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Clough’s Last Summer

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume, 51, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 201-226 | 10.1353/vp.2013.0007

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One of the puzzles of Victorian literature is the eight-year silence of Arthur Hugh Clough (1819–61). He appears to have composed no verse at all between the middle of 1853 and the spring of 1861, apart from some experimental translations from homer. Special interest attaches therefore to the long poem that he poured out in the last summer of his life, Tales on Board or Mari Magno(referred to hereafter as Tales), and to the circumstances of its composition.

If there is any expression of the thoughts and feelings of the missing years, it should be in Tales. However, many critics, especially in the last half century, have been rather dismissive of this last work, holding that Clough had become conventional and ordinary in his views and that his poetic imagination had grown weak. However, some earlier critics were more enthusiastic. W. Y. Sellar thought “he had here struck on one of his happiest veins”; J. A. Symonds said it showed him to be “a better Crabbe”; an anonymous reviewer in the Contemporary Review found that the tales “attract the reader in the way that Chaucer attracts”; H. W. Garrod believed that, if it could not be called his masterpiece, it was “only because he died in the middle of writing it.” He wrote “there is nothing that I more desire than that someone who has not read Mari Magno should be lured into doing so.”

Part of the trouble came from the title, Mari Magno, “on the great sea,” which recalls the opening lines of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, Book 2: “how pleasant, when the winds whip up the waters over a great sea, to watch from land the trouble of others!” (my translation). To those with a classical education, this could sound as if it meant that Clough was smugly satisfied to be able, from the refuge of a happy marriage, to look with equanimity on the suffering of others. However, there is no reason to suppose that he was thinking of anything more than the literal meaning of the two words, for he gave Norton the same title for two other poems, both composed in 1852–53: “Where lies the land” (which appeared at one point as a possible envoi to Tales; see below) conveys the exhilaration of being in mid-ocean (Poems, p. 342); “Some future day” looks forward to being able to recollect emotion in tranquillity (Poems, p. 338). As for his feelings about Lucretian Schadenfreude, they are expressed in the following lines, deleted from the manuscript of Amours de Voyage, on Britain’s failure to come to the aid of the Roman republic in 1849:

O happy Englishmen we! that so truly can quote from Lucretius
Suave mari magno – how pleasant indeed in a tempest
Safe from the window to watch and behold the great trouble of others,
O blessed government ours, blessed Empire of Purse and Policeman! (Poems, p. 631)

Mari Magno was a misleading title for another reason. Clough’s education had been almost entirely classical, and most of his readers had the same background. It is not surprising that his previous poetry was full of allusions to ancient literature and history, and that many of his titles were in Latin or Greek. in Tales, however, he consciously addresses a wider audience in a style inspired by Chaucer or Crabbe. The titles are in English, except for “Currente Calamo,” (also “Primitiae” as an alternative to “third Cousins,” later “the Lawyer’s First tale”—hereafter “Lawyer I”—and “A la Banquette” for “a Modern Pilgrimage”). In this paper I use the English titles.

Since interpretation of the poem has been influenced so much by ideas about the state of mind in which the reader believes it to have been written, it seems necessary to give some account of Clough’s last years. Three things changed in his life after his return from America in June 1853: the immediate start of his humdrum job at the Office of education, his marriage to Blanche Smith in June 1854 and the beginning of his exhausting voluntary work for Blanche’s cousin Florence Nightingale in august 1856. His letters during this period are curiously impersonal...



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