Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1163
The Spirit of Years, Shade of Earth, Spirit Sinister, Spirit Ironic, Spirit of Pities, and their accompanying choruses forgather somewhere above the earth to watch the larger movements of humans in western Europe in 1805. The design of the Immanent Will manifests itself at the time in Napoleon’s preparations for the invasion of England.
In England, Sir William Pitt contends with isolationist members of Parliament to secure proper defense against the invasion, while Napoleon goes to Milan to be crowned king of Italy. The spirits make light of the chicanery and pomp that attends the coronation. The Spirit of Pities descends to earth and disturbs Napoleon by reminding him of his original intention to champion liberty.
At sea, a Pyrrhic victory of the French and Spanish over the English prevents the support required for the planned invasion. On the south coast of England, the Phantoms of Rumor cause great disturbance. A fleet of fishing craft is mistaken for the invasion fleet, and civilians flee from the coastal towns as signal fires flare upon the cliffs and hills.
When Napoleon learns that his admiral, Villeneuve, has returned to Cadiz, he discards his invasion plan and moves eastward against Austria and Russia, countries that Pitt enlisted in the English cause. The Spirit of Years remarks that the ensuing campaign will be a model in tactics for all time. At Ulm, Napoleon defeats the Austrians, who hoped that the English fleet would hold the French forces in northern France. In London, Pitt, unsuccessful in gaining permission from the king to form a coalition government, visibly declines in health under his terrible burden.
Villeneuve is ordered out of Cadiz. The British under Admiral Horatio Nelson meet the French and Spanish off Trafalgar and defeat them. Nelson is killed in the engagement; Villeneuve subsequently ends his own life in an inn at Rennes. Napoleon defeats the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz. Then, hearing of the English victory at Trafalgar, he declares his intention to close all continental ports to English ships. He dictates peace terms to Emperor Francis of Austria while attendant Austrian officers stand by in disgust at the sight of a nobody dictating to true royalty. In Paris, the Spirit of Rumor comments on the way Napoleon is uprooting old dynasties and founding new ones.
Pitt being dead and King George III being mentally ill, Charles James Fox negotiates for England with Napoleon for peace, but Napoleon uses the negotiations as a screen for his real plans. He marches on Prussia and defeats the Germans at the Battle of Jena. In Berlin, he decrees that all British ships are barred from continental ports. Napoleon and Tsar Alexander of Russia meet at the River Niemen, where the two draw up a Franco-Russian alliance. During this meeting, Napoleon expresses the desire to cement his various alliances with blood ties. The Spirit of Years remarks ironically that Napoleon is one of the few men who can see the working of the Immanent Will.
Napoleon invades Spain as a friend to help the Spanish gain Portugal. The Spanish Bourbons abdicate and Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, is proclaimed king. Bourbon partisans enlist English aid, and an English invasion fleet sails for Portugal.
Back in Paris, Napoleon tells his wife, Josephine, that he wants a divorce. Josephine has given him no children, and he is eager to perpetuate the dynasty he founds. The British invasion of the Iberian Peninsula draws him to Spain to direct the campaign there. Austrian preparations for war induce Napoleon next to invade that country, and he defeats the Austrian forces at Wagram. The British, under the duke of Wellington, hold their own against the French in Spain. At that point, the Spirit Sinister reminds the Spirit Ironic not to sneer for fear Immanent Will will cut short the comedy that is taking place.
A British force is sent to the Scheldt, but the expedition ends disastrously when the army is decimated by miasmal fever. Napoleon, fearful of assassination and still anxious to perpetuate his line, negotiates with the Russians for the hand of a Russian princess and with the Austrians for the hand of Princess Marie Louise. The tsar accepts the offer, but Napoleon arranges, through Prince Metternich, a marriage with the Austrian princess, Marie Louise. The marriage is performed with the conspicuous absence of many high clergy; the Russians, feeling insulted, prepare for war. In the meantime, the British in Spain under the duke of Wellington gain a decisive victory at Albuera.
In due time, Marie Louise gives birth to Napoleon’s heir. The insane king of England dies after hearing of British successes in Spain. On the continent, war becomes imminent between France and Russia. On the banks of the Niemen, Napoleon receives an evil portent when he is thrown from his horse. The Spirit of Pities foresees misery for the French Grand Army in the Russian campaign. Wellington in Spain defeats the French at Salamanca. Napoleon gains a costly victory over the Russians at Borodino, and the French enter Moscow to find the city deserted and in flames. The French thereupon retreat across snow-covered Russian steppes to Lithuania. Thousands perish from the cold or are killed by harassing Russian cavalry. Napoleon deserts his army and races back to Paris so as to anticipate the news of his failure in Russia. His chief task now is to hold his empire together.
As the British continue their successes in Spain, Austria joins the allies. Napoleon meets defeat at the hands of the Austrians and Prussians at Leipzig. The allies invade France. Napoleon, forced to abdicate, is exiled to Elba, an island in the Mediterranean. Marie Louise and the infant king of Rome go to Austria. The Bourbons reassume the throne of France, and a congress to deliberate on general peace in Europe meets in Vienna.
Napoleon escapes from Elba and returns to Paris at the head of an army he picked up on his way. The allies outlaw Napoleon and prepare to overthrow him again.
A private ball in Brussels is broken up by the news that the French army is nearing the Belgian frontier. Almost overnight, Napoleon organizes and puts into the field a large army, but he fails to separate the British and Prussians in Belgium, and he is brought to utter defeat on the fields south of Waterloo. The Hundred Days ends.
The Spirit of Years points out to the assembled spirits that the human beings below them behave as though they are in a dream, as though they are puppets being drawn by strings manipulated by Immanent Will. The Spirit of Years points to Napoleon in defeat and compares him to a tiny insect on an obscure leaf in the chart of the Ages. When the Spirit of Pities asks for what purpose the events below took place, the Spirit of Irony answers that there is no purpose, for only a dumb thing turns the crank that motivates and directs human behavior.
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