Outside & subterranean poems, a mini-anthology in progress (63): Joanna Southcott (1750–1814), 'At the time the horror of the devil was upon me, I felt I could not bear my existence … '

Joanna Southcott: “A box of common wood” which holds “the ark of the new covenan
Joanna Southcott: “A box of common wood” which holds “the ark of the new covenant”

June 13th, 1804.                             


AT the time the horror of the devil was upon me, I felt I could not bear my existence: therefore I desired Mrs. Underwood to take away every knife out of the room; that, in my despairing moments, I might not lay violent hands on myself. As soon as she was gone, I fell on my knees in prayer, and could not avoid crying aloud; but could not express all with my tongue, what I felt in my heart: but, finding I had no answer to my prayers, I arose, and was silent for some minutes, listening if I could hear “the small still VOICE OF THE LORD.” But, feeling no comfort, and hearing no answer, I opened the door, and desired Mrs. Underwood to send the letters by their own directions, as none were given to me. Mrs. Underwood, in floods of tears, said, we cannot direct ourselves; and no more letters shall go out of the house, unless the Lord, in His unbounded Love, Mercy, and Goodness, will direct us through thee. She then went and told Miss Townley, no answer was given, no more directions from the Lord. The Lord had hid his face from us, and no more letters shall go out of this house: for she felt in her heart, if the Lord would not be pleased to direct us, we would not direct ourselves.  She then came back to me, and told me, that Miss Townley was upon her knees in prayer and tears, when Mrs. Underwood came back with this word. Here all were alarmed; and they would do nothing of themselves, without the directions of the Lord.  Then the Light of the Lord broke in upon me; and I walked the room in tears, speaking these words :

“I feel my JESUS is not gone;

I feel my SAVIOUR will return;

He’th hid his face, but now he's come; —

A tedious night shall a bright morning have:

Then my soul shall take its old abode,

And, cloth’d in flesh, I shall behold my God.”


My repeating these words, Underwood fell down upon her knees, to return thanks to the Lord: and, in an instant, a Spirit entered me, that took my senses; and I felt strength enough in me, as though I could crush the world to atoms. The

Spirit spoke with power and fury, “I’ll chain the rebel to his den.” I walked up and down the room, and shook the whole house; for I was not myself.  I could not stop my fury; words flew too fast to utter against the power of darkness: and I felt in myself power, that I thought, if he was present, that I could tear him to pieces; and should not have feared, had there been ten thousand men and devils before me. After this power ceased, I laid myself upon the bed, to compose myself for a little while. I soon was ordered to rise and write. The first words I penned, were, “Dear Lord! what Spirit hath been so powerful in me, this day.” I was answered,  “The shadow of the substance to come in all. The horror of hell that thou hast felt this day, some will come against thee in, by temptations — then as a God I shall appear in thee, and cast the devils out of men by my power, as I broke in thee: but as I knew these things were too high for thee, without a veil between, I caused Foley's illness, for thou to judge it a pleasing dream. Now I must explain that, before I go any further, Mr. Foley's illness, with the other confusions, gave Satan the advantage over me: and, as I had written the day before that the Lord had ordained the thing concerning the book, and then to feel that horror and misery after, threw me into a dreadful state of despair.  And now I shall go on, as it is spoke in verse.


“And now I tell thee how I shall appear

In much more power then they all shall see:

Than now, this day I entered into thee.

Because, in power, I did now appear,

And now’s the time I’ll shake the earth once more.

And they shall find ME in the woman’s form;

For hell shall tremble now it shall be known.

For now, I say, I'll chain the rebel down,

And men shall tremble at my every sound;

For every heart I shall much stronger shake,

Than ere thy walking in this room did make:

And much more fury every foe will see,

Than ere this day did now appear in thee. …



SOURCE: Letters, and Communications of Joanna Southcott, the Prophetess of Exeter, printed by J. Heming, Stourbridge, 1804.

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered..... And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. (Rev 12:1,2,5)


A self-named prophetess & a prolific writer, she came late in life to an understanding of herself as the “woman clothed with the sun” in the Book of Revelation & of her child-to-be as the newly returning messiah (thereafter named Shiloh).  From a family of poor farmers, with little education & with much of her life spent in domestic service, she came to her visions at the age of forty-two, along with a drive to set them down in words, which she did in an extensive series of books, principal among them the eight she called The Strange Effects of Faith.  The writing there (and elsewhere, as is made apparent by the above) is a striking mix of prose & verse – a kind of visionary combination not uncommon in the writing of outsider or vernacular mystics. Her greatest work, however, now effectively lost or hidden by later generations of Southcottian followers, was the “ark of the new covenant” (so-called), “a box of common wood” in which many of her writings & other objects of power & prophecy were selectively placed & sealed away. It is, if we choose to see it as such, reminiscent of the paleolithic cave (Trois Frères) in which the image that opens this anthology is found, or, at a still greater stretch, Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box or his Boîte-en-valise, as yet another artifact on the border between art & life.