Tuesday’s Poem 4/14/09

Arthur Hugh Clough – “Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth”

Say not the struggle naught 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 conceal’d,
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!

Commentary
A good poem to read after finishing my taxes.

Really, though, it’s appropriate for a number of reasons for me (and those I love) right now. Can a poem like this ever not be relevant?

This has a certain – what? didactic? tone to it that still manages not to sound simply like a comfort poem. As much as it is a poem about resisting pessimism and embracing optimism, it’s also a poem about shifting perspectives, that things can look differently depending on your outlook and attitude.

My favorite line: “If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars.” That pretty much sums up the poem. Certainty is illusory; but the poem is not just saying that. The images reinforce the title of this poem by suggesting that our own effort, journey, and vision can lead to the light of success.

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One Response to Tuesday’s Poem 4/14/09

  1. Angele says:

    Clough reminds me of the poets my mother introduced me to when I was a little girl–stirring 19th-century versifiers whose work she memorized and recited in grammar school. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for example: “Tell me not, in mournful numbers,/Life is but an empty dream!—/For the soul is dead that slumbers,/And things are not what they seem.”

    Interesting fact: Clough was at university with Matthew Arnold, and although they were friends, they didn’t like each other’s poetry. (Big surprise. A few years ago, a scholar named Alan Grob published a book called A Longing Like Despair: Matthew Arnold’s Poetry of Pessimism.)

    No pessimism for Clough, though, who died relatively young–at 42–after spending years working for Florence Nightingale (who if Lytton Strachey is to be believed, was one tough moth–Eminient Victorian).

    On to the poem: I like the psalm-like cadence of the title and first line, “Say not the struggle naught availeth..” and the third stanza, in which the poet reminds us that “creeks and inlets,” though “silent,” feed the pitiless ocean (For while the tired waves, vainly breaking/Seem here no painful inch to gain…”)

    “[F]ears may be liars.” I’ll try to keep that in mind.

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