Friday, April 3, 2009

Caffè-latte! I call to the waiter, - and Non c’ è latte, this is the answer he makes me - Arthur Hugh Clough's Rome

“Rome disappoints me still; but I shrink and adapt myself to it.

Ye gods! What do I want with this rubbish of ages departed,
Things that Nature abhors, the experiments that she failed in?
What do I find in the Forum? An archway and two or three pillars.
Well, but St. Peter’s? Alas, Bernini has filled it with sculpture!” (I, 35 & 41-44)

Alas! Claude, hero of Clough’s Amour de Voyages (1849), is a restless youngster. He’s a tourist in Rome, and not happy about it, but the passage above, nominally a letter to his friend Eustace, suggests that the problem might just possibly not be the fault of Rome, exactly.

Fortunately, for Claude and the reader, two things soon happen that interest even him. First, Claude is forced to spend time, much against his well, with other English tourists, and is surprised to find himself falling in love, although he thinks it can’t possibly be serious. He’s a bit like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, the distant man who cannot quite believe that he has met a woman who is actually interesting. One wonders what kind of company these fellers had been keeping before, but that’s beside the point.

Second, this is 1849, so Claude and the other tourists wake one morning to discover that the city, under the control of Garibaldi’s Republic, is besieged by the French army (Murray is Claude’s Lonely Planet):

“Yes, we are fighting at last, it appears. This morning as usual,
Murray, as usual, in hand, I enter the Caffè Nuovo;
Seating myself with a sense as it were of a change in the weather,
Not understanding, however, but thinking mostly of Murray,
And, for today is their day, of the Campidoglio Marbles,
Caffè-latte! I call to the waiter, - and Non c’ è latte,
This is the answer he makes me, and this the sign of a battle.” (II. 95-100)

I detect a hint of a future generation of useless men abroad, those of Henry James and Ford Madox Ford, or Turgenev's fretful young intellectuals. Claude begins to find things – the Roman Republic, Mary– interesting, but he has great trouble doing anything, which eventually leads where one would expect. As goes the Roman Republic, so goes the romance of Claude and Mary.

I don’t want to overemphasize the romance, although that’s quite good, and would have made a fine plot in the hands of Jane Austen or E. M. Forster. Amours de Voyage consists mostly of Claude philosophizing and ironizing, and whining and moping, and wandering around Rome, all in his overbaked Oxford style. What he has to say, what he thinks, is interesting. What he does, that's Claude's problem.

Wonderful poet, Arthur Hugh Clough. Not quite like anyone else.


  1. Clough is probably the most underrated male writer in the English language - amazing he hasn't had a revival, considering the groundbreaking conversational tone of his poetry.

  2. Neil, I almost agree - I vote for John Galt. At least Clough still, for now, gets a poem or two in big anthologies.

    But there's plenty more Clough I didn't even mention - the fragmented, experimental "Dipsychus," for example, some of which is plenty obscure, some of which is clear and startling.