Where "Byron Used to Ride": Locating the Victorian Travel Poet in Clough's Amours De Voyage and Dipsychus

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In the Spring of 1849, Giuseppe Mazzini, leader of the newly-declared Roman Republic, fought off attacks from French troops seeking to restore papal sovereignty over the city. At the same time, he withstood a siege of another sort: an obscure English poet, Arthur Hugh Clough, needed his permission to visit the guarded Vatican art gallery. A letter of introduction from Thomas Carlyle won Clough his pass, but the relative absurdity of the affair was not lost on the poet. To his mother, Clough confessed embarrassment at having to bother the hero of the Risorgimento with "trivial English tourist importunities" (1:257).(1) Clough furthermore must have wondered whether looking at statues was the best occupation for a poet at such a crucial moment in European history. Was this what Byron would do?

The importunate encounter with Mazzini grew out of two conflicting impulses in Clough. The first was the need to complete an obligatory step in the ritual of the Grand Tour, which also demanded visits to the coast and ancient ruins. The second impulse was more urgent. Clough was eager to turn his firsthand observation of events in Rome into poetry. Within the past year, he had achieved some success with a travel poem set in Scotland. The Bothie of Tober-na-vuolich (1848), a "long-vacation pastoral," concludes with the elopement of an Oxford undergraduate and a Scottish peasant girl, thus seeming to confirm the Republican sympathies of "Citizen Clough," as his fellow Oxonians sardonically called him.(2) The poem won positive reviews for its experimentation with meter and its perceptive, witty treatment of the social and intellectual controversies then consuming Oxford. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for example, praised the poem's "vigour and freshness," while doubting, somewhat prophetically, whether Clough would rank among the great poets of the age--whether he was an "artist."(3) For a poet seeking to reach that next echelon, however, the continent must have seemed an inviting subject. As in Byron's day, Europe was in the midst of profound political upheaval. Clough in fact had recently witnessed the restoration of Republican government in Paris, although, like most reform-minded Victorians, he soon became disillusioned with Louis Napoleon. The fate of Italy, however, was not settled. Recent uprisings in Lombardy, Tuscany, and Rome still promised the resurgence of a new nation from the grip of old-regime politics--and new life for poetry that engaged contemporary political issues.

Indeed, Clough was not the only poet who had focused his attention on Italy. In Florence, Barrett Browning was working on Casa Guidi Windows (1851), a poem that would blend eye-witness description of events in Florence with analysis of the political factors that eventually forestalled any hope of unification in 1849. And before disappearing from the literary map with the demise of the "Spasmodic School," Sydney Dobell gained brief fame with The Roman (1850). The poem vigorously champions the cause of Italian independence, closing with a popular uprising and the chant of "Down with the Austrians! Arms! Blood! Charge! Death--death to tyrants. Victory! Freedom!"(4) Mazzini himself later congratulated Dobell: "You have written about Rome as I would, had I been a poet. And what you did write flows from the soul, the all-loving, the all-embracing, the prophet-soul."(5)

Clough, in contrast, was finding it difficult to adopt the role of Hero as Poet--to become Carlyle's assertive voice of the age. While intensely drawn to Rome's plight, he seemed unable to cultivate a public, overtly political persona--to progress beyond the roles of spectator, correspondent, and tourist. This struggle to find a voice, however, would fuel the two long works Clough did write in Italy: the epistolary travelogue Amours de Voyage (1849; publ. 1858) and the verse-drama Dipsychus (1850; publ. 1865), which Clough set in Venice. Both poems are semiautobiographical records of the poet's response to the spectacle of modern Italy and to the ever-present "Byron" rain his varying guises as celebrated traveler, champion of nationalistic movements, and overall role model for poets. …