Sunday, 9 December 2007

On the Responsibilities of the Critic

Kudos to Tom Paulin, whose dazzlingly subtle inquisition of Keats’ “Ode to Autumn,” published in today's Guardian, finally proves beyond doubt that the work in question is not (as has been believed and taught by bovine generations of “Literalist” scholars, their brains addled by the stench of their own tweed) a poem about the humble pleasures of that season, but an elaborate proto-Marxist illustration of the master-slave dialectic in the context of agricultural labour, ending in a passionate call for the immediate assassination of George III. Paulin reveals his familiarity with and admiration of the luminaries of the Zemblan Discontortionist school of literary criticism, forcefully revealing John “Che” Keats’ hitherto undisclosed status as the originator of the radical trade union movement.

What makes Paulin’s accomplishment all the more astounding is his ability to derive the most profound analyses from evidence that a more mediocre critic would no doubt refer to as ‘scant.’ To fully understand his achievement, let’s compare the poem with his analysis. Here’s Keats:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease;
For Summer has o'erbrimm'd their clammy cells.
And here's Paulin:

If we look closely at To Autumn, we can see that it is a pastoral poem, which aims to communicate a subtle anxiety and discomfort behind or within its apparently attractive images. The susurruses in the first line begin this, and the word "mists" takes us back to Milton, whom Keats read very closely: Milton speaks of the "mists and intricacies of state", and characterises Satan as a mist.
Because Keats uses the word “mist” he must be talking about Satan. Autumn is therefore the season of Satan and mellow fruitfulness. Now things begin to become clear, no?
The word "conspiring" alludes to what the Tory press called the "Manchester conspiracy" - the meeting on St Peter's Fields, where the massacre took place.
The word “conspiring” obviously means that Autumn is conspiring to repeal the corn laws. Does this mean that Satan was in favour of land reform? I'm not sure.
The sun-blood-run combination brings gun almost to mind, and those loaded apple trees make me uneasy: once apples touch the ground they're prey to slugs and go rotten. The word "bend" belongs to the language of power, and that phrase "ripeness to the core" is strange and unsettling - we talk about fruit being rotten to the core, never ripe. There is a similar effect in "clammy cells", almost a prison image, or a far-off echo of a Manchester sweatshop.
Okay, I give up. I think at this point Paulin has become immune to parody. But I advise you to read the rest, because it really is quite wonderfully insane.


Notabene said...

One thing I'll give Paulin is that he doesn't use jargon. So even if the entire piece is pure conjecture at least it's easy to understand it as such. Paulin he has no knowledge of author intent...For example: "There are a lot of "ih" sounds in those lines - river, sinking, wind, lives, hilly, crickets, sing, whistles, gathering, twitter - and they are deliberately unattractive, unsettling." Who, aside from Paulin, says "ih" is unattractive and unsettling...Who, aside from Paulin says they are used deliberately?

Notabene said...

"brains addled by the stench of their own tweed"

Have been meaning to compliment you on this Stephen. Outstanding. Worthy of Martin Amis.

Amateur Reader said...

Very funny - both Paulin's piece, and yours. Funny in quite different ways, though.