Paulin’s People

Edward Said

  • Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State by Tom Paulin
    Faber, 298 pp, £15.99, January 1992, ISBN 0 571 16308 4

It is not very often that professional students of literature experience an invigorating shock of pleasure, surprise, illumination upon reading a work of criticism – perhaps because, like the natural scientists described by Thomas Kuhn, we are bound by ‘paradigms of research’ which tend to direct attention to accepted modes of expression and discovery. Some time in 1987 I happened on an issue of a literary magazine left in my house by a visiting friend. My attention was immediately caught by an essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins by one Tom Paulin, of whom at the time I had never heard at all. Hopkins was a poet I was particularly attached to, and for years I had read very little about him that was not clotted and professionalised. But Paulin’s piece was, I thought, unusually compelling. Using a vocabulary that was both political and extraordinarily sensitive to poetic technique, Paulin resurrected Hopkins from three generations of ‘ahistorical literary criticism’. Here was a primitive communist and also a rigid authoritarian, a man committed to ‘a blurting boorishness and lack of refinement’, as well as ‘a self-abasing admiration for rigid order’. Like Hugh MacDiarmid, Paulin said, Hopkins had a ‘risky, over-the-top extremism’ to his imagination, and while in Ireland in 1887-8 gave vent in his verse to ‘revolutionary intoxication, an expressionist whap of pure energy’ inspired by his perception that he belonged to ‘a civilisation founded on wrecking’.

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