Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote "The Devil's Walk" in Keswick in late December 1811 or early January 1812. Shelley was in Keswick by early November 1811 and he stayed for about three months. By 26 December he had met Robert Southey. Despite their political differences, PBS was at first impressed by what seemed to him RS's conscientiousness, regarding him as as "an advocate of liberty and equality" (letter to Elizabeth Hitchener, 26 December 1811, Letters 1: 155), but by the following January he wrote that Southey had lost his good opinion (letter to Elizabeth Hitchener, ?16 January 1812, Letters 1: 161). In the mean time, Southey did his best to act as (to use his own word) Shelley's "physician" and to cure his philosophical and political maladies (Letters, 1: 157 n. 10.). Regarding Shelley as "just what I was in 1794," Southey evidently tried to impress him with the resemblance by showing the young poet a production partly his own from the radical Nineties -- "The Devil's Thoughts."
"The Devil's Thoughts," a poem by Coleridge to which Southey contributed four stanzas, had been published anonymously in The Morning Post on 6 September 1799. It caused a sensation (see Paley, "Coleridge and the Apocalyptic Grotesque," p. 21), and the publisher Daniel Stuart had to print hundreds of extra copies to satisfy the demand. After that it enjoyed a subterranean life. It was circulated (though not by Coleridge or Southey) in manuscript and was read aloud at gatherings (much as the anonymous "Fire, Famine, and Slaughter" was recited by Sir Walter Scott at William Sotheby's to the discomfiture of Coleridge, who was present). Apparently because Professor Richard Porson (d. 1808) liked to recite it, "The Devil's Walk" became attributed to him, and was published as "By a Late Eminent Professor" in Felix Farley's Bristol Journal for 31 March 1810. (Coleridge was not to admit his authorsip publicly until 1817 and the poem would not be printed with his name until 1826). The fact that "The Devil's Walk" first appears in draft form in a letter sent by Shelley from Keswick to Elizabeth Hitchener (?16 January 1812, Letters 1: 161-3) strongly suggests that RS had read or shown the earlier poem, or an amplified version of it, to him. (Similarly, Shelley sent Hitchener a transcription from memory of parts of Wordsworth's "A Poet's Epitaph" [2 January 1812, Letters, 1: 217], following a long account of a conversation with Southey). If Southey thought "The Devil's Thoughts" would strike a responsive chord, he was correct: "I was once rather fond of the Devil," wrote Shelley in introducing this own poem.
What text of Coleridge's poem would Shelley have seen? Southey had made a rough draft, which is now in the British Museum along with some of his expanded drafts (see Mays). He was continuing to revise the poem as late as 1826, when he wrote to Caroline Bowles that "It now contains 49 stanzas, 30 of which have now been added, and 4 of the others since it was first written and printed" (New Letters, 2: 308); Southey published his much longer version in 1838. Even in its greatly expanded form, the point of view of the Devil is maintained throughout the poem, and the mode remains ironic. Also, as Matthews and Everest (1: 233n.) observe, some details included by Shelley, such as the the Devil's walking into London, are present in Southey's longer poem and not in the original. It is of course possible that Southey showed Shelley more than one manuscript, for, whatever state Southey's re-working may have reached by 1811- 12, it is likely that the older poet would have also have produced an early version in order to impress the young man whom he regarded as a version of his youthful self. In its economy the initial poem is certainly more effective, and that kind of economy seems at first to have been desired by Shelley.
The draft of the poem that Shelley was to publish in revised and expanded form under the title "The Devil's Walk" comprises nine stanzas totalling 49 lines -- close to the 57 lines of the original "Devil's Thoughts." It is close in other ways too. Line 2 of "The Devil's Thoughts" -- "A walking the Devil is gone" is echoed in Shelley's opening line ; Shelley's stanza 5 is mostly plagiarized from the earlier poem's stanza 3. Both poems represent the Devil as a promenading beau and as a gentleman farmer who inspects his livestock with a view to improvement, and both poems satirize religion. As Steven Jones remarks (p. 43), the indebtedness of Shelley's poem to its source is meant to be seen, to establish a sense of connection. There are also some significant differences. "The Devil's Thoughts," though shorter, is wider in scope, its attacks extending to taxation, genteel ostentation, booksellers, apothecaries, the military, and especially the prison system. It does not, however, burlesque the monarchy, while "a Brainless King" is a target for Shelley. In its draft form, "The Devil's Walk" is a jeu d'esprit very much in the manner of "The Devil's Thoughts" and with similar though not identical political motives.
When Shelley expanded the poem to thirty stanzas, he did not much increase the scope of its satirical elements, except to include three stanzas burlesquing the Prince Regent. Here he may possibly have been indebted to another Coleridge poem, the third of the "Nehemiah Higgenbottom" sonnets that originally appeared in the Monthly Magazine for November 1797 (and that would be reprinted in the Biographia). Southey, who had once considered himself one of the objects of Coleridge's satire, no doubt had copies. The third sonnet concludes with the image of the knight's "hindward charms" gleaming through his tattered brogues, like "the full-orb'd harvest moon" shining through broken clouds (Biographia, 1: 28); similarly, the Prince's "pantaloons are like half-moons/ Upon each brawny haunch." The satire on the Regent may, as our Shelley text editors suggest, have followed the lead of Leigh Hunt's Examiner article (22 March 1812) insulting the Regent, for which Hunt would be prosecuted and imprisoned. However, most of the new material in the broadside version is not in this comic vein. What made "The Devil's Thoughts" such a success was its coolness. It scored its points by being genuinely funny, down to the mock-apocalypse of the General's florid face at the end. Shelley started out by imitating its method, but when he more than doubled the size of his "Ballad," most of what he introduced was straightforward rhetorical denunciation and invective that weakened the effect of his satire.
One further point of of both resemblance and difference: like "The Devil's Thoughts," "The Devil's Walk" was published anonymously -- but it was a different kind of anonymity. Coleridge's was a journalistic convention. Much newspaper writing was anonymous or pseudonymous, and the more politically offensive, defamatory, or otherwise contentious a piece, the more likely it was to appear without the author's real name. This might give the author some protection as a private person, but it would not protect him from a government eager to prosecute its critics, as Leigh Hunt learned. The opposition had to stay on the windy side of the law, and radical journalists became expert at doing so. Anonymity in the sense of Shelley's broadside was another matter. The lack of any name at all on a publication was de facto actionable, even had it not abused the sovereign and the Prince Regent. Great care had therefore to be taken about distribution, as the arrest of Dan Healy (or Hill) for posting the broadside and Shelley's Declaration of Rights in August 1812. However much "The Devil's Walk" may have been printed to look like a popular ballad, it was far from popular, as the fact that we owe the preservation of the text to the Home Office ironically demonstrates.
"The Devil's Thoughts" is of course an apprentice work. It expresses a genuine streak of diablerie in Shelley's imagination, one that would re-surface brilliantly in the first part of The Mask of Anarchy in 1819. It also reflects one of Shelley's ongoing concerns: bridging the gap between the radicalism of his own time and that of the previous generation. Robert Southey in his personal role was to appear to do this for only a very short time, but the poem to which he introduced Shelley provided nonetheless an important moment in his poetic development.
--MDP, SEPTEMBER 1997
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "The Devil's Thoughts." Manuscript in the hand of Robert Southey. BM Add. MS. 47887 ff 6-8.
Mays, J. C. C. Text, editorial apparatus and notes for "The Devil's Thoughts," forthcoming in the edition of Coleridge's Complete Poetical Works to be published by Princeton University Press.
Paley, Morton D. "Coleridge and the Apocalyptic Grotesque." Coleridge's Visionary Languages, ed. Tim Fulford and Morton D. Paley. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer. 1993. Pp. 15-25.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, "The Devil's Walk." Romantic Circles.
-------, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1964.
Southey, Robert. Southey's Poetical Works. London: Longman, 1844.
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