Public Works

David Norbrook

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

‘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.

[*] University of Missouri Press, 256 pp., £23, June 1983, 0 8262 0392 2.