Few books can have stirred up such controversy even before falling from the press than this anthology. footnote＊ It became apparent before publication that Tom Paulin’s editor at Faber, a media-hyped poet whose ignorance of political affairs would shame a Martian, was deeply out of sympathy with his author’s predilections. The quarrel displaced itself metonymically onto the apparently innocent question of the poet Geoffrey Hill’s metrical soundness; but since the Anglican traditionalist Hill is the very benchmark of poetic-ideological orthodoxy in Britain, this conflict was about as politically innocuous as wrangling over whether the Archbishop of Canterbury drops his aitches. All that can now be said, in retrospect, is that if the metropolitan literary bourgeoisie wished to produce a suitably gutless anthology of political poetry, it should not have hired a radical Northern Irish republican to do it for them.
The relentless pillorying of Paulin’s collection has continued in the reviews. It is interesting to see, for example, that it is still not safe to attack T.S. Eliot. John Bayley, a critic who has devoted a lifetime’s sweetly reasonable labour to the violent depoliticization of literature, professed himself astonished by Paulin’s contention that poetry and politics have been ‘separated by the thickest and most enduring of partitions’, and to prove his liberalism went on to deny that Spenser, Milton and Marvell are in any sense political poets. Peter Ackroyd in the Times declared his admiration for any poet who could write on both sides of a controversy, pronouncing that a poet will entertain ‘almost any belief’ to achieve the felicitous state of ‘significant form’. Ackroyd presumably enjoys a good deal of lesbian separatist poetry in his spare time, serenely indifferent to the beliefs its authors appear to advance. Perhaps he also believes, as a good liberal, that a poet ought also not to be capable of writing on both sides of a controversy. The Financial Times reviewer wondered why Tennyson’sCharge of the Light Brigade had been excluded, since it ‘does have a touch of politics’. The Sunday Times festooned its befuddled review with a cartoon strip of Hitler spouting Wordsworth’s daffodils poem, to point up the rumness of the
The suppressed tradition of British poetry which Paulin seeks to retrieve in his volume, against the reactionary monarchism of Eliot and PN Review, is the ‘prophetic’ protestant republican heritage of Spenser, Milton, Marvell, Bunyan, Burns, Blake, the younger Wordsworth, Shelley, Arthur Clough, Macdiarmid and the early Auden. Paulin himself is a contemporary inheritor of that radical history: by some historical accident or oversight he was born in Leeds, but his true home city, Belfast, witnessed the establishment of the first society of the revolutionary republican United Irishmen in the late eighteenth century, and his native territory of Ulster was the bulwark of enlightened, tolerationist free thought in that period. Paulin is an Irish republican because he is a Northern protestant, not despite it. He has gained some notoriety of late for his scornful dismissal of radical literary theory; but this abrasive opposition to theory is essentially an impatience with what he has taken to be the masochistic self-indulgence of an imperial nation in decline, a jaded liberalism guiltily deconstructing the cultural canon which once made it great. I think he is wrong about this, though I could think of no better reason for opposing contemporary cultural theory. Paulin’s swingeing criticisms of that discourse are considerably more shrewd and politically honourable than those of the unsavoury company with whom, because of this misplaced polemic, he has found himself unhappily consorting.
Paulin is on the whole right to claim that the radical republican tradition has been marginalized in English letters, and his anthology is a brave, if slightly hamfisted, attempt to redeem it. It has been argued previously in the pages of this journal that the endemic weakness of libertarian republican thought in Britain has had grievously impoverishing effects on a native socialism; the deferential traditionalism of British labour can be in part accounted for by the relative absence of this brisker, iconoclastic, internationalist heritage. There is, however, a serious problem about this tradition from a literary viewpoint, which Paulin does not really confront. This can be expressed simply by saying that it is not a lineage which easily lends itself to poetry, in the dominant ideological meanings of that term. The clear bold light of republican rationalism, and the intimate affective depths of the poetic, have been constructed by the dominant culture as directly antithetical; and it is here, not just in the repressing or re-writing of this or that radical poet,
This is not to deny that the same Romantic aesthetics can take quite other political paths. If there is a grim narrative to be recounted from Edmund Burke to Roger Scruton, there is a more hopeful aesthetic tale to be told from Schiller to Marcuse. Today, the work of Jacques Derrida stands uneasily and ambiguously on the cusp of these divided lineages. Nor would one wish to license that now fashionable brand of left utilitarianism which, confronted with the crippling heritage of Burke and Kant, airily rejects the ‘aesthetic’ for the ‘political’—a move which comes down to claiming that it really does not matter that one’s play or novel was boring as long as it was politically correct. One can imagine Brecht’s impatience with such banal distinctions between the affective impact of a work and its capacity for political transformation. The ‘aesthetic’, like the ‘human’, is a category to be politically reconstructed, not a feeble piece of mystification to be cheerfully surrendered to the political enemy.