The Vision of Judgment Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Byron had already mocked Robert Southey in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809) and in his dedication to Don Juan, but his ridicule of Southey is at its pinnacle in The Vision of Judgment. Byron hated Southey for many reasons. He disapproved of the poetry of Southey and even the greater “Lake School” poets, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He also resented Southey’s turn to conservatism later in life, marked by his being made poet laureate in 1813. Moreover, Southey had spread vicious rumors about Byron’s personal life. Upon the death of King George III, Southey, in his role as poet laureate, wrote a sycophantic celebration of George’s glorious entry into heaven, A Vision of Judgment (1821). In this work, Southey lashed out at Byron, ascribing him to the “Satanic” school. Byron retorted with The Vision of Judgment. John Murray, Byron’s publisher, was becoming increasingly fearful of the British disapproval of Byron’s work, so Byron published the poem in the new literary journal The Liberal, edited by Byron and John Hunt, later Byron’s new publisher.

In Byron’s poem, Saint Peter waits, bored, by the gates of Heaven, his keys rusty and the lock dull with disuse. The angels have nothing to do but sing. Only the angel who records the names of souls lost to hell is overworked, even requesting additional help. Satan is so busy that his thirst for evil is almost quenched. The death of George III brings hypocritical mourning on earth, people drawn to the pomp without really caring about him. Upon hearing that King George III has died, Saint Peter recalls that the last royal entry into Heaven was by the beheaded King Louis XVI, who was admitted as a martyr by playing on the sympathy of the saints.

While the Archangel Michael and Satan debate over who will get the soul of George III, witnesses are called. These include one who praises George, obviously to flatter him, and the anonymous letter writer known as “Junius” who criticized George and who refuses to recant his writings. Then Southey arrives and starts to recite his A Vision of Judgment. By the fourth line, the angels and devils have fled in terror. At the fifth line, Saint Peter uses his keys to knock Southey into his lake. In the confusion, George slips unobserved into Heaven.