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Victorian Poetry 42.4 (2004) 521-536

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Spasmodic Poetics and Clough's Apostasies

Richard Cronin completes a recent tally of the infamous Spasmodic poets with the unusual addition of Arthur Hugh Clough, a darling of Rugby and Oxford and a bosom-friend of the fervently anti-Spasmodic Matthew Arnold.1 Surely Cronin means to be provocative, yet he points to a real question concerning the cultural reaches of such critically marginalized literary movements as the Spasmodic one. Although Clough's contemporaries never explicitly identified him as a Spasmodic, his mid-century poetry often probes the sensitive religious topics of more recognizably Spasmodic poets like Philip James Bailey and Alexander Smith, and like them he frequently asks whether poetry performs a specifically religious function. Of course, Clough was painfully ambivalent about Christianity after the Oxford Movement and the English popularizing of the Higher Criticism, and so his affinity for the Spasmodics reveals how badly poets such as he wished to fix the relation between religion and poetry. Eventually, Clough became disillusioned with the poetry of Bailey and Smith (a disillusionment encouraged by Arnold and other friends), but his repudiation of a poetic solution to his religious problems corresponded to a dramatic falling-off in his poetic achievement. If Clough's later poetic infertility is, as I suppose, linked to his rejection of the Spasmodics, then he is the foremost casualty of the great mid-century "critical battle" to which this special issue is devoted.2


Cronin was not the first to associate Clough with the Spasmodics. As George Saintsbury informed readers of his History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1896): "Amours de Voyage and Dipsychus, though there are fine passages in both, bring [Clough] very close to the Spasmodic school, of which in fact he was an unattached and more cultivated member, with fancies directed rather to religiosity than to strict literature."3 In light of the mordant class-based critiques that served to ruin the Spasmodics for [End Page 521] more than one generation of Victorian readers, this depiction of Clough as "in fact" a "more cultivated member" of the Spasmodic "school" contains a certain paradox.4 W. E. Aytoun used the term to besmirch the poorly trained and classically ignorant T. Percy Joneses of the world, to imply their riotous carelessness of the formal structures of English poetry. Clough, on the other hand, was conspicuously well trained in the type of classicism prized by Victorian literary conservatives (he once boasted himself to be among the best classicists at Harvard: "better than most Yankee-Grecians") and his hexameters in particular would be praised by many—including Arnold, who recommended them in Oxford lectures as the best English model for future translations of Homer.5 Saintsbury offers to solve the awkward problem of Clough's superlative education by relating his Spasmodism to his departures from "strict literature," yet this begs the question of whether "strict literature" is a tool by which Clough can fairly be measured, especially if it must be distinguished from religiosity, as Saintsbury implies.

Clough himself would not be surprised to find his poetry classed with that of the Spasmodics on the basis of its religious tenor. Arnold had been telling him this much as early as their correspondence of 1848, in his response to Clough's Ambarvalia manuscripts. Arnold remonstrates with him in a well-known letter that also grudgingly acknowledges the successes of Philip James Bailey's Festus:

A growing sense of the deficiency of the beautiful in your poems, and of this alone being properly poetical as distinguished from rhetorical, devotional, or metaphysical, made me speak as I did. But your line is a line: and you have most of the promising English verse-writers with you now: Festus for instance. Still, problem as the production of the beautiful remains to me, I will die protesting against the world that the other is false & JARRING.
(emphases Arnold's)6

According to Arnold, Clough's early poems suffer from Bailey's ("Festus's") faults in that they are insufficiently beautiful, and therefore unpoetic. Metaphysics do not create beauty...


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