Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the North
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
11:09 AM 1st December 2021

Poem Of The Week: 'The Latest Decalogue' By Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861)

The Latest Decalogue

Thou shalt have one God only; who
Would be at the expense of two?
No graven images may be
Worshipped, 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 covert; but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.

The sum of all is, thou shalt love,
If any body, God above:
At any rate shall never labour
More than thyself to love thy neighbour.

Arthur Hugh Clough, 1860
Arthur Hugh Clough, 1860
There is a refreshing directness to the poetry of Arthur Hugh Clough which makes of him a man out of his own time. Standing at a philosophical tangent to the rigid compass of High Victorian religious observance – he infamously denied the Resurrection - Clough’s vigorous rattles through the landscape of Britain’s hinterlands are epicurean delights, often dressed in momentum-sustaining hexameters. Curios in the mid-nineteenth century literary milieu, Clough’s poems yield a surprise as fresh and effervescent as Hopkins’ feeling for ‘sprung’ rhythm.

The poet’s intuitive antipathy to the hypocrisy of an era devoted to imperial expansion and economic hegemony, of enormous disparities of income and abject poverty, sometimes provokes an urge to satire. In ‘The Latest Decalogue’ the Liverpool-born Clough’s focus falls upon that central tenet of Christian belief, the Commandments, in order to unpick the iniquity of its strictest adherents, whose alignment of personal interest with the idea of faith precipitates a complete misappropriation of the biblical injunction.

Rendering his verse in strict rhyming tetrameters, Clough pastiches the solemn intonation of the utterance, the better to establish a sabotaging inversion in each succeeding line. And, as the poem unfolds, his approach works to comprehensive effect, exposing layer upon layer of venality and self-interest. That the central couplet – ‘Thou shalt not kill; but need'st not strive / Officiously to keep alive’ – has been misinterpreted in court rooms and on medical ethics committees since Clough conceived the lines, is one measure of the poem’s widespread significance.

The two-tiered inconsistency of Victorian culture and worship – the silk hats and family pews; the rich man’s castle and the poor man’s gate – are brought summarily to book in an era of burgeoning Doubt.

‘The Latest Decalogue’ is taken from English Verse: 1830-1890, Edited by Bernard Richards (1980).