726. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 7 October 1802

726. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 7 October 1802 ⁠* 

The Curse of Kehama


Hark! tis the funeral trumpets tone,
The long loud blast of death!
At once the roar of a thousand drums
Rose, & a thousand voices in one cry
Pour their wild wailing. drownd amid the din
You hear no more the song of praise,
You hear the dirge no more
Nor the trumpets funeral tone,
Yet the song & the dirge & the trumpet
Mingle & swell the sound.
But over all the uproar louder heard
Rises the echoed name
Arvalan! Arvalan!
It rings distinctly thro the dizzy din,
Arvalan! Arvalan!
It peals from house to house, from tower to tower.

Midnight! & not one eye
In all the imperial city closed in sleep!
Her multitudes abroad! her streets ablaze!
The death procession moves along,
A thousand torches fling
(unless your worship chuse to multiply them by ten)
Their flaring radiance on the gloom
Blotting the stars from heaven.
Black clouds of wavy smoke
Ascending thro the yellow light
Float visible above.
Their bare heads shining to the glare
The Bramins lead the way
Chaunting the song of praise.

And now at once they shout
Arvalan! Arvalan!
With one accordant voice
The universal people lift the cry
Arvalan! Arvalan!
In vain ye thunder on his ear
The ineffectual name!
Would ye awake the dead?
Borne in his palanquin upright
Lo Arvalan appears.
A glow is on his face, . .
It is the crimson canopy
That reddens his deathy cheek,
He moves! it is the bearers step,
The bodys senseless motion as it yields
To its own heaviness.

Close following his dead son Kehama comes,
He joins not in the hymn of praise,
He calls not the beloved name,
From him no groan proceeds, . .
King of the World, his slave
Behold & pity now their wretched Lord:
With self-consoling joy they see
That Nature in his pride hath smitten him,
That now the Master of mankind
Feels he himself is man.

Woe – woe – the wives of Arvalan
All gay with gold & bright with gems
As on the bridal day …
Young Azla, young Nealine..
Woe .. woe .. around their palanquin
With song & symphony & dance
Their kindred & their friends
The song, the dance of sacrifice,
The symphony of death!
And now the train of victim slaves
All gorgeous for the pomp arrayed;
Their robes of woven gold
Light-lifted, swell upon the trumpet-sound
Tremulous & glittering to the torches flame.
And who are these, the man, the maid?
Like criminals by bowmen hemmd?
Oh wretched father – child accurst . .
Them every eye was seeking …
Is this the man who raisd his hand
Against the life of Arvalan?
Is this the man who durst draw down
Kehamas dreadful wrath?
Oh wretched father, child accurst . .
Them every heart was wailing
For in that mighty multitude
Was none who loved the deed –
For who could tell what bitter wrongs
Had stung the murderers heart –
(these last six lines .. shall they stand?)
Far far behind appear
The torches of the train,
One ever lengthening line of light!
Far far behind come on
The beat of drum the trumpet blair <an old friend Grosvenor>
Like the voice of the coming storm.

And now they pause .. for lo the funeral place
The trench, the sandal pile.
Gently they rest the bier,
They wet the face of Arvalan
If haply life be left,
They feel his breast, they feel his lips
If motion or breath be there,
But not with weak or erring hand
The vengeance blow was driven.
Then with a deeper peal
The tambours & the trumpets sound,
And with a last & loudest voice
They call on Arvalan.

Woe .. woe .. for Azla takes her seat
Upon the funeral pile.
Her eye how dim! her cheek how pale!
Calmly she takes her seat,
And calmly on her lap
She lets the head of Arvalan be laid.
Woe! Woe! Nealine . .
The young Nealine …
You cannot hear her cries.
But in her face you see
The supplication & the agony,
The ineffectual prayer – the frantic shriek
And in her arms & neck the strength
That struggles yet for life.
They force her on, .. they bind her to the dead . .
Kehama then approached & lit the pile.

At once on every side
The circling torches fall,
At once on every side
The torrent flames rush up.
Then hand in hand the victim slaves
Roll in the dance around the funeral fire,
Their garments flying folds
Float inward to the flame.
In drunken whirl they wheel around,
One drops .. another plunges now . .
And still with overwhelming din
The tambours & the trumpets sound,
And shouts & yells of praise
Ring thro the multitude,
While round & round intoxicate
The wretched victims reel till all have fallen.

The drums the clarions cease,
The multitude are hushd,
Only the roaring of the flame is heard.
Home towards the Table of the Dead
Kehama moved; there on the altar-stone
The rice & honey strewd,
There with the efforts of collected voice
Calld the dead Arvalan.
Lo! Arvalan appears! . .
Only Kehamas powerful eye beheld
The thin etherial form,
Only the Rajahs ear
Received his feeble voice.
‘And is this is all my father? this the most
‘To thy dear Arvalan?
‘This unavailing pomp . .
‘There common rites of death!

In bitterness the Rajah heard
And groand, & bowd his head, & oer his face
He cowled the mourning robe
(Qy. the colour of Hindoo mourning? whether white?)
‘Art thou not powerful .. even like a God?
‘And must I thro my years of wandering,
‘Shivering & naked to the elements,
‘In wretchedness await
‘The hour of Yamens wrath? . .
‘Embody me anew!
‘Clothe me again, undying as I am . .
‘Yea, re-create me! … father is this all . .
‘And thou almighty? ..
That upbraiding tone
Aroused Kehamas soul.
Half healed of anguish by the rising wrath
‘Reproach not me! he cried.
‘Had I not spell-secured thee from disease
‘Fire – sword – the common accidents of man . .
‘And thou fool! fool! & by a stake . .
‘And by a peasants arm …
‘Even now when from reluctant Heaven
‘Forcing new gifts & mightier attributes
‘So soon I should have quelld the Death Gods power.

‘Waste not on me thy rage!’ quoth Arvalan,
‘Fall that upon the murderer! give me power
‘Kehama! Master of the Elements!
‘A portion of thy sway! . .
‘My father give me vengeance! not the stroke
‘Of sudden punishment,
‘The agony that ends,
‘But lasting long revenge!’

‘Go! said the Rajah, with thy fathers power
‘Command the elements! …
‘Son of Kehama .. witness thy revenge!’ [1] 

And there Grosvenor is a good full stop – a half way house on the first days journey. Now then for criticism hactenus. [2]  Originally I began at an earlier period – thus. Arvalan is watching a horse .. the last of a horse hecatomb which when perfected would have made the sacrifices equal to Indra the God of the firmament. the horse strayd to Laderlads hut where Kalyal was bathing & Laderlads drives a stake thro Arvalan in defence of his daughter – this I found dull – & yet am apprehensive that the beginning as it now stands is too abrupt – not quoad [3]  funeral which is bono [4]  – but quoad the superhuman character of Kehama, which is wholly Hindooish. & must perplex by its strangeness without some preluding & palliating matter. a preface may do this – but if a poem requires explanation it is bad so far.

I shall send the rest of the book right soon – & a letter about the whole plan. it is the plan for which I most wish the aid of other opinions, till that be known, fragments can be but partially judged – the finish is of less import now than the outline.

Young Margaret does well – so does Edith – so do I.

God bless you.


Thursday. Oct. 7. 1802.

Will you be so good when you pass Charing + to enquire at a Print Shop there for certain Plans of the battle of Copenhagen, [5]  drawn by Alex. Briarly, [6]  Master of the Bellona, to which Tom subscribed a desire they may be sent to his agents Messrs Peyton & Grenfell [7]  [MS torn]d. Blackfriars – who will pay for them if they be un what remains unp[MS torn]

the print sellers name is Briden. [8]  should the horse kick & lose his shoe, he would break one of Mr Bridens windows


* Address: To/ Grosvenor Charles Bedford Esqr/ Exchequer/ Westminster/ Single
Postmarks: 132/ BRISTOL/ OC 8; B/ OCT 9/ 1802
MS: Houghton Library, bMS Eng 265.1(3). ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Hark! tis … thy revenge: Verse written in double columns. The poem is an early draft of part of Book 1 of the Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[2] The Latin translates as ‘up to this point’. BACK

[3] The Latin translates as ‘with respect to’. BACK

[4] The Latin translates as ‘good’. BACK

[5] The Battle of Copenhagen, 2 April 1801, in which a British fleet had defeated the Danish fleet. Tom Southey had served in the action as a Lieutenant on HMS Bellona. BACK

[6] Alexander Briarly (dates unknown), Master on the Bellona. He had previously served as Master on the Audacious at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. The Master was a senior seaman responsible for navigation. BACK

[7] Peyton and Grenfell, a firm of Navy Agents. BACK

[8] John Brydon (fl. c. 1783-1805). His shop was at 7 Charing Cross, London. BACK

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