Lord Byron's Poem The Vision of Judgment  Term Paper

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Lord Byron's poem, "The Vision of Judgment," Satan ascends from hell to prosecute the newly deceased George III and claim George's soul. After a farce of a trial, George slips into heaven where he spends eternity practicing his psalms.

Of course, one could argue that Satan loses George's soul not because of his failings as a prosecutor but because the celestial court becomes so involved in resolving the superfluous matter of Mr. Southey that it loses track of George entirely. That charitable interpretation, however, would be giving this particular Devil far more than his due.

While clearly a glib and confident speaker who is not lacking in his ability to play to his audience, Satan loses custody of George's soul because he makes a series of blunders so basic that most first year law students would be humiliated to admit to making them. Satan lacks enthusiasm for his own case. He focuses entirely too much on the vices George does not have, and he is vague and indirect in discussing the faults and sins for which he wants to see George damned. Finally, he makes the mistake of calling a "rogue" witness. With a prosecutor like this, it is little wonder George's soul slips safely into heaven.

No discussion of Satan's mistakes during his prosecution of George III would be fair or complete without giving a nod to his obvious inherent strengths as a speaker. He is bold and confident, as evidenced by his greeting of the Archangel Michael: "He merely bent his diabolic brow / An instant" (XXXVII). When he speaks, his words, too, are self-assured. "Even here / Before the gate of Him thou servest, must I claim my subject: and will make appear / That as he was my worshipper in dust, / So shall he be in spirit," he tells Michael (XXXIX). Satan is off to a good start. Confidence in oneself inspires confidence from one's audience, and it is one of the hallmarks of a successful speaker.

Satan is also unquestionably articulate. For instance, he describes George's reign in the following terms: "From out the past / Of ages, since mankind have known the rule / Of monarchs -- from the bloody rolls amassed / Of Sin and Slaughter -- from the Caesar's school, / Take the worst pupil; and produce a reign / More drenched with gore, more cumbered with the slain" (XLIV). Although Satan problematically does not give any specific examples of how George was responsible for causing such great harm, his words do elicit a vivid, gruesome picture of tyranny and bloodshed.

Finally, Satan knows his audience. The last charge he levels against George is the charge of discrimination against Catholics, or those who worship "not alone your Lord, / Michael, but you, and you, Saint Peter!" He adds slyly, "Cold / Must be your souls, if you have not abhorred / The foe to Catholic participation / In all the license of a Christian nation" (XLVIII). Saint Peter, incensed, immediately vows that he would sooner be damned himself than allow George to enter heaven. George's soul is saved only by the restraining calm of Archangel Michael: "Good Saint! And Devil! / Pray, not so fast; you both outrun discretion" (LI).

Clearly, then, Satan does have some talent as a speaker. He is bold and self-confident, he is articulate, and he knows how to wring an emotional response from his audience by playing to the causes nearest to their hearts. So why, ultimately, does George enter heaven rather than hell? The unavoidable answer is that Satan's strengths as a speaker and prosecutor do not outweigh the errors he makes in prosecuting this case.

Satan makes his first blunder almost immediately. He lets it be known that he does not really care whether or not he convinces his audience and wins his case. He tells Michael immediately that he considers the human race "paltry" and that the only humans he deems worthy of his attention are kings. He adds, "And these but as kind of quit-rent to / Assert my right as Lord" (XLI). Thus he has made one of the most serious blunders a speaker can make. He has let his audience know that he simply doesn't care about the subject of his speech. Later, he repeats the mistake even more explicitly: "I have merely argued his / Late Majesty of Britain's case with you / Upon a point of form: you may dispose / Of him; I've kings enough below, God knows!" (LXIV). Because Satan himself is indifferent to the fate of George's soul, his audience is equally indifferent. Thus when George slips into heaven, there are no voices to raise objections.

Satan's second mistake is his focus on George's virtues. He reminds Michael that "nor wine nor lust were of his weaknesses" (XXXIX) and that "I know he was a constant consort; own / He was a decent sire and middling lord" (XLVI).

One could argue that Satan is trying to be fair and portray a picture of George in his totality; but Satan is not a psychologist doing a personality profile. He is an attorney -- or at least he is acting as an attorney -- trying to win an eternal sentence against George's soul. It is not up to him to bring forth George's strengths. It is up to him to highlight the reasons why George should be damned.

It is also possible, of course, that Satan is offering this small list of virtues to show the audience how great George's vices are in comparison. Indeed, this seems to be the case. After he points out that George did not lust after women or drink to excess, for instance, he adds, "yet on the throne / He reigned o'er millions to serve me alone" (XXXIX). This technique of contrasting George's few strengths with his many weaknesses has the potential to be highly effective. In Satan's hands (hoofs?), though, the technique falls flat, because Satan is surprisingly reticent when it comes to explicitly identifying George's weaknesses.

Satan's failure to do so constitutes his third serious error. Audiences are very rarely impressed by sweeping generalizations or vague listings of personality traits. For instance, it is not particularly effective to say that someone is a "tyrant." It is more effective to give specific examples of how the person in question has behaved tyrannically. Such specific examples are strangely lacking from Satan's efforts at prosecution. He tells us that George had a "thirst for gold" (XLIII), but we never learn how that thirst for gold played itself out or what kind of problems it may have caused. Similarly, Satan declares that George "was a tool from first to last" (XLIV), but he does not bother to explain who used George as a tool or how.

It could, of course, be argued that audiences of the day, especially celestial ones, would be well informed of these details. Nevertheless, an effective speaker -- especially a prosecutor -- should still make his or her main points explicitly rather than depending on the audience's knowledge to fill in the blanks. Satan ignores this basic rule of communication. He makes no specific charges against George, but rather settles for vague character assassination with inflammatory phrases such as, "He ever warred with freedom and the free" (XLV), or "The New World shook him off; the Old yet groans / Beneath what he and his prepared, if not / Completed" (XLVIL).

Finally, Satan makes the worst mistake any attorney can make, a mistake law students are cautioned against from their very first day of classes: He does not prepare carefully for his case, and he calls a witness without knowing what that witness is going to say. When Archangel Michael asks for witnesses against George, Satan produces an almost unlimited number. Michael reproves him: "Why, my dear Lucifer, would you abuse / my call for witnesses? I did not mean / That you should half of Earth and Hell produce" (LXIII). Satan agrees that only one or two witnesses need be called. Michael allows him to pick the first witness, and Satan replies carelessly, "There are many; / But you may choose Jack Wilkes as well as any" (LXV).

When Jack steps up, he does not even realize where he is or what the case is about. Michael explains matters, and Jack testifies:

Foolish, no doubt, and wicked, to oppress poor, unlucky devil without a shilling;

But then I blame the man himself much less

Than Bute and Grafton and shall be unwilling

To see him punished here for their excess,

Since they were both damned long ago, and still in Their place below: for me, I have forgiven,

And vote his habeas corpus into Heaven (LXXI).

The damage is done, even though Satan immediately tries to lessen the impact of Wilkes's speech by implying that Wilkes is merely currying favor with King George: "[Y]ou forget that his / Reign is concluded; whatso'er betide, / He won't…

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