An Easter in Naples

As I stated in the previous post, this past summer I obtained the 1930 POETRY OF THE VICTORIAN PERIOD. This excellent book of 1112 pages is chock-full of literary gems.

In this volume there is a poem by Arthur Hugh Clough titled EASTER DAY Naples, 1849. Since Easter 2015 is upon us, there will be millions of Christians making their way to celebrations.

For many of them this will be their first time in church in 2015. Various churches have celebrations, especially for children.

Non-church goers will have parties and Easter egg hunts, etc. In many places it is just a festive day.

The end of the Gospels tell the story of the first Easter weekend where Jesus was crucified, laid in a borrowed rock-hewed tomb and after the Sabbath rose to life again on Sunday. This was testified first by Mary Magdalene, the first Witness to the Resurrection, and later in the day by other disciples both male and female.

Going back to the poem by Clough, one would assume a Victorian writer would be celebrating this glorious event of Easter. However, Clough took a different turn with his poetic pen and questioned the whole series of events which Christians had embraced for 1800 years.

His stark conclusion at the end of the poem was

Here, on our Easter Day
We rise, we come, and lo! we find Him not,
Gardener nor other, on the sacred spot:
Where they have laid Him there is none to say;
No sound, nor in, nor out—no word
Of where to seek the dead or meet the living Lord.
There is no glistering of an angel’s wings,
There is no voice of heavenly clear behest:
Let us go hence, and think upon these things
In silence, which is best.
Is He not risen? No—
But lies and moulders low?
Christ is not risen?

For a young man of 30 to write these lines in 1849, especially one who had pondered about being a clergyman, was a shock. What happened?

Arthur Hugh Clough reached a place in his 20s where he felt orthodox religion was not a source of solace for the ills of the world and did not provide for him the truth he sought. At the university the dialectically opposing religious views he encountered were a source of confusion and eventually caused the rejection of his faith.

He concluded organized religion was ostentation without substance. It was a delusionary path for those who expected the prize of immortality at the end of a miserable life on this planet traversing the cosmos by their adherence to dogma.

He had a crisis of faith which has been common among people down through the centuries. Rejecting his Anglican heritage and its 39 Articles of Faith, he traveled to France and Italy in the late 1840s to experience political upheavals in both countries.

He finally realized the futility of it all. He returned to England and joined the Unitarians. However, to his dismay he found that their church was as rigid as his childhood church, just in different ways.

He traveled to America to seek out Ralph Waldo Emerson whom he had met years earlier when Emerson gave a series of lectures in various European capitals. Sadly, he did not find what he was looking for in the rich intellectual climate of Boston.

He took a job, married and began writing. Sadly, Clough died from malaria in Florence November 13, 1861.

Did this 42-year-old find his quest? What he found that is so poignantly true is that

A religious movement over time becomes formalized and institutionalized. Spirituality gives way to dogma. The seeking of divine Truth is lost in the books and manuals of the emerged church. The black policy book of hundreds of pages replaces the simple truths of the Bible.

Like its sisters, it becomes just one more architectural edifice on the religious landscape of humans. These edifices are beautiful outside and inside, but there is no life in the pews or at the pulpit because the seeking of light (truth) faded decades ago.

After his death, in 1869 his poem Easter Day II came to light.

Life is yet life, and man is man.
For all that breathe beneath the heaven’s high cope,
Joy with grief mixes, with despondence hope.
Hope conquers cowardice, joy grief;
Or at least, faith unbelief.
Though dead, not dead;
Not gone, though fled;
Not lost, though vanished.
In the great gospel and true creed,
He is yet risen indeed;
Christ is yet risen.

Did Clough have a religious epiphany before death? Or did he, like so many others down through the centuries, seek a spiritual experience without all the trappings of ornate buildings and dogma of written prayers and structural creeds where the small still voice of the wind (Holy Spirit) could be heard and embraced by simple faith?

His best friend, Matthew Arnold, wrote the poem THYRSIS as a eulogy for Clough. Using the Elm tree on top of the hill as a place they sought to find truth because you must reach the top of the hill to behold the majesty above the branches of the Elm, Arnold concluded his 240-line poem with these words:

Too rare, too rare, grow now my visits here!
’Mid city-noise, not, as with thee of yore,
Thyrsis, in reach of sheep-bells is my home!
Then through the great town’s harsh, heart-wearying roar,
Let in thy voice a whisper often come,
To chase fatigue and fear:
Why faintest thou? I wander’d till I died.
Roam on! the light we sought is shining still.
Dost thou ask proof? Our Tree yet crowns the hill,
Our Scholar travels yet the loved hillside.

G. D. Williams © 2015

POST 603

Arthur Hugh Clough (Jan. 1, 1819, Liverpool—Nov. 13, 1861, Florence)

Easter Day Naples Italy 1849

Easter Day II

Matthew Arnold’s THYRSIS