Thursday, April 2, 2009

Rubbishy seems the word that would exactly suit it - Arthur Hugh Clough's hexameters

A while back I was reading Longfellow's Evangeline, and it left me wondering about the point of writing English poetry in dactylic hexameter. Longfellow's hexameter was basically a sort of rhythmic prose. The long, six foot lines and the irregular lengths of the feet seemed to violate some essential feature of English prosody, although I wasn't sure what.

It turns out that a while further back, a young Arthur Hugh Clough was reading Evangeline and wondered the same thing. He decided to do something about it, and wrote two long, narrative hexameter poems, The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich (1848), and Amours de Voyage (1849). Both are about young men on vacation, and their troubles with women. Both are excellent, especially Amours de Voyage, which I think I will return to tomorrow. Now I just want to look at the verse. Clough cracked the hexameter nut, so to speak, and he solved the problem in more than one way.

Not that he doesn't still end up with prose a lot. How's this:

"It was four of the clock, and the sports were coming to the ending,
Therefore the Oxford party went off to adorn for dinner." (I.10-11)

Maybe you get a hint here of one of Clough's tools, the mock heroic. The hexameter is the meter of Homer, so let's have some Homer, but a bit silly:

"Here were clansmen many in kilt and bonnet assembled,
Keepers a dozen at least; the Marquis's targeted gillies;
Pipers five or six, among them the young one, the drunkard...
But with snuff-boxes all, and all of them using the boxes." (I.51-53, 56)

This fits the setting and theme of the poem. A passel of Oxford undergraduates are spending the summer in Scotland. They prepare for exams with their tutor, mostly, so their heads are full of the original hexameter, the Greek and Roman classics. On this evening, they attend a dinner and dance hosted by local Highlanders. The Highlanders still have some connection with the traditions of actual men of action; the undergrads split their time bewteen books and sports.

Some of the poem is still pretty tangled, and some of it is pretty flat, but a touch less seriousness turns out to help a lot.

Clough tried again, and found a complete solution with Amours de Voyage. It is an epistolary poem, so in a sort of first person, which leads straight to the answer: create a character who naturally speaks or writes in dactylic hexameter. Name him Claude. And so:

"Rome disappoints me much; I hardly as yet understand, but
Rubbishy seems the word that most exactly would suit it.
All the foolish destructions, and all the siller savings,
All the incongruous things of past incompatible ages,
Seem to be treasured up here to make fools of present and future.
Would to Heaven the old Goths had made a cleaner sweep of it!" (I.19-24)

We have a young graduate now, not an undergraduate, at worst a pretentious, serious man, but with a sense of humor and an ability to see the ridiculous side of his own character. Claude's writing is not natural, really, but it's his voice, what a person like him would actually write. He's over-educated and restless; it's too late to be natural (or is it - that's a theme of this poem).

What a surprise, then, after twelve letters or fragments of letters from "Claude to Eustace," to see that the heading of I.XIII is "Georgina Trevellyn to Louisa."* Who? Here's how she writes:

"Dearest Louisa, -Inquire, if you please, about Mr. Claude -.
He has been once at R., and remembers meeting the H.'s.
Harriet L., perhaps, may be able to tell you about him.
It is an awkward youth, but still with very good manners;
Not without prospects, we hear; and, George says, highly connected." (I.252-6)

This is also dactylic hexameter, but sounds so different than Claude (more monosyllabic, less Latinate) and entirely natural, as long as we're in or near a Jane Austen novel.

So now I don't know how Clough did it. Right, the voice of the characters has to be suited to the meter. I'll note that Amours de Voyage is probably 90% Claude. Georgina's letters must have been devillishly hard to write.

Tomorrow, a bit of what Amours de Voyage is actually about.

* Update: Oops, Georgina first shows up in Letter I.III, not I.XIII. And the important character turns out to be her sister Mary, whose letters appear later. As a half-hearted defense, Clough does make this deliberately confusing.


  1. I love your analysis here. I do my best with understanding the poet's choice of meter but sometimes find myself at a loss. In the case of Longfellow, he definitely chose Evangeline's meter after some careful, serious consideration (that was his thing). If I recall, he also thought about writing it (either whole or in part) in blank verse, which would certainly have added to the prose feeling.

  2. That's interesting - I didn't know that Evangeline might have been in blank verse. I guess Longfellow didn't think that would be sufficiently unpoetic! Ha ha! Kidding. Half kidding.

    Clough, like Longfellow, and like Poe, was openly experimental with meter. And like them, his experiments didn't always work.