The Vision of the Maid of Orleans. The First Book.

Poems, by Robert Southey. The Second Volume.

Robert Southey

As Robert Southey points out, "The following Vision was originally printed as the ninth book of JOAN OF ARC. It is now adapted to the improved edition of that Poem." Removed from its original context in Joan of Arc (1796), the Vision loses its status as an epic voyage to the underworld and stands alone as a Spenserian allegory of life. Southey seldom imitated the Faerie Queene so closely or so obviously as he does here. This is plainly journeyman work; in Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) Southey finds his own voice, imitating Spenser more in the spirit than the letter.

The first book of the reconstituted Vision is a compound of the Despair episode in the first book of the Faerie Queene and a scene in William Chamberlayne's Pharonnida, where the heroine beholds the Fates and is given a vision of her future. In the second book Joan is reunited with the spirit of her lover Theodroe and led through Purgatory — imitating Guyon's adventures in the Cave of Mammon. In the third book Joan obtains a glimpse of heaven in an (innocent) Bower of Bliss.

Robert Southey's 1837 preface: "A second volume followed at Bristol in 1799, after the second edition of Joan of Arc, and commencing with the Vision of the Maid of Orleans. The motto to this was from the Epilogue to Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar: — 'The better, please; the worse, displease: I ask no more'" Poetical Works (1837) 2:xii.

John Aikin?: "A large portion of the present volume is occupied with this vision, which is now divided into three books: it is very much enlarged, and, after a careful comparison of it with the original, as it stood in the ninth book of the quarto edition, we have no hesitation in pronouncing it to be very materially improved. The rest of the volume is filled with miscellaneous poetry" in "Retrospect of Domestic Literature" Monthly Magazine 7 (Supplement, 1799) 535.

Anna Seward to Miss Posonby: "While I admire the splendours of imagination, which flash upon me in this poem, I must consider them as the baleful beauties of the lightening. O Southey! is this a period in which to exalt the French character, and, with parricide impulse, to depreciate that of England? ... But this false Duessa! — those who give to her the name of Liberty, after having known her tree by its fruits — alas! that rising genius, splendid as this author's, should thus disgrace itself! ... His description of the lake, on which Joan, in her vision, embarks, is wonderfully fine; but it appears to me to have been suggested, as indeed the whole plan of the ninth book, by Hayley's description of Serena's voyage, in the third and fifth cantos of the Triumphs of Temper. The solemnity and higher elevations of Southey's subject, gives, however, more dignity to the imitation than we find in the exquisitely ingenious original.... Despair, so finely painted by Spenser, and others, is nowhere more sublimely imaged, both as to form, and habitation, than in this ninth book of Joan" 29 December 1796, January 23 1797; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 4:295, 299, 303, 304.

Henry Francis Cary: "Concluded Joan of Arc with Jane. About four hundred lines in the second book on 'preternatural agency,' by Coleridge, are in the Lucretian manner, and much superior to the rest. The poem on the whole is spirited, and keeps alive the attention, though it contains few passages admirable either for sublimity or beauty. The writer I remember sometimes to have met in company at Oxford" Literary Journal for 13 March 1797; in Memoir of the Rev. Henry Francis Cary (1847) 1:107-08.

William Taylor of Norwich to Robert Southey: "The Vision of Joan of Arc is worthy of Dante; but this will seem to you rather a phrase than a praise, after the opinion I intimated of that poet in the revival of Clayton's 'Tenhove's Memoirs of the Medici,' yet I know not how to convey better the sort of impression it made on me" 25 March 1799; in Robberds, Memoir of William Taylor (1843) 1:267.

"A": "The philosophic principles of the day are plainly recognisable in that admirable vision, in which Despair appeals to Joan of Arc in favour of Suicide, and in which the Maid of Orleans borrows from Rousseau's Julie some portion of her eloquent refutation. But the general character of the work is religious. It is curious to find the future biographer of Wesley, the Methodist, making Joan of Arc almost a mystical enthusiast. But was it not indeed her character? Who can read her wonderful history without feeling the conviction of her heavenly inspiration?" Living Poets of England (1827) 2:4.

William Haller: "Immediately upon the author's return from Portugal he began his extensive revision for the second edition of his epic. He cut out all those portions that had been contributed by Coleridge, and he removed the entire ninth book, in which Joan made a visionary descent to the lower regions. This was printed separately in the 1799 volume of minor poems and afterwards in the later editions of Joan of Arc under the title, The Vision of the Maid of Orleans.... The revision consisted of certain changes in the diction and a little toning down of the violence of expression without weakening any of the principles of the poem. One episode was added in place of the old ninth book, but without altering the spirit of the whole. In the later editions there were made but a few more changes in the diction until the publication of Southey's collected poems in 1837. Joan of Arc was then selected because of its fame for the first volume of the collection, and the exuberance of youth was once more toned down, though not as extensively as might have been expected" The Early Life of Robert Southey (1917) 172.

Eleanor Maria Sickels: "It is a dream-allegory or vision-poem in three books, the first of which is introduction in graveyard-gothic style, the second a miniature Purgatorio, and the third a miniature Paradiso. While practically worthless as poetry, it is thus an amalgam of literary and philosophical influences — Spenser, Dante, Milton, the melancholy tradition white and black, and the thought of the French Revolution and the rationalists being distinctly discernible" Gloomy Egoists (1932) 161-62.

Robert Southey's readers would not have recognized the allusion to Pharonnida, which had yet to be republished. He reprints the passage with the following note: "It is possible that I may have written from the recollection of this passage. The conceit is the same, and I willingly attribute it to Chamberlayne, a Poet to whom I am indebted for many hours of delight, and whom I one day hope to rescue from undeserved oblivion" 27n. Chamberlayne may have suggested the idea of the vision in the first place. Pharonnida's rather metaphysical Vision is closer in texture to Spenser than is Joan's. Southey's gothicism may also recall some of the more lurid scenes in Chamberlayne's romance.

Orleans was hush'd in sleep. Stretch'd on her couch
The delegated Maiden lay: with toll
Exhausted and sore anguish, soon she closed
Her heavy eye-lids; not reposing then,
For busy Phantasy, in other scenes
Awakened. Whether that superior powers,
By wise permission, prompt the midnight dream,
Instructing so the passive faculty;
Or that the soul, escaped its fleshly clog,
Flies free, and soars amid the invisible world,
And all things are that seem.

Along a moor,
Barren, and wide, and drear, and desolate,
She roam'd a wanderer thro' the cheerless night.
Far thro' the silence of the unbroken plain
The bittern's boom was beard, hoarse, heavy, deep,
It made most fitting music to the scene.
Black clouds, driven fast before the, stormy wind.
Swept shadowing; thro' their broken folds the moon
Struggled sometimes with transitory ray,
And made the moving darkness visible.
And now arrived beside a fenny lake
She stands: amid its stagnate waters, hoarse
The long sedge rustled to the gales of night.
An age-worn bark receives the Maid, impell'd
By powers unseen; then did the moon display
Where thro' the crazy vessel's yawning side
The muddy wave oozed in: a female guides,
And spreads the sail before the wind, that moan'd
As melancholy mournful to her ear,
As ever by the dungeon'd wretch was heard
Howling at evening round the embattled towers
Of that hell-house of France, ere yet sublime
The almighty people from their tyrant's hand
Dash'd down the iron rod.

Intent the Maid
Gazed on the pilot's form, and as she gazed
Shiver'd, for wan her face was, and her eyes
Hollow, and her sunk cheeks were furrowed deep,
Channell'd by tears; a few grey locks hung down
Beneath her hood: then thro' the Maiden's veins
Chill crept the blood, for, as the night-breeze pass'd,
Lifting her tatter'd mantle, coil'd around
She saw a serpent gnawing at her heart.

The plumeless bat with short shrill note flits by,
And the night-raven's scream came fitfully,
Borne on the hollow blast. Eager the Maid
Look'd to the shore, and now upon the bank
Leaps, joyful to escape, yet trembling still
In recollection.

There, a mouldering pile
Stretch'd its wide ruins, o'er the plain below
Casting a gloomy shade, save where the moon
Shone thro' its fretted windows: the dark Yew,
Withering with age, branched there its naked roots,
And there the melancholy Cypress rear'd
Its head; the earth was heav'd with many a mound,
And here and there a half-demolish'd tomb.

And now, amid the ruin's darkest shade,
The Virgin's eye beheld where pale blue flames
Rose wavering, now just gleaming from the earth,
And now in darkness drown'd. An aged man
Sat near, seated on what in long-past days
Had been some sculptur'd monument, now fallen
And half-obscured by moss, and gathered heaps
Of withered yew-leaves and earth-mouldering bones;
And shining in the ray was seen the track
Of slimy snail obscene. Composed his look,
His eye was large and rayless, and fix'd full
Upon the Maid; the blue flames on his face
Stream'd a pale light; his face was of the hue
Of death; his limbs were mantled in a shroud.

Then with a deep heart-terrifying voice,
Exclaim'd the Spectre, "Welcome to these realms,
These regions of DESPAIR! O thou whose steps
By GRIEF conducted to these sad abodes
Have pierced; welcome, welcome to this gloom
Eternal, to this everlasting night,
Where never morning darts the enlivening ray,
Where never shines the sun, but all is dark,
Dark as the bosom of their gloomy King.

So saying he arose and by the hand
The Virgin seized with such a death-cold touch
As froze her very heart; and drawing on,
Her, to the abbey's inner ruin, led
Resistless. Thro' the broken roof the moon
Glimmer'd a scatter'd ray: the ivy twined
Round the dismantled column; imaged forms
Of Saints and warlike Chiefs, moss-canker'd now
And mutilate, lay strewn upon the ground,
With crumbled fragments, crucifixes fallen,
And rusted trophies; and amid the heap
Some monument's defaced legend spake
All human glory vain.

The loud blast roar'd
Amid the pile; and from the tower the owl
Scream'd as the tempest shook her secret nest.
He, silent, led her on, and often paus'd,
And pointed, that her eye might contemplate
At leisure the drear scene.

He dragged her on
Thro' a low iron door, down broken stairs;
Then a cold horror thro' the Maidens frame,
Crept, for she stood amid a vault, and saw,
By the sepulchral lamp's dim glaring light,
The fragments of the dead.

"Look here!" he cried,
Damsel, look here! survey this house of Death
O soon to tenant it! soon to increase
These trophies of mortality! for hence
Is no return. Gaze here! behold this skull,
These eyeless sockets, and these unflesh'd jaws,
That with their ghastly-grinning, seem to mock
Thy perishable charms; for thus thy cheek
Must moulder. Child of Grief! shrinks not thy soul,
Viewing these horrors? trembles not thy heart
At the dread thought, that here its life's-blood soon
Shall stagnate, and the finely-fibred frame,
Now warm in life and feeling, mingle soon
With the cold clod? a thought most horrible!
So only dreadful, for reality
Is none of suffering here; here all is peace;
No nerve will throb to anguish in the grave.
Dreadful it is to think of losing life,
But having lost, knowledge of loss is not,
Therefore no ill. Haste, Maiden, to repose;
Probe deep the seat of life."

So spake DESPAIR,
The vaulted roof echoed his hollow voice,
And all again was silence. Quick her heart
Panted. He drew a dagger from his breast,
And cried again, "Haste Damsel to repose!
One blow, and rest for ever!" On the Fiend
Dark scowl'd the Virgin with indignant eye,
And dash'd the dagger down. He next his heart
Replaced the murderous steel, and drew the Maid
Along the downward vault.

The damp earth gave
A dim sound as they pass'd: the tainted air
Was cold, and heavy with unwholesome dews.
"Behold!" the fiend exclaim'd, "how gradual here
The fleshly burden of mortality
Moulders to clay!" then fixing his broad eye
Full on her face, he pointed where a corpse
Lay livid; she beheld with loathing look,
The spectacle abhorr'd by living man.

"Look here!" DESPAIR pursued, "this loathsome mass,
Was once as lovely, and as full of life
As, Damsel! thou art now. Those deep-sunk eyes
Once beam'd the mild light of intelligence,
And where thou seest the pamper'd flesh-worm trail,
Once the white bosom heaved. She fondly thought
That at the hallowed altar, soon the Priest
Should bless her coming union, and the torch
Its joyful lustre o'er the hall of joy,
Cast on her nuptial evening: earth to earth
That Priest consign'd her, and the funeral lamp
Glares on her cold face; for her lover went
By glory lur'd to war, and perish'd there;
Nor she endur'd to live. Ha! fades thy cheek?
Dost thou then, Maiden, tremble at the tale?
Look here! behold the youthful paramour!
The self-devoted hero!"

The Maid look'd down, and saw the well known face
Of THEODORE! in thoughts unspeakable,
Convulsed with horror, o'er her face she clasp'd
Her cold damp hands: "shrink not," the Phantom cried,
"Gaze on! for ever gaze!" more firm he grasp'd
Her quivering arm: "this lifeless mouldering clay,
As well thou know'st, was warm with all the glow
Of Youth and Love; this is the arm that cleaved
Salisbury's proud crest, now motionless in death,
Unable to protect the ravaged frame
From the foul Offspring of Mortality
That feed on heroes. Tho' long years were thine,
Yet never more would life reanimate
This murdered man; murdered by thee! for thou
Didst lead him to the battle from his home,
Else living there in peace to good old age:
In thy defence he died: strike deep! destroy
Remorse with Life."

The Maid stood motionless,
And, wistless what she did, with trembling hand
Received the dagger. Starting then, she cried,
"Avaunt DESPAIR! Eternal Wisdom deals
Or peace to man, or misery, for his good
Alike design'd; and shall the Creature cry,
'Why hast thou done this?' and with impious pride
Destroy the life God gave?"

The Fiend rejoin'd,
"And thou dost deem it impious to destroy
The life God gave? What, Maiden, is the lot
Assigned to mortal man? born but to drag,
Thro' life's long pilgrimage, the wearying load
Of being; care corroded at the heart;
Assail'd by all the numerous train of ills
That flesh inherits; till at length worn out,
This is his consummation! — think again!
What, Maiden, canst thou hope from lengthen'd life
But lengthen'd sorrow? If protracted long,
Till on the bed of death thy feeble limbs
Outstretch their languid length, oh think what thoughts,
What agonizing woes, in that dread hour,
Assail the sinking heart! slow beats the pulse,
Dim grow's the eye, and clammy drops bedew
The shuddering frame; then in its mightiest force,
Mightiest in impotence, the love of life
Seizes throbbing heart, the faltering lips
Pour out the impious prayer, that fain would change
The unchangeable's decree, surrounding friends
Sob round the sufferer, wet his cheek with tears,
And all he loved in life embitters death!

"Such, Maiden, are the pangs that wait the hour
Of calmest dissolution! yet weak man
Dares, in his timid piety, to live;
And veiling Fear in Superstition's garb,
He calls her Resignation!

"Coward wretch!
Fond Coward! thus to make his Reason war
Against his Reason! insect as he is,
This sport of Chance, this being of a day,
Whose whole existence the next cloud may blast,
Believes himself the care of heavenly powers,
That God regards Man, miserable Man,
And preaching thus of Power and Providence,
Will crush the reptile that may cross his path!

"Fool that thou art! the Being that permits
Existence, gives to man the worthless boon:
A goodly gift to those who, fortune-blest,
Bask in the sunshine of Prosperity,
And such do well to keep it. But to one
Sick at the heart with misery, and sore
With many a hard unmerited affliction,
It is a hair that chains to wretchedness
The slave who dares not burst it!

"Thinkest thou,
The parent, if his child should unrecall'd
Return and fall upon his neck, and cry,
Oh! the wide world is comfortless, and full
Of vacant joys and heart-consuming cares,
I can be only happy in my home
With thee — my friend! — my father!" Thinkest thou,
That he would thrust him as an outcast forth?
Oh! he would clasp the truant to his heart,
And love the trespass."

Whilst he spake, his eye
Dwelt on the Maiden's cheek, and read her soul
Struggling within. In trembling doubt she stood,
Even as the wretch, whose famish'd entrails crave
Supply, before him sees the poison'd food
In greedy horror.

Yet not long the Maid
Debated, "Cease thy dangerous sophistry,
Eloquent tempter!" cried she. "Gloomy one!
What tho' affliction be my portion here,
Think'st thou I do not feel high thoughts of joy,
Of heart-ennobling joy, when I look back
Upon a life of duty well perform'd,
Then lift mine eyes to Heaven, and there in faith
Know my reward? I grant, were this life all,
Was there no morning to the tomb's long night,
If man did mingle with the senseless clod,
Himself as senseless, then wert thou indeed
A wise and friendly comforter! But, Fiend!
There is a morning to the tomb's long night,
A dawn of glory, a reward in Heaven,
He shall not gain who never merited.
If thou didst know the worth of one good deed
In life's last hour, thou would'st not bid me lose
The power to benefit; if I but save
A drowning fly, I shall not live in vain.
I have great duties. Fiend! me France expects,
Her heaven-doom'd Champion."

"Maiden, thou hast done
Thy mission here," the unbaffled Fiend replied:
"The foes are fled from Orleans: thou, perchance
Exulting in the pride of victory,
Forgettest him who perish'd! yet albieit
Thy harden'd heart forget the gallant youth
That hour allotted canst thou not escape,
That dreadful hour, when Contumely and Shame
Shall sojourn in thy dungeon. Wretched Maid!
Destined to drain the cup of bitterness,
Even to its dregs! England's inhuman Chiefs
Shall scoff thy sorrows, black thy spotless fame,
Wit-wanton it with lewd barbarity,
And force such burning blushes to the cheek
Of Virgin modesty, that thou shalt wish
The earth might cover thee! in that last hour,
When thy bruis'd breast shall heave beneath the chains
That link thee to the stake; when o'er thy form,
Exposed unmantled, the brute multitude
Shall gaze, and thou shalt hear the ribald taunt,
More painful than the circling flames that scorch
Each quivering member; wilt thou not in vain
Then wish my friendly aid? then wish thine ear
Had drank my words of comfort? that thy hand
Had grasp'd the dagger, and in death preserved
Insulted modesty?"

Her glowing cheek
Blush'd crimson; her wide eye on vacancy
Was fix'd; her breath short panted. The cold Fiend,
Grasping her hand, exclaim'd, "too-timid Maid,
So long repugnant to the healing aid
My friendship proffers, now shalt thou behold
The allotted length of life."

He stamp'd the earth,
And dragging a huge coffin as his car,
Two GOULS came on, of form more fearful-foul
Than ever palsied in her wildest dream
Hag-ridden Superstition. Then' DESPAIR
Seiz'd on the Maid whose curdling blood stood still,
And placed her in the seat; and on they pass'd
Adown the deep descent. A meteor light
Shot from the Daemons, as they dragg'd along
The unwelcome load, and mark'd their brethren glut
On carcasses.

Below the vault dilates
Its ample bulk. "Look here!" — DESPAIR addrest
The shuddering Virgin, "see the dome of DEATH!"
It was a spacious cavern, hewn amid
The entrails of the earth, as tho' to form
The grave of all mankind: no eye could reach,
Tho' gifted with the Eagle's ample ken,
Its distant bounds. There, thron'd in darkness, dwelt
The unseen POWER OF DEATH.

Here stopt the GOULS,
Reaching the destin'd spot. The Fiend leapt out,
And from the coffin, as he led the Maid,
Exclaim'd, "Where never yet stood mortal man,
Thou standest: look around this boundless vault;
Observe the dole that Nature deals to man,
And learn to know thy friend."

She not replied,
Observing where the Fates their several tasks
Plied ceaseless. "Mark how short the longest web
Allowed to man!" he cried; "observe how soon,
Twin'd round yon never-resting wheel, they change
Their snowy hue, darkening thro' many a shade,
Till Atropos relentless shuts the sheers!

Too true he spake, for of the countless threads,
Drawn from the heap, as white as unsunn'd snow,
Or as the lovely lilly of the vale,
Was never one beyond the little span
Of infancy untainted: few there were
But lightly tinged; more of deep crimson hue,
Or deeper sable died. Two Genii stood,
Still as the web of Being was drawn forth,
Sprinkling their powerful drops. From ebon urn,
The one unsparing dash'd the bitter wave
Of woe; and as he dash'd, his dark-brown brow
Relax'd to a hard smile. The milder form
Shed less profusely there his lesser store;
Sometimes with tears increasing the scant boon,
Mourning the lot of man; and happy he
Who on his thread those precious drops receives;
If it be happiness to have the pulse
Throb fast with pity, and in such a world
Of wretchedness, the generous heart that aches
With anguish at the sight of human woe.

To her the Fiend, well hoping now success,
"This is thy thread! observe how short the span,
And see how copious yonder Genius pours
The bitter stream of woe." The' Maiden saw
Fearless. "Now gaze!" the tempter Fiend exclaim'd,
And placed again the poniard in her hand,
For SUPERSTITION, with sulphureal torch
Stalk'd to the loom. "This, Damsel, is thy fate!
The hour draws on — now drench the dagger deep!
Now rush to happier worlds!"

The Maid replied,
"Or to prevent or change the will of Heaven,
Impious I strive not: be that will perform'd!"

[pp. 5-28]