Paul Johnson

Not bad going, to do one imperishable thing in life

Not bad going, to do one imperishable thing in life

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There are some people who do one distinct thing in their life — only one — but it is enough, just, to confer immortality on them. Such a person was Arthur Hugh Clough (1819–61), the Victorian poet. This gifted and sensitive man was a product of Dr Arnold’s superb teaching at Rugby and won a fellowship at Oriel, then the greatest prize you could get at Oxford. But in the theological turbulence created by Newman’s influence and the fierce reaction to it, he contrived to lose his faith, at least in Anglicanism. Expected not only to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles but to expound them to pupils, he found he could not in conscience do so. He left Oxford and never found a satisfactory niche in academic work, on either side of the Atlantic, where his conscience could be at rest and he could support his wife in comfort. His health failed and he died in his early forties.

This sad tale has now been told with great skill and delicacy by Anthony Kenny: Arthur Hugh Clough: A Poet’s Life (Continuum). He examines Clough’s poetic impulse and explores his work in detail. There is considerable merit in some of the poems and it may be that Kenny’s efforts will shift Clough’s place in the English pantheon several ranks higher. Nevertheless there looms over the book the central fact that Clough is known to the public only for one poem, identified by its first line, ‘Say not the struggle naught availeth.’ It has been true for well over a century now and is unlikely to change. The poem is a reassurance against despair, and a powerful one. It is known and liked by people who rarely read poetry of any kind, and quoted by those who do not habitually admit poetical thoughts into their minds — professional army officers, veterinary surgeons, municipal architects, gym mistresses and the like. I have heard the entire poem recited by a Rover car salesman in Perth, and I remember thinking at the time of its author, ‘That is fame.’

I have three particular reasons for liking this poem. First, I remember vividly hearing Winston Churchill reciting its last verse in a wireless talk to the nation in February 1941, during the darkest days of the war. I never had any doubt, being a boy of 12, that we should win it, but my elders were less sure, and they were greatly cheered by Churchill’s quote. Clough had noted, from his climbing in the Lakes and the Alps, that just before dawn the light is seen not in the east, as you would expect, but where the rising sun, as yet invisible in the valley, is striking the higher land to the west. Churchill admitted that all our allies had been knocked out of the war, and we were alone. But America was sending us arms in growing quantity, and he quoted:

And not by eastern windows only,

When daylight comes, comes in the light.

In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,

But westward, look, the land is bright!

I often quote that to myself today, surveying the degeneracy and cowardice of Europe, and drawing comfort from the staunch devotion to freedom of the United States.

The second reason I have for valuing the poem arises from my friendship with Nancy Mitford. She was desolate when her younger sister Unity died, and arranged for her to be buried near the little church in the fields at Swinbrook outside Burford in the Cotswolds. They had loved it as children. Nancy detested Unity’s views but she saw her life as one of those inexplicable tragedies — so much passion and earnestness and love expended for no purpose whatsoever. Was it all futile then? Nancy would not admit it, and remembered Clough’s lines, ‘Say not the struggle naught availeth,/ The labour and the wounds are vain,’ and caused the opening words to be carved on her sister’s headstone. She also directed that she was to be buried alongside Unity, and this was done. When I visited the site some years ago, I found the two graves strangely, inexplicably moving. Clough’s line applied equally to Nancy, for all the men she ever loved turned out to be rotters, and the huge amount of emotion she expended seemed, on any objective appraisal, wasted.

Clough wrote the poem, I think, in the light of the despair felt by the countless supporters of Italian liberty in England, when the 1848 rising collapsed and the Austrian oppressors returned. Odd to think we once cared so much for those noisy braggarts, who a generation earlier had let down Byron too. Another case of wasted effort in a worthless cause. What good has the eventual success of the Risorgimento ever done anyone, least of all the Italians themselves, made helpless victims in perpetuity of mafiosi and rapacious politicians in a system, as my good friend Carla Powell never ceases to point out, where the rule of law simply does not exist?

But that is not the point. Clough’s poem celebrates the glory of hope, when all seems lost, and the certainty that good will eventually triumph even though all the odds seem in favour of evil. Indeed it points out that, if we look closely enough, there are reassuring signs even in the gloom of the present:

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,

Seem here no painful inch to gain,

Far back through creeks and inlets making

Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

It is, in my view, an excellent poetic tract for the times. It is so easy to surrender to despair if we take in all the portents of disaster, hammered into our brains by the relentless thuds of TV and tabloids, internet and media celebs. All the evidence suggests that we are losing the culture wars. Universities are a wasteland. Schools are crack deserts. The gallant attempt by Blair and Bush to give the Arabs democracy and bring moral law to the Middle East is being detonated by the suicide-bombers of a mindless Dark-Age creed, the effort looking as hopeless as our forebears’ campaign for freedom in mid-19th-century Rome and Milan. And in the minds of the young, intellectual monsters like Hategod Dawkie spread their despairing gospel of nihilism, pointlessness, vacuity, the emptiness of life, the lack of any significance anywhere at any time and, in case you don’t know this useful word floccinaucinihilipilification. All this is true, or half-true or quarter-true.

I think there is much vigorous and creative life in our universities — that is certainly my impression when I visit them — and top-form schoolchildren I meet are strikingly well informed. I think the Islamic inflatus is on the verge of an implosion, which will transform those countries now racked by the fundamentalist fever into harmless members of the world community. In 20 years’ time we will see it all as a false alarm, like the ‘population explosion’ and other silly bogeys. But of course by then other pseudo-perils will be keeping us awake at night.

Clough’s poem, then, is a useful antidote to panic, good for all periods, and will survive indefinitely. A splendid achievement to have under your posterity-belt. Notice the key word ‘silent’ in his poem. Clough was a preternaturally silent man. When he had nothing significant to say, he was dumb. Given a choice between harmless small talk and nothing, he always chose not to utter a word. At dinner, he said nothing. When courting, he would go to his beloved’s drawing-room and sit staring at her, without a word, for an hour or more. He was an awkward customer. But he wrote one poem that will always be remembered.