Robert Southey, from The Curse of Kehama

[Click on image to enlarge] Robert Southey (1774–1843) was one of the most prolific authors in all of British literature. His published prose and poetry would, if collected in a standard format, add up to more than fifty substantial volumes. Yet he figures only marginally in modern literary history — as the friend of Coleridge and Wordsworth, whose course of youthful radicalism supplanted by middle-aged conservatism he paralleled at every stage, and as the enemy of Byron, who made him the target of brilliant satire in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), Don Juan (1819–24), and The Vision of Judgment (1822), among others. He was poet laureate of England for the last three decades of his life (from 1813), and is currently being reevaluated as an epitomizing male professional writer of the age, useful in a way that the more distinguished, from Blake through Keats, are not, because they were so conspicuously exceptional in whatever we take them to represent.

[Click on image to enlarge] The Curse of Kehama (1810), close to 5,300 lines in twenty-four sections (the number is modeled on the twenty-four books of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey), is Southey's most impressive contribution to the genre of British Oriental epic. The first two sections (given here) present the funeral of Arvalan, son of the cruel Indian rajah Kehama, and the curse that Kehama pronounces on Ladurlad, the peasant who killed Arvalan to protect his daughter Kailyal from being raped. The remainder tells of Kehama's pursuit of Ladurlad and Kailyal until, in a last-minute reversal of fortunes, Kehama is doomed to eternal suffering in hell while Ladurlad and Kailyal are granted immortal lives in heaven. The work went through several editions. Shelley called it "my most favorite poem" in a letter of June 1811, and modeled Prometheus's powerful curse on it (Prometheus Unbound, Act 1, NAEL 8, 2.779–802) seven years later. Keats drew on it for several narrative details in Endymion.

I. The Funeral







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                  Midnight, and yet no eye
Through all the Imperial City closed in sleep!
                  Behold her streets a-blaze
With light that seems to kindle the red sky,
      Her myriads swarming through the crowded ways!
Master and slave, old age and infancy,
                  All, all abroad to gaze;
                  House-top and balcony
Clustered with women, who throw back their veils
      With unimpeded and insatiate sight
To view the funeral pomp which passes by,
                  As if the mournful rite
Were but to them a scene of joyance and delight.




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Vainly, ye blessed twinklers of the night,
                  Your feeble beams ye shed,
Quench'd in the unnatural light which might out-stare
                  Even the broad eye of day;
            And thou from thy celestial way
      Pourest, O Moon, an ineffectual ray!
For lo! ten thousand torches flame and flare
                        Upon the midnight air,
                  Blotting the lights of heaven
                        With one portentous glare.
Behold the fragrant smoke in many a fold
      Ascending, floats along the fiery sky,
            And hangeth visible on high,
                  A dark and waving canopy.





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Hark! 'tis the funeral trumpet's breath!
                        'Tis the dirge of death!
      At once ten thousand drums begin,
With one long thunder-peal the ear assailing;
      Ten thousand voices then join in,
      And with one deep and general din
                        Pour their wild wailing.
                  The song of praise is drown'd
                        Amid the deafening sound;
      You hear no more the trumpet's tone,
You hear no more the mourner's moan,
      Though the trumpet's breath, and the dirge of death,
Swell with commingled force the funeral yell.
      But rising over all in one acclaim
Is heard the echoed and re-echoed name,
            From all that countless rout;
                        "Arvalan! Arvalan!
                        Arvalan! Arvalan!"
      Ten times ten thousand voices in one shout
Call "Arvalan!" The overpowering sound,
      From house to house repeated rings about,
            From tower to tower rolls round.



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      The death-procession moves along;
Their bald heads shining to the torches' ray,
                  The Bramins lead the way,
                  Chaunting the funeral song.
            And now at once they shout,
                              "Arvalan! Arvalan!"
            With quick rebound of sound,
                        All in accordance cry,
                              "Arvalan! Arvalan!"
            The universal multitude reply.
In vain ye thunder on his ear the name;
                  Would ye awake the dead?
            Borne upright in his palankeen,
                        There Arvalan is seen!
      A glow is on his face, . . . a lively red;
                        It is the crimson canopy
Which o'er his cheek a reddening shade hath shed;
            He moves, . . . he nods his head, . . .
But the motion comes from the bearers' tread,
            As the body, borne aloft in state,
Sways with the impulse of its own dead weight.







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Close following his dead son, Kehama came,
                  Nor joining in the ritual song,
                        Nor calling the dear name;
      With head deprest and funeral vest,
            And arms enfolded on his breast,
Silent and lost in thought he moves along.
King of the World, his slaves, unenvying now,
      Behold their wretched Lord; rejoiced they see
                  The mighty Rajah's misery;
That Nature in his pride hath dealt the blow,
      And taught the Master of Mankind to know
Even he himself is man, and not exempt from woe.





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O sight of grief! the wives of Arvalan,
Young Azla, young Nealliny, are seen!
                  Their widow-robes of white,
                  With gold and jewels bright,
                  Each like an Eastern queen.
      Woe! woe! around their palankeen,
                        As on a bridal day,
With symphony, and dance, and song,
Their kindred and their friends come on.
The dance of sacrifice! the funeral song!
And next the victim slaves in long array,
      Richly bedight to grace the fatal day,
                  Move onward to their death;
                        The clarions' stirring breath
      Lifts their thin robes in every flowing fold,
                        And swells the woven gold,
                              That on the agitated air
Flutters and glitters to the torch's glare.






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A man and maid of aspect wan and wild,
Then, side by side, by bowmen guarded, came;
O wretched father! O unhappy child!
Them were all eyes of all the throng exploring . . .
                        Is this the daring man
Who raised his fatal hand at Arvalan?
      Is this the wretch condemn'd to feel
                  Kehama's dreadful wrath?
Then were all hearts of all the throng deploring;
      For not in that innumerable throng
Was one who loved the dead; for who could know
                  What aggravated wrong
            Provoked the desperate blow!




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      Far, far behind, beyond all reach of sight,
In order'd files the torches flow along,
      One ever-lengthening line of gliding light:
                              Far . . . far behind,
Rolls on the undistinguishable clamour,
      Of horn, and trump, and tambour;
                        Incessant as the roar
      Of streams which down the wintry mountain pour,
And louder than the dread commotion
                  Of breakers on a rocky shore,
      When the winds rage over the waves,
            And Ocean to the Tempest raves.







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            And now toward the bank they go,
            Where winding on their way below,
                  Deep and strong the waters flow.
                  Here doth the funeral pile appear
      With myrrh and ambergris bestrew'd,
            And built of precious sandal wood.
They cease their music and their outcry here,
                        Gently they rest the bier;
                  They wet the face of Arvalan,
No sign of life the sprinkled drops excite;
They feel his breast, . . . no motion there;
            They feel his lips, . . . no breath;
For not with feeble, nor with erring hand,
      The brave avenger dealt the blow of death.
Then with a doubling peal and deeper blast,
The tambours and the trumpets sound on high,
            And with a last and loudest cry,
                        They call on Arvalan.




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      Woe! woe! for Azla takes her seat
                        Upon the funeral pile!
                  Calmly she took her seat,
Calmly the whole terrific pomp survey'd;
                        As on her lap the while
      The lifeless head of Arvalan was laid.



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                        Woe! woe! Nealliny,
                              The young Nealliny!
            They strip her ornaments away,
Bracelet and anklet, ring, and chain, and zone;
                  Around her neck they leave
                  The marriage knot alone, . . .
            That marriage band, which when
                  Yon waning moon was young,
                        Around her virgin neck
                  With bridal joy was hung.
Then with white flowers, the coronal of death,
                  Her jetty locks they crown.






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                              O sight of misery!
You cannot hear her cries, . . . their sound
      In that wild dissonance is drown'd; . . .
                        But in her face you see
            The supplication and the agony, . . .
See in her swelling throat the desperate strength
That with vain effort struggles yet for life;
      Her arms contracted now in fruitless strife,
                  Now wildly at full length
      Towards the crowd in vain for pity spread, . . .
They force her on, they bind her to the dead.





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                  Then all around retire;
      Circling the pile, the ministering Bramins stand,
Each lifting in his hand a torch on fire.
Alone the Father of the dead advanced
                  And lit the funeral pyre.





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                              At once on every side
                        The circling torches drop,
                              At once on every side
                        The fragrant oil is pour'd,
                              At once on every side
                        The rapid flames rush up.
      Then hand in hand the victim band
Roll in the dance around the funeral pyre;
                  Their garments' flying folds
                        Float inward to the fire;
In drunken whirl they wheel around;
            One drops, . . . another plunges in;
                  And still with overwhelming din
The tambours and the trumpets sound;
And clap of hand, and shouts, and cries,
                  From all the multitude arise;
While round and round, in giddy wheel,
                  Intoxicate they roll and reel,
      Till one by one whirl'd in they fall,
And the devouring flames have swallow'd all.





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      Then all was still; the drums and clarions ceased;
The multitude were hush'd in silent awe;
      Only the roaring of the flames was heard.

II. The Curse







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Alone towards the Table of the Dead
      Kehama moved; there on the alter-stone
                  Honey and rice he spread.
There with collected voice and painful tone
                        He call'd upon his son.
                        Lo! Arvalan appears;
      Only Kehama's powerful eye beheld
The thin ethereal spirit hovering nigh;
                              Only the Rajah's ear
                  Received his feeble breath.
"And is this all?" the mournful Spirit said,
      "This all that thou canst give me after death?
                        This unavailing pomp,
These empty pageantries that mock the dead!"



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                  In bitterness the Rajah heard,
And groan'd, and smote his breast,and o'er his face
            Cowl'd the white mourning vest.






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                        ARVALAN
      "Art thou not powerful, . . . even like a God?
            And must I, through my years of wandering,
Shivering and naked to the elements,
                        In wretchedness await
                  The hour of Yamen's wrath?
I thought thou wouldst embody me anew,
                              Undying as I am, . . .
Yea, re-create me! . . . Father, is this all?
                  This all? and thou Almighty!"






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      But in that wrongful and upbraiding tone,
                              Kehama found relief,
For rising anger half supprest his grief.
            "Reproach not me!" he cried,
"Had I not spell-secured thee from disease,
      Fire, sword, . . . all common accidents of man, . . .
And thou! . . . fool, fool . . . to perish by a stake!
            And by a peasant's arm! . . .
Even now, when from reluctant Heaven,
      Forcing new gifts and mightier attributes,
So soon I should have quell'd the Death-God's power."





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      "Waste not thy wrath on me," quoth Arvalan,
"It was my hour of folly! Fate prevail'd,
Nor boots it to reproach me that I fell.
      I am in misery, Father! Other souls
            Predoom'd to Indra's Heaven, enjoy the dawn
Of bliss, . . . to them the temper'd elements
      Minister joy: genial delight the sun
Sheds on their happy being, and the stars
      Effuse on them benignant influences;
And thus o'er earth and air they roam at will,
      And when the number of their days is full,
      Go fearlessly before the aweful throne.
But I, . . . all naked feeling and raw life, . . .
What worse than this hath Yamen's hell in store?
            If ever thou didst love me, mercy, Father!
      Save me, for thou canst save . . . the Elements
                        Know and obey thy voice."




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                        KEHAMA
                              "The Elements
Shall sin no more against thee; whilst I speak
Already dost thou feel their power is gone.
      Fear not! I cannot call again the past,
Fate hath made that its own; but Fate shall yield
      To me the future; and thy doom be fix'd
By mine, not Yamen's will. Meantime all power
      Whereof thy feeble spirit can be made
Participant, I give. Is there aught else
                        To mitigate thy lot?"

                        ARVALAN
"Only the sight of vengeance. Give me that!
      Vengeance, full, worthy, vengeance! . . . not the stroke
            Of sudden punishment, . . . no agony
That spends itself and leaves the wretch at rest,
                        But lasting long revenge."

                        KEHAMA
      "What, boy? is that cup sweet? then take thy fill!"







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So as he spake, a glow of dreadful pride
      Inflamed his cheek, with quick and angry stride
                  He moved toward the pile,
And raised his hand to hush the crowd, and cried,
      "Bring forth the murderer!" At the Rajah's voice
Calmly, and like a man whom fear had stunn'd,
      Ladurlad came, obedient to the call;
            But Kailyal started at the sound,
And gave a womanly shriek, and back she drew,
And eagerly she roll'd her eyes around,
      As if to seek for aid, albeit she knew
                  No aid could there be found.





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It chanced that near her on the river brink,
            The sculptured form of Marriataly stood;
      It was an Idol roughly hewn of wood,
                  Artless, and mean, and rude;
            The Goddess of the poor was she;
            None else regarded her with piety.
      But when that holy Image Kailyal view'd,
      To that she sprung, to that she clung,
On her own Goddess, with close-clasping arms,
                        For life the maiden hung.





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They seized the maid; with unrelenting grasp
            They bruised her tender limbs;
She, nothing yielding, to this only hope
      Clings with the strength of frenzy and despair.
She screams not now, she breathes not now,
She sends not up one vow,
      She forms not in her soul one secret prayer,
All thought, all feeling, and all powers of life
In the one effort centering. Wrathful they
      With tug and strain would force the maid away; . . .
Didst thou, O Marriataly, see their strife,
In pity didst thou see the suffering maid?
      Or was thine anger kindled, that rude hands
Assail'd thy holy Image? . . . for behold
                        The holy image shakes!





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      Irreverently bold, they deem the maid
                  Relax'd her stubborn hold,
And now with force redoubled drag their prey;
And now the rooted Idol to their sway
      Bends, . . . yields, . . . and now it falls.
                        But then they scream,
For lo! they feel the crumbling bank give way,
      And all are plunged into the stream.







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"She hath escaped my will," Kehama cried,
      "She hath escaped, . . . but thou art here,
                              I have thee still,
                        The worser criminal!"
And on Ladurlad, while he spake, severe
                  He fix'd his dreadful frown.
            The strong reflection of the pile
                        Lit his dark lineaments,
      Lit the protruded brow, the gathered front,
                        The steady eye of wrath.







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But while the fearful silence yet endured,
                        Ladurlad roused himself;
                  Ere yet the voice of destiny
Which trembled on the Rajah's lips was loosed,
                              Eager he interposed,
            As if despair had waken'd him to hope;
      "Mercy! oh mercy! only in defence . . .
                              Only instinctively, . . .
            Only to save my child, I smote the Prince;
                  King of the world, be merciful!
                        Crush me, . . . but torture not!"






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The Man-Almighty deign'd him no reply,
Still he stood silent; in no human mood
            Of mercy, in no hesitating thought
Of right and justice. At the length he raised
            His brow yet unrelax'd, . . . his lips unclosed,
                        And uttered from the heart,
With the whole feeling of his soul enforced,
                  The gathered vengeance came.



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                              "I charm thy life
                  From the weapons of strife,
                  From stone and from wood,
                        From fire and from flood,
                        From the serpent's tooth,
                        And the beasts of blood:
                  From Sickness I charm thee,
            And Time shall not harm thee;
                        But Earth which is mine,
                        Its fruits shall deny thee;
                        And Water shall hear me,
                  And know thee and fly thee;
      And the Winds shall not touch thee
                        When they pass by thee,
            And the Dews shall not wet thee,
                        When they fall nigh thee:
                  And thou shalt seek Death
                        To release thee, in vain;
                  Thou shalt live in thy pain
                  While Kehama shall reign,
                        With a fire in thy heart,
                        And a fire in thy brain;
                        And Sleep shall obey me,
                              And visit thee never,
                  And the Curse shall be on thee
                              For ever and ever."







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There where the Curse had stricken him,
            There stood the miserable man,
There stood Ladurlad, with loose-hanging arms;
                  And eyes of idiot wandering.
                        Was it a dream? alas,
                        He heard the river flow,
      He heard the crumbling of the pile,
      He heard the wind which shower'd
                  The thin white ashes round.
                        There motionless he stood,
            As if he hoped it were a dream,
And feared to move, lest he should prove
                        The actual misery;
And still at times he met Kehama's eye,
Kehama's eye that fastened on him still.
                        * * *

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