The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 906

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.

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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, the gates fly open for the great archangel Michael, worthy adversary of Satan. Byron, in jest, withholds further description of Michael, affirming himself unable to match the ravings of “Bob Southey” and Johanna Southcote (religious fanatic and versifier). The confrontation between the fallen angel Lucifer (Satan) and his onetime adversary, Michael, constitutes the great dramatic highlight of the poem. Michael, “the viceroy of the sky,” is greeted with respect by the assembled angels. Both Michael and Satan seem worthy combatants as they salute each other politely across neutral space. Like an elegant gentleman, Michael bows to his foe; Satan greets him haughtily but civilly (“He merely bent his diabolic brow”). Both acknowledge “a proud regret” that their destinies have been so different. Byron then digresses to cite authority for Satan’s visit to heaven in an allusion to the story of Job. Michael invites Satan to state his claim to George III.

Satan, as “prosecuting attorney,” charges George with responsibility for terrible slaughter and strong opposition to liberty. Satan points out that during his reign George had served Satan, and although he exercised some domestic virtues (being a good husband and father), the king’s great sins were public, affecting millions. Given the location of this “trial,” perhaps Satan’s most damning charge is George’s lack of religious toleration. Saint Peter is ready to concede Satan’s claim, but Michael chides both for lack of discretion and calls for witnesses to prove Satan’s case.

At Satan’s signal, “a cloud of witnesses” appears, representing such a spectrum of interests that Michael pales, then turns color, and assures Satan that only a few witnesses need to be called. John Wilkes (a controversial eighteenth century politician) and Junius (the author of a series of letters attacking George III, whose identity still remains unknown), both witnesses in Southey’s poem, are selected. As in Southey’s poem (although for a different reason), Wilkes declines the offer to speak against George, refusing to dishonor the dead. Junius insists that his earlier attacks are still valid. Byron comments that Junius is not merely a shadow but, in his opinion, really no one at all.

The “trial” is now interrupted by the devil Asmodeus, who is carrying Southey himself, snatched from earth to testify. Satan recognizes him readily (expecting him in hell eventually). When Southey begins to review his poetry, he is interrupted by Michael and the general dissatisfaction of the group. The satire here is personal: against Southey’s poetry, politics, and even his appearance. Michael silences the murmurs of protest and allows Southey to continue. With brazen effrontery, Southey offers first to write a biography of Satan; upon his refusal, Southey makes the same offer to Michael, before proceeding to introduce his “Vision.” As he begins, both angels and the damned vanish: Angels fly away briskly, and devils rush howling back to hell. Michael’s teeth are set on edge, and he cannot blow his trumpet. Saint Peter uses his keys to knock down Southey, who falls into a lake and sinks. He is buoyed by his own emptiness (inner corruption), and Byron’s telescope, which enabled him to view these events, is withdrawn. In all the commotion, George III slips into heaven, where the reader leaves him practicing Psalm 100.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 597

For The Vision of Judgment, Byron employs travesty, a type of satire that ridicules by humorous imitation the subject matter of another work. The style of the original is not necessarily employed, but the focus is on the subject matter, which could be rudely treated. The structure was determined by Byron’s imitation of the original, particularly two sections describing George III’s arrival in heaven. The narrative generally follows Southey’s poem until Byron discards the imitation for a frontal attack on Southey when Asmodeus delivers the poet laureate before the “tribunal.” Since the attack on Southey and his poem is so concerted, the poem achieves a unity of purpose and coherence denied Byron’s masterpiece, Don Juan (1819-1824).

As in Don Juan, however, the tone is civilized, gentlemanly, and colloquial, as well as sometimes flippant, even irreverent. Byron refers to John Wilkes as “A merry, cock-eyed, curious-looking Sprite” and to the angels as “Tories,” saucily using Southey’s words against him. The diction and tone of the Satan-Michael episode contrast with the colloquial manner elsewhere. The two address each other with such politeness and respect that they could be opposing members of Parliament discussing some legislation. In contrast, Byron can stoop to diatribe as Satan abuses George III—“this old, blind, mad, helpless, weak, poor worm”—or when Byron refers to Southey’s poetry as “spavin’d dactyls.” Nevertheless, the general mood of the poem is one of exuberant good humor, impudence, and high spirits.

The verse form is ottava rima, which Byron used so successfully in Don Juan that he could claim it for his own. The stanza consists of eight lines, rhyming abababcc. The longer stanza released Byron from the confines of the heroic couplet that he tried in earlier satires but found uncongenial. Some of the rhymes are forced, not for lack of poetic skill but to increase the comic effect: “document/saints” and “hexameter/would stir.”

The poem’s satire and humor do not rob it of metaphoric language and imagery. Similes are frequent: Angels arrive “like a rush of mighty wind,” the corrupt Southey is “light as an elf,” and angels huddle “Like birds when soars the falcon.” In metaphor, Michael is a glorious “Thing of Light” and “the Viceroy of the sky.” Visual imagery provides a heavenly gate with the “flashing of its hinges” creating “a new/ Aurora borealis,” “azure fields of Heaven,” and Michael changing color “as a peacock’s tail.” The combination of visual image and simile is brilliant; Byron even provides auditory imagery in response to Satan’s signal: “Infernal thunder shook both sea and land/ In all the planets—and Hell’s batteries/ Let off the artillery.” Such imagery is also found in the murmuring of disgruntled spectators at the trial and in the howling of the agonized audience for Southey’s poem.

In addition, allusions contribute to the poem’s themes by supporting the message against intolerance. Byron invokes the Christian symbols of the fish and the lamb, evocative of sacrifice and redemption. The story of Job is borrowed from the Bible to provide proof of Byron’s description of Satan’s visit to heaven. A further reference to the Bible is Junius’s statement, “What I have written, I have written,” which recalls Pilate’s words at the time of the Crucifixion (John 19:22), an ironic contrast when the words are directed toward the tyrannical George. Indeed, irony is an effective tool in the poem, for example, when Byron asserts that men could write letters without hands, since many had written them without heads.

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Themes