Tom Paulin Critical Essays

Introduction

Tom Paulin 1949-

(Full name Thomas Neilson Paulin) English-born Northern Irish poet, playwright, essayist, journalist, critic, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Paulin's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 37.

One of the most respected poets to emerge from the Ulster province of Northern Ireland, Paulin has earned distinction for his challenging, politically-inflected verse that probes issues of cultural identity and champions the virtues of enlightened republicanism. In such volumes as A State of Justice (1977), The Strange Museum (1980), Fivemiletown (1987), and Walking a Line (1994), Paulin moves from trenchant critiques of state tyranny and sectarian prejudice to increasingly imaginative and ambitious forays into issues of history, language, and the intersection of art and politics. Reminiscent of his poetry, Paulin's critical writings espouse an affinity for English literary tradition and an independent-minded spirit borne of eighteenth-century Unitarian dissent.

Biographical Information

Born in Leeds, England, on January 25, 1949, Paulin moved with his family to Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1953. Paulin's father was a liberal schoolmaster, and his mother was a doctor who had worked in London hospitals during World War II. His maternal grandparents were Ulster Scots, and Paulin strongly objected to their authoritarian Protestantism. As an adolescent he rebelled against Northern Ireland's Loyalist culture by reading the works of George Orwell, Russian novels, and other revolutionary texts. Paulin left Ireland to attend Hull University in England, earning a B.A. with first-class honors in English. He later studied at Lincoln College, Oxford University, completing a B.Litt in 1973. After leaving Oxford, Paulin taught English at the University of Nottingham from 1972 to 1989 and served as the university's Reader in Poetry from 1989 to 1994. In 1972, along with playwright Brian Friel, poet Seamus Heaney, and actor Stephen Rea, Paulin co-founded the Field Day Theatre Company in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, an organization devoted to producing touring plays in Ireland which dealt with the nation's social and political issues. The company would later stage productions of Paulin's plays The Riot Act (1984) and Seize the Fire (1990). In 1973 Paulin married Munjiet Kaur Khosa, with whom he has two sons, Michael and Niall. Paulin was awarded the Eric Gregory Award for poetry in 1976 and received the Somerset Maugham Award in 1978 for his first published volume of poetry A State of Justice. He received the Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize—which he shared with poet Paul Muldoon—in 1982 and was short-listed for the T. S. Eliot prize in 2000. Paulin has taught at a number of universities, including the University of Virginia and the University of Reading, while additionally serving as the G. M. Young lecturer in English at Hertford College, Oxford University. Paulin is also a well-known television and radio personality in the United Kingdom, frequently appearing as a member of the panel for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television arts program Newsnight Review. In 2000 Paulin received a three-year fellowship from the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts to experiment with free verse.

Major Works

The title of Paulin's first volume of poetry, A State of Justice, alludes to violent Old Testament retribution as well as religious and political divisions in Northern Ireland. Utilizing descriptive, laconic, and understated verse, Paulin renders the bleakness and suffering of the Ulster region while contrasting the demands of personal and social responsibility. In The Strange Museum, the grimness of historical contingency that dominated A State of Justice gives way to a new formal and aesthetic liveliness that sets hope against pragmatism and finds a measure of compassion and redemption beneath Ulster's civic strife. In such poems as “The Idea in History” and “Man with Hookah,” Paulin celebrates the diversity of world cultures and praises the grace of imaginative expression. The Liberty Tree (1983)—which contains selections from a previous volume The Book of Juniper (1981)—addresses aspects of Irish cultural identity and laments the contradictions of Ulster Protestantism. The metaphorical and imaginative quality of the collection is enhanced by Paulin's use of Ulster dialect and Irish arcana, suggesting both regional and mythic dimensions as well as a corresponding richness and depth. Paulin's satirical voice, alternately vehement and warm, also reveals the poet's progressive sense of imaginative freedom and his deepening attention to contemplation and vision. Fivemiletown, which some have argued marks the maturation of Paulin's poetic voice, explores the tensions between artistic vision and the force of history, specifically the political realities imposed by Ulster Protestantism. Fivemiletown expresses the isolation and frustration of such conditions in alliterative and loosely punctuated lines, incorporating both literary and vernacular references. The collection also draws broadly upon historical events, Masonic symbolism, European philosophy, and intimate personal experiences. Walking a Line, whose title alludes to artist Paul Klee, uses atypical typography and lyrical, open-ended verse to further examine the conflicting worlds of art and politics. Unlike Paulin's earlier work, which tended to be polemical, the poems in Walking a Line indulge in ambiguity and linguistic playfulness that acknowledges both the delight of artistic creation and the inescapable burden of history and social specificity. Paulin's next poetry collection, The Wind Dog (1999), similarly evinces an interest in the vibrancy and sensuousness of language, this time aligned with the highly imaginative art of Marc Chagall. The Invasion Handbook (2002), the first installment in a projected sequence of poems devoted to World War II, deals with European history from the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, to the Battle of Britain during World War II. In this volume, Paulin presents a mosaic of verse and prose-like fragments that draw upon a large cast of historical figures and anecdotes—famous, obscure, and imaginary—in language that is steeped in the vernacular and literary allusion.

Paulin's critical works, Ireland and English Crisis (1984) and Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (1992), offer elaborations of his interest in the political dimension of artistic expression. Ireland and the English Crisis addresses the provincialism and contradictory allegiances that divide Ireland against itself and against England. In such essays as “English Now” and “A New Look at the Language Question,” Paulin discusses the creation of a nonsectarian Northern Irish republic, the history of the English literary canon, and the ways in which writers respond to political issues. Minotaur contains studies of various poets, from Christina Rossetti to W. B. Yeats, in which Paulin evinces his distrust of state authority and nationalism. He draws connections between each poet's unique worldview and the culture of their era, displaying the universality in poetic themes throughout the ages. Paulin turned his attention to the nineteenth-century English writer and journalist William Hazlitt in The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style (1998), a revisionary critique that champions Hazlitt as an underrated genius with Unitarian roots and a singular prose style. Paulin has also composed modern adaptations of two Greek tragedies for the Field Day Theatre Company: The Riot Act, a reinterpretation of Sophocles's Antigone, and Seize the Fire, a reinterpretation of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound. In these plays, Paulin establishes parallels between the classic Greek myths and modern social issues—for example, in The Riot Act, King Creon's misuse of state power is compared to Great Britain's colonial rule of Ireland. Additionally, Paulin has edited two notable anthologies, The Faber Book of Political Verse (1986), which contains diverse examples of English, Irish, Scottish, American, and East European political verse, and The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse (1990), a collection of English poetry from William Shakespeare to D. H. Lawrence which displays how vernacular dialect and informal syntax has been used throughout the ages to subvert hegemonic Standard English.

Critical Reception

Recognized as one of Northern Ireland's foremost poets, Paulin has been consistently praised for the intelligence, political engagement, and ambition of his verse. Although Paulin has frequently been connected with the “Ulster Poet” tradition, critics have argued that, unlike the works of Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, his forthright political convictions serve as the dominant characteristic of his work and artistic persona. While his collections A State of Justice and The Strange Museum have attracted a positive overall critical response, Fivemiletown has been generally regarded as Paulin's most significant and successful poetic work. Though some have faulted Paulin's early verse as mere political diatribe, others have cited his later works—particularly Walking a Line and The Invasion Handbook—as examples of Paulin's increasingly imaginative and historically expansive poetic vision. However, the complexity of Paulin's work, most notably his incorporation of unfamiliar Irish dialect and obscure historical references, has caused several reviewers to label his verse as obtuse and hermetic. In addition, Paulin's politically-opinionated authorial voice, though frequently praised in his poetry, has often polarized the readers of his critical writings. While his supporters have approved of his radical dissent and rejection of state-sponsored aesthetics, his detractors have asserted that Paulin's analytical skills are marred by anger and accusatory rhetoric. Despite such misgivings, most critics have noted Paulin's ability to provide unique and incisive analysis of canonic literary works. His study of William Hazlitt in The Day-Star of Liberty has been well received by scholars and academics as a significant work of cultural recovery.