Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"A Free Strenuous Spirit": Liberty, Agency, and Community in the Poetry of Tom Paulin

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"A Free Strenuous Spirit": Liberty, Agency, and Community in the Poetry of Tom Paulin

Article excerpt

This essay considers the treatment of ideas of the individual and the community in Tom Paulin's poetry, giving particular emphasis to the issues of agency and freedom.

Tom Paulin, a Northern Irish poet and critic who now lives in Oxford and teaches at Oxford University, has made a name for himself as a controversial public intellectual. A forceful and entertaining panellist on the BBC arts program Newsnight Review, he never shirks controversy and has been involved in several high-profile media scraps over the years. His description of William Hazlitt certainly also applies to his own approach to criticism: "Deep down he knows that the critic who is afraid of looking like a fool is bound to shirk the mission to be honest which energizes the critical act" (Day-Star 46). Paulin's close identification with Hazlitt as a free-thinking, combative critic in his 1998 book The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style provides a useful starting point for an analysis of the roots of Paulin's particular brand of passionate liberalism. The historical moment of Hazlitt's writing is deeply significant for Paulin in the Irish context. In much of his writing, Paulin takes the failed 1798 uprising of the United Irishmen as his touchstone, emphasizing the way in which Protestants and Catholics fought together in the Republican cause and elevated the principles of political independence and self-determination above religious affiliation. Eighteenth-century European republicanism (which, as Bernard O'Donoghue remarks, Paulin would dissociate from twentieth-century Irish republicanism [174]) is the springboard for Paulin's political vision. Hazlitt is not only a committed republican but also represents a specific strand of Protestant and Enlightenment thinking with which Paulin strongly identifies: the tradition of free thinking and open debate associated with Dissenting culture and with Unitarianism particularly. In this essay, I draw on this eighteenth-century context in the course of discussing Panlin's exploration of the relationship between the individual and the community and the implications of this relationship for freedom and agency. I argue that Paulin's poetry is shaped by a strong desire to envisage a form of liberalism that values individual rights but at the same time recognizes the energy and creativity of the social.

Classical liberalism of the Enlightenment period facilitated a radical shift in the way European cultures thought about the relationship between the individual and society. Primarily, morality came to revolve around the rights and powers of the individual rather than the imperatives of monarchy, deity, tradition, and community. Classical liberalism located human agency primarily in the capacity for rationality and rational autonomy. As Paul Fairfield puts it, "in its essence the individual of conventional liberalism is an altogether sovereign and rational agent bearing each of its accidental properties and ends by an act of will" (5). With its origins so firmly rooted in the idea of the sovereignty and autonomy of the individual, liberalism over the centuries since the Enlightenment has struggled over and over again with the problem of the social aspect of human life. The present period is no exception. While the language of individual rights and freedoms is still dominant in Western political discourse, the underlying philosophical assumptions of liberalism have been increasingly called into question by postmodern and post-structuralist theory. Some liberal thinkers like Fairfield are currently seeking to revise the philosophical basis of liberal argument so as to recognize the socially embedded nature of human existence, letting go of the idea that any part of the self can be untouched by sociality, but maintaining a belief in the importance of safeguarding individual choice and agency in political structures. The tension between the idea of the individual and the idea of society or community is central to many of the most pressing debates in philosophy and cultural theory today, and it also emerges as a recurrent, provocative theme in contemporary literature. …

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