Poems and Prose Remains, Vol. I

Two Letters



(Published in ‘Putnam’s Monthly,’ New York, for July and August, 1853.)

Arthur Hugh Clough


MY DEAR SIR,—I left this country as nearly as possible (next June, I believe, will complete it) one quarter of a century back, to go to school. I was sent ‘home,’ as they called it—that is, away from home, to the land which my parents, and, I presume, yours also, long ago belonged to—to be educated.

Does one get educated in twenty-five years, I wonder? The wisest of the seven wise men of Greece describes to us how that he

Each day grew older and learnt something new.

And, since the something new may possibly contradict, and will assuredly modify, the everything not so new before it, at what age may one consider oneself entitled, for example, to write letters in print to the editor of a magazine? At what figure does one attain one’s real majority and right of speech? How soon may one venture to affirm anything which everybody else does not already know and believe? And, in the meantime, is there any good in talking merely to be assented to? Is it so agreeable an exercise on the part of the reader to express mentally to himself that assent? If agreeable, is it therefore useful? ‘Were it not better done as others use?’ to follow the plough or the ledger, to find a Neæra in agriculture, or an Amaryllis in commerce? ‘What boots it, with incessant care, to tend the slighted’ bookmaker’s trade, ‘and strictly meditate the thankless muse’ of magazines? Will posterity know anything of our miserably imperfect, impotent fugitive verses, or contemporaneity be none the worse for them? Are we not most likely corrupting the pure taste which would otherwise turn with a natural appetite to Shakspeare and Milton, to Addison and Goldsmith, to Virgil and Homer? Goethe, I have heard, said not long before his death, that had he known ere he began writing how many good books there were in the world before, he would never have written a word.

There is one thing, indeed, I think one might do, could one only believe that one could. No so certain a way of learning the merit of a great picture as an attempt to copy it or represent something like it. And as we, if we look to it and take pains, may by our indifferent writing learn to appreciate the worth and merit of great writers, whom before we thought but little of, so it is also possible that our faithful, though small attempts, may help people to appreciate the great originals.

Every new age has something new in it—takes up a new position; the view presented by the writers of an anterior age is not readily seized, or adopted by those born in a later century. It may, I think, be one good work attainable to the efforts of the humble, modern littérateur, to elevate and direct to the noblest objects the tastes and enjoyments of his contemporaries. He holds a position common with them: he may avail himself of this for their edification. As the traveller who knows the country will show his less experienced companion at each new stage, each further remove, under changed aspects, the high mountain points they are retiring from; will point out the Mont Blanc whose shadow they stood in at Chamouni, in its full magnificent outline at Sallanches, and again, far distant, yet not less rose-tinged, at sunset from Geneva, so the writers (that is, or should be, the more instructed readers) of each new century may successively restore each successive generation to connection with the teachers of the past. Such is a possible function for a writer. Do twenty-five years educate one, I wonder, for this—twenty-five years of the universal slovenly habits of writing, speaking, hearing, thinking, remembering, which pervade our time? ‘Twenty-five years have I spent in learning,’ said the young man to the old. ‘Return,’ said the sage, ’and spend another twenty-five in unlearning.’ ‘Each day grow older and unlearn something’—is this to be our other reading of Solon’s maxim? Alas! it would seem there is need of it. We submit ourselves for instruction to teachers, and they teach us (or is it our awkwardness that we learn from them) their faults and mistakes. Each new age and each new year has its new direction; and we go to the well-informed of the season before ours, to be put by them in the direction which, because right for their time, is therefore not quite right for ours.

Upon the water in a boat,
I sit and sketch as there we float;
The scene is fair, the stream is strong,
I sketch it as we float along.

The stream is strong, and as I sit
And view the picture that we quit,
It flows and flows, and bears the boat,
And I sit sketching as we float.

Still as we go, the things I see,
E’en as I see them, cease to be,
The angles shift, and with the boat
The whole perspective seems to float.

Each pointed height, each wavy line,
To new and other forms combine;
Proportions change and colours fade,
And all the landscape is remade.

Depicted—neither far nor near,
And larger there and smaller here,
And partly old, and partly new,
Fen I can hardly think it true.

Yet still I look, and still I sit,
Adjusting, shaping, altering it;
And still the current bears the boat
And me, still sketching as we float.

Did I really read or only dream somewhere that anecdote of an elderly painter, who, going over one day, with a friend of his youth, who had known him in his prime and promise, a series of his popular and most admired pieces, said mournfully, ‘All these poor, unmeaning, ill-designed, half-executed things, I have made to earn bread and time to do that,’ pointing to a chaotic, unfinished canvas at the end of the room, ‘and that, after all, is as bad as any of them.’ ‘ This also,’ saith the preacher, ‘is a sore evil that I have seen under the sun.’

To grow old, therefore, learning and unlearning, is such the conclusion? Conclusion or no conclusion, such, alas! appears to be our inevitable lot, the fixed ordinance of the life we live. The cruel king Tarchetius gave his daughters a web to weave, upon the completion of which he said they should get married; and what these involuntary Penelopes did in the daytime, servants by his orders undid at night. A hopeless and a weary work, indeed, especially for young people desirous to get married.

Weaving and unweaving, learning and unlearning, learning painfully, painfully unlearning, under the orders of the cruel king Tarchetius, behold—are we to say, ‘our life’? ‘Every new lesson,’ saith the Oriental proverb, ‘is another grey hair; and time will pluck out this also.’ And what saith the preacher? ‘I, the preacher, was King over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under the heavens; this sore travail hath God given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith.’ ‘Perchè pensa? Pensando s’invecchia,’ said the young, unthinking Italian to the grave German sitting by him in the diligence, whose name was Goethe. Is it true?

To spend uncounted years of pain
Again, again, and yet again,
In working out in heart and brain
    The problem of our being here;
To gather facts from far and near;
Upon the mind to hold them clear,
And, knowing more may yet appear,
Unto one’s latest breath to fear
The premature result to draw,—
Is this the object, end, and law
    And purpose of our being here?

Nevertheless, to say something, to talk to one’s fellow-creatures, to relieve oneself by a little exchange of ideas, is there no good, is there no harm, in that? Prove to the utmost the imperfection of our views, our thoughts, our conclusions; yet you will not have established the uselessness of writing.

Most true, indeed, by writing we relieve ourselves, we unlearn; it is the one best recipe for facilitating that needful process.

Each day write something, and unlearn it so.

Most true, indeed! The observations that we can make nothing of, the maxims that have ceased to be serviceable to us, our spent theories, our discarded hypotheses, the wit that has become stale to us, the wisdom that has grown fusty with us, the imaginations that molest us, the ill-humours that fret us, our follies, fancies, falsities; oh, happy relief!—away with them to the magazine!

Yes, methinks I see it so, through the long series of ages. The ‘Iliad’ is but the scum of the mind of Homer, and Plato’s dialogues the refuse of his thought. Who that reads the ‘Odyssey’ perceives not that it is an act of penitence for the ‘Iliad,’ and feels not that, had the poet lived, the ‘Odyssey’ also would have had its Palinode? In the divine eloquence of Plato there are intonations in which I hear him saying to me, ‘ You know I don’t quite mean all this.’

Alas! ’tis true I have gone here and there,
And made myself a motley to the view,

is the Great Dramatist’s profoundest feeling about himself, his doings, his sayings, his writings. Virgil bade his ‘Æneid’ be burnt; and what we read as his, is not his deliberate word, but that of Varius and Tucca. As Rousseau, it is said, in his old age, smiled sadly at the fervent disciples of the ‘Social Contract,’ the ‘Emile,’ and the ‘Julie;’ so, doubt it not, did greater than Rousseau. So felt Raphael of his paintings, and Phidias of his sculptures; Michael Angelo, also, of his Pantheon suspended in the heavens. Dante, from some strange region of the spiritual spaces, looks down, half scorn, half remorse, on the worshippers of the Divine Comedy of his human spleen and bitterness. Cervantes laughs aloud to hear philosophers discriminate the pure reason in Don Quixote and the understanding in Sancho; and Montaigne, with open eyes of more than mortal wonder, repeats his ‘Que sçais je?’ at the sight of grave worshippers of his levities. May it not be true that when I quote from Milton, a shade of severe vexation darkens his spiritual features, and when I repeat the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, an ethereal frown contracts the immortal forehead of the Preacher.

You are feeding, oh you students of Greek and lovers of Latin, you that add to your German, French, and to your French, Italian and Spanish, you enquirers afar off into Persian and Sanscrit, you devotees of Chaucer and votaries of Shakspeare and Milton—you are feeding upon that, precisely, which was tried by these wise men of old and found wanting. You stand picking up the dross where those before you have carried away the gold; you are swallowing as truth what they put away from them—expressed, because it was false or insufficient.

Or is this, peradventure, confined to our own weaker selves, our more impatient, irretentive, unthoughtful age? For, certainly, my dear sir, what you and I and the young people read in any modern page is, in the manner afore stated, ‘the thing that is not.’ Each striking new novel does but reveal a theory of life and action which its writer is anxious to be rid of; each enthusiastic address or oration is but that which its speaker is just beginning to feel disgusted with. Oh! happy and happy again, and thrice happy relief to the writer; but to the reader—?

Said the Tree to the Children, ‘How can you go and pick up those dirty dead leaves I have thrown away?’ Said the Children to the Tree, ‘Will you grow us any better next year?’ Said the Tree to the Children, ‘What! are you positively going to put into your mouths those horrid things (fruit, do you call it?) that have fallen from my branches?’ Said the Children to the Tree, ‘Why, they are very nice.’ Said the Tree then to itself, ‘Suppose I were to restrain myself next spring, and not grow any leaves, and to suppress, ascetically, all tendencies to blossom? Should I not then produce something better? By all that is wise and moral I will try.’ Said the Springtime six months after to the Tree, ‘My dear Tree, that is out of the question.’ The Children came again the next fall, and the Tree made no remark.

An illustration, however, is not the same thing as an argument; though sometimes, indeed, it may be better. It is a game, in any case, for two to play at. For it is also told of the Phœnix, that, having reached its term of years, it proceeded to Arabia, and built up carefully its pyre of odoriferous combustibles, and sat down to expect the new birth. But when the fire began to kindle, and the odoriferous sticks crackled, the odours indeed were beautiful (ornithologists, however, are uncertain whether the Phœnix has any sense of smell), the flame meantime was most undoubtedly painful in the extreme when it got within the feathers (the Phœnix there is no question has the sense of touch). The Phœnix started up and exclaimed to itself, ‘Oh! surely, surely, I am young again now!’ ‘Sit still, sit still, poor Phœnix; not till pain has deprived thee of the very sense of pain, not until thought and self-consciousness are burnt out and out of thee—not, by many pangs, yet—is the new creature born in thee!’ with which exhortation the story concludes.

And with which illustration, upon which side, my dear sir, is the truth, or the most of the truth! ‘As the leaves are, so are the lives of men;’ and so also their writings? Shall we yield to the promptings of nature, and let the eager sap aspire forth in germination, and the leaflets open out, and display themselves, to fall from us dead and uncomely in November? Or shall we burn slowly, in silence, that hereafter something better may be born of us? Quien sabe?

Was it the silence or the speech of previous ages that formed the more perfect writers? Was Perugino necessary to Raphael, or had Raphael been more himself without him? Some function, indeed, higher than that of mere self-relief, we must conceive of for the writer. To sum up the large experience of ages, to lay the finger on yet unobserved, or undiscovered, phenomena of the inner universe, something we can detect of these in the spheric architecture of St. Peter’s, in the creative touches of the ‘Tempest.’

Imperfect, no doubt, both this and that is; short of the better thing to come—the real thing that is. Yet not impotent, not wholly unavailing.

In conclusion, will you let me offer you the last ‘modern invocation’ to the poet—shall we say in modern phrase—of the future? ‘Come, poet, come’—no, I will trouble you only with a few verses at the end:—

In vain I seem to call, and yet
Think not the living years forget:
Ages of heroes fought and fell,
That Homer, in the end, might tell;
O’er grovelling generations past
The Doric column rose at last.
A thousand hearts on thousand years
Had wasted labour, hopes, and fears,
Knells, laughters, and unmeaning tears,
Ere England’s Shakspeare saw, or Rome,
The pure perfection of her dome.
Others, I doubt not, if not we,
The issue of our toils shall see;
Young children gather as their own
The harvest that the dead have sown—
The dead, forgotten and unknown.

Let me sign myself, my dear sir (as we are all ‘strangers and pilgrims,’ so myself in an especial sense),

Your faithful and obliged                                



MY DEAR SIR,—Do people in general, upon this side of the great water, read Homer? Virgil, I know, in some parts of the Union, is a lady’s book; nor is there, I think, any ancient author that better deserves the honour. But the man’s book, Homer? It is not every boy that learns Greek; and not all who learn Greek read through the whole forty-eight books of the ‘Iliad’and the ‘Odyssey.’ Is Pope much studied? I should fancy not: and, indeed, though one is glad to hear any one say that he has, in the past tense, read that ingenious composition, it is not easy to bid any one, in the future, go and read it. And, if not Pope, whom can we recommend? Chapman is barbarous, dissonant, obsolete, incorrect. In Hobbes there are two good lines, well known, but they cannot be repeated too often—

And like a star upon her bosom, lay
His beautiful and shining golden head.

(They are of Astyanax in the arms of his mother; and how that first of English prosaists was inspired with them remains a problem to all generations.) Cowper, who could read, however much enjoined to it? In short there neither is, nor has been, nor in all probability ever will be, anything like a translation. And the whole Anglo-Saxon world of the future will, it is greatly to be feared, go forth upon its way, clearing forests, building clippers, weaving calicoes, and annexing Mexicos, accomplishing its natural manifest destiny, and subsiding into its primitive aboriginal ignorance. Accomplishing our manifest destiny! to be, that is, the ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ to the human race in general; and then, peradventure, when the wood has all been hewn, and the water drawn, to cease to exist, to be effaced from the, earth we have subdued—

Fear no more the heat of the sun,
    Nor the furious winter’s rages,
Thou thine earthly task hast done,
    Homeward gone, and ta’en thy wages.

To cease to exist, to vanish, to give place, in short, to some nobler kind of men, in whose melodious and flexible form of speech the old Homer will have a chance of reappearing unimpaired, or possibly some new Homer singing the wrath of another Achilles and the wanderings of a wiser Ulysses.

Fiat voluntas! Let us go forward to our manifest destiny with. content, or at least resignation, and bravely fill up the trench, which our nobler successors may thus be able to pass.

In the meantime, various attempts in ‘Blackwood’s Magazine,’ and elsewhere, have been made in the last few years at rendering Homer in modem English hexameter verse. We venture to pronounce them unsuccessful. It is not an easy thing to make readable English hexameters at all; not an easy thing even in the freedom of original composition, but a very hard one, indeed, amid the restrictions of faithful translation. Mr. Longfellow has gained, and has charmed, has instructed in some degree, and attuned the ears of his countrymen and countrywomen (in literature we may be allowed to say), upon both sides of the Atlantic, to the flow and cadence of this hitherto unacceptable measure. Yet the success of ‘Evangeline’ was owing not more, we think, to the author’s practised skill in versification than to his judgment in the choice of his material. Even his powers, we believe, would fail to obtain a wide popularity for a translation even from a language so nearly akin to our own as the German. In Greek, where grammar, inflection, intonation, idiom, habit, character, and genius are all most alien, the task is very much more hopeless.

Moreover, in another point, it may be right to turn the ‘Louise’ of Voss, and the ‘Herman and Dorothea’ of Goethe into corresponding modem so-called hexameters. If the verse is clumsy in our rendering, so was it to begin with in the original. If no high degree of elegance is attained, no high degree of elegance was there to be lost.

But in Greek there seems really hardly a reason for selecting this in preference to some readier, more native, and popular form of verse. Certainly the easy flowing couplets of Chaucer, the melodious blank verse of Shakspeare, or some improved variety of ballad metre, such as Mr. Frere used in translating the ‘Cid,’ would be, on the whole, not less like the original music of the ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ than that which we listen to with pleasure in ‘Evangeline,’ and read without much trouble in the ‘Herman and Dorothea.’ Homer’s rounded line, and Virgil’s smooth verse, were both of them (after more puzzling about it than the matter deserves, I have convinced myself) totally unlike those lengthy, straggling, irregular, uncertain slips of prose mesurée which we find it so hard to measure, so easy to read in half-a-dozen ways, without any assurance of the right one, and which, since the days of Voss, the Gothic nations consider analagous to classic hexameter.

Lend me, if you can spare them for a moment or two, my dear sir, your ears, and tell me, honour bright, is

Conticuere omnes, intentique ora tenebant

the same thing as

Hab’ ich den Markt und die Strasse doch nicht so einsam gesehen?

Were I to interpolate in a smooth passage of ‘Evangeline’ a verse from the ‘Georgics’ or the ‘Æneid,’ would they go together?

Is the following a metrical sequence:—

Thus, in the ancient time the smooth Virgilian verses
Fell on the listening ear of the Roman princes and people.
Ut belli signum Laurenti Turnus ab arce.

There is one line, one example of the smooth Virgilian verses, which perhaps Mr. Longfellow would have allowed himself to use, and his readers consented to accept, as a real hexameter.

Spargens humida mella soporiferumque papaver,

might, perhaps, have been no more objected to than

Tous les Bourgeois de Chartres et le carillon de Dunkerque.

Yet even this most exceptionable form, with its special aim at expressing, by an adaptation of sound to sense, the

Scattering of liquid honeys and soporiferous poppy,

is a model of condensation, brevity, smoothness, and netteté, compared with that sprawling bit of rhythmical prose into which I have turned it.

But, we are going to be learned, my dear sir; so I release your kind ears, and beg you will no longer trouble either yourself or them—but, some one, I foresee, of the numerous well-instructed future readers of this private correspondence will interpose with his or her objection, and will tell me, You read your Latin verse wrongly, you don’t put the stress upon the ictus—you should pronounce Virgil like Evangeline, Evangeline is the true hexameter; in Virgil the colloquial accent which you follow was lost in the accent of verse. The Romans of old read it, not

Ut bélli signum Laurénti Túrnus ab árce,


Ut belli signúm.

O dear! and can you, courteous and well-instructed reader, positively read your ‘Georgics’ or ‘Æneid’ in that way? Do you, as a habit, scan as you go along? Do you not feel it very awkward, must not the Romans also have felt it rather awkward, to pass so continually and violently from the ordinary to the sing-song accentuation? And if, as I think you must allow, there was some awkwardness in it, why is it that Virgil, and the other good versifiers, so constantly prefer that form of verse in which this awkwardness most appears? Why is

Spárgens húmida mélla, soporiférúmque papáver,

where there is no such difficulty, a rare form, and ‘Ut bélli sígnum,’ where there is, a common and favourite one? Do you know, I shall venture to assert, that in the Latin language, the system of accentuation was this, which enjoined the awkwardness you complain of; the separation, in general, of the colloquial and the metrical accent, the very opposite of that which we observe, who, unless the two coincide, think the verse bad. Enough of this, however.

Return, Alpheus, the dread voice is past—come back, my dear sir, we will talk no more prosody—only just allow me to recite to you a few verses of metaphrase, as they used to say, from the ‘Odyssey;’ constructed as nearly as may be upon the ancient principle; quantity, so far as, in our forward-rushing, consonant-crushing, Anglo-savage enunciation—long and short can in any kind be detected, quantity attended to in the first place, and care also bestowed, in the second, to have the natural accents very frequently laid upon syllables which the metrical reading depresses.

The aged Nestor, sitting among his sons at Pylos, is telling Telemachus, who has come from Ithaca to ask tidings of his father, how, after the taking of Troy, the insolence and violence of the Achæans called down upon them the displeasure of the Father of the Gods and the stern blue-eyed virgin, his daughter. Agamemnon and Meneläus, flushed with wine, quarrelled openly in an assembly held at sunset, which broke up in disorder and tumult; the leaders, some of them, staying behind to please Agamemnon; others, drawing down their ships without delay and sailing off with Ulysses, came as far as Tenedos, and then turned again back. But I, says Nestor—

But I, with my ships in a body, the whole that obeyed me,
Fled, well perceiving that wrath was rising against us;
Tydides also fled with me, his company calling;
Later, upon our track followed the yellow Meneläus;
In Lesbos found us, debating there of the long voyage,
Were we to sail, to wit, by this side of rocky Chios,
Making for Psyrie-isle, Chios being kept to the larboard,
Or to the far side Chios, along by the windy Mimante.

Will this sort of thing please the modern ear? It is to be feared not. It is too late a day in this nineteenth century to introduce a new principle, however good, into modern European verse. We must be content perhaps, in this, as in other and higher matters, to take things as we find them, and make the best we can of them. You, I dare say, my dear sir, though perhaps no great lover of hexameters at all, will prefer to my laboured Homerics the rough and ready Anglo-savage lines that follow. They render the prayer of Achilles when he is sending out Patroclus with the Myrmidons to check the victory of the Trojans.

Dodonëan, Pelasgican Zeus, up in heaven above us,
King of Dodona, the stormy and cold, where thy Selli attend thee,
Barefoot, that wash not their feet, whose bed is the earth, thy expounders—
Once when I prayed thee before, thou gayest me all my petition,
Gayest me honour, and greatly afflicted the host of Achaia;
Even so now too, Zeus, fulfil my prayer and petition;
I am myself staying here, alone in the midst of my vessels.
But I am sending my friend, and the Myrmidon people about him,
Into the battle: O Zeus, Wide-Seer, accord to him honour,
Strengthen, embolden the heart in his breast; that Hector to-day may
See whether my companion has skill of his own for the battle,
Or is invincible only, when I too enter the onset.
And when the might of his hand shall have driven the war from the galleys,
Then let him come back safe to me by the side of my vessels,
Unhurt, bringing me home my arms and all my companions.
So in his prayer he spoke; and the Zeus, the Counsellor, heard him:
Granted him half his desire; but half the Father denied him;
Granted him that his friend should drive the war and the onset
Back from the galleys; denied him his safe return from the battle.

Here, in a milder mood, the poet, for the conclusion of his first book, describes the ‘easy living’ gods:—

So the live-long day they thus were unto the sunset
Feasting; neither did heart lack ever a portion of banquet,
Nor lack ever the lyre, sweet-toned, in the hand of Apollo,
Nor the muses, in turn singing sweetly with beautiful voices.
But as soon as the shining light of the sun had descended,
They, to lay them down, went every one to his chamber,
Where for each one a house the far-famed Worker with both hands,
Even Hephœstus, had made with the skill of his understanding.
Zeus also to his bed, the Olympian flasher of lightning,
Where he was wont before, when slumber sweet came upon him—
Thither gone-up was sleeping, the white-armed Heera beside him.

The best translations of Homer into this verse which I am acquainted with are those by Mr. Lockhart and Dr. Hawtrey, in the little oblong-quarto collection of English Hexameters. Yet, after all —— !

At any rate—

My dear sir, here is a chapter, which, be it for better or worse, is
From beginning to end about hexameter verses;
Could they but jingle a little, ’twere better, perhaps; but the trouble
Really is endless, of hunting for rhymes that have all to be double.
Adieu, till the next time, when either in prose or in rhyme I
Haply may find something better to gossip about in a letter.
In the meanwhile, my dear sir, till writing again may beseem us,
I am, your faithful, obliged, and obedient,

Poems and Prose Remains vol. I - Contents

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