Rough, rugged and right-on

Crusoe's Secret: the aesthetics of dissent

Tom Paulin <em>Faber & Faber, 360pp, £20

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Like the rest of us, Tom Paulin is a bundle of contradictions. At its finest, his work is brave, adventurous, original and wonderfully idiosyncratic. Yet he is unable to handle complex ideas, which is something of a drawback for an intellectual, not to speak of a senior Oxford academic. His forte is the gritty image, not the intricate reflection. Few critics can reveal the inner workings of a poem so effectively, and few would be less capable of describing what a poem is.

Paulin has written some superbly powerful poems himself, yet is probably the least talented of the half-dozen Northern Irish poetic superstars. His recent free-verse doodlings, laid-back to the point of shoddy artlessness, have nothing like the abrasive force of his earlier poetic volumes. He is an Irish republican who applauds anti-republican history writing, and a fan of a united Ireland who from time to time betrays an unpleasant dash of Ulster supremacism in his attitude to the existing Irish republic.

In the Ulster tradition of which he is so stereotypical a son, Paulin's work betrays a dourly puritan suspicion of wit, elegance, humour, fantasy, irony and extravagance - in short, of much that makes life worth living. He likes his world jagged and squelchy, rough and nuggety. It is the shaggy and cussed he relishes, not the graceful or smooth, even though his hero William Hazlitt beautifully combines the two. Deliberately rebuffing the limp-wristed English virtues of polish and style, Paulin's prose is at best ruggedly authentic and at worst wretchedly ham-fisted. If he has the clenched, craggy intensity of Ulster, he also has something of its virulence, inflexibility and narrowness of vision. In a strikingly shrewd comment in this book, he detects a smack of Tony Blair's Ulster background (his mother was from Donegal) in his assurance of his own righteousness. As the saying goes, it takes one to know one. Even within literature, Paulin seems to know about little apart from poetry; and even when he scrutinises poetry, as in this volume of reprinted reviews, he attends more to meaning and sound texture than to tone, mood, pitch and pace.

Despite this, he ranks among our most arrestingly perceptive critics, bringing the nose and knack of a veteran practitioner to bear on Milton, Blake, Hazlitt and Yeats. If Paulin turns out to be remembered beyond the grave, it will be for neither his poetry nor the "Pseud's Corner" absurdities of Newsnight Review, but for having played a vital part in rescuing the nonconformist literary culture of these islands - from Milton, Marvell and Bunyan to Defoe, Hazlitt, Arthur Hugh Clough and D H Lawrence - from the enormous condescension of the Tory-Anglican men of letters.

Paulin was born in Northern Ireland but brought up in England, and this is re-flected in his career by a tension between courageous dissent and modish conformity. He is both spiky nonconformist and metropolitan trendy, compensating for the fact that his poetic talents are not of the first order by a combination of personality, pugnacity, ambition and assiduous networking.

Since the days of Brendan Behan, the English have always liked to have a stereotypically truculent, intemperate Irishman on hand, and by fulfilling this role to perfection, Paulin has managed to combine the polemic of a disaffected outsider with the affections of literary luvvies. He is a man of the left, but the word "socialism" has never been heard to pass his lips. The awkward-squad temperament that puts him askew to the establishment also cuts him off from political solidarities. As a devout secular Protestant, he prefers a bloody-minded individualism to collective action.

Even so, his polemic is no mere prose. Indeed, like a saint or a snail, Paulin is incapable of being anything but himself, a fact that is both his chief strength and major defect. It is true that, as Edmund Burke scornfully remarked of some colleagues, he sometimes gives the impression of knowing nothing of politics but the passions they incite. One suspects he prides himself on his own belligerence, except when (as with the absurd accusation of anti-Semitism a few years ago) it lands him in genuinely hot water. Yet behind the macho hectoring lie the Ulster-Protestant virtues of decency, integrity, egalitarianism and moral conscience, of which Paulin has been our most robust, doggedly persistent champion. If his bellicosity can be unpleasantly domineering, it is almost always in a worthy political cause.

Crusoe's Secret, then, will be positively reviewed - partly because its author happens to know the right people, but also because it is a finely enjoyable, richly illuminating collection of essays. Paulin (though he probably doesn't know it) practises the oldest kind of criticism known to humanity, which for the ancients went by the name of rhetoric. Rhetoric involves a close study of literary figures and devices, but also an attention to the political context of a piece of writing. It is these twin concerns that have split down the middle in literary studies, leaving us with a political criticism that wouldn't recognise an iambic pentameter if one leapt into its lap, and close analysts of texts who have never heard of the Gaza Strip.

Nowadays, few students of literature are taught to respond to the grain and timbre of a poem's language. They can say things like "The moon imagery gives a sense of melancholy", but not "The poem's bullish tone is undercut by its stumbling syntax". Most of them would be bemused by the critic who wrote of a line of T S Eliot: "There is something very sad about the punctuation." Some of them would think this sort of thing a "formalist" distraction from questions of class, race and gender. Paulin, by contrast, doesn't need to be told that literary form is a politics all of its own, or that, in the words of the critic Fredric Jameson, political criticism has a responsibility to come to terms with the shape of sentences.

Almost uniquely in current English criticism, Paulin combines a passionate concern with politics and a lifelong infatuation with language. In writing of Shakespeare's sonnets here, he shakes loose the slimmest slivers of meaning with his critical tweezers; but he also refuses to sign up to the prejudice that the poems are private rather than public. Because his verbal analyses are powered by an insistent moral and political drive, they are never merely brittle, showy or smartass, as in the tradition of Christopher Ricks. Instead, he is able to show how political circumstances infiltrate a poem as rhythm, allusion or verbal inflection; and he does so to superb effect here in pieces on Milton, Marvell, Bunyan, Defoe, John Clare and others. (His essay on Clare, though, is marred by a slack prose style and a truculent refusal to compliment the magnificent biography by Jonathan Bate that is under review.)

Paulin has a hard-headed Protestant fascination with fact, which means that there is a dash of the scholar as well as the critic about him. He is learned about literary editions and historical allusions, but unlike most traditional Oxford scholars he can also hear the camp "Ooh, look at me!" squeals of Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams in Marvell's lines "Under this antick cope I move,/Like some great prelate of the grove". He also violates the decorum of traditional scholarships by his candid, puritan-style appeals to personal experience.

Paulin has written on the tragic decline of Ulster Protestant culture from its rationalist, enlightened, revolutionary period in the 18th century to the rancorous sectarianism of the modern era. Perhaps his work is best seen as a conflict between these two phases. He admires rational disinterestedness, but has an eccentricity of mind and loud partisanship that are hard to reconcile with it. He is a liberal who thrills to the sound of a Lambeg drum, an apologist for reason and liberty who finds abstract thought hard going, a dedicated anti-racist for whom Edmund Burke is rather too stereotypically Gaelic for comfort.

There is, to be sure, something inherently paradoxical about being prejudiced in favour of tolerance. It is just that Paulin seems insufficiently alert to these ironies and contradictions. Despite all that, he has produced in Crusoe's Secret a book that confirms his status as one of thefinest critics of poetry in Britain.

Terry Eagleton's most recent book is Holy Terror (Oxford University Press)