the observer Sat 30 May 2009
Rome, 1849. A republican government has declared itself in the Eternal City. An army of 9,000 French soldiers is on its way to restore the Pope's authority over the central Italian states. Garibaldi has arrived to fight for the Roman cause. Worst of all, the cafes have run out of milk. Into this chaos walks Arthur Hugh Clough: poet, dissenter, and revolution-chaser. Clough had been at Paris the previous year for the proclamation of the Second Republic and now, holed up in Rome, he began writing Amours de Voyage, one of the strangest works of fiction written by a sane Victorian.
Not quite a long poem, nor quite a novella, Amours comprises a series of letters in verse, mostly by a rather aloof young Englishman named Claude. Claude is in Rome as a tourist (or, as he characteristically puts it, a "pilgrim transalpine") and not much impresses him. St Peter's looks cheap. The Forum is dull. But what's this? Could he be falling in love with another English tourist? Isn't she rather vulgar? And now that she and her family have left Rome for safety, should he chase her? Is he man enough to defend her honour against the Italian peasantry? "Am I prepared to lay down my life for the British female?/ Really, who knows?"
Critical opinion has been kind to Clough of late and this new Persephone edition includes an admiring appraisal by Julian Barnes that neatly assesses his renewed appeal. There are a few design faults - in particular, the editors might have thought twice about breaking and indenting the poem's longer hexameter lines, leaving odd words dangling - but this curious poem has charm.