Paul Johnson

Not bad going, to do one imperishable thing in life

Not bad going, to do one imperishable thing in life

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.

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