Saturday, 5 January 2019

Four Bicentenaries:1.Arthur Hugh Clough



This is a big year for Victorian bicentenaries, if you’re into that kind of thing: Arthur Hugh Clough on 1 January, John Ruskin 8 February, Charles Kingsley 12 June, George Eliot 22 November.  The last three of these figures are all important for Morris, though he certainly knew at least some of Clough’s work too.  In the February 1886 number of Commonweal, he cites ‘the eighth commandment in its Bourgeois development, as given us by A.H. Clough: “Thou shalt not steal: an empty feat/When it’s so lucrative to cheat!”’.  The couplet is from Clough’s splendidly satirical short poem ‘The Latest Decalogue’. 


There are certainly good reasons for remembering Clough.  From the narrow perspective of poetics, he shows us better than most other poets what a resourceful innovation the classical hexameter line can be in English verse.  Moreover, his fine narrative poems, such as The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich (1848) or Amours de Voyage (1858), are energetically immersed in contemporary history, in sharp contrast to those of his close Oxford friend Matthew Arnold, which always cut away from history to some lofty privileged perch of ‘disinterestedness’.  Clough’s is a politically engaged poetry, even if, as in Amours, that engagement can’t actually in the end come to very much.


Terry Eagleton has provocatively termed Clough ‘the greatest Victorian poet’.  Clough’s work, he writes, ‘scandalously estranges and disfigures the conventionally poetic, reviving the lucid, discursive, dialectical qualities of Enlightenment prose.  It is for this reason that, given the hegemony of a certain aesthetic ideology in Britain, he is at once the major Victorian poet and one of the least read’.  Bicentenaries only really matter, of course, if they can get beyond scholarly piety and define some new, contemporary edge and relevance for their subjects.  We shall see how these four work out in the weeks and months ahead.

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