arnold would be immortalised in Thomas Hughes’s novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, his fame was by no means confined to his position as head of Rugby School. He was also a highly respected figure among the liberal intellectuals of Oxford University and his provocative writings were generally regarded with interest for the relevance of the urgent religious problems they addressed. His 1829 pamphlet Christian Duty on Conceding the Roman Catholic Claims, for example, which argues for acceptance of Roman Catholics in parliament, coincided with the controversial Catholic Relief Act passed by parliament in the same year. Arnold was no ivory tower intellectual and strongly believed in the mutual interdependence of social and religious issues. His pamphlet Principles of Church Reform (1833), is one of his most significant pronouncements. Its main argument centres on the religious divisions in Nineteenth-Century England (notably between the Established Church and the Dissenters) which were, in turn, the result of centuries-old opposition. Arnold lays down his belief that such sectarian hindrances may be overcome and that a unified church be established upon the basis of a general agreement on the fundamental principles of Christianity. Clough whole-heartedly embraced his headmaster’s opinions and was no doubt awestruck by the fearless self-confidence with which he argued his points (it is a tone he himself emulates in his own prose writings). Here was a man who, in a period of increasing moral ← 12 | 13 → and epistemological uncertainty, could regard evil and disruptive forces full in the face and offer practical solutions to counteract them. Writing to his sister Anne on 30 December, 1835, Clough boldly replicated Arnold’s ideas to the letter:

How then must we secure the blessings of an Established Church, that is, one which shall be united with the state and therefore must properly comprehend all who belong to the state and are protected by its laws and are possessed of its political privileges? […] the only alternative is to admit all such sects as are Christian sects, and believe in the essentials of Christianity, meaning by essentials, those points without which no one can be saved and thus we shall form into one body all Christians, and all the Kingdom of the State would become at least completely Christian externally. (C, p. 20)

Arnold’s peculiar combination of stern judgment and liberal-minded tolerance was a potent weapon he wielded as headmaster of Rugby school and his concept of a muscular Christianity, that encompassed strength and firmness with kindness and compassion had a permanent effect on Clough to the extent of instilling a sense of unworthiness and insufficiency which only intensified his self-demands for moral improvement. Arnold’s stress on independence of thought14 was no doubt a further contribution to Clough’s heightened conscientiousness. The ensuing conflict between virtuous Christian and tormented sinner was an inevitable outcome of such a striving for perfection. It is poignantly manifested in his correspondence of the time, as in the following to his brother George:

[…] My dear George, do, I beg you, strive to keep yourself up; do resist your indolence and your fearfulness; do exert yourself, and keep doing your work actively […] You must not think of God only as your loving Father and Friend, though He is so much so, but also as your Judge; as one who is so holy and pure that He cannot bear any sin in this world of His; and who, at the same time, is so powerful as to be able to inflict the heaviest punishment I should suppose that you did not think enough whenever you do anything wrong, my dear George, how God must hate it. (C, p. 21)

The uncompromising tone is tellingly self-referential. For Clough seems just as concerned in warning himself against sinful thoughts as in urging ← 13 | 14 → his brother to avoid falling into a state of sloth. The special religious campaign he ardently conducted in the school similarly served to reinforce spiritual improvement in others as well as himself15. Again, his letters of the time testify to his over-zealous attitude. Idleness was evil, industry was virtuous: “I do not think you will be likely to fall into any more stupors, as you call those states of mind, which I very well know and have often experienced. As soon as you feel anything of the kind coming on, go and do something, no matter what, which will employ you actively” (C, p. 21). One can hardly fail to note the extent to which these and other similar calls to action were instigated by his headmaster’s captivating sermons16. But Clough’s mind lacked Arnold’s immovable tenacity, and his efforts to sustain his flawless standards only led to nervousness and intellectual collapse. As he admits to J.P. Gell in a letter dated November 5 1835: “Sometimes all seems so very bright, the little good one has done seems so great, and the good one hopes to do so certain, that one gets quite elevated; then there soon follows the exhaustion, and I think it is no use trying […]” (C, I, p. 25). The fact that Arnold drew on Rugby as a model for a much wider aspiration (no less, as A. N. Wilson puts it, than the moral regeneration of the whole nation through the creation of an expandable governing class made up of “a comparatively small pool of privately educated boys”17) only accentuated Clough’s predicament. It therefore comes as no surprise that much of his early verse not only reflects the loneliness and spiritual struggle that characterised his school life, but also testifies to what one critic has described as “the haunting dread of moral backsliding implanted in him ← 14 | 15 → by Thomas Arnold”18. Arnold’s concern with truth, not as an abstract idea but as “a value he wished in some way to realise”19 finds a reflection in Clough’s poetical temperament, which, from the very beginning, engages in a struggle with the very notion of truth. His early poems are full of self-reprimand, tormented reflections and moral and psychological turmoil. He even believed that writing poems itself was a sinful vanity inducing a state of excitement that was entirely at odds with a good Christian’s pursuit of humility and selflessness20. Despite this, the almost hypnotically iterative tone of the following juvenile diary jotting shows the exhilaration and passion of one for whom poetic composition was an absolute necessity:

How well I remember the night when I sat up till 12 to write out what I had composed that evening. That excitement I shall never forget, it was indeed, rich and overflowing excitement – my head troubled with aching and my eyes were half sealed up, but I went on – on – on till it was all done21.

This state of feverish toil, which would continue to be the dominant trait of Clough’s intellectual and artistic temperament, testifies to the mesmeric affect poetry was already exerting on his youthful imagination. ← 15 | 16 →

1.2   Thoughts from Home: An Incident

Although Clough’s Rugby poems lay bare the ontological and existential dilemmas between duty and the pursuit for truth, Biswas, for one, suggests that it is “totally dedicated to the task of […] making conscience and the will of Arnold prevail”22. Certainly, his various compositions for school prizes and contributions to the Rugby magazine (of which he was an almost maniacally over-scrupulous editor) appear little more than replications of the lessons of his headmaster. In spite of this, Clough’s first authentic, non-scholastic, poem, Thoughts of Home (1834) contains features that anticipate aspects of his mature verse and whilst being clearly grounded in the kind of reasoning which would no doubt have met with Arnold’s approval, indicates an underlying resistance to the Rugby environment and reaffirmation of his real family affections. Its autobiographical origin concerns a moment in which, during convalescence, Clough found himself observing Arnold’s children at play in their garden from a school window23. The harmonious scene initially induces an increasing melancholy at the absence of his own family, but the young poet’s thoughts gradually acquire a more objective stance as he ponders on the nature of home and his relationship with others until his initial self-commiseration is eventually resolved in an invocation of the positive values of love and virtue. The contrasting attitudes of self-absorption and altruism around which the poem revolves are the dominant paradigms of virtually all of Clough’s poetry. Thoughts of Home 24 is an adolescent production, not without verbal and metrical awkwardness. But it is not self-indulgent. Clough is making a serious attempt to overcome the psychological tensions generated by his homesickness through a logical reasoning that will harmonise the discordant elements of an existential unease. The presence of paradigms from the ← 16 | 17 → romantic tradition (notably Wordsworth), such as the representation of childhood bliss and the moral lessons of recollection and reflection, are perhaps less surprising than the unusual choice of a galumphing iambic heptameter metre. The first stanza, which describes the children at their play as seen from a window, incites in the poet sentiments of a particularly complex nature because whilst he can feel an acute sense of a child’s own buoyant gladness”25, he has nevertheless precociously lost this innocence in the foster home of Rugby School. Thus, the possibility of his participation in their games is denied and all he can do is observe them in “solemn sadness”26. The focus then shifts from Arnold’s children to Clough’s own family27. The second and third stanzas are explicitly autobiographical in detailing his infancy in America and ensuing peregrinations:

I looked upon thy children, and I thought of all and each,
Of my brother and my sister, and our rambles on the beach,
Of my mother’s gentle voice, and my mother’s beckoning hand,
And all the tales she used to tell of the far, far English land:
And the happy, happy evening hours, when I sat on my father’s knee, -
Oh! many a wave is rolling now betwixt that seat and me!

And many a day has passed away since – I left them o’er the sea,
And I have lived a life since then of boyhood’s thoughtless glee;
Yet of the blessed times gone by not seldom would I dream,
And childhood’s joy, like faint far stars, in memory’s heaven would gleam,
And o’er the sea to those I loved my thoughts would often roam,
But never knew I until now the blessings of a home! (P, p. 472) ← 17 | 18 →

These lines point to a geographically liminal position that is both physical and cultural. The England wistfully evoked by his mother’s stories (“And all the tales she used to tell of the far, far English land”) is now the referential world of his poem and, in turn, America, the home of his infancy, becomes the object of his homesickness. The oscillation between affiliation and non-affiliation that ensues is central to the poem’s dramatic tension and parallels the poet’s own wavering uncertainties regarding the sense of his real home place:

I used to think when I was there that my own true home was here …
And I longed for England’s cool, and for England’s breezes then,
But now I would give full many a breeze to be back in the heat again.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (January)
Arthur Clough Poetry Literature 19th Century
Bern, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2016. 301 pp.

Biographical notes

Renzo D'Agnillo (Author)

Renzo D’Agnillo is Associate Professor of English Literature at G. d’Annunzio University, Chieti-Pescara (Italy). He is the author of Bruce Chatwin: Settlers, Nomads and Exiles (2000), The Poetry of Matthew Arnold (2005) and editor of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow: Re-readings of a Radical Text (2010). He has published articles and essays on various nineteenth- and twentieth-century authors, including Charles Dickens, Christina Rossetti, Thomas Hardy, G.M. Hopkins, Elizabeth Gaskell, D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.


Title: Arthur Hugh Clough
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306 pages