The subject of this article is the vicious public dispute between Southey and Byron—the well-known argument that centred on the two poets’ Visions of Judgment. Precipitated by Southey’s call for censorship of immoral literature and punishment of “Satanic” authors, the dispute was won—according to twentieth-century critics—by Byron, whose devastating parody undermined the credibility of Southey’s political poetry.
It has long been understood that the dispute was about more than personal enmity, that what was in question was literature’s relationship to power and its proper role in the body politic. What has received less attention is the fact that the dispute concerned not only the domestic scene (literature’s relationship to Church and State in Britain) but also the widening sphere of empire. It is my intention to focus on the imperial sphere in what follows so as to reveal that Southey and Byron were arguing in and for a new context. They were setting out rival models of colonialist and Orientalist poetry for an age in which empire was being expanded and imperialism redefined. These models include two long poems that scholars have hitherto failed to relate to the poets’ dispute—Byron’s The Island (1823) and Southey’s Tale of Paraguay (1825). Both these poems look different when we understand their place in the poets’ contest to make their own colonialist representations of native peoples prevail over the hearts and minds of the British public.
In 1822 Lord Byron was angry. In fact, he was so incensed that he was planning to return from exile to challenge and fight the Poet Laureate Robert Southey. Had he done so, he would have made a literary dispute a matter of flesh and blood, since the cause of his wrath was Southey’s writing, in particular an article urging the government to punish “the Satanic school” of poets (Poetical Works of Robert Southey [SPW] 10: 206). Southey was clearly referring to the author of Manfred, Cain and Heaven and Earth, and the reference was the more painful for Byron because he was presently composing another “Satanic” poem, in which the hero Fletcher Christian, mutineer on H.M.S. Bounty, declares “I am in hell.” That poem, The Island, like the earlier eastern tales to which Southey took exception, was a story of illicit love, rebellion and guilt set in an exotic landscape. Located in the South Seas, and based on the travel narratives of William Bligh in Tahiti and William Mariner in Tonga, Byron’s poem was his latest production in the fashionable Orientalist style he had cynically advocated in 1813: “stick to the East; [. . .] The North, South, and West, have all been exhausted; but from the East, we have nothing but Southey’s unsaleables” (Byron’s Letters and Journals [LJ] 3: 101).
The public dispute between Byron and Southey was not least about Orientalism (a point scholars have tended to ignore in their focus on the poets’ positions in the domestic political sphere). Southey attacked Byron in The Courier of 11 January 1822 by likening him to a series of Oriental figures:
If I had been told in that country that Lord Byron had turned Turk, or Monk of La Trappe—that he had furnished a harem, or endowed a hospital, I might have thought the account, whichever it had been, possible, and repeated it accordingly; passing it, as it had been taken, in the small change of conversation, for no more than it was worth. In this manner I might have spoken of him, as of Baron Gerambe, the Green Man, the Indian Jugglers, or any other figurante of the time being.Courier, 11 January 1822
Byron composed a reply in which he tried to use Southey’s Oriental personages to his own advantage. He cited King Solomon as a “good precedent” for owning a harem and turned the reference to the Indian Jugglers (currently the rage in London) into an attack on the Laureate’s change of political colours:
But why with the Jugglers?—does Mr. S. recollect what a Juggler is?—is he not one who shifts— turns— plays tricks—deceives and swallows strange substances?—has not Mr. Southey himself practised a little in the same line?—to be sure his own words (which he has gulped down) are not quite so sharp—but I should think they were equally indigestible—and yet the Laureat has contrived to swallow the Jacobin without any detriment except a little occasional Sickness.LJ 9: 96
Byron never sent this reply, perhaps sensing that Southey’s stereotypical depictions of despotic and deceitful Orientals were too crude to be satirically effective. Instead he lampooned Southey in verse, parodying his eulogy of George III and imagining him preparing to hire his pen out as Satan’s biographer:
[. . .] here, turning round
To Sathan, “sire, 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.”
Here Byron was parodying Southey’s A Vision of Judgment, a poem in which Southey not only eulogized George III but also depicted Captain Cook as an imperial hero and placed his death at Hawaii alongside General Wolfe’s death in Quebec (a death in battle popularly portrayed as a noble sacrifice on behalf of Britain’s colony in Canada). In Southey’s Vision the spirits of Wolfe and Cook, amongst other “Worthies of the Georgian Age,” welcome George to heaven: “Conspicuous among them / Wolfe was seen: And the seaman who fell on the shores of Owhyhee.” Praise of Cook for his explorations of the South Seas is followed by a paean to Nelson, of whom it is said “while his example is cherish’d, / From the Queen of the Seas, the sceptre shall never be wrested” (SPW 10: 237). Southey also praised Richard the Lionheart for “checking the Mussulman power” (SPW 10: 232) and called for Britain to end the “hellish delusions” of the Hindus in its Indian colonies (SPW 10: 223): he was obsessed with the glory of imperial rule by land and sea. Even his portraits of poets are affected by this: Southey makes Shakespeare an emperor—“Shakespeare, who in our hearts for himself hath erected an empire / Not to be shaken by Time, nor e’er by another divided” (SPW 10: 234).
The principal villains in Southey’s poem are those who opposed Britain’s control of its colonies. Wilkes is hurled into the “sulphurous darkness” in vengeance for sowing “insurrection” in America, as is Junius (SPW 10: 224-5). And poets of the “Satanic school” are called “men of diseased hearts and depraved imaginations,” “infecting [. . .] with a moral virus that eats into the soul” (SPW 10: 205-6). Their “evil is political as well as moral,” Southey declared, urging the “rulers of the state” to act against them (SPW 10: 206).
Byron’s reply to Southey takes up the Laureate’s vision of imperial glory and undermines it point by point. Byron vindicates Wilkes and Junius, and alludes to Captain Cook. In so doing he attacks British imperialism by pointing to its effects upon the Pacific islanders whom Cook visited, including the people who had suffered under British power in Tahiti:
In short, an universal shoal of shades
From Otaheite’s Isle to Salisbury Plain
Of all climes and professions, years and trades,
Ready to swear against the good king’s reign.
These lines reverse Southey’s praise of South Sea exploration. Tahitians had been infected with smallpox and venereal disease by British sailors, as Byron knew from accounts of Cook’s and Bligh’s voyages to that island. For Byron it was the Royal Navy, as an agent of British imperialism, and not the “Satanic” campaigners and writers who resisted that imperialism, that infected peoples with viruses—physical as well as moral and political. Southey’s imperial heroes had, for Byron, infectious bodies as well as “diseased hearts.”
Byron’s Vision made Polynesia (about which Southey was a well-known commentator) one of the areas in which the argument about poetry became a political dispute about imperialism. The Island did so at greater length. But it also displayed Byron’s indifference to Southey’s strictures on poetry, for it took the form of an Orientalist poem of the kind that the Laureate most disliked, idealizing unmarried sexual love and condoning rebellion against authority. Byron’s depiction of the unfamiliar cultures with which Britons increasingly came into contact had allowed him to capture the imagination of a public avid for accounts of exotic places but uncertain about what those accounts revealed. The colonization of cultures in India and Africa and the discovery of societies in the South Seas posed Britons questions about their beliefs in the fields of government, law, religion and morality. It was Byron’s ability to dramatize (and seem to resolve) these questions in poetic narrative that made his Orientalist verse so successful. For Southey, himself the author of two Orientalist epics and one on the colonization of America, the imaginative depiction of unfamiliar cultures was a vital means towards the definition of a proper morality for an imperial Britain at home and abroad. For both men, then, the issue of the Satanic in poetry was also in part an issue of poetry’s role in shaping the morality and politics of a nation waking to find itself suddenly the dominant power in the East, West and South.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that Byron and Southey should have battled over the representation of the South Seas, for the Pacific islands were the most recently encountered native cultures and news of them had caused a sensation across Europe. The 1767 “discovery” of Tahiti by Captain Wallis and subsequent visits by Captain Cook had introduced to Europe peoples who seemed to live in paradise. The voyage narratives told of Edenic islands on which the flourishing bread fruit seemed to exempt the “Indians” from Adam’s curse that he should earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.
The islanders’ bodies became objects of fascination to the West. They were treated as synedoches of their island cultures—as proofs that a perfect state of nature had been discovered. They were viewed, caressed and penetrated by the sailors. They were sketched, measured and described by the accompanying naturalists. And they were imported back to Britain, alive, as curiosities, and dead, as skulls and skeletons, so that Western science might place them in its scheme of things.
Contact was sexual from the start. And it was this sexual contact, as reported in expedition narratives, that aroused Southey’s and Byron’s interest, when, by chance, it became bound up with the other Tahitian symbol for which Tahiti had become famous—the bread fruit. The sexy island women and the exotic fruit, together, seemed to be responsible for the mutiny on the Bounty, that cause celebre in which the discipline of the navy on whom the empire depended had crumbled.
When, in 1787, Captain Bligh was commissioned by the Admiralty to sail to Tahiti, it was for an explicitly colonialist purpose, for the benefit of the merchants and owners of the sugar plantations. He was to collect specimens of the bread fruit tree and take them to the West Indies where they would be transplanted and used as food for the slaves. The bread fruit would, it was expected, symbolize the colonial benefits to Britain of exploiting newly discovered lands.
As it turned out, it came to symbolize the temptations of Tahiti’s women and the limitations of colonial authority. In 1789 Bligh arrived at Tahiti and collected his trees but, like Wallis and Cook before him, found naval discipline collapsing. On 5 January three of his crew deserted in order to live with the island women. They later took part in the mutiny, which occurred when the Bounty was sailing away from the island. It was motivated, according to Bligh’s later account, by the sailors’ desire to return an island where “they need not labour and where the allurements of dissipation are beyond anything that can be conceived” (Bligh, Narrative 10). The mutineers cast Bligh adrift and promptly threw the bread fruit plants overboard and returned to Tahiti. Bligh, after an epic open-boat voyage, went in the other direction back to Britain.
Once there, Bligh got the backing of the Admiralty, who sent an expedition to capture the mutineers. In 1791 Captain Edwards, in command of the Pandora, arrested several of the rebels who had been cohabiting with women of the island. Edwards was a martinet: the mutineers were chained to the deck during the voyage back to Britain for court-martial, which led to the execution of most. Yet this did not end the matter. Captain Edwards was widely condemned for cruel treatment of his prisoners (he had left several, ironed and imprisoned, to drown when the Pandora was foundering). A campaign resulted in the pardon of two who were judged to have been intimidated into mutiny. Evidence given at the court martial, moreover, implied that it was as much Bligh’s arbitrary severity towards his officers as the delights of Tahiti that led to mutiny. Naval discipline was criticized in a way that would not be seen again until the 1797 mutinies at Spithead and the Nore. Meanwhile the fate of Fletcher Christian, the ringleader of the mutiny, remained unknown, and the court martial was left considering in his absence whether his remark to Bligh, “I am in hell—I am in hell,” was a confession of guilt or an exclamation of resentment (Bligh, Voyage 161). Christian, it was discovered in 1808, had, after sailing from Tahiti with eight of the other mutineers and eighteen islanders of both sexes, formed a settlement at Pitcairn Island, where he had been murdered in a dispute over possession of the women. By the time of the discovery, the sole surviving mutineer, John Adams, had become the patriarch of a colony that comprised the remaining Tahitian women and the children fathered by his now dead comrades. Using a Bible taken from the Bounty he imposed a Christian education and a moral code so strict that the ships’ officers who visited the island felt ashamed at their own comparative laxity.
News of the Pitcairn colony made poets take up their pens. Southey advised upon Christina, the Maid of the South Seas (1811), by Mary Russell Mitford. This poem dramatized the mutiny and related the discovery of the surviving settlement on Pitcairn. The eponymous heroine is the daughter of Fletcher Christian and Iddeah, his Tahitian wife. She and the colony she embodies, are portrayed as being exempt from the vices of Tahiti—infanticide and human sacrifice—which her father is said to have fled the island to avoid. Pitcairn is an “Eden blooming in the wild” and its maid, by contrast, is, as her name suggests, Christian, virtuous and decent. She is therefore deemed worthy of the romantic love that Henry, an Englishman aboard the ship that discovers the colony, feels for her. His love is for a maid who redeems Tahiti from its “savagery”—from its cultural difference—since she possesses the body of an islander but the morality of an Englishwoman:
What wily art of courtly dress
Could add to that form’s loveliness?
No art was there. The Parou wound
In light and graceful folds, around.
Above the slender ancle, free
Floated that nymph-like drapery;
Her round and polish’d arm reveal’d
Her bosom’s swelling charms conceal’d;
For virture here with beauty join’d,
And modesty with grace combined.
Sentimentalized female innocence here sponsors an idealized but facile solution to the “problem” of Polynesian immorality: intermarriage will breed future generations whose character and behaviour is British, while only their bodily nature in Tahitian (rather than vice versa as later racists came to fear). For Mitford, as Neil Rennie puts it, “Pitcairn is not a ‘soft voluptuous clime’ where nature and virtue are at odds. Pitcairn is not Tahiti.”
That Mitford sent a copy of her poem to Southey is not surprising, for he had been a commentator on events in the South Seas since his early twenties. As James C. McKusick has shown, as a young radical Southey sympathized with Fletcher Christian in his rebellion against the tyranny of British institutions (McKusick 1992). He wrote of Bligh’s “unendurable tyranny” and added, “if every man had his due Bligh would have had the halter instead of the poor fellows whom we brought from Taheite” (New Letters 1: 519). In the influential Tory journal the Quarterly Review he sympathized with one, in particular, of those poor fellows—the mutineer Stewart, whom Captain Edwards had arrested. Stewart had then died in chains when the Pandora sank on its voyage from Tahiti to Britain. Southey related the story in a manner which shows that, like Mary Russell Mitford, he regarded Polynesia as an ideal exotic setting for romantic love:
A midshipman, by name Stewart, having made himself guilty in the sudden burst of mutiny, took up his abode on the island and lived with the daughter of a Chief, who had borne him a beautiful girl when the Pandora arrived, and he was seized and laid in irons. She followed him with her infant to the ship; the officers who witnessed the scene which ensued could scarcely bear to behold it, and Stewart besought them not to let her see him again, So, she was separated from him by force and sent ashore. In the course of two months she pined away, and died,—literally of a broken heart. He, happily for himself, perished in the wreck of the Pandora; the orphan has been bred up by missionaries.Rev. of Transactions 50
It was on Stewart and his “beautiful girl” that Byron based the hero and heroine of The Island. The two poets were dependent on the same source material and were disputing its implications for an imperial nation whose power depended on the naval discipline that had collapsed in the fertile groves of Tahiti.
Despite his sympathy for Fletcher Christian and for Stewart, Southey was, by 1809, quite sure that Pacific island culture was a threat to the morality of an imperial nation. In the Quarterly Review he called Tahiti a “Paradise of Sin” and argued that the Tahitians’ “iniquities exceed those of any other people, ancient or modern, civilized or savage; and that human nature never has been exhibited in such utter depravity as by the inhabitants of these terrestial Paradises!” (Rev. of Transactions 45). Native promiscuity, polygamy and infanticide revealed that the South Seas needed an infusion of British order. Southey became a supporter of the early attempts by the London Missionary Society to convert the islanders to Christianity.
What was needed, Southey concluded, was “colonization” by a wave of missionaries who were capable of teaching mechanical arts and medicine. By this means islanders would be introduced into the capitalist and technological civilisation of the West, learning “such mechanical arts as would be able to turn the natural productions of the island to profit” (Rev. of Transactions 45). The missionaries would thus teach the islanders to work for a living and to replace their reliance on natural fertility and their indulgence of sexual promiscuity with a society that recognized the concept of exclusive property in things—and in women. Southey became a public advocate of a British colonialism designed to spread British moral standards and social practice across the globe. Opposed to commercial plantations, indifferent to points of Christian doctrine, Southey championed an imperial mission defined as the civilizing of savages by the inculcation of the work-ethic, monogamy, and respect for property.
In 1817 the South Seas were brought before the British public once more with the publication of An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific Ocean [. . .] Arranged from the Exclusive Communications of Mr. William Mariner. This publication was to fascinate both Byron and Southey and to trigger their public dispute. And a remarkable publication it was, for it told the extraordinary story of how the fifteen-year-old Mariner had been cast ashore on Tonga when the ship of which he was captain’s clerk had been wrecked. He spent four years there before being taken off by a passing vessel. Having learnt the language of the islanders, Mariner was able to provide more accurate details about their culture than had previously been available. Mariner also showed that the effects of colonialism were already blighting the islands—that the native people were, like it or not, subject to a brutal contest for power and influence between Britons. Not only British missionaries but also an escapee from Britain’s new penal colony at Botany Bay had been present on Tonga. This ex-convict, Morgan, stirred up the islanders’ resentment of missionaries, convincing them that
“they were men sent out by the king of England, to bring a pestilence upon the people of Tonga, and that they accordingly shut themselves up in this house, to perform witchcraft, and make incantations, which was the cause of the pestilence that then raged:” (there was an epidemic disease at the time, which was very fatal among the chiefs, two or three dying every day).Martin 1: 67-8
Taking the alarm, the Tongan chiefs “rushed upon the white men, and killed all but three” (1: 68). Ironically, what the missionaries offered as a spiritual remedy for savagery was identified by the Tongans as the cause of the physical diseases which European sailors had brought. Their Bibles were judged to be “books of witchcraft” (1: 68). This native reading of colonial Christianity later came to occupy Southey’s imagination when he compared Polynesian customs with South American ones.
According to Mariner, the Tongans had proved more willing to import Fijian customs than Christian beliefs. They had, he revealed, adopted cannibalism from their island neighbours—eating enemies captured in battle and murdering “one another to supply themselves with food” (Martin 1: 117). They also sacrificed children to appease their gods, and Mariner recounted an affecting execution scene:
on hearing its mother’s voice it began to cry, but, when it arrived at the fatal place of its execution, it was pleased and delighted with the band of gnatoo that was put round its neck, and, looking up in the face of the man who was about to destroy it, displayed in its beautiful countenance a smile of ineffable pleasure; such a sight inspired pity in the breast of every one: but veneration and fear of the gods was a sentiment superior to every other, and its destroyer could not help exclaiming, as he put on the fatal bandage, O yaooé chi vale! (poor little innocent!).Martin 1: 229-30
Southey read Mariner’s account in manuscript for John Murray and recommended publication. He made excerpts from it in his commonplace book, noting the “cruelty” of the practice of training boys in war by having them torture wounded captives. In April 1817 he reviewed the published book in the Quarterly in terms that would have been both exciting and irritating for Byron, who read this number of the Review in Italy. Southey stressed the Tongan chief’s cruelty, likening it to that of the French under the Jacobins and under Napoleon: Finow “put to death all his prisoners, some by the French fashion of a noyade as practised by the Jacobines at Nantes, and the Buonapartists at St. Domingo: they were taken out in canoes which were scuttled and sunk immediately” (Rev. of Account 7). He concluded that such practices showed the need for monarchical government—a conclusion in line with his Tory domestic politics: “Tonga, meantime, which had been in so flourishing and beautiful a state before the murder of its acknowledged sovereign, suffered all the miseries of anarchy and civil war” (Rev. of Account 7).
Byron not only opposed Southey’s support of the unreformed monarchy and parliament in Britain, but resented the restoration of Bourbon monarchs across Europe after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Yet if Southey’s political conclusions about Tonga were, like his domestic politics, galling for Byron, his review also contained stories of romance and struggles for liberty. He quoted Mariner’s rendition of the Tongan song of peace and freedom:
Let us walk to Licco, that we may behold the going down of the sun [. . .] It is evening; let us go to the Mooa (the town). Hark I hear the band of the singers. Are they learning a Boo-ola (a torch-light dance) for to-night on the Malai (or lawn) at Tanea? Let us go there. We shall think of our former state when war had not torn our land. Alas, war is a terrible thing! [. . .] The land of Fiji has brought the war to our land of Tonga, let us then act like the Fiji people. Let us forbear to think, perhaps we may be dead to-morrow. Let us dress with the chi-coola, and bind our waists with bands of the gnatoo; we will put on coronals of jiale-flowers and neclaces of hooni to display our sun-coloured skins.Rev. of Account 33-4
Southey also quoted Mariner’s story of a coastal cave, accessible only underwater:
There is a cavern in the island of Hoonga which can only be entered by diving into the sea, and has no other light than is reflected from the bottom of the water. A young chief discovered it accidentally while diving after a turtle, and the use which he made of his discovery will probably be sung in more than one European language, so beautifully is it adapted for a tale in verse.Rev. of Account 33
As Mariner showed, the chief had used the cave to hide the “beautiful young maiden” whom he loved (Martin 1: 268). Having saved her from a “tyrant,” he confessed his love to her, whereupon she consented: “How happy were they in this solitary retreat! tyrannic power no longer reached them [. . .] themselves were the only power they served, and they were infinitely delighted with this simple form of government” (Martin 1: 268).
Southey’s invitation to poets was answered: Byron made the Tongan cave part of The Island, the poem set in the South Seas that he was composing whilst attacking Southey in print. Byron’s poem told the story of the mutiny on the Bounty, focusing on Fletcher Christian’s defiance of authority. It then imagined the subsequent fate of the mutineers, showing them living an idyllic life with the native women until pursued by British soldiers from a ship sent by the Royal Navy. The mutineers flee to an uninhabited rocky island, where they make a last stand and are killed—all save young Torquil, who is saved by his island girl, Neuha, who hides him in the coastal cave described by Mariner. After the departure of the British ship the couple emerge from hiding to live in bliss together in their island paradise. Byron made no use of the accounts of the real history of the mutineers who fled to Pitcairn island, but drew his details from Bligh’s and Mariner’s narratives (although it is quite possible that Southey was a more recent contributory source since the Tongan details which appear in The Island are to be found in the review in the Quarterly).
Byron’s poem reflected the view that Tongan sexual morality was of a different kind than that of Tahiti. Mariner stated that “infidelity among the married women is comparatively very rare” and showed convincingly that the Tongans were “rather to be considered a chaste than a libertine people” (Martin 2: 170, 179). The infidelity and prostitution that were thought typical of Tahiti were, he showed, rare. If free love was practised, it did not necessarily entail promiscuity:
As to those women who are not actually married, they may bestow their favours upon whomsoever they please, without any opprobrium: it must not, however, be supposed, that these women are always easily won; the greatest attentions and most fervent solicitations are sometimes requisite, even though there be no other lover in the way. This happens sometimes from a spirit of coquetry, at other times from a dislike to the party, &c. It is thought shameful for a woman frequently to change her lover.Martin 2: 174
Byron drew on Mariner’s account of Tongan sexual morality although his poem was ostensibly set in Toobonai (Tubuai, an island 7 degrees south of Tahiti to which Christian had intended to sail). By so doing he was able to avoid portraying the prostitution and promiscuity for which Tahiti had become notorious and instead create an idyllic island-refuge for romantic love. His Tubuaian heroine, Neuha, and Hebridean hero, Torquil, form a lasting and deep affection in which sexual partnership unites North and South, “civilized” man and “savage” woman. Like an unmarried Tongan woman, Neuha chooses her lover. She is afflicted neither by Christian prohibitions against unmarried love nor by the Tahitian practice of prostituting women for tools and trinkets, for Byron’s island is characterized by “love unbought” (canto 1, line 110). George Forster’s eyewitness account of the sailors’ intercourse with South Sea women is very different:
whether the members of a civilized society, who could act such a brutal part, or the barbarians who could force their own women to submit to such indignity, deserve the greatest abhorrence, is a question not easily to be decided.Forster 1: 211
Neuha and Torquil unite, however, in a relatively decorous social setting, again derived from Mariner’s Tonga. Adapting the Tongan songs reported by Mariner and Southey, Byron identifies Fijian violence as the threat to a society whose idyllic peacefulness is symbolized by love, wine, and dancing:
Island 2: 45-52
Strike up the dance! the cava bowl fill high!
Drain every drop!—to-morrow we may die,
In summer garments be our limbs array’d;
Around our waists the tappa’s white display’d
Thick wreaths shall form our coronal, like spring’s,
And round our necks shall glance the hoonistrings;
So shall their brighter hues contrast the glow
Of the dusk bosoms that beat high below.
Although the last lines of this quotation hint that the dance is an erotic one, it is made clear that the women are relatively modestly clad in the white tappa. Mariner had noted that though “some of their motions, perhaps, would with us be reckoned rather indecent” they were “not meant to convey any wanton ideas” (Martin 2: 311). The Tahitian dances that so excited the British sailors, by contrast, featured naked women who, Cook noted, “put themselves into the most wanton attitudes.” Clearly Byron expected the restrained exoticism (and eroticism) of his Tongan details to help sell the work, for in a letter he expected that “the most pamby portions of the Toobonai Islanders—will be the most agreeable to the enlightened public” (LJ 10: 90).
By conflating Tahiti and Tonga, two distinct South Sea cultures, Byron was able to avoid asking his British public to approve of those aspects of Pacific culture of which they, like Southey, had most disapproved: prostitution and promiscuity in Tahiti, cannibalism and infanticide in Tonga. Byron simply omitted such practices, as he did the introduction of venereal disease that tainted the “free love” of sailors and island women. Southey later noted how the disease led the islanders to put on a new kind of display:
they set before [the missionaries] [. . .] poor miserably deformed and diseased creatures, as proofs of the efficacy of their malignant prayers, and the vindictive character of the God to whom they were addressed.Rev. of Polynesian 4
This grim exhibition seems an ironic inversion of the erotic dance that had earlier tempted sailors to pay for sex. Here the islanders’ disenchantment echoes in Southey’s pro-missionary text and one of the ironies of colonial encounters becomes apparent: what was offered as a spiritual cure was interpreted by the colonized as another form of bodily infection.
Byron avoids such ironies by so constructing his narrative that colonizer and colonized are united in a love that reconciles the spiritual and the physical, the soul and the body. The Byronic Torquil and his “south Sea girl” (Island 2.333) are united “in one absorbing soul” (2.305) in a savage marriage blessed by nature rather than a priest. Neuha’s “faithful bosom” unites her solely to him, and their true love match becomes an embodiment of the peaceful and equal union of North and South, Britain and Tahiti. As such it acts as a fantasy that allows Byron to gloss over the more unequal and less idealized transactions that his sources revealed between the two cultures:
The white man landed! need the rest be told?
The New World stretch’d its dusk hand to the Old;
Each was to each a marvel, and the tie
Of wonder warm’d to better sympathy.
Kind was the welcome of the sun-born sires,
And kinder still their daughters’ gentler fires.
Their union grew: the children of the storm
Found beauty link’d with many a dusky form
At this point it would be possible to argue that in omitting to tell “the rest” and in avoiding the awkward detail of his sources, Byron was performing that movement which Jerome J. McGann suggested is characteristic of the Romantic ideology—obscuring fiction’s relationship to history in order to associate poetry with a transcendent realm of love. Such an argument, however, would ignore the fact that the poem constitutes a radical critique of the apparent “truths” about foreign cultures upon which contemporaries, not least Southey, based their arguments for Christianization and colonization.
This critique is apparent in Byron’s reversal of the gender roles set out in his source material. In the Tongan story as related by Mariner and Southey it is the young chief who finds the cave and rescues his beloved by hiding her in it. Byron, however, retells the story with Neuha in the young chief’s role. Thus he disturbs the gendered hierarchy of Tongan society (in which women were defined by their relation to powerful men). He does so in order to disturb European assumptions: Neuha’s physical and mental resourcefulness shows that her people are not “effeminate” (as travellers thought them to be). She and her ancestors, Byron states in a further appropriation of virtues Europeans applied solely to their own civilization, are “the valiant and the few, / The naked knights of savage chivalry” (Island 2.216-17).
Byron’s attribution to the islanders of savage chivalry revalued chivalry against the argument of Burke and other conservatives that it was product of centuries of civilization. It also brought his idealization of Polynesia into direct opposition to Southey’s views, for the Poet Laureate had associated Tongan savagery with revolutionary despotism in Napoleonic France. Byron’s idealization is clearly indebted to those of the French philosophes, on whose ideas Southey, like Burke, had blamed the French Revolution—Rousseau and Diderot. Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality had idealized savage life as a condition of health, innocence, freedom from desire: “the youth of the World,” free from the decrepitude of more “advanced” societies (Rousseau 48-9). Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (1796) had portrayed Tahiti as a new Cytherea, an isle of liberty, free from the vices of civilized countries.
Whilst Byron’s poem is a critique of contemporary British imperialism, and of the ideology that sustained that imperialism, it is also a colonialist fantasy. It frames Tahiti through Byron’s own identification of liberty with ancient Greece. The island warriors fight alongside the mutineers against the Royal Navy, and are compared to Hercules and then to the nationalist liberation struggle in contemporary Greece that Byron was later to join:
Their own scant numbers acted all the few
Against the many oft will dare and do;
But though the choice seems native to die free,
Even Greece can boast but one Thermopylae,
Till now, when she has forged her broken chain
Back to a sword, and dies and lives again!
In Byron’s opinion, the Congress of Vienna had ensured the domination of Europe by re-established monarchs who ruled by military subjugation rather than by consent. The Island suggested that the extension of Britain’s naval power across the oceans made such subjugation probable even in the remotest lands. In Byron’s text, Fletcher Christian and the mutineers find no permanent refuge from the military power they had defied. Even when they flee Tahiti they are hunted down on the uninhabited rock to which they escape. Making his last stand, Fletcher Christian remains defiant, killing a British sailor who thinks he intends to surrender and then throwing himself to his death, uncaptured. And whilst Byron seems to condemn him, he also implies that, though guilty and unrepentant, Christian may not necessarily go to hell:
The rest was nothing—save a life mispent,
And soul—but who shall answer where it went?
’Tis ours to bear, not judge the dead; and they
Who doom to hell, themselves are on the way,
Unless those bullies of eternal pains
Are pardon’d their bad hearts for their worse brains.
These lines deflect judgement from Christian and turn it on Southey, who had doomed Byron to hell for his “Satanic” poetry in his Vision of Judgment.
Byron’s allusion to Southey reminds us that The Island was a broadside in the two poets’ dispute about poetic judgement and its moral and political consequences. But it also renews the attack on the Evangelical Christianity that was shaping British attitudes to the unfamiliar cultures of its empire. And it reminds the reader to suspend judgement of the poem’s protagonists, ensuring that if Christian’s mutiny is not positively endorsed, it is effectively condoned. Discussing The Island in a letter to Leigh Hunt, Byron had declared his intention “not to run counter to the reigning stupidity altogether—otherwise they will say that I am eulogizing Mutiny” (LJ 10: 90). He fulfilled this intention, both by praise of Bligh and by apparent acknowledgement of Christian’s guilt. Yet by inventing for this hellish anti-hero a defiant death in battle and by comparing him to the heroes of ancient Greece, Byron glamourized him as a resister of tyranny even as he associated him with Satan:
[. . .] like a serpent, coil’d
His wounded, weary form, to where the steep
Look’d desperate as himself along the deep;
Cast one glance back, and clench’d his hand, and shook
His last rage ’gainst the earth which he forsook;
Thus Byron fantasized about the South Sea islands as a last stronghold of rebellion against imperialism and the military force by which imperialism was maintained. The stronghold falls, only for the ideal of liberty pursued there (albeit perversely by mutiny) to be affirmed in verse.
Yet the ideal of liberty is not left only for the poet. Christian’s cathartic death purges the isle, and the only mutineer to retain his freedom, of guilt. Christian was “in hell,” in the poem’s narrative logic, so that Torquil could be in paradise, a paradise “guilt won” but redeemed by love:
The feast in honour of the guest, return’d
To peace and pleasure, perilously earn’d;
A night succeeded by such happy days
As only the yet infant world displays.
With the guilt of mutiny laid upon Christian, Torquil is left seeming morally free enough to live a life of liberty and peace. Manipulation of readers’ judgement—a kind of poetic sleight of hand—allows Byron to sketch a way out of the impasse in which many of his works end, the impasse in which the struggle for liberty involves the struggler in acts of cruelty so that he comes to be, like his oppressors, guilty. At the same time the marine cave, as Byron adapted it from Mariner, acts as a refuge for love and liberty so marginal that even the remorseless forces of British imperialism cannot find it. It is the very remoteness and exoticism of the South Sea islands and their peoples—their ability to elude the understanding of the British navy—that allows them to preserve a geography known only to them even when British navigators and soldiers have apparently charted and subjugated the whole area. But this uncharted and unpoliced geography exists only at the very margins, in the form of a cave only reachable by those who, like Neuha and Torquil, were powerful swimmers by virtue of their island-upbringings. Byron had himself swum the Hellespont in emulation of Leander’s swim for love and freedom into the arms of Hero. He transforms the Tongan tale into a similarly heroic, but successful, struggle to live those ideals. It was a transformation that fulfilled Southey’s hope (expressed in his review of Mariner) that a poet would versify the cave story. But it did so in a manner of which Southey strongly disapproved.
The Island constitutes a poetic rejection of Southey’s mature views on politics, on poetry and on the South Sea islands. It also constitutes a rejection of Southey’s Orientalist poetry. When beginning his eastern tales Byron had defined his own verse against Southey’s “unsaleables,” and he continued to ridicule the long and earnest Thalaba and Kehama. Southey’s failure, for Byron, lay in his adopting the “more outrageous of their [Orientals’] fictions” (LJ 3: 101). “Master Southey’s poems are in fact what parallel lines might be viz. prolonged ad infinitum, without ever meeting anything half so absurd as themselves” (LJ 2: 137). Byron ensured that his own Tales did not alienate British readers by similarly bombarding them at length with unfamiliar Eastern mythology. Instead, he included enough accurate local colour, or “costume” as it was termed, to give an appearance of verisimilitude in his portrait of the exotic, without becoming so detailed that readers became overwhelmed by its difference (Leask 178).
In The Island Byron tailored his “costume” accurately, but strove for popularity (not without cynicism) by omitting details from Southey and Mariner likely to offend the public who had bought his earlier Tales in such numbers, hence his expectation that “the most pamby portions of the Toobonai Islanders—will be the most agreeable to the enlightened Public.” Omitting the infanticide and the venereal disease from his account, Byron included accurate details about the decorous dances and songs of the Tongans. And if this method pandered to the public’s taste for pambyness, it also allowed Byron to depict the love of Neuha and Torquil in accordance with his own, idealized, valuation of romantic love rather than in conformity to the Tahitian and Tongan customs of which he had read. The effect of Byron’s procedure was to impose an erotic fantasy upon South Sea women. This fantasy, although it was radical and libertarian with regard to European gender roles and to the fantasy which Southey and the missionaries were imposing on Polynesia, was deeply colonialist. Neuha may be generous, heroic and civilized rather than savage in Southey’s sense, but she is the creature of Byron’s desire for an ideal woman, both sexual and innocent, who is active yet still deferential. For Byron, Neuha, like the South Sea nature she embodies, desires only to give pleasure to another. She is stereotyped as a minor nature-goddess keen to give herself to a Western man so as to redeem him from the guilt that stems from greater experience. And if this gift is too fragile to avoid destruction by time, then it may survive through an apotheosis, as a transcendent spiritual blessing: “To rise, if just, a spirit o’er them all” (2.162).
To encounter a redemptive female innocence was a colonialist desire that Southey shared with Byron when imagining “exotic” cultures. For Southey, of course, innocence could not be combined with an active female sexuality: imagining such a combination led the writer to a satanic fall, not an angelic apotheosis. It was for the romanticization of this combination that Southey called Byron a “public pander” in 1822 and added that he made “others the slaves of sensuality” (Courier 11 January 1822). To this accusation of sexual enslavement Byron replied with a gibe which suggested that Southey had himself once planned a sexual colonization when, with Coleridge and Lovell, he had aimed to settle in America in a Pantisocratic commune:
“The Republican Trio,” [. . .] when they began to publish in common, were to have had a community in all things, like the Ancient Britons—to have lived in a state of nature like savages—and peopled some island of the blest with children in common like -------------.qtd. in Southey, Courier 13 December 1824
Here the Pantisocracy scheme is transferred to an isle of the kind Byron was depicting at this time in The Island. Godwinian elements, including the abolition of property and marriage, are used by Byron to tar Southey with the “savage” promiscuity of which Southey had disapproved in Tahiti.
Byron’s gibe was published in Medwin’s Private Conversations with Lord Byron in 1824, and Southey replied to it with a letter in The Courier in which he termed Byron “pander-general to the youth of Great Britain” (Courier 13 December 1824). Informing a correspondent of this Courier letter, Southey also wrote that he was bringing to a conclusion a poem which he had begun in 1817, in which the innocence of youth—in particular female youth—is central (Selections 450). This poem, A Tale of Paraguay, forms a reply to Byron’s colonialist and Orientalist poetry that is, at the same time, influenced by it. Indeed, this tale of Amerindians had been bound up with the public dispute with Byron since January 1822, when Southey was simultaneously reviewing the narrative that was his poem’s source and attacking Byron in The Courier (Selections 293). And although A Tale of Paraguay deals with events on the South American mainland rather than the South Sea islands, it draws on Southey’s detailed knowledge of accounts of Polynesia. The notes to the poem quote a long passage from “the very curious and valuable work of Mr. Mariner” concerning the Tongan belief in an island of the dead. Southey compares this belief with that of the Guarani tribe of Paraguay in a land of souls so that, in effect, his tale of South America becomes an exercise in comparative religion. When reviewing Mariner in 1817 Southey had also compared the Tongans to the Guaranis —on this occasion the point of similarity being their martial customs. Tongan
boys who followed the expedition, as if serving their apprenticeship to war, ran their spears into those who were lying helpless upon the ground, and tormented the wounded and dying. In like manner among the Guaranies of Paraguay, when a prisoner had been felled by the butcher at one of their cannibal feasts, children were put to hammer at his head with little hatchets that they might learn how to kill their enemies.Rev. of Account 11
Southey’s comparative ethnology enabled him to collapse differences between unfamiliar cultures and thereby produce a generalized conclusion about “the dispositions of savage man” (Rev. of Account 6). And this generalized view, unseeing of the uniqueness of each of these cultures, sponsored his calls for an overall colonization of them all by the forces of Christianity. In 1830 he compared the Protestant missionaries in Polynesia to the Jesuits in South America:
Even if the mass of these new [Polynesian] Christians understood the nature of their apparent conversion as little as those American Indians whom the Spanish missionaries sprinkled with besoms to the right and left till they blistered their hands by the work; or as our own Anglo-Saxon ancestors, when they were baptized by the thousands in the Swale; the change would still be effectual in the next generation, if only care were taken to train up the children in the way they should go.Rev. of Polynesian 31-2
The training of the children was crucial to the missionary enterprize, and A Tale of Paraguay records an effort by a Jesuit to do just that.
Southey’s difference from Byron’s colonialist fantasy is evident not only in his exclusion of sexuality from his exotic scenes, but in his attacks on tribal life. Whereas The Island romanticized Polynesian customs, omitting discussion of prostitution and infanticide, Southey’s Tale explicitly condemned these tribal practices. The Indian family who feature in the Tale of Paraguay were noble because they had become isolated from their tribe in the forest, living without contact with other humans:
canto 1, stanza 35
For they had gain’d a happiness above
The state which in their native horde was known:
No outward causes were there here to move
Discord and alien thoughts; being thus alone
From all mankind, their hearts and their desires were one.
Living free from hierarchy, property and vice in unspoilt nature, Southey’s Indians fulfil many of the ideals that the radical colony of Pantisocracy had been designed to put into practice. Thus Paraguay provided an imaginary stage on which could be enacted a social radicalism which Southey was no longer prepared to endorse at home. However, social equality was not accompanied by the sexual liberty that the Pantisocrats had briefly considered adopting. The last line of this stanza answers Byron’s charge that Southey, as a Pantisocrat, had intended to practice a kind of Godwinian free love. Southey had been annoyed enough by that charge to write to The Courier refuting it a few months before Tale was published. And Tale went on to define the state of Paraguayan nature in accordance with conservative Christian ethics:
canto 1, stanzas 37-8
And as connubial, so parental love
Obey’d unerring Nature’s order here,
For now no force of impious custom strove
Against her law;
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
such as was wont to sear
The unhappy heart with usages severe,
Till harden’d mothers in the grave could lay
Their living babes with no compunctious tear;
So monstrous men become, when from the way
Of primal light they turn thro’ heathen paths astray.
Where Byron idealized tribal life, Southey deplored it. Yet his Tale, markedly different in form, style and subject from his earlier Orientalist epics, shows Byron’s influence throughout. Byron’s private verdict on those epics had been echoed by many reviewers, who also found that Southey had clotted his narratives with the mythology of the East, overwhelming his readers with details of fabulous stories that he would have them believe. In Tale Southey confined his comparative religion to the notes. He eschewed the pompous diction and epic scale of his former works too, and dealt, as Byron’s Oriental poems did, with the familiar subject of love. And he wrote in the Spenserian stanza, suitable in itself and by association for a romance, but recently popularized by Byron’s massively successful Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. To publish a poem in Spenserian stanzas about exotic regions in 1825 was to invite comparison with Byron’s poem. If Southey was rejecting Byronism in general, and The Island in particular, as a corrupting influence, nevertheless his own poem followed a form that Byronic Orientalism had popularized. But he did so only to differ: the Byronic hero, whether Childe Harold or Fletcher Christian, is a traveller to distant lands because he is self-exiled, being disenchanted with the world and too proud to submit to the authority of men and creeds in which he does not believe. His lonely communion with nature emerges from a rejection of family ties and social conventions. Southey’s heroes, by contrast, may be foreign but resemble respectable English Christians in their domestic habits. Even their relationship with nature leads them towards a faith reminiscent of eighteenth-century Christianity, for they are “tutor’d by instinctive sense [. . .] / To place a child-like trust in Providence” (canto 1, line 17). The paternalism that pervades the poem is, it appears, founded on God the Father, who will repay the Indians’ child-like trust with redemption by love (canto 2, lines 15-17).
A tale of fatherly rather than of sexual love, The Tale of Paraguay is, in part, Southey’s demonstration of what a proper Byronic poem should be like—a work created as a riposte to Byron’s colonialist fantasies, but in their image. It is better than Southey’s other Orientalist fictions because (as I have shown in an earlier number of this journal) it registers Southey’s doubts about the very paternalism that he endorses, and thus it is never simplistic, univocal or jingoistic. Encoded within it are Southey’s residual radical sympathies, sympathies that give the poem more in common with Byron than its metre and setting. And of course it was precisely because Byron detected such sympathies and knew of Southey’s former Jacobinism that he resented his later conservatism so much: Southey seemed not just an apostate, but on some level still a radical who now explicitly rejected radicalism. Byron hated the hypocrisy of this, seeing it as an example of the cant that increasingly characterized the age as a tide of piety and respectability (in name if not in deed) spread across Britain. And although Byron was dead before it appeared, Southey’s Pacific poem proved him prophetic, for it was an early example of the kind of colonialist romance that the Victorians would write in Byron’s wake—a romance in which empire was justified as a civilizing mission that white fathers brought to willing brown children. As Regency excess gave way to Victorian work-ethic, and as missionary Christianity became ever stronger, it was a sanitized and de-sexualized version of the exotic romance that would triumph as a national and imperial poetry—a version that Southey, through his attack on Byron’s Eastern tales and through his own Byronic tale, helped to crystallize. Southey, in effect, had the last laugh: he may have lost the battle of wit, may have suffered under Byron’s satire, but he pioneered the adaptation (in Byron’s terms, the emasculation) of Byron’s achievement for a new era. Southey’s success, that is to say, stemmed not from his Vision but from his telling Tales on his poetic peers—tales that empire-builders wanted to hear.
Byron’s Vision of Judgment, Lord Byron: Complete Poetical Works. (BPW) 6: 343.
Southey’s Vision of Judgment, SPW 10: 236.
Rennie 171. My account of the poem is indebted to Rennie’s discussion.
A incisive assessment of the poem’s relation to Mariner, and to debates about the Bounty mutiny, is given in McKusick “The Politics of Language in Byron’s The Island.”
All citations from The Island given by canto and line numbers, from BPW.
Cook quoted in Moorehead 94.
In a treatment of The Island made many years before he discussed the Romantic Ideology, McGann himself endorsed the poem’s vision of redemptive love: “Torquil is asked to choose between love and life, and by choosing love he gains a life beyond the reach of a world doomed to die” (197).
Byron defended these writers in a letter of 1823 (LJ 10: 109).
M.G. Cooke concludes that for Byron “mutiny is abhorrent; so is its punishment” (211).
A point noted in Woodring 224.
Medwin quoted in The Courier 13 December 1824.
Tale, from SPW, cited by canto and stanza number.
See my "Blessed Bane: Christianity and Colonial Disease in Southey's Tale of Paraguay." Romanticism On the Net, 24 (November 2001): 40 pars. <http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/2001/v/n24/005998ar.html>
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