This is an idiosyncratic little book, less a primer than a space for Paulin to work out his own obsessions, and because there's no introduction, one is never fully aware of what he's trying to achieve. The book also feels uneven in its approach: while the attention paid to prosody and sonic effects in some poems becomes overly technical to the point of tedium, in other critiques Paulin seems to leave the poem behind altogether - the piece on Herbert's great poem 'The Flower' turns into a discussion about Lawrence. He also manages to smuggle in his own agendas, for example, the ship in Auden's `Musee des Beaux Arts' becomes a means for him to take a swipe at Auden for deserting England in WWII, and the poem, indeed Auden's entire body of work, is written off as a `failure'. Strange.
While the historical awareness in these readings can be thought-provoking, the world Paulin is introducing his readers to is almost exclusively male, and since it regards itself as a 'primer' this is the book's most obvious flaw. Of the 39 poets discussed here, only two are women, so one can only assume that either Paulin doesn't read women poets or doesn't rate them. And for a critic so interested in the political, that whiffs of the old boys club.