Shortly before he left Oxford, in the stress of the Irish potato famine, Clough wrote an ethical pamphlet addressed to the undergraduates, with the title, A Consideration of Objections against the Retrenchment Association at Oxford (1847). His Homeric pastoral The Bothie of Toper-na-fuosich, afterwards renamed Tober-na-Vuolich (1848), and written in hexameter is full of socialism, reading-party humours and Scottish scenery. Ambarvalia (1849), published jointly with his friend Thomas Burbidge, contains shorter poems of various dates from circa 1840 onwards. Amours de Voyage, a novel in verse, was written at Rome in 1849; Dipsychus, a rather amorphous satire, at Venice in 1850; and the idylls which make up Mari Magno, or Tales on Board, in 1861. A few lyric and elegiac pieces, later in date than the Ambarvalia, complete Clough's poetic output. His only considerable enterprise in prose was a revision of a 17th century translation of Plutarch (called the "Dryden Translation," but actually the product of translators other than Dryden) which occupied him from 1852, and was published as Plutarch's Lives (1859).
Clough's output is small and much of it appeared posthumously. Anthony Kenny notes that the editions prepared by Clough's wife, Blanche, have "been criticized ... for omitting, in the interests of propriety, significant passages in Dipsychus and other poems." But editing Clough's literary remains has proven a challenging task even for later editors. Kenny goes on to state that "it was no mean feat to have placed almost all of Clough's poetry in the public domain within a decade, and to have secured for it general critical and popular acclaim."
His long poems have a certain narrative and psychological penetration, and some of his lyrics have a strength of melody to match their depth of thought. He has been as one of the most forward-looking English poets of the 19th century, in part due to a sexual frankness that shocked his contemporaries. He often went against the popular religious and social ideals of his day, and his verse is said to have the melancholy and the perplexity of an age of transition, although Through a Glass Darkly suggests that he did not lack certain religious beliefs of his own. His work is interesting to students of metre, owing to the experiments which he made, in the Bothie and elsewhere, with English hexameters and other types of verse formed upon classical models.
Clough is perhaps best known now for his short poems Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth, a rousing call to tired soldiers to keep up the good fight, Through a Glass Darkly, an exploration of religious doubt, and The Latest Decalogue, a satirical take on the Ten Commandments. The Latest Decalogue's couplet on murder, "Thou shalt not kill; but need'st not strive Officiously to keep alive:" is often quoted in debates on medical ethics in the sense that it is not right to struggle to keep terminally ill people alive, especially if they are suffering. Broadcaster Geoffrey Robertson QC used the phrase in an episode of his television series, Geoffrey Robertson's Hypotheticals (Affairs of the Heart, ABC, 1989), illustrating this point of view; it is unclear whether Robertson was aware Clough's version of the Sixth Commandment had nothing to do with the alleviation of suffering but was instead referring to those who do not afford - in any circumstances - due respect to the sanctity of human life. Clough himself gives no indication the couplet on murder might refer to the medical profession in general or to the treatment of the terminally ill in particular; indeed, the entire text of The Latest Decalogue satirizes the hypocrisy, materialism, the selective ethics and self-interest common to all of mankind.
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