- Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State by Tom Paulin
Faber, 298 pp, £15.99, January 1992, ISBN 0 571 16308 4
It is not very often that professional students of literature experience an invigorating shock of pleasure, surprise, illumination upon reading a work of criticism – perhaps because, like the natural scientists described by Thomas Kuhn, we are bound by ‘paradigms of research’ which tend to direct attention to accepted modes of expression and discovery. Some time in 1987 I happened on an issue of a literary magazine left in my house by a visiting friend. My attention was immediately caught by an essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins by one Tom Paulin, of whom at the time I had never heard at all. Hopkins was a poet I was particularly attached to, and for years I had read very little about him that was not clotted and professionalised. But Paulin’s piece was, I thought, unusually compelling. Using a vocabulary that was both political and extraordinarily sensitive to poetic technique, Paulin resurrected Hopkins from three generations of ‘ahistorical literary criticism’. Here was a primitive communist and also a rigid authoritarian, a man committed to ‘a blurting boorishness and lack of refinement’, as well as ‘a self-abasing admiration for rigid order’. Like Hugh MacDiarmid, Paulin said, Hopkins had a ‘risky, over-the-top extremism’ to his imagination, and while in Ireland in 1887-8 gave vent in his verse to ‘revolutionary intoxication, an expressionist whap of pure energy’ inspired by his perception that he belonged to ‘a civilisation founded on wrecking’.
The core of Paulin’s reading was the immediacy with which he brought out the irreducible tension between Hopkins’s patriotism and his concern for the social struggle in Ireland fuelled by British policy there (‘one archbishop backs robbery, the other rebellion’). And far from refining the lurches of Hopkins’s work – ‘his imagination is drenched in “the rash smart sloggering brine” ’ – Paulin’s essay encouraged, promoted it. Here, he said, was a poet whose work issued not from the centre, but from the peripheries: ‘its language,’ he asserts, ‘issues from the ranks, not from the officer class. That language rips out of slums, back streets, building sites, workshops and the “sheer plod” of rural drudgery.’ The Irish theme in this reading of Hopkins, instead of rendering the poet ‘irrelevant’ or merely provincial, had the bracing effect of restoring his volatility and energy. ‘Hopkins on the rampage’ is now to be found in Minotaur, a collection of essays on 19th and 20th-century European – but principally English – and American poetry.
I met Paulin at a Field Day celebration at the National Theatre in December 1990, and have since become, in a rather silly sense, a fan of his: Minotaur will appear in a series of modern culture studies that I edit at Harvard University Press. He can be read not only for the most recondite and surprising information, Borges-like in the rapidity and straight-facedness of its fantasy, but also for the minute scrupulosity of its exactness, its wit and its dash. He is a Northern Irish Protestant: all of what he writes flows to some degree from that apparently not too appealing fact. As someone who also comes from a Protestant minority within a Christian minority within an enormously powerful Muslim Arab majority, I can instinctively understand both the pressures that produce people like Ian Paisley (in my case, my Lebanese Protestant relations who identified with the Phalanges Libanaises, the Jumayyil family’s proto-fascist party) and the tormented and vulnerable ‘conscience of Ulster Protestants’, a real community which is ‘a people that is not [yet] a nation’. The bracketed addition to Paulin’s phrase is meant to register my Palestinian background, but it doesn’t do violence to Paulin’s sense either, which he goes on to show allows one to feel some affinity with Irish Catholics (i.e. Muslim Palestinian Arabs) when ‘they were forbidden to celebrate mass, and had to do so, fearfully, at “mass rocks” out in the hills. This experience, the sense of being persecuted, is the result of a political process which aims to “unlock” a tribe from a powerful nation.’ He continues to evoke this process of communal identity and border-crossing in a passage that stakes out for Minotaur its quite unusual angle of attack:
Like the loyalist leader who cited the Defenestration of Prague in order to express his anguished sense of being forced out of the British nation, I studied the history of the Thirty Years War within the Northern Irish system of state education. This necessarily conditions my reading of Hopkins. I say ‘conditions’ because with hindsight I can see that the school syllabus was designed to reinforce a Protestant identity and to submerge the Catholic population of the province within those dominant values. More than two decades later, I can appreciate that the essays in this collection are rooted in that social experience. They are attempts to combine immediacy with the historical sense Nietzsche and others have decried. They aim to explore the experience of marginality in relation to the nation state, as well as approaching certain questions raised by the oral and primitivist imaginations. Many of the writers I discuss – Southey, Coleridge, Arnold, Hopkins, Larkin, Hughes – are in some important ways prompted by Irish history and culture, by the long and difficult relationship between the two islands. Their works, like the Anglo-Irish Agreement, have a dual identity at various crucial moments. Southey may appear to be a deservedly neglected figure who is not worth any extensive critical attention, but his sojourn in Ireland reveals some of the tensions that underlie that dual identity.
Although Paulin’s exegetical gifts are prodigious, they cannot be detached from this sort of politics. ‘Minotaur’ is the state, its institutions, its effect on thinking and on poetry. Its opposite is what he finds in Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ – ‘the mansion-house of liberty’ – or in ‘Comus’, ‘the green shops’. On the one hand, therefore, the loyalist imagination – ‘linen decency’ and ‘a stark and dead congealment’ – and on the other a generous variety of poetic practices, ‘republican industry’ he calls them as a whole, that free the imagination from Official Standard. Central (the word is slightly off-putting and skewed when applied to so sporty and brash a critic as Paulin) to his enterprise is John Clare, whose ‘writing becomes a form of Nation Language beating its head against the walls of urbane, polished Official Standard’. At the heart of Clare’s work for Paulin is not only his social eccentricity – too successful for his own community, hence outside the system of patronage and publishing he was a ‘non person, as anonymous as the grass’ – but his distinctive words (‘crizzling’, ‘sliveth’, ‘whinneys’, ‘croodling’), each ‘a unique subversion of the uptight efficiency of Official Standard’.
Paulin’s taste accordingly celebrates ecstatic primitives like Clare, obstinate linguistic feminists like Emily Dickinson, First World writers like Elizabeth Bishop with Third World imaginations, Eastern European activists and ‘wakers-up’ like Holub and Herbert, deconstructive poets of soccer-violence Britain like Peter Reading. Opposed to them are a number of predictable villains (Larkin, Hill, Hughes), none of whom, however, is entirely dismissed or crudely lambasted. Hughes’s Moortown Diary is his best work, Paulin argues, but its salutary primitivism can easily be glossed with ideas about commodity production from Marx and Engels, just as the poems try ‘to merge the social with the natural so that neither is a backdrop to the others’. Hughes’s vision is about ‘the newly-produced’, a category which Paulin traces in and out of the poems’ lines, and in one or two instances as far beyond the poems as their commercial sponsors (British Gas and the Countryside Commission).
With disagreeable but extraordinarily affecting poets like Lawrence and Frost, Paulin mercilessly revives the deep genocidal attitudes of the latter and the former’s puritanical fascism, never obscuring the complex anxieties and lyricism of the historical experiences out of which these two men wrote. Thus the experience of reading Paulin, with his roistering archness, delicacy and compassion yoked to an aggressive, sometimes even hectoring and accusing manner, is unlike any other in these trivial post-modernising critical times. He has read the theorists and philosophers who crowd the airwaves, like Derrida, Heidegger and de Man, but he never reduces their feats to methods or mere trickery. He can take Heideggerian notions of ‘indwelling’, or Nietzschean conceits about the abuse of history, and admit them to a reading of a line of verse, without giving them control over him or the poetry. Like Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, he can ‘fly beyond the nets spread for it by the kitsch aristos’. In the spirit of Lamb and, especially, of Hazlitt, he is both an entertaining and helpful essayist, not least because of his political and historical views.
‘There are no imaginative exits from history,’ Paulin says early in Minotaur. It’s a phrase that needs a little more looking at than his easy manner implies. A number of decoders are provided in his earlier collection, Ireland and the English Crisis (1984). For all his populism, he is no unbuttoned radical who wants to jettison ‘literature’: his critical sense of what ‘English’ is allowed to hold by way of intellectual power is that it is too great, and ought to be redistributed – not between pop culture or film, but among Irish, Welsh, African, Anglophone, American and Creole literatures, for instance. Second, the political agenda he adumbrates in his essays, early and recent, suggests a pretty solid commitment to good as opposed to mediocre or merely symptomatic books. What also matters to him, however, is with what presuppositions, from which perspectives and with what affiliations one reads and criticises good books. This seems to be a reasonable, if innocuous prescription – until, that is, it is put into practice by Paulin: and then, to judge by his analysis of Conor Cruise O’Brien in Ireland and the English Crisis, it can become a formidable engine.
The main thesis is that O’Brien changed his engagement with his own community when, through a sort of misplaced cosmopolitanism, or an ornery (never unintelligent) submission to British authority, he adopted an external framework for his thought. No longer the Irish critic, he becomes a kind of institutionalised presence whose first order of business is conveyed in Paulin’s essay title, ‘The Making of a Loyalist’. O’Brien the Catholic becomes O’Brien the defender of Ulster Protestants, and, Paulin might have added, of the Israeli Likud – the ‘Conor Cruise O’Zion’ of a memorable LRB characterisation.
To the expenditure of time on windy discussion of political correctness, the canon, and of literature as somehow above politics, Paulin is an admirable corrective. Southey, Clare, Coleridge, Clough and Hopkins emerge as far more interesting and complex poets because of their politics – their engagements with Irish matters, for instance, or, in the case of Christina Rossetti, her ‘indirect ... objection to Tennyson’s style’ and the ‘peculiar conjunction’ there ‘of military, industrial, and masculine sexual values’. This works brilliantly as explication de texte in an entirely classical sense. But just as important – and this gives the often cheeky venturesomeness of Minotaur its breadth and passion – Paulin cares about human enlightenment and emancipation. Underlying his essays is the steadily unfolding grand narrative of the struggle to achieve justice, freedom and knowledge. That he discerns it so unfailingly in the broad features as well as the hints, ellipses and figures of the books he reads testifies to what an extraordinary student he is of the unending contest between life and literature.