Arthur Hugh Clough's father was a Liverpool cotton merchant who emigrated with his family to America. In 1828 Clough was sent back to England to be educated. He attended Rugby school where he began a lifelong friendship with the headmaster's son, the future poet and critic Matthew Arnold. After Rugby he went to Oxford, and eventually became a fellow of Oriel College.
At this time Oxford dons were required to subscribe to the Thirty Nine Articles detailing the beliefs of the Church of England. Clough's religious doubts meant that he felt unable to do this, and he resigned his fellowship in 1848, the same year he published The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich. Following his resignation he became Head of University Hall, London, for a short while, and also lectured in America, before eventually taking up a post as an examiner for the Department of Education.
Clough's religious difficulties were part of his general dislike of the established political and religious establishment of his day. He hated the Victorian capitalist system, and regarded himself as a republican. His sensitivity to the limitations imposed by class barriers provides a recurrent theme in his poetry.
Although Clough's beliefs (or lack of them) prevented his professional career from developing, his poetic achievement is considerable. As well as Matthew Arnold, he counted literary figures such as Ruskin and Carlyle among his friends, and his marriage to Blanche Smith in 1854 brought him much happiness. He contracted Malaria on a visit to Italy in 1861 and died in Florence. Ten years later Arnold composed an elegy for him, entitled 'Thyrsis'.