RTL: Joan of Arc of Robert Southey


After reading Southey’s  The Inchcape Rock, I  was drawn to his epic poem Joan of Arc, written in the last decade of the eighteenth century. I  was struck by the fact that this English poet was writing so beautifully about a woman whom his own countrymen had bought as a slave and allowed to be tried by their stooges and burnt at stake. But that was back in the fifteenth century, and it was good that the old animosities had been washed away from the mind in the eighteenth century when Southey composed the poem. Stranger still, the great French writer and philosopher Voltaire had written a satire in very poor and unbecoming taste on Joan of Arc  (La Pucelle d’Orléans) earlier in the century.

As I was browsing through Southey’s long, long poem I was struck by a scene. The first part of it was literally like the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna puts is weapon on the ground and tells Krishna he simply can’t do battle:

So saying, from his belt he took
The encumbering sword. I held it, listening to him,
And, wistless what I did, half from the sheath
Drew the well-temper’d blade. I gazed upon it,
And shuddering as I felt its edge, exclaim’d,
‘It is most horrible with the keen sword
To gore the finely-fibred human frame!
I could not strike a lamb.’

Then comes a passage that should resonate with many in our times who argue that there is no choice but violence in certain circumstances:

He answer’d me,
‘Maiden, thou hast said well. I could not strike
A lamb. But when the invader’s savage fury
Spares not grey age, and mocks the infant’s shriek
As he does writhe upon his cursed lance,
And forces to his foul embrace the wife
Even on her murder’d husband’s gasping corse!
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.
Think well of this, young man!’ he cried, and seiz’d
The hand of Theodore; ‘think well of this,
As you are human, as you hope to live
In peace, amid the dearest joys of home;
Think well of this! You have a tender mother;
As you do wish that she may die in peace,
As you would even to madness agonize
To hear this maiden call on you in vain
For aid, and see her dragg’d, and hear her scream
In the blood-reeking soldier’s lustful arms,
Think that there are such horrors ; that even now,
Some city flames, and haply as in Roan,
Some famish’d babe on his dead mother’s breast
Yet hangs for food. Oh God! I would not lose
These horrible feelings tho’ they rend my heart.’

Jan 16, 2011

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