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Published by Sarah Bourne on Fri, 30 Apr 2021 10:49
Poetry Group

The Latest Decalogue

 “The First Decalogue” is of course the Ten Commandments, which can be found in Exodus 20.2-17 and Deuteronomy 5.6-21 as revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. They are a set of biblical principles covering ethics and worship.

Jesus summarises them, in Matthew 27.37-40, in the two Great Commandments;

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


The author of “The Latest Decalogue” was Arthur Hugh Clough, a Victorian poet and close friend of Florence Nightingale. He was not a prolific poet and died at the relatively young age of 42 in 1861.

There are two slightly different versions of this poem; one is held at Harvard University and the other at the British Museum, which is the one reproduced below.  

 It is of course a parody, written with the intention of  showing  that the “ Bourgeois morality” of Clough’s time was actually irreligious.  It satirized the perceived hypocrisy, materialism,  selective ethics and self-interest common to all of mankind.

 So, it was not written to negate in any way the essence of the “Commandments" but rather to point out that they should be honestly followed. There should be no pious pretence.

But Clough also had  a more compassionate view of society in his other poems.  For example, in his poem “ Through a Glass Darkly”, where he wrote “Ah yet when all is thought and said, the heart still overrules the head; still what we hope we must believe, and what is given us receive".


The Latest Decalogue*


   Thou shalt have one God only; who

   Would tax himself to worship two?

   God's image nowhere shalt thou see,

    Save haply in the currency:

    Swear not at all; since for thy curse

    Thine enemy is not the worse:

    At church on Sunday to attend

    Will help to keep the world thy friend:

    Honour thy parents; that is, all

    From whom promotion may befall:

    Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive

    Officiously to keep alive:

    Adultery it is not fit

    Or safe, for women, to commit:

    Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,

    When 'tis so lucrative to cheat:

    False witness not to bear be strict;

    And cautious, ere you contradict.

    Thou shalt not covet; but tradition

    Sanctions the keenest competition.


    The sum of all is, thou shalt love,

    If anybody, God above:

    At any rate shall never labour

    More than thyself to love thy neighbour.


As we read this today, perhaps we should hold in mind the original context, and also use it to examine our view of the “Commandments” and how honest we are in applying them in this century?

Hopefully it will also bring a wry smile to your face!


* The New Oxford Book of English Verse, Chosen &  Edited by Helen Gardner, OUP Oxford 1972/ Reprint 1987

Submitted by Roger Verrall -  April 28, 2021