George Gordon, Lord Byron’s The Vision of Judgment is a special type of satire, a travesty, unique in that its excellence far outweighs that of the original, Robert Southey’s A Vision of Judgment (1821), which would have remained virtually unread had Byron not satirized it. Byron’s travesty was managed with such skill that Southey could not even retaliate without making himself appear more absurd. Southey’s lengthy poem extravagantly praised the recently deceased George III (who died January 29, 1820), describing his arrival at the gates of heaven, his response to attacks from enemies, and his triumphant entry into heaven.
Byron’s shorter version (106 stanzas) opens with Saint Peter at the gates of heaven, nodding over his rusty keys. He and his fellow saints and angels have little to occupy themselves since so few petitioners for entry have appeared. Only the Recording Angel, busy listing all of humankind’s transgressions, has been so occupied that he has stripped his wings for quills (pens) and must be assisted by six angels and twelve saints. The Napoleonic Wars, and especially the battle of Waterloo, created so many casualties that the Recorder is disgusted.
After skipping “a few short years of hollow peace,” Byron focuses on the death of George and his elaborate funeral rites and then pauses to reflect on the passing of the eighty-year-old monarch. The narrative returns to Saint Peter, alerted by a cherub to the impending arrival of George III, whom Peter does not recognize (a jibe at the monarch’s lack of virtue). Peter remarks that few kings reside in heaven and recalls Louis XVI’s arrival, carrying his head; when refused admission, his howls caused sympathetic saints to receive him. As Peter is assured that the puppetlike George will be judged fairly, a caravan of angels escorts George to the gate; in the rear is Satan—aristocratic, disdainful, fierce—reminiscent of John Milton’s Satan in the beginning of Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), as well as of Byron’s own romantic heroes. Satan is so frightening that he terrifies Peter and the cherubs, who huddle together to protect themselves and George.
At this point in the poem,...
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