Genre and Technique

"I don't suppose . . . that anybody finds much natural pleasure in my 5 act epistolary tragi-comedy or comi-tragedy. . . . . I think it will have some merit in its conclusion:--but to that also I dare say there will be no affirmative voice but my own." (Clough to F.J. Child, April 1858, as quoted by Timko, 137).

Clough's Amours de Voyage is an unusual English poem in terms of form and technique. It consists of 5 "cantos," each made up of several letters from the characters, as well as opening and closing sections in a different (narrator's?) voice. The narrative is carried forward incrementally through the letters, while the detached voice beginning and ending each canto both comments on the action and segues over larger plots of narrative ground. Most of the epistles are from Claude, but both Mary Trevellyan and her sister Georgiana contribute contrapuntal perspectives. Clough thus exploits the comic possibilities that had been realized in the 18th-century comic epistolary novel, such as Humphry Clinker.

In the circularities of the epistolary form--where ground covered in one letter is revised from the perspective of a second letter-writer--Clough plots out a recursive story about a failure of closure. The inconclusiveness of the story thus mirrors the narrative discourse and vice versa, with Claude returning both to the safety of his dilettantish pursuit of knowledge and to Rome, where the poem's journey (and the poem as journey) began.

This circularity and open-endedness mirror the ironic, incommensurable nature of experience, as the poem constructs a world where both political and personal teleologies are sought in vain, and the quest for a "final" assessment of things precludes the hero from acting on the present state of things. As Claude himself phrases it--in a line that exemplifies both the narrative form and content in miniature--"I have essayed it in vain; 'tis vain as yet to essay it" (Canto 5, line 195).

The verse of this verse-novelette is an unrhymed hexameter (six stressed syllables) line, which, as Michael Timko points out, sets up an implicitly ironic comparison: "it is not only to academic readers . . . that Clough's skilful playing with the form would appeal; even one superficially familiar with the Odyssey or the Iliad or the Aeneid would realize the incongruity of writing about a self-conscious prig like Claude in the meter used to celebrate the exploits of heroes like Odysseus and Aeneas" (140). In a text about the nature of "juxtaposition," the generic mixture, narrative recursiveness, and metric indecorum all reinforce the sense of irony.


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