The Faber Book of Political Verse 
edited by Tom Paulin.
Faber, 481 pp., £17.50, May 1986, 0 571 13947 7
Show More
Show More

‘Arnold and Eliot ensured that the magic of monarchy and superstition permeated English literary criticism and education like a syrupy drug ... ’ Yes, this is Tom Paulin speaking. Readers of the London Review will remember the review of a collection of essays on Geoffrey Hill in which he bitterly attacked the conservatism of English poetry and criticism. Indignant correspondents retorted that Paulin’s literary judgment had been contaminated by political bias and that in any case he lacked any ear for the rhythms of English poetry. The War of Paulin’s Ear shows no signs of dying down. He is locked in public combat with Craig Raine, who commissioned this anthology of political verse.

Well, this quarrel will doubtless do no harm to the book’s sales. But what is all the fuss about? On a restrictive definition, the anthologist of political verse has the same kind of aims as the anthologist of cat verse: a matter of isolating a particular kind of subject-matter – in the latter case, feline quadrupeds; in the former, battles, royal weddings, Parliamentary debates, court and cabinet scandals, and so on. But poetry engages with power relations at much more profound levels: class and regional registers of discourse, rhythm, deep-rooted metaphorical structurings of social experience and sexual relations. On a broad definition of the word, all these things are political; on a narrow definition, politics is a matter of mere ephemeral externals, irrelevant to the world of culture and imagination.

These two opposing conceptions of the political have been pulling further and further apart since the Romantic era. Renaissance and Enlightenment republicanism, to whose ‘dream of grace and reason’ Paulin has paid warm tribute both as poet and as critic, had celebrated secular political activity and regarded rhetoric, the public use of language in civic debate, as a centrally important human faculty. And it was widely questioned whether rhetoric could properly flourish under a monarchy, which would tend to inhibit the development of open and public debate in order to secure its essentially private interests. Monarchy was regarded as inherently anti-political, and there was a steady pressure to enlarge the sphere of public discourse. That pressure has been continued by socialist and feminist analysis of activities normally considered to be natural as social constructs which are subject to political debate.

But in English literary culture since the Romantic period, as Marilyn Butler has shown, there has been an opposing tendency, a reaction against Enlightenment values and a tendency to exalt the inner, authentic world of the imagination against a political world considered to be irredeemably fallen and inauthentic. Few critics have been as self-consciously royalist as Eliot; the republic of letters has been established under a figurehead monarchy. But something of the old notion that public affairs – notably defence policies – are mysteries of state still persists. And English poetry is still often presented as a similar mystery, a continuous tradition rooted in the grandeur of the past, defending the values of monarchy, hierarchy and the organic community, and standing above vulgar political criticism. It is not surprising that increasing numbers of radical critics are losing faith in the canon and turning to different forms of cultural studies. But their disillusion may be premature. English poetry has not been as one-sidedly conservative as is frequently supposed, and needs defending against many of its defenders – whether overt reactionaries or ‘liberal humanists’ who display an extraordinary complacency about the history of liberty.

Paulin does not offer us a clear definition of political verse, but his choice of poems indicates a fairly broad conception, offering not just a succession of public poems but an exploration of the politics of British poetry. In his introduction he sketches two alternative poetic traditions, revaluing a radical tradition in order to counter what he considers to be the pernicious influence of the conservative ‘monarchist’ tradition. But even the monarchists often look less deep-dyed on closer examination. The word ‘tradition’, though almost inescapable in a literary-historical context, is a treacherous one for the radical critic, with the danger of eliding significant discontinuities: Eliot and other 20th-century critics arguably made the monarchist tradition look more cohesive than it really was. Spenser’s monarchism contains much that Eliot would have despised and that Milton admired. Paulin also aligns Shakespeare with the monarchists, and anthologises two sections from Coriolanus. I am not sure that these sections prove his point. In the first extract Menenius tells Coriolanus that the people want corn at their own rates, alleging that the city is well stored with it. Coriolanus’s view is that the people have no right even to know whether the city has grain or not: they must be totally excluded from the political process. His response to the comment that there is enough grain to feed them is to want to make a quarry of thousands of quartered citizens. It seems very unlikely that Coriolanus’s voice here is the author’s. In fact, the people’s demands have been presented as far from unreasonable, and Menenius’s attempt to fob them off with his tale of the body as both crude and ineffective. Shakespeare opens his play at a crucial moment in Roman history: out of these conflicts emerges the tribuneship, institutionalising popular participation in politics. Machiavelli had acclaimed this change as one of the main foundations of Rome’s greatness. I agree that Shakespeare’s view seems less enthusiastic: his portrayal of the tribunes is disenchanted enough to have provoked Brecht to rewrite the play. But at least his plays differ from many conservative texts by foregrounding, rather than eliding, the debates. Paulin concedes that Julius Caesar may reveal a ‘closet republicanism’. These two plays alone show that there was a far more sophisticated awareness of republican institutions in Renaissance England than many critics, and historians, have conceded.

Ben Jonson’s Roman interests produced a potentially subversive treatment of republicanism in Sejanus: but he became James I’s court poet, and Paulin deals fairly brusquely with Jonson as a conservative monarchist. He is represented here by ‘To Penshurst’, with a gloss based on Raymond Williams which criticises the poem for concealing its politics behind apparently ‘natural’ images. But there is some force in Alastair Fowler’s counter-argument that Jonson’s poem, far from excluding labour, helped to pioneer in England a Georgic tradition that gave it a renewed dignity; some of the mystifications have come, not from the poem, but from 20th-century critics strolling nostalgically around imaginary estates. Political readings of poetry must always take account of genre. I must gratefully acknowledge Paulin’s praise of my own study of Renaissance poetry and politics, but would add that many, including Fowler, have been unpersuaded by my emphasis on Jonson’s conservatism: while standing by my own arguments, I would certainly concede that here again the monarchism is in tension with some proto-republican elements.

Paulin’s next major monarchist, John Dryden, seems a less ambiguous figure: ‘Absalom and Achitophel’, which Paulin much admires and prints in full, presents the political debate stirred up by the Whigs as a feverish disease of which the body politic needs to be cured. This nostalgia for an organic society free of the disease of politics and commerce has haunted many conservative writers. Paulin includes Jonson, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Hopkins, Yeats and Eliot in this tradition. Here again, though, there are complications. Since 1688, England has almost without exception been blessed with monarchs who remain magnificently intractable to the imagination (and in this respect the future seems assured). In their later years Dryden, Pope and Swift found themselves with an abstract admiration for kingship but a dislike of the actual court that lent a republican tinge to their rhetoric. And as J.G.A. Pocock and others have shown, a celebration of austere republican virtue against the corrupting effects of commerce motivated one strand of republican thought down to Jefferson and beyond.

It took T.S. Eliot to remind the forgetful English of the full benefits of monarchy. Paulin quotes in his introduction Eliot’s sinister comment that ‘any large number of free-thinking Jews’ is ‘undesirable’. He might have added that Eliot did later concede that he had gone a little too far here: but it remains true that his version of literary history left scant room for the radical and dissenting elements that had ‘dissociated’ the English sensibility. The anthology represents him by the section of ‘Little Gidding’ in which the spirits of Charles I and Milton are jointly invoked. The political tone here is relatively conciliatory, all the more so in the final text from which the poet dropped those conservative martyrs Richard III and the Duke of Wellington.

Paulin has described Geoffrey Hill as being ‘parasitic’ on Eliot’s imagination, but has always claimed to like the sonnet ‘Idylls of the King’ which provoked all the London Review controversy, and he reprints it here. It is terrifying to imagine what he might say about a poem he really disliked: he has accused it of being rhythmically inert and simplistically nostalgic for a Christian past disrupted by the Welfare State. Paulin oversimplifies the poem: phrases like ‘weightless magnificence’ display Hill’s characteristically double-edged view of the past. His poetry presents English culture as inextricably bound up with social and imperial domination. As Heather Glen has pointed out, the ‘Christian Architecture’ sonnets, when set against the Coleridge epigraph in its full context, ironically subvert Coleridge’s confidently idealist distinction between a ‘Platonic England’ of traditional culture and a prosaic, commercial England. Those London Review correspondents who sought to vindicate the purity of Hill’s poetry from Paulin’s intrusion of political considerations were hardly doing him a service. But if Hill does not simply idealise gilt magnificence, his imagination is most intensely responsive to visions of empire and exquisitely nuanced hierarchies and less open to different aspects of the past.

What Paulin’s anthology demonstrates is that a great deal of British poetry – what he terms the ‘Puritan-republican tradition’ – has been generated by less conservative social ambiences and values. Using the words ‘Puritan’ and ‘republican’ very broadly, Paulin traces the elements of religious protest in this tradition back to Dante, and presents a brief passage from Piers Plowman in his own vigorous translation. For Paulin the high point of this tradition is Milton, who is represented mainly by lengthy extracts from Paradise Lost. Paulin seems to have encountered some doubt about whether this can be called a political poem, but the poem’s republican assertiveness extends to its very metrics: ‘an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’. Here rhyme is a symbol for all the irrational and luxurious panoply of monarchy and aristocratic and ecclesiastical hierarchies that had gradually weighted down the political forms of the Roman republic and which the English Revolution had begun to sweep away. Milton’s sinuous periods exemplify the true freedom and openness of form that are made possible by the most strenuous discipline, a rejection of the traditional crutches of set forms. Many recent critics, notably Stevie Davies in Images of Kingship in ‘Paradise Lost’,* have convincingly scotched the idea that Satan is the poem’s real hero: Milton risks making his God look rather silly in His anxiety to devolve power to the beings He has created, and weakens the poem’s power by refusing to surround God with the conventional courtly theatricality of the Baroque Heaven. The difficulty for the anthologist, of course, is to demonstrate this: context is all. Paulin prints the speeches of Mammon and Beelzebub from the debate on Hell: their language can at times sound republican, but there is no room here for the framing episodes in which the essentially theatrical, anti-rational, in short monarchical, character of diabolical political organisation is manifested. Beelzebub’s speech is working to erode a collective spirit in favour of giving supreme power to one charismatic leader. The radically primitivistic portrayal of Adam and Eve, their ‘majesty’ being sufficient even though ‘naked’, stands as a stark contrast; though contradictions are starting to enter with the description of Adam’s rule over Eve as ‘absolute’: his republicanism foundered on his sexual politics. The concluding passages of Paradise Lost and an extract from Samson Agonistes display the apocalyptic outlook which, Paulin points out some time before the Libyan bombings and the militant Protestant responses to the Anglo-Irish accord, can erupt into a violence which may make the via media appear more attractive.

That apocalyptic element is also, I think, present in Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’. Paulin’s analysis of Marvell is still somewhat under the sway of the Eliot tradition: though he picks out a number of topical allusions in ‘Appleton House’, he sees Marvell as essentially a wistfully and pacifically lyrical poet, with a detached irony that verges on high camp – he even hears the voice of Kenneth Williams behind ‘Appleton House’. But although he situates Marvell in a republican tradition, he does not make anything of Blair Worden’s republican reading of the ‘Horatian Ode’, which need not be seen merely as a lament for the death of Culture with Charles I; and he does not include anything from the later satires, so that his politically engaged aspect is underplayed.

Paulin’s coverage of the Restoration and 18th century is a little patchy: he does not show us the republican tradition as it continued, albeit in diluted form, in the panegyrics of liberty by Akenside, Collins, Thomson and others. He includes Gray’s Elegy because of its compassion for the poor, but one might expect a radical poet to be a bit less dismayed at the fact that Cromwell was born. Paulin is more at home in the Romantic period: a particular interest of this section is the juxtaposition of the big names with less familiar radicals like John Learmont and Joseph Mather, whose ‘God Save Great Thomas Paine’ could provide a standby for republicans wanting something to do when the National Anthem is played. I would have liked to see Wordsworth represented by some of the more abrasively radical verse of the 1790s; but we are given several sonnets, and lengthy extracts from the 1850 Prelude which document English republicanism’s loss of innocence in the face of the Terror. With the collapse of hopes in the French republic, English liberals like Browning and Clough – one might add Landor, who deserved inclusion here – looked increasingly to the Italian cause. One of Paulin’s main aims is ‘to redeem Clough from the neglect which his work has suffered’, and we are given copious extracts – though not, unfortunately, that depressingly topical poem ‘The Latest Decalogue’. For Paulin the Puritan-republican tradition virtually ends with the early Auden. (He does not, however, give us the earliest text of ‘Spain’, defended by E.P. Thompson in ‘Outside the Whale’.) Some critics would see Tony Harrison as a leading continuer of the radical tradition. Where Hill eschews the prosaic, Harrison courts it, pushing poetry to the brink of banality in the manner of the Lyrical Ballads, trying always for the maximum both of force and of intelligibility. However critical he may be of Eliot, Paulin is unable to shake off a certain mandarin tone when assessing recent poetry: he sees Harrison as well as Hill as part of an inexorable decline and smuggles a hit at Harrison’s sentimentality into a translation of Heine. But whatever his lapses, Harrison’s project of a colloquially direct but formally controlled political poetry remains important. Nonetheless, in turning back to Pope we can see how much the 20th century has to learn from the 18th in that regard. (It is a pity that Paulin does not include, at the expense of the Essay on Man, more of the late, no-punches-pulled satires which Byron so admired).

On the contemporary scene in general Paulin is gloomy. He laments that the popular tradition of political poetry is almost dead, but here the voice of the Faber Poet prevails over the politically engaged writer: the landscape is not as bleak as he suggests. Paulin finds room for two such poets, Linton Kwesi Johnson and John Cooper Clarke, though I might not have echoed his choice from the latter: the 82 uses of ‘fucking’ in 50 lines would perhaps be more effective in performance than on the printed page.

One of the main difficulties for theorists of an organic English society has been that even before those dissociated Puritans had let the Jews back in, Britain was never entirely culturally homogeneous. Paulin does not include Defoe’s ‘The True-Born Englishman’, but the whole structure of his anthology makes the point that English poetry has never been purely ‘English’. To begin with, it has always interacted with the Irish and Scots traditions; as he said in Ireland and the English Crisis (1984), even radical critics of English studies have been reluctant to question the category of Englishness. Paulin’s concise account of the Irish tradition brings out its agonising complications, but also introduces a note of hope: poets like Heaney and Muldoon can point beyond both the often nostalgically reactionary discourse of Catholic nationalism and the apolitical complacency of English poetry. The Scottish tradition has a different complexion but one equally favourable to a rethinking of political poetry: its Calvinist legacy has encouraged a scepticism towards the English cult of Anglican royalism in poets from Burns through MacDiarmid to Douglas Dunn.

Paulin’s anthology further castigates English provincialism with doses of foreign poetry. The most immediately striking feature of the book’s semiotics is its tribute to French republicanism: the cover picture shows the Bastille station on the Paris Métro, and a yellow ticket reminds us that Citizen Paulin appropriately travels second class. The anthology contains a sprinkling of Continental poems, mostly by Eastern Europeans who cannot afford ‘a liberal belief in the separation of the public from the private life’: poets like Zbigniew Herbert who wryly attempt to resist barbarism with no more than the salt of irony. Regrettably, Paulin has not included any of his own original work – extracts from The Book of Juniper would have thrown light on the principles underlying the anthology – but some of his translations, notably the Akhmatova, speak in a distinctly Paulinesque accent. Selections from America show Whitman’s Jeffersonian optimism being transmuted into varying forms of cautious hauteur in the writing of Jeffers, Frost, Bishop and Lowell. Paulin’s preference runs to the ‘palefaces’, but he includes samples from Blues singers, ‘the most authentic American political poets’.

Finally, Paulin finds some room for the ‘anti-political tradition’. As he goes on to concede, this is something of a misnomer, for even political activists may need moments of rest; and poetry cannot be allowed to part company from those recesses of the personality that never receive full expression in the necessary compromises of public discourse. Public language may lag behind changes in perception. The Horatian poem of retirement, from Jonson to Auden, may represent conservative retreat: on the other hand, poets may back into conservative positions largely in a defensive strategy to allow their thoughts to develop without the unrelenting pressure of the public sphere. Regimes which call on poets to be explicitly political at all times, and critics who excoriate poets who write about gloomy private topics such as death when they should be furthering political change, are merely inviting dishonesty: good public poetry can arise only when political experience has been properly digested. Retirement may, as in Marvell, form a fruitful dialectic with the public poetry: Horace himself, after all, was a major public poet. ‘Appleton House’ may be Horatian, but so is the praise of Cromwell in the ‘Ode’. Paulin gives us a fine modern example of the ‘anti-political’ genre, Derek Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’.

Some poets, of course, suspect politics because they have been excluded from conventional political discourse. Paulin reminds us of Clare’s forceful protests against enclosing landlords who use the rhetoric of liberty. Women have until the present century been denied proper access to the political process: but from Katherine Philips through Elizabeth Barrett Browning to the present day, many women poets have commented on politics, and with only one British woman poet Paulin’s anthology is sadly defective here. The Romantic section would have been enlivened by Annabella Plumptre’s incendiary, ironically titled ‘Ode to Moderation’, which can be found in Roger Lonsdale’s New Oxford Book of 18th-Century Verse. As Mary Astell pointed out nearly three centuries ago, Milton’s defence of the subject’s liberty against the monarch clashed with his desire to subordinate women. But it could be argued that there was a structural link between his patriarchally Protestant variety of republicanism and his identification of idolatry as a specifically female characteristic. Feminist issues tend to cut across a clear-cut opposition between radical and conservative traditions.

Nobody familiar with Paulin’s work would expect this book to be a model of scholarly detachment. The tone is firmly polemical. The introduction is a heady mixture of acute critical perceptions, unqualified assaults on poets he dislikes, suggestive though occasionally erratic historical speculations ranging freely across English, European and American culture, and political abuse: ‘the United States contains untold millions of blockishly reactionary people.’ Paulin clearly hankers after the days when political rhetoric was less inhibited and flytings raised political contention to the level of art. Different political cultures have different levels of acceptable invective, and Paulin’s rhetoric is mild indeed by the standards of Karl Marx or Sir Thomas More. But there is something to be said for the comic mode of Martin Marprelate or Marvell: radical satire is in danger of belying its ends if its tone becomes authoritarian or blustering, and Paulin can be heavy-handed. The republican tradition, at least in its pre-socialist and pre-feminist form, had an ambivalent attitude to democracy, fearing that the masses would lapse from its rationalistic standards into irrational idolatry of power and tradition, and something of this ambivalence can be sensed in Paulin’s poetry, criticism and political rhetoric. It perhaps accounts for the vehemence of his abuse of writers with whose cultural pessimism he has more sympathy than he might like to admit. To resist a total populist rejection of ‘high culture’ is not in itself a reactionary position: but the issues are certainly more complicated than conventional left-right labels can adequately allow, and Paulin has found it difficult to articulate a position except by negatives.

The anthology is not all polemic: its basic hypotheses are enormously fruitful ones for criticism and for poetry. As Paulin declares, ‘literary history is almost a lost art,’ but it is by reintroducing the political dimension that many contemporary scholars are giving it a new lease of life, revealing poems of the past as part of a long, important and frequently vehement dialogue rather than a serene succession of transcendent masterpieces. Critics can take sides in that dialogue without ignoring opposing viewpoints. Paulin’s own preferences are clear enough, but he is not arguing that monarchist poetry must be bad, and he includes plenty of figures like Kipling who hardly reflect his own biases. Indeed, the politically-oriented critic can more easily appreciate the verbal and argumentative strategies even of an opponent’s political rhetoric than can the moralist looking for inner sincerity and felt life. Paulin takes up the point so often made by Hugh MacDiarmid that the moralism of English critics has made them ‘careless of formal beauty’. Nor does he make the mistake of arguing that radical poetry must be a spontaneous overflow, that artifice is always reactionary. A dismaying legacy of the English class system has been that because articulacy and an acquaintance with literary history have been reserved for an élite, those contesting that power structure have tended to feel that political discourse can be virtuous only if it is clumsily and boringly written. This prejudice needs challenging, and there is plenty in the history of English political verse to draw on. Many of the finest radical writers – Milton, Marvell, Shelley, MacDiarmid – have been amongst the most effective and rhetorically deft polemicists and the most formally inventive poets, with a sophisticated awareness of generic histories. Paulin’s aim in this rich and provocative anthology is to ‘contribute towards the creation of a broad “canon” of political verse in English’. ‘Creation’, it seems safe to predict, in both senses: for the more that can be recovered of the still-obscured history of political poetry, the more impetus there will be for today’s poets to carry on the task.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 8 No. 12 · 3 July 1986

SIR: I was intrigued by David Norbrook’s case for Paradise Lost as a political poem (LRB, 5 June). His arguments are very different from those advanced by Tom Paulin in his introduction to the Faber Book of Political Verse – so different that I can address them without compromising my editorial function. About the anthology I must remain silent, as I have done throughout this controversy. My objections to Tom Paulin’s Geoffrey Hill piece were confined to two factual points – the ‘echo’ of Yeats, which was a quotation from the Psalms, and Paulin’s inaccurate metrical analysis of Hill’s sonnet, where he imputed metrical monotony to lines whose metre was demonstrably varied. It was Tom Paulin who chose to present my intervention in these diversionary terms: I have made two catastrophic errors about Geoffrey Hill’s poetry but Craig Raine doesn’t like my anthology of political verse. For similar reasons, ‘metre’ later became ‘diction’ as the correspondence progressed.

David Norbrook is cool and logical enough to see my objection to his first point, which concerns the ‘republican assertiveness’ of Paradise Lost’s ‘very metrics’. There is, of course, no avoiding Milton’s description: ‘an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’. Clearly, there may be a cryptic innuendo here, but the passage in its entirety is aesthetic and not political. Even were the point conceded, there is still a distinction to be observed between Milton’s republican intent and the actual status of blank verse. It is a subtle distinction, admittedly, but crude distinctions can’t have things their own way all the time. Milton, David Norbrook insists, wants rhyme to be ‘a symbol for all the irrational and luxurious panoply of monarchy and aristocratic and ecclesiastical hierarchies that had gradually weighted down the political forms of the Roman republic and which the English Revolution had begun to sweep away’ – but is it? And is that all? What, one wonders, does it do with all its spare time? Torture radical activists? According to Milton himself, rhyme sets off ‘wretched matter and lame Meter’, when it isn’t vexing, hindering and constraining poets to ‘express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them’. When it isn’t working overtime for Mr Norbrook, then, it is evidently into bondage of a purely literary kind.

And is blank verse a symbol of all things opposite to the ‘luxurious panoply of monarchy and aristocratic and ecclesiastical hierarchies’? After all, the Spaniards and the Italians had ‘rejected Rime both in longer and shorter Works’ without reference to their political situation or its improvement. And aren’t the ‘best English Tragedies’, cited with approval by Milton, somewhat problematically heterogeneous in this symbolic context? It cannot be true that the ‘very metrics’ of Paradise Lost are assertively republican. Intrinsically, blank verse is neutral, like ink or paper. As Milton’s own examples show, its affiliations are promiscuous.

Of Mammon and Beelzebub, David Norbrook remarks: ‘their language can at times sound republican, but there is no room here [in Paulin’s anthology] for the framing episodes in which the essentially theatrical, anti-rational, in short monarchical, character of diabolical political organisation is manifested.’ I think I detect circularity here. Mr Norbrook will correct me if I am wrong. Unless one already believes Paradise Lost to be a political poem directed against monarchists, it is hard to see how ‘theatrical’ and ‘anti-rational’ can be translated so automatically into ‘monarchical’ – without, in short, a great deal being gained in the translation. Theatricality and anti-rationality, I have noticed, are not qualities exclusively earmarked for any particular political persuasion.

It worries me, too, that the devils ‘can at times sound republican’. Perhaps it should worry David Norbrook more than it appears to? The difficulty with presenting Beelzebub as a monarchist ‘working to erode a collective spirit in favour of giving supreme power to one charismatic leader’ is not only that Beelzebub puts his proposals to the vote, advising ‘all circumspection’ ‘in our suffrage’, but also that he is so clearly against the supreme power of another charismatic leader called God.

I found David Norbrook’s account of Milton’s presentation of God in his heaven clever but implausible. It is always difficult to argue convincingly from what an author didn’t do. Milton, he tells us, ‘weakens the poem’s power by refusing to surround God with the conventional courtly theatricality of the Baroque Heaven’. I cannot myself see that Milton would have strengthened his presentation by such conventional additions. Put like that, David Norbrook’s argument looks a little flimsy.

Milton’s presentation is surely explained by his theological disposition. W.H. Auden affected to find religious poetry embarrassing, except the most liturgical kind. Milton, a serious theologian and a shrewd poet, felt this objection genuinely and foresaw that any concrete presentation of God was liable to be ludicrous. In De Doctrina Christiana, he writes: ‘It is better therefore to contemplate the Deity, and to conceive of him, not with reference to human passions, that is, after the manner of men, who are never weary of framing subtle imaginations respecting him …’

So where do I stand? I stand unpersuaded.

Craig Raine

SIR: In his interesting review of Tom Paulin’s Faber Book of Political Verse, David Norbrook describes how Paulin classes Dryden among the ‘conservative’, ‘monarchist’ writers (in which company Dryden ‘seems a less ambiguous figure’ than Spenser, Shakespeare or Jonson), and suggests that ‘Absalom and Achitophel’ illustrates Dryden’s ‘nostalgia for an organic society free of the disease of politics and commerce’.

Might I suggest that some of your readers may be interested in looking at the discussion of these matters in my recently-published study, John Dryden. I argue that if one attends to the full range of Dryden’s work – not just the hackneyed ‘public’ poems – and if one is sensitive to the enormous qualitative discrepancies, not only between different areas of Dryden’s oeuvre as a whole but also within individual works, it is evident that, whatever his views may have been as a private citizen, Dryden the poet cannot be at all accurately described as an unambiguous conservative royalist who believed wholeheartedly in an organic body politic and regarded political dissension as a disease which must be cured. Paulin’s inclusion of the whole of ‘Absalom’ in his anthology – the poem has some deservedly famous lines, but also contains some conspicuously slack and unconvincing writing – unfortunately will do little to discourage the undiscriminating approach which has for so long impeded a full appreciation of Dryden’s genius. In his best poetic moments, Dryden does not write from a position of simple conservative parti-pris, nor does he attempt to evade or sidestep political questions. At his best, Dryden encompasses and subsumes his interest in politics within his investigation of a much larger subject, the subject which has always been poetry’s business: the nature of Man, and ‘truth, not individual and local, but general and operative’. Dryden’s fearlessly exhilarating explorations of that subject involved him in entertaining and relishing some very subversive thoughts indeed about all the things which the textbooks tell us he valued most dearly – monarchy, Christianity, Toryism, peace, stability. To lump Dryden among ‘the conservatives’ is simply to ignore the full implications of what he’s saying in his best verse – which is, I believe, what most people have been doing for over a century.

David Hopkins
University of Bristol

Vol. 8 No. 13 · 24 July 1986

SIR: It is difficult to address the specific points raised by Craig Raine’s letter (Letters, 3 July) without engaging with his theoretical assumptions. He assumes that the aesthetic, the political and the theological are completely distinct and ought to be kept in separate compartments by literary critics. I can sympathise up to a point with the impulse behind his position. The category of ‘the aesthetic’ is a historically recent one, not a timeless absolute, but in the past there have been somewhat comparable oppositions between rhetoric and poetics, between the discourses of the active and of the contemplative life. Writers and critics have a right to a space in which they are not subject to immediate political pressures. But Craig Raine’s theoretical rigidity dissolves all sense of tension between literary culture and the wider world. On a larger political scale, I believe this position to be short-sighted; more specifically, it leads to an impoverished notion of cultural history, dooming Milton’s works to be replaced on the shelves in the desiccatedly self-contained categories of Poetry, Political Prose and Theology. Raine’s distinctions, maintained at the cost of ignoring the last quarter-century’s debates over the relationship between writing and politics, are sharp but not necessarily subtle.

Let me take up the example of Milton’s republicanism in relation to his prosody. Craig Raine seems prepared to concede that the note on heroic verse was a coded republican statement, but to believe that Milton’s political ‘intent’ is totally irrelevant to the poem’s ‘actual status’ as a work of art. Blank verse, he argues, is politically neutral. Yes, in itself metre, like any other signifier, is arbitrary, its full meanings determined by context rather than innate value. But that is an argument for investigating contexts, not for ignoring them. For initial purposes of analysis it is possible to isolate metre, like other stylistic elements: but none of these elements is an ornament stuck irrelevantly onto a poem’s content, the meaning emerges from the interaction of metre and content. If a poet is cunning enough, rhyme can work overtime and longer. Traditional histories of English prosody wholly in terms of phonetics and aesthetics are sterile: a history of rhyme in relation to political ideology would be immensely illuminating. Antony Easthope’s pioneering Poetry as Discourse is marred precisely by his omission of the specifically political dimension. On the other hand, Derek Attridge’s meticulous study of Renaissance prosody in Well-Weighed Syllables reveals the difficulty of providing a purely internal, linguistic, explanation of metrical changes. There were doubtless internal linguistic causes for the displacement of Classical quantitative prosody by rhymed accentual verse in later antiquity: but Renaissance Humanists tended to see the change as a manifestation of a social debasement and intellectual coarsening of Classical culture under the influence of corrupt social and ecclesiastical hierarchies. The Renaissance revival of Classical metres was undoubtedly to some extent a response to phonetic changes: but it was also motivated by extrinsic factors, whether by social èlitism or by a critically republican perspective on Medieval customs. Debates about metrical form in Italy from Dante to Machiavelli and Càstiglione raised larger questions about writing in the vernacular and the social register; Craig Raine asserts that Italian poets theorised about rhyme ‘without reference to their political situation or its improvement’, but I prefer Milton as an authority on Renaissance Italian criticism. In England, Samuel Daniel might urge the defence of rhyme on the grounds that it was an ‘indifferent thing’, politically and culturally neutral: but that term was borrowed from Anglican defences of church ritual against Puritan ‘formalists’, and Daniel warned Campion that the zeal for reform and perfection, the rejection of custom, even in such an apparently minor area, could have dangerous political consequences. Denham’s ‘Cooper’s Hill’, which assumed a hegemonic status in 17th and 18th-century culture, connects the heroic couplet with the balance of the ancient constitution, and warns, on the eve of the Civil War, that the Puritans will destroy that harmony. Milton’s note presents men like Daniel and Denham as ‘carried away by custom’ in constitutional as well as poetic terms.

It is true that he indulges in polemical exaggeration: there were linguistic difficulties in a full revival of Classical prosody, as his own experiments had shown; and, as Raine points out, he did sometimes use rhyme. But he always did so with a strong ideological awareness. Joseph Wittreich and other critics have pointed out how the disruption of anticipated rhyme-schemes in ‘Lycidas’, a poem unusual in the 1638 memorial volume for avoiding the pentameter couplet, helps to articulate the poem’s political criticism of Laudianism. His adoption of the outmoded sonnet form for his Parliamentarian poetry of the 1640s and 1650s was part of the period’s revival of Elizabethan cultural forms in conscious counterpoise to Stuart innovations. The rhymes in Samson Agonistes come to symbolise the bondage (linked, in a complex chain of images, with the ideas of dènouement and redemption in the play) from which Samson escapes in his final suicidally iconoclastic gesture. The concluding sonnet communicates a resolution which is also a desolation. Nicholas Jose has shown in Ideas of the Restoration in English Literature 1660-1671 how systematically Milton inverts the aristocratic and monarchical assumptions of Restoration rhymed heroic plays: Milton’s glance back to ‘our best English tragedies’ in his 1674 note, published after Samson, is a hit at the contemporary stage. (Incidentally, Craig Raine seems to assume that E.M.W. Tillyard’s reading of Elizabethan drama still stands, but his views have not gone unquestioned in recent years.) Milton’s attempt to ‘recover’ a lost liberty runs parallel to the boast of the Commonwealth to have ‘restored’ its lost political liberties. In the latter case, the ‘restoration’ was a ‘revolution’ more in the modern than the older sense of the word, given that it involved the abolition of the monarchy; in the prosodic case, too, while Milton may have been thinking of Old or Middle English alliterative verse, his own blank verse style was really a distinct innovation. His whole epic project involves an outdoing as well as imitation of Classical models, communicating the excitement of a return to origins so radical that it is also a totally new beginning. A full semantic history of the relations in the period between literary and political senses of the words ‘reformation’, ‘restoration’, ‘revolution’ and ‘imitation’ remains to be written. It is on this level of formal transmutations, rather than on that of direct topical allusions, that the poem seems to me to incorporate most fully the spirit of the Good Old Cause.

Milton’s versification certainly continued to arouse political comment. The ‘Whig’ patriotic poets of the 18th century were attacked by Johnson and Goldsmith for the over-liberality of their blank verse. As Marvell’s prefatory poem to Paradise Lost hints, Dryden’s attempt to ‘tag’ the epic with rhyme was also an attempt to domesticate it into the ‘mode’ of polite, non-‘enthusiastic’ conversation. I am glad that David Hopkins has been able to show complexities in Dryden’s political stance (Letters, 3 July), but I still believe that Milton’s abrasiveness presented him with a challenge, as Blake recognised: ‘Dryden in Rhyme cries, “Milton only planned".’ Echoing the 1668 note in the preface to Jerusalem, Blake indicated that his rejection of the ‘bondage’ of Miltonic blank verse was an integral part of his overall project of pushing Milton’s incomplete radicalism further. If Shelley, in ‘Prometheus Unbound’, represents freedom from bondage by a modulation of Miltonic blank verse into masque-type rhymed lyrics, he is simultaneously inverting the assumptions of the Renaissance masque. Like Milton, Blake and Shelley can be read in ‘purely aesthetic’ terms only by blithely ignoring the stated aims of their entire careers.

I would not want to make an idol of Milton as a totally consistent and admirable radical poet, or to deny that there are tensions and contradictions in Paradise Lost: the republican poet representing the kingdom of heaven faced all kinds of problems, as did the firmly patriarchal and anti-feminist writer who had countenanced the execution of the father-king. After the New Critical denial that poetry is political has been confronted, there are questions to be asked beyond whether he was a republican or a monarchist. But Raine’s objections to a republican reading seem to centre on a doubt about whether any political reading is valid, so I shall try to answer some of his specific points, referring him for fuller answers to Stevie Davies’s excellent Images of Kingship in ‘Paradise Lost’. It is true that, like Augustus, Satan insinuates himself into power while paying lip-service to constitutional forms, but the throne on which he already sits exalted at the start of Book Two, before the vote has been taken, is a classic instance of the kind of theatricality and stage-managing which Renaissance republicans attributed to monarchy. Craig Raine finds my analysis circular. All interpretation ultimately involves circular arguments, but my own view is that a consideration of authorial intention and of historical context can help to concentrate that circularity and make it productive; I am less confident than he is of having privileged access to an ‘actual status’ of the poem in total isolation from the poet’s political ‘intent’. Milton’s contrast between the political imagery surrounding God and Satan does take on greater force in a context of republican thought: his God is at once more remote and more open to straightforward argument than Satan. The recurrent complaint against Him by critics has been precisely that He is more ‘ludicrous’ than ‘charismatic’. He is introduced to us in the process of giving a detailed rational justification of His motives: I do think that He might have been given more immediate imaginative impact, not by adding monarchical paraphernalia, but by subtracting the analytic passages, making God a figure more of mysterious imperial will than of rational law: but that would have been inconsistent with Milton’s politics. Milton’s theological critique of anthropomorphism is certainly relevant, but he pushed this critique to heterodox conclusions which were directly linked with his political critique of church and state rituals that reinforced such idolatry. He could accept the need for an abstract monarchical element in the state but not that it should be embodied in one individual: it was precisely at that point that the prelapsarian order differed from secular political orders.

It is striking that the commonplaces of 17th-century republicanism should seem so absurd to modern English arbiters of taste. Twentieth-century thinkers as diverse as Walter Benjamin and Conor Cruise O’Brien have worried that democracy might in the end perish because totalitarianism can draw on a greater imaginative allure. But since the triumph of the Empire in the latter part of the 19th century, the monarchy has contrived simultaneously to provide a public spectacle which has numbed critical political analysis, and to be regarded as a ‘thing indifferent’ – above politics, much as the New Criticism considered poetry to be. Our monarchy is certainly a complex phenomenon, sometimes moderating darker political forces. But I fully agree with Tom Paulin that our society needs to recover non-monarchist cultural traditions, to imagine alternatives. Poetry and cultural history cannot solve our political and economic problems: but we should at least resist the assumption that politics and economics are hermetically sealed areas to which the questions asked by poets are completely irrelevant. The humanities at all levels of education are currently on the defensive: declaring their irrelevance to politics is no way to befriend them.

David Norbrook
Magdalen College, Oxford

Vol. 8 No. 15 · 4 September 1986

SIR: David Norbrook (Letters, 24 July) makes some baffling assumptions about my theoretical assumptions – though they closely resemble those of a Times journalist who asked me, a couple of weeks ago, why I thought poetry and politics were divided by a thick partition. Were that the case, I countered, I would hardly have commissioned the Faber Book of Political Verse, would I? On the other hand, I don’t believe that every work of art is necessarily political. If I did, I would hardly have commissioned the Faber Book of Political Verse. It would have been enough to commission the Faber Book of Verse.

But my theoretical assumptions, especially those invented for me by Mr Norbrook, are neither here nor there. In my original letter, I stated clearly where I stood – unpersuaded. This was a polite way of saying that I thought Mr Norbrook hadn’t argued very well. Judging from the way his case has been mended, he agrees with me. Beelzebub has been dropped entirely. Formerly, he was a monarchist ‘working to erode a collective spirit in favour of giving supreme power to one charismatic leader’. In his place, there is now a sensible admission that there are ‘tensions and contradictions’ in Paradise Lost. A reference, I take it, to the way Beelzebub ‘can at times sound republican’.

Similarly, Mr Norbrook no longer suggests that Milton’s portrayal of God would be improved by the addition of ‘conventional courtly theatricality’. Instead, the portrayal would be given ‘more immediate imaginative impact, not by adding monarchical paraphernalia, but by subtracting the analytic passages, making God a figure more of mysterious imperial will than of rational law’. However, Milton chose not to do this because, according to Mr Norbrook, it would have been ‘inconsistent’ with his politics. More obviously, the elimination of analytic passages would have been ‘inconsistent’ with Milton’s theological aim – to ‘justify the ways of God to men’. No analysis means no justification.

But David Norbrook rests his entire case on Milton’s use of blank verse, rather than on direct topical allusions, since the latter are used inconsistently by Milton. I am pleased we agree that the ‘actual status’ of blank verse is neutral. Mr Norbrook, however, attaches an important qualification – the need to establish ‘full meanings’ by looking at the context. I thought I had done precisely that – just as certainly as I never mentioned E.M.W. Tillyard, whom Mr Norbrook wishes on me as an ally. The context I referred to is Milton’s 1668 note on ‘The Verse’. There Milton gives a perfectly adequate reason for disliking rhyme. He argues that rhyme vexes, hinders and constrains poets ‘to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them’. For this reason (‘not without cause therefore’) some Italian and Spanish poets have rejected rhyme. In this context, Milton makes no mention of the respective Italian and Spanish political situations. David Norbrook is prepared to concede ‘internal, linguistic explanations of metrical changes’ of the kind volunteered here by Milton, but he insists that there are also ‘extrinsic factors’ at work. Apparently, Derek Attridge’s ‘meticulous study’ of Renaissance prosody has shown that ‘internal, linguistic explanations’ are inadequate to explain metrical changes in Renaissance prosody.

This may be so. However, we are not discussing Renaissance prosody in general, but Milton’s blank verse and the entirely adequate explanation he gives for adopting it. Necessarily, David Norbrook widens the context and his letter is a justifiable boast that his context is bigger than my context. Very few people could match Mr Norbrook’s context. But it is also more nebulous. It stretches eruditely from Old English alliterative verse, via Dante, Castiglione, Denham, Dryden, Marvell, Goldsmith, Dr Johnson, to Blake and Shelley. And then still further, to an as yet unwritten history of rhyme in relation to political ideology, not to mention another crucial, convincing, but alas unwritten, ‘full semantic history of the relations in the period between literary and political senses of the words “reformation", “restoration", “revolution" and “imitation" ’. I find it hard to argue on all these fronts, but particularly hard to contain those fronts which are non-existent. One follows this vast chain of argument only to discover that it is stapled to a promise. Or two promises. Or nothing. Or everything. In this ‘context’, it scarcely matters, because it isn’t a context at all. It is a theory.

Mr Norbrook has some ingenious interpretations, over-ingenious in the case of Samson Agonistes, but his chain, two and a half columns long, touches on Milton at only one demonstrable point. He attaches it to Milton’s phrase, ‘an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’ – a phrase conceivably politically motivated, but perhaps only an instance of local bravado, a rhetorical flourish, a republican twitch, without a political aesthetic behind it. The chain is attached to an ambiguity – and, without it, you remove every supporting comment he has to make about Milton’s note.

Normally, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Mr Norbrook had erected a vast set of assumptions on insufficient, faintly wonky evidence – had I not recently had an unfortunate experience in these very columns. There, I described Milton’s 1668 note as, in its entirety, aesthetic, not political. Which it is. On the basis of this, Mr Norbrook has decided that I am a New Critic who denies poetry is political. I am, in fact, the editor who commissioned the Faber Book of Political Verse. Which brings me once more to the ‘actual status’ of blank verse.

Its essential neutrality is unaffected by how people regard it – just as I am not made a New Critic because Mr Norbrook chooses to regard me in that light. There is an objective reality which is unaffected by misinterpretation. To call the very metre of Paradise Lost assertively republican simplifies a clear ambiguity and then compounds Milton’s (possible) wishful thinking. The correct position is to say that the blank verse is neutral – however Milton may, or may not, have regarded it.

Craig Raine

Vol. 8 No. 16 · 18 September 1986

SIR: In his long letter. Craig Raine (Letters, 4 September) makes five basic points.

1. He commissioned the Faber Book of Political Verse. This is not something I’ve ever denied: it’s Mr Raine who has in the past seemed uneasy about it. Now that it’s been well received, however, he is so proud of his role in originating the anthology that he congratulates himself not just once but three times in the same letter. Tom Paulin’s anthology juxtaposes poems explicitly on public themes with apparently apolitical poems and in this way brings out political connotations that might not otherwise be apparent: it is thus concerned both with political verse narrowly defined and with the politics of different poetic traditions. But any anthology involves selection and this has political implications: a Faber Book of Verse which contained no woman poets would not be apolitical.

2. I’ve gone back my original argument. Not so: I’ve amplified it at his request, but I don’t have space to turn it into a book. I stated from the beginning both that Satan is presented with monarchical trappings with Beelzebub as obliging acolyte, and that the fallen angels also use republican terms. This fact may partly reflect Milton’s growing dis-illusion under the rule of Cromwell and Charles II, and his awareness that republican rhetoric could conceal authoritarian interests. And the last books present a bleakly disillusioned view of the people’s capacity for the burdens of liberty. But this doesn’t make the poem monarchist; and I believe that this pessimism is countered by other factors (see below).

3. Mr Raine argues that I’ve shifted my position on Milton’s representation of God. I still believe that it would have been possible to create a God who engaged the imagination more directly, either by a less sparse, more ceremonial representation of the heavenly kingdom, or by making Him a majestic figure only dimly glimpsed at the end of a vast hierarchy of intermediaries, as in the Paradiso. Such courses were made difficult for Milton both by his politics and by his theology: the Reformation stripped away many of the mythical representations of celestial hierarchies which had originated as means of buttressing hierarchical authority in the Church, a process which was in turn related to stratification in society at large. Mr Raine once again makes a sharp distinction between political and theological issues as if it were self-evident. But in the 17th century political analogies in theological discourse, and theological analogies in political discourse, were so deeply-rooted that Mr Raine’s confidence that he knows their exact boundaries is, in my view, misconceived. This is not just a historical matter: to declare that theology is above politics may be simply to refuse to allow a particular power structure to be questioned. To take an example central to Paradise Lost: Milton, following male theologians, declares that the Genesis story must be interpreted as showing woman’s inferiority to be part of the divine scheme: is this a theological question or a political one?

4. My account of the political connotations of blank verse is, he complains, ‘wonky’. Well, I could hardly give a definitive history on a letters page: my main aim was to try to provide some matter of more general interest than mere ad hominem point-scoring, and, far from boasting my own unique authority, to draw attention to at least a few of the many critics who are doing illuminating work in this area. Mr Raine responds with bluster but not a single counter-argument or counter-example. In arguing that the literary history of Britain has still to be properly written, I was not denying that there is a great deal of it which has been written and has merely yet to be read by Mr Raine. But the apolitical approach of older literary histories, and the anti-historical bias of dominant theories from the New Criticism through to deconstruction, have meant that there are a lot of gaps to be filled, and his letter does nothing to dissuade me from my belief that it is a good thing to know what one doesn’t know.

5. On the 1668 note in particular, he is inclined to think that my political reading is wilfully subjective. The note is to be read entirely straight, and he finds it an ‘entirely adequate’ reason for Milton’s casting Paradise Lost in blank verse that he wasn’t as good at finding apt rhymes as Cleveland, Cowley, Crashaw, Davenant, Denham, Dryden etc. He roundly reiterates that the note is, ‘in its entirety, aesthetic, not political’. And yet he concedes that Milton may have intended readers to pick up political connotations (I would suggest he compares the note’s last phrase with the title The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Restored to the Good of Both Sexes from the Bondage of Canon Law). So the ‘entirety’ turns out to be not so entire. But Mr Raine is prepared to dismiss whatever political meanings the note may have had to Milton, to contemporary readers such as Marvell, and to modern readers, as merely subjective, whereas, as guardian of ‘the correct position’, he believes the note’s aesthetic meaning to be absolutely objective, an unchanging, Platonic essence. His anti-intentionalism was one reason that made me assume he might have been influenced by the New Criticism, since he is most evidently not a post-structuralist: but I’m happy to accept that his disdain for inquiring into Milton’s intention springs purely from his touchingly serene conviction that his own knowledge and intellectual abilities are so vastly superior to Milton’s. But if we descend from Mr Raine’s level to Milton’s, I think we find a much more fruitful way of reading poetry, looking at the infinitely complex modes of interaction between poetic and political history rather than dismissing politics as subjective irrelevance. If the 1668 note has a ‘republican twitch’, I would suggest that it is because Milton is directing into poetry the political energies that blindness and the Restoration had diverted from politics. But while this process has a despairing aspect, the narrator’s presentation of his triumph against adversity, the sense of creative energy in the descriptions of the making of a new world, counteract that pessimism and raise the possibility that such energies may one day be redirected into political creativity. That’s a very simplified way of putting a very complex process, but I’m afraid I’m getting weary of providing Mr Raine with painless digests of what’s been happening in literary history and theory for the last quarter-century. One day he should come down from Mars and start finding out for himself.

David Norbrook
Magdalen College, Oxford

Vol. 8 No. 17 · 9 October 1986

SIR: It isn’t at all clear to me why David Norbrook is getting so rattled (Letters, 18 September). No one disputes his learning, or my relative ignorance. I am very grateful for his ‘painless digests of what’s been happening in literary history and theory for the last quarter-century’. How time flies.

Leaving aside various misrepresentations of my arguments, too tedious to correct, there is a new point of substance in his letter which presents a genuine difficulty for me. Always provided it is true. It is this: that Milton must have intended his 1668 note ironically because the aesthetic position stated there is obviously too naive for Milton to have meant it seriously. Whether this is the product of collective industry in the last quarter-century, or Mr Norbrook’s own idea, I couldn’t say. No doubt he will enlighten us.

According to Mr Norbook, I find ‘it an “entirely adequate" reason for Milton’s casting Paradise Lost in blank verse that he wasn’t as good at finding apt rhymes as Cleveland, Cowley, Crashaw, Davenant, Denham, Dryden etc.’ This, of course, is a travesty of what Milton says in his 1668 note. But it throws Mr Norbrook’s view of the 1668 note’s inadequacy into vivid relief. Evidently, for him, Milton could not possibly have believed that rhyme was really a ‘vexation, hindrance and constraint’ which forced poets to ‘express many things otherwise and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them’. And I agree that this does seem a rather naive position for Milton to adopt. Yet it doesn’t surprise me. And, as a matter of fact, I think Milton believed what he wrote. Let me answer Mr Norbrook’s objection with an analogy. For over a century, sophisticated critics found Shakespeare’s plays flawed because they violated the Unities. Even Dryden is at least uneasy here. Eventually, Dr Johnson exploded this naive objection, based as it was on painless digests of literary history and theory: ‘it is false,’ he wrote, ‘that any representation is mistaken for reality, that any dramatic fable in its materiality was ever credible, or, for a single moment, was ever credited.’

Now, since literary history is Mr Norbrook’s special field, where no one disputes his learning, or my ignorance, I should like him to consider this question: were these critics simply naive but sincere, or is their naivetie a sign that they were making an encoded protest against something else we have yet to fathom?

Perhaps the aesthetic debate was not as far advanced as Mr Norbrook would like to believe. Literary history, it seems to me, inexpert though I am, can supply a multitude of silly ideas which were once sincerely and tenaciously held by learned and apparently sensible men. ‘Fancy’ is another example. Maybe there is a moral here?

Craig Raine

Vol. 8 No. 20 · 20 November 1986

SIR: After having had so much to say, David Norbrook is suddenly silent. I have a suggestion to pep up our correspondence and rekindle his interest. He thinks that Milton could not possibly have meant his 1668 note to Paradise Lost seriously. Whether this is the view of the collective critical industry of the last quarter-century, or something David Norbrook thought up five minutes ago, he still hasn’t told us. The suspense is unbearable, no?

I think that Milton’s stated reasons are entirely adequate: namely, that rhyme vexes, hinders and constrains poets ‘to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them’. However naive this 1668 note may seem to modern readers – who know, for instance, that formal restrictions can stimulate invention, etc, etc – it happens to embody an elementary but permanent truth which David Norbrook can easily test for himself. This is my suggestion. In future, all our letters should be written in terza rima, or, better still, the Pushkin stanza. For me, I confess, this will be tedious, but not impossible. For David Norbrook, it will be a breeze. So he can have first go. If he has nothing new to say, perhaps he would like to rhyme up his first letter of two and a half columns?

Craig Raine

Vol. 8 No. 22 · 18 December 1986


All right: at Raine’s prolonged inciting
I’ll take his challenge to a flyting:
but not his weapons: may the biting
Scots form maintain
my verse with force of centuries’ fighting
the Sassenach reign.

Craig will reply in half my time:
although his Martian muse sublime
mostly disdains an easy chime,
as coup de grâce
in Rich he stuffs his richest rhyme
up Verlaine’s verse.[1]

But I don’t have his rhyming vein;
against my grain, industrious pain
strains slow lines from my hard-bound brain;
drained, I complain
my failure’s driving me insane:
what rhymes with ‘Raine’?

To turn to my poetic betters,
Ben Jonson found rhyme ‘drowning letters,
fastening vowels, as with fetters
they were bound’,
thought meanings unrequited debtors,
sense loaned to sound.

But in that loss he found some gain:
he didn’t in the end maintain
the classical humanist campaign
‘to restore
Phoebus to his crown again …
as before’.[2]

To right wrongs traced back to St Peter,
they made their English vowels ring sweeter,
marrying their sounds to Latin metre,
unlikely wedding
(though since accomplished so much neater by Peter Reading).

That rhyme’s no mere mechanical count
but offers poets ‘wings to mount’
was a truth recognised as ‘blunt’
by Samuel Daniel[3];
though Dryden warned them not to hunt
with Fancy’s spaniel.[4]

Jonson used rhymes, though each but twice:
they made his meaning more concise;
but rhymeless verse seemed too ‘precise’:
for ‘restoration’
might (as in Milton) grow the vice of Innovation.

Milton, more daring from the first,
began with intricate rhyme that burst
the couplets Cavaliers rehearsed;
then freed from rhyme
(his cause’s fortunes now reversed)
Godly sublime.

His printer feared the Town would grumble:
his blank verse made his readers ‘stumble’;
but Milton freed his Muse to humble
power absolute,
not just because he couldn’t fumble
out rhymes for ‘fruit’.

Stumbled, Court and Craig withhold applause
from the long-drawn line and cunning pause,
the metrics of the Good Old Cause,
a discipline
not less demanding that its laws
came from within.

Shall I go on? Or have I said
enough to lodge in Craig Raine’s head?
Brecht and MacDiarmid, writing red
in years of crisis,
turned to austere free verse instead
of glib devices.

The New World’s Muse had been less static:
Whitman found blank verse autocratic,
shook free his wild locks democratic
from rhyme’s frilled bonnet;
and Williams, though a bit less vatic,
scorned the ‘fascist’ sonnet.

Pound smashed pentameters with delight:
a radical, though of the right,
the chap was beastly impolite
to my College, Magdalen:
about which all he found to write
was ‘rhyming dawdlin".[5]

Radicals, then, may represent
rhyme as clothes, prison, ornament,
signs of those forces that prevent
by the killing letter
the rational spirit’s long ascent
from custom’s fetter.

Yet these dichotomies won’t do:
the spirit has its tyrannies too,
Milton, despite Craig’s blinkered view,
was no eccentric,
but I will grant his theories grew
too logocentric.

Rejecting rhyme, Reason must blame
‘woman’, ‘body’, ‘savage’: any name
for the Other it must needs defame.
Milton helped sound
the taut ‘iambic drums’ to claim
Ireland’s burnt ground.[6]

Rhyme’s not just reason’s foe, Tradition:
such endless rounds of repetition
are what create our speech-position:
rhyme’s infinite mine
reminds me of my words’ condition:
my I’s not mine.

Language speaks us: its body’s trace
grants poets their good luck or grace:
though Ego quest transcendent space
past Power and Time,
that Echo mocks Narcissus’ face
with bonding rhyme.

So rhyme betrays my half-caste state:
my plump south vowels half-suffocate
sharper-edged sounds that yet vibrate
from a keener air:
these drawling fat-arsed rhymes still grate
on my one Scots ear.

No ‘free verse’ is entirely free:
culture is still barbarity.
Yet although, form-bound, poetry
is not transcendent,
that strange implicit honesty
is its best defendant.

Rhymes may proliferate like weed,
and blank verse may be blank indeed;
but a few poems sow the seed
of something urgent,
articulations of a need
still half-emergent.

Though my studies seem immoral earning
to Thatcher, hacking the tree of learning,
who hails Victorian worth returning
with Jeffrey Archer:
or fiddling while Chernobyl’s burning
to the peace marcher,

that impulse fuels my dated aim
of finding canons to reclaim:
the multi-tongued equivocal flame
whose formal tightening
entitles verse to Shelley’s name:
undischarged lightning.[7]

Milton knew form’s bonds, in a free state,
are freedom: prose might vindicate
his cause; verse could insinuate
truth with a skill
so ‘simple, sensuous, passionate’
its pulse beats still.[8]

But wait: in this respected forum
I find I’m failing true decorum.
Flyters must strike at those who bore’em,
pouring a curse on all
and do their level best to gore’em
(it’s nothing personal):

Muse, spit disdain with might and main
at the addle-brain, whose stains profane
republican art to gain cheap vainglory: sustain
my strained strengths past that last quatrain:
rain bane on Raine.

[1] Craig Raine, ‘Arsehole’.

[2] Ben Jonson, ‘A Fit of Rhyme against Rhyme’.

[3] For the claim that 17th-century readers must have been too ‘naive’ to understand that ‘formal restrictions can stimulate invention’ see Craig Raine, LRB, 9 October and 20 November; and cf. Samuel Daniel, ‘A Defence of Ryme’ (1603): ‘In an eminent spirit whome Nature hath fitted for that mysterie, Ryme is no impediment to his conceit, but rather giues him wings to mount and carries him, not out of his course, but as it were beyond his power to a farre happier flight.’

[4] Dryden, Epistle Dedicatory of The Rival Ladies.

[5] Pound, Canto LXXIV.

[6] Seamus Heaney, ‘Ocean’s Love to Ireland’; cf. Terry Eagleton, review of Tom Paulin, The Faber Book of Political Verse, New Left Review 158.

[7] Shelley, ‘A Defence of Poetry’.

[8] Milton, ‘Of Education’.

David Norbrook
Magdalen College, Oxford


Craig Raine’s quarrel doesn’t seem a
Subject fit for terza rima:
Still less to brag about in buskin
Courtesy of Alex Pushkin.
Apollonian fires and fetters
Are out of place in readers’ letters.
Brash Hudibrastics better fit
To tell him: put a sock in it!

Damian Grant
University of Manchester

Vol. 9 No. 1 · 8 January 1987

SIR: When, before publication, David Norbrook politely and proudly sent me his stanzas, in which my Martian ‘whimsy’ (Letters, 23 October 1986) is expressed otherwise and becomes ‘sublime’ to rhyme with ‘rhyme’, he proposed that my reply should be a villanelle.

It was a vindaloo you ordered, wasn’t it?

I find your act quite hard to follow
and not just in the obvious sense.
Beneath the grace, the bitter aloe,

swords that you have had to swallow
with a smile of sick pretence.
I find your act quite hard to follow.

The compliments you pay are hollow.
We know our quarrel is intense.
Beneath the grace, the bitter aloe:

my politesse and yours are shallow,
top-dressing for an audience.
I find your act quite hard to follow.

I think you’d melt me down to tallow
if you ever got the chance.
Beneath the grace, the bitter aloe.

Touché! You win a flower show
of laurels for your rhymed defence:
a fact I find quite hard to swallow.
Beneath the grace, the bitter aloe.

Craig Raine

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences