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A Vision of Judgment

October 15, 2013

Vision of Judgement


On this day in 1822, Byron’s most completely successful satirical and republican poem The Vision of Judgment was published.

The poem steals the title and the structure of Robert Southey’s Vision of Judgment, a poem written to celebrate the recently deceased George III’s triumphant entry into Heaven.   Southey’s poem is fascinatingly awful.  Everybody is reconciled in an after state.  For example, George III meets George Washington in the next world where they regret any little misunderstandings they may have had in life and they hug, becoming the best of chums.  Unforgivably, Southey even makes John Milton a monarchist in Heaven.

In Byron’s version of the poem, the bewildered soul of George III is claimed by Satan, who cites the extraordinary crimes and cruelties that have accumulated during the King’s sixty year reign.

Some critics have argued that the poem is ultimately sympathetic to the person of George III, and that Vision of Judgment cannot count as a republican poem.   On the contrary, the poem indulges the best kind of republican sympathy for the prisoner of the hollow crown, and is all the more effectively republican for launching a systemic rather than a personal attack on monarchy.  The problem with George III is not that he was an especially cruel or rapacious ruler, but that he stuck doggedly to a definition of royal prerogative that has long since passed its sell-by date.    The poor old man who has arrived to give an account of himself is the product of his environment, is limited by the hidebound mentality of monarchism itself.

By criticising the nature of monarchy, the poem became subject to extreme denunciations in the press.  Any sense of measured critical response was thrown out of the window and reviewers merely competed to see who could damn the poem the loudest.  As The Courier remarked, Byron: “riots in thoughts that fiends might envy,”

The entire poem can be found via this link:

Some of the best lines are spoken by Satan early on in the poem.

“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,

“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
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.

“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!

“Five millions of the primitive, who hold
The faith which makes ye great on earth, implored
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.

The poem itself owes much to Seneca’s satirical work, the Pumpkinification of Claudius (Apocolocyntosis (divi) Claudii), written to flatter the young emperor Nero by sneering at his late stepfather.  Seneca’s work does not attack the idea of emperors – only the inadequate Claudius, whose shabby rule is to be contrasted with the glorious incoming reign of Nero.  Unlike Claudius, Byron’s George III slips into Heaven unawares, where the Byron is content to leave him.  If Seneca is hideously wrong about young Nero, Byron cherishes no illusions about George IV.

The most personal abuse in the poem is directed by Byron not at George III but at Robert Southey, the poet laureate.   The toadyism of the laureate illustrates Byron’s sense that the truest abusive beneficiaries of monarchy are the self serving parasites who use flattery to organise their own careers.  Southey offers to write Satan’s biography at one point in the poem, illustrating just how flexible yet predictable the figure of the court parasite is.  In the final analysis, monarchy is accused of encouraging the likes of Southey, of sponsoring a poetry of patronage, of promoting those with a fail-safe gravitational attraction to power in any way shape or form.  Kings are what they are – what they have been brought up to be.  It is the politicians and courtiers who profit from kings who should be damned.

In the final analysis, Vision of Judgment is a poem about freedom, in particular the freedom of critical intellect .  In Byron’s version the visionary prospect is that of judgement itself, unfettered, piercing and playful.


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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Byron’s Vision of Judgment – 192 years young today.

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