Critical opinion on Southey’s Joan of Arc has tended to focus on the poem’s political function. This article acknowledges Joan’s symbolic connection with Charlotte Corday and revolutionary France, but sees the poem’s principle function as belonging to a wider context. Throughout the text, Southey’s Maid is pitted not simply against the misguided English enemy but against warfare per se. The article argues that she performs this main function by being out of place, as a young woman, on a battlefield—especially in the role of military leader. It does this by invoking Shklovsky’s theory that unfamiliarity revives human perception, whereas “habitualization” erodes it. In Joan of Arc, the Maid’s unfamiliarity, or perceived inappropriateness in context, is constantly emphasized. The reader is never allowed to forget Joan’s gender, inexperience and supernatural strangeness, for they are the cause of recurrent wonder and disgust in other characters. She is routinely named as a miracle or freak of nature and her presence hence throws everything in the largely military narrative into relief, highlighting war’s cruelties and absurdities. Joan, moreover, functions not only as a passive point of reference. She is frequently the narrator’s focalizer, her estranged viewpoint inviting the reader to substitute her spontaneous horror and compassion for epic’s usual triumphalism. The narrative is full of nauseating physical details of wounding and dismemberment, as well as exhaustive accounts of the progress of grief and starvation. In fact, as the article claims, this poem strives throughout to undo the strategies that Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain sees everywhere working to make war’s purpose of injuring disappear. Joan, unlike more “habitualized” soldiers and leaders, never loses sight of injury in any of its forms and thus her vision forces the reader to consider all the repercussions of war, both physical and psychological.
Corps de l’article
Of all the Romantic poets’ women characters, Robert Southey’s Joan of Arc is the most dedicated and single-minded warrior. She is more central to her story even than the women warriors of Renaissance narrative. Though she is, of course, roughly modeled on the historical character whose name she bears, her immediate significance lies in her author’s own time, the time of England’s declaration of war on Revolutionary France. Southey uses his “Maid” to confuse contemporary readers’ nationalist sentiments by attracting their sympathy to a French patriot whose mission was to rid her country of English invaders (“wolves,” as they are constantly called in the poem). This aspect of Southey’s heroine has been mentioned or briefly discussed by a number of critics, as has her connection with the Revolution. But she has another function as well, one that has been underplayed or ignored by the poem’s (not very numerous) commentators. Because she is a woman in the unfamiliar environment of a battlefield, Joan’s alien gaze can be used as a vehicle of estrangement. And, in fact, Southey emphasizes Joan’s abnormality throughout the text and employs her unfamiliarized consciousness to make the strong anti-war statement that is the main point of his poem.
Some of the commentators who have remarked on Joan of Arc’s relevance to the historical moment of its conception are Brian Wilkie (44-45), Geoffrey Carnall (17), Robert Sternbach (248), Stuart Curran (167-168) and William Keach (9-10). As they observe, Southey started writing the poem in 1793, when he was only nineteen and, like his friend Coleridge, caught up in the heady idealism of the times. 1793 was the year which tipped the French Revolution from popular utopianism into Terror. It was the year in which both Louis XVI and, some months later, Marie Antoinette were beheaded. It was the year in which the great guillotine was installed before the Tuilleries in Paris; the year in which the (relatively) moderate Girondins were defeated by the Jacobins in the National Convention; the year, most significantly, in which Britain declared war on France—a declaration that was not finally to be revoked until 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo.
In England in 1793, opinions on France were still fairly mixed, though this was the year that eventually turned many radicals and reformers against their republican neighbour. However, one French figure drew almost universal English admiration, both from reactionaries who abhorred revolution and from radicals like Southey, many of whom believed the Revolution to be taking a wrong turn. This figure was 23-year-old Charlotte Corday, who in July travelled to Paris, bought herself a hat and a kitchen knife and used the latter to murder Jean-Paul Marat, the Jacobin leader, in his bath. At her hasty trial, claiming herself to be a “Republican” who had “never wanted energy,” she declared that she had “killed one man to save a hundred thousand” (Schama 738). She was dispatched swiftly and unrepentantly to the guillotine.
Significantly, a contemporary cartoon by the caricaturist George Cruikshank depicted the figure of Charlotte Corday as a “Second Joan of Arc.” And in England at this time an outburst of enthusiasm for the “Maid of Orleans” appeared that can probably be explained by Corday’s contemporary celebrity. The idea of a woman—particularly a young one—taking any significant part in the business of war or politics in any age seemed so unlikely that the one naturally recalled the other. Joan’s popularity is dramatically illustrated by an anecdote that Southey himself recounts in his introduction to his poem. At Covent Garden, a pantomime on the subject of the siege of Orleans was performed in which Joan of Arc was carried off by devils in the final act. The audience was outraged, chaos reigned, and the playwright was forced to rewrite his ending and allow Joan an angelic exit to paradise instead (Southey xxviii).
Critics have emphasized the connection between the heroine of Southey’s Joan of Arc and the revolutionary Corday. Keach sees Southey’s Maid as “Twinned with Charlotte Corday,” and he cites as part of his evidence the dedication to Southey’s Poems of 1817, in which the two figures are explicitly linked (15). Caroline Franklin associates Southey’s Joan, as she does Byron’s Gulnare, more generally with the Revolution, which she claims at this time to have been broadly imaged in the popular imagination as a virago (83-84).
But Southey’s Maid does not merely represent revolution and France in a conveniently sympathetic form for an English poet dissatisfied with the local status quo. She serves a function more universal than this, not limited to European political relations of the 1790s. That she does not simply stand for Corday or Revolutionary France is plain enough in the absence of direct or explicit connections between them in her text. Those who run may read the contemporary message, but Southey was an ambitious writer and clearly meant his work to be relevant in wider contexts as well.
For one thing, as Wilkie points out (49), Joan possesses literary precursors, and these are at least as important as her historical models. The woman warrior is a recurrent motif in the Western canon, though in certain periods she is more evident than in others. Tracing her origins perhaps to the Amazons of Greek mythology, through Virgil’s Camilla and a variety of warlike goddesses, she comes into her own as the female knight in the long verse romances of the Renaissance. Britomart and Belphoebe in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Bradamante and Marfisa in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Clorinda in Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata are all examples of this figure, an armed and fearless fighter who takes on male knights according to their own rules and is nearly always victorious.
In contrast to the Renaissance, Southey’s own literary period is rather deficient in women warriors. The only other Romantic characters who come close to his Maid are Shelley’s Cythna in The Revolt of Islam and, to a lesser extent, Byron’s Neuha in The Island. But Cythna is a warrior during only a short part of her story when, like Joan, she appears on a coal-black horse on a battlefield (Shelley 98-99). Here she does not join in the warlike activity of killing; she merely takes the role of rescuer of her lover, Laon. Neuha also takes command in the midst of a battle, but she, too, intervenes only as a rescuer. She tries to help Christian and the other mutineers escape death, but her main concern is her lover Torquil, who in the end is the only one saved (Byron 351-356).
Of course, the occasional female killer does appear in Romantic fiction. Gulnare in Byron’s The Corsair assassinates the oppressive Seyd, her husband, in order to liberate Conrad, who has previously rescued her (Byron 289-290). And Mary Russell Mitford’s Iddeah in Christina, Maid of the South Seas rouses the Polynesian wives of Pitcairn’s Island to bloody revenge for the death of their English husbands at the hands of their male Polynesian servants (Mitford 130-134). But these bold acts are not portrayed as typical in either text, and both women are ambivalent characters, combining feminine docility with warrior-like audacity in an uneasy and not wholly convincing fusion (Franklin 76-86; Addison 7-18). Moreover, neither Gulnare nor Iddeah is the principle focus of attention in these poems, and both narratives also include important female characters who are docile and submissive to an extreme.
The Maid in Joan of Arc is, in contrast to all these other Romantic heroines, the main, eponymous character in her text. This sets her apart even from the female knights of Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser who, though given some importance in their stories, are in the end mere variations on a general theme of chivalry embodied in a host of different characters. These women warriors’ contexts make them less exceptional than they might seem in a more realistic setting, since diversity and profusion are manifest at all levels of their narratives. The characters in the Renaissance medley romance include male knights, helpless virgins, magi, rapists, witches, nurses, squires, seductresses, pilgrims, innocent peasants and wise women. A reader is unlikely to find the inclusion of female knights in this catalogue totally astonishing. Apart from the occasional “unfortunate” maiden who falls in love with one of these guerrière before discovering her gender (they are epicene with their visors down) (see Ariosto 65-69) and one or two macho heroes who resent being unhorsed by women (see Spenser 191), the characters largely take the female knights in their stride.
Joan’s centrality is unchallenged, and she is, for the second and more triumphal half of the poem, not merely a freelance knight-errant like Britomart and her sisterhood, nor a rescuer like Cythna and Neuha, nor even a lone, self-motivated assassin like Charlotte Corday, but a military commander who leads her troops into battle and takes an active part in the business of war—the wounding, the killing, the risking of life and the receiving of wounds. Carrying not just the banner that history tells us was the real Joan’s favourite resource on the battlefield (Pernoud 82-91), Southey’s Maid wields a variety of weapons, including a sword, a lance and a crossbow, all of which she uses to lethal effect on her enemies, the English.
As her prestige increases, so does her physical prowess. At the beginning of the poem, though always assured of her calling, she is a mere peasant girl, a suitor to aristocratic and later royal favour. Once granted her army and military colleagues, she rides into battle defended by two “protectors,” the older warrior Conrade and the young herald who later turns out to be her childhood sweetheart, Theodore, in disguise. But she does not seem to need protection even at the beginning, for she proves most efficient at killing and at defending herself. If she is occasionally saved by her comrades, she returns the favour, for example when she kills an English soldier who attacks Conrade as he opens the gate of a fort (7.402-406). On the second day of battle she does suffer some qualms, during a break in the fighting “Shuddering” to see “her white plumage stain’d with human blood” (7.429-430), but by the third day she is “impatient [. . .] to wield / Her falchion” (8.290-291) and is killing extravagantly with her crossbow (8.337-343). By the final battle for the city of Orleans, she has become confident of her own invincibility. She tells the younger Talbot, “‘Me thou canst not destroy,’” and when in disbelief he smites her on the helm, she does not hesitate to dispatch him with her “sword of death” (10.481-487).
The poem ends not with her trial or execution but with her triumphant crowning of the Dauphin Charles at Rheims. Her final act is delivering to Charles a severe lecture, full of warnings, on his duties to his people. Joan of Arc thus depicts a resoundingly successful military career that leaves the Maid transcendent in power and fully endorsed in her moral position by the narrator, who describes her in the last two lines as “solemnly / Accomplishing [her] marvellous mission here” (10.731-732).
This indisputable dominance may seem to emphasize what other critics have claimed: that Joan is flagged with a simple message in Southey’s poem. She is French to undermine English patriotism; she is a peasant to arouse revolutionary sympathies; she is overwhelmingly successful to suggest the might of her righteous cause and to spread pessimism about the English war effort. All these inferences are certainly sound, but the question still arises: Why does Southey use a woman for these purposes?
The answer to this question cannot rest merely on an assumption like Franklin’s that the virago is a symbol of Revolutionary France (83-84). For, unlike the Renaissance guerrièra and despite all her centrality and prestige, Joan is never simply accepted as a soldier by other characters. Even among the French, her gender always makes her exceptional. She is early on successful in gaining the ear of the great because she is not just a peasant but, amazingly, a girl peasant who believes that she can save France. The Dauphin’s initial response to her is dismissive. He cannot believe that Dunois expects him “even to this / To lend a serious ear,” and he exclaims with disdainful emphasis, “A woman sent / To rescue us [. . .] !” (3.193-195; my italics). Later, foreshadowing the English leaders’ denunciations, he wonders whether she is merely some “frantic woman” (3.221). The priests sent to examine her are determined to duck her as a witch (3.525-529). And even in the midst of her military successes, the French leader Graville accuses her of throwing away her advantage out of that misplaced and despised feeling, “womanish pity” (8.615).
Joan of course wins respect, awe and even worship from French aristocrats and footsoldiers alike. But their approbation, too, is tempered by a regard for her sex and its strangeness in the context of war. She is most commonly known by her epithet “the Maid,” indicating gender and sexual abstention, rather than the individual personality invoked by a name. (Interestingly, there is no specific term for a male who is sexually innocent. A woman’s sexual status is a more public matter altogether than a man’s.) The narrator frequently modifies this epithet with some reference to Joan’s miraculous vocation: she is “the mission’d Maid” (3.125), “the delegated Maid” (3.313), “the holy Maid” (6.152), “the martial Maid (7.45), “the Maid miraculous” (10.178). Other variations include “the delegated damsel” (4.123), “the warlike Virgin” (4.166), “the more than mortal Virgin” (8.648) and “the Prophetess” (10.465). These variations all accentuate Joan’s exceptionality, whose strongest sign is not that she is divinely chosen, but that she is female.
Her body’s femininity is frequently mentioned, too: a reminder of its perceptible unfamiliarity in context. As the Dauphin proceeds towards St Katharine’s, he has “by his side the Maid; / Her lovely limbs robed in a snow-white vest” (4.60-61). Risen from sleep for her second day of battle, “Lovely in arms she moved” (7.46). When she is accused by Graville of throwing away a military advantage, her answering rebuke, for which she apparently draws divine inspiration, is prefaced by conventionally feminine physical agitation: “Her bosom heaved, . . . her cheek grew red, . . . her eyes / Beam’d with a wilder lustre” (8.631-632). And even as she waits in the awestruck silence preceding her final address to the French troops, her long hair, the female knight’s traditional giveaway, takes the onlookers’ attention thus:
There elevate, the martial Maiden stood,
Her brow unhelmed, and floating on the wind
Her long dark locks.
Among the English, of course, her womanhood is consistently the feature picked out for contempt and fear. When her herald (Theodore disguised) offers the English generals besieging Orleans the opportunity to avoid bloodshed, to leave France and return home unscathed, their responses vary, but they are all conspicuously sexist. Falstoffe’s and Salisbury’s reactions are perhaps the most insulting, since they see her as nothing but a sexual “prize.” Falstoffe is filled with scornful delight and attempts to address the significant part of his reply not to Joan but to the Dauphin, whom he naturally imagines to be her master:
To this a laugh succeeds. “What! Falstoffe cried.
“A virgin warrior hath your monarch sent
To save devoted Orleans? By the rood,
I thank his grace. If she be young and fair,
No worthless prize, my lords! Go, tell your Maid,
Joyful we wait her coming.”
Suffolk’s attention is focussed not on Joan but on her now furiously indignant herald, sneering at him for putting himself in danger at a “woman’s bidding” (6.235). But Suffolk’s concerns about uxoriousness are not mere taunts among men; he clearly sees Joan as a threat to the masculine status quo. He orders Theodore burnt at the stake to teach a lesson to “this woman who believes her name / May privilege her herald” (6.239-240; my italics). He is outraged at the idea of a member of the female sex possessing such hubris as to command a herald—or any man—let alone to speak on behalf of France to the great men of England.
The older Talbot’s contempt takes the most macho course. A veteran warrior, he despises Joan as a lightweight for both her femininity and her youth. In a context in which male physical force is the criterion of prestige, a “girl” is laughably insignificant:
“Get thee gone!” exclaim’d
The indignant chief: “away! nor think to scare
With girlish phantasies the English host
That scorns your bravest warriors. Hie thee thence,
And tell this girl she may expect to meet
The mockery of the camp!”
Since his sense of personal worth is so simply invested in his military prowess, Talbot Senior is later more humiliated than others by her victories. Addressing his son before the last battle, he bitterly confesses himself
“[. . .] disgraced,
Baffled, and flying from a woman’s arm!
Yes, by my former glories, from a woman!
The scourge of France, the conqueror of men,
Flying before a woman!”
This triple repetition of “woman” shows his disbelief turning over and over into the bewildering shame of a man “unmanned,” conquered by the degraded Other on whose subjection all his hierarchies are founded.
Talbot may take it to an extreme, but this unsexing bewilderment is at the heart of all the English troops’ terror of Joan. From the time of her first successes until her last victory, they are “by prodigies unmanned” (7.37), “seized” with “terror” (8.407), “clamour[ing] for retreat” (9.8), “fill’d” with “awe” (10.234), feeling “their hearts sink within them” (10.238) and “appalled before the Maid miraculous” (10.539) whose mere name, recalling Hamlet, “Ma[kes] their cheeks pale and dr[ives] the curdling blood / Back to their hearts” (10.375-376). Only at rare moments do members of the English army experience revelations that show Joan divinely illuminated: “The wrath of God is on us, . . . God hath raised / This Prophetess, and goes before her path” (9.44-45); “they [. . .] beheld / The hallowed banner with celestial light / Irradiate” (10.235-236). Mostly they denounce her as a witch, the classic retort of patriarchy to a female bid for power. She is regularly described as a “sorceress” (7.547) or “accursed sorceress” (9.82); she is charged with “devilry” (7.556) and “magic” (10.320); and her miracles are ascribed to “Aid of the Devil” (7.531) or “Hell’s leagued powers” (9.70). But this ploy does not make the English troops significantly less scared of her. Inspired by God or by the devil, she remains a fearful prodigy, a woman gifted with supernatural powers and, against nature, set above men in the ranks of an army. Salisbury, in the midst of the first day’s battle, attempts to debunk the soldiers’ superstitious terrors with a manly sneer, calling Joan’s powers “empty mummeries,” the pathetic contrivances of a “frantic girl” (7.528-529). But she disproves him with a resounding victory on that day, thereby aggravating his troops’ fear of her on subsequent days.
Here we must return to the question of why Southey needed a female protagonist in this poem. Joan, as all these responses show, is regarded as a freak. She is absolutely an exception, a person set apart as prophet, liberator and martyr, and the crucial sign of her uniqueness, which the reader is never allowed to forget, is her femininity. She is definitely not a feminist. Her freakishness precludes this, for she is certainly not in the business of opening up leadership or military careers for women. She would not be exceptional if the poem allowed the reader to regard any aspect of her position as normal, or potentially normal. She never singles out women for her specific care nor expresses any general belief in the injustice of women’s position in society.
True, she does have a habit of keeping the “big picture” in mind—including, as it does, the women and children left at home by the fighting men, the families displaced by war, the untilled land leaving people hungry and destitute, the devastating grief consequent on the death of a loved one and the indigence commonly resulting from the loss of a breadwinner. All these aspects of war directly involve women—a fact that tends to be forgotten by those who imagine war to be a masculine affair of military strategy and battle. But Joan’s concerns are never for women alone. They are for society as a whole, male and female, young and old. She does not limit her sympathies to women any more than she confines them to the men—mainly young or middle-aged—with whom and against whom she fights.
If Joan’s main function is not as a feminist it is precisely as a freak. Being an alien on the battlefield and in an epic poem, she brings with her an estrangement of gaze that fundamentally unsettles the reader’s expectations of war and heroic poetry. According to Victor Shklovsky, “Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war”; art, on the other hand, has the purpose of making all things, including these, “‘unfamiliar,’” in order that they be fully perceived and felt (20). In Joan of Arc, the Maid works against “habitualization” in order to recreate “the fear of war.” Southey’s main point in this poem is not a critique of English patriotism or conservatism but a radical protest against warfare per se. He makes it by emphasizing his protagonist’s gender-based abnormality and focalizing most of the battle scenes through her.
Joan’s presence in these scenes has the effect of exposing what is normally hidden or ignored. Elaine Scarry, in her extraordinary book, The Body in Pain, writes the following in her chapter on war:
The main purpose and outcome of war is injuring. Though this fact is too self-evident and massive ever to be directly contested, it can be indirectly contested by many means and disappear from view along many separate paths.63-64
Her chapter goes on to anatomize the ways in which “injuring disappears from view” in the rhetoric of war, including “omission,” “renaming” and the use of a number of familiar metaphors (64-81). The reason behind all these strategies of disappearance is of course that (for most people) to pay close attention to injury is to reject war, thereby thwarting the interests of patriots and politicians. In Joan of Arc, Southey never allows any of these tactics to intervene between his reader and a direct perception of injuring. And it is the unfamiliar perceiving consciousness of the young woman in the foreground that keeps this perception direct, as it were “new and shocking” in “every moment” (Eliot 26), counteracting the anaesthetic effect of habitualization.
Right at the beginning, when Conrade visits Joan’s rural community, tries to persuade Theodore, the only young man around, to enlist in the war, and rouses instead the young Joan to a first consciousness of her calling, the reader is vividly reminded of the physical details of wounding flesh, the “purpose and outcome” of war. Joan exclaims, as she feels the sharp edge of Conrade’s weapon: “How horrible it is with the keen sword / To gore the finely-fibred human frame!” (1.408-409). She is repelled, but she is also thinking experimentally in a way that a young man, brought up to swordplay, might not be inclined to do. She questions the basic action of war, the damaging of human tissue, the anonymous causing of bodily pain that precedes and underlies all war rhetoric, all its motivation.
And Conrade of course replies with the classic justification of war: vengeance for or protection of the weak who suffer injury at the hands of the strong:
“[. . .] when the merciless invader
Spares not grey age, and mocks the infant’s shriek
As it does writhe upon his cursed lance,
And forces to his foul embrace the wife
Even where her slaughter’d husband bleeds to death,
Almighty God! I should not be a man
If I did let one weak and pitiful feeling
Make mine arm impotent to cleave him down.”
Here Conrade, too, details injuries, but he provides a context that enforces indignation for the atrocities visited upon “grey age,” “the infant” and “the wife,” and acceptance of the “cleav[ing . . .] down” of the perpetrator of these acts. And yet the “cleaving” is a vivid re-enactment of the “goring” that Joan imagines, and it is hypothetically performed by the actual sword that she is touching with her unfamiliarized, maiden’s hand. Readers may be taken up by Conrade’s vengeful fury against the English perpetrators of these cruelties, but they are also struck by a strong aversion to the whole undertaking of war—to injuring itself—and to the chain reaction that ignites one brutality from another, perhaps endlessly.
In the battle scenes of books 7-10 there are many passages that describe the process of injuring in great and often repulsive detail. These do not usually juxtapose this process to any commentary on patriotism, though they do evenhandedly show that both English and French soldiers suffer the same fate. The first of these passages tells of the wounding of an ordinary English soldier by Conrade, who flings a lance-head meant for himself back at the enemy:
Full on the corslet of a meaner man
It fell, and pierced him where the heaving lungs,
In vital play distended, to the heart
Roll back their brighten’d tide: from the deep wound
The red blood gush’d; prone on the steps he fell,
And in the strong convulsive grasp of death
Grasp’d his long pike.
This is a kind of grotesque realism, demonstrating some familiarity on the part of the narrator with the workings of “the finely-fibred human frame” and with the infliction of fatal damage on that frame. But it is not in itself unique as a literary strategy. Gory descriptions are commonplace in epic, the Iliad with its many battle scenes supplying their great original. Here is a particularly stomach-churning example:
Meanwhile Idomeneus struck Erymas on the mouth with his relentless bronze. The metal point of the spear passed right through the lower part of his skull, under the brain, and smashed the white bones. His teeth were shattered; and both his eyes were filled with blood; and he spurted blood through his nostrils and his gaping mouth. Then the black cloud of Death descended on him.Homer 301
Nonetheless, the final effect of this passage is very different from that of the wounding passages in Joan of Arc. As Southey himself points out in his preface, the characters of most epics awake very little in the way of “human feelings” in the reader. Though it never conceals the injuring function of war, the Homeric narrative is permeated by a bloodthirsty triumphalism that precludes much in the way of pity and empathy. Joan of Arc (which in his preface Southey confidently declares to be an epic) is specifically intended to avoid this fault (Southey xxiii, xxv-xxvi).
Thus, immediately after a description of wounding and death, such as the one last quoted, will occur a passage like the following. Foreshadowing Wordsworth’s “The Ruined Cottage” (596-602), it “places” the character and his death within an extended context that asks the reader to recognize and sympathize with many dimensions of the suffering entailed:
Of unrecorded name
The soldier died: and yet he left behind
One who then never said her daily prayers
Of him forgetful; who to every tale
Of the distant war lending an eager ear,
Grew pale and trembled. At her cottage door
The wretched one shall sit, and with fix’d eye
Gaze on the path, where on his parting steps
Her last look hung. Nor ever shall she know
Her husband dead, but cherishing a hope,
Whose falsehood inwardly she knows too well,
Feel life itself with that false hope decay;
And wake at night from miserable dreams
Of his return, and weeping o’er her babe,
Too surely think that soon that fatherless child
Must of its mother also be bereft.
This passage, which digresses radically from the path of the poem’s main story, provides a context for grief that, extrapolated backward to the wounding passage, accentuates its pain. The reader is prevented from experiencing any Homeric triumph at the death of an enemy by the intimate cameo of a wife’s decline; and this in turn helps to complicate the already complicated idea of an “enemy”: the soldier, like the poet and his contemporary reader, is English.
Seven more times the narrator of Joan of Arc repeats the pattern outlined above, detailing at length the injuries and death of a single soldier and then embedding into the narrative a background story of the soldier’s home life (7.348-360; 8.204-226; 8.228-243; 8.258-273; 8.452-459; 10.414-429; 10.429-440). As Wilkie notes, “The effect is to underline the pathos of war and to disparage the false glory of heroic exploits” (49). The fact that both English and French soldiers, leaders and unnamed peasant fighters, are picked out in this way helps to distribute sympathy for the many caught up in the conflict. Although in these set pieces Joan is not usually mentioned directly, her presence and her consciousness pervade them, for she is the chief focalizer in the battle scenes (see, for example, 6.325-326; 7.587-594; 8.289-291; 8.476-477). Thus, the reader is likely to take up her broadly compassionate worldview as opposed to a more Homeric attitude, such as the older Talbot’s.
Other, less detailed descriptions of wounding are legion. Constantly reminded of the presence of the Maid and periodically moved by the minute particulars of the longer passages, the reader is conditioned to pity all these many victims, who are “Transfix’d” by lances (8.381), have their helms “shiver’d” by javelins (7.193), are “Cleft” or “Pierced” by swords (7.406, 615), “sink / Fatigued with slaughter” (7.306-307), are “from their coursers thrown” (9.352), or “fall crush’d” (8.377), “shattered” and “mangled” (8.559-561) by flung rocks.
Even Joan herself is wounded twice in the neck, once by Salisbury’s sword (7.615-618) and once by Glacidas’ arrow (8.435-437). On both occasions the weapon “difficultly” penetrates the “fold” in her armour and the narrator mentions that its sharpened part is then “Stain’d” or “tinged” with her blood. This erotic imagery may borrow from the wounding of Britomart in The Faerie Queene (Spenser 147), for the image of virginal blood is there similarly suggestive. Here, in addition to the sense of violation, is a reminder to the reader that Joan is an adolescent girl, a category believed to be more squeamish, timid and vulnerable to hurt and distress than other human groups. The early scene in which Joan tried the edge of Conrade’s sword is also recalled, and now the “finely-fibred human frame” is her own. This makes the unseemliness of her presence on a battlefield more intensely evident than usual. According to conventional wisdom, maidens should be protected from all injury, including deflowering; they should never be part of a scene of masculine violence, where every moment is an invitation to personal damage. This chivalric belief, aimed at the preservation of society, is grotesquely mocked by the context of war, in which harm, not preservation, is the principle aim.
Joan, however, is not fazed by her physical wounds. Though the blood of others leaves her “Shuddering” (7.430) for a moment, of her own blood she is “unterrified” (8.444). Nor do her injuries infuriate her as they do “enrag’d” Britomart (Spenser 147), whom Camille Paglia sees as the “archangel at Eden’s gate, driving off sin from her holy sequestered self” (181). Chastity, or her own inviolability, may be Britomart’s main purpose—as the subtitle of book 3, in which she is the main protagonist, suggests—but Joan’s is the liberation of France. Thus, the Maid cheerfully plucks Glacidas’ arrow from her neck, crying to her troops, “‘This is a favour! Frenchmen, let us on!’” (8.445).
Her response to the death in battle of both her close companions, Theodore and Conrade, is not as carefree as this. Their physical injuries are detailed in the narrative (7.624-627; 9.571-579), but the Maid’s grief for their deaths, particularly Theodore’s, is clearly a greater wounding:
But not to Joan,
But not to her, most wretched, came thy aid,
Soother of sorrows, Sleep! no more her pulse,
Amid the battle’s tumult throbbing fast,
Allow’d no pause for thought. With clasp’d hands now
And with fix’d eyes she sat.
Joan’s function here is to show her reader that human suffering—in war as in other contexts—cannot be equated only with bodily pain. Throughout the poem, grief, the woman’s common lot in war, is given as much power to torture and kill as are the weapons catalogued in book 8 (149-197; 247-253; 359-395). More important characters than the unnamed English soldier’s wife are destroyed by grief: for example, Madelon, Joan’s special friend and Theodore’s sister. Madelon’s “long anguish” at the loss of her husband Arnaud is anatomized with Wordsworthian minuteness through its seasons and days, its fruitless “recollections,” its “Dreams of his safety and return and starts / Of agony,” its lack of rest and gradual “pin[ing] away” until her final “deliverance,” closely observed by the young Joan who attends her sickbed (1.279-328).
Watched or listened to by Joan, many of the French characters experience the loss of loved ones as the great wound of their lives, even if they do not actually die of grief. Bertram, for example, remembers many episodes of pain and injury, but they are all eclipsed by the terrible image of his wife and children dying of starvation and cold under the walls of Roan. Sorrow has crippled him and his strongest regret is that he himself did not die in childhood (2.146-148). Of course, Bertram’s grief derives as much from an empathic transference of his family’s sufferings as from his personal loss. His torment is psychological, but it derives from their physical harm, which was not the result of “goring” of the “human frame” but of deprivation. Hunger and exposure, the injuries of dearth, are just as lethal as battle wounds and more widespread among the general populace during times of war.
Bertram suffers on behalf of those whom he loved and hence identified with, but this kind of transference of pain may occur even between people who are not linked by close ties of affection. Isabel, who, like Bertram, narrates a long personal history listened to by Joan, shows that much of her misery derives from observing the suffering of others. Her father and brothers have died in a war that suddenly overwhelmed their peaceful lives and she suspects that her fiancé Francis has also been killed, but the main horror of her tale, as of Bertram’s, lies in her descriptions of a town under siege. Her account of the siege of Orleans at times echoes his of the siege of Roan very closely. Her sympathetic understanding of the growth of “selfishness” (2.206) and the general disintegration of society’s bonds under the influence of hunger is as acute as his (and prophetic of Byron’s “Darkness”), even though she has no “famishing infants” (2.205) of her own to lend a personal agony to her tale:
The loathliest food
Hunted with eager eye and dainty deem’d,
The dog is slain, that at his master’s feet
Howling with hunger lay; with jealous fear,
Hating a rival’s look, the husband hides
His miserable meal; the famish’d babe
Clings closely to his dying mother’s breast.
Conrade, who is another of the auditors of Isabel’s tale, appears to experience the pain of others even more than she does. His main personal grief, communicated to Joan on two occasions (4.229-256; 7.439-452), is a result of betrayal by his fiancée Agnes, who has become Charles’s mistress. And yet what moves him to the most savage indignation are not romantic matters but the atrocities of war, both those that he witnesses and those that are narrated to him. Like Bertram (2.240-242), he regards sympathy as the essential sign and burden of humanity: “‘my heart is human: I must feel / For what my brethren suffer’” (1.373-374). But his sympathy paradoxically goads him to war, for he finds stoicism in the face of others’ agony to be dishonourable (1.401). According to Conrade, blame for wartime suffering (as for the seduction of Agnes) falls squarely on the shoulders of “mighty men” (5.480). He is as much a leveller as a patriot and his furious denunciations of society’s overlords are not explicitly confined to the English:
“Perish these mighty ones,”
Cried Conrade, “those who let destruction loose,
Who walk elated o’er their fields of fame,
And count the thousands that lie slaughtered there.”
Conrade is a revolutionary figure; his cursing of “the great” is universal, apocalyptic, and envisages a violent “wrench[ing]” of “Oppression[’s]” iron rod from their hands, followed by “all the fowls of Heaven” “eat[ing] the flesh of mighty men, / Of captains, and of kings.” Only after this radical cleansing does he believe that peace can prevail (5.468-481). His vision of peace is decidedly democratic and bucolic (7.452-478), in harmony with the general vision of the poem as a whole, which portrays thriving peasant communities violently disrupted by a war that seems essentially foreign to them.
Clearly, Conrade is an authoritative figure in this poem. He is the main vehicle of anti-English as well as revolutionary rhetoric and his capacity to suffer with and for others not only sets an example to his audience, who in this poem are invited to experience the transference of pain themselves, but also renders him deeply sympathetic to them. But, despite his advantages over her of age, class, gender and experience, Conrade is not as authoritative a figure for the reader as Joan. Perhaps oddly, the Maid’s trustworthiness as judge and witness derives partly from her abnormality. The fresh perceptions of the young girl unaccustomed to scenes of battle and atrocity attract and hold the reader, who like her is no hardened Hundred Years’ War veteran such as Conrade. It is easier to feel an affinity for an outsider’s gaze than for the viewpoint of a person whose situation has already become habitualized. Conrade’s anger of course counteracts his sense of familiarity when he indignantly refuses to accept as a habit the witnessing of what he regards as abomination, but this is not a text which generally offers anger as a desirable response. The many tales of pathos and woe ask for pity rather than indignation, for a cessation of war instead of rage and further violence.
And Joan, more even than Conrade, epitomizes the sympathetic witness of others’ pain. Listening to their chronicles of suffering, she shares the sadness (7.491) of the many characters who tell their stories to her, and she even sheds tears in empathy with their unhappiness (5.65). Like Conrade, she is capable of anger at times, her most furious outbursts being occasioned by Bertram’s account of the atrocities perpetuated by England’s Henry V:
“But woe to those,
Woe to the Mighty Ones who send abroad
Their ministers of death, and give to Fury
The flaming firebrand.”
But more characteristically she gives herself up to the work at hand, “sorrowing for the past,” but experiencing “Joy and contentment in the merciful task / For which [she] is sent forth” (5.310-313), confident of her success.
It is Joan, not Conrade, who is the author’s main spokesperson for this poem’s anti-war message. Though Conrade envisages an idyllic society without inequalities or wars, he is not the instrument that can bring this peace about, for he is too angry and damaged, and he believes, rightly, that he will die long before his utopian dream can become a reality (7.452-490). Joan does not express any belief in the perfectibility of mankind, her earthly prescience foreseeing in fact the terrors of her own betrayal and death (4.310-326). Considered out of place in this world, she belongs only precariously to it and tends to put her faith in the next world; but this does not have the effect of detaching her sympathies from the situation before her. Rather, it allows her the wider compassion that demands a decent burial for all the fallen, be they English or French, while still asserting a moral inequality between those who fight in “holy warfare,” defending their country from an alien invader, and those “Forced or inveigled from their homes, or driven / By need or hunger to the trade of blood” (9.386-387). On the battlefield she regularly acts on the impulse of pity, which she declares to be “all that mitigates, / All that ennobles dreadful war” (8.495-496). And she sees herself not as an agent of destruction but as a “messenger of mercy” sent to “save this ravaged realm of France,” but nevertheless “To England friendly as to all the world” (8.626-630).
The figure of Joan is thus central throughout the poem as both protagonist and focalizer. Her deeds inspire constant admiration and her sympathetic holism is clearly the viewpoint endorsed for the reader as authoritative. However, she is never naturalized as part of the normal landscape of politics and war, and this sense of estrangement is used to arrest the reader’s attention, flooding the facts and conditions of warfare with a relentless light that blocks the effects of habitualization and exposes all the many varieties of cruelty and injury to a clear and shocking scrutiny.
A version of this article has appeared, under the title “Goring the Human Frame: The Woman Warrior and Injury in Southey’s Joan of Arc,” in the print journal, English Studies in Africa 46.1 (2003): 15-30.
As Marina Warner points out (242-244), Southey had no access to the authentic documents of Joan of Arc’s trial and he makes little effort to provide a full and accurate account of her life. His character’s career is based loosely on the first part of the historical Joan’s life, but as Warner claims, his poem is perhaps more interesting for the Romantic slant it gives to her story than for any serious attempt to represent the actual Mediaeval woman as a person.
The system of “Pantisocracy” that Coleridge and Southey espoused at this time is perhaps represented by Conrade’s ideal society outlined in book 7 of Joan of Arc, which is a society that enjoys a bucolic peace in the absence of any “Mighty Ones” (7.452-479). Coleridge actually collaborated with Southey in the writing of the first edition of this poem, though his main contribution, part of book 2 narrating Joan’s early awareness of her vocation, was omitted from later editions. It was republished as part of “The Destiny of Nations” in 1817 (Sternbach 248-249; Keach 9; Coleridge 100-108).
This cartoon can be accessed online at: http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/browse/images/#.
Margaret Tomalin (passim) gives many other examples of this recurrent Italian figure, mostly in works less well known than those mentioned in my text.
Throughout this essay, I refer to Southey’s poem parenthetically by book and line number.
Both John Aiken, an early reviewer of the poem (Madden 42), and Brian Wilkie (46-49) recognize the anti-war message of the poem, though they do not claim it to be more important than the contemporary political one, as I do.
Southey makes a point in his poem of undermining English sentimentality about this monarch, whose romantic reputation was mainly the responsibility of Shakespeare.
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