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Robert Southey:
A Vision of Judgement



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When George III died in January 1820 he had long been out of the public eye; while “Farmer George” was a sympathetic figure to most Britons there was nothing like the outpouring of universal grief occasioned by the death of Princess Charlotte two years before. Instead, the occasion provoked reflection about the changes the nation had seen during the six decades of the preceding reign: the acquisition of empire following the Seven Years’ War, the loss of the American colonies, the long struggle with revolutionary France. Few living persons had been alive in 1760 when George III ascended the throne; Robert Southey himself was born in 1774.
Yet Southey was equipped to compose a retrospective poem—a close student of the manners and literature of the eighteenth century, he was probably one of only a few who had read the series of annual odes by Whitehead, Warton, and Pye. These, and the gratulatory poems written for the coronation long ago, were models for his use of allegory and catalogues of worthies—though Southey put his own stamp on the laureate tradition by inventing a new measure for the occasion and alluding to a wide and incongruous range of writers and historical personages. A Vision of Judgement, developed out of the academic Miltonism of the last century, is an odd mixture of the traditional and the innovative, the conventional and the idiosyncratic. The rambling apparatus is not what one would expect from an occasional poem—but then the “occasion” had long since passed when A Vision appeared belatedly in March of 1821.
The immediate audience would have been the royal family, and Southey displays unwonted tact in handling the king’s infirmity, representing the conclusion of his life as the release it must have been for them as much as for him. For the broader readership he undertakes a political defense of the last reign. While George III’s excursions into policy had not been happy he was altogether more successful in articulating an ideological program based in piety, nationalism, and paternalism that antedated the French Revolution by a quarter of a century and which would be his great legacy to Tory politics. Southey emphasizes this continuity by bringing forward John Wilkes and Junius as the king’s accusers before the court of heaven—figures from the 1760s and 70s—and using them as prototypes for the Liberal critics attacking George IV. This was not so tactful, nor was it meant to be.
The Vision of Judgement is an extremely partisan poem. Knowing that it would be abused Southey determined to get in the first blows (“Pelt away my boys, pelt away! if you were not busy at that work you would be about something more mischievous” he wrote to Grosvenor Bedford). In the climactic moment George Washington greets George III before the pearly gates, an appealing fantasy calculated to annoy the Opposition by underscoring the different outcomes of the American and French revolutions. The political allegory, which recalls sixteenth and seventeenth-century political satires, aligns the radicals of former times with modern revolutionaries: “[Guy] Faux and Despard I saw, and the band of rabid fanatics, | They whom Venner led.” Like his predecessor Dryden in Absolom and Achitophel, Southey appropriates Milton for the defense of monarchy.
It was probably the examples of Spenser, Milton, and Dryden that led him to introduce Satan into A Vision, and the fateful passage in the preface attacking “Men of diseased hearts and depraved imaginations, who, forming a system of opinions to suit their own unhappy course of conduct, have rebelled against the holiest ordinances of human society, and hating that revealed religion which, with all their efforts and bravadoes, they are unable entirely to disbelieve, labour to make others as miserable as themselves, by infecting them with a virus that eats into the soul! The school which they have set up may properly be called the Satanic school; for though their productions breathe the spirit of Belial in their lascivious parts, and the spirit of Moloch in those loathsome images of atrocities and horrors which they delight to represent, they are more especially characterised by a Satanic spirit of pride and audacious impiety, which still betrays the wretched feeling of hopelessness wherewith it is allied.”
Belial, Moloch, and Satan signify infidelity with respect to family, nation, and church. The poets advocating this unholy trinity—the converse of virtues displayed by George III—were Byron in Don Juan and Shelley in Queen Mab. Byron, wrongly believing that Southey was also responsible for the explicit attacks on Shelley in the Quarterly Review, answered with his brilliant parody, A Vision of Judgment (1822). The ensuing controversy had little, ostensibly, to do with George III. And yet it did, nor was Southey wrong in identifying the late king’s long-standing ideological commitments with the present conflict between the Tories and the Liberals, or in tracing that antagonism to the days of Wilkes and Junius. The Satanic School was a novelty only insofar as it involved (in Shelley’s case) explicit avowals of atheism; the “system of opinions” of those attacking orthodoxy had a much longer pedigree. Byron’s satires on the Regent were in the tradition of Churchill, Wolcot, and others who had mocked the late king.
The immediate response to A Vision of Judgement was not positive. The Whigs hooted at it as expected, and while the Anti-Jacobin Review expressed satisfaction, the Tory-leaning Literary Gazette probably expressed the general view: “Mr. Southey has indeed indulged in a Vision, but in the Judgment part of the matter he has been lamentably deficient; as the public judgment on his performance must inevitably and painfully convince him. The sin of Wat Tyler was nothing to this“ (17 March 1821). The public never had, and never would, take to hexameters and the allegory was too extravagant, perhaps too Roman, to appeal to mainstream Protestant tastes. Court tastes were another matter and the extravagant visual imagery of Southey’s poem makes more sense considered in that rarified context.

David Hill Radcliffe