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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.

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