245. “Say not the Struggle Naught availeth” by Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861; Wiki)

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!

(published posthumously 1862)

In an unexpected fit of came across this poem during last week’s wanderings through the OBVV and knew I wanted to blog about it for this week. It seemed at the time like an appropriate coda to the spring semester, following on the last entry. I didn’t realize at the time how devastatingly relevant it would feel after the events of the past week. Suffice it to say that I had a lot of conversations with myself about what, precisely, this struggle was availing and was coming up with “naught” more often than not.

As usual, there’s a lot I want to say about this poem. Because as consolation, it’s slippery at best. It can make you feel a bit better, but you have to work just to get to that point–this poem seems to me to be as much about the effort of hope as it is about the consolations thereof. And this is true from the very first line, which I had trouble holding in my mind this week. For some reason no doubt at least partially related to the flatness of my midwestern American accent, I had an incredibly hard time holding “Say not the struggle naught availeth” in my head. I get tripped up in the knottiness of the not/naught every single time and I kept thinking the words out of order–” ‘Say not the struggle availeth not’…? No, that can’t be right.” At least the not/naught has been untangled for me by listening to a recording of the poem at Classic Poetry Aloud. I highly recommend listening to it, if only because it underlines the degree of deliberation and metrical mindfulness involved in succesfully speaking that first line, even if you happen to be possessed with a deep English-accented male voice.

And I think the difficulty of the opening is incredibly important. It keeps the message of the poem from being either “Cheer up, bucko, things will get better tomorrow” or “ye of little faith, God totally has a plan that you can’t see,” even though there is the sense throughout the poem that many of our problems are ones of perception, of seeing through a glass darkly. Perception, or maybe just language. What’s somewhat troubling about all this, what makes it such fragile consolation, is partly the conditional language (fears only “may” be liars, they could also be telling the truth) and partly the fact that a lot of this boils down to what you call it–say not the struggle naught availeth…even if the struggle, in fact, naught availeth. And, much as in last week’s poem, we have to do a lot of work to articulate exactly what it is we’re *not* saying.

I also feel like this poem is operating on too many different temporal registers to be fully stable. The second stanza seems very individualized, a matter of very limited personal perception, but also seeming to say, “maybe it’s just you, maybe you’re the one holding things up.” The third stanza is geological time, recalling those epic sweeps of In Memoriam–though, of course, that means that the consolatory potential is limited there, too. We can’t count on a beneficent God to pull us out of the mire when we lose our faith; rather, we trust in these mindlessly sublime processes that pass far out of our view. (I’m thinking about the mindlessness of the sublime after reading Gayatri Spivak on “Terror” yesterday.)

The last stanza seems to be the poem’s best effort at bringing the two together, uniting, at least momentarily, the personal and the geological. And I can tell you that this is empirically true. All the windows in my apartment face west; the last stanza seems particularly apropos as I sit here in reflected morning sunlight that is perhaps more conductive to working and thinking than the more direct rays of the afternoon which often encourage me to nap on the couch. The fact that I value the one over the other right now probably signifies that this is a Victorian moment for me.

And I don’t know if any of this is consolatory. Most of the time I’m making up my interpretations as I go along, and I wasn’t expecting to write this way about this poem. (I also planned to do more background on Clough, but he’s not so uncanonical that you can’t find him.) It really was supposed to be my Victorian poetry power ballad, the summer theme song around which I could rally to remind myself why I do what I do. Perhaps it still is, just in a different way.