Among Victorian readers, Clough was best known for his earlier, short poems. His most famous was "Say not the Struggle Nought Availeth," which he wrote in support of the fighters in the revolutions of 1848. For later Victorians and for twentieth-century readers, however, his most important works have been the products of his struggle with his religious doubts — indeed he is for many the representative Victorian Doubter. Because his best poems ("Dipsychus", "Amours de Voyage", and "The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich") are relatively long and either unfinished or of uneven quality, the selection in the anthologies is not very representative. It emphasizes one characteristic (which is nevertheless an appealing one), his sardonic wit.

His long poems clearly refer to his own intellectual state: the heroes tend to be isolated and alienated, and only in the earliest ("The Bothie") is he able at the end to make a fulfilling connection with another human being. When Clough died he was at work on a long episodic poem, Mari Magno, structured like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, but there is reason to suspect that he had come to a halt on that work as well. Many of these later poems made experiments in poetic language, subject, and poetic structure many decades ahead of their time, and his portrayals of a divided modern consciousness had major influence upon T. S. Eliot and other modernist poets.

Clough's loss of religious belief after he left Rugby is undeniably the central fact in his life. Very likely he was unable to complete his long poems for the same reason that he was unable to achieve the other great things expected of him: when he lost the direction which Dr. Arnold's moral earnestness had supplied, he lost his sense of purpose in life. Nonetheless, Clough produced some first-rate, pioneering poetry that has only recently begun to be appreciated for its daring modernity. Even Matthew Arnold, his close friend who long shared many of the same spiritual dilemmas, did not fully appreciate Clough's achievement — possibly because it so threatened his own attitudes towards life and literature.

Leading Questions

What effect does learning that Clough wrote important poetry have upon your understanding of "Thyrsis," Arnold's long-delayed elegy for his friend?

Last modified 5 January 2020