Harold Bloom has said that Blake’s prophetic work is “in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language,” and now that I’ve read all of Albion, I would like to propose this poem as a rival. I’m not so crazy as to think it’s as good as The Four Zoas (with which it definitely has parallels), but it is so much more less read that it keeps the proportion steady.
I assume you’ve read the first half of this review, which gives you some idea of this remarkable work, an adumbration of stream-of-consciousness writing a full century before its time. I found that the book is more enjoyable when I more or less know what’s going on, so as a kind fo trot for future readers, I’m just going to keep going with basic summaries of books six through twelve (with copious quotations, because few works are more quotable). If you absolutely refuse to read the first half of this review, then all you need to know is about the Story So Far is that Admiral Nelson, at the hour of his death, is dictating his biography to an angel in a small number of very long run-on sentences.
“Now may I be permitted to proceed.” Near the end of book five (on p87) Nelson invites the angel to take over the narrative from him, and this shift in narrator pays off in book six, which describes something Nelson never saw, viz. The American Revolution. “…war aloud, yell hideous, the Americans revenge armed, rude scythes, within worse, his walls, broken fences, harass the English their veteran return; meanwhile in general assembly, meet Philadelphia, sing their body the United States;…” (p97).
This is one of the most interesting parts of the work, if only because it has characters the average American can recognize. “…Washington chief, central revolving duties, life, soul, serenely blythe [sic], march, encountering to deceive, wade rivers, laugh howl night, serious invoke meridian nocturnal to escape o’er hills, rugged mountains, circuitous avoid close combat, harass, astound superior discipline, their wits’ end, every ambush avoid open field, invincible adversaries; chess game war,…” (p98).
The mythological framework of the poem seems particularly, and delightfully, anachronistic when juxtaposed with these familiar eighteenth-century events. When Albion suggests that “Englishmen, vex chariot wheels enemy’s artillery”—I’m not certain what’s going on here, but the line works because of the utter incompatibility of the chariots and the artillery (p99). Even better is the constant references to a magical place known as “Long Isle.”
Here is Washington’s famous nighttime escape from Brooklyn: “…Washington this way, that, pious invoke meridian night, prayed nocturnal, be dilatory, a stillness unheard those climes before; a higher hand bid ocean slumber, winds be silent, billows mackerel, a misty curtain, drawn omnipotent arm; Aurora rose, amaz’d the English hero, his opponent on the opposite shore;…” (pp99–100).
No spoilers, but things don’t go great for the Redcoats, because “…the Americans an infinite superiority knowledge their country; a deep fetched sigh the British, for open plains battle, or a correct view surround wilderness; nature her prodigious liberality amid din arms…” (p103), which is a great way of saying there are too many trees. Nature is not always so gloriously lush, though, and a page later the troops encounter “labyrinth regions, cramped military scheme, and to contend devouring nature, frogs, bewilder clime, aloud wants, disease, inglorious death.” Here a sentence ends, there is a paragraph break, and the narrative resumes with: “Meanwhile the powers of Europe…” (p104).
Throughout, British troops have a tendency to be called “immortal” even as they are dying.
Book seven resumes Nelson’s narrative, and his account of his adventures (“Much remains and can I desist?” (p113)) This is the time of the French Revolution (“France broiled, death, fire, the guollitine [sic]” (p115)) and Nelson sails to Corsica, where “an aged sire” spends several pages narrating recent events on the island. This is the old man’s description of the depredations of the French, who “…pour in troops, destroy standing corn, juicy vines, fragrant olives, fire villages, insult female purity, the active, robust our youth, hang fatal by the neck; reduced abject slavery, most deplorable condition; till the isle roused sense alarming duty, men, women, striplings, their lisping theme, the liberties the land, the liberties the land, we hail your bulwarks, hovering the coasts; England friend the oppressed, we sang her virtues, we sang the glory her mighty empire;…” (p120). (The repetition of “the liberties the land” is a nice touch.)
There’s a lot here I don’t understand. “Interim myself a labyrinth dance, jerked serious ocean” (p127)? “Myriad thighs lamped further hemisphere” (p129)?
Book eight is made up of even still more naval battles: “…not a moment to lose, either quit the prize or ascend their bulwark, armed death, attendant tombs; to quit the glorious prize, wanton retrograde, stain gilded laurels, my soul repugnant, scorned the thought, resolved, then, them board, hush their battery, their rifle, flew signals, reinforcements at a beckon, countrymen, arms, to war! Westminster-Abbey, or victory, and once inspired, what mortal shall presume, withstand an Englishman, the dread hour battle; as flood-gates burst lucid barriers, as refulgence azure ether, we bid dilatory death, come forward;… (p131).
The scene is still the Mediterranean; by this point we’re in 1797. There’s a paragraph break two pages into Book 8 that would have been a more natural break than the end of of 7, but I guess other decisions of the anonymous author are more inexplicable. Looking back…did I miss the parts where Nelson loses an eye and an arm? I can’t find a mention of these presumably significant events in Nelson’s detailed narrative.
Eventually, Nelson returns to Britain, which offers opportunities for more encomia. The chapter ends (p147): “…my country! profoundest hail! may heaven continue, add the long list, her poets, her heroes, her divine worth, lengthened inscribed everlasting ages.”
Book nine: “And now the close the fleeting year , father Winter enthroned” (p149). Nelson is “…very chagrined, boiled our ire to reflect so long the foe, had trod unmolested the open seas;…” (p151). (“Trod” is good.)
So he starts molesting: “sonorous aroar, alternate cheer, alternate agony, leaders, oratory inspire, ’mid rack, ’mid deaths, ’mid hell’s tremendous yell, glimpse, beam, joy king, country, bleed strains, jealous domestic connubial affectionate ties, how lawful them sacred preserve;…” (p159). This is the Battle of the Nile. I’m unsure how connubial affectionate ties fit in. Is this a reference to the famous incident where a wounded Nelson, thinking he is dying, cries “Remember me to my wife”?
The battles can get repetitive, but if you don’t like repetition you shouldn’t read Albion. They’re also full of great lines. “…I command hush war, Englishmen! snatch immortal from the gaping tomb;…” (p161).
And a what a splendid description this is: “…deafening crash, shook lowermost sea, unfathomable earthquakes alarm antipodes; a pause unknown terrestrial, save chaos of old, when Deity on creative morn, roused the eternal stillness;…” (p162).
Afterwards, Nelson travels to Naples, where he is feted and presented with prizes from various governments, most notably the Ottoman Empire, which gives him “…a diamond aigrette, blaze brilliants, most honourable, representing a hand thirteen fingers, emblematical battle the Nile, the number the enemy’s ships taken and destroyed that memorable night;…” (p166).
Book ten begins: “O world! thou wondrous orb, that hourly does thy myriads cast off to float th’ unknown beyond, who shall recount thee; give me, handle the hollow my hand, note thy revolve, resource, whence beauty, machinery, how chained refulgent beams, how draw thy numbers thence; give me, heights, depths, caverns, empire, nor e’er ken the golden sun, or exhale upper atmospheric, give me embowelled; gem, stratas, sand, bathe liquid ore, amazed divinity, immaculate surfaces, hue, pulp, exist green, heaven waft gales, a home, a residence immortal man;…” (p169).
Soon we’re back down to earth, and heading for the book’s showpiece, which is the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen. “’mid rout, vermilion eddy, lucid human gore, such enthusiasm in man…” (p177).
Not sure about lucid human gore, but let us pause a moment to look at some of the more lucid passages. Here is Albion’s description of the battle’s end, and its aftermath:
“…instant I hoist sacred hue, despatched their capital, disclose our minds, ere armed worse death, hear ye Danes! unless honourable, pride all nations, we wet the glittering blade, we fiercer kindle our glare, immortal mien, nor spare your chiefs, your mighty, the thousands your devoted land; listening heard, the carnage stayed, artillery ceased, heaven’s canopy relieved, suspension, peace drew nigh, sacred muses, victory, fame, a circuit wheel their heavenly chariots;…” (pp178–9).
In other words: I hoisted a flag [sacred hue] indicating my desire to negotiate with the enemy [ye Danes]. Then I went to Copenhagen [their capital], where I threatened to kill lots of Danes. The Danes thought it over, and agreed to a truce.
And here is Tsar Alexander allying himself with England: “…Alexander supreme, full assurance fraternal her friendship Great Britain; ceased hostility, no more artillery roar, yell hell, nor death’s tremendous blast, triumphant theme, the muses listen and approve,…” (p180).
Then there’s a lot more chasing French ships around. “…O coward wretched man, slight the field of honour? fame as a meteor athwart meridian glory, graceful oratory, we listen;…” (p182).
Another good line from the same page: “…I harangue, brave lads be firm, laugh ocean spout, manly the dread hour battle; busy prepare nod, make way arrival valour, make way the king of terrors;…”
In book eleven, quite to everyone’s surprise, Nelson explains that “in a twinkling” “me sudden transported the centre my beloved country” (p191), where he sees, inter alia, “bird that in safety, rear innocent offspring, despite cruel ingenuity unthinking man…” He then soars through the solar system on a voyage that seems patterned after Ciceros’ Somnium Scipionis.
After seeing various strange things, Nelson beholds “universal sea, save land scarce seen, a lonely slumber on the billowed East, two squadron fleets, Britannian one, t’other combined hues” (p195). It is the Battle of Trafalgar, in which he died back in book one, seen from a distance. Nelson then watches his own funeral, Tom Sawyer-style. “The sea in a calm, the waves forget to roar” (p197). The funeral’s pomp is unendurable, and lasts for many pages. Then, surprisingly, Nelson’s vision goes back in time, and he sees a young Napoleon playing at war (“juvenile innocent pastime, plan on sand, defence [sic], attack fortifications…”). What inspires young Napoleon is his thirst for glory? Answer: “…his mind store renowned deeds ancient Greece, immortalized Rome, nor forgetful Britain, her heroic achievements, her sublime history;…” (p206).
The rest of the book—and this is wonderful—is an account of the rise of Napoleon, that “leader august, small in stature, a mind superior wiles, frowns ten thousand worlds;” (p206); his “majesty imperial, terror all nations, save Britain, her calm, demean, her significant smile, slow to revenge insults her injured rights:” (p210). There’s also a cameo by the Duke of Wellington, who is described as a “superior man, ten thousand worlds, death’s ghastly grin, Arthur his name” (p211). Note the reappearance of the ten thousand worlds. This phrase (like many phrases) occurs again and again throughout Albion, and back on page 16 Nelson himself is describes as being “superior ten thousand worlds.”
Book twelve: Nelson’s vision concludes with a trip to Heaven, where he beholds a mighty allegorical “sudden superb structure,” three sides of which are ruled by Ocean (?), Victory, and Fame. “…then the last side this princely mansion…one deformed, stood entrance, besmeared repose, a hideous monsters, instant harangue, what, what, what now,…”
—you will perceive that this is Nelson, instantly haranguing the monster (with “What? What? What now?”), and the monster replies—
“…I born in heaven, and scarce an infant peep jubilant region, when headlong unfathomable plunged hell, league my grand progenitor now called the devil…my name is war…” (pp217–18).
Only after this vision—which takes in many more things, including “king George, etherial gold, refulgent gold, a crown immortal gold, that rested on his head” (p222)—etherial, refulgent, and immortal are three of the poems favorite words, and their application to George’s gold crown must be significant—only after all this do we return to the career of Napoleon, who now appears more overtly as a Satanic figure. “…heaps slain, soil that reeked human gore, Napoleon as a god, strode blood plains, full chase, hue, cry, conquering to conquer…” (p228). In Russia Napoleon brings “anarchy, as before the birth of time” (p229).
Indeed, victorious Napoleon “…threw peace Europe around, save Britain, ’ere [sic] long, her single handed, hurl this mad usurper from his presumptuous saddle;…” (p227). This is like Paradise Lost if the battle had been a fair fight.
Pages 232–3, the antepenultimate and penultimate pages, are missing (from both Hathi Trust and Archive.org; part but not all of the missing text is here), so we don’t get to see Napoleon cut down, but we know it happens, because on page 234 “…shout allelulian [sic], th’ assembled world an answer shout, rill echo joy, the amazement orb,…”.
Suddenly Nelson is back on the H.M.S. Victory at the moment of his death; “the hero ended,” i.e. he has ended his narrative, but also he has died. Everyone retires “to realms of everlasting bliss.”