Themes and Meanings

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The focus of Byron’s satire is primarily Robert Southey, who had provoked Byron’s anger by his attacks, especially in Southey’s preface to his A Vision of Judgment. Byron announced his counterattack in his own preface to The Vision of Judgment (originally signed “Quevedo Redivivus,” or “Quevedo,” a seventeenth century satirist, “Reborn”)—personal, political, literary, and “religious.” The scope of the ideas in the poem, however, transcends targeting Southey.

Southey had accused Byron of being a corrupter of morals and a “Satanic” poet. He had also spread rumors about the conduct of Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin, and Claire Claremont when they resided in Switzerland. Furthermore, Byron was particularly opposed to Southey’s smug righteousness.

Politically, the two were opposed. Earlier, Southey, as well as the other “Lake Poets,” William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had been more idealistic and radical, turning conservative as they matured. Byron considered them political renegades, apostates from liberalism. As a “turncoat,” Southey won government approval and was appointed poet laureate. This appointment helped occasion Southey’s writing A Vision of Judgment, with its fawning flattery of George III. Byron, in the guise of Satan in his poem, indicts George III for bloody wars fought for evil causes (such as maintaining America as a colony), for intolerance, and for obstruction of Catholic Emancipation (which Byron himself had defended in the House of Lords). Cleverly, Byron allowed George some domestic virtues (he was a good father and husband) so as not to create an unbelievable monster. With great irony, however, Byron draws the contrast between George’s elaborate funeral and his obvious unworthiness of such mourning.

In addition, Byron opposed Southey’s poetic principles. He and other Lake Poets had attacked John Dryden and Alexander Pope (eighteenth century poets Byron had defended in earlier satires). Byron dismisses Southey as a hack. Southey’s glaring error in experimenting with the use of classical unrhymed hexameter in his tribute to George and his glossing over George’s obvious faults made him vulnerable to Byron’s acerbity.

The attack on hypocrisy extends to the apparent attack on religion. Neither God nor established religion, however, is targeted; Byron challenges the hypocritical cant he found in Southey’s poem. Southey was too judgmental in damning fellow mortals; Byron digresses briefly to explain his own position in support of a merciful God. Byron may treat figures such as Saint Peter, Michael, and Satan with levity (as when Peter sweats at Satan’s appearance) but only to make them more human and sympathetic. His theme was anti-bigotry and pro-toleration, especially in freedom of religious choice, and he regarded Southey’s assumptions about good and evil as impious.

Byron astutely allows Satan to be his spokesman; thus Byron distances himself from retaliation against his own liberal views, and his pose as a civilized gentleman makes Southey more reprehensible. With comic brilliance, Byron advocates tolerance, liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom to worship. The greatest irony of the satire is that Byron used Southey’s own words against him, his own ammunition to destroy him.

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