westward, look…

Jan 16, 2020 poetry appreciation

I left you last week with the promise of handrails and lifelines. Ta-daa! Here they are: ‘Say not the struggle nought availeth’, another poem straight out of the C19th’s death-throes-of-faith anguish which has, however, long performed the handrail/lifeline functions for me. You can read the poem here and or last week’s reader can read it for you here. Alternatively, Derek Jacobi reads it here; I much prefer his reading but could do without the music. The poem is there to create the mood all by its little self, after all. However… See what you think.

‘Say not the struggle nought availeth’ is not a trumpeted classic like last week’s ‘Dover Beach’ (though it is probably Clough’s best known poem). It doesn’t have—or pretend to—’Dover Beach”s lyricism or evocative flow of imagery. Rather, it works in a different sort of a way. It’s a quiet triumph of perfectly sustained metre and—with one exception—a simple abab scheme of perfect rhymes; and it’s these formal elements, in part, which hold the whole the whole thing together with the pleasing neatness of a well-crafted dovetail joint. The steady predictability of the rhythm helps carry the reader forward: a formal enactment of inevitability which complements the content beautifully.

A friend recently gave me a CD featuring recordings of poets reading their own work, the first of which was Tennyson intoning ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. It was truly an eerie and wonderful thing to hear that voice come through the crackles and speak, slowly and sonorously, out of the past. Also on this CD is a most engaging clip of Yeats reading ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. He introduces it with a waspish insistence that it had taken him “a divil of a struggle to get it into rhythm” and that he would therefore emphasise the rhythm as he read. Having listened to that, I’m left wondering if Clough would feel the same about this poem: look at line 4, for instance, where—if we read it with an insistence on the ‘ti-dum’ of the iambs—the rhythmic regularity and preponderence of monosyllabic words help us feel the weight of weariness and despair which he is describing. The use of end-stopping in that first stanza also underlines the no-way-forward feeling.

The battlefield imagery of stanzas one and two is quintessentially Victorian, echoing as it does the Darwinian understanding of life as struggle and survival of the fittest. But this stanza is where we begin to doubt the doubt: it introduces as it were a sort of question mark over the certainty about hopelessness which the first stanza offered. Line 5 is one of the things I say to myself often; it puts me in mind of number 17 from the Quaker Advices and Queries which ends with the modestly stated but quietly revolutionary injunction to ‘think it possible that you may be mistaken’. Here Clough invites us to concede that ‘hopes [may have been] dupes’ and points out that ‘fear [may be] liars, setting this up with the conditional ‘If’ at the beginning and allowing the line to pivot around the caesura at the comma. There can, after all, be something so seductive about the apparent “safety” of taking the pessimistic view; but actually, what does that profit us? What if we are mistaken? What if our fears are, in fact, the things standing between us and ‘possess[ing] the field’? There’s no hint of a “get a grip” kind of stern injunction to this, though: the text admits that that it only ‘may be’, and that ‘the field’ is ‘in yon smoke concealed’. It’s tentative—as it were introducing the thin end of a wedge into previously-closed thought processes.

The imagery in the final two stanzas is of the natural world—light, and the sea. But what a different sea from that washing on ‘Dover Beach’! Yes, the waves are ‘tired [and] vainly breaking’; but where in the Arnold the word ‘seems’ tipped us back over into melancholy and doubt, here ‘seems’ is the word which makes room for the possibility of hope and the idea that we might after all trust in the natural rhythms of things. The use of the commas in line 12 is just exquisite: it forces us to slow, to make time and room, for a sense of possibility. It evokes the noiseless ‘flooding in’ of the sea to estuaries: how it comes on us unawares, at once imperceptibly and also with a deceptive, shiver-inducing swiftness.

And so the understatedly beautiful and hopeful vision in stanza 4 comes to have its own sort inevitability: we have been steadily building towards it. Again, there’s no “pull yourself together” tone, no saccharine outbreak of Pollyanna-ism: even at this point Clough acknowledges that ‘In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,’ before pivoting on the ‘But’ to end on the hopeful view: ‘westward, look, the land is bright’. Loving those commas! There’s a slow, delicious, wonder-full pleasure in those final words; how gratifying is the way the ear anticipates the ‘light…// bright’ rhyme and the way sound, therefore, is part of how the poem carries us with it.

‘Say not’ is such an important reminder of the relationship between doubt and trust, despair and hope: one does not “prove” the other to be folly but, rather, they co-exist as the necessary opposite faces of each other. Light is only light when set against dark. That’s why the pulse of this poem—it’s one of the few I have by heart—is something I so often want to walk to.

Let’s hear it for handrails. Is ‘Say not’ something you lean on too?

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