The Land and Literature of England: A Historical Account
by Robert M. Adams
Norton, 555 pp., $29.95
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.
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,
Still a third transformation of these lines can be found in Ezra Pound’s Canto LXIV (about 1939):
Cromwell was not prudent
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
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 …
Royalty and Genius May 10, 1984