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.

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