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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908)

By Arthur Hugh Clough (1819–1861)

THE INTELLECTUAL mood of many of the finest spirits in England and New England during the second quarter of the nineteenth century had something of the nature of a surprise to themselves, no less than to those who came within their influence. It was indeed a natural though unforeseen result of forces, various in kind, that had long been silently at work. The conflicting currents of thought and moral sentiment, which in all ages perplex and divide the hearts of men, took a new direction and seemed to have gathered volume and swiftness. Hardly since the Reformation had there been so deep and general a stirring of the questions, the answers to which, whether they be final or merely provisional, involve conclusions relating to the deepest interests of men. Old convictions were confronted by new doubts; ancient authority was met by a modern spirit of independence. This new intellectual mood was perhaps first distinctly manifest in England in Carlyle’s essays, and correspondingly in New England in the essays and poems of Emerson; it was expressed in ‘In Memoriam’ and ‘Maud’; it gave the undertone of Arnold’s most characteristic verse, and it found clear and strikingly distinctive utterance in the poems of Clough. His nature was of rare superiority alike of character and intellect. His moral integrity and sincerity imparted clearness to his imagination and strength to his intelligence, so that while the most marked distinction of his poems is that which they possess as a mirror of spiritual conditions shared by many of his contemporaries, they have hardly less interest as the expression and image of his own individuality.

Arthur Hugh Clough was born at Liverpool on New Year’s Day, 1819. His father, who came of an old Welsh family (his mother, Anne Perfect, was from Yorkshire), had established himself in Liverpool as a cotton merchant. Toward the end of 1822 he emigrated with his wife and four children to Charleston, South Carolina, and here for four years was their home. For Arthur they were important years. He was a shy, sensitive boy, “already considered as the genius of the family.” He was his mother’s darling. She was a woman “rigidly simple in her tastes and habits, of stern integrity”; of cultivated intelligence, fond of poetry, a lover of nature, and quickly sympathetic with high character, whether in real life or in the pages of romance. While his father taught him his Latin grammar and his arithmetic, his mother read with him from Pope’s Iliad and Odyssey, from Scott’s novels and other books fitted to quicken the imagination. Her influence was strong in the shaping of his taste and disposition.

In 1828 the family returned for a visit to England, and Arthur was put to school at Chester, whence in the next year he was transferred to Rugby. Dr. Arnold had then very lately become the headmaster at Rugby, and was already giving to the school a tone and quality unknown previously to the public schools of England. He strove to impress upon the boys the sense of personal responsibility, and to rouse their conscience to the doing of duty, not so much as a matter essential to the discipline of the school as to the formation of manly and religious character. The influence of his high, vigorous, and ardent nature was of immense force. But its virtue was impaired by the artificiality of the ecclesiastical system of the Church of England, and the irrationality of the dogmatic creed which, even to a nature as liberal as Dr. Arnold’s, seemed to belong to the essentials of religion, and to be indissoluble from the foundation of morality.

Clough became Arnold’s devoted disciple, but he had intellectual independence and sincerity enough to save him from yielding his own individuality to any stream of external influence, however powerful. What he called “the busy argufying spirit of the prize schoolboy” stood him in good stead. But the moral stress was great, and it left him early with a sense of strain and of perplexity, as his mind opened to the wider and deeper problems of life, for the solution of which the traditional creed seemed insufficient. His career at school was of the highest distinction; and when he was leaving Rugby for Oxford in 1836, Dr. Arnold broke the rule of silence to which he almost invariably adhered in the delivery of prizes, and congratulated Clough on having gained every honor which Rugby could bestow, and on having done the highest credit to the school at the University,—for he had won the Balliol Scholarship, “then and now the highest honor which a schoolboy could obtain.”

Clough went into residence at Oxford in October, 1837. It was a time of stirring of heart and trouble of mind at the University. The great theological controversy which was to produce such far-reaching effects upon the lives of individuals, and upon the Church of England as a whole, was then rising to its height. Newman was at the acme of his popularity and influence. His followers were zealous and active. Ward, his most earnest disciple, was one of Clough’s nearest friends. Clough, not yet nineteen years old, but morally and intellectually developed beyond his years and accustomed already to independent speculation in regard to creed and conduct, was inevitably drawn into the deep waters of theological discussion. He heard, too, those other voices which Matthew Arnold in his admirable lecture on Emerson has spoken of as deeply affecting the more sensitive youthful spirits of the Oxford of this time,—the voices of Goethe, of Carlyle, and of Emerson. He studied hard, but his studies seemed, for the moment at least, to be of secondary importance. Although unusually reserved in demeanor and silent in general company, his reputation grew, not merely as a scholar, but as a man distinguished above his fellows for loftiness of spirit, for sweetness of disposition, and for superiority of moral no less than of intellectual qualities. With much interior storm and stress, his convictions were gradually maturing. He resisted the prevailing tendencies of Oxford thought, but did not easily find a secure basis for his own beliefs. In 1841 he tried for and missed his first class in the examinations. It was more a surprise and disappointment to others than to himself. He knew that he had not shown himself in the examinations for what he really was, and his failure did not affect his confidence in his own powers, nor did others lose faith in him, as was shown by his election in the next year to a fellowship at Oriel, and the year later to his appointment as tutor.

His livelihood being thus assured, he led from 1843 to 1848 a “quiet, hard-working, uneventful tutor’s life, diversified with reading parties” in the vacations. He was writing poems from time to time, but his vocation as poet was not fully recognized by himself or by others. He had been obliged, in assuming the duties of tutor, to sign the Thirty-nine Articles,—though as he wrote to a friend, “reluctantly enough, and I am not quite sure whether or not in a justifiable sense. However, I have for the present laid by that perplexity, though it may perhaps recur at some time or other; and in general, I do not feel perfectly satisfied about staying in my tutor capacity at Oxford.”

The perplexity would not down, but as the years went on, the troubled waters of his soul gradually cleared themselves. He succeeded in attaining independence of mind such as few men attain, and in finding, if not a solution of the moral perplexities of life, at least a position from which they might be frankly confronted without blinking and without self-deception. It became impossible for him to accept, however they might be interpreted, the doctrines of any church. He would not play tricks with words nor palter with the integrity of his soul. This perfect mental honesty of Clough, and his entire sincerity of expression, were a stumbling-block to many of his more conventional contemporaries, and have remained as a rock of offense to many of the readers of his poetry, who find it disturbing to be obliged to recognize in his work a test of their own sincerity in dealing with themselves. With how few are conviction and profession perfectly at one! The difficulty of the struggle in Clough’s case, the difficulty of freeing himself from the chains of association, of tradition, of affection, of interest, which bound him to conformity with and acceptance of the popular creed in one or the other of its forms, has led superficial critics of his life and poetry to find in them evidence that the struggle was too hard for him and the result unsatisfactory. There could not be a greater error. Clough’s honest acceptance of the insolubility of the vain questions which men are perpetually asking, and his recognition of the insufficiency of the answers which they are ready to accept or to pretend to accept, left him as regards his most inward soul one of the serenest of men. The questions of practical life, of action, of duty, indeed presented themselves to his sensitive and contemplative nature with their full perplexity; but his spiritual life was based on a foundation that could not be shaken. He had learned the lesson of skepticism, and accepted without trouble the fact of the limitation of human faculties and the insolubility of the mystery of life. He was indeed tired with the hard work of years, and worried by the uncertainty of his future; when at length, in order to deliver himself from a constrained if not a false position, and to obtain perfect freedom of expression as well as of thought, he resigned in 1848 both his fellowship and tutorship.

It was a momentous decision, for it left him without any definite means of support, it alienated the authorities of the University, it isolated him from many old friends. Immediately after resigning his tutorship Clough went to Paris with Emerson, then on a visit to Europe, as his companion. They were drawn thither by interest in the strange Revolution which was then in progress, and by desire to watch its aspects. The social conditions of England had long been matter of concern to Clough. He had been deeply touched by the misery of the Irish famine in 1847, and had printed a very striking pamphlet in the autumn of that year, urging upon the students at Oxford retrenchment of needless expenditure and restrictions of waste and luxury. His sympathies were with the poor, and he was convinced of the need of radical social reform. He therefore observed the course of revolution on the Continent not merely with curiosity, but with sympathetic hope.

In the autumn of this year, after his return home, and while at Liverpool with his mother and sister, he wrote his first long poem, ‘The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich; a Long-Vacation Pastoral.’ It had no great immediate success, but it made him known to a somewhat wider public than that of Oxford. It was in its form the fruit of the reading parties in the Highlands in previous summers. It was in hexameters, and he asked Emerson to “convey to Mr. Longfellow the fact that it was a reading of his ‘Evangeline’ aloud to my mother and sister, which, coming after a re-perusal of the Iliad, occasioned this outbreak of hexameters.” It is a delightful poem, full of vitality and variety, original in design, simple in incident. It has the freshness and wholesomeness of the open air, the charm of nature and of life, with constant interplay of serious thought and light humor, of gravity and gayety of sentiment.

Its publication was followed speedily by a little volume entitled ‘Ambarvalia,’ made up of two parts; one, of poems by Clough, and one, of those by an old school and college friend, Mr. Burbidge. Clough’s part consisted, as he wrote to Emerson, of “old things, the casualties of at least ten years.” But many of these “casualties” are characteristic expressions of personal experience, to which Clough’s absolute sincerity gives deep human interest. They are the records of “his search amid the maze of life for a clue whereby to move.” They deal with the problems of his own life, and these problems perplex other men as well. “I have seen higher, holier things than these,” he writes in 1841:—

  • “I have seen higher, holier things than these,
  • And therefore must to these refuse my heart,
  • Yet I am panting for a little ease;
  • I’ll take, and so depart.”
  • But he checks himself:—
  • “Ah, hold! the heart is prone to fall away,
  • Her high and cherished visions to forget;
  • And if thou takest, how wilt thou repay
  • So vast, so dread a debt?”
  • The little volume appealed to but a small band of readers. The poems it contained did not allure by fluency of fancy or richness of diction; they were not of a kind to win sudden popularity: but they gave evidence of a poet who, though not complete master of his art, and not arrived at a complete understanding of himself, had yet a rare power of reflection and expression and a still rarer sincerity of imaginative vision. They were poems that gave large promise, and that promise was already in part fulfilled by the ‘Bothie.’

    Early in 1849 the headship of University Hall in London was offered to Clough and accepted by him. This was an institution professedly non-sectarian, established for the purpose of receiving students in attendance upon the lectures at University College. He was not to enter upon the duties of the place until October, and he spent the greater part of the intervening period in a fruitful visit to Italy. He reached Rome in April. All Italy was in revolution. The Pope had fled from Rome. The Republic had been declared, and Mazzini was in control of the government. The French army was approaching to besiege the city, and Clough resolved to await the event. No more vivid and picturesque account of aspects of the siege exists than is to be found in his poem of ‘Amours de Voyage,’ written in great part at Rome, under the pressure and excitement of the moment; then laid aside in the poet’s desk, and not published till long afterward. It consists of a series of letters supposed to be written by various persons, in which a narrative of passing events is interwoven with a love story. The hero of the story is a creation of extraordinary subtlety and interest. He has much of the temperament of Hamlet: not wanting in personal courage, nor in resolution when forced to action, but hesitating through sensitiveness of conscience, through dread of mistaking momentary impulse for fixed conviction, through the clearness with which diverging paths of conduct present themselves to his imagination, with the inevitable doubt as to which be the right one to follow. The character, though by no means an exact or complete image of the poet’s own, is yet drawn in part from himself, and affords glimpses of his inner nature, of the delicacy of his sensitive poetic spirit, of his tendency to subtle introspective reflection, of his honesty in dealing with facts and with himself. To see things as they are, to keep his eyes clear, to be true to

  • “The living central inmost I
  • Within the scales of mere exterior me”
  • was the principle of his life. The charm of ‘Amours de Voyage,’ however, consists not merely in animated description, in delicate sentiment, and in the poetic representation of sensitive, impressionable, and high-minded youth, but in its delicate humor in the delineation of character, and in its powerful, imaginative, picturesque reproduction of the atmosphere and influence of Rome, and of the spirit of the moment to which the poem relates. It is as unique and as original in its kind as the ‘Bothie.’ It is a poem that appeals strongly to the lovers of the poetry of high culture, and is not likely to lack such readers in future generations.

    From Rome in July Clough went to Naples, and there wrote another of his most striking poems, ‘Easter Day.’ In the autumn of 1850 he again went during a short vacation to Italy, but now to Venice; and while there began his third long poem, ‘Dipsychus,’ of which the scene is in that city. In this poem, which represents the conflict of the soul in its struggles to maintain itself against the temptations of the world and the Devil, Clough again wrote out much of his inner life. It is not so much a piece of strict autobiography of the spirit of an individual, as an imaginative drama of the spiritual experience common in all times to men of fine nature, seeking a solution of the puzzle of their own hearts. In none of his other poems is there such variety of tone, or such an exhibition of mature poetic power. It is indeed loosely constructed; but its separate parts, each contributing to the development of its main theme, with their diversity of imagination, reflection, wit, and sentiment, combine in an impressive unity of effect.

    The position at University Hall proved not altogether satisfactory; and no other opening for him offering itself in England, Clough determined after much hesitation and deliberation to try his fortune as a teacher and writer in America. He sailed in October, 1852, on a steamer on which he had Lowell and Thackeray for fellow passengers. He spent the next eight months at Cambridge, employed in tutoring and in literary work, winning the warm regard of the remarkable group of men of letters who then gave distinction to the society of Cambridge and of Boston, and especially keeping up his friendship with Emerson by frequent visits to Concord. There seemed a fair prospect of success for him in his new career. But his friends at home, deeply attached to him, and ill content that he should leave them, obtained for him an appointment as examiner in the Education Department of the Council Office. The salary would give to him a secure though moderate income. He was the more drawn to accept the place, because shortly before leaving England he had become engaged to be married; and accordingly in July, 1853, he returned home and at once entered on the duties of his office. In June 1854 he married. For the next seven years his life was tranquil, laborious, and happy. The account of these years contained in the beautiful sketch of his life by his wife, which is prefixed to the collection of his ‘Letters, Poems and Prose Remains,’ gives a picture of Clough’s domestic felicity, and of the various interests which engaged him outside of the regular drudgery of official work. His own letters bear witness to the content of his days. He had little leisure for poetry. He was overworked, and in 1860 his health gave way. Leave of absence from the office was given to him. He went to the seashore; he visited the Continent: but though at times he seemed to gain strength, there was no steady recovery. In the autumn of 1861 he went to Italy, accompanied by his wife; he enjoyed the journey, but they had only reached the Lakes when he experienced a touch of fever. They went on to Florence; he became more seriously ill. He began however apparently to recover, but a sudden blow of paralysis struck him down, and on the 13th day of November he died.

    Among the most original and beautiful of Matthew Arnold’s poems is his ‘Thyrsis, a Monody,’ to commemorate his friend Arthur Hugh Clough. Thyrsis his mate has gone:—

  • “No purer or more subtle soul”
  • than he ever sought the light that
  • “leaves its seeker still untired,—
  • Still onward faring by his own heart inspired.”
  • The lament is as true as it is tender. The singer continues:—
  • “What though the music of thy rustic flute
  • Kept not for long its happy country tone;
  • Lost it too soon, and learnt a stormy note
  • Of men contention-tost, of men who groan,
  • Which tasked thy pipe too sore, and tired thy throat,—
  • It failed, and thou wast mute!
  • Yet hadst thou always visions of our light.”
  • Yes, always visions of the light! But Arnold’s usual felicity of discrimination is lacking in this last stanza. The stormy note is not the characteristic note of Clough’s mature song, nor does his art betray the overtasked pipe. His pipe indeed is not attuned, as was Arnold’s own, to the soft melancholy of regret at leaving behind the happy fields of the past in the quest for the light that shines beyond and across the untraveled and dim waste before them; its tone was less pathetic, but not less clear. The music of each is the song of travelers whose road is difficult, whose goal is uncertain. Their only guide is the fugitive light, now faint, now distinct, which allures them with irresistible compulsion. Their pathways at times diverge; but when most divergent, the notes of their accordant pipes are heard in the same direction.

    The memory of Clough remains, with those who had the happiness of knowing him in life, distinct and precious. It is that of one of the highest and purest souls. Sensitive, simple, tender, manly, his figure stands as one of the ideal figures of the past, the image of the true poet, the true friend, the true man. He died too young for his full fame, but not too young for the love which is better than fame.