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say not the struggle naught availeth

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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, things 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, posses the field.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking
Seem here no painful inch to gain
Far back through the creeks and inlets making
Came, 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.

The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich, arguably Clough's most famous poem, was published in 1848, the year which saw the collapse of Chartism, and the outbreak of revolutions in Europe. Say Not The Struggle Naught Availeth appeared in the following year, and in some ways can be read as a response to these double shocks. On one hand it reflects a sense of disillusionment prevalent at the time with it's tacit acknowledgement that 'the struggle' often seems hopeless, while simultaneously reinstating the need for hope in an age dominated by the decay of faith. The line 'if hopes were dupes, fears may be liars' encapsulates this position, and in a sense, summarizes the shift in mood during the Victorian period.

While the poem is undivided in structural terms, there are three very clearly delinated sections, each part making use of an image characteristic of Victorian poetry, from war, to sea, to light. The first two sections are juxtaposed in the personification of the 'tired waves' which seem 'no painful inch to gain', in a way reminiscent of Arnold's Dover Beach, where the 'sea of faith' ebbs, as armies clash by night. As Isobel Armstrong notes: '"an insistent figure of battle and the estranging spaces of the sea... dominate[s] the poems of both Clough and Arnold." Here, these figures obviously represent the 'struggle', while the last four lines offer hope as light.

The poem follows a strict rhyme scheme (abab cdcd) in an approximate, altered sonnet form. The language is for the most part simple, yet poetic. Clough, though he rejected the notion of a ‘common’ language in the Wordsworthian sense, is nevertheless “often thought of as the poet who introduced the cadences of speech rhythm…into Victorian poetry” and in this poem, especially in the final section, this speaking voice is markedly present.

In the final line, the speaker in the poem tells us to 'look' to the west, where the 'land is bright'. This connects to that other command addressed to the reader, at the very beginning of the poem, to 'say not'. The end, positive and simple, is thus contrasted to the negative beginning with it's inverted syntax and poetically heightened language, in a way which parallels the shift in style in the poem as a whole.

Examples of archaic or poetic language in the first section include 'availeth/faileth', 'yon', and the typically Victorian contraction of even to e'en. In a way, such poetic heightening invests this part of the poem with a dignity and solemnity, and through the association with past literary acheivements, justifies the idea that the 'labour and the wounds' may not be in vain.

From the central line 'and but for you, posses the field' this diction is abandoned, however, and is replaced by a quietly sympathetic tone which effectively uses repetition to emphasize emotion, as in 'slow, how slowly' and 'when daylight comes, comes in the light'. Arguably, this use of repetition could also be seen as pointing to the repetition in natural order, to the fixed laws of life, apparent in the ebb and flow of the tide and in the rising and setting of the sun. One instance of the repetitive technique is the word 'vain' in the second line, and 'vainly' in the ninth line. The personification of the waves here draws attention to the hyperbation in 'seem here no painful inch to gain' rather than 'seem to gain no painful inch here' - where the focus is on the struggling waves attempting to gain ground, but falling back.

Clearly, movement is the central idea in each of the three sections, from the line which postulates that 'e'en now' the 'comrades' may be chasing the fliers, to the image of the waves breaking against the shore, to the example of the slow-climbing sun. This movement is not presented as directed forward, as progressive, but rather as cyclical. In the movement of the waves and in the rising sun, this is obvious: as the waves break they recede, and the rising sun proceeds in an arc across the sky to set, however it is also present in the first example, in the significant line 'and but for you, posses the field.' The reader, addressed as 'you', doubtful and fearing, is here the force which holds back the others from gaining ground, from entering into the bright land. The movement forward and then back is thus a triple movement, structurally echoed in the parallelisms in the poem, as in the line 'if hopes were dupes, fears may be liars' and 'as things were, things remain', and even in the alliteration in 'faints/faileth'.

The speaker does not, however, simply persuade the reader to abandon fears and doubts. Despite the final assured assertion that 'westwards' the land is bright, there is a haze of uncertainty pervading the poem, taking material form in the sixth line 'in yon smoke concealed'. A qualifying tone is evident in the repeated phrase ' may be': 'fears may be liars', 'it may be in yon smoke...' The poem does not promise a bright future, though it points to a bright land.

The idea of life as a perilous voyage, combined with the sense of moving towards an uncertain future, is one which reoccurs often in Victorian writing. Whitman recognized this, and knew that, however “suffocating and dead” the past may be, with the excitement of “casting of for new seas” came the urge “to jump ashore before it is too late , and stay where our fathers stay’d and live as they live.”

This sense of living in an era of transition, and the deep ambivalence about the past and the future which comes with it, is captured in Clough’s poetry. Perhaps what is most striking about Say Not The Struggle Naught Availeth, however, is it’s own struggle with reality, with an altered idea of progress, it’s resigned acceptance of hopes as dupes. As Robin Gilmour notes, “the Victorians confronted their unique historical exposure without the security of a confident world-view.” By the 1830’s, Lyell’s Principles of Geology had already began the journey which would lead, in 1859, to Darwin’s Origin of the Species. However, Science would not be seen as a possible replacement for religion until the 1860’s. In the years between 1830 and 1850, with conflicts in politics over parliamentary reform and the Corn Law, in religion between the Established Church and Dissent and in philosophy between utilitarianism and the romantic defense of imagination, and with Christianity in crisis, there was a vacuum in terms of belief systems. As Gilmour notes “there were no precedents [they] could fall back on.”

Clough felt the absence of a guiding faith acutely. He had been part of the Oxford Movement, and later, becoming a skeptic, resigned from Oxford College. However, Grierson and Smith see him as “a natural Christian fallen on an iron time” and there is perhaps some relevance in that phrase. Certainly, there is an undisguised note of yearning in the poem, in the almost anxious imposition of order over chaotic wars and seas. The poet constructs and builds his poem following a triple plan in a remarkably compact, logical form, holding out the promise of a possibility, which is seen as possible through the planned build up of a series of images proving the idea that forward movement can follow a retreat. The method is effective, but it is interesting to think that perhaps, in this enforcing of logic and coherence in the construction of the poet’s plan, there is an attempt to negate the significance of a deeper, more dangerous doubt in the existence of any plan at all. The poet steps back from the abyss and chaos implicit in the absence of a/the Great Plan governing he order of the universe, to look through a western window, to where the land is bright.

written: 2007
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