Wednesday, April 1, 2009

In which I marvel at the perfectly egg-shaped head of Arthur Hugh Clough - guest starring a blear-eyed pimp

Look at Arthur Hugh Clough there, on the cover of the Penguin Classics edition of his poems. His head, it is so perfectly egg-shaped. I cannot stop staring at it. I may have been called an egghead myself, possibly, but I don't think it was meant literally.

It is so, so round.

I want to talk about -

So smooth and round. Must. Look. Away. So shiny.

All right. The portrait is by "an unknown artist." Do you think Mr. A. U. Artist was trained to first draw an egg and then fill in the facial features? I do.

What did Clough write about? Skepticism, mostly. Skepticism about religion, skepticism about sex, especially the male sex drive, skepticism about his purpose in the world. Love presented some sort of imperfect solution to these problems, as did poetry.

I quoted a bit of "Epi-Strauss-ism" back here ("Matthew and Mark and Luke and holy John \ Evanished all and gone!"), a poem of doubt caused by up-to-date German Biblical criticism. In that poem, Clough doubts his doubting. "Easter Day: Naples, 1849" is more strongly worded:

"Through the great sinful streets of Naples as I past,
With fiercer heat than flamed above my head
My heart was hot within me; till at last
My brain was lightened, when my tongue had said

     Christ is not risen!

   Christ is not risen, no,
   He lies and moulders low;
     Christ is not risen." (ll. 1-8)

This is a long poem, so I'll include just a bit more, an inversion of Christ's own words:

"Ye men of Galilee!
Why stand ye looking up to heaven, where Him ye ne’er may see,
Neither ascending hence, nor hither returning again?
Ye ignorant and idle fishermen!
Hence to your huts and boats and inland native shore,
And catch not men, but fish;
Whate’er things ye might wish,
Him neither here nor there ye e’er shall meet with more.
Ye poor deluded youths, go home,
Mend the old net ye left to roam,
Tie the split oar, patch the torn sail;
It was indeed 'an idle tale',
     He was not risen." (ll. 113-125)

I find this quite powerful; I also find Christ's command to be "fishers of men" quite powerful. I have little idea what Clough actually believes. In this poem, the declaration of disbelief relieves some kind (what kind?) of torment. But then I turn to a companion poem, "Easter Day II":

"So while the blear-eyed pimp beside me walked,
And talked,
For instance, of the beautiful danseuse
And 'Eccellenza sure must see, if he would choose'
Or of the lady in the green silk there,
Who passes by and bows with minx's air,
Or of the little thing not quite fifteen,
Sicilian-born who surely should be seen -
So while the blear-eyed pimp beside me walked
And talked, and I too with fit answer talked,
So in the sinful streets, abstracted and alone,
I with my secret self held communing of mine own." (ll. 1-12)

The "blear-eyed pimp"! "not quite fifteen"! Perhaps a clue to the source of the earlier poem's "fierce heat" can be found here. The poem ends:

"Sit if ye will, sit down upon the ground,
Yet not to weep and wail, but calmly look around.
  Whate'er befell,
  Earth is not hell;
  Now too as when it first began,
  Life yet is Life and Man is Man.
For all that breathes beneath the heavens' high cope,
Joy with grief mixes, with despondence hope.
Hope conquers cowardice, joy grief,
Or at the least, faith unbelief.
  Though dead not dead;
  Though gone not fled;
  Though lost not vanished.
  In the great Gospel and true Creed
  He is yet risen indeed,
    Christ is yet risen." (ll. 34-51)

There seems to be some actual wisdom here. And what poetry! I love the whole "blear-eyed pimp" stanza - the imitations of his speech, the repetitons, the fractured meter. In the line "So in the sinful streets, abstracted and alone," the sequence of sounds ("So in" to "sin," "streets" to "abstracted") can hardly be bettered. All this from a supposedly minor poet, apparently best known for being a friend of Matthew Arnold.

Something I should have mentioned earlier: Clough is pronounced Cluff. Doesn't seem right. Hyu Cluff.

Tomorrow: Arthur Hugh Clough's use of the hexameter. See you next week! Ha ha!


  1. Clough, huh. I guess I forgot that he was a poet. You're finding great stuff in there. I think of Clough as being more important than people would guess because he updated Dryden's translation of Plutarch. He doesn't seem to get much credit for this, but it must have been fairly rarified hack work, if that's what it was. And it is a translation of a more-or-less primary text that has lasted much longer than most, still the Modern Library version, although it looks like your spellbinding egg-shaped head fancy Penguins finally supplanted Clough. Plutarch was a critical text for forever, including for Shakespeare and later the founding fathers, and it was a real desert island book, the Bible and Plutarch were all that a lot of people needed. And Clough's translation seems to have come just in time for this primacy to be radically diminished. Oh well.

  2. I've read the Clough/ Dryden Plutarch. Very readable, still in print from Modern Library in two attractive volumes. The Penguins, if I remember right, are more logically organized. Don't know how they are to read.

    That's a good question - I wonder what Clough actually did as editor. Was it re-translating, updating archaicisms, or what? Dryden's own prose is still very clear.

    The editor of my Norton Anthology speculates that Clough is insufficiently appreciated because much of his most interesting work is in the long poems, which are hard to anthologize.

  3. I don't know if you watch hockey, but my team has a pair of Swedish twins with upside-down-eggplant-shaped-heads, so much so that I refer to them as Les Aubergines. This head, though, is amazing. I would like to polish it.

  4. I went to the library and looked at portraits of Clough. They vary in egginess from very eggy to not at all. Clough's death mask, now at Oxford, and what's the deal with that, was not too eggish. Poor guy was only 42.

    The strangest one was a bust of Arthur Hugh Clough, executed in 1942 and located in the City Hall of Charleston, South Carolina, where Clough lived between the ages of 3 and 7 (in Charleston, not at City Hall). The sculpture has sharp cheekbones, a strong chin, a modest forehead, a long pointy nose, and a full head of hair. In other words, it looks nothing at all like the fellow on the cover of the Penguin Poems.

  5. Cluff? It's enough to make a speller commit siouxeyesighed.

  6. A verse mnemonic for the pronunciation of "Clough"

    Poor Arthur Hugh Clough,
    His verse, it’s pure guff,
    Such frivolous fluff.
    Sad stuff from Art Clough.

    The poet Art Clough,
    Repairing his shoe,
    Used oatmeal for glue.
    Odd Arthur Hugh Clough.