By Clark Elder Morrow
Allow me to quote a brace of familiar lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Choruses from ‘The Rock'”:
In the land of lobelias and flannels
The rabbit shall burrow and the thorn revisit,
The nettle shall flourish on the gravel court,
And the wind shall say: “Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”
Now, what if I were to tell you that — some ninety years prior to Eliot penning those lines — a poet in Britain by the name of Arthur Clough was writing these:
The modern Hotspur
Shrills not his trumpet of ‘To Horse, To Horse!’
But consults columns in a railway guide;
A demigod of figures; an Achilles
A verier Mercury, express come down
To do the world with swift arithmetic.
In all those crowded rooms of industry,
No individual soul has loftier leave
Than fiddling with a piston or a valve …
The similarity of style – the very sameness of tone, a mixture of wry amusement and contempt – is utterly striking. We think of Eliot revolutionizing contemporary poetry with this new and very modern ton, in which he declaims conversationally about cocktail shakers and tennis flannels, but, as we see here, he was not the first. And he was not the first to condemn modern man for superficiality and triviality: Clough can barely conceal his bemused indignation at the thought that his contemporaries, grinding away in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, have no loftier thoughts or aspirations than “fiddling with a piston or a valve”. There were those who—earlier, and at the very first glimmerings of that self-same Revolution—raised a cry against it: Wordsworth, of course, and the early Dickens. But it is Clough who first strikes that very modern critique in which contemporaries are pictured floundering about with all the mass-produced tools and toys of inanity—in language that (like Eliot’s) perfectly combines the hieratic with the casual.
What makes the Clough/Eliot comparison even more interesting is the fact that Clough is coming at his target from a position of religious doubt, while Eliot writes his jeremiads from the lofty seat of High Anglican belief. The sceptic and the man of faith take a similar view of the mobs and swarms they see about them, separated though they are in time, and their conclusions are remarkably like-minded. But if we look closer we will see crucial differences. Eliot despairs of modern man’s grasp on spiritual matters of importance; Clough is the blasé materialist who simply grins and smirks at the folly of the human animal. Both put their fingers on the fact that—beginning with the demeaning and debasing of people at the birth of the Machine Age—the pathetic, seemingly innocuous “mass man” is someone who is losing his faith.
The Machine Age will give (says Clough) or already has given (says Eliot) parturition to the Age of Anxiety. It’s only a matter of time before W. H. Auden gives what is arguably the definitive voice to that anxiety in his book-length poem. From Clough’s “Dipsychus” to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is 65 years; from “Prufrock” to “The Age of Anxiety” is 32 years. So from 1850 to 1947—roughly a hundred years—our poets were documenting the breakup of Western mankind’s collective Judeo-Christian societal outlook. Dickens had raged against the machine out of purely personal motives, motives deep-seated in his own personal history. Clough and Ruskin stood back and surveyed the grimy scene with a more philosophic eye.
The Clough quotation above is from “Dipsychus,” and as you will see at once, the title is portentous: double-mindedness, being of a split or dichotomous opinion on all matters, having one’s outlook fatally divided from the outset—all of this, it seems, is symptomatic of the modern attitude. Or so it is fashionable to say. The question I am entertaining is: for how long has it been fashionable thus to suppose a deep spiritual bifurcation of the contemporary soul? (In a moment, I will deal with the theme of personal and collective vacuity found in both quotations.)
It is a lively sport among certain intellectuals to try to establish the moment in European history when this divisiveness entered the collective mind—when sensitive individuals began to perceive what has been called “the crisis of our times.”
Of course evidence of this ailment goes back quite far. Clough was writing in the mid-nineteenth century, and even before him one could cite Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. But I suspect that the spore of this spiritual pathology can be traced all the way to a moment in Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth-century romance The Knight of the Cart. It is a moment when—quite unexpectedly—the heroine, Queen Guinevere, upbraids the hero, Lancelot, and almost rejects him for good. Why would she do such a thing? Because, in the course of his self-sacrificial adventures on her behalf, it had become necessary for Lancelot to ride a short distance in a horse-drawn cart, and he had hesitated for only a moment in setting aside his aristocratic dignity in order to mount the peasant’s vehicle. Word of this hesitation got back to our heroine, who eventually told Lancelot: “By delaying for two steps you betrayed your great unwillingness to climb into [the cart]. That, to tell the truth, is why I didn’t wish to see you or speak with you.”
The dictates of medieval chivalry compel Lancelot to forego a laugh at this point, and—Cupid reigning supreme as The Deity Who Must Be Obeyed—Lancelot responds by acknowledging that the lady is quite right in castigating him for a momentary lapse, and would she kindly forgive him? Of course she will, and so amor vincit omnes.
But notice how our hero went wrong originally: at one not-so-crucial instant in his life he was of two minds concerning his duty. Breeding and self-respect took a second to grapple with the demands of the heart, and he nearly paid the price of that wrestling-match with forfeited honor in the eyes of the queen. In the older view of things, one cannot be of two minds for even a moment—or even “innocently,” as it were. Whether or not one’s conflicting motives are good is immaterial: the conflict itself suggests that there is an undesirable and perhaps destructive fissure in one’s mind that impugns (Shakespeare would have said “oppugns”) one’s integrity. Integrity is wholeness, being all of one fabric or color. Anything that introduces a foreign element—or which rends the wholecloth—produces adulteration. For that reason a foreign lover in the marital bed adulterates it, and the crime is called adultery. The further back we go in time, the more sensitive people are to this obtrusion of the heterogeneous into the wholesome and the familiar.
But I am wandering too far afield. I wanted to call attention to Arthur Clough, and to point out what a perceptive poet he was in this whole matter of modern ambivalence. Both Clough and Ruskin agreed in finding the root of that double-mindedness in modern man’s orientation away from the noble and the natural, and toward the artificial, the commercial, the trivial. That is the point of Clough mocking his neighbors as they monkey with railway schedules and fiddle with pistons. And that is the point of Eliot mocking his compatriots with their lost golf balls.
In their view of things (and Auden could be added to their company), the problem is not so much that man is the victim of conflicting motives, as it is that the mass of motives themselves is debased and degraded. Man fiddles with the garish and the mass-produced because he doesn’t know anything higher or better. Ruskin never tired of telling his contemporaries that stone and wood were more beautiful in architecture than brass or iron, because the former occurred in Nature, and the latter were machine-made. Submersion in a culture of artificiality (so the argument goes) produces corrupt motives. A people who have been acclimated to base surroundings and tawdry tastes will begin to act from base motives. The shabby-minded man is the product of the shabby things he sees all around him.
We might almost say that Clough was the proto-apostle of the modern attitude: dubious (which means, literally, “two-ish”), equivocal, anchorless, uprooted, lost. The person of the Past—broadly conceived—spoke with one voice and understood the Cosmos to be subject to one basic interpretation; in other words, he or she was univocal. Today’s representative man or woman is equivocal at best, downright schizophrenic at worst, torn between two (and usually more) equally seductive and persuasive worldviews. I am not saying that this is a universally accurate depiction of reality. I am saying this is a popular thesis in our time.
What makes Clough especially interesting is his odd amalgamation of Victorian highmindedness with a very twentieth-century-sounding cynicism and worldliness. “Dipsychus” is largely a debate between a good man and his ironic alter ego, which is called the “Spirit.” The Spirit is fond of befuddling Dipsychus with such lines as
Oh yes, you dream of sin and shame —
Trust me, it leaves one much the same.
‘Try all things’ — bad and good, no matter;
You can’t till then hold fast the latter.
….you cannot rest, I’m certain,
Until your hand has drawn the curtain.
Once known the little lies behind it,
You’ll go your way and never mind it.
Ill’s only cure is, never doubt it,
To do — and think no more about it.
This sort of specious pragmatism and half-bitter sangfroid we do not expect to see in English-speaking literature until Ambrose Bierce (though Byron had understood instinctively the link between irony and diabolism). But here again, as in the case of Eliot, Clough is preternaturally prescient. We are surprised and puzzled by Clough’s cross-breeding of Ruskin-like nobility with this startling casualness in matters of Morals 101, until we realize that he is being “cruel” only to be kind. Like all cynics and scoffers and hardheaded clear-seers in the matter of ethics, Clough wants only to help his fellow human beings. He doesn’t think we are strong and clear-sighted and decisive enough:
We ask Action,
And dream of arms and conflict; and string up
All self-devotion’s muscles; and are set
To fold up papers. To what end? We know not.
Like Eliot, Clough isn’t mocking only to be mocking, or to be thought clever. Like Eliot he is chastising his contemporaries, but for a very different reason. Where Eliot sees our concern with superficies inducing angst, Clough sees his peers besotted with romantic notions that induce complacency and stupor. He sees the growing gap between the coal-dusted grubbiness of mid-Victoriana, and the myopic idealism of the masses. Eliot looked outward and saw the split-mindedness of a civilization; Clough looked within and saw himself at war with himself, mirroring (as he thought) a society at odds with itself.
That internecine battle within the individual and collective soul found expression in another twentieth century milestone: just prior to Auden’s “Age of Anxiety”, English composer Sir Michael Tippett was penning the libretto of his oratorio “A Child of Our Time”. Tippett had been deeply disturbed by Kristallnacht, the Nazis’ savage retaliation against German Jews for the assassination of a diplomat by a seventeen-year-old Polish boy. Tippett saw the boy as a symbol of his age: the sacrificial lamb upon whom modern man turns all his unaccountable and irrational violence. A fan of Eliot’s, the composer asked the poet to write the libretto, but Eliot demurred. It’s no surprise, then, that Tippett’s lines sound very Eliotlike:
Man has measured the heavens with a telescope, driven the gods from their thrones. But the soul, watching the chaotic mirror, knows that the gods return. Truly the living god consumes within, and turns the flesh, and turns the flesh to cancer.
A nonbeliever, Tippett was convinced that humanity’s inner schism—its refusal to see its own dark and bestial half, and thus deal with it—produced all the horrors of war and human cruelty (an idea traceable to Tippett’s admiration for Freud). Willful blindness to the reality that all evil comes from within consequently “consumes within”, and “turns the flesh to cancer”—whether literal bodily cancer, or worldwide conflagrations. There are no gods involved, Tippett tells us, only our own self-delusions. This, too, is a hallmark of “the crisis of our times”.
Arthur Clough was in many respects the herald of our age, the morning star of a later century. When Hegel took Romanticism to its logical extreme and made objects out of subjective feelings, and gave them the solidity and value and authenticity of planets and mountains, it was to be expected that a bright and refined soul would come along and protest. As early as the 1840s, when Romanticism was enjoying a robust adolescence, Clough was already reacting against it thus (Spirit speaking to Dipsychus):
Why will you walk about thus with your eyes shut,
Treating for facts the self-made hues that float
On tight-pressed pupils, which you know are not facts?
Clough sees the folks of his own day sleepwalking through life, self-absorbed and deluded, with no appreciation for the bright brute realities of nature. To this state of affairs he once again anticipates the future. He does this by speaking proleptically with the message of Wallace Stevens (“Let be be finale of seem”), and William Carlos Williams, and other twentieth-century poets who advocated the mereness and inviolability of Things. If only Dipsychus will open his eyes and see Things for what they are, then healing with come:
‘Tis time you learn
The Second Reverence, for things around.
Up, then, and go amongst them; don’t be timid;
Look at them quietly a bit: by-and-by
Respect will come, and healthy appetite.
This, too, is a very modern phenomenon—faith in the salutary powers of everyday objects when they are seen for what they are, shorn of metaphysical significance or allegory. In this, as in many other ways, Clough was the truest prophet of his time.
Clark Elder Morrow is a writer, actor, and broadcaster from California. He is a long-time contributor to the Vocabula Review.