Crusoe’s Secret: The Aesthetics of Dissent, by Tom Paulin, Faber, 360 pp, £20, ISBN: 0571221157
While bare biographical facts offer no guaranteed entry into the core of a writer’s creative concerns, the circumstances of Tom Paulin’s upbringing situate him at an interesting cultural and historical intersection. Born in Leeds in 1949, he grew up in Belfast. He was thus of an age to be deeply affected by Northern Ireland’s slide into civil conflict. It was at Hull and Oxford universities, however, that his third level education took place. His academic career has seen him move to Oxford after a lengthy spell at Nottingham. Both geographically and intellectually, he has moved between England and Ireland, and it is with the Dissenting tradition in each country that he has been most concerned.
Paulin has written poetry, plays (adaptations of Greek classics), translations and criticism (essays and a full-scale study of Hazlitt). He was involved with the Field Day project at its beginnings (producing a pamphlet on dictionaries and dialect as well as going on to edit sections of the anthology). He also compiled and prefaced anthologies of vernacular and political poetry. He is best known to the general public for his appearances as a panelist on the TV arts show Late Review. Lolling on the sofa at one moment, wielding the critical slash-hook the next or jousting with fellow panelist Germaine Greer, he showed that discussion of the arts need not be a matter of passionless exchanges of opinion.
Paulin’s bluntly anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian line has also seen him embroiled in controversy. Despite this public reputation, however, he is essentially an enthusiast, someone who wants to share his passions with us – his loves more than his hatreds. This is as true of his most recent collection of essays, Crusoe’s Secret, as of many of his earlier writings.
Crusoe’s Secret, The Aesthetics of Dissent announces itself promisingly: “More than a loose gathering, it offers a series of explorations and readings in the culture of English dissent.” The subjects encompass not just such obvious radical dissenters as Milton, Defoe, Hazlitt and Blake, but also writers such as Kipling and Hopkins who, while not orthodox, are dissenters in a looser sense. Further broadening the collection’s purview, some Irish writers – Sheridan, Synge, Yeats, Joyce and Heaney – also figure. Finally, after a review of a biography of the former unionist leader David Trimble, a tribute to Edward Said brings the book to a close, suggesting that this might, after all, be a loose gathering.
To appreciate what triggers Paulin’s enthusiasm, to understand also how he has arrived at some of the critical positions adopted in Crusoe’s Secret, it is necessary to look at the overall pattern of his critical writing.
Paulin’s first critical work was a study of Thomas Hardy, a profoundly English writer, but the essays and reviews collected in his second, Ireland and the English Crisis, would have greater impact. The title might suggest a focused study of Irish/English relations, with England rather than Ireland under the critical spotlight. While it is true that Paulin does pay attention to the sometimes neglected English dimension of Irish experience, the “English crisis” also refers to what Paulin sees as the crisis in English literary studies (with a pseudo-radical, elitist and stultifying jargon fogging up critical space and diminishing engagement with the live energies of literary works themselves) and the book also contains pieces that seem to be the random products of reviewer’s luck.
It is clear nonetheless that a set of personal concerns is emerging. The poet Thomas Moore is dismissed, a little brutally, as a performing Irishman. (It would be possible to offer a more nuanced reading of Moore’s poetry and politics within a post-1798, post-Union context.) His smoothness, sweetness and charm do not endear him to Paulin. Oscar Wilde, linked with the Young Ireland movement through his mother, is seen as an elegant Irish subverter of stodgy Victorian values. (This view has since become an almost unquestioned staple of Irish studies. A case of over-recuperation perhaps?) Yeats’s inflated language and symbolism, his inflated estimation of the Anglo-Irish too, are acknowledged along with his imaginative greatness. Where James Joyce is concerned, it is his anti-imperial politics that catch Paulin’s attention.
Two longish articles, “The Making of a Loyalist” and “Paisley’s Progress”, lay the ground for much of Paulin’s subsequent literary and political writing. The first of these pounces on a revealing instance of self-revision by Conor Cruise O’Brien, one that shows the radical intellectual of the 1960s aligning himself with Creon (the status quo, with all its faults) against Antigone (the dangerously righteous disturber of order). O’Brien is also portrayed as over-concerned with his own public image, as when he lets us know how impressed de Valera was by him. Another elaborately self-conscious display of modesty is seen as preening; and he is convicted of toadying to the British establishment when delivering one of the four lectures collected as Neighbours.
Paulin’s distaste for O’Brien is palpable. He considers his style, his class affinities and his self-revelation inauthentic. While disagreeing with almost every utterance of Ian Paisley’s, Paulin respects the tradition from which he derives. He is intrigued by the way in which the work of an allegedly disinterested, middle class historian like ATQ Stewart is doomed, as he puts it, to be read and seized on by an interested activist like Paisley; but he does not think the historian can shrug off the political use of his work. Paulin sees this relationship as emblematic of that between middle class unionism and working class loyalism, or between the middle class and working class in general. A passage in a sermon about the conversion of Paisley’s father to evangelical/Baptist faith is taken as characteristically Protestant: “there is the assertion of uncompromising principle, a strong self-justifying theme which runs throughout the sermon, an affirmation of the work ethic … and finally there is the idea of being born again.”
Rather than dismiss Paisley as a freak survival from an earlier age, as many British and Irish commentators would do, Paulin connects with his world: “In a very fundamental sense [the passage from the sermon] is a description of revolutionary commitment because this is, imaginatively, a seventeenth-century world where religion and politics are synonymous.”
Paulin is mapping out Paisley’s politico-religious culture; he is also mapping out the territory to which much of his own critical work will be devoted. It would be wrong to see this as a matter of disinterested analysis: instead it should be seen as a personal progress towards the establishment of a radical puritan position that can speak to the modern world.
In writing of Paisley, Paulin refers to Bunyan (whose appeal is “theological, social and aesthetic”) and to the Ranters, Levellers and millenarian preachers who figure in the work of English historians such as EP Thompson and Christopher Hill. Paisley’s letter from his prison cell celebrating the fall of Captain O’Neill is compared to a Luddite pamphlet. Paulin shares Paisley’s contempt for O’Neill’s nasal twang, for the middle class unionist fear of annoying British authority. It is clear how much common ground there is between Paulin and Paisley. Perhaps this explains his eagerness to see in some of Paisley’s statements, as in some UDA pronouncements, a raw, unformed reaching towards a radical, ultimately republican, Northern Ireland separatism – one that recognises both the impossibility of a united Ireland and the unbridgeable gap between Northern Ireland and Britain. (Events have shown that no major unionist figure or movement has been able to sustain a fundamental reappraisal of the religious and political foundations and affiliations of unionism.)
At the time of the publication of Ireland and the English Crisis, Paulin is articulating a vision of Irish and English/Irish politics. He believes that England may be willing, under pressure of public opinion, to withdraw from a Northern Ireland that manifestly does not interest it. He sees in the New Ireland Forum a sign that the Republic is willing to make imaginative compromises with unionism. His own allegiance is to a secular, pluralist all-Ireland republic that is yet to exist:
Belatedly, I have come to believe that class politics and proper democracy will only be possible in Ireland once the ‘national question’ has been answered … Once a full Irish identity has been established then some form of sceptical detachment – a repudiation of its possible narrowness – becomes necessary and obligatory.
It could be said, therefore, that at this point in his career Paulin is well situated to act as an imaginative mediator between different traditions within Irish culture and politics, and between Ulster Protestant culture and history and British or, more precisely, English culture and history. What happens, then, when Paulin deepens his engagement with the puritan tradition, which is the focus of his next critical work, Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State? It has already been suggested that Paulin is more a praise-singer than a street-fighter. Where, then, is he happiest as a writer?
here writing in English is concerned, there is a sense of delight in the explorations of such writers as John Clare, AH Clough, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Elizabeth Bishop, all of them marginal voices of one kind or another. Here, John Clare is the emblematic figure: the breakdown suffered by this poet of one parish, as the apparatus of class, snobbery, editorial rewriting and commerce clamp down on him, is a perfect illustration of Paulin’s theme of power versus poetry. “This constriction of language was paralleled by the enclosure of the countryside” – part of the process by which the state and men of property, fearing what they did not control, seized and enclosed “the common heath” and curbed the communal social patterns that had flourished until then. A quotation from Clare – “For they that made us captives there/ and did us all the wrong/ insulted us in our despair/ and asked us for a song” – is one of Paulin’s many references to the sojourn in Egypt.
Clare’s early interest in Bible Protestantism and the Ranters also endear him to Paulin. The same cannot be said of Tennyson, Clare’s social opposite: “Tennyson’s furry vowels never allow the speaking voice to disturb their bland sonorities. This is public, official discourse, which can be recited aloud, though only in a waffling, melodious monotone.” Might Tennyson be the Captain O’Neill of poetry? Certainly, whether it be his blustering patriotic voice or the smooth tones of his lyrical voice, he can do no right.
The argument with Tennysonian writing is central to Paulin’s Faber Book of Vernacular Verse:
Against that Parnassian official order, the springy, irreverent, chanting, quartzy, often tender and intimate, vernacular voice speaks for an alternative community that is mostly powerless and invisible. This oral community voices itself in a gestural, tactile language …
Paulin revels in either/or distinctions (he who is not with him is definitely against him), but not all readers will throw out their Tennysons and call Clough in from the cold.
Writing, punctuation, editorial control, authority and the state on the one hand; on the other, the individual voice that tries to assert its freedom. This polarity takes us back to Milton and the tradition of radical English non-conformism that Paulin wishes to renew. But can Milton’s high-flown poetic style really be assimilated to the vernacular? Here and in Paulin’s effort to develop the “republican poetics” behind Milton’s prose, the book suffers from the absence of a full exposition of the connections between Puritanism, radical politics and the vernacular voice. A political reading of a poem or piece of prose should not come down to a litany of one-to-one correspondences between text and contemporary events. It is hard to see what would be gained by going through Paradise Lost line by line if the results were to be like this:
We need to link the persistent image of Satan as mist with the ‘mists and intricacies of state’ in Eikonoklastes and the ‘thick mist’ that Charles I took advantage of in order treacherously to ambush the Parliamentary forces waiting at Brentford in expectation of a treaty.
The active force ascribed to writing is made clear at the end of that essay when Milton is said to be “constantly striving to break down inert routines in order to free the imagination … ” Gliding rather lightly over some troubling aspects of Milton, Paulin presents this “great servant of human liberty” as a counterforce to the “royalist kitsch of present-day Britain”. Which, rather circuitously perhaps, leads us to the evolution of Paulin’s own literary politics between Ireland and the English Crisis and Minotaur.
Looked at together, the essays in Minotaur suggest that Paulin’s intellectual home lies in English non-conformist culture and that it is the matter of England that most deeply concerns him at this stage. His Northern Irish upbringing, his anti-monarchism, his politics and literary ideology all make him a kind of literary outsider, but they also offer lines of exploration into the recesses of the English imagination. In his essays on Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and Geoffrey Hill we can see Paulin grappling with the idea of Englishness in a way that few English critics could equal – and his writing energised by the freshness of the encounter.
In contrast, there is very little of direct Irish interest in Minotaur (though the way in which Ireland is feared and imagined by the Protestant English imagination is a recurrent motif). Two essays on Yeats may help to fill out the story, however. The first of these, “Yeats’s Hunger-Strike Poem”, delivered as a talk in August 1985, would probably sit more happily in Ireland and the English Crisis. Dismissing the idea of the literary work as an unchanging, timeless artefact, it argues for a criticism that inserts poems like Yeats’s Easter 1916 into the social and political context in which they were produced. Thus, Paulin details the way in which Yeats strictly limited publication of that poem in the troubled years after 1916, but finally allowed it to be published in the New Statesman, alongside much political material, in the aftermath of Terence MacSwiney’s death by hunger strike.
The second essay on Yeats, originally published in 1987, is a review of a volume of the poet’s letters. Paulin states that Yeats was not at all the balanced moderate of Leavisite British criticism, but that his radical nationalism “did not lead him to reject Unionists as people or to scorn their traditions”. Quoting from an open letter in which Yeats writes that “we need all our central fire, all our nationality”, Paulin concludes:
Reading these sentences, I wrap the New Ireland Forum Report round me once again and feel coul (sic). If it’s now impossible to be warmed by the central fire of inspired nationalism, what other form of heating is there?
Something has changed in the few years since the writing of the introduction to Ireland and the English Crisis. Can we learn more from the introduction to Minotaur? Given that Paulin is a man whose cards generally land on the table with a loud thump, he seems curiously reticent on the subject of the notional Irish republic to which he pledged allegiance a few years earlier. Instead, he seems almost entirely concerned with the Protestant experience:
Many of the essays in the present volume consider literary texts in relation to Protestant or puritan ideas, not least that of orality, with its accompanying hostility to what St Paul terms “the bondage of the letter”. Though the deep structure of that dissenting imagination often dismays me with its single-minded, driven violence and ferocity, I recognize that these essays are also stages towards a work which would seek to complement Conor Cruise O’Brien’s remarkable study of the Catholic imagination, Maria Cross.
In “The Making of a Loyalist”, Maria Cross is identified as O’Brien’s best book, one in which he writes “in a manner that is passionately and warmly intelligent, and his prose is utterly unlike his later style”.
When Paulin eventually approaches the Irish dimension towards the end of the introduction to Minotaur, it is through an act of near-identification with beleaguered Ulster Protestantism. Having discussed various ideas about voice and writing, poetry, the state and history, Paulin asks himself why the critical act receives so much attention, if the act of reading is solitary and personal, and if the critic doesn’t merely help the reader. Trying to answer these questions takes him – “the never entirely detribalized me”, he says – back to The Book of Daniel, which he has been familiar with since childhood. The process of hearing it read out in primary and Sunday school, learning some verses by heart, was not just a personal act: “it was the experience of being read into a narrative which is part of the tribal myth of the Protestant community in Ulster”. At this point we can see Paulin reconnecting with, indeed embracing, the myth:
Later on I was to doubt that myth, and then, in November 1985, a significant political event took place in the North of Ireland – the British and Irish governments signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. This agreement, the successor to the treaty which partitioned Ireland in 1921, gave the Irish government influence over the administration of the Northern Irish state in return for increased co-operation in the struggle against political terrorism … The implicit dilution of British sovereignty profoundly traumatized Ulster’s loyalist community, and one of that community’s leaders – Ian Paisley – ended a bitter attack on the British government for its ‘betrayal’ of the loyalists by stating: ‘Like the three Hebrew children, we will not budge, we will not bend, we will not burn.’
It is Ian Paisley, then, who precipitates Paulin’s re-engagement with the Ulster Protestant myth. Reading as or as if (the identification is intense but not total) a member of that community, Paulin can see how Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon is “Britain in post-imperial confusion” and Daniel the loyalist imagination sitting at the gate, identifying with the British sovereign and holding to a British identity. Paulin recognises that “such an intensely direct interpretation was boxed-in and parochial; it could be of no interest to anyone outside a community that now felt it was a minority within Ireland”.
What is interesting here is that Paulin remains within his community of reading. He does not analyse why the governments had felt it necessary (rightly or wrongly) to make an agreement over the heads of the unionists, nor the whatever-you-do-do-nothing politics of the Unionist party under James Molyneaux, nor the nature of the political culture that (after hundreds of years of shifting relationships between and within the islands of Britain and Ireland) found it traumatic to acknowledge any connection with the rest of the island, nor the weight of one trauma (the Anglo-Irish Agreement) against others (the creation of Northern Ireland; the violent reaction of the Unionist sub-state and of loyalist communities to the awakening of the Northern minority in the late 1960s).
In the Apocrypha, Paulin writes, he “found a passage which speaks for the deep psychic wound that was reopened by the Anglo-Irish Agreement”:
For we, O Lord, are become less than any nation, and be kept under this day in all the world because of our sins … Neither is there at this time prince, or prophet, or leader, or burnt offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense, or place to sacrifice before thee, and to find mercy. Nevertheless in a contrite heart and an humble spirit let us be accepted.
Deepening this act of identification, Paulin – somewhat imaginatively – compares unionism with “no place to sacrifice” to Catholicism in penal days. His language dissolves the difference between political pressure and actual persecution: “This experience, this sense of being persecuted, is the result of a political process which aims to ‘unlock’ a tribe from a powerful nation.” The internalisation of the trauma of the Anglo-Irish Agreement is felt, not only in the glossing here of a loyalist leader’s comment (“we’ve been put out on the window ledge”), but in poems of the same period: “this means we have a choice/either to jump or get pushed” (The Defenestration of Hillsborough) and “like a dog/in my own province” (An Ulster Unionist Walks the Streets of London).
There are six years at least between the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985 and the writing of the introduction to Minotaur – time enough, one would have imagined, for Paulin to have thought through his initial emotional reaction. However, having evoked a deep psychic wound, he simply moves on. He is now in a curious position. He has gone from liberal unionism to a notional Irish republicanism to a deep emotional identification with post-Agreement unionism. Without having engaged with the nuts and bolts of political change, or indeed with the politics and culture of the actual 26-county republic, during his period of notional republicanism, Paulin is now locked into an emotional but politically inarticulate identification with Ulster Protestant loyalism. This is not an easy position to sustain for someone who is also a secular, left-wing social and literary commentator and critic in Britain. The solution adopted during what might be called the Minotaur years is to avoid subjects that would involve tackling these internal contradictions by concentrating on those writers, largely English, who appeal to him and mentioning in passing whatever Irish dimension there may be to their work.
In this sense, the essay form lends itself to avoidance. Larger questions can be avoided by writing, however passionately, about numbers of less conflict-ridden topics. Significantly, a later volume of selected essays will be called Writing to the Moment. This refers both to the sense of connection with a broader society that Paulin values in writing of all kinds and to the Puritan giving of self to the moment, whether it be in the expression of religious faith or in unadorned autobiographical writing. Many essays in Minotaur are fine examples of writing to the moment, vivid and generous responses to particular works and authors.
Interviews given in 1998 and 2000 suggest that Paulin is no longer resonating to unionist pain; on the contrary, he seems exasperated by unionist obduracy and by their failure to develop an adequate political world view. When Paulin is asked to formulate his ideas on the past and future of Ireland North and South, he is again vague and unilluminating. Will he find a way forward in Crusoe’s Secret?
The essays in this collection (written between 1997 and 2004) run through literary history in more or less chronological fashion, from Shakespeare and Milton, through writers like Hazlitt and Clare, and on to recent times, with Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney. Is this indeed, as the blurb suggests, an “intricately plotted collection”, a coherent exploration of Paulin’s tradition of dissent, one that “fans out to include salient Irish examples”?
It quickly becomes clear that there has been a shift in Paulin’s critical approach. He continues to hold that “historical knowledge complements aesthetic analysis”, but there is an almost disconcerting change of emphasis. Having read and been deeply impressed by Helen Vendler’s study of Shakespeare’s sonnets, with its emphasis on sound patterns, Paulin is going to apply this type of analysis in his own essays. His tendency to take the appearance of a word in one text and context and to project that meaning into its appearance elsewhere has already been mentioned.
Now the possibility of finding meaning in the recurrence of particular sounds opens up a whole new vista of possibilities for a critic already inclined to read writing as code. (The connection with biblical exegesis hardly needs underlining.) Apprehension is increased when Paulin makes great play of the term donnée (for Henry James, the suggestive situation or node out of which a story is born). However, Paulin’s notion of a critical donnée stretches far beyond accepted usage in either English or French and becomes “a matter of trusting hunches and intuitions, and weighing particular words that for reasons that are not immediately apparent seem to stick”.
In a passage about Camus, he makes great play of the few appearances of the perfectly ordinary French word but (meaning aim or goal), but suggests that it has subconscious emotional connections with other words such as butée and butin, whose etymologies are in fact entirely different. This is like suggesting that readers coming across the word “potato” on page 100 of a novel should strive to connect it with the appearance eighty pages previously of the word “potential”. If Eliot can connect nothing with nothing, Paulin can connect anything with anything. In a reference to Riders to the Sea, for example, he tells us he has recently come “to view Bartley putting on his new jacket for his old as a version of Emmet’s splendid United Irishmen uniform” – apparently because of subtle references to hanging (white boards, halters) in the play. He immediately goes on to relate that “the tin scoop in Seamus Heaney’s Sunlight, which is sunk past its ‘gleam’ in the meal bin, reminds me of the gleam of arms in the Aeneid, or a famous phrase in George Dangerfield’s study The Strange Death of Liberal England, where he speaks of the ‘sheen’ of arms in Ulster”. Paulin is giving himself permission to present near-random word (and thought) association as a valid form of criticism.
The second essay in Crusoe’s Secret is about Milton. Paulin is worried that “this great prophet of English liberty no longer speaks to a readership beyond the academy”, and he wishes to activate the political energies and references that lie dormant or hidden in the text of Paradise Lost. Some of his suggestions are plausible, but his approach is problematic in a number of ways. Brief passages are selected and we are assured that a particular word or phrase in the poem encodes a reference to an earlier, more directly political prose work of Milton’s. We could trust Paulin more readily on such details if we were offered a coherent reading of Milton’s writing career, an explanation of the place of Paradise Lost within it and a political reading of the poem as a whole.
Are we to take it that the entire poem is a coded expression of republicanism? If so, it should be possible to explain succinctly just how the story of Creation, of Providence, of the rebellion of Satan and the angels and of Adam and Eve and the loss of Eden is to be understood in the context of the overthrow of the monarchy and the founding and eventual collapse of the English Commonwealth. There is no obvious way in which the story Milton has chosen to tell tidily corresponds with the struggle of the political forces with which Milton was aligned. In the absence of a coherent republican reading of the poem, we have reason to be sceptical of Paulin’s claims to be reading Milton’s mind: “Milton is remembering this passage when he begins Paradise Lost … “; “Here he is remembering the regicides’ executions … ”; and so on.
With reference to both the prose and the poetry, a strong note of English nationalism is sounded in the closing paragraph of the essay: “It may be that post-imperial guilt makes many readers nowadays reluctant to participate in his soaring, architectonic genius, as he builds the nation and affirms its liberties.” The concept of nation is here entirely unproblematic for Paulin, whose prose is now verging on the rhapsodic: “It is this benign, organic idea of liberty, in which ideas are the seedcorn of the commonwealth, that Milton celebrates in his writing. This prose passage shows that nearly a decade before he began Paradise Lost, Milton was planting the garden of liberty with fruits for his and other nations.” Even within an English context, this is to glide over Milton’s Leninist tendencies: “They who seek nothing but their own just Liberty, have always right to win it, and to keep it, whenever they have power, be the voices never so numerous that oppose it.”
It might also be expected that someone in Paulin’s position would at least make passing reference to, for example, Milton’s chapter on Ireland in Eikonoklastes (in which he accepts the idea that 150,000 Protestants had recently been massacred and accuses Charles I of having cosied up to the Irish papists). But to deal with such matters would be to complicate Paulin’s essentially sentimental vision of one of his heroes. It is easier to affirm a simplistic English republican vision than to be drawn into uncomfortable negotiations between ideal and reality.
Paulin’s radicalism is sentimental because it is unwilling to deal with the question of the state, of boundaries, of the pressures put on English ideals by the necessity to control Ireland, and of anti-Catholicism within the English state, within the Established Church and within the dissenting tradition. To deal with such questions would not be to reject the liberating energies within Milton’s vision, but it would test them in a more genuinely political manner. Is there much to choose, then, between Paulin on Milton and those genteel souls who expatiated on Spenser’s sweetness, courtesy and musicality while ignoring the genocidal logic of his A View of the Present State of Ireland?
If we move away from the particular challenge offered by the Irish dimension, a similar pattern of simplification and sentimentalisation occurs. Defoe is another hero of Paulin’s. It is one thing to remind us of Defoe’s travails as a dissenter during the Restoration; it is another to affirm that “Robinson Crusoe is an epic account of the English Dissenters under the Restoration”. Again, just as Paradise Lost was written after the collapse of the English republic, Robinson Crusoe was written decades after Defoe’s involvement in rebellion, and after decades of political compromise and shirt-turning. Unable to sustain the claim that the story of a solitary survivor cast up on an island is the kind of epic that he has announced, Paulin is soon watering it down: “But really we need to abandon the one-for-one schema demanded by allegory in favour of shifting symbols, and associative or subliminal links …” Allegory would indeed constitute a critical straitjacket, but there is nothing epic about the loose-fitting, multi-coloured assortment of garments which flap around the body of the text in Paulin’s reading. The critic is giving himself permission to introduce the politics he admires into any passage where he thinks it can be made to stick and to ignore, or bypass, those passages that resist such assimilation. Paulin’s essay does indeed contain suggestive insights but he damages his own case by excess: a detail of everyday life (a shower of rain, a candle) is plucked out of context and forced into connection with particular historical moments by whimsical critical diktat.
The pattern recurs throughout the collection. Any word in Tintern Abbey that was previously used by Milton becomes an allusion; a passage of rising power in Wordsworth about the spirit that interfuses all forms of life is said – for no clear reason – to contain a dark allusion to a passage in Milton about expulsion from paradise and precipitous fall; other biblical, Shakespearean and political allusions are also asserted. Such critical overinsistence can become oppressive and is as likely to alienate as to inspire readers. Some essays survive better than others: those on Hazlitt perhaps (though it is legitimate to wonder whether Paulin’s obsession with allusion and echo has created the readership he craves for that fascinating writer); or those on Clare (including an honest revision of the views expressed in Minotaur), on Christina Rossetti, on GM Hopkins and others.
It is disappointing once again to note the quality and nature of the Irish references in Crusoe’s Secret. Essays on Yeats and Blake, on Synge, Joyce and Heaney suggest that Ireland is less fraught territory for Paulin than in previous years. There is little sign, however, of re-engagement with the issues raised by his own intellectual trajectory. Mention of Longley and Heaney in the closing paragraph of the essay on Clare is anodyne, if not positively sentimental. Mention of shipyard workers in Belfast in 1985 quoting Kipling (“Before an Empire’s eyes, /The traitor claims her price. /What need of further lies? /We are the sacrifice.”) is politically sentimental, the quiver of the upper lip being dependent on a failure to analyse either 1912 or 1985. The review of Rory Godson’s biography of David Trimble is almost anonymous. It is as if Paulin has become weary of the whole Northern Ireland/Ulster conundrum and is left wishing, a little optimistically, that the eventual implementation of the Belfast Agreement will somehow resolve matters. A gentler, fairer Northern Ireland can then, we may suppose, return to a less troubling form of the forgetability that characterised much of its first fifty years – leaving Paulin to concentrate on an English republican heritage largely untroubled by the awkward questions he has been skirting for two decades.
Paulin’s homage to Edward Said is detailed, perceptive and heartfelt. Is it too harsh to suggest that Said’s sustained engagement with the Palestinian question, his attempt to steer a course between love, anger, justice and hope, casts a certain shadow on the more spasmodic and selective engagement enacted in Paulin’s writings?
Barra Ó Seaghdha has contributed essays, reviews and interviews in the areas of literature, cultural politics and music to publications ranging from Graph, which he co-edited, and Reinventing Ireland (Pluto Press) to the JMI (Journal of Music in Ireland). He works in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language sector.