Lord George Gordon Byron was no stranger to infamy. Throughout his admittedly short life, he was perhaps best known for being ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’. Most notably, he had a vicious, acerbic wit that he was not at all hesitant to use on those who stirred his ire – and if history is to be believed, very few people escaped from Byron’s notice without a caustic comment directed at them.
Chief among those was Robert Southey, Poet Laureate to England in Lord Byron’s time.
Summary of The Vision of Judgement
Upon the death of mad king George III, Robert Southey wrote a poem titled ‘The Vision of Judgement’, which depicted King George III entering Heaven to acclaim and praise. In his preface, Southey attacked those ‘men of diseased hearts and depraved imaginations, who, forming a system of opinions to suit their own unhappy course of conduct, have rebelled against the holiest ordinances of human society, and hating that revealed religion which, with all their efforts and bravadoes, they are unable entirely to disbelieve, labour to make others as miserable as themselves, by infecting them with a virus that eats into the soul! The school which they have set up may properly be called the Satanic school; for though their productions breathe the spirit of Belial in their lascivious parts, and the spirit of Moloch in those loathsome images of atrocities and horrors which they delight to represent, they are more especially characterised by a Satanic spirit of pride and audacious impiety, which still betrays the wretched feeling of hopelessness wherewith it is allied.’
Lord Byron took offense to this, and wrote his own version of The Vision of Judgement, and in his own preface, stated: ‘If Mr . Southey had not rushed in where he had no business, and where he never was before, and never will be again, the following poem would not have been written. It is not impossible that it may be as good as his own, seeing that it cannot, by any species of stupidity, natural or acquired, be worse. The gross flattery, the dull impudence, the renegado intolerance and impious cant of the poem by the author of Wat Tyler, are something so stupendous as to form the sublime of himself – containing the quintessence of his own attributes.
Breakdown Analysis of The Vision of Judgement
Saint Peter sat by the celestial gate:
His keys were rusty, and the lock was dull,
So little trouble had been given of late;
Not that the place by any means was full,
But since the Gallic era “eighty-eight”
The Devils had ta’en a longer, stronger pull,
And “a pull altogether,” as they say
At sea — which drew most souls another way.
The Angels all were singing out of tune,
And hoarse with having little else to do,
Excepting to wind up the sun and moon,
Or curb a runaway young star or two,
Or wild colt of a comet, which too soon
Broke out of bounds o’er the ethereal blue,
Splitting some planet with its playful tail,
As boats are sometimes by a wanton whale.
There are a few things of note in the first couple of stanzas. Byron was a very politically-oriented writer; he documented his life and times with heavy allusion to the goings-on in politics. It was not Byron only, of course; most Romantics were shocked and appalled by the political machinations that had ultimately led to the French Revolution, but Byron referenced it here in this poem: ‘the Gallic era eighty-eight’, the start of the French Revolution, or his own birth. Also note the political language – the ‘pull together’ and its allusions to demonic collusions.
Chiefly, Byron’s image of Heaven is of an empty, bored, almost hum-drum working place, where there is nothing much to do; at a parallel to Southey’s Heaven, who merely stops in its place at the exalted presence of King George III.
The Guardian Seraphs had retired on high,
Finding their charges past all care below;
Terrestrial business filled nought in the sky
Save the Recording Angel’s black bureau;
Who found, indeed, the facts to multiply
With such rapidity of vice and woe,
That he had stripped off both his wings in quills,
And yet was in arrear of human ills.
His business so augmented of late years,
That he was forced, against his will, no doubt,
(Just like those cherubs, earthly ministers,)
For some resource to turn himself about,
And claim the help of his celestial peers,
To aid him ere he should be quite worn out
By the increased demand for his remarks:
Six Angels and twelve Saints were named his clerks.
This was a handsome board — at least for Heaven;
And yet they had even then enough to do,
So many Conquerors’ cars were daily driven,
So many kingdoms fitted up anew;
Each day, too, slew its thousands six or seven,
Till at the crowning carnage, Waterloo, 4
They threw their pens down in divine disgust—
The page was so besmeared with blood and dust.
Again, political machinations lead to wars, which means that the only angel who has anything to do is the angel who keeps records of the dead. Waterloo was a famous naval battle against Napoleonic France, and one of Byron’s ‘calamities’. As a supporter of Napoleon, he saw the battle of Waterloo as excessively wasteful – nearly 50,000 soldiers dead, to restore a detested monarchy on the throne. Here, he writes ‘they threw their pens down in divine disgust’.
This by the way; ’tis not mine to record
What Angels shrink from: even the very Devil
On this occasion his own work abhorred,
So surfeited with the infernal revel:
Though he himself had sharpened every sword,
It almost quenched his innate thirst of evil.
(Here Satan’s sole good work deserves insertion—
‘Tis, that he has both Generals in reversion.)
Byron’s disgust and disregard for war shows itself prominently in this stanza; not only is the war wasteful, but even the very Devil is tired of it, and he names both Wellington, and Napoleon, (‘both Generals’) as agents of evil.
Let’s skip a few short years of hollow peace,
Which peopled earth no better, Hell as wont,
And Heaven none — they form the tyrant’s lease,
With nothing but new names subscribed upon’t;
‘Twill one day finish: meantime they increase,
“With seven heads and ten horns,” and all in front,
Like Saint John’s foretold beast; but ours are born
Less formidable in the head than horn.
In the first year of Freedom’s second dawn
Died George the Third; although no tyrant, one
Who shielded tyrants, till each sense withdrawn
Left him nor mental nor external sun:
A better farmer ne’er brushed dew from lawn,
A worse king never left a realm undone!
He died — but left his subjects still behind,
One half as mad — and t’other no less blind.
‘Saint John’s foretold beast’ is a direct allusion to the quote in the Bible, stating: ‘And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.’
As for ‘Freedon’s second dawn’, most of the 1800s were populated by revolutions and wars of independence. In fact, Byron died fighting for Greek Independence.
King George III was largely considered to be an ineffectual king. Blind and mad, he left the country in the rule of the Prince Regent, George IV, a man who worshipped culture and artwork beyond princely rule. King George III’s reign was studded by problems – the Napoleonic war was one of them, the American Civil war was another, as well as military problems in Africa, and farther on. Thus ‘a worse king never left a realm undone’. The references to ‘farmer’ is due to King George III’s habit of writing agricultural pamphlets under the false name Ralph Robinson.
He died! his death made no great stir on earth:
His burial made some pomp; there was profusion
Of velvet — gilding — brass — and no great dearth
Of aught but tears — save those shed by collusion:
For these things may be bought at their true worth;
Of elegy there was the due infusion—
Bought also; and the torches, cloaks and banners,
Heralds, and relics of old Gothic manners,
Formed a sepulchral melodrame. Of all
The fools who flocked to swell or see the show,
Who cared about the corpse? The funeral
Made the attraction, and the black the woe,
There throbbed not there a thought which pierced the pall;
And when the gorgeous coffin was laid low,
It seemed the mockery of hell to fold
The rottenness of eighty years in gold.
Byron’s anti-Royalist views crop up again: the pomp and circumstance of King George III’s funeral disgusts him more than anything else, keeping in mind that it was King George III’s reign who saw the birth of, not only the Napoleonic war, but also the birth of the 1820 wars of independence; hence ‘the rottenness of eighty years’, and the false attempt to cover them in gold, to glorify this tyrant-monster who led to the death of innumerable soldiers. Byron also mocks the people who go to the funeral, and alludes to the fact that they have only gone to the funeral to ‘see the show’, that is become a part of the ridiculous proceedings to appear as loyal subjects. As Byron writes, ‘his death made no great stir on earth’ – by the later portion of his reign, King George III was practically an invalid, and it was his son who ruled the country.
So mix his body with the dust! It might
Return to what it must far sooner, were
The natural compound left alone to fight
Its way back into earth, and fire, and air;
But the unnatural balsams merely blight
What Nature made him at his birth, as bare
As the mere million’s base unmummied clay—
Yet all his spices but prolong decay.
He’s dead — and upper earth with him has done;
He’s buried; save the undertaker’s bill,
Or lapidary scrawl, the world is gone
For him, unless he left a German will:
But where’s the proctor who will ask his son?
In whom his qualities are reigning still,
Except that household virtue, most uncommon,
Of constancy to a bad, ugly woman.
‘German will’ refers to King George I, his ancestor, who could speak only German, and in fact spent part of his rule in Germany, electing to return to England only when absolutely forced. As for his German will, the provisions in it were ignored by his son, King George II.
“God save the king!” It is a large economy
In God to save the like; but if he will
Be saving, all the better; for not one am I
Of those who think damnation better still:
I hardly know too if not quite alone am I
In this small hope of bettering future ill
By circumscribing, with some slight restriction,
The eternity of Hell’s hot jurisdiction.
The term ‘large economy’ refers to George IV’s problems with obesity. He references it in other poems as well, most notably his epic Don Juan (‘Gaunt famine shall never approach the throne / Though Ireland starve, king George weighs twenty stone’).
I know this is unpopular; I know
‘Tis blasphemous; I know one may be damned
For hoping no one else may e’er be so;
I know my catechism; I know we’re crammed
With the best doctrines till we quite o’erflow;
I know that all save England’s Church have shammed,
And that the other twice two hundred churches
And synagogues have made a damned bad purchase.
God help us all! God help me too! I am,
God knows, as helpless as the Devil can wish,
And not a whit more difficult to damn,
Than is to bring to land a late-hooked fish,
Or to the butcher to purvey the lamb;
Not that I’m fit for such a noble dish,
As one day will be that immortal fry
Of almost every body born to die.
Byron himself had no great allusions about his own goodness – Southey’s attack on him and the ‘Satanic school’ of poetry were cutting remarks, but in these two stanzas, Byron confesses to his own damnability, which he alludes is a problem, in part, to the rigid religious indoctrination of England – ‘I know my catechism; I know we’re crammed / With all the best doctrines till we quite o’erflow;’. However, Byron admits that he is going to Hell – he admits that he is ‘as helpless as the Devil can wish / And not a whit more difficult to dam’.
These introspective passages were not uncommon to Byron’s work. He was infamously gloomy and melancholy, as wrote Mary Shelley about him in a letter to John Murray: ‘Our Lord Byron — the fascinating — faulty — childish — philosophical being — daring the world — docile to a private circle — impetuous and indolent — gloomy and yet more gay than any other.’
Saint Peter sat by the celestial gate,
And nodded o’er his keys: when, lo! there came
A wondrous noise he had not heard of late—
A rushing sound of wind, and stream, and flame;
In short, a roar of things extremely great,
Which would have made aught save a Saint exclaim;
But he, with first a start and then a wink,
Said, “There’s another star gone out, I think!”
But ere he could return to his repose,
A Cherub flapped his right wing o’er his eyes—
At which Saint Peter yawned, and rubbed his nose:
“Saint porter,” said the angel, “prithee rise!”
Waving a goodly wing, which glowed, as glows
An earthly peacock’s tail, with heavenly dyes:
To which the saint replied, “Well, what’s the matter?
“Is Lucifer come back with all this clatter?”
“No,” quoth the Cherub: “George the Third is dead.”
“And who is George the Third?” replied the apostle:
“What George? what Third?” “The King of England,” said
The angel. “Well! he won’t find kings to jostle
Him on his way; but does he wear his head?
Because the last we saw here had a tustle,
And ne’er would have got into Heaven’s good graces,
Had he not flung his head in all our faces.
The poem returns to the scene described at the beginning. Saint Peter dozes over his keys, for his has no work to do. Starkly contrasting the furor and hubbub that Southey described in his Vision – as soon as King George III arrived in Heaven, according to Southey, the entirety of the Celestial Pantheon stopped to bask in the glory of King George III’s visitation – here, Saint Peter doesn’t know who King George III is, and only asks ‘but does he wear his head?’
It references King Louis XVI, the guillotined king of France, who was killed in 1793. Byron’s satiric commentary – ‘had he not flung his head in all our faces’ – makes this lauded event (which was spoken about quite often in Byron’s lifetime) ridiculous, and in keeping with the tone of farcical humour that Byron has been cultivating all through the very beginning.
“He was — if I remember — King of France;
That head of his, which could not keep a crown
On earth, yet ventured in my face to advance
A claim to those of martyrs — like my own:
If I had had my sword, as I had once
When I cut ears off, I had cut him down;
But having but my keys, and not my brand,
I only knocked his head from out his hand.
“And then he set up such a headless howl,
That all the Saints came out and took him in;
And there he sits by Saint Paul, cheek by jowl;
That fellow Paul — the parven—! The skin
Of Saint Bartholomew, which makes his cowl
In heaven, and upon earth redeemed his sin,
So as to make a martyr, never sped
Better than did this weak and wooden head.
‘Parven’ is a term used for someone who has risen about their social class. The use of it in a religious context makes it particularly ridiculous; since when do saints focus on social class? Byron’s careful twisting of the words makes it seem as though Heaven is very much like earth, concerned with all things that humans are concerned about – thus bringing Heaven down to a far more relatable level.
It is also amusing to note that, according to Byron, King Louis XVI only managed to get into Heaven through a tantrum.
“But had it come up here upon its shoulders,
There would have been a different tale to tell:
The fellow-feeling in the Saint’s beholders
Seems to have acted on them like a spell;
And so this very foolish head Heaven solders
Back on its trunk: it may be very well,
And seems the custom here to overthrow
Whatever has been wisely done below.”
The Angel answered, “Peter! do not pout:
The King who comes has head and all entire,
And never knew much what it was about—
He did as doth the puppet — by its wire,
And will be judged like all the rest, no doubt:
My business and your own is not to inquire
Into such matters, but to mind our cue—
Which is to act as we are bid to do.”
Another reference to King George III’s complete inability to rule.
While thus they spake, the angelic caravan,
Arriving like a rush of mighty wind,
Cleaving the fields of space, as doth the swan
Some silver stream (say Ganges, Nile, or Inde,
Or Thames, or Tweed), and midst them an old man
With an old soul, and both extremely blind,
Halted before the gate, and, in his shroud,
Seated their fellow-traveller on a cloud.
But bringing up the rear of this bright host
A Spirit of a different aspect waved
His wings, like thunder-clouds above some coast
Whose barren beach with frequent wrecks is paved;
His brow was like the deep when tempest-tossed;
Fierce and unfathomable thoughts engraved
Eternal wrath on his immortal face,
And where he gazed a gloom pervaded space.
As he drew near, he gazed upon the gate
Ne’er to be entered more by him or Sin,
With such a glance of supernatural hate,
As made Saint Peter wish himself within;
He pottered with his keys at a great rate,
And sweated through his Apostolic skin:
Of course his perspiration was but ichor,
Or some such other spiritual liquor.
The gravity and dignity afforded to Satan is untypical of the time. Certainly not in Southey’s poem; Byron’s clever phrasing leans more towards an understanding of the Devil than a plain condemnation of his existence. It is also important to note the all-encompassing strength of the Devil – he’s a primordial element, a creature of thunder and waves.
It might also be important to note that Byron alluded to himself in this stanza as well – a ‘gloom pervaded space’ could reference himself, and the frequent accusations that he received about his mannerisms.
The very Cherubs huddled all together,
Like birds when soars the falcon; and they felt
A tingling to the tip of every feather,
And formed a circle like Orion’s belt
Around their poor old charge; who scarce knew whither
His guards had led him, though they gently dealt
With royal Manes (for by many stories,
And true, we learn the Angels all are Tories).
As things were in this posture, the gate flew
Asunder, and the flashing of its hinges
Flung over space an universal hue
Of many-coloured flame, until its tinges
Reached even our speck of earth, and made a new
Aurora borealis spread its fringes
O’er the North Pole; the same seen, when ice-bound,
By Captain Parry’s crew, in “Melville’s Sound.” 18
And from the gate thrown open issued beaming
A beautiful and mighty Thing of Light,
Radiant with glory, like a banner streaming
Victorious from some world-o’erthrowing fight:
My poor comparisons must needs be teeming
With earthly likenesses, for here the night
Of clay obscures our best conceptions, saving
Johanna Southcote, or Bob Southey raving.
‘Bob Southey’ directly references Robert Southey, the hated Poet Laureate whom Byron mocked in the preface of the poem.
‘Twas the Archangel Michael: all men know
The make of Angels and Archangels, since
There’s scarce a scribbler has not one to show,
From the fiends’ leader to the Angels’ Prince.
There also are some altar-pieces, though
I really can’t say that they much evince
One’s inner notions of immortal spirits;
But let the connoisseurs explain their merits.
Michael flew forth in glory and in good;
A goodly work of him from whom all Glory
And Good arise; the portal past — he stood;
Before him the young Cherubs and Saints hoary—
(I say young, begging to be understood
By looks, not years; and should be very sorry
To state, they were not older than St. Peter,
But merely that they seemed a little sweeter).
The Cherubs and the Saints bowed down before
That arch-angelic Hierarch, the first
Of Essences angelical who wore
The aspect of a god; but this ne’er nursed
Pride in his heavenly bosom, in whose core
No thought, save for his Maker’s service, durst
Intrude, however glorified and high;
He knew him but the Viceroy of the sky.
He and the sombre, silent Spirit met—
They knew each other both for good and ill;
Such was their power, that neither could forget
His former friend and future foe; but still
There was a high, immortal, proud regret
In either’s eye, as if ’twere less their will
Than destiny to make the eternal years
Their date of war, and their “Champ Clos” the spheres.
It is easy to forget that Byron’s start in poetry was in lovelorn sonnets, as so much of his later work concerns acidic attacks on his former England. In part, it is due to the cloistered nature of English society that he was attacked so, and that he left the country, never to return; however, in stanzas such as this, the true Romantic leanings of Byron come out of the woodwork. The delicate clash of images allows an almost filmic view into Byron’s mind – it is a very simple image, comprised only of the Archangel Michael and Satan meeting, and in his phrase ‘they knew each other both for good and ill’, it references both the Bible and, possibly, Milton.
But here they were in neutral space: we know
From Job, that Satan hath the power to pay
A heavenly visit thrice a-year or so;
And that the “Sons of God,” like those of clay
Must keep him company; and we might show
From the same book, in how polite a way
The dialogue is held between the Powers
Of Good and Evil — but ‘twould take up hours.
And this is not a theologic tract,
To prove with Hebrew and with Arabic,
If Job be allegory or a fact,
But a true narrative; and thus I pick
From out the whole but such and such an act
As sets aside the slightest thought of trick.
‘Tis every tittle true, beyond suspicion,
And accurate as any other vision.
The spirits were in neutral space, before
The gate of Heaven; like eastern thresholds is
The place where Death’s grand cause is argued o’er,
And souls despatched to that world or to this;
And therefore Michael and the other wore
A civil aspect: though they did not kiss,
Yet still between his Darkness and his Brightness
There passed a mutual glance of great politeness.
There is not the same level of mutual antagonism that is viewed in contemporary works about the Devil. Instead, the Archangel Michael and the Devil are both respectful of each other, ‘there passed a mutual glance of great politeness’.
The Archangel bowed, not like a modern beau,
But with a graceful oriental bend,
Pressing one radiant arm just where below
The heart in good men is supposed to tend;
He turned as to an equal, not too low,
But kindly; Satan met his ancient friend
With more hauteur, as might an old Castilian
Poor Noble meet a mushroom rich civilian.
He merely bent his diabolic brow
An instant; and then raising it, he stood
In act to assert his right or wrong, and show
Cause why King George by no means could or should
Make out a case to be exempt from woe
Eternal, more than other kings, endued
With better sense and hearts, whom History mentions,
Who long have “paved Hell with their good intentions.”
Michael began: “What wouldst thou with this man,
Now dead, and brought before the Lord? What ill
Hath he wrought since his mortal race began,
That thou canst claim him? Speak! and do thy will,
If it be just: if in this earthly span
He hath been greatly failing to fulfil
His duties as a king and mortal, say,
And he is thine; if not — let him have way.”
Byron’s attention to manners here is a direct allusion to Southey’s lack of manners in addressing the supposed ‘Satanic school’ of writing.
“Michael!” replied the Prince of Air, “even here
Before the gate of Him thou servest, must
I claim my subject: and will make appear
That as he was my worshipper in dust,
So shall he be in spirit, although dear
To thee and thine, because nor wine nor lust
Were of his weaknesses; yet on the throne
He reigned o’er millions to serve me alone.
“Look to our earth, or rather mine; it was,
Once, more thy master’s: but I triumph not
In this poor planet’s conquest; nor, alas!
Need he thou servest envy me my lot:
With all the myriads of bright worlds which pass
In worship round him, he may have forgot
Yon weak creation of such paltry things:
I think few worth damnation save their kings,
Satan – the Prince of Air, another name lifted directly from the Bible – argues that King George III, although not drunk and not one to chase after women, caused the ruination of the world in his name, and his name alone.
“And these but as a kind of quit-rent, to
Assert my right as Lord: and even had
I such an inclination, ’twere (as you
Well know) superfluous; they are grown so bad,
That Hell has nothing better left to do
Than leave them to themselves: so much more mad
And evil by their own internal curse,
Heaven cannot make them better, nor I worse.
“Look to the earth, I said, and say again:
When this old, blind, mad, helpless, weak, poor worm 20
Began in youth’s first bloom and flush to reign,
The world and he both wore a different form,
And much of earth and all the watery plain
Of Ocean called him king: through many a storm
His isles had floated on the abyss of Time;
For the rough virtues chose them for their clime.
“He came to his sceptre young; he leaves it old:
Look to the state in which he found his realm,
And left it; and his annals too behold,
How to a minion first he gave the helm;
How grew upon his heart a thirst for gold,
The beggar’s vice, which can but overwhelm
The meanest hearts; and for the rest, but glance
Thine eye along America and France.
“‘Tis true, he was a tool from first to last
(I have the workmen safe); but as a tool
So let him be consumed. From out the past
Of ages, since mankind have known the rule
Of monarchs — from the bloody rolls amassed
Of Sin and Slaughter — from the C‘sars’ school,
Take the worst pupil; and produce a reign
More drenched with gore, more cumbered with the slain.
Here, Satan goes through the faults of King George III’s reign – his true weakness, according to Satan, was a thirst for gold, and a natural passivity of character, a habit of passing the buck to ‘a minion’. This is not entirely accurate – King George III was not overly addicted to money (that would be his son) and he used his ministers as much as they used him, sometimes overriding their rule on other things.
He also references the problems in America and France; France, twenty years of bloodshed and mayhem during the Napoleonic wars, and America, the American Revolution, where America finally revolted against the reign of the United Kingdom.
“He ever warred with freedom and the free:
Nations as men, home subjects, foreign foes,
So that they uttered the word ‘Liberty!’
Found George the Third their first opponent. Whose
History was ever stained as his will be
With national and individual woes?
I grant his household abstinence; I grant
His neutral virtues, which most monarchs want;
“I know he was a constant consort; own
He was a decent sire, and middling lord.
All this is much, and most upon a throne;
As temperance, if at Apicius’ board,
Is more than at an anchorite’s supper shown.
I grant him all the kindest can accord;
And this was well for him, but not for those
Millions who found him what Oppression chose.
“The New World shook him off; the Old yet groans
Beneath what he and his prepared, if not
Completed: he leaves heirs on many thrones
To all his vices, without what begot
Compassion for him — his tame virtues; drones
Who sleep, or despots who have now forgot
A lesson which shall be re-taught them, wake
Upon the thrones of earth; but let them quake!
The New World is a colloquial and contemporary name for America. The Old World was Europe – this dichotomy crops up in authors such as Henry James, who allocate innocence to the New World, and seduction and Machiavellian assets to the Old. Here, Satan pleads as though before a jury – he goes through all the evil that King George has left behind (separating America from the United Kingdom; the wars of independence that were going on during his reign,and raged on still).
“Five millions of the primitive, who hold
The faith which makes ye great on earth, implored
A part of that vast all they held of old,—
Freedom to worship — not alone your Lord,
Michael, but you, and you, Saint Peter! Cold
Must be your souls, if you have not abhorred
The foe to Catholic participation
In all the license of a Christian nation.
“True! he allowed them to pray God; but as
A consequence of prayer, refused the law
Which would have placed them upon the same base
With those who did not hold the Saints in awe.”
But here Saint Peter started from his place
And cried, “You may the prisoner withdraw:
Ere Heaven shall ope her portals to this Guelph,
While I am guard, may I be damned myself!
One of King George III’s primary rulings was against civil rights afforded to British Catholics; ironically, Satan states this, pointing out that King George III, as a Protestant, would not have worshipped Saint Peter or any of the other saints. At this, Saint Peter starts, and says that he refuses to take in King George III – again, showing both concern of his opinion, as well as a certain level of pride.
“Sooner will I with Cerberus exchange
My office (and his is no sinecure)
Than see this royal Bedlam-bigot range
The azure fields of Heaven, of that be sure!”
“Saint!” replied Satan, “you do well to avenge
The wrongs he made your satellites endure;
And if to this exchange you should be given,
I’ll try to coax our Cerberus up to Heaven!”
‘Bedlam’ was a well-known asylum, a colloquialism born out of The Royal Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane. To allude to King George III’s mental issues so soon after his death would have left people up in arms, which was why Byron alludes to it so prominently.
Here Michael interposed: “Good Saint! and Devil!
Pray, not so fast; you both outrun discretion.
Saint Peter! you were wont to be more civil:
Satan! excuse this warmth of his expression,
And condescension to the vulgar’s level:
Even Saints sometimes forget themselves in session.
Have you got more to say?” — “No.” — “If you please,
I’ll trouble you to call your witnesses.”
Then Satan turned and waved his swarthy hand,
Which stirred with its electric qualities
Clouds farther off than we can understand,
Although we find him sometimes in our skies;
Infernal thunder shook both sea and land
In all the planets — and Hell’s batteries
Let off the artillery, which Milton mentions
As one of Satan’s most sublime inventions.
The beauty of the imagery here calls back to the early days of Byron’s writing. At this point, the Archangel Michael calls Satan to bring forth his witness to all the bad things that King George III has done. By making it such a drawn-out and human experience, Byron once more pulls down the leagues of Heaven to a level that is far more understandable for readers of his poetry, though at the same time, it is horribly blasphemous and would have had polite society in a rage.
This was a signal unto such damned souls
As have the privilege of their damnation
Extended far beyond the mere controls
Of worlds past, present, or to come; no station
Is theirs particularly in the rolls
Of Hell assigned; but where their inclination
Or business carries them in search of game,
They may range freely — being damned the same.
They are proud of this — as very well they may,
It being a sort of knighthood, or gilt key
Stuck in their loins; or like to an “entr‚”
Up the back stairs, or such free-masonry.
I borrow my comparisons from clay,
Being clay myself. Let not those spirits be
Offended with such base low likenesses;
We know their posts are nobler far than these.
Cheekily, Byron references the ‘gilt key’ that the Lord Chamberlain would have carried, once more strengthening the allusion between humanity and Heaven, while at the same time stating that the demons are ‘nobler far’ than the Lord Chamberlain and humanity in general.
When the great signal ran from Heaven to Hell—
About ten million times the distance reckoned
From our sun to its earth, as we can tell
How much time it takes up, even to a second,
For every ray that travels to dispel
The fogs of London, through which, dimly beaconed,
The weathercocks are gilt some thrice a year,
If that the summer is not too severe:
I say that I can tell — ’twas half a minute;
I know the solar beams take up more time
Ere, packed up for their journey, they begin it;
But then their Telegraph is less sublime,
And if they ran a race, they would not win it
‘Gainst Satan’s couriers bound for their own clime.
The sun takes up some years for every ray
To reach its goal — the Devil not half a day.
Upon the verge of space, about the size
Of half-a-crown, a little speck appeared
(I’ve seen a something like it in the skies
In the ’gean, ere a squall); it neared,
And, growing bigger, took another guise;
Like an aerial ship it tacked, and steered,
Or was steered (I am doubtful of the grammar
Of the last phrase, which makes the stanza stammer;
But take your choice): and then it grew a cloud;
And so it was — a cloud of witnesses.
But such a cloud! No land ere saw a crowd
Of locusts numerous as the heavens saw these;
They shadowed with their myriads Space; their loud
And varied cries were like those of wild geese,
(If nations may be likened to a goose),
And realised the phrase of “Hell broke loose,”
Satan calls for witnesses to King George III’s terrible reign, and Byron describes this process – riffing on Southey’s Vision, particularly in the description of Satan’s couriers.
Here crashed a sturdy oath of stout John Bull,
Who damned away his eyes as heretofore:
There Paddy brogued “By Jasus!” — “What’s your wull?”
The temperate Scot exclaimed: the French ghost swore
In certain terms I shan’t translate in full,
As the first coachman will; and ‘midst the war,
The voice of Jonathan was heard to express,
“Our President is going to war, I guess.”
Besides there were the Spaniard, Dutch, and Dane;
In short, an universal shoal of shades
From Otaheite’s isle to Salisbury Plain,
Of all climes and professions, years and trades,
Ready to swear against the good king’s reign,
Bitter as clubs in cards are against spades:
All summoned by this grand “subpoena,” to
Try if kings mayn’t be damned like me or you.
The witnesses to King George III’s reign are allegories to countries: John Bull was the image of the stereotypical Briton, Paddy stood in for Scotland; French, Spaniard, Dutch, and Danish, all of which came from countries whom King George III’s reign had affected.
The term ‘subpoena’ once more draws a delicate allusion between humanity and heaven.
When Michael saw this host, he first grew pale,
As Angels can; next, like Italian twilight,
He turned all colours — as a peacock’s tail,
Or sunset streaming through a Gothic skylight
In some old abbey, or a trout not stale,
Or distant lightning on the horizon by night,
Or a fresh rainbow, or a grand review
Of thirty regiments in red, green, and blue.
Then he addressed himself to Satan: “Why—
My good old friend, for such I deem you, though
Our different parties make us fight so shy,
I ne’er mistake you for a personal foe;
Our difference is political, and I
Trust that, whatever may occur below,
You know my great respect for you: and this
Makes me regret whate’er you do amiss—
“Why, my dear Lucifer, would you abuse
My call for witnesses? I did not mean
That you should half of Earth and Hell produce;
‘Tis even superfluous, since two honest, clean,
True testimonies are enough: we lose
Our Time, nay, our Eternity, between
The accusation and defence: if we
Hear both, ’twill stretch our immortality.”
Michael’s politeness towards Satan is once more a reference, and a direct attack, on Southey’s own rudeness with regards to the Satanic school, as well as the general ill-manners that Southey showed towards Byron and towards Shelley. Here, the very symbolism of righteous Heaven is polite to his enemy, stating that he never mistook him for a personal foe, and that their difference is political – perhaps this was Byron’s clever way of shaming Southey for his terrible manners.
Satan replied, “To me the matter is
Indifferent, in a personal point of view:
I can have fifty better souls than this
With far less trouble than we have gone through
Already; and I merely argued his
Late Majesty of Britain’s case with you
Upon a point of form: you may dispose
Of him; I’ve kings enough below, God knows!”
Thus spoke the Demon (late called “multifaced”
By multo-scribbling Southey). “Then we’ll call
One or two persons of the myriads placed
Around our congress, and dispense with all
The rest,” quoth Michael: “Who may be so graced
As to speak first? there’s choice enough — who shall
It be?” Then Satan answered, “There are many;
But you may choose Jack Wilkes as well as any.”
It turns out that not even Satan wants King George III. He states ‘I’ve kings enough below, God knows’, and that he only argued with Michael and Saint Peter as a matter of course.
Jack Wilkes was a British politician who argued for the freedom of the press, and a foe of King George III’s. Notoriously ugly and corrupt, Southey hated him, and wrote against him and his election to the Commons, from which he was often expelled due to incidents. It is no small secret why Byron chooses to put Jack Wilkes in here now.
A merry, cock-eyed, curious-looking Sprite
Upon the instant started from the throng,
Dressed in a fashion now forgotten quite;
For all the fashions of the flesh stick long
By people in the next world; where unite
All the costumes since Adam’s, right or wrong,
From Eve’s fig-leaf down to the petticoat,
Almost as scanty, of days less remote.
The Spirit looked around upon the crowds
Assembled, and exclaimed, “My friends of all
The spheres, we shall catch cold amongst these clouds;
So let’s to business: why this general call?
If those are freeholders I see in shrouds,
And ’tis for an election that they bawl,
Behold a candidate with unturned coat!
Saint Peter, may I count upon your vote?”
“Sir,” replied Michael, “you mistake; these things
Are of a former life, and what we do
Above is more august; to judge of kings
Is the tribunal met: so now you know.”
“Then I presume those gentlemen with wings,”
Said Wilkes, “are Cherubs; and that soul below
Looks much like George the Third, but to my mind
A good deal older — bless me! is he blind?”
“He is what you behold him, and his doom
Depends upon his deeds,” the Angel said;
“If you have aught to arraign in him, the tomb
Gives license to the humblest beggar’s head
To lift itself against the loftiest.” — “Some,”
Said Wilkes, “don’t wait to see them laid in lead,
For such a liberty — and I, for one,
Have told them what I thought beneath the sun.”
“Above the sun repeat, then, what thou hast
To urge against him,” said the Archangel. “Why,”
Replied the spirit, “since old scores are past,
Must I turn evidence? In faith, not I.
Besides, I beat him hollow at the last,
With all his Lords and Commons: in the sky
I don’t like ripping up old stories, since
His conduct was but natural in a prince.
Jack Wilkes – or John Wilkes – near the end of his career, reneged on his beliefs, and became a staunch supporter of King George III. Here, Byron has him go through the same motions: reneging on the idea of speaking out against King George III and refusing to testify against his reign.
“Foolish, no doubt, and wicked, to oppress
A poor unlucky devil without a shilling;
But then I blame the man himself much less
Than Bute and Grafton, and shall be unwilling
To see him punished here for their excess,
Since they were both damned long ago, and still in
Their place below: for me, I have forgiven,
And vote his habeas corpus into Heaven.”
“Wilkes,” said the Devil, “I understand all this;
You turned to half a courtier ere you died,
And seem to think it would not be amiss
To grow a whole one on the other side
Of Charon’s ferry; you forget that his
Reign is concluded; whatsoe’er betide,
He won’t be sovereign more: you’ve lost your labour,
For at the best he will but be your neighbour.
Here, Satan himself references the episode of Jack Wilkes becoming King George III’s supporter, and states that it is useless to support him now, as he has no more power, and thus Jack Wilkes will not gain anything from supporting King George III.
“However, I knew what to think of it,
When I beheld you in your jesting way,
Flitting and whispering round about the spit
Where Belial, upon duty for the day,
With Fox’s lard was basting William Pitt,
His pupil; I knew what to think, I say:
That fellow even in Hell breeds farther ills;
I’ll have him gagged — ’twas one of his own Bills.
Charles James Fox and William Pitt the Younger were political rivals.
“Call Junius!” From the crowd a shadow stalked,
And at the name there was a general squeeze,
So that the very ghosts no longer walked
In comfort, at their own aerial ease,
But were all rammed, and jammed (but to be balked,
As we shall see), and jostled hands and knees,
Like wind compressed and pent within a bladder,
Or like a human colic, which is sadder.
The shadow came — a tall, thin, grey-haired figure,
That looked as it had been a shade on earth;
Quick in its motions, with an air of vigour,
But nought to mark its breeding or its birth;
Now it waxed little, then again grew bigger,
With now an air of gloom, or savage mirth;
But as you gazed upon its features, they
Changed every instant — to what, none could say.
Junius was the pen-name of a vitriolic hater of King George III’s regime. No-one ever found out who penned the letters to King George, hence the constantly changing features.
The more intently the ghosts gazed, the less
Could they distinguish whose the features were;
The Devil himself seemed puzzled even to guess;
They varied like a dream — now here, now there;
And several people swore from out the press, 
They knew him perfectly; and one could swear
He was his father; upon which another
Was sure he was his mother’s cousin’s brother:
Another, that he was a duke, or knight,
An orator, a lawyer, or a priest,
A nabob, a man-midwife; but the wight
Mysterious changed his countenance at least
As oft as they their minds: though in full sight
He stood, the puzzle only was increased;
The man was a phantasmagoria in
Himself — he was so volatile and thin.
The moment that you had pronounced him one,
Presto! his face changed, and he was another;
And when that change was hardly well put on,
It varied, till I don’t think his own mother
(If that he had a mother) would her son
Have known, he shifted so from one to t’other;
Till guessing from a pleasure grew a task,
At this epistolary “Iron Mask.”
The Iron Mask references a mysterious prisoner in France. Kept captive for over 40 years by the late King Louis XIV, opinion ranged about who he was. It was one of the greatest mysteries of Byron’s time.
For sometimes he like Cerberus would seem—
“Three gentlemen at once” (as sagely says
Good Mrs. Malaprop); then you might deem
That he was not even one; now many rays
Were flashing round him; and now a thick steam
Hid him from sight — like fogs on London days:
Now Burke, now Tooke, he grew to people’s fancies
And certes often like Sir Philip Francis.
I’ve an hypothesis — ’tis quite my own;
I never let it out till now, for fear
Of doing people harm about the throne, [
And injuring some minister or peer,
On whom the stigma might perhaps be blown;
It is — my gentle public, lend thine ear!
‘Tis, that what Junius we are wont to call,
Was really — truly — nobody at all.
I don’t see wherefore letters should not be
Written without hands, since we daily view
Them written without heads; and books, we see,
Are filled as well without the latter too:
And really till we fix on somebody 
For certain sure to claim them as his due,
Their author, like the Niger’s mouth, will bother
The world to say if there be mouth or author.
Byron writes that it is quite often for books to be written without heads, so why should it not be the same for letters? His theory on who Junius was is simply that: nobody at all.
“And who and what art thou?” the Archangel said.
“For that you may consult my title-page,”
Replied this mighty shadow of a shade:
“If I have kept my secret half an age,
I scarce shall tell it now.” — “Canst thou upbraid,”
Continued Michael, “George Rex, or allege
Aught further?” Junius answered, “You had better
First ask him for his answer to my letter:
“My charges upon record will outlast
The brass of both his epitaph and tomb.” 33
“Repent’st thou not,” said Michael, “of some past
Exaggeration? something which may doom 
Thyself if false, as him if true? Thou wast
Too bitter — is it not so? — in thy gloom
Of passion?” — “Passion!” cried the phantom dim,
“I loved my country, and I hated him.
Junius here states that ‘my charges upon record will outlast / the brass of both his epitaph and tomb’, thus stating that infamy is a far more memorable thing than praise, and that the reign of King George will not be memorized in mind as the benevolent reign that Southey is attempting to write about.
The last line – “I loved my country, and I hated him” – is simple and dignified, a direct contrast of Southey’s description of Junius:
Nameless the libeller lived, and shot his arrows in darkness;
Undetected he pass’d to the grave, and leaving behind him
Noxious works on earth, and the pest of an evil example,
Went to the world beyond, where no offences are hidden.
Mask’d had he been in his life, and now a visor of iron
Rivetted around his head, had abolish’d his features for ever. S
peechless the slanderer stood, and turn’d his face from the Monarch
Iron-bound as it was, so insupportably dreadful
Soon or late to conscious guilt is the eye of the injured.
“What I have written, I have written: let
The rest be on his head or mine!” So spoke
Old “Nominis Umbra”; and while speaking yet,
Away he melted in celestial smoke.
Then Satan said to Michael, “Don’t forget
To call George Washington, and John Horne Tooke,
And Franklin”; — but at this time there was heard
A cry for room, though not a phantom stirred.
At length with jostling, elbowing, and the aid
Of Cherubim appointed to that post,
The devil Asmodeus to the circle made
His way, and looked as if his journey cost
Some trouble. When his burden down he laid,
“What’s this?” cried Michael; “why, ’tis not a ghost?”
“I know it,” quoth the Incubus; “but he
Shall be one, if you leave the affair to me.
“Confound the renegado! I have sprained
My left wing, he’s so heavy; one would think
Some of his works about his neck were chained.
But to the point; while hovering o’er the brink
Of Skiddaw (where as usual it still rained),
I saw a taper, far below me, wink,
And stooping, caught this fellow at a libel—
No less on History — than the Holy Bible.
This is the introduction to Southey. Contrary to the dignity afforded to everyone at this point – even the Devil benefitted from Byron’s pen – Southey is unceremoniously lumped down onto the floor by the devil Asmodeus, who ominously implies that it would be his greatest pleasure to turn Southey into a ghost, as well as mocking the ‘heavy’ nature of his poetry.
The libel mentioned could be Southey’s own version of ‘The Vision of Judgement’, which had a heavy amount of Biblical inspiration, the same way that Byron’s did, but being written in a far more overwrought and Spensarian tone.
“The former is the Devil’s scripture, and
The latter yours, good Michael: so the affair
Belongs to all of us, you understand.
I snatched him up just as you see him there,
And brought him off for sentence out of hand:
I’ve scarcely been ten minutes in the air—
At least a quarter it can hardly be:
I dare say that his wife is still at tea.”
Here Satan said, “I know this man of old,
And have expected him for some time here;
A sillier fellow you will scarce behold,
Or more conceited in his petty sphere:
But surely it was not worth while to fold
Such trash below your wing, Asmodeus dear:
We had the poor wretch safe (without being bored
With carriage) coming of his own accord.
“But since he’s here, let’s see what he has done.”
“Done!” cried Asmodeus, “he anticipates
The very business you are now upon,
And scribbles as if head clerk to the Fates.
Who knows to what his ribaldry may run,
When such an ass as this, like Balaam’s, prates?”
“Let’s hear,” quoth Michael, “what he has to say:
You know we’re bound to that in every way.”
Southey’s crime: writing ‘The Vision of Judgement’. This alone, according to Byron, is enough to condemn him to eternal torment in Hell, though as the Devil points out, they expected Southey ‘coming of his own accord’.
Now the bard, glad to get an audience, which
By no means often was his case below,
Began to cough, and hawk, and hem, and pitch
His voice into that awful note of woe
To all unhappy hearers within reach
Of poets when the tide of rhyme’s in flow;
But stuck fast with his first hexameter,
Not one of all whose gouty feet would stir.
‘The Vision of Judgement’ was written in hexameters, something that critics derided Southey for.
But ere the spavined dactyls could be spurred
Into recitative, in great dismay
Both Cherubim and Seraphim were heard
To murmur loudly through their long array;
And Michael rose ere he could get a word
Of all his foundered verses under way,
And cried, “For God’s sake stop, my friend! ’twere best—
‘Non Di, non homines’ — you know the rest.”
‘Non di, non homines’ is a reversion of a Horace quote whose full translation means ‘Neither men nor gods nor booksellers can tolerate mediocre poetry’.
A general bustle spread throughout the throng,
Which seemed to hold all verse in detestation;
The Angels had of course enough of song
When upon service; and the generation
Of ghosts had heard too much in life, not long
Before, to profit by a new occasion:
The Monarch, mute till then, exclaimed, “What! what!
Pye come again? No more — no more of that!”
Even the Monarch to whom the poem is dedicated hates it and begs Southey to stop.
The tumult grew; an universal cough
Convulsed the skies, as during a debate,
When Castlereagh has been up long enough
(Before he was first minister of state
I mean — the slaves hear now); some cried “Off, off!”
As at a farce; till, grown quite desperate,
The Bard Saint Peter prayed to interpose
(Himself an author) only for his prose.
The varlet was not an ill-favoured knave;
A good deal like a vulture in the face,
With a hook nose and a hawk’s eye, which gave
A smart and sharper-looking sort of grace
To his whole aspect, which, though rather grave,
Was by no means so ugly as his case; [
But that, indeed, was hopeless as can be,
Quite a poetic felony “de se.”
Then Michael blew his trump, and stilled the noise
With one still greater, as is yet the mode
On earth besides; except some grumbling voice,
Which now and then will make a slight inroad
Upon decorous silence, few will twice
Lift up their lungs when fairly overcrowed;
And now the Bard could plead his own bad cause,
With all the attitudes of self-applause.
The trumpet that the Archangel Michael blows, in the Bible, announces the war of Heaven – it is a kind of ‘last resort’, that Byron has him utilize now in order to get Southey to stop his poem.
He said — (I only give the heads) — he said,
He meant no harm in scribbling; ’twas his way
Upon all topics; ’twas, besides, his bread,
Of which he buttered both sides; ‘twould delay
Too long the assembly (he was pleased to dread),
And take up rather more time than a day,
To name his works — he would but cite a few—
“Wat Tyler” — “Rhymes on Blenheim” — “Waterloo.”
He had written praises of a Regicide;
He had written praises of all kings whatever;
He had written for republics far and wide,
And then against them bitterer than ever;
For pantisocracy he once had cried
Aloud, a scheme less moral than ’twas clever;
Then grew a hearty anti-jacobin—
Had turned his coat — and would have turned his skin.
He had sung against all battles, and again
In their high praise and glory; he had called
Reviewing “the ungentle craft,” and then
Became as base a critic as e’er crawled—
Fed, paid, and pampered by the very men
By whom his muse and morals had been mauled:
He had written much blank verse, and blanker prose,
And more of both than any body knows.
Southey was well known to write, according to Byron, ‘buttered both sides’; he wrote for and against the very topics that he spoke of.
Pantisocracy was a spiritual commune he was once planning to set up in America, with Coleridge and a few other writers.
He had written Wesley’s life: — here turning round
To Satan, “Sir, I’m ready to write yours,
In two octavo volumes, nicely bound,
With notes and preface, all that most allures
The pious purchaser; and there’s no ground
For fear, for I can choose my own reviewers:
So let me have the proper documents,
That I may add you to my other saints.”
Satan bowed, and was silent. “Well, if you,
With amiable modesty, decline
My offer, what says Michael? There are few
Whose memoirs could be rendered more divine.
Mine is a pen of all work; not so new
As it was once, but I would make you shine
Like your own trumpet. By the way, my own
Has more of brass in it, and is as well blown
“But talking about trumpets, here’s my ‘Vision!’
Now you shall judge, all people — yes — you shall
Judge with my judgment! and by my decision
Be guided who shall enter heaven or fall.
I settle all these things by intuition,
Times present, past, to come — Heaven — Hell — and all,
Like King Alfonso. When I thus see double,
I save the Deity some worlds of trouble.”
He ceased, and drew forth an MS.; and no
Persuasion on the part of Devils, Saints,
Or Angels, now could stop the torrent; so
He read the first three lines of the contents;
But at the fourth, the whole spiritual show
Had vanished, with variety of scents,
Ambrosial and sulphureous, as they sprang,
Like lightning, off from his “melodious twang.”
Southey once again attempts to read his poem, hoping to sway Satan into allowing him to write his biography – as, again, Satan remained quiet when Southey was speaking to him. Immediately, angels and cherubim vanish, fleeing from Southey’s poetry.
Those grand heroics acted as a spell;
The Angels stopped their ears and plied their pinions;
The Devils ran howling, deafened, down to Hell;
The ghosts fled, gibbering, for their own dominions—
(For ’tis not yet decided where they dwell,
And I leave every man to his opinions);
Michael took refuge in his trump — but, lo!
His teeth were set on edge, he could not blow!
Saint Peter, who has hitherto been known
For an impetuous saint, upraised his keys,
And at the fifth line knocked the poet down;
Who fell like Phaeton, but more at ease,
Into his lake, for there he did not drown;
A different web being by the Destinies
Woven for the Laureate’s final wreath, whene’er
Reform shall happen either here or there.
He first sank to the bottom — like his works,
But soon rose to the surface — like himself;
For all corrupted things are buoyed like corks,
By their own rottenness, light as an elf,
Or wisp that flits o’er a morass: he lurks,
It may be, still, like dull books on a shelf,
In his own den, to scrawl some “Life” or “Vision,”
As Welborn says — “the Devil turned precisian.”
Saint Peter, having had enough of Southey, knocks him back down to Earth and into a lake. However, Southey, undefeated, bobs to the surface of the lake and slopes off to write more poetry. This distraction, however, is enough to allow King George III his entrance into Heaven.
As for the rest, to come to the conclusion
Of this true dream, the telescope is gone
Which kept my optics free from all delusion,
And showed me what I in my turn have shown;
All I saw farther, in the last confusion,
Was, that King George slipped into Heaven for one;
And when the tumult dwindled to a calm,
I left him practising the hundredth psalm.
Although Southey’s The Vision of Judgement was almost universally despised, Byron’s didn’t fare much better. The Courier for 26 October 1822 described Byron as having “a brain from heaven and a heart from hell”, assuring its readers that he “riots in thoughts that fiends might envy,” and “seems to have lived only that the world might learn from his example how worthless and how pernicious a thing is genius, when divorced from religion, from morals, and from humanity.”
That said, Byron’s version is far more popular and well known, whereas Southey’s has sank into complete mystery. As Geoffrey Charnel wrote, “Southey’s reputation has never recovered from Byron’s ridicule.”