I’m getting tired of muttering “Happy Birthday” to myself—twice, even!—as I wash my hands several times a day, and so I’ve started using the poems I know by heart and memorizing new ones. One of the students in the discussion group considering Postcalssicisms (see previous post) had mentioned Arther Hugh Clough (1819–1861), whom I knew only as the author of “Say Not, the Struggle Nought Availeth,” and all I knew of that was the first line. Now, though, I have it memorized, and here it is. Each stanza takes about 10 seconds:
Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.
Now the thing about memorizing poetry, as opposed to simply reading it, is that memorizing forces you to say a poem over and over, and repetition forces attention to how the thing is made. I had trouble at first remembering the fourth line, because I wanted it to have the anapestic rhythm of ordinary speech: and-as-THINGS have-BEEN, they-reMain. But Clough is using iambic tetrameter, with the first and third lines of each stanza having an extra syllable. So it has to be, and-AS things-HAVE been-THEY reMAIN. Notice also how Clough positions his imaginary addressee and directs his (or her) gaze: “yon smoke,”seem here,” “far back,” “in front,” “but westward.” The poem is built on a series of pairings (“the labour and the wounds,” “faints not, nor faileth,”), contrasts (If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars”), and oppositions (“here/far back,” “eastern/westward”). I also don’t think I’m being fanciful when I see the influence of Horace in the four-line stanzas, classically rhetorical figures like chiasmus (“when daylight comes, comes in the light”), and moralizing tone. I haven’t yet seen Stephen Harrison’s Victorian Horace: Classics and Class (2017), but I intend to at least glance at the third chapter, on Arnold, Tennyson, Clough, and Fitzgerald.
Horace’s four-line, ten-second stanzas are, in fact, pretty good for handwashing, and I can recommed Odes 2.3, Aequam memento. It’s sometimes hard to see good in this struggle with Covid-19, but if it forces us to pay attention, to look hard at what’s familiar and nearby, and to get things by heart, our time of isolation and social distancing won’t be entirely wasted.