Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Latest Decalogue

Thou shalt have one God only; who
Would be at the expense of two?
No graven images may be
Worshipp'd, except the currency:
Swear not at all; for, for thy curse
Thine enemy is none the worse:
At church on Sunday to attend
Will serve to keep the world thy friend:
Honour thy parents; that is, all
From whom advancement may befall:
Thou shalt not kill; but need'st not strive
Officiously to keep alive:
Do not adultery commit;
Advantage rarely comes of it:
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When it's so lucrative to cheat:
Bear not false witness; let the lie
Have time on its own wings to fly:
Thou shalt not covet; but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.

- Arthur Hugh Clough


The Latest Decalogue is a savage denunciation of the hypocrisy of this world and of the developing capitalist ethos (Clough wrote and lived at a time when revolutions in Europe, such as the 1848 Revolution in France were expanding the notions of freedom, developments from which Britain was largely insulated). It is written in quick-flowing iambic tetrameter with rhyming couplets, a good metre for humorous satire - Clough, as well as his philosophical individuality, was also a great experimenter with metre, often writing in styles hardly used in English, such as hexameter. This tetrameter forces streams of thought over two lines and the spread allows a sort of mid-rhyme to develop inside sentences, enhancing the comic effect.

There are slightly different versions of this poem: the one discussed here is the manuscript version held by Harvard University.

Thou shalt have one God only; who
Would tax himself to worship two?
God's image nowhere shalt thou see,
Save haply in the currency:

The irony of the word "tax" reinforces the political satire of this opening, and emphasises, from the very start, both the demands of organised religion - and its lack of credibility - and the love of Victorian society for money. A common refrain at this time was that England was "God's own country" and it is possible Clough is playing with that idea as well as the importance the country places on finance. The use of "haply" in the fourth line is particularly savage. It does not mean "happily", but "perhaps".

It was archaic even in Clough's time, and therefore hints at ancient honour, while impugning the selfish, destructive mores of his own day.

Swear not at all; since for thy curse
Thine enemy is not the worse:
At church on Sunday to attend
Will help to keep the world thy friend:

Here Clough notes the fact that religion in Britain is not spiritual, but has been deprived of whatever personal meaning it may have had, being replaced instead with societal approval and keeping up appearances. "At church on Sunday to attend" pointedly refers to a once a week attendance: sufficient to appear holy, without involving a genuine commitment. It has long been a view of the Church that it is against "the world": here it is shown to be an essential element of its fabric.

Honour thy parents; that is, all
From whom promotion may befall:
Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive
Officiously to keep alive:

Family relationships are shown to be cynical in nature and the structure of preferment and ambition class-based and exclusive. The second couplet here is brutal in its dissection of simultaneous outward sanctimony and lack of concern or care for the poor and sick. Mid-Victorian England was becoming a country of slum cities, as families flocked to the new towns and cities looking for factory work. The Ten Commandments are here quoted in their King James version - the direct quotation sharpens the comparison with the selfish world the narrator lives in.

Adultery it is not fit
Or safe, for women, to commit:
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When 'tis so lucrative to cheat:

Clough here reveals his modernity, highlighting the hypocrisy of Victorian sexual morality, which often turned a blind eye to male infidelity, but was harsh on women suspected of the same. "Safe" most likely refers to the treatment a woman would receive from her family, rather than the physical consequences of extra-martial sex. Think of the treatment of Tess in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Clough also posits two sins against each other: stealing and cheating - while noting in passing that cheating is not in the Ten Commandments as such, he gives his view powerfully that people can make a good living from cheating people.

False witness not to bear be strict;
And cautious, ere you contradict.
Thou shalt not covet; but tradition
Sanctions the keenest competition.

In this conclusion, the reader is advised to lie carefully, in case you are caught. One thinks of Mark Twain's dictum that telling the truth means never having to remember anything! The subtle final couplet suggests that it may well be seen as wrong to want other people's goods; however, it is perfectly acceptable to fight tooth and nail to secure more goods for yourself. Selfishness is the theme of this poem and selfishness concludes it.

It might be a worthwhile exercise to analyse the rhyme choices in more depth - "strive" and "alive" make an excellent, mutually reinforcing pairing, for example, as does "attend" and "friend", which emphasises the public nature of Victorian morality.

Remember that this poem is not some twenty-first century stereotypical rehashing of all the things we hate about the Victorians: it was written by a man who was there, and who was, in some ways, a victim of it. The powerful, angry voice that emerges from this poem calls for a return to real values, though by conflating Biblical and selfish morality so closely, it does not recommend a return to the traditional European Christian values. The ones the narrator approves of can be seen simply by inverting his criticisms.

- Lawrence George



1 comment:

  1. I love your analysis! Very clear and to the point!

    ReplyDelete