»  Arthur Hugh Clough's "Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth"


Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth

by Arthur Hugh Clough, 1819-1861


•  Background

This is the second of the three hortatory poems I'm posting. Taken just as a poem, it's the best-crafted of the three. It is one of those "fine lyrics" of Clough's which, says the Oxford Companion to English Literature, "bear the mark of the spiritual agitation caused by religious doubts." You could say much the same thing of Clough's whole life. He went everywhere and knew everybody in the literary world of his time, but this is the only poem of his anyone remembers.

The poem appeared in 1849, when the poet was 30. The great Irish famine was a recent memory, Reform seemed to have run out of steam in England, monarchism was rising again in France, the revolutionary impulses of Europe in 1848 had petered out, and the slavery issue was heating up in the U.S.A. (where Clough spent parts of his life from childhood on). For liberal-minded folk like Clough there was need of exhortation.

•  Notes

I've had some comments from readers who find the poem hard to understand. Here is a line-for-line translation into regular English prose:

Don't say that:
                the struggle is useless,
                the labour and the wounds are in vain,
                the enemy doesn't weaken or fail,
                and nothing ever changes.

If hope might sometimes be making a sucker of you, so what? — fear might be lying to you;
it may be that, hidden in the battlefield smoke over there
your comrades are right now chasing the last of the defeated enemy,
and your corner of the battlefield is the only place where there's still fighting.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
seem to make no real advance right here,
further back, through creeks and inlets it's making,
the sea comes silently pouring in.

And it's not only through eastern windows
that the light comes in at dawn,
the sun climbs slowly up ahead [i.e. in the east]
but look! — to the west, the land is sunlit.


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

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!