Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Clough's Difficulties

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Clough's Difficulties

Article excerpt

This essay proposes a fresh conception of Arthur Hugh Clough's understanding of the nature of authoritative knowledge and the limits of human teaching. It begins by asking why The Bothie of Toper-na-Fuosich (1848) is so hard to read and argues that it is misguided to present the poem as a text with a clear 'thesis'. Unwilling to ascribe pedagogic authority to debate or writing, the poem finds its best hope in that which is mysterious, even ghostly. Difficulty is at the heart of its intellectual drama and points to the essence of Clough's thinking about how to learn in daily life.

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One of the most peculiar poems of the Victorian period must be Arthur Hugh Clough's The Bothie of Toper-na-Fuosich: A Long-Vacation Pastoral (1848). Although widely reviewed in its day, it has not traveled well to the present and even the angular curiousness of its title seems an invitation to set it aside. Among those today whose professional life is with Victorian literature, few have read it. Why is this so? The Bothie's neglect is perhaps partly to do with its alien narrative and setting-a romance between an Oxford undergraduate and a Highland girl during a long-vacation reading party in the 1840s--which now feels culturally remote. Clough's shifting tone-the poem moves in and out of satire--leaves the reader distanced from the characters, unable to form easy sympathetic bonds (Clough would explore the possibilities of unsympathy further in Amours de Voyage, written in 1849 and published in 1858) and this impedes accessibility too: it is at points, to borrow one of the character's words, hard to '[disengage] jest from earnest' (III. 106). (1) The metrical form of the poem--the so-called English hexameter--though zestily handled, provides unfamiliar rhythms for the ear which, again, produce comic affects that query the poem's seriousness. Certainly, each of these may well be a reason why The Bothie does not enjoy many readers now (though it never really did). But there is also the question of what it is about. It is not an unreasonable expectation that a poem of this length, crowded with debate about politics and education, revolution and Chartism, class and gender, should have a thematic coherence, a set of arguments, an intellectual substance that is sustained: Clough was hardly a man without ideas. But, to borrow words from Henry James's famous complaint about the English novel, what The Bothie actually amounts to is still not a question easy to answer. A reader's chief feeling today is of regarding a conundrum.

It is a suggestive feature of the early reviewers that they felt similarly. James Anthony Froude was guarded. 'People don't expect philosophy', he wrote to Clough, 'in a thing coming out in the shape and with the tone of a sketchy poem; and won't look for it, and won't believe it is there when it seems to be.' (2) Something philosophical, something of thought, seemed to be in The Bothie but what it was the future biographer of Thomas Carlyle could not say. He was happy to commend the 'depth of thought' as 'quite wonderful' but refrained from suggesting what that thought was about. (3) The Spectator's anonymous reviewer in December 1848 was less impressed and more puzzled. Seeing the poem as poor narrative, he was vexed by its apparent absence of meaning. Was it there or not? 'At first view', he said, 'The Bothie of Toper-na-Fuosich looked like some Oxford satire; but if it does cover any occult meaning, it is confined to the initiated.' (4) A language of esoteric codes seemed the best resort. Ralph Waldo Emerson--an admirer of Clough--was confident that the poem was a 'bold hypothetical discussion of the most serious questions that bubble up at this very hour in London, Paris, and Boston', (5) but he did not say what he thought those questions were. Perhaps they were obvious enough (class, revolution, Chartism, education?), but how the poem discussed them or what it actually said about them Emerson did not venture. …

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