Why Clough? Why Now?

By Ryan, Vanessa | Victorian Poetry, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Why Clough? Why Now?


Ryan, Vanessa, Victorian Poetry


If you have been attending recent Victorianist conferences, you may be asking, "Why so much interest in Clough?" Almost every conference seems to have at least one paper on Arthur Hugh Clough. This is all the more striking since conference presentations on poetry are few and far between. Yet at one recent meeting, for example, the Victorian Interdisciplinary Studies Association of the Western United States conference on "The Victorian World" at UCLA (2001), there were a surprising four papers on Clough, enough to create an entire Clough panel. This was one of the younger panels at the conference: a number of the presenters were graduate students or recent Ph.Ds. On the face of it, this sudden interest in Clough is not easy to explain. Recent published work shows no sign of a larger Clough revival already underway: in the last few years it has been rare to find more than one or two articles published on Clough a year. In fact, the last full-length studies of Clough were in the 1960s and 1970s. This leaves me wondering, in what context are young scholars discovering Clough? And what are the scholarly interests that have been guiding their decision to work on his poetry?

One can imagine at least three different explanations for reexamining Clough: first, a revivalist impulse to restore to the canon a poet who has fallen out of interest; second, an interest in the formal aspects of Clough's poetry that may reflect renewed attention to literary form; and third, the prevalence of themes in Clough's poetry that are of central interest to cultural and new historicist criticism. These differing reasons are not necessarily easily reconciled. Part of what intrigues me about the recent work on Clough, however, is that it suggests that a reconciliation between cultural criticism and a renewed formalist approach is possible and is already taking place in Victorian poetry studies.

Scholars are studying Clough's experimentation with style, his attempt to adapt Greek and Latin forms to the English hexameter, and his innovative use of genre. The current work on Clough suggests that a reinvigorated formalist criticism is emerging within Victorian poetry studies: the return to Clough may essentially be a sign that scholars are returning to the text. Victorian poetry studies may be making (or has perhaps already made) a shift toward reincorporating formalism similar to the shift that has been taking place within recent years in Romanticism studies. The question of a "New Formalism" has gained wider currency in the debates initiated by Susan Wolfson in Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (1997) and in a MLQ special issue (March 2000) on "Reading for Form," edited by Wolfson and Marshall Brown. If the new Clough scholars do indeed reflect a similar shift to formalism, what seems remarkable is that in Victorian poetry studies we have made this shift without the convulsive changes that have affected Romantic, especially Wordsworth, studies. Romanticism has been a methodological battleground: once at the center of New Criticism, it moved "beyond formalism" in the 1970s (as echoed in Geoffrey Hartman's book of that title), and it embraced New Historicism with critics such as Marjorie Levinson and Alan Liu in the late 1980s and 1990s. Victorian poetry studies have seen, alongside New Historicism, the rapid institutionalization of Cultural Materialism, moving beyond formalism into more capacious areas like history, culture, and politics; yet the field has done so largely without entering into the same sorts of methodological disputes. This has perhaps laid the foundation for a smoother reintegration of a new mode of formalist reading practice within the study of Victorian poetry.

To invoke the word "formalism" may, for Victorianists, call to mind Walter Pater, the father of formalist aesthetics. But it may also risk conjuring up New Criticism's sometimes too exclusive insistence on form and the anti-formalism of Paul de Man, who declared a "dead-end" to formalism.

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