Saturday 17 October 2009

Arthur Hugh Clough: from Amours de Voyage

When Wilfred Owen condemned Horace's motto, 'dulce et decorum est pro patria mori', as 'The old Lie', he was not demonstrating an unusual knowledge of classical verse. Galloway Kyle's Soldier Poets: Songs of the Fighting Men (1916) and its successor, More Songs of the Fighting Men (1917), had each contained a poem with that Horatian title --- the poets being Sydney Oswald and Harold John Jarvis. Owen ascribed the phrase to Jessie Pope ('My friend'), making plain that it encapsulated the sentiments which ignorant war-mongers would repetitively endorse. But in doing so, he quoted it himself with a crowning rhyme: 'glory' / 'mori'. Horace has the last and most sonorous word.

Owen was not the first to interrogate Horace's line and seek with some limited success to resist its siren music. Arthur Hugh Clough's masterpiece Amours de Voyage, set during and around the Siege of Rome in 1849, is a long epistolary poem in which war provides the backdrop for a doomed love affair. Claude, the male protagonist, writes back home to his friend, Eustace, in such a way that a shared knowledge of Horace's line is obviously presumed. His letter in verse, the second of canto 2, fragments the phrase, making it seem hackneyed and hoping to shatter its authority:

Dulce it is, and decorum, no doubt, for the country to fall, --- to
Offer one's blood an oblation to Freedom, and die for the Cause; yet
Still, individual culture is also something, and no man
Finds quite distinct the assurance that he of all others is called on,
Or would be justified even, in taking away from the world that
Precious creature, himself. Nature sent him here to abide here;
Else why send him at all? Nature wants him still, it is likely;
On the whole, we are meant to look after ourselves; it is certain
Each has to eat for himself, digest for himself, and in general
Care for his own dear life, and see to his own preservation;
Nature's intentions, in most things uncertain, in this are decisive;
Which, on the whole, I conjecture the Romans will follow, and I shall.
So we cling to our rocks like limpets; Ocean may bluster,
Over and under and round us; we open our shells to imbibe our
Nourishment, close them again, and are safe, fulfilling the purpose
Nature intended, --- a wise one, of course, and a noble, we doubt not.
Sweet it may be and decorous, perhaps, for the country to die; but,
On the whole, we conclude the Romans won't do it, and I sha'n't.

This rebounds on Claude: the etiolated intellectual, a man of inaction, attempts to justify his cowardice as natural. The passage is hedged with verbal manipulations: that brilliantly paradoxical 'no doubt' in the first line signals Claude's profound scepticism, and he bolsters his counter-argument with 'it is likely', 'it is certain', 'we doubt not', and (twice) 'On the whole'. The flimsy rhetoric undoes itself. Claude wants to be seen to acknowledge the truth of Horace's argument and replace it with a greater and contradictory truth of his own. Instead, his special pleading has the unlooked-for consequence of making that 'oblation to Freedom' appear all the more honourable.

The Romans, of course, will 'do it'; they will defy the invading French army, and many will 'die for the Cause'. Claude's response to that turn of events, later in the poem, finds a metaphor capable of seeming to do justice to Horace's idealism while prefiguring Owen's bitter disillusionment: 'The smoke of the sacrifice rises to heaven, / Of a sweet savour, no doubt, to Somebody; but on the altar, / Lo, there is nothing remaining but ashes and doubt and ill odour.'

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