Arthur Hugh Clough: A Biography

Matt Morgenstern and Emily Pearson

The poet, critic, and educator, Arthur Hugh Clough, was born on 1 January 1819 to James Butler Clough and Ann Perfect. Clough was the middle child in a fairly large and close-knit family, but financial strain occasionally forced the family to separate. At the time of Clough’s birth, James was a cotton merchant with enough success that the family lived on prosperous Rodney Street in Liverpool (Kenny 1). In December 1822, the Clough family moved to Charleston, South Carolina, to allow James to better manage his business affairs.[1] As Patrick Scott notes, this was not the first time James moved to America in order to try to gain financial stability, nor would it be the last.[2] Although the Clough family lived in Charleston for several years, they tried in many ways to retain their English identities. For example, Anthony Kenny states that Ann Perfect was “anxious to prevent her children from being Americanized, and educated them at home” during the family’s time in Charleston (3). Ann taught Clough history, poetry, French, and translations of the Odyssey and the Iliad, topics he would continue to study and explore in his career as a student and a writer. 

The Clough family returned to England in June 1828. The children were sent to stay with extended family in Wales (Kenny 3), while James remained working in South Carolina. At the time, the young Clough was seen as a “somewhat quaint and old-fashioned child, a characterization which his difficulty in mixing in with his contemporaries would not help to dispel” (Chorley 12). Clough’s early experiences with formal education would positively influence his upbringing. James and Ann wanted Clough to receive an English education even if it meant that Clough was separated from his parents for most of his adolescence. Clough initially struggled with English public school culture (Chorley 15). In March 1829, Clough and his older brother, Charles, were sent to Rugby School, which was overseen by the soon-to-be famous Dr. Thomas Arnold (Kenny 5). Despite separation from his family (one such period lasted for five years [Chorley 15]),  Clough would thrive at Rugby, which was going through something of a cultural shift in moving on from a more traditional curriculum. Under Thomas Arnold’s authority, Rugby updated its curriculum to include modern languages, philology, history, and mathematics, in addition to a traditional education in the classics. These updates led to a more modernized education than Clough would have received at other public schools (Chorley 21).

Although “Clough was making poems at intervals” during his time at Rugby, he did not begin writing seriously until around 1835 (Chorley 25). Near the end of his time at Rugby, Clough competed in the Rugby prizes and won the English verse prize on the topic of the “The Close of the Eighteenth Century” (Kenny 14). Though pleased by his victory, Clough was exhausted by the creation and recitation of his intricate 20-stanza poem and took to his bed for over a week after winning the competition, demonstrating at this early stage an extreme dedication to his work that often negatively affected his health (15). By this point Clough also began to have problems with anxiety because of the transient nature of his life at Rugby and his prolonged separations from family (Chorley 35). When his family finally reunited in 1836, Clough was increasingly at odds with his parents because of their different cultural interests. Nevertheless, Clough grew especially close to his sister, Ann Jemima Clough, and their relationship became essential to Clough’s wellbeing during his time at Oxford and beyond (63).

Clough left Rugby to enroll as an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1837. Earning a place at Balliol was considered an outstanding achievement for Clough. By the 1830s, Balliol was among the most academically demanding of the Oxford colleges because it had “opened its scholarships up to general competition in 1827,” and was less expensive than other colleges (Kenny 38). It is important to note that Oxford at this time was still a “religious and almost monastic institution,” and thus religion and religious tension played a key role in Clough’s university career (32). Students at Oxford had to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (which form part of the Anglican prayer book) to matriculate, thus excluding Jewish peoples, atheists, Dissenters, and Catholics. Clough studied during a tumultuous period for the university’s religious affiliations, as the Tractarians and liberal Anglicans disagreed on the direction the church should move. Isobel Armstrong defines the Tractarian goals of the so-called Oxford Movement as an attempt “to bring the Anglican church closer to the Catholic tradition, emphasizing accordingly the authority of the Church and the importance of dogma, rather than the Protestant ideas of the responsibility of the individual conscience and private judgement in spiritual matter” (9). Amidst the Oxford Movement, Clough’s friend and math tutor William George Ward heavily influenced Clough’s thoughts about religion, philosophy, and art (Chorley 52). Ward (a Tractarian) and Arnold were on different ends of the contentious debate surrounding the Oxford Movement, thereby placing Clough in the middle of religious tensions while at university. Invigorated by these debates, Clough continued writing poetry and thinking about his career after Oxford, which he imagined would likely involve education posts. Although Clough was an excellent undergraduate student, he performed below his expectations on the 1841 Oxford exams and earned second-class honors rather than first-class, to the surprise of many who knew him (Kenny 60). Clough seems to have taken the disappointment hard; he reportedly walked to Rugby after his exams, a distance of roughly 45 miles, to tell Arnold, “I have failed” (Armstrong 10).

In November 1842, Clough became a fellow at Oriel College after losing out on a fellowship at Balliol. As Clough embarked on his teaching and tutoring career, he was able to find students to teach despite his poor performance on his exams. But Clough also continued to struggle with the “narrowness” of an Oxford education as well as its literary and philosophical circles (Chorley 71, 74). Clough nevertheless sought to make the most of his time at Oriel. Although he did not participate in the Oxford Union, Clough was an active member and celebrated speaker in the “Decade” debate society, which gathered to discuss important social, political, and economic issues (Chorley 139; Armstrong 10). In addition to being an intellectually active period for Clough, his tenure at Oriel  allowed for increased financial stability and, so, Clough was able to send money home to help with fraught family finances (Kenny 68). Clough’s stable employment allowed him to travel through Europe, as well, and in 1843 he made his first tour through much of modern-day Italy, including Pisa, Florence, Bologna, Parma, Piacenza, and Milan (Kenny 74).

On his return to England later in the year, Clough’s increasing skepticism about the Oxford Movement (borne out of disputes with Oxford Tractarians) affected his education and employment prospects. After some hesitation, Clough signed the Thirty-Nine Articles and received his M.A. and could therefore continue working at Oriel. While  a tutor at Oriel from 1843 until 1848, Clough began assembling and writing the early poems that would in 1848 be published as The Bothie (also known as The Bothie of Toper-na-fuosich) (Kenny 76). Perhaps spurred by his volunteer work at the Oxford Mendicity Society soup kitchen and hostel, Clough also began to speak out against laissez-faire capitalism and supported labor legislation that limited working hours for women and children to 10 hours per day (Kenny 77). After spending the winter of 1844 with his family, in early 1845 Clough returned to Oxford for Michaelmas term to find the Oxford Movement in crisis after Ward had converted to Roman Catholicism (Kenny 91). Hereafter Ward’s control over Oxford’s curriculum became a problem for Clough, whose ambivalence toward the role of organized religion in higher education pitted him against Ward’s administration. As such, Clough began devising plans for his employment beyond Oxford (Chorley 87).

Clough also wrote about British religious, social, and political tensions during this period. Near the end of 1845, for example, Clough penned a poem entitled “The New Sinai,” which grapples with the relationship between skepticism and religion (Kenny 96). In 1846, Clough began writing about political and social concerns like the Corn Laws and commerce regulation for the weekly periodical The Balance (Kenny 98-100). By this point, Clough seems to have given up on the idea of taking orders and was starting to think seriously about marriage while continuing to think about social and political concerns. Clough joined the Oxford Retrenchment Association and published a pamphlet in 1847 encouraging students to reduce their spending in order to donate more (Kenny 108-9). Along with this political involvement, Clough continued writing poetry and discussing poetry in his correspondence with Matthew Arnold (Kenny 101). This correspondence would shape Clough’s ideas about poetry and culture immensely, though Clough’s friendship with Matthew Arnold would prove to be volatile. As Chorley writes, “[i]t is curious that these two, who discussed poetry endlessly, were incapable of appreciating each other’s work, for this was a blindness on both sides” (119). The components of this “blindness” played a key role in the development of the myth of Clough’s supposed failure to live up to his potential, a myth suggested and memorialized by Matthew Arnold’s eulogy for Clough, “Thyrsis.”[3] On 23 January 1848, Clough resigned as a tutor at Oriel after dissenting from the propositions of the Thirty-Nine Articles, though his friends warned Clough that this action would mean risking his ability to find steady employment (Kenny 124). Although it would take some time for Clough to find stable work and earn enough income to marry, he continued writing and taking occasional tutoring jobs. By the end of the year, Clough was receiving attention for The Bothie, which had been published in both England and America, from many reviewers (Chorley 148-51, 159).

Even though Clough was not consistently employed from late 1847 to early 1848, he continued writing and was active in literary circles. For example, Clough had begun corresponding with Ralph Waldo Emerson after his sister Ann attended Emerson’s 1847 lectures in Liverpool. Clough and Emerson met in person in Oxford on 30 March 1848, and the two spent time together in London in April (125-126). Emerson was a great comfort to Clough throughout his struggles with employment and writing, giving him “comprehension and sympathy and elbow-room at a time when the younger man [Clough] was sorely needing all these” (Chorley 132). Over the next decade, Emerson’s friendship would become influential to Clough’s career. In the late winter and early spring of 1848, Clough, Emerson, and others traveled in Paris following that year’s revolutionary events (Kenny 127). By the time Clough returned to England later in the spring, he began to grow skeptical of the political potential of “revolution” as he witnessed it in France (130). Clough also continued to have trouble with employment, supplementing his writing with occasional tutoring while looking for administrative positions that would follow his fellowship. In November 1848, Clough met the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, who had just published Vanity Fair across several serial issues. The two would become quick friends; Chorley writes, “Thackeray was delighted with this rather strange young man and has left in of those rare, brightly coloured sketches of Clough which offset so happily the many serious and often sombre pictures which have been drawn of him” (121). Along with new friends like Thackeray, during the winter of 1848 Clough traveled throughout England writing and living off his fellowship, which would expire at the end of the year (Kenny 153). Spending time in Oxford, London, and Liverpool, Clough became interested in a possible administrative position at University Hall in London (Chorley 170). He also began assembling the Ambarvalia collection and sought feedback from Matthew Arnold, who sent a negative response (Kenny 154). Published in January 1849 (Chorley 174), Ambarvalia consisted of unpublished poems from Clough’s university days and was met with “charges of obscurity” (180). Though disappointed by Ambarvalia’s lukewarm reception, Clough secured a position at University Hall that would begin in October.

During late winter 1849, Clough spent more time in Manchester and Liverpool, writing and visiting friends and family (184). In April, Clough went to Rome as the contests over Italian sovereignty against the Austrians began in earnest. He stayed with a Swiss family near the Piazza di Spagna until the middle of July, when he left to travel through the rest of Italy. While in Rome, Clough wandered across the city and had a few run-ins with military authorities, though displays of his English citizenship protected him against persecution (Kenny 160). Clough also met and spent much time with Margaret Fuller, the American transcendentalist teacher and writer, extending his contacts with the American literary scene (176). Though some think Fuller was a romantic interest of Clough’s while they were in Rome, two years prior Fuller had “secretly” married an Italian military officer with whom she had a son. Clough and Fuller nonetheless enjoyed a strong friendship that would change Clough’s attitude toward courtship and marriage, especially following the death of Fuller and her family in an 1850 shipwreck (186). Many of Claude’s frustrations with Rome in Amours de Voyage resemble Clough’s experiences, though Clough inevitably fictionalized some experiences. After exploring more of the area and traveling through the rest of Italy in July, Clough returned to England in August planning to take up a position as principal at London’s University Hall in October. Clough spent much of the autumn of 1849 interacting with individuals like Thackery, Lady Ashburton, and Thomas Carlyle through “The Grange” group (Kenny 192). In between meetings with friends and working at University Hall, Clough wrote poetry consisting of adapted biblical narratives as well as drafts of what would eventually become the verse-novel Amours de Voyage.

By the beginning of the 1850s, Clough had found stable work back in London, though he struggled to get along with his superiors at University Hall. So once again, Clough looked for work elsewhere and eventually secured the Chair of English Literature and Language at University College in London. Here, Clough lectured on recent developments in poetry and outlined some of his more notable views on literature and genre.[4] At this time, Clough began working on what would constitute the posthumously published Dipsychus poems, which were mainly unfinished meditations on religion and culture. He also met his future wife, Blanche Smith, in 1850. A cousin of Florence Nightingale, Blanche was nine years younger than Clough and living with her family. Clough quickly grew enamored with her, but realized he would be unable to propose marriage without a higher salary, as his lectures were less than profitable based on his relatively low public popularity as a writer. Along with his earnings from lectures, Clough lived on a stipend from University College and various tutoring engagements (236).

Around this time, Clough heard about potential employment opportunities in America through his continued friendship with Emerson. Clough was engaged to Blanche late in 1851, but her father’s permission was contingent upon Clough finding a better salary. Aware of his problems with money, Emerson encouraged Clough to visit him in Concord, Massachusetts, and begin looking for work in America. Clough left for America at the end of October 1852, enjoying time aboard the Canada with Thackeray (242). Upon arrival, Clough quickly fell in with the Concord set, which included Emerson, Thackeray, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Amos Alcott, among others. Although mostly unsuccessful in finding work in education in the greater Massachusetts area, Clough stayed in America well into 1853 while maintaining his correspondence with Blanche through scores of letters (256). After Clough spent several unprofitable months in America, Blanche and her father had grown frustrated with Clough’s lack of employment, so they worked together to secure an examinership position for Clough back in England. In June 1853, with his infamously indecisive hand forced, Clough returned to England to secure an annual salary of 500 pounds and make a home for himself and Blanche after a lengthy, long-distance engagement. They were married on 13 June 1854 (Chorley 295). On his return, Clough continued revising what would become Amours de Voyage for publication in America while also working on a translation of Plutarch’s poems commissioned by a Massachusetts-based publisher (Kenny 264). Hereafter Clough primarily focused on administrative work in education, translation projects, and occasional lecturing engagements, while simultaneously working on Amours de Voyage. In the latter half of the decade Clough dedicated more of his time to making a life with Blanche as well as working with her cousin, Florence Nightingale, who by this point had become famous for her work as a nurse during the Crimean War. In 1857, Nightingale returned to England and was asked to write a report on medical practices in the British military, an 830-page tome that Clough helped edit (268-9). Clough also maintained his literary contacts in America. The Atlantic Monthly was first published in October 1858, and subsequent issues offered canto-by-canto installments of Amours de Voyage. To Clough’s delight, his poem was a surprise success in America (270).[5]

During this period of relative stability and critical success, Clough and his family lived in London. The Cloughs lived at St. Mark’s Crescent, Regent’s Park, for most of the 1850s before moving to 21 Campden Hill Road in 1859 (Chorley 295). Clough and Blanche had four children: two sons (one died a few days after his birth, the other was named Arthur) and two daughters. Unfortunately, Clough never met his second daughter Blanche Athena, who was born in early 1861 and would eventually become a principal at Newnhams College, much like her aunt, Ann Jemina (310). The reason for this was that Clough was traveling in an attempt to recover from illness when Ann was born. Following the publication of Amours de Voyage, Clough’s health gradually failed because of strenuous “overwork” that was a mix of writing, tutoring, and working with Nightingale. By the end of 1859, Clough had struggled with increasingly frequent episodes of poor physical and mental health that included a bout of scarlet fever, a broken toe, and the death of his mother (321). Thus, to avoid the painful “anxieties” of London and recover his health, Clough traveled throughout Greece, France, and Italy during England’s colder months (322). Though he sometimes traveled with Blanche, Clough was predominantly away from his family during this time. While traveling with Blanche from Switzerland to Italy in June 1861, after the birth of their second daughter, Clough contracted malaria. Settling in Florence, Clough’s malaria was followed by “symptoms of paralysis in the eye and one leg, and finally in the lungs,” which, as Chorley argues, were likely signs of a stroke (326). Though Clough was bedridden for most of the summer and autumn, he continued writing poetry, eventually dictating compositions to Blanche from his bed (Kenny 283). On 13 November 1861, unable to recover from overwhelming physical illness, Clough died in the company of Blanche and his sister.


Works Cited

Armstrong, Isobel. Arthur Hugh Clough. Longmans Green, 1962.

Chorley, Katharine. Arthur Hugh Clough: The Uncommitted Mind. Clarendon Press, 1962.

Kenny, Anthony. Arthur Hugh Clough: A Poet’s Life. Bloomsbury Academic, 2005.

Markovits, Stefanie. “Arthur Hugh Clough, Amours de Voyage, and the Victorian Crisis of Action.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 55, no. 4, Mar. 2001, pp. 445-78. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1525/ncl.2001.55.4.445.

Scott, Patrick. “Clough, Bankruptcy, and Disbelief: The Economic Background to “Blank Misgivings.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 44, no. 2, 2006, pp, 123-34.

Tate, Gregory. “Arthur Hugh Clough’s Pedigree.” Journal of Victorian Culture, vol. 24, no. 3, 323-28, doi: 10.1093/jvcult/vcz017.



[1] The Clough family’s move to the U.S. South underscores how interconnected the fortunes of the British economy were in racial violence and oppression in the United States and abroad elsewhere. Although, as Anthony Kenny notes, the Cloughs did not own any enslaved people during their stay in Charleston, James continued to work as a cotton merchant and thus made his money through a system based on the labor of enslaved people (3). James’s move to antebellum Charleston makes his role in this system, already present through his work in Liverpool, only more clear.

[2] For a more thorough discussion of the financial instability the Clough family faced and the role that played in Clough’s writing, see Scott, “Clough, Bankruptcy, and Disbelief.”

[3] We address the so-called “myth of Clough” in our edition’s “Editorial Introduction.”

[4] For more on Clough’s lectures and thoughts on genre, see Tate, “Arthur Hugh Clough’s Pedigree.”

[5]  For more on the publication history of Amours de Voyage, see this edition’s “A Note on the Text.”