This poem has been an essential part of my mental furniture for years. I think it says something extremely important about the relationship between hope and despair. The regularity of its rhythm and the simple abab* rhyme scheme means that it lends itself really well to being memorised and installed in the brain and heart…
Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been, things remain.
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making
Comes, silent, flooding in, the main,
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.
I love the way the opening of poem, with its regular, plodding rhythm, and its closed, perfect rhymes, captures something of how weary life can feel sometimes when we are just trudging through—when life seems like such hard work, such a fight. I love, too, the way line four acknowledges how, at the worst times, part of the worst-ness is the feeling that ‘things will always be like this, I will always feel this bad’.
Then, in line five, comes the pivot-point. ‘If hopes were dupes’ seems at first to be cold comfort—”ok, hope was a delusion”; but then the logic of that is followed through: ‘fears may be liars’—: “maybe fears are not Truth either”. It’s a point that CBT therapists might make all the time: that feelings aren’t truth, they’re just feelings. But it’s not brusque, in the way that logic might be: we don’t feel that our right to feel weariness or despair are being taken away from us, nor the reality of them denied. There’s something so sympathetic about the way Clough extends the battle-field image: he uses it at once to acknowledge the reality of how tough-going things can feel and, at the same time, to make the point that at even at the blackest moments, something positive may be happening or growing, which we’re not yet aware of (‘in yon smoke concealed’).
And this is the idea developed in the third and fourth stanzas. We may look for the light in one direction, and despair of seeing it, only to find it breaking out in quite another place. The image of the ‘main’ ‘silent, flooding in’, makes me think of Morecambe Bay, and the way that the tide there comes in, swift and unnanounced: things can change so quickly, when we are least expecting them to. I think, too, of how help can come from a place or person we never imagined it would.
As a person-centred therapist, I also read in this poem something about the importance and function of allowing ourselves to feel and acknowledge all our emotions, even the painful ones like despair. Sometimes allowing ourselves to touch the bottom is the only way to be able to push, float or drift back up again.
*The letters abab refer simply to the sounds at the end of lines. Line one is the ‘a’ sound (‘availeth’), line two the ‘b’ (‘vain’); and these then recur (‘faileth… remain’). Hence abab.