563. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 30[-31] December 1800

563. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 30[–31] December 1800 ⁠* 

Thalaba. Book the last [1] 


Then said the grey old man to Thalaba
A curse is on our land!
Sorcery hath seized the altar & the throne –
Our dear liege Lady, sovereign of our choice,
Who loved us, whom we loved, who made our name
Mighty among the nations, groans enslaved;
Her olive sceptre trampled in the dust,
Blasted her oaken crown.
A rod of iron bruises us,
Famine & Misery desolate our fields.
An old & hideous Hag
Hath brought this evil on us; – she hath made
Her giant son our tyrant, & by spells
So won the many to her cause
That from their loyalty & ancient faith
Recreant, bewitched to ruin, they themselves
Give their own children for her sacrifice.
And daily at this Tyrants Idols feet
With hymns of adoration & of joy
They shed the life of man.

Him more to honour, hither hath the Hag
By her enchantments brought the throne
That whilome the Fiends built
For Nimrod, he who first among mankind
Usurped the attributes of Heaven.
The infatuate multitude
Haild its descent with joy
And song & symphony
And human sacrifice.
But when the Knife had pierced the victims breast
On that accursed Altar, the life-blood
Slow rolling into characters distinct
Shaped one mysterious line.
The sorcerers came, the letters mockd their skill
They learnt that in that bloody line
The avenging angel had inscribed
The secret of their overthrow.
Nor could the toil of man, nor wizard spell
Blot or obscure the dreaded characters.
Therefore they laid a spell
That whoso reads shall die.
First with their Champion practised long in arms
Thou must do battle, & if Heaven should give
The conquest over him
Essay the danger of the spell.
Beyond the city gate we dare not pass,
But follow thou thy Damsel guide
And blow the battle horn –
God & Mohammed prosper thee
For thy sake & for ours.

The while he spake the Damsel fixed
Her searching eyes in Thalaba,
And as she gazed a brightening hope
Kindled her animated cheek.
No other arms thou needest! she exclaimd
Come forth to victory;
Lead on! quoth Thalaba –
Lead on – in Allahs name.

Beneath an Oak the battle horn was hung,
There paused the Damsel guide
There take thy stand, quoth she.
The plain beyond is set with snares,
This ground is holy, underneath his Oak
My Mother gave her laws
The Lady of this Land –
She groans in bondage – blow the battle horn!

Loud rung the echoing blast,
Clad in his arms the Enemy came forth.
Alas! she cried, that ever Sorcerers art
Should make the gallant Leoline the foe
Of his liege Lady, whom he served so well,
With such true love & peerless hardihood
In many a perilous field,
Against her bold & bloody enemies –
This hateful Hag & her abhorred Son.
But ply thine arrows well, & from the plain
Beset with treason, tempt him here,
This holy ground shall disenchant his soul.

Onward came Leoline
And with a loud & threatful tongue provoked
His foe to equal battle on the plain.
So had the spell abused his noble heart
That clad compleat in mail of proof
He among snares provoked his naked foes.
Obedient to the Damsels voice
The Arab plied his arrows well.
True to the unerring eye they fled,
Not idly aimed at helm or shield
But ever where the jointed mail
Left one weak part exposed.
In vain he lifts the shield to save,
So swift, so strong, the arrows fly.
Till stung with many a little wound
And mad with unavailing rage,
On rushes Leoline.
And now beneath the Holy Oak
He lifts his sword to strike!
The Damsel caught his arm –
She looked him in the face – she called his name –
The well-known tones awakened him –
The spell that had abused his noble soul
Lost all its power, he dropt the impious sword.

He stood confused, remembering now
His deeds of drunkenness,
And shame self-loathing & revengeful wrath
Inflamed his glowing cheek.
Scarce to the daughter of his injured Queen
Raised he his eyes abashed.
“Thy Mother –” “Soon,” exclaimed the exultant Maid
Soon shall we break her fetters! hath not Heaven
Inscribed in blood the remedy for all?
And then she gazed at Thalaba,
“Fearest thou [MS obscured] read the fatal line,
“On which the Fiends have laid a spell
That whoso reads shall die?
Lead on! the Youth replied,
In Allahs name lead on.’

By armed hosts surrounded, on his throne
Sate the Great Tyrant. they full willingly
Had drenched their weapons in the adventurers heart,
Yea in the Damsels bosom had they plunged
Their murderous javelins, but beside them went
The dreaded Leoline,
Whose eye & ready arm
Awed all the ruffian troop
Raised on a purple pedestal
The golden throne was seen
Where sate the Hell Hags son.
And daily on his purple pedestal
The human victim bled.
There uneffaceable
The line of blood appeared,
And fresh as from the Martyrs life it ran.
And now it was the ritual hour
And bound before the throne the victim stood
And on the Altar lay
The Axe of sacrifice.

Hold! cried the Damsel, for our champion comes
To read the writing. at that voice so feared
Pale grew the Usurpers cheek.
Knows he – he cried, the spell
That whoso reads shall die?
Behold its proof, said Thalaba!
And fearlessly approached
And stood against the Altar & beheld
The bloody characters, & read aloud
“Strike here, & seek & find.”

Was it Abdaldars ring
That broke the spell of death?
Or did the confidence of faith secure
Hodeirahs fearless son?
The Tyrant Sorcerer when he heard his voice
And in the baffling of the trusted charm
Knew his near ruin, from the throne
Rose desperate, & with lifted scymatar
Came on the unarmed Youth.
But lightly from the blow leapt Thalaba,
And from the Altar seizd
The Axe of Sacrifice,
And with the strength of his united hands
He smote the Usurper; on his neck he smote,
Down to the chest the forceful weapon drove,
The Giant reeld & fell.

Then the Destroyer raised the reeking Axe
And struck the purple altar – “Seek & find!”
The hollow Altar yielded to his stroke –
Within appeared the talisman
To quell the Mother Witch,
A torch of everlasting light.
Eternal Wisdom when the Fiends
For Nimrod built his throne,
Inclosed the inextinguishable flame.

Thalaba graspt the Torch –
‘On to the conquest oer this Hag of Hell.’
The Damsel wept aloud with joy –
Come on she cried to victory –
To break my Mothers chains –
Come on – destroy & save!

Hark! the loud uproar – the tumultuous cry
Of wailing from the Idol House –
Yes he is fallen – the Son of Sorcery –
The Mighty – the Blasphemer! – the Hell Hag
Sounds her alarum here –
Her Servants with the hasty arms of fear
Crowd round her temple home –
All who have fed & fattened on the blood
Shed hourly at her shrine,
All whom her witcheries
Made to their ruin blind
They rush to her defence, a raging throng.
But Leoline appears
Their trusted champion late,
Their shield, their arm of strength!
But loud the Damsel shouts her mothers name!
But Thalaba comes on
Shaking the holy Torch!
Blow now the clarion blast
And mutter oer thy charms –
For broken is the purple pedestal –
For shines the unextinguishable light –
For the Destroyer comes!

On came the Avengers. the deluded yield –
Before that holy Torch.
Awakened from the spell
Their old & honourable feelings rise
Revived, they rally at the name
Of their Liege Lady, of their Queen beloved.
Beneath the sword of Leoline
The guilty fly & fall.
Bar ye the Temple gates? –
He thunders there – he grasps with Sampson strength
The iron doors. they shake – they ply – they yield! –
The clang of battle penetrates
Down to the dungeon depths –
The light long lost visits her eyes once more –
Hope once again is stirring in her heart –
Yes! the Deliverer comes – her chains are broke
The Lady of the Land is free.’

Then what an anguish & a shame
O Leoline, were thine
To see thy sovereign Lady bare of foot,
The fetter-mark upon her limbs!
He furious to atone his crime
And vent the mingled passion, rushes on
And turns upon the Hag of Hell
And lifts his vengeful sword
To purify the land.
But she was strong, & feared no weapons edge,
And clenching in her naked hand the sword
Strove with her enemy in perilous strife.
Which when the Damsel saw
Not these, O Leoline, the arms, she cried
That can prevail on her –
Not this the remedy –
Appointed from the first!
And as the Damsel spake
Lo! Thalaba comes on xx
And shakes the holy Torch.
Then shrieked the Hag, then hid her eyes,
Then desperate strove to wrest
The deadly weapon from the Avengers hand.
And now all agony she flies
Before the lightning fire.
On presses Thalaba
And shakes around her head the lightning torch.
She screams – she flies – she seeks the sanctuary –
The iron doors unfold,
She hurries down the dark & winding way.

On rushes Thalaba.
At once he stopt with sudden start
For lo! the Torch that flashed so flamey late
Now scatters not one ray.
It burns & it is seen, sole object there
Amid the impenetrable gloom
That utter blackness seemed
As it the Powers of Darkness with their force
Repelled the hostile light.

Enter not there, the Damsel cried –
Those iron doors no foot
Of living man has past.
The Hag of Hell is fled
Down to the caves accurst from whence she came,
The central depths of the Dom-Daniel den.
When will avenging Heaven
Send the Destroyer there?

Oh then the joy that lighted up
The face of Thalaba!
Is all accomplished he exclaimd –
She answered, yes Deliverer – all is done!
The Enchantment is dissolved
The Tyrant Idol slain
The Hell Hag chased away.
In peace, in happiness, in liberty,
Deliverer! we shall teach
Our babes to bless thy name

Her answered Thalaba
The blessings of the Prophet & the L[MS obscured]
Be on your country. in your hand
The unextinguishable light.
I must go onward & compleat the work –
This enterprize is mine.
Long have I lopt the branches, now I lay
The axe unto the root.

Then drawing off Abdaldars ring
Away he cast the spell, & cried aloud [2] 
Thou art my shield, my trust, my hope O God
Behold & guard me now
Thou who alone canst save
If from my childhood up I have looked on
With exultation to my destiny –
If in the hour of anguish I have owned
The justice of the hand that chastened me,
If of all selfish passions purified
I go to work thy will & from the world
Root up the ill doing race –
Lord! let not thou the weakness of my arm
Make vain the enterprize.

He entered the darkness. on he went
With cautious step adown the winding way.
At length a dim, dim gleam appears
Ascending from beneath –
It ends upon a precipice
Two Dives are on its brink – &c &c.


With all this I am little satisfied. it is the worst of the poem – far the worst.

Tuesday 30 December. 1800 – Lewis’s book [3]  has not yet reached me. perhaps the Secretary has not unpacked his trunks. – I shall be obliged to Lewis for his name in the Anthology [MS obscured] whatever he chuses to give me –

Your letter with Ld Grenvilles [4]  name, as usual came thro the Post Office, the fact is no person in England can possibly frank a letter thro a Portugueze post office. write straight to me – & your letter comes with the fair price by weight, but any attempt to frank it on[MS obscured] charges me with the cover – & the immense weight of wax upon your Uncles seal has terrified me least the next should have come under cover of the Great Imperial seal itself.

Wednesday. I have got the Tales of Wonder – & barely skimmed the cream as yet. The Eve of St Johns [5]  pleases me much – so does the Gay gold ring. how could Lewis insert that foul flat, vulgar Giles Jollup? I designed to have lengthened the Purgatory of Patrick [6]  – having got the authentic narrative from Matthew Paris [7]  of Owens adventure – but as the grub is now enshrined in amber he has no chance of ever becoming a butterfly. Ballads are catching – & my fingers tickle with a legendary itch – but I will refrain – & instead of wasting gunpowder in squibs – keep it for a great explosion. My “Curse of Keradou”  [8] – promises to be better than Thalaba –

Mr Bunburys ballad is very bad. [9]  it offers only a succession of disgusting images. I like the Fire King of Scott. & his Glenfinlas is good, but faultily obscure – for it is not understood on a first perusal. My name should not have been prefixed to those Balladlings [10]  which I published anonymously & look upon as the cask-droppings – cheese-parings & candle-ends. – The Spanish Ballads are in general as inferiour to our Old English ones – as the Spaniards to the Englishmen. A ballad simplicity of language is their merit – they never display imagination. I have fou[MS obscured] a curious volume [11]  – the commonstreet Ballads – the Bloody Gardeners, & Master Cooks of the Spanish Priory-Garden-Walls – collected by some curioso & bound together. they were printed between 1720 & 1730 – in the different provincial towns.

God bless you.

R S.


* Address: [deletions and readdress in another hand] To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqr MP./ 5. Stone Buildings/ Lincolns Inn/ London <Wynnstay/ Wrexham/ N. Wales>
Stamped: LISBON
Postmarks: [partial] JA/ 15/ 1801; FOREIGN O/ A/ 18
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4819E. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] What follows is a draft of Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 12. BACK

[2] Then said ... cried aloud: Verse written in double columns. BACK

[3] Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818; DNB), Tales of Wonder (1801), which reprinted several of Southey’s poems. BACK

[4] William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Lord Grenville (1759–1834; DNB), Foreign Secretary 1791–1801, Prime Minister 1806–1807. BACK

[5] Matthew Gregory Lewis, Tales of Wonder, 2 vols (London, 1801), I, pp. 130–139 (‘The Eve of St. John’, by Walter Scott); pp. 86–95 (‘The Gay Gold Ring’, by Lewis); pp. 24-28 (‘Giles Jollup the Grave, and Brown Sally Green’, by Lewis). BACK

[6] Matthew Gregory Lewis, Tales of Wonder, 2 vols (London, 1801), II, pp. 156-163 (‘St. Patrick’s Purgatory’). The poem was first published by Southey in Morning Post, 8 May 1798, though it was anonymous and Lewis was not aware that Southey was the author. It was not extended until Southey republished it in Poetical Works (1838), vol. VI, pp. 40–48. BACK

[7] Matthew Paris (c.1200– c.1259), Historia Anglorum, under year ‘1153’. BACK

[8] Southey’s first mention of the original title of what would become The Curse of Kehama (1810); see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 12–15 for the initial plan of the poem. BACK

[9] Matthew Gregory Lewis, Tales of Wonder, 2 vols (London, 1801), I, pp. 107-115 (‘The Little Grey Man’, by the caricaturist Henry William Bunbury (1750–1811; DNB)); pp. 59-66 (‘The Fire-King’, by Walter Scott); pp. 116–129 (‘Glenfinlas, or Lord Ronald’s Coronach’, by Walter Scott). BACK

[10] Southey’s name was attached to Nos XXIV to XXX in Matthew Gregory Lewis, Tales of Wonder 2 vols (London, 1801), I, pp. 155–201. But ‘Donica’ and ‘Rudiger’ had already appeared under Southey’s name in Poems (1797), and ‘The Old Woman of Berkeley’ (as ‘A Ballad shewing how an old woman rode double and who rode before her’) and ‘Lord William’ had similarly been included in Poems (1799). So, only ‘Bishop Bruno’ (Morning Post, 17 November 1798), ‘The Painter of Florence’ (as ‘The Pious Painter: A Catholic Story’, Part I and Part II, Morning Post, 2 November 1798 and 22 July 1799) and ‘Cornelius Agrippa’s Bloody Book’ (as ‘A Ballad of a Young Man that would read unlawful Books’ in Annual Anthology [1799]) were new attributions. BACK

[11] Possibly Romances Sueltos en Verso Espanola, no. 3720 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

People mentioned

Scott, Walter (1771–1832) (mentioned 1 time)