Poems and Prose Remains, Vol II

Epilogue To Dipsychus

Arthur Hugh Clough

‘I DON’T very well understand what it’s all about,’ said my uncle. ‘I won’t say I didn’t drop into a doze while the young man was drivelling through his latter soliloquies. But there was a great deal that was unmeaning, vague, and involved; and what was most plain, was least decent and least moral.’

‘Dear sir,’ said I, ‘says the proverb—“Needs must when the devil drives;” and if the devil is to speak—’

‘Well,’ said my uncle, ‘why should he? Nobody asked him. Not that he didn’t say much which, if only it hadn’t been for the way he said it, and that it was he who said it, would have been sensible enough.’

‘But,’ sir,’ said I, ‘perhaps he wasn’t a devil after all. That’s the beauty of the poem; nobody can say. You see, dear sir, the thing which it is attempted to represent is the conflict between the tender conscience and the world. Now, the over-tender conscience will, of course, exaggerate the wickedness of the world; and the Spirit in my poem may be merely the hypothesis or subjective imagination formed—’

‘Oh, for goodness’ sake, my dear boy,’ interrupted my uncle, ‘don’t go into the theory of it. If you’re wrong in it, it makes bad worse; if you’re right, you may be a critic, but you can’t be a poet. And then you know very well I don’t understand all those new words. But as for that, I quite agree that consciences are much too tender in your generation—schoolboys’ consciences, too! As my old friend the Canon says of the Westminster students, “They’re all so pious.” It’s all Arnold’s doing; he spoilt the public schools.’

‘My dear uncle,’ said I, ‘how can so venerable a sexagenarian utter so juvenile a paradox? How often have I not heard you lament the idleness and listlessness, the boor- ishness and vulgar tyranny, the brutish manners alike, and minds—’

‘Ah,’ said my uncle, ‘I may have fallen in occasionally with the talk of the day; but at seventy one begins to see clearer into the bottom of one’s mind. In middle life one says so many things in the way of business. Not that I’ mean that the old schools were perfect, any more than we old boys that were there. But whatever else they were or did, they certainly were in harmony with the world, and they certainly did not disqualify the country’s youth for after-life and the country’s service.’

‘But, my dear sir, this bringing the schools of the country into harmony with public opinion is exactly—’

‘Don’t interrupt me with public opinion, my dear nephew; you’ll quote me a leading article next. “Young men must be young men,” as the worthy head of your college said to me touching a case of rustication. “My dear sir,” said I, “I only wish to heaven they would be; but as for my own nephews, they seem to me a sort of hobbadi-hoy cherub, too big to be innocent, and too simple for anything else. They’re full of the notion of the world being so wicked, and of their taking a higher line, as they call it. I only fear they’ll never take any line at all.” What is the true purpose of education? Simply to make plain to the young understanding the laws of the life they will have to enter. For example—that lying won’t do, thieving still less; that idleness will get punished; that if they are cowards, the whole world will be against them; that if they will have their own way, they must fight for it. As for the conscience, mamma, I take it—such as mammas are now-a-days, at any rate—has probably set that agoing fast enough already. What a blessing to see her good little child come back a brave young devil-may-care!’

‘Exactly, my dear sir. As if at twelve or fourteen a round-about boy, with his three meals a day inside him, is likely to be over-troubled with scruples.’

‘Put him through a strong course of confirmation and sacraments, backed up with sermons and private admonitions, and what is much the same as auricular confession, and really, my dear nephew, I can’t answer for it but he mayn’t turn out as great a goose as you—pardon me—were about the age of eighteen or nineteen.’

‘But to have passed through that, my dear sir! surely that can be no harm.’

‘I don’t know. Your constitutions don’t seem to recover it quite. We did without these foolish measles well enough in my time.’

‘Westminster had its Cowper, my dear sir; and other schools had theirs also, mute and inglorious, but surely not few.’

‘Ah, ah! the beginning of troubles.’—

‘You see, my dear sir, you must not refer it to Arnold, at all at all. Anything that Arnold did in this direction —’

‘Why, my dear boy, how often have I not heard from you, how he used to attack offences, not as offences—the right view—against discipline, but as sin, heinous guilt, I don’t know what beside! Why didn’t he flog them and hold his tongue? Flog them he did, but why preach?’

‘If he did err in this way, sir, which I hardly think, I ascribe it to the spirit of the time. The real cause of the evil you complain of, which to a certain extent I admit, was, I take it, the religious movement of the last century, beginning with Wesleyanism, and culminating at last in Puseyism. This over-excitation of the religious sense, resulting in this irrational, almost animal irritability of conscience, was, in many ways, as foreign to Arnold as it is proper to—’

‘Well, well, my dear nephew, if you like to make a theory of it, pray write it out for yourself nicely in full; but your poor old uncle does not like theories, and is moreover sadly sleepy.’

‘Good night, dear uncle, good night. Only let me say you six more verses.’

Poems and Prose Remains vol II - Contents

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