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The Bothie of Toper-Na-Fuosich as Transatlantic Poem
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Taking my cue from Alison Chapman’s fascinating blog about Toru Dutt as well as other transnational 19th-century poetry associated with Britain (I studiously avoid “Victorian” for the nonce), I want to approach Arthur Hugh Clough’s 1848 Bothie of Toper-Na-Fuosich in analogous terms.  The Bothie is transnational in its very setting and plot.  It turns on the encounter of English Oxonians with rural Highlanders who speak a different language (III. 186-87) and sport a dress that the plump Englishman Hobbes can never quite master (hence his ludicrous self-exposure):

Hobbes, briefest-kilted of heroes

Enters, O stoutest, O rashest of creatures, mere fool of a Saxon,

Skill-less of philabeg, skill-less of reel too,—the whirl and the twirl o’t:

Him see I frisking, and whisking, and ever at swifter gyration

Under brief curtain revealing broad acres—not of broad cloth.

(IV.98-102).

Moreover, as Herbert Tucker has recently noted, the poem ends with the newlywed radical Philip Hewson and Highland lass Elspie MacKaye emigrating to New Zealand and carrying on the business of empire-building as they reproduce Old Scotland in the Antipodes (Tucke 337-38).

But it is more appropriate yet to consider the original version of the Bothie (the title of which altered  in its posthumous republication) as a transatlantic poem by a transatlantic poet.  Clough’s partially American identity is easily lost sight of given the greater emphasis usually allotted to his vexed relationship with Matthew Arnold or the Continental settings of Amours de Voyage and Dipsychus, even though it is well known that Clough lived in Charleston, South Carolina, from age four to nine and briefly returned to America in 1852-53 seeking employment so that he could marry.  He was immediately welcomed by Emerson, Lowell, Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, all of whom later helped found the Atlantic Monthly in 1857.   Clough’s American network, and the success that the Bothie enjoyed in America, go far to explain why the only publication of Amours de Voyage—another poem in dactylic hexameter and often considered his best—during Clough’s lifetime was in the Atlantic Monthly from  February-May 1858 (see Kenny 245, Clough, Correspondence 2:527-28).  Paul Giles goes so far as to call Amours de Voyage an American poem based on its publishing history and its dialogue with Emersonian transcendentalism (117).

There was a far more direct link between Clough’s Bothie and America, however:  in September 1848 Clough read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline (Kenny 132) and discovered in it the form for the poem he had been contemplating. The Bothie of Tober-na-Fuosich was published two months later.  As Clough wrote to Emerson on 10 February 1849, “Will you convey to Mr. Longfellow the fact that it was a reading of his Evangeline aloud to my Mother and sister which, coming after a reperusal of the Iliad, occasioned this outbreak of hexameters.  Evangeline is very popular here” (Clough, Correspondence 1: 240-41).  Clough was responding to Emerson’s January 1849 letter congratulating Clough on the Bothie (“Tennyson must look to his laurels”) and conveying the response of Longfellow, to whom Emerson had sent a copy:

I will transcribe his note, as Longfellow is prized on your side the water.  “Altogether fascinating, & in part very admirable is the poem of Mr. Clough.  Tom Appleton read it aloud to us the other evening, the audience consisting of my wife; my brother, an engineer; Lowell, the poet; a German friend, a man of letters . . .; & myself.  All were much delighted with the genial wit, the truth to nature, & the extreme beauty of various passages & figures. . . . In the morning, I found Appleton reading it again to himself; in the afternoon, my wife doing the same thing, &c”—then he praises “the fine delineation of the passion of love,” & congratulates himself on the hexameters, &c &c (Emerson 350-51)

Longfellow was not alone in his enthusiasm.  When Clough went to America in the early 1850s, “The Bothie, he discovered, was well known and was to be seen on many a drawing-room table” (Kenny 246).  The disruption of fixed class, geographic, and even generic boundaries in Clough’s Bothie, not to mention its tacit homage to the American poet Longfellow in its choice of meter, make the poem’s popularity in America, which prided itself on its democracy, readily understandable.

For all these reasons, when I was lucky enough to teach a graduate seminar on 19th-century transatlanticism with my Americanist colleague Sarah Robbins, I suggested that we pair Evangeline and the Bothie one week, and she readily agreed.  For our in-class discussion we extended the transatlantic focus not only by Sarah’s important placing of Evangeline in its American and Canadian scholarly context but also by asking students to read Kirstie Blair’s wonderful essay “‘Thousands of throbbing hearts.’ Sentimentality and Community in Popular Victorian poetry: Longfellow’s Evangeline and Tennyson’s Enoch Arden.”  As so often happens in teaching, I was learning as much as instructing, from Sarah and our students in the first place, and also from seeing works I had long read and taught in a new transatlantic context.  Two principal questions have stayed with me from our classroom session in November 2010.  Though Clough’s silence on the Maori in New Zealand should raise questions for any Victorianist, postcolonial, or imperialist reading of the Bothie (as I have noted in passing elsewhere [Hughes 100]), the omission becomes shocking in a transatlantic context given the active abolitionist networks in America (and their active communication with British writers and activists) and the unresolved horror of enslaved black persons in a supposedly democratic nation.  It is an omission that cries out for further analysis.

Insofar as VPN is also a hub for discussions of teaching, I also want to confront a second difficult question:  can the Bothie be a transatlantic success in the classroom today?  For one of my additional surprises in the transatlantic course was seeing the recoil of a number of very talented graduate students from the surface that the poem and its protagonist present to readers, especially by way of contrast with EvangelineEvangeline may feature a brief glimpse of British tyranny when the Acadians are expelled from British Canada and Evangeline’s lonely odyssey begins, but for our students the poem’s politics were as much conveyed by the deliberate familiarity and inclusiveness it signals through its easy accessibility, readable plot and willingness to activate the homeliest of domestic emotions.  By contrast, the complex surface of Clough and his poem’s opening devoirs to classical tradition—however ironic—as well as his focus on a set of highly-privileged university students and the self-consciously intellectual Philip struck most of our students as showy, elitist, pretentiously difficult.   Only one individual who as an undergraduate had read extensive nineteenth-century British poetry—Aurora Leigh no less than three times—found the Bothie as rich, resonant, suggestive, and funny as I hoped all would.  By the end of the hour, after we had looked in some detail at various passages and Clough’s notable juxtapositions, the students were visibly more comfortable with, and I hope receptive to, the Bothie.  But I was reminded by this experience of an earlier one a few years prior when I taught Amours de Voyage to a mixed class of upper-level undergraduate and beginning graduate students in a course I called “Victorian Poetry and Erotic Love.”  We had begun our coursework by reading Isobel Armstrong’s introductory chapter to Victorian Poetry and adopting her concept of the double poem as a critical framework.   Thus the students were quite prepared in reading Amours de Voyage for Clough’s simultaneous positing-yet-interrogating of classical tradition in his dactylic hexameters and historical allusions.  The character of Claude, however, remained a difficulty for one student in particular, who never could quite get beyond the fixed conviction that Claude was an English snob.

The “toff” factor in teaching Clough’s important narrative poems to American students thus remains a challenge, at least at my university.  What to do?  One strategy that I have considered for a next time is preceding Clough with a reading of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (another transatlantic poem, I might add).  This too is a poem with a difficult surface, self-evident erudition, and a less-than-winning male protagonist.  But it is so much better known than Clough’s narratives that students are likely to have read it before and to have learned from it how to identify its ironic fissures and to refrain from taking Prufrock’s utterance at face value. As well, I’ve considered undertaking what might be called an anthropological approach to the poems’ background, taking time to explain the long history of Oxford University and to clarify to my American (sometimes international) students why a Philip and Claude would have fashioned themselves as they did—not as a way of lording it over others but as a means of observing social shibboleths and protecting vulnerable sensibilities as well as their hopes for more authentic social exchanges in a society in which surface show was vital yet radically unstable in meaning.  By realizing the need to “translate” the Englishness of Clough’s work and protagonists for many contemporary American students, perhaps I and others can make the successful transatlantic reach of the Bothie in 1848 more credible and establish new dimensions of transatlanticism in the 21st-century classroom.

Bibliography

Armstrong, Isobel.  Victorian Poetry:  Poetry, Poetics and Politics.  London:  Routledge,

1993.

Blair, Kirstie.  “‘Thousands of throbbing hearts.’ Sentimentality and Community in

Popular Victorian poetry: Longfellow’s Evangeline and Tennyson’s Enoch

Arden.” 19:  Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 4 (2007):

www.19.bbk.ac.uk.

Clough, Arthur Hugh.  The Bothie.  Ed. Patrick  Scott.  St. Lucia, Queensland:  U of

Queensland P, 1976.

—.  The Correspondence of Arthur Hugh Clough.  Ed. Frederick L. Mulhauser.  2 vols.

Oxford:  Clarendon P, 1957.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  The Selected Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Ed. Joel

Myerson.  New York:  Columbia UP, 1997.

Giles, Paul.  Transatlantic Insurrections:  British Culture and the Formation of American

Literature, 1730-1860.  Philadelphia:  U of Pennsylvania P, 2001.

Hughes, Linda K.  The Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Kenny, Anthony.  Arthur Hugh Clough:  A Poet’s Life.  London:  Continuum, 2005.

Tucker, Herbert F.  Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse 1790-1910.  Oxford UP, 2008.

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The Bothie of Toper-Na-Fuosich as Transatlantic Poem by Linda Hughes, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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