Other Romantic Devils

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The Devil's Walk, Edited by Neil Fraistat and Donald H. Reiman

Other Romantic Devils

The Devil's Thoughts, begun for amusement while shaving, as Southey tells in his extended version (Poetical Works of Robert Southey [1838], III, 96), became popular through its many unauthorized reprintings under various titles over the years. Richard Porson (1759-1808), a Cambridge classical scholar who was also a radical Whig apologist, even tried to take credit for composing it. In 1813, Lord Byron wrote The Devil's Drive as an imitation of The Devil's Thoughts, which he read in a version misattributed to Porson; Byron, following what he believed to be the spirit and substance of Porson's liberal political views, changes the verse form and adds touches from Goethe's Faust that had come to him via Staël's De l'Allemagne (see Byron, Complete Poetical Works, ed. J. J. McGann, III, 95-104, 428-30). Finally, in 1827, Southey openly claimed authorship for Coleridge and himself, while expanding their poem to 57 stanzas and (ignorant of Shelley's poem) changing its name to The Devil's Walk to distinguish it from the version falsely attributed to Porson.

Shelley's The Devil's Walk of 1812 openly imitates both the larger conception and some specific details of Southey's and Coleridge's original Devil's Thoughts, which aims barbs at corrupt or incompetent lawyers, apothecaries, and booksellers, war and its financial burdens, unhealthy prisons that enforce unequal justice, false religion and its support of war, and an unnamed general--probably either Isaac Gascoigne or Banastre Tarleton, both of whom had been "involved in England's suppression of Ireland" and publicly opposed the abolition of slavery (see M. D. Paley, "Coleridge and the Apocalyptic Grotesque," in Coleridge's Visionary Languages, ed. Tim Fulford and Paley [1993]). Except for Shelley's scathing attack on the Prince Regent, his targets in The Devil's Walk are similar to those of Southey and Coleridge, for as Steven E. Jones observes of Shelley's poem, "'derivativeness' is precisely the point . . . . Shelley declares himself to be derived from . . . the best in the earlier work of the elder poets" (Shelley's Satire, 41-42). Often forgotten in commentaries on The Devil's Walk is its ultimate indebtedness to the Bible and Satan's reply to God--that he comes "From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it" (Job 1:7 and 2:2).

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Published @ RC

September 1997