Poems » william byrd » the vision of judgment


"A Daniel come to judgment! yea a Daniel!
I thank thee, Jew, for teaching me that word."

  Saint Peter sat by the celestial gate:
     His keys were rusty, and the lock was dull,
So little trouble had been given of late;
     Not that the place by any means was full,
But since the Gallic era "eighty-eight"
     The devils had ta'en a longer, stronger pull,
And "a pull altogether," as they say
At sea--which drew most souls another way.

  Then Angels all were singing out of tune,
     And hoarse with having little else to do,
Excepting to wind up the sun and moon,
     Or curb a runaway young star or two,
Or wild colt of a comet, which too soon
     Broke out of bonds o'er the ethereal blue,
Splitting some planet with its playful tail,
As boats are sometimes by a wanton whale.

  The Guardian Seraphs had retired on high,
     Finding their charges past all care below;
Terrestrial business fill'd nought in the sky
     Save the Recording Angel's black bureau;
Who found, indeed, the facts to multiply
     With such rapidity of vice and woe,
That he had stripp'd off both his wings in quills,
And yet was in arrear of human ills.

  His business so augmented of late years,
     That he was forced, against his will no doubt,
(Just like those cherubs, earthly ministers,)
     For some resource to turn himself about,
And claim the help of his celestial peers,
     To aid him ere he should be quite worn out
By the increased demand for his remarks:
Six Angels and twelve Saints were named his clerks.

  This was a handsome board--at least for Heaven;
     And yet they had even then enough to do,
So many Conquerors' cars were daily driven,
     So many kingdoms fitted up anew;
Each day too slew its thousands six or seven,
     Till at the crowning carnage, Waterloo,
They threw their pens down in divine disgust--
The page was so besmear'd with blood and dust.

  This by the way; 'tis not mine to record
     What Angels shrink from; even the very Devil
On this occasion his own work abhorr'd,
     So surfeited with the infernal revel:
Though he himself had sharpen'd every sword,
     It almost quench'd his innate thirst of evil.
(Here Satan's sole good work deserves insertion--
'Tis, that he has both Generals in reversion.)

  Let's skip a few short years of hollow peace,
     Which peopled earth no better, Hell as wont,
And heaven none--they form the tyrant's lease,
     With nothing but new names subscribed upon 't;
'Twill one day finish: meantime they increase,
     "With seven heads and ten horns," and all in front,
Like Saint John's foretold beast; but ours are born
Less formidable in the head than horn.

  In the first year of Freedom's second dawn
     Died George the Third; although no tyrant, one
Who shielded tyrants, till each sense withdrawn
     Left him nor mental nor external sun;
A better farmer ne'er brush'd dew from lawn,
     A worse king never left a realm undone!
He died--but left his subjects still behind,
One half as mad--and t'other no less blind.

  He died! his death made no great stir on earth:
     His burial made some pomp; there was profusion
Of velvet, gilding, brass, and no great dearth
     Of aught but tears--save those shed by collusion.
For these things may be bought at their true worth;
     Of elegy there was the due infusion--
Bought also; and the torches, cloaks, and banners,
Heralds, and relics of old Gothic manners,

  Form'd a sepulchral melodrame. Of all
     The fools who flock'd to swell or see the show,
Who cared about the corpse? The funeral
     Made the attraction, and the black the woe.
There throbb'd not there a thought which pierced the pall;
     And when the gorgeous coffin was laid low,
It seem'd the mockery of hell to fold
The rottenness of eighty years in gold.

  So mix his body with the dust! It might
     Return to what it must far sooner, were
The natural compound left alone to fight
     Its way back into earth, and fire, and air;
But the unnatural balsams merely blight
     What Nature made him at his birth, as bare
As the mere million's base unmummied clay--
Yet all his spices but prolong decay.

  He's dead--and upper earth with him has done;
     He's buried; save the undertaker's bill,
Or lapidary scrawl, the world is gone
     For him, unless he left a German will;
But where's the proctor who will ask his son?
     In whom his qualities are reigning still,
Except that household virtue, most uncommon,
Of constancy to a bad, ugly woman.

  "God save the king!" It is a large economy
     In God to save the like; but if he will
Be saving, all the better; for not one am I
     Of those who think damnation better still:
I hardly know too if not quite alone am I
     In this small hope of bettering future ill
By circumscribing, with some slight restriction,
The eternity of Hell's hot jurisdiction.


  At length with jostling, elbowing, and the aid
     Of cherubim appointed to that post,
The devil Asmodeus to the circle made
     His way, and look'd as if his journey cost
Some trouble. When his burden down he laid,
     "What's this?" cried Michael; "why, 'tis not a ghost?--'
"I know it," quoth the Incubus; "but he
Shall be one, if you leave the affair to me.

  "Confound the renegado! I have sprain'd
     My left wing, he's so heavy; one would think
Some of his works about his neck were chain'd.
     But to the point; while hovering o'er the brink
Of Skiddaw (where as usual it still rain'd)
     I saw a taper, far below me, wink,
And stooping, caught this fellow at a libel--
No less on History than the Holy Bible.

  "The former is the Devil's scripture, and
     The latter yours, good Michael: so the affair
Belongs to all of us, you understand.
     I snatch'd him up just as you see him there,
And brought him off for sentence out of hand:
     I've scarcely been ten minutes in the air--
At least a quarter it can hardly be:
I dare say that his wife is still at tea."

  Here Satan said, "I know this man of old,
     And have expected him for some time here;
A sillier fellow you will scarce behold,
     Or more conceited in his petty sphere:
But surely it was not worth while to fold
     Such trash below your wing, Asmodeus dear:
We had the poor wretch safe (without being bored
With carriage) coming of his own accord.

  "But since he's here, let's see what he has done."
     "Done!" cried Asmodeus, "he anticipates
The very business you are now upon,
     And scribbles as if head clerk to the Fates.
Who knows to what his ribaldry may run,
     When such an ass as this, like Balaam's prates?"
"Let's hear," quoth Michael, "what he has to say:
You know we're bound to that in every way."

  Now the bard, glad to get an audience, which
     By no means often was his case below,
Began to cough, and hawk, and hem, and pitch
     His voice into that awful note of woe
To all unhappy hearers within reach
     Of poets when the tide of rhyme's in flow;
But stuck fast with his first hexameter,
Not one of all whose gouty feet would stir.

  But ere the spavin'd dactyls could be spurr'd
     Into recitative, in great dismay
Both Cherubim and Seraphim were heard
     To murmur loudly through their long array;
And Michael rose ere he could get a word
     Of all his founder'd verses under way,
And cried, "For God's sake stop, my friend! 'twere best--
Non Di, non homines--you know the rest."

  A general bustle spread throughout the throng,
     Which seem'd to hold all verse in detestation:
The Angels had of course enough of song
     When upon service; and the generation
Of ghosts had heard too much in life, not long
     Before, to profit by a new occasion:
The monarch, mute till then, exclaim'd, "What! what!
Pye come again? No more--no more of that!"

  The tumult grew; an universal cough
     Convulsed the skies, as during a debate,
When Castlereagh has been up long enough
     (Before he was first minister of state,
I mean--the slaves hear now); some cried "Off, off!"
     As at a farce; till, grown quite desperate,
The Bard Saint Peter pray'd to interpose
(Himself an author) only for his prose.

  The varlet was not an ill-favour'd knave;
     A good deal like a vulture in the face,
With a hook nose and a hawk's eye, which gave
     A smart and sharper-looking sort of grace
To his whole aspect, which, though rather grave,
     Was by no means so ugly as his case;
But that, indeed, was hopeless as can be,
Quite a poetic felony "de se."

  Then Michael blew his trump, and still'd the noise
     With one still greater, as is yet the mode
On earth besides; except some grumbling voice,
     Which now and then will make a slight inroad
Upon decorous silence, few will twice
     Lift up their lungs when fairly overcrow'd;
And now the Bard could plead his own bad cause,
With all the attitudes of self-applause.

  He said--(I only give the heads)--he said,
     He meant no harm in scribbling; 'twas his way
Upon all topics; 'twas, besides, his bread,
     Of which he butter'd both sides; 'twould delay
Too long the assembly (he was pleased to dread),
     And take up rather more time than a day,
To name his works--he would but cite a few--
"Wat Tyler"--"Rhymes on Blenheim"--"Waterloo."

  He had written praises of a Regicide;
     He had written praises of all kings whatever;
He had written for republics far and wide,
     And then against them bitterer than ever;
For pantisocracy he once had cried
     Aloud, a scheme less moral than 'twas clever;
Then grew a hearty anti-Jacobin--
Had turn'd his coat--and would have turn'd his skin.

  He had sung against all battles, and again
     In their high praise and glory; he had call'd
Reviewing "the ungentle craft," and then
     Become as base a critic as e'er crawl'd--
Fed, paid, and pamper'd by the very men
     By whom his muse and morals had been maul'd:
He had written much blank verse, and blanker prose,
And more of both than anybody knows.

  He had written Wesley's life: here turning round
     To Satan, "Sir, I'm ready to write yours,
In two octavo volumes, nicely bound,
     With notes and preface, all that most allures
The pious purchaser; and there's no ground
     For fear, for I can choose my own reviewers:
So let me have the proper documents,
That I may add you to my other saints."

  Satan bow'd, and was silent. "Well, if you,
     With amiable modesty, decline
My offer, what says Michael? There are few
     Whose memoirs could be render'd more divine.
Mine is a pen of all work; not so new
     As it was once, but I would make you shine
Like your own trumpet. By the way, my own
Has more of brass in it, and is as well blown.

  "But talking about trumpets, here's my "Vision"!
     Now you shall judge, all people; yes, you shall
Judge with my judgment, and by my decision
     Be guided who shall enter heaven or fall.
I settle all these things by intuition,
     Times present, past, to come, Heaven, Hell, and all,
Like King Alfonso. When I thus see double,
I save the Deity some worlds of trouble."

  He ceased, and drew forth an MS.; and no
     Persuasion on the part of Devils, Saints,
Or Angels, now could stop the torrent; so
     He read the first three lines of the contents;
But at the fourth, the whole spiritual show
     Had vanish'd, with variety of scents,
Ambrosial and sulphureous, as they sprang,
Like lightning, off from his "melodious twang."

  Those grand heroics acted as a spell:
     The Angels stopp'd their ears and plied their pinions;
The Devils ran howling, deafen'd, down to Hell;
     The ghosts fled, gibbering, for their own dominions--
(For 'tis not yet decided where they dwell,
     And I leave every man to his opinions);
Michael took refuge in his trump--but, lo!
His teeth were set on edge, he could not blow!

  Saint Peter, who has hitherto been known
     For an impetuous saint, upraised his keys,
And at the fifth line knock'd the poet down;
     Who fell like Phaëton, but more at ease,
Into his lake, for there he did not drown;
     A different web being by the Destinies
Woven for the Laureate's final wreath, whene'er
Reform shall happen either here or there.

  He first sank to the bottom--like his works,
     But soon rose to the surface--like himself:
For all corrupted things are buoy'd like corks,
     By their own rottenness, like as an elf,
Or wisp that flits o'er a morass: he lurks
     It may be, still, like dull books on a shelf,
In his own den, to scrawl some "Life" or "Vision,"
As Welborn says--"the Devil turn'd precisian."

  As for the rest, to come to the conclusion
     Of this true dream, the telescope is gone
Which kept my optics free from all delusion,
     And show'd me what I in my turn have shown;
All I saw farther, in the last confusion,
     Was, that King George slipp'd into Heaven for one;
And when the tumult dwindled to a calm,
I left him practising the hundredth psalm.