(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Reviewing the works of some twenty-one writers, Tom Paulin looks for evidence of political agenda in their art. Sometimes he forces his texts into more political themes than they support; nevertheless, his intent is clear—to examine literary art in contexts of political pressures. Some writers, such as John Milton, are easily accessible for political analysis; others, such as Emily Dickinson, are more resistant. Paulin breaks through such resistance to uncover signs of politics in all of his writers, but his methods are sometimes suspect, as in his introductory chapter.

Quoting from Wordsworth’s Prelude, he says there is a “subconscious” pun on John Locke in the word “locked.” Paulin wishes to align himself with Nietzsche in attacking the nation state, and so he presents Wordsworth as committed to an optimistic Enlightenment attitude identifying nature, spirit, and state. Against that attitude is Mary Shelley’s Nietzschean association of the state with a monster, in Frankenstein (1817). Without explaining this association, Paulin quotes from Percy Shelley’s Oedipus Tyrannus for the image to tie his essays together: the Minotaur as state tyranny, and the Cretan labyrinth as the art that contains/protects that tyranny.

Paulin cites Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” (1798), seemingly without political interests. Because the poem was composed in a year of Irish rebellion, however, it must have some connection with that event. Paulin says the icicles of the poem are “strangely proleptic” of the hangings of the revolutionaries. The weakness of this reading is self-condemning, as Paulin nearly acknowledges when he says, “To suggest this is not to argue that there is a metaphoric suggestion of actual violence in the poem—gunsmoke, burning thatch, hangings—only to notice that this is a language that aspires to an innocence it cannot acquire.”

The torture of syntax in such a sentence is a sign of uncertainty in its author’s interpretation. Because he wants to make a point of connecting Coleridge’s poem with Shakespeare’s Henry V, Paulin forces logic with such phrases as “It is as if Coleridge intuitively knew” and “Coleridge subconsciously alludes.” Such rhetorical devices are patently weak efforts to make the text illustrate whatever the critic chooses. This is a shame, because the book has many convincing, illuminating observations to make on texts that are more cooperative than those of the introduction.

The closing section of the introduction is a confession of Paulin’s own agenda for these essays. He associates his interests with his background of growing up in the turmoil of intensely Protestant politics of Northern Ireland. He had begun to have doubts about certain values of those politics when he underwent a severe imaginative challenge to his own doubts on the occasion of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which gave Ireland some influence over the affairs of Northern Ireland. That event opened the wound he had begun to cover, and his Ulster Protestantism seemed to flow out like a mist to confound his judgment. The essays of this book are, variously, attempts by Paulin to find his way out of that mist. One is inclined to sympathize with the author, to allow some license of interpretation, and to hope he succeeds.

Paulin’s attempts to clear away some mists in his own mind, however, have a way of clouding the reputations of others: Some are easy targets, such as Paul de Man, whose Nazi background is used as a club to beat him for reading John Keats on purely aesthetic grounds. It is too severe to say that de Man is “the close reader as war criminal.” This, however, is the crux of Paulin’s governing thesis: Aesthetics is a labyrinth that cannot be separated from the monster-state expressed by it, and critics such as de Man who try to separate the labyrinth for admiration from the monster it contains are readers who betray the truth of a dangerous relationship between art and the state.

The heart of Paulin’s book is to be found in his chapters on the poets of Commun- ist Poland and Czechoslovakia, Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub, and Tadeusz Rózewicz. From Holub he takes the image of the Minotaur again, most emphatically a monster pursued through the state labyrinth until it is found in the person of Stalin. One wonders if, in reading these passionate chapters, Paulin has...

(The entire section is 1797 words.)