Sunday, September 25, 2005


Strife and Controversy

Arthur Hugh Clough, Noli Aemulari:
In controversial foul impureness
The peace that is thy light to thee
Quench not: in faith and inner sureness
Possess thy soul and let it be.

No violence--perverse--persistent--
What cannot be can bring to be;
No zeal what is make more existent,
And strife but blinds the eyes that see.

What though in blood their souls embruing,
The great, the good and wise they curse,
Still sinning, what they know not doing;
Stand still, forbear, nor make it worse.

By curses, by denunciation,
The coming fate they cannot stay;
Nor thou, by fiery indignation,
Though just, accelerate the day.
Some people find a poem like this hard to understand. Not only the vocabulary, but also the word order makes it unintelligible, as if it were written in a foreign language. Here is a bald prose paraphrase:
Do not extinguish the peace that enlightens you by engaging in foul, impure controversy. Possess your soul in faith and inner certainty, and let it be.

Perverse, persistent violence cannot bring into existence that which cannot be. Zeal cannot make more existent that which already is. Strife only blinds the eyes that see.

So what if men drench their souls in blood; curse those who are great, good, and wise; and persist in sin without knowing what they are doing? Stand still, refrain, and do not make it worse.

These men cannot stop their approaching fate with curses and denunciation, and you cannot make that day come any quicker with your fiery indignation, no matter how just it is.
Clough's Latin title means, "Do not oppose yourself to others," or "Do not strive against others."

In the penultimate stanza, Clough echoes Luke 23.34: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." In the phrase "what they know not doing," not modifies know, not doing.

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