Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Clough, Bankruptcy, and Disbelief: The Economic Background to "Blank Misgivings"

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Clough, Bankruptcy, and Disbelief: The Economic Background to "Blank Misgivings"

Article excerpt

Perhaps belatedly in contrast to criticism of Victorian fiction, over the past fifteen years or so several major commentators have directed attention to the relation between Victorian poetry and Victorian commerce. Alan Sinfield's rereading of Tennyson, Isobel Armstrong's analogies between money and language, and Lee Erickson's treatment of the early Victorian poetic marketplace, are all indications that Victorianists are beginning to give the same kind of post-Marxist economic scrutiny to poetic production that they have long given to the novel. (1) Arthur Hugh Clough is one of the few canonical or quasi-canonical Victorian poets to have read, thought, and written at all extensively about Victorian economics, but the origin and nature of Clough's engagement have not, I think, been fully explored. (2)

This essay draws on hitherto-unused evidence about Clough's father's career in the highly competitive transatlantic cotton-trade of the 1820s and 1830s. Through this new information it is now possible to re-read the impact of his father's career, not only on Clough's economic writings, and on his social satires, but on other Clough poems from the early forties. Clough's early religious verse has often seemed conventional and abstract, because critics have not recognized the direct, often startlingly concrete, experiential genesis of its economic imagery. The subtext of Clough's early religious poetry was not just the sense of moral indebtedness or moral discredit, but a quite literal bankruptcy.

Moreover, the new evidence provides a fresh starting-point for a long-standing problem in how Clough is read. The terms of Clough criticism are still largely set by his rediscovery in the 1950s and 1960s. (3) Seeking to rescue Clough from the image of religiose wimpishness, his mid-century New Critical rediscoverers presented him as a strong-minded social satirist, and his religious poetry got put aside during the makeover. While there is now greater awareness that the characteristic mode of Clough's poetry lies in its unfinishedness, its indecisiveness, its sudden recognition that the contexts of discourse are changeable, uncontrolled, this awareness has hardly altered attitudes to his religious lyrics. (4) If the new evidence can help move us away from the long-dominant terms of Clough criticism, it may also provide a way of looking afresh at the tone, not just the themes, of some great poetry that is now quite unjustly neglected.

Unlike almost any other early Victorian poet, certainly unlike most Oxonian poets, Clough's family background was in trade. (5) His mother's family (the Perfects) had been bankers in Yorkshire, while his father, a younger son from a landowning and clerical family from North Wales, had a series of businesses in the cotton trade centered on Liverpool and Manchester. The Lancashire cotton industry presented, not only the social disruption described by Gaskell and Engels, but also recurrent economic instability. S. G. Checkland notes that "From the outset Liverpool's trade ... was highly speculative," and more recently Julian Hoppit has demonstrated a direct link between the "revolutionary development and rapid growth in the cotton industry with rising rates of bankruptcy." (6) By the 1790s, when James Butler Clough was starting in cotton, two-thirds of all the bankrupts in England came from Manchester and Liverpool (Hoppit, p. 81).

Successive Clough biographies, while usually recognizing that Clough's father had serious financial difficulties in the early 1840s, are remarkably vague about James Butler Clough's business in the previous decades. Palgrave's original 1862 memoir never even mentioned any business difficulties. (7) In Mrs. Clough's 1865 Letters and Remains (and repeated in the 1869 expanded edition of The Poems), Clough's sister Anne Jemima, with all the skill of the academic administrator she would become, glosses over the family's financial instability as merely a matter of their father's personal style: he "liked life and change," she wrote, "and . …

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