Tom Paulin

Tom Paulin is a poet and critic.

Poem: ‘The Revenant’

Tom Paulin, 3 January 2019

after Baudelaire

Like those angels with rough – rough or roughened eyes I’ll come back to the little alcove where you try to fall asleep.

I’ll slip in between the sheets without a sound from the dark, no the darksome night, and I’ll give you, burnt woman the coldest of kisses and the hugs of a snake in a smelly grave.

When the dawn comes without a sound...

Better than Ganymede: Larkin

Tom Paulin, 21 October 2010

Philip Larkin met Monica Jones in 1946 at Leicester University College. She was an assistant lecturer there, and Larkin was an assistant librarian. Both had firsts in English from Oxford. Monica Jones was an able lecturer, but she never published anything and so was never promoted, although she stayed at Leicester until she retired in 1981. They soon took up together, although Larkin had, and...

The Chorus draws nearer to Oedipus.

CHORUS Those evil men that have slept since long ago. It is not proper to awaken them. But yet I must be told –

OEDIPUS Told what?

CHORUS Told of that great heartbreak for which there was no help. I mean the pain that you have had to suffer.

OEDIPUS I ask that you be kind. I ask you not to open my ancient wound and all my shame too.

CHORUS Everywhere...

Between leaving school and going to Cambridge, Ted Hughes did his National Service in the RAF. Writing from RAF West Kirby, in the Wirral, to a friend, Edna Wholey, in 1949 – characteristically there is no date on the letter – he exults in the wild weather:

Edna, I’ve seen rain and I tell you this isn’t rain, – a steady river, well laced with ice, tempest and thunder, covers all this land, and what isn’t concrete has reverted to original chaos of mud water fire and air. Morning and evening its one soak and the sun’s more or less a sponge, and lately comes up frozen quite stiff.

This love of chaos, motion, process, which is the energy of his best poems, and often makes them resemble action paintings, is brought to a halt by the strong stresses on the last three words so that the stretched perception is completed.

Four Poems

Walid Khazendar, translated by Tom Paulin, 25 May 2006

The Sail, Again

Only to sleep for a bit and then to wake up – this’d force the pack from off my shoulders draw the pushiness from out my chest and burst the buttons – the too-tight buttons – tin wafers – that’re stuck there

was it all for nothing then the thing we launched? that fell down hard on us? – it’s time we drew a line I mean time we...

Holy Boldness: John Bunyan

Tom Paulin, 16 December 2004

According to E.P. Thompson, The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Rights of Man are the two ‘foundation texts’ of the English working-class movement. It is above all in John Bunyan, he argues, that we find ‘the slumbering Radicalism’ which was preserved through the 18th century, and broke out again and again in the 19th.

Bunyan was born in a cottage on the edge of...

Diary: Trimble’s virtues

Tom Paulin, 7 October 2004

“Perhaps controversially, Godson says that the ties Kevin McNamara and Clare Short had to their Irish backgrounds did not touch Blair, who was ‘little affected’ by his Ulster Protestant ancestry . . . But it could be argued that Blair’s continual insistence that he is right because he knows he is trustworthy and straight-talking – the narcissistic void at the heart of his political personality – is recognisably Ulster Protestant, as anyone who has studied its distinctive cultural form, the sermon, will realise.”

In 1865, a year after John Clare’s death in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Frederick Martin, a former amanuensis of Thomas Carlyle, published the first biography of the ‘peasant poet’. It laid the foundations, Jonathan Bate says in his new Life, ‘for both the enduring myths and some of the key truths about Clare’. Though there have been other biographies...

Poem: ‘The Road to Inver’

Tom Paulin, 25 September 2003

for Xon de Ros and Jamie McKendrick

I left a village called Tempo oh maybe an hour back and now I’m driving to Inver in an old beat-up gunked Toyota I’ve borrowed from a mate in Belfast (there was a poet down south who blessed all the new Toyotas in Ireland – everyone else was driving in circles but he came out with a firm line and drove it straight home)

cold as a hub cap...

Poem: ‘During the Countdown’

Tom Paulin, 20 February 2003

On the second day of the second month 2003 we were walking through Beeston – it looked that Sunday more like a wet Northern than a wet Midland town with big strange pollarded trees on both sides of its not wide not grand Imperial Road – every single limbless hacked cutback trunk was taller than the Victorian houses and each a kind of écorché displaced almost tarry with...

The first answer is Beckett’s in another context – to ‘Mr Beckett they say that you are English?’ he answered ‘au contraire’ – he didn’t say ‘I am not dot dot’ which plays their game – in this case the ones who play the a-s card – of death threats hate mail talking tough the usual cynical Goebbels stuff so I say the same...

In 1936, with the Spanish Civil War begun and world war on the horizon, the distinguished Scottish scholar and editor of Donne, H.J.C. Grierson, gave a series of lectures on Milton and Wordsworth, which began by addressing the attacks on Milton that T.S. Eliot and his acolytes were mounting. The revival of interest in metaphysical poetry, which Grierson had done so much to stimulate, had...

Fugitive Crusoe: Daniel Defoe

Tom Paulin, 19 July 2001

In 1830, a few months before he died in a Soho rooming-house, Hazlitt published a lengthy essay on a new biography of Daniel Defoe in the Edinburgh Review, where he remarked that in Robinson Crusoe Defoe abandoned the political and religious subjects he addressed in his pamphlets, and confined himself to ‘unsophisticated views of nature and the human heart’. Hazlitt’s...

Poem: ‘Prologue’

Tom Paulin, 25 January 2001

Koba is in a country no a wilderness province the size of Scotland – nine months of ice and snow they live in caves where his fellow exiles fear the hard glints in his eyes his yellow smoky eyes that hex his comrades and will them toward the shades summer’s hot – they move to shacks and tents – the tents sailcloth the shacks tarred always aloof and solitary he imagines...

Poem: ‘The Mechelen Incident’

Tom Paulin, 24 August 2000

On the other hand 10/1/40 was a good day at least by January standards – a crisp cold clear day When Majors Reinberger and Hoenmanns allowed their Me109 a virtual fighter – no light transport plane made of cloth and string – allowed their sturdy all-weather plane to get blown across the Rhine and a chunk of Holland by an eastnortheast wind – not a wind a mere breeze of...

Mick Magennis was the only Ulsterman to win the VC in the last war. Though the population of Northern Ireland celebrated and rewarded his heroism, his community on the Falls Road in Belfast rejected him on his return, while the Unionist authorities begrudged his achievement and failed to honour it officially by making him a Freeman of the City of Belfast. He emigrated to England where he found comradeship among the Yorkshire miners – there is a plaque to his memory in Bradford Cathedral and a street named for him in Gosport. Although a statue to Magennis outside Belfast City Hall was recently unveiled, there is still resistance to honouring his name. BBC Northern Ireland has twice refused to commission a documentary film about him.

In the great quilted cento that is Moby-Dick, there is a passage which might be interpreted as Melville’s response to James Barry’s 1776 engraving The Phoenix or the Resurrection of Freedom. In the engraving Andrew Marvell is depicted with Milton, Locke and Algernon Sidney among the mourners at the bier of Britain’s traditional liberties. Across a pond the mourners can see a Neoclassical rotunda with an eagle-like phoenix raising its strong wings. Below the cupola the words LIBERT. AMERIC. are inscribed. It is a potent, and in England, where the Cork-born artist engraved it, a rare republican icon that celebrates the transplantation of radical English political ideology to the American shore. The engraving is reproduced on the dust-jacket of Marvell and Liberty, a collection of essays which, like David Norbrook’s recent Writing the English Republic, chimes with the discontent that a significant percentage of British people now feels about the monarchy.

Two Poems

Tom Paulin, 30 September 1999

From that state of chassis to those two poets – both theorists of chaos at Princeton – a name that goes with Einstein – from that apparently random state almost void almost without form though it doesn’t know it we might just start to draw drip or pour a kind of crooked trickled line – its grease or toil of grace could be glimpsed out on the Net strong wide deep...

Diary: Summer in Donegal

Tom Paulin, 16 September 1999

Something in the cool, sun-stippled hazel grove I don’t understand – a low wall made of dressed stone, large thin flat slabs, no mortar, but packed with small stones to bind them. Then the remains of a lower wall running up against it, making the corner of a rectangle. I pull away moss and earth, and find a stone-paved floor, the hazel bushes growing up through it. I want it to be a fort or an ancient lookout, in line with the crannog, the tiny island fort, in the estuary below, but the fact it’s not circular, the way it’s set into the lee of the hill, makes me think it must be an old stone cabin, how old I don’t know, but it would have been inhabited by Gaelic speakers who cut hay on the two hidden meadows further up the hill, or grew potatoes or oats on them.’

Poem: ‘Door Poem’

Tom Paulin, 21 January 1999

Macaboy is at his workbench, and in the flow of his rituals he might be a priest at an altar, except that he hasn’t a stitch of clothing on. There is an early June heatwave. His skin glistens like a space suit. His balls are drawn up tight with work.

He is making a flush door. This is to be the Prince of Doors. A pure door, an essence. First principle: Plywood sucks. Second law:...

Diary: The Belfast agreement

Tom Paulin, 18 June 1998

For the first time I’m nervous flying to Belfast. It’s early morning, Friday 22 May, and radio reports tell of streams of voters heading to the polls. As I buy the Irish Times at the newstand in Terminal One, I catch sight of one of my graduate students – we nod and smile quickly. He’s flying to Cork to vote Yes. I haven’t a vote, but I want to be there on the day. Though the view is that a high poll is a sign of a strong Yes vote, I have a gut feeling – no, more a fear – that the No vote will be mounting up. I place the Yeses at 62 per cent, and feel that Sidney Elliott, a political scientist at Queens University, is too optimistic in predicting 75 per cent. But then I’m drearily pessimistic about everything.’

Recently I was teaching a poem by Yeats that has always reminded me of a stretched sonnet. ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ has an octave of 20 lines and a sestet of 12 lines, but as Yeats was not interested in the sonnet form (he wrote only one sonnet), the comparison is probably subjective. The poem begins:‘

Poem: ‘The Unholy One?’

Tom Paulin, 11 December 1997

At 10 – let’s be specific – at 10 a.m. you’d be sitting in your deckchair filling pages with shorthand so I imagine a caption in the News Chronicle GBS TRAVELS P&O ‘I always work on holiday’ says the world’s most famous author ‘especially if some kind cruise liner pays me’

so there you are in a deckchair a kind of rational tautology...

Poem: ‘The Wind Dog’

Tom Paulin, 17 October 1996

A sound cento for the fiftieth anniversary of Radio Three

I married a tinker’s daughterin the town of Skibbereenbut at last one day she galloped awaywith me only shirt in a paper bagto the shores of Amerikay

Snug as a foot in a mocassin shoe – never the boot no never the boot I lay in Huck’s canoe one still night and heard men talking – clean every word they spoke on...


Tom Paulin, 9 May 1996

Looking at the University of Oxford’s Informal Guide to the English faculty’s lecture list for Trinity term 1996, I find that the Professor of Poetry, James Fenton, will give a lecture on 9 May entitled Eliot v. Julius. It would be improper of me to anticipate Fenton’s approach to Anthony Julius’s compelling study, but I would hope that he will not see fit to mount another repudiation of this brilliant, passionately concentrated ‘adversarial reading’ of Eliot’s work. I say ‘another repudiation’ advisedly, because Julius’s book was rejected by Oxford University Press on the grounds that it might prove ‘too controversial’. So much for scholarship, so much for free speech.

Three Poems in Memory of Charles Monteith 9 February 1921 – 9 May 1995

Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Tom Paulin, 21 September 1995


Tom Paulin

Or Charlus as McGahern would call youwhen we stacked up stories with Heaney– all fun a great geg pure pleasureI’d think of this village near Donegal town– Mountcharlus they say in those partsnot Mountcharleswhich was how one editor at Faberused to sign every letter he sent(was it Dunn who wonderedhad you somehow acquired a peerage?)then I’d try hard to...

Diary: Ulster’s Long Sunday

Tom Paulin, 24 August 1995

Late July, hot and humid, I set out for Belfast via the small Shropshire town of Wem. Why Wem? Well, I’m working on a book about William Hazlitt, and feel the need to walk some of the ground he trod. His father, the Reverend William Hazlitt, ministered to a small ‘decayed’ Presbyterian congregation here. Hazlitt spent part of his childhood and youth in a house in Noble Street. The small meeting-house beside it is now a hotel garage, but it’s the site of one of the most famous moments in English – perhaps I should say British – Romantic prose. Here, Hazlitt painted his father’s portrait – the old Irish radical holds an open book which his son says is Shaftesbury’s Characteristics, an early work of aesthetics. He spent many days on the portrait, and one evening he laid down his brushes to go for a walk. It was then that he heard the news of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz and in a state of huge, irrecoverable elation saw the evening star set ‘over the poor man’s cottage’. It’s a Wordsworthian spot of time, a historical moment in the prose Prelude which Hazlitt’s readers assemble from his collected works. Out of piety and curiosity I wanted to see where it happened and to walk the road to Shrewsbury, where Hazlitt set out in 1798 for the momentous meeting with Coleridge which liberated his imagination and enabled him to become one of the masters of English prose style. Though he calls that year ‘the year of Demogorgon’, it’s not a date that strikes any historical chord in England now. And neither does the name Wem. It seems appropriate that this neglected figure should have grown up in this sleepy forgotten town.’

Poem: ‘Newland Park’

Tom Paulin, 13 May 1993

They’re back in that boring house a house that looks all garage where she’s given him another hard on while saying no not now not today she’s such an untidy package so why can’t this randy louse pull all the strings together and not end up in a marriage? but when she drives away he’ll think good riddance and blame her untasted mousse on his hated Hindu neighbour

Poem: ‘Cadmus and the Dragon’

Tom Paulin, 8 April 1993

Metamorphoses 3, 1-136

If Cadmus is the Age of Reason – and he is if Cadmus is the State – and he is if Cadmus is Descartes with a scalpel – maybe so then Cadmus must also shadow Locke with his shovel a shovel loaded with decaying sense but always new and stainless like the idea of rights – rights not duties be it said – yes brother

so Locke hires a surgeon...

Diary: In Donegal

Tom Paulin, 8 October 1992

In the introduction to her excellent – indeed seminal and unprecedented – anthology of Ulster prose, Patricia Craig remarks that for her collection Northern Ireland is to be regarded as ‘a geographical rather than a political entity; it consists of seven counties, not the partitioned six or the historic nine. Donegal seems to be inescapably part of the “North”, whereas Cavan and even Monaghan have a less decided orientation. I cannot, for example, think of Patrick Kavanagh as a Northern writer, any more than I would wish to allocate Peadar O’Donnell to the South.’ Donegal is part of the North, yes, but it’s also the place many Northerners go to escape from ‘Norn Ireland’, as we sometimes call it, mimicking one of the province’s accents – an accent Gerard Manley Hopkins termed Chaucerian. Outside the tight wee six is another county famous for its healing powers, a mountainous, often boggy, lough-shining region wedged between the Border and the Atlantic. In the summer months, this particular coastal village is full of Northerners who make merry with those few Southern visitors who return here annually. We gaze out at the blue enormous bay, its long curving marram strands, its islands and roshans and purple hills with the white quartzy dome of Errigal beyond – we stare out and agree that this must be one of the most beautiful places in the whole world. The moist light moves and zings like a Jack Yeats painting – in a different climate these immense empty strands would be lined with concrete hotels. Seasoned and seasonal visitors, we mellow out into the illusion of dwelling in the place. And because we come back again and again, we remember our childhoods here and watch our children swim and play just as we did back in the Fifties when things were intensely peaceful, the fish more plentiful, the crabs ready to be hoked in sackfuls.’

Protestant Guilt

Tom Paulin, 9 April 1992

There is a particular type of literary criticism – these days very rare – that aims to exist intensely as bravura performance, dramatic spectacle. It would be pointless to object that the performing critic is merely a rhetorician engaged in digging and falling into a subjective pit of empty images, further descriptions, meaningless or questionable value-judgments. If we admire the critic’s imagination then we are bound to attend to the performance – a performance that lives only, of at least most intensely, in a first reading. Go back over the text and much of it seems to have melted into a series of repetitive rhetorical gestures that are all dead letter, not living spirit.’

Three Poems

Tom Paulin, 7 March 1991

Across Howrah Bridge

On the banks of the Hooghly River there’s a huge banyan tree the biggest in all Asia – it’s two hundred and twenty-five or more years old and ever since 1923 there’s been a sort of hole where the main trunk should be – on our way north from Bhubaneswar I found this sprawling woody creature its branches propped by vertical tubers –...

Three Poems

Tom Paulin, 11 January 1990

History of the Tin Tent

During the first push on the Somme a temporary captain in the Royal Engineers – Peter Nissen a Canadian designed an experimental steel tent that could be erected from stacked materials by an NCO and eight men in 110 minutes

so the Nissen hut is the descendant and enriched relation of the Elephant and other similar steel structures that were adopted and then...

Out of the closet

Tom Paulin, 29 October 1987

In a recipe for turnip soup the cookery writer Ambrose Heath asserted that turnips have ‘an entirely masculine flavour, peppery and very definite’. For several centuries male writers have been saying much the same thing about poems: from Dryden to Hopkins and beyond, adjectives like ‘masculine’, ‘virile’, ‘manly’ were used freely as value-judgments in critical discourse. As Helen McNeil points out in her centenary study, Emily Dickinson entered the 20th century seeming to have written a series of ‘over-sensitive, coy, rather ill-disciplined poems’. Feminist critics have challenged this sexist view of her writing, and argued that she radically undermines traditional masculine values. In another centenary study, however, John Robinson insists that she is a timeless lyric poet whose work is not ‘centrally representative of women’. Robinson’s refusal to consider Dickinson’s polemical and subversive imagination is disappointing, but it can be argued that certain writers identify with various generic categories – national, sexual, political – while others identify against them: I would no more want to publish a book of essays entitled We Men, than I would want to identify with one called We Irish. Dickinson referred to God as ‘Burglar! Banker – Father!’ and in many of her poems she identifies herself against the dominant masculine values of 19th-century American culture. She searched for role models among famous women writers of her day – George Eliot, the Brontës, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Yet as Christanne Miller points out, Dickinson didn’t actively support the political campaign for women’s rights ‘or, apparently, sympathise with women generally’. It is in the radical new language of the poems themselves that the battle against the father is fought.’

Poem: ‘I am nature’

Tom Paulin, 24 July 1986

Homage to Jackson Pollock, 1912-1956

I might be the real                 Leroy McCoy                 landsurveyor                 way out west...

Dreadful Sentiments

Tom Paulin, 3 April 1986

Towards the end of his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, Roland Barthes observed that ‘the myth of the great French writer, the sacred depository of all higher values, has crumbled since the Liberation.’ In Ireland lately there has developed a liberating impulse to desacralise a national institution called YEATS and in a seminal pamphlet, ‘Heroic Styles: The Tradition of an Idea’, the country’s most significant and influential critic, Seamus Deane, has criticised the way in which an acceptance of ‘the mystique of Irish-ness’ can involve readers in the ‘spiritual heroics’ of a Yeats or a Pearse. The result is a belief in ‘the incarnation of the nation in the individual’.

Poem: ‘Fivemiletown’

Tom Paulin, 20 February 1986

The release of putting off who and where we’ve come from, then meeting in this room with no clothes on – to believe in nothing, to be nothing.

Before you could reach out to touch my hand I went to the end of that first empty motorway in a transit van packed with gauze sacks of onions. I waited in groundmist by a hedge that was webbed with little frost nets; pointlessly early and...


Tom Paulin, 1 August 1985

Recently I received a somewhat smug letter from one of the editors of PN Review asking me to contribute to yet another symposium on the state of critical chassis which still persists in Great Britain. The editor enclosed a statement entitled ‘A New Orthodoxy’ which listed certain ‘imperative tasks’. The sixth task was this: ‘To expose the absurdity of using literary criticism as an outlet for political frustrations.’ This paradoxical call for inactive action issues from a familiar form of conservative quietism, but it is important to remember that in certain other societies quietism and political frustration are not opposed attitudes or states of mind. In Miroslav Holub’s Czechoslovakia; the poet and the critic know that the act of writing is both necessary and absurd. This is the sharp, precise point of ‘Swans in Flight’, where the swans circle ‘and that means that Fortinbras’s army is approaching. That Hamlet will be saved and that an extra act will be played. In all translations, in all theatres, behind all curtains and without mercy.’ These lines allude both to Pasternak’s ‘Hamlet in Russia’ and to Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘Elegy of Fortinbras’, and they wryly describe that fixed and determined social reality which constrains the poet who writes from inside the Eastern bloc. The laws of the state are like the rules which govern a tragic masterpiece – only naive optimists believe they can be changed to allow for a happy ending. But the irony is that in suggesting this Holub’s fatalism takes on a political edge and relevance. By expressing a frustration, the writer has taken a risk.’

Four Poems

Tom Paulin, 23 May 1985

To a Political Poet

after Heine

Your baggy lyrics, they’re like a cushion stuffed with smooth grudges and hairy heroes.

‘Me Mam’s Cremation’, ‘Me Rotten Grammar School’, ‘Ode to the Toffee-Nosed Gits Who Mocked My Accent’.

Now your whinges get taught in class and the kids feel righteous – righteous but cosy.

A Walk to Pubble Shrub Gardens

The Case for Geoffrey Hill

Tom Paulin, 4 April 1985

Geoffrey Hill’s second collection of poems, King Log, was published in 1968, that year of student radicalism and disappointment. Hill’s title is reactionary in its implications and derives from Aesop’s fable of the frogs who desired a king. In my edition of L’Estrange’s royalist version of Aesop the fable runs like this:

Poem: ‘At Mill with Slaves’

Tom Paulin, 21 February 1985

‘For me the crown is the symbol of the unity of the tribe.’

Ted Hughes

St nissan mishan biskit bingo hut an skwidbone strand win me sunday fraym fotograf av momma kween. But me not want dis woolworting no lang no mor. Giv to Iron Man. He coom up dis rainrain day fram gravul pit pleec frogmen liv – wit mistultoes astrologee an beeds av glass dis kweenwite fotograf he giv...

Two Poems

Tom Paulin, 6 September 1984

Waftage: An Irregular Ode

All my mates were out of town that lunk July and though we shared a bed still it was over – she’d paid the rent till August first so each bum hour those rooms threw back at me this boxed-up, gummy warmth like a pollack’s head and eye wedged in an ironstone wall.

Most every day she’d paint in the loft above the stables while I wandered right...

The Road to Sligo

Tom Paulin, 17 May 1984

Perhaps all verse translation must begin and end with a version of the Aeneid, or with an essentially Virgilian concept of art’s relation to society? In these islands, the first translator of Virgil was Gavin Douglas, whose Eneados was completed in 1513. Although my Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Literature appropriates Douglas as the earliest translator of the classics ‘into English’, his version was of course written in Scots and is an ennobling monument to Scotland’s separate cultural identity. For Douglas, Virgil is a holy, original and perfect figure, a divine lawgiver who inspires his readers with the pure form and essence of culture. He is end and beginning, both cedar tree and ‘A per se’. And as James Kinsley suggests, Virgil’s best translators acquire something of his luminous stature: ‘the ancient author becomes culturally effective, and the translator a “noble collateral” with him.’

Oscar and Constance

Tom Paulin, 17 November 1983

In the spring of 1882, Oscar Wilde travelled to a huge mining town in the Rocky Mountains called Leadville, where he lectured the miners on the ‘secret of Botticelli’. A fortnight later, he gave a lecture at the State University of Nebraska. Afterwards the students took him out to the State penitentiary where he saw:

In a middling hour, Wednesday’s raw afternoon      of kitchen buildings and a green pitch,   my autopod smooths along a metalled slant        between beds of tame juniper.

A geometry of poplars sifts in the wind,     their tight theorem almost surprised   as it fences ten flat...

In an English market

Tom Paulin, 3 March 1983

In Roman mythology, the god Terminus presides over walls and boundaries. He expresses the ancient doctrine that human nature is limited and life irredeemably imperfect. Terminus agrees with Robert Frost in saying ‘good fences make good neighbours’; and he also takes a classical view of artistic creation by insisting on formal constraints and closed symmetry. Although Terminus inhabits hedges and drystone walls, he is not a property of pastoral verse, and this is because pastoral writing, like fantasy writing, is a convention which licenses an imaginative freedom from reality. In fantasy literature the result is the ennui of Utopia, a luminous envelope that absorbs the world.

Poem: ‘Foot Patrol, Fermanagh’

Tom Paulin, 10 January 1983

A pierrepoint stretch, mid-afternoon; the last two go facing back down the walled street below the chestnuts this still claggy Sabbath. They hold their rifles lightly, like dipped rods, and in a blurt of sunshine the aluminium paint on the customs shed has a dead shine like a text brushed onto basalt. It’s not that anything will happen next in this hour that is as constant as sin, and...

Poem: ‘The Argument at Great Tew’

Tom Paulin, 4 November 1982

‘… her measures are, how well Each syllabe answered, and was formed, how fair; These make the lines of life, and that’s her air. ’


A Lob accent pucking in the ferns would put my back up: lucky it’s not that we’ve come for this thick-necked and völkisch weather, though yesterday in the fellows’ garden his queasied voice squeezed like...

Under a stony sun, a slabbed fate, there is a paved land called nothing-original which is the home – the near-buried home – of scholarship and humility; there the god of Notes & Queries takes up our references and a silver priest called Maxwell sings everything in the catalogues. This is karma, acceptance; a bent harijan brushing dung and shards in a walled courtyard. But who...

Faculty at War

Tom Paulin, 17 June 1982

Many academic teachers of English are at the moment united in the dismayed recognition that their subject is in a state of acute crisis. Some nourish the suspicion that English literature isn’t properly an academic subject, while others believe that its study can be revitalised by adopting structuralist procedures and developing a ‘materialist criticism’. Partly, the crisis which now afflicts English studies is a reflection of a more general cultural atmosphere – for example, that futureless and pastless sense of blankness which is for various reasons the quality that distinguishes the present generation of students. It could also be seen as a response to the period of critical exhaustion that followed the puritan revolution which Leavis and his disciples led many years ago. And it could be interpreted as a reaction against the failure of traditional scholarly procedures to recognise that they were addressing an audience which increasingly believed in ‘relevance’. At all events, English studies is currently experiencing a major crisis of confidence and it is to this unhealthy condition that Re-Reading English is addressed.

Paisley’s Progress

Tom Paulin, 1 April 1982

In 1969, while he was serving a prison sentence for unlawful assembly, Ian Paisley sent this message to his congregation:


Tom Paulin, 5 November 1981

Two months after the suspension of Stormont in 1972, Belfast’s retiring Lord Mayor, Sir Joseph Cairns, delivered a farewell speech in which he reflected on the political situation. Ulster, he said, had been cynically betrayed by Britain’s policies: policies that had relegated it to ‘the status of a Fuzzy Wuzzy colony’. The Lord Mayor’s parting shot is one of my favourite quotations, for as well as being banal, ridiculous, righteously angry and very dim, it offers a profound insight into the Northern Irish troubles. It has an ironic resonance – a sort of Belfast ou-boum – which must haunt and torment anyone who probes the nature of Ulster Loyalism. It’s a deeply parochial statement, and like all such statements, it issues from an intense love of place, while also containing a definition of nationality and cultural identity.

Poem: ‘Presbyterian Study’

Tom Paulin, 7 August 1980

A lantern-ceiling and quiet. I climb here often and stare At the scoured desk by the window, The journal’s conscience And its driven pages.

It is a room without song That believes in flint, salt, And new bread rising Like a people who share A dream of grace and reason.

A bit starchy perhaps. A shade chill, like a draper’s shop. But choosing the free way, Not the formal, And...


Modern Classic

8 February 2001

In his review of Derek Mahon’s Selected Poems (LRB, 8 February), John Redmond remarks: ‘A vividly imagined crowd of mushrooms is at the centre of “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford", the best poem in his third and best collection, The Snow Party, the poem towards which his early work rises, and from which his later work declines.’ This is faint, negligent praise which also works...


16 September 1999

Apropos of my recent Donegal Diary, I’m grateful to John Torrance for his close reading of Clare’s poem ‘To the Snipe’ (Letters, 14 October), but I disagree with Carol Rumens’s letter in the same issue, in which she says that my view of Larkin’s response to Ulster is not borne out by the poems or the letters. I recollect that somewhere he made a passing joke about...
In his lively discussion of Basil Liddell Hart (LRB, 10 June), Geoffrey Best says that ‘Heinz Guderian and others subsequently proclaimed themselves his disciples.’ Kenneth Macksey, in his study of Guderian, says that the Panzer leader only expressed an indebtedness to Liddell Hart in the English edition of his memoirs, and that he did so in order to placate Liddell Hart’s vanity....

Unfair to Ulster

28 November 1996

I was interested by Conor Gearty’s dynastic response to Neil Jordan’s film, Michael Collins (LRB, 28 November), but troubled by his remark: ‘Jordan has been excoriated for using the wrong kind of gun in one incident and the wrong kind of bomb in another, as though the exposure of such minor details destroyed the movie’s central truth, which is that Michael Collins was the revolutionary...


9 May 1996

John Betjeman used to take his teddy bear, Archie, to bed with him every night. The attitude of various literary critics to T.S. Eliot and other great artists seems similar – they want to cuddle up close and they become petulant at any sign of criticism, as Betjeman did once when Geoffrey Grigson dared to make mild mock of Archie. James Wood is petulant about Anthony Julius’s study of T.S....
I’m a bit surprised that my old sparring-partner, Craig Raine, should be defending Joseph Conrad against Chinua Achebe (LRB, 22 June). Take Conrad’s The Secret Agent, where there’s a sinister anarchist called Ossipon who is described like this: ‘ … Comrade Ossipon, ex-medical student, the principal writer of the FP leaflets, stretched out his robust legs, keeping the...
SIR: Corner Craig Raine and he becomes merely abusive. His first letter ended by calling for ‘sweetness and light’, but his second (Letters, 20 June) attempts to exit from an argument he initiated by resorting to crude name-calling (‘hooligan’, ‘New Improved Pedigree Chump’, ‘amoeba’). It would seem that behind the Arnoldian veneer there is a Sun editorialist...
SIR: In his wonderful review of John Carvel’s Citizen Ken (LRB, 7 June), Neal Ascherson rightly remarks that the last ten years have brought press campaigns ‘against the personal and public lives of selected left-wing politicians of a viciousness scarcely seen in Britain since the Victorian period’. It was with some dismay, therefore, that I noticed on the same page of that very issue...
SIR: This is going over an old battleground, but Christopher Norris is wrong (LRB, 7 July) in asserting that those who are hostile to Widdowson’s Re-Reading English conceive of English as some earnest force for ‘creative and cultural good’. If English is an academic subject – as History and Art History clearly are – then it is an academic subject, with all the limitations...
Tom Paulin writes: I believe absolutely in what I wrote – that Carter, Reid and Raine share a new English sensibility. It is no secret that Raine is my poetry editor at Faber, but that does not mean that I share, say, his admiration of Betjeman’s kitsch Englishness. Mr Smith calls me ‘dishonest’ – let him explain why or oil his pistols.

Faculty at War

17 June 1982

SIR: In his gauche and hysterical attempt to sum up the controversy which my review of Re-Reading English provoked, Peter Widdowson accuses me of being ‘probably’ an SDP supporter (Letters, 30 December 1982). If Dr Widdowson bothered to read any of the more opinionated essays which I’ve published in the London Review of Books and other ‘Establishment’ journals, he might...

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