Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics

By Isobel Armstrong | Go to book overview

7

THE RADICAL IN CRISIS: CLOUGH

The Bothie of Tober-Na-Vuolich, a poem in hexameters subtitled ‘A Long Vacation Pastoral’, surprised Clough’s friends. Since he had recently resigned his Oxford fellowship on supposedly religious grounds (he could not subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles), while the Tractarian controversy was at its height, it seemed likely that he would produce a theological poem. 1 It is, however, at once Theocritan pastoral, mock epic and modern verse novel. Though there is a concealed theology in the poem, as will be seen, it has little immediately to do with the Roman tendencies of High Anglicanism. What there is of Tractarianism seems like a parody of it, and it seems possible that, once liberated from Oxford, Clough was able to make a critique of the Oxford milieu. It is a study of the upper-class radical and intellectual. In Scotland with his tutor and an undergraduate reading party, Philip Hewson - student, Chartist, poet and enemy of the upper-middle-class conventions surrounding sexual relationships and marriage - becomes involved, out of a combination of lust and theory, with a working-class servant girl, Katie. He then veers towards a flirtation with the aristocratic Lady Maria and finally finds himself, his integrity and a wife, in Elspie, the crofter’s daughter. In many ways it is a more realistic version of the genre of rustic ‘daughter’ poems of Tennyson, Sterling and William Allingham, and, like them, discloses a real anxiety about the sexual feelings and demands of women in heterosexual relationship. Its brilliance, however, does not arise from its direct social realism and confrontation of class, or its willingness to ‘study the question of sex’, as one of Philip’s friends puts it; 2 nor does it arise from the innovation which made it one of the earliest verse novels. What Clough did was to evolve a form to which a politics was intrinsic and a language which was necessarily a democratic language. This meant entirely reshaping metrical structures and diction as they were commonly used in English poetry.

Though he was later generous to The Bothie, praising its ‘rapidity of movement, and the plainness and directness of its style’, in the lectures On Translating Homer after Clough’s death, this testimony may have been a reparation for Arnold’s strong and strongly expressed dislike of the poem

-178-

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