All the King’s Men


If we were to decide to attribute the corpus of English literature not to a diverse and unmanageable group of writers, but to a single intelligence, how would we describe the growth of that mind? Schopenhauer thought that human individualism was delusory, that there existed in the world one indivisible subject, a blind, choked, contorted Will struggling against itself toward some distant moment of objectivity, self-consciousness, indifference. Let us name that Will the giant Albion, and call him the author of the entire anthology.

As the composer of Caedmon’s Hymn, “The Battle of Maldon,” and the Cuckoo Song, he begins by letting forth yelps, bellowings, blessings, and other fundamental sounds; as an Elizabethan sonneteer he woos himself under the guise of many Muse-pseudonyms; and from then on he turns increasingly upon himself, traces the filigree of his thought processes, the processes of his imagination. Of course this evolution from mere lunging, emotive force toward idea, reflection, self-image is, as Schopenhauer knew, far from straight; Albion is often confused and self-wrangling, denouncing himself and exalting himself, simplifying his language and then elaborating it, always anxious about his own influences.

From time to time Albion rewrites his previous work; and such moments may offer the best clues about his literary evolution. Under the name of John Donne, Albion wrote a satire in 1598 or thereabouts, describing his revulsion against the English court:

At home in wholesome solitariness
My precious soul began the wretchedness
Of suitors at court to mourn, and a trance
Like his, who dreamt he saw hell, did advance
Itself on me. Such men as he saw there,
I saw at court, and worse, and more.
(“Satyre IV”)

Albion revised this about 1713, publishing the new text as “The Fourth Satire of Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s, Versifyed,” by Alexander Pope:

Bear me, some God! oh quickly bear me hence
To wholesome Solitude, the Nurse of Sense:
Where Contemplation prunes her ruffled Wings,
And the free Soul looks down to pity Kings.
There sober Thought pursu’d th’amusing theme
Till Fancy colour’d it, and form’d a Dream.
A Vision Hermits can to Hell transport,
And force ev’n me to see the Damn’d at Court.
Not Dante dreaming all th’ Infernal State,
Beheld such Scenes of Envy, Sin,
   and Hate.

Still a third transformation of these lines can be found in Ezra Pound’s Canto LXIV (about 1939):

Cromwell was not prudent

nor honest

nor laudable.
Prayer: hands uplifted
Solitude: a person, a NURSE
plumes: is she angel or bird, is she a bird or an angel?
ruffled, rumpled, rugged… wings
looks down
and pities those who wear a crown
meaning (query) George, Louis or Frederick?

Between 1598 and 1713 the syntax grows less abrupt, the clauses spread out until each line is filled to the brim without a drop of overflow; the solitariness that Donne mentions briefly starts to acquire a body, a nurse’s uniform, until it becomes Solitude, a woman; and a second personage joins her from thin air—we know from The Rape of the Lock that such sylphs can appear profusely from nowhere—to help compose a pretty picture of retreat and involution. Pope is more decorative than Donne; and although Pope does not try to make his verbal structures imitative of nervousness, outrage, disgust, as Donne seems to do, he tries to develop a more complicated and ample psychic landscape, in which every process of consolation and poetical invention is granted its own little personality, its private point of view.

Between 1713 and 1939 the tendency to elaborate and to scrutinize interior processes has expanded monstrously. Pound presents the aged John Adams—who has just compared himself, at the end of Canto LXIII, to Timon of Athens, and who will soon compare himself to the Cumaean Sibyl, wise and incapable of dying—speculating on the overthrow of kings. It is hard to tell whether John Adams is reading Pope’s version of Donne, or Pound is rehearsing through his own responses to Pope something of Adams’s state of mind; but in either case the elements of Pope’s poem are broken apart and inspected inquisitively piece by piece. The figure of Contemplation recedes and blurs; the poet tests other adjectives that might apply to its wings, other monarchs against whom satire might be used; and the text becomes thick with other literary echoes, from Shelley—“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert” (“To a Skylark”) and Shakespeare—“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (2 Henry IV, III, i, 31). Such density depersonalizes the text; we are aware less of Pound or Adams than of the English language’s own self-regard, loss of confidence in its constructions. Here, if anywhere in literature, Albion himself speaks.


Robert M. Adams’s The Land and Literature of England: A Historical Account seems in places to be a kind of biography of Albion. Many writers appear in it, yet Professor Adams is not primarily concerned with their lives; even in the case of someone like Dante Rossetti, where anecdote is almost required by law, we are not told, for example, that the poet had his wife’s corpse exhumed for the sake of bringing to light certain manuscripts of poems that he had buried with her. The reader is therefore in the presence of much literature that seems to have been written by no one in particular, literature that comes into being as an expression, an outbreathing of its age. In Professor Adams’s book kings and queens and knaves have private lives, independent volitions, competencies; but poets and novelists are chiefly colorless vessels through which the inflections of politicians, the manners of the time, are given memorable shape.

Sometimes Professor Adams is explicit about this authorlessness: we are told, for example, that Malory’s career as a “lawless scoundrel” is irrelevant to his writing of the Morte d’Arthur:

…who he was matters less than what he wrote—or, more accurately, than the way in which the legend of Arthur, using him as an instrument, finally wrote itself.

Similarly, euphuism was less the invention of John Lyly than of the English language:

In its exuberance, the language seemed bound to try new tricks, regardless of good sense or good taste.

Language and mythology are frisky, irresistible—angels that seek out men to provide us with good news.

In some respects this is an excellent strategy. The book is intended, according to its foreword, “to supply background material for a one-year introduction to English literature,” and it would be a fine supplement to, say, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, of which Professor Adams is an editor. In one hand the reader would have literary texts and short biographies of writers; in his other hand he would hold a narrative of the political, social, economic, and religious history of England, from the earliest Celtic invasions onward, full of glances to the literature that animates the history and is animated by the history. It is not surprising then, given its purpose, that the book concentrates on history rather than literature; but this emphasis, as we shall see, has some odd consequences.

Not many people would be capable of writing a book like this one. Professor Adams seems to have read the whole library and yet, instead of turning to dust along with the crumbling books, retained his pith, vigor, suppleness, and good cheer. In addition, he knows how to tell a story:

And their foot soldiers used bows and arrows to rain death from a distance on the Saxons, who had no way to reply. As long as the shield wall stood unbroken, neither cavalry nor arrows could do much execution; but sometimes, after an unsuccessful cavalry charge, the Saxon foot could not resist the temptation to pursue, and then the archers did deadly damage. After a full day of heavy fighting, Harold lay dead with an arrow in his eye…. His mistress, Edith Swanneck, was summoned to make identification, and though the face was mutilated beyond recognition, she knew, by certain marks on the body, that indeed it was Harold.

It is not until some thirty pages later that we hear that the principal source of historical knowledge for any account of the Battle of Hastings is the Bayeux tapestry; and Professor Adams does not mention the historiographical difficulty posed by this fact. One might hesitate to reconstruct the Trojan War if Homer’s Iliad had been lost and only Penelope’s weaving survived; and it is not clear that the weavers of the Bayeux tapestry knew as much about the Battle of Hastings as D. W. Griffith knew about the founding of the Ku Klux Klan; but probably Professor Adams did well to respect the urgencies of storytelling in a book that treats history in relation to literature.

War is often the best subject here. Professor Adams is not much given to eyewitness accounts: there is no evidence that he has personally visited Stonehenge or St. Paul’s Cathedral, and indeed almost the only firsthand comment in the book is a statement that the writer had recently been served potato in four different guises in the course of a single meal in an Irish restaurant. But his imagnation is much excited by bloodshed:

The Germanic horde is at the gate; they have driven off the cattle, torched the farmhouse, slaughtered the pig, raped the women, and are even now torturing the landlord—you can hear his choked screams—to find out where his money is hidden. For the old proprietors, it is lights out….

Though Professor Adams is temperate and clearheaded in his political judgments, a certain oomph seems to go out of the book after the barbarians are assimilated and people stop mutilating criminals; one might almost say that the author is more exasperated by Victorian complacency and hypocrisy than by the Black Plague.

There is another reason why the first two hundred pages seem more incisive and brisk than the last three hundred. For much of the first half of the book, Professor Adams has the well-known and dependably partisan mythology of Shakespeare’s chronicle plays as a background against which he can tell his tale; and after the Stuarts gain the throne he will never again have such a potent tool for relating history to literature. We are told, for example, that, although Shakespeare compressed two or three revolts into one, 1 Henry IV nevertheless tells the “essential truth” of the rebellion against the Lancaster monarchy.

Sometimes Professor Adams seems to struggle unsuccessfully against the intense magnetic field of Shakespeare’s art: he calls Richard III “a man of courage and genuine intelligence,” and it is clear that he is aware of those historians sympathetic to the king; but he cannot help making Richard III an “arch-conniver,” and the outlines of his version pretty well coincide with Shakespeare’s. It is as if Shakespeare’s myth alone has great vigor or meaning to us. In the case where Professor Adams most strenuously disagrees with Shakespeare, he entirely suppresses Shakespeare’s version: Shakespeare’s Joan of Arc, “La Pucelle” in 1 Henry VI, is a necromancer and a muscle-bound slut; and so here Professor Adams looks not to Shakespeare but to Shaw for an agreeable literary treatment of the theme. Still, the death of Shakespeare is a tragedy for Professor Adams’s imagination.

I wonder whether a college student reading this book might not come to feel that literature is valuable insofar as it is an elucidation of history. Works such as Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Shakespeare’s history plays, Marvell’s “An Horatian Ode,” Dryden’s “Annus Mirabilis,” loom so large here that one might take them for the most important texts in English; and when Professor Adams can find little direct relation between history and literature—“in outlining the history of the later eighteenth century, it has not been easy or natural to make many allusions to the literary life of the age”—he is almost at a loss, and can only argue that Sterne, Cowper, Smart, and Blake must retreat from an unsatisfactory historical world into ahistorical fantasy: “The high-pressure, tightly ordered world that set Sterne to capering…forced William Blake into an imaginary antiworld of his own….” And yet one can see that in Jerusalem Blake’s real acquaintances and enemies, even some public figures, stroll nonchalantly among the personified figments of a phantasmagoria; world and antiworld coexist amicably. Perhaps there is a certain rigidity to the category of historical literature in Professor Adams’s thinking.

One of Professor Adams’s biases also heightens the prestige of historical literature throughout the book. In a work like this one the author’s biases are to a large extent welcome: no one should be forced to read a history in which all the points have been filed down and bleach has been applied everywhere. It is my guess, for example, that Professor Adams finds Puritan literature, as a rule, more powerful than other sorts: his descriptions of Spenser, Defoe, Bunyan, are striking and detailed, while the genteelly Roman Catholic Dryden is irresolutely presented as something of a scoundrel, Pope keeps a low profile, and the violently Catholic Crashaw scarcely is mentioned at all. Such emphases give savor to a book; no one can be or even ought to be catholic in his tastes. Another such slant—and this is one that I am so far from sharing that I will call it a prejudice—is against the notion of literature as sheer artifice:

The eisteddfods [Welsh national poetry festivals] were not without strong political implications, and English governments were sometimes reluctant to permit their calling; they did much to prevent Welsh poetry from degenerating into that merely verbal word play which in “civilized” societies it sometimes becomes….

The poet as prophet may be a little too good for everyday use; nowadays, at least, we do not mind his talking occasionally, as Falstaff says, “like folks of this world.”

The virtues of Professor Adams’s own prose—amiability, heartiness, wit that is earthy but not coarse or cutting—are the virtues he esteems in poets and novelists. He likes books to be securely grounded on fact—though, to his credit, he applauds certain aspects of the decadent poetry of the late nineteenth century—a preference that only reinforces the dignity of historical literature.


Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando (1928) is the tale of a three-hundred-year-old transsexual who watches, patronizes, and participates in most of the movements in English literature from Elizabethan times to the early twentieth century. To some extent she represents a kind of wishfulfillment of every literary historian, at least of those who dream of sharing imaginatively in the composition of the literature they study. One of the remarkable aspects of the novel is the suddenness of change between historical eras: just before midnight on December 31, 1799, a great cloud starts to cover the starry, lucid, eighteenth-century sky:

With the twelfth stroke of midnight, the darkness was complete. A turbulent welter of cloud covered the city. All was dark; all was doubt; all was confusion. The Eighteenth century was over; the Nineteenth century had begun.

And on the instant Orlando, who had spent a century being reckless and sexy, grows demure, weepy, desirous of a husband.

This passage is a spoof on a certain sort of literary history, in which each century is given such a pronounced, clearly defined character that the transition from one to the next must necessarily be jagged, discontinuous. Such transitions are the bane of every historian; for either the human race is uniform and homogeneous, in which case history is trivial, or there exist distinct emotional tones or moral principles among the various epochs, in which case the historian has to specify why and how the changes took place.

In Professor Adams’s book there are transitions almost as abrupt as the one cited above, and they will make some readers uneasy, though the author is always conscious of the partiality of all summary judgments.

…the reader who is weary of sour, cynical, and contemptuous writing can readily find naive joy and high good cheer in an Elizabethan songbook….

Long before the term was applied to the twentieth century, the early seventeenth century deserved to be called “the age of anxiety.” At the time, people preferred the word “melancholy,” and melancholy is everywhere in the literature of the early century.

The chief structural feature of the book is the principle of contrast. Professor Adams loves nothing better than the violent contrast between light and dark. When he describes how Queen Elizabeth warmly welcomed the painting of Nicholas Hilliard because of “his old-fashioned preference for line as against shading and modeling,” he is tacitly justifying his own historical design, in which there are few halftones. Sometimes, as above, we proceed from gaiety into doom, or vice versa; often black and white are present in the same period as vivid striations. Professor Adams is entranced by the simultaneous appearance of the Enlightenment and the Gothic novel, its “exact opposite”; later he points out, with real perspicacity, how closely complicit are aestheticism and naturalism, and he relates this to the future described in Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), in which

…the human race will have divided itself into two distinct species, the airy, insubstantial upper-class Eloi, sunny and ephemeral as butterflies, and the sullen, underground Morlocks, who do all society’s dirty work.

Occasionally it seems that every page of the book offers some leap from mania into depression; and this pageantry is no accident or unconscious impulse but part of a theory about the evolution of English literature. If there is one critic to whom Professor Adams has given rapt attention it is T.S. Eliot: “No critical insight of T.S. Eliot’s has better stood the test than his account of the taut, two-way, ever-shifting relation between tradition and the individual”; but Professor Adams has read not only “Tradition and the Individual Talent” but “The Metaphysical Poets” as well:

Literary criticism began distinguishing [in the later seventeenth century] between the solid “sense” of a work and the “fancy” of “wit” with which it was adorned…. The new habit of thought marked the beginning of that “dissociation of sensibility” which T.S. Eliot would baptize and deplore….

Perhaps this distinction between matter and manner was not exactly what Eliot meant by the phrase, but in any case the governing idea of the second half of Professor Adams’s book is the split between art and history, or between playfulness and solid meaning, or poetry and prose, or aestheticism and naturalism. Yeats once hoped that some day Shelley and Dickens would be again united in one artist; and that may be the hope of this book also. The ballast, the security, that Shakespeare’s chronicle plays provided in the beginning of the book the concept of a dissociation of sensibility provides in the rest.


Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, in the course of her excursions in the eighteenth century, meets a number of famous men of letters; but she can never quite see them face to face. She takes a carriage ride with Alexander Pope, but it is night, and she can catch a glimpse of his face only when they happen by a street lamp. A little later she walks under a window of a coffeehouse and sees Dr. Johnson and Boswell and Mrs. Williams talking, but they are only shadows, and she cannot hear a word. This sensation, that our knowledge of the great men of the past is a research into shades, silhouettes, caricatures, ought to be offered by every literary historian, no matter how disturbing this feeling is to sophomores.

It is clear that Professor Adams enjoys caricatures—he even presents a little theory on the romantic nature of the art of caricature—and he gives us some zesty caricatures of his own; but I think his technique is at times imperfect. To put it simply, they lack gray. The portrait of Queen Elizabeth occupies the better part of forty-three pages—by contrast, Chaucer receives only two pages—and it is by far the most detailed single effort in the book. Professor Adams has a great deal of respect for the queen, perhaps too much. She is tirelessly sly and wary; she is “infinitely smarter” than Robert Dudley; if she causes an insolent printer to have his hand cut off, well, there were mitigating circumstances. I am not suggesting that Professor Adams ought to have copied Lytton Strachey’s portrait of Elizabeth as a sort of drag-queen Herodias, but his image of her could be more memorable. In the case of Charles II, the tendency is exactly opposite: because he is seen as frivolous and spendthrift, no act of his can be exonerated; if he issues an edict granting official tolerance to dissenters and Catholics, a sinister motive will be found.

In both cases, Professor Adams’s interpretation may be correct; but the student may suspect that the eagle look of Elizabeth and the sneer of Charles have been obtained through a certain contrivance. At least in the case of Elizabeth no student will be tempted to confuse her with any other monarch; but in the latter case the two Charleses seem so identically asinine and luxurious that—in a book in which settlements rise and prosper and are put to the torch by the Danes, dynasties preen and fume away, all in the course of a few pages—the reader may well feel that King Charles, beheaded by Cromwell, rises from the grave to establish the same fatuities once again.

As an example of literary caricature we may look to Professor Adams’s portrait of Jonathan Swift:

Swift, who was personally friendly with all the Tory leaders, wrote the [Journal to Stella] as a series of very private letters to his friend Esther Johnson in Dublin. The letters are full of baby talk, private jokes, mock scoldings, and self-ridicule, as well as political gossip. No closer view of political craftsmen at work survives from that age; but the real fascination of the Journal lies in the glimpses it gives of Jonathan Swift himself, who was alternately and sometimes simultaneously the toughest and tenderest of men.

Here, for comparison, is Orlando’s impression of Swift. We have just heard some furious invective from Gulliver’s Travels:

But stop, stop your iron pelt of words, lest you flay us all alive, and yourself too! Nothing can be plainer than that violent man. He is so coarse and yet so clean; so brutal, yet so kind; scorns the whole world, yet talks baby language to a girl, and will die, can we doubt it, in a madhouse.

The two caricatures have the same premise: Swift as a human contradiction. One is more sharply drawn, the other may seem more suitable for students. But I dream of a class of young readers who could take these spirits at one-hundred proof, on whom Goya and Daumier could make an impression. Some of Professor Adams’s sketches are deft and telling; but too often the images lose their sharpness, and the authors turn into vague heads peeping from behind the cloak of the giant Albion.


I have not yet spoken of one of the real delights of this book, Professor Adams’s eye for the flinty detail. Students, and readers well past their student years, will be grateful to learn that a fifteenth-century humanist, John Tiptoft, requested on the scaffold that his head be severed, in honor of the Trinity, in three separate strokes; and that the last entry in Napoleon’s schoolboy notebook for his geography class was “Saint Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic”; and that a French wit said of the conservative Lord Liverpool that, if he had been present at the creation, he would have cried, “Mon Dieu, conservons le chaos!” Such examples could be multiplied.

What could be done to improve Adams’s book? This is no idle question, for the book is important, will be popular, and will doubtless go into a second edition. It does have some astonishing omissions. Most astonishing perhaps is the complete absence of the name of John Gower. After Chaucer he had the greatest contemporary reputation among fourteenth-century English poets; Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde was dedicated to him; Chaucer even named Gower as his attorney in 1378; and his literary presence was still strong enough in the early seventeenth century that Shakespeare resurrected him as the chorus and windy narrator of the dumb shows in Pericles. If Professor Adams can spend a paragraph denouncing Lydgate as a bore, he could spend at least one denouncing Gower as a bore.

Also, few literary critics will be happy about the general suppression of literary critics. In Elizabethan times no mention is made of Puttenham or Webbe; in the eighteenth century, where one expects a discussion of the sublime and the beautiful, the most important topic in the aesthetics of the era, there is flat silence (Burke is one of Professor Adams’s heroes, but only as the author of one book, on the French Revolution); in the nineteenth century Hallam has been left out, even as the occasion for Tennyson’s In Memoriam, and we hear nothing of Browning’s criticism and very little of Arnold’s. The nineteenth-century omissions are particularly odd, for, as critics have noted, Hallam’s essay on Tennyson, which proposes the categories of sensitive vs. reflective poetry, and Browning’s essay on Shelley, which proposes a historical alternation of subjective and objective poetry, anticipate some aspects of Eliot’s doctrine of the dissociation of sensibility, seemingly so necessary to Professor Adams’s research.

Philosophy is skimpy here. Ecclesiastical history and to some extent theology are treated carefully and comprehensively; but the book stammers on Locke, Berkeley, Hume. For example, the single paragraph on Hume makes something of his arguments against causality, but it says nothing about his role as the annihilator of the self—“[We are] a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity” (Treatise of Human Nature). This is the aspect of Hume’s thought that excited many twentieth-century authors, not only the Impressionists but faraway figures such as Jorge Luis Borges.

Much of the pleasure of Professor Adams’s book lies in its rich texture of cross-references between history and literature. Perhaps it would be ungracious to ask for even more. In his reference to the Old English “The Battle of Brunanburh” he might note that Tennyson translated it into modern English, with the help of a crib written by his son. Professor Adams quotes with gusto the climactic lines of “The Battle of Maldon”; Auden translates these same lines in an ode (“Though aware of our rank and alert to obey orders”). When Professor Adams tells the complicated story of Henry II and his two sons, Prince Henry and Richard the Lion-Hearted, he might mention that this history is the basis of Pound’s ambitious attempt to write a long Imagist poem, “Near Perigord.” Professor Adams would like to see something of a circular form to English literary history: he proposes that the rest of the twentieth century may be a recapitulation of the fifteenth (that is, empty of talent), and on his last page he speaks of Seamus Heaney’s poems about bog people as a renewal of prehistoric vitality. The references I have suggested might help to improve the feeling of the convergence of beginnings and endings.

Could anything have been done to mitigate the reader’s suspicion that literature is here meaningful to the extent that it interprets history? Probably not; there is no reason why Professor Adams should clutter his pages with discussions of unhistorical poems and novels, expressions of private hilarity, private despair. In considering this issue, however, I am struck by the good sense of Yeats’s arrangement of literary history in A Vision (1925). A Vision is not an easy book to read; in his elaborate geometrical designs, which Yeats himself compared to a cubist analysis of history, it sometimes seems as if Yeats were torturing Chronos with racks, thumbscrews, iron maidens. But his central principle, that an artist may create either out of his quarrel with the world or out of his quarrel with himself, is not a contemptible one. Professor Adams has written a good part of the history of English writers’ quarrels with the world; if Yeats is right, that is half the story of art.

After reading Professor Adams’s exhilarating book, I was chiefly impressed with the disparity between the achievements of the English political life and the achievements of the English literary life. No culture known to me has produced a body of literature superior to that of England; while the political narrative seems, with a few exceptions, a mean tale of temporizing, squalor, sordor, hollow glory. Professor Adams says in his foreword that history is “a matter of fascinating interest in itself,” and so it is, the shimmer of the snake’s rippling scales. In Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra a frightened eunuch runs up to Caesar to tell him that the library of Alexandria, the greatest repository of knowledge in the world, is on fire. Caesar tells him that it is a shameful history—let it burn. Were I tempted to give the same order, I would not want to see Professor Adams’s history perish.


Royalty and Genius May 10, 1984