1559. Robert Southey to Anna Seward, 29 December 1808

1559. Robert Southey to Anna Seward, 29 December 1808 ⁠* 


Midnight & not an eye
Thro all the Imperial City closed in slumbers!
Behold her streets ablaze, – her countless numbers
Abroad! – & hear that universal cry
Whose uproar dread in their deep bed
Might break the silence of the dead!
In vain ye blessed Stars
Your feeble beams ye shed
Quenchd in the unnatural light, more bright than day.
And thou O Queen of Night
Thine ineffectual ray.
Ten thousand torches flame & flare
Upon the midnight air
Blotting the lights of Heaven
With their portentous glare.
The fragrant smoke in many a surging fold,
Upward & still upward rolld,
Ascendeth thro the yellow sky
And hangeth visible on high
A dark & waving canopy.


Hark! tis the funeral trumpets breath,
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 & general din
Pour their wild wailing.
The song of praise is drownd
Amid that deafening sound;
You hear no more the trumpets tone,
You hear no more the mourners moan,
Tho the trumpets breath & the dirge of death
Mingle, & swell the funeral yell.
But rising over all in one acclaim
Is heard the echoed name
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 reechoing rolls around.


The death-procession moves along
Their bare 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
In one accordant cry
Arvalan! Arvalan!
The universal multitude reply.
In vain ye thunder on his ear the name.
xxxxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxxx
Would ye awake the dead? –
Borne upright in his Palanquin
Lo Arvalan is seen!
A glow is on his face, a lively red.
It is the crimson canopy
Which oer his cheek the 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.


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


Woe! woe! the wives of Arvalan!
Young Azla, young Nealliné!
Their widow robes of white
With gold & jewels bright
As on a bridal day.
Woe! woe! around their palanquin
With symphony & dance & song
Their kindred & their friends come on.
The funeral song! the dance of sacrifice!
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 flowering fold
And swells the woven gold,
Tremulous & glittering to the torches flame.
A Man & Maid of aspect wan & wild
Then side by side, by archers guarded, came.
Oh wretched Father! Oh unhappy Child!
Them were all eyes of all the throng exploring, –
Is this the daring man
Who raised his vengeful hand at Arvalan?
Is this the wretched man condemned to feel
Kehamas dreadful wrath?
Them 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
Provokd the desperate blow?
Far – far behind, beyond all reach of sight
In ordered files the torches flow along,
One ever-lengthening line of moving light.
Far, far behind
Rolls on the undistinguishable clamour
Of horn & trump & tambour,
Incessant as the roar
Of streams which down the massy <wintry> mountain pour,
And louder than the dread commotion
Of stormy ocean <billows> on a rocky shore
When the winds rage over the waves
And the sea <ocean> to the Tempest raves.

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

Woe! woe! for Azla takes her seat
Upon the funeral pile!
Calmly she took her seat,
Calmly the whole terrific pomp surveyd
As on her lap the while
The lifeless head of Arvalan was laid
Woe! woe! Nealliné –
The young Nealliné –
They strip her ornaments away,
Bracelet & anklet, ring & chain & zone,
Around her neck they leave
The marriage knot alone,
That marriage band that when
Yon waning moon was young,
Around her virgin neck
With bridal joy was flung.
Then with white flowers, the coronal of death
Her jetty locks they crown.
Oh sight of misery!
You cannot hear her cries, – all other sound
In this wild dissonance is drownd,
But in her face you see
The supplication & the agony.
See in her swelling throat the desperate strength
That with vain effort struggled yet for life,
Her arms contracted now in fruitless strife,
Now wildly at full length
Toward the crowd in vain for pity spread, –
They force her on, they bind her to the dead.

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

At once on every side
The circling torches drop,
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 & the trumpets sound
And clap of hand & shouts & cries
From all the multitude arise,
While round & round in giddy wheel
Intoxicate they roll & reel,
Till one by one whirld in they fall,
And the devouring flames have swallowed all.

Then all was still; the drums & clarions ceasd.
The multitude were hushed in silent awe, –
Only the roaring of the flame was heard. [1] 


You have here the first section of Kehama. It was written between seven & eight years ago in the metre of Thalaba, [2]  & has since been thrown into rhyme, piece-meal, – in consequence of which I suspect that the language flows less naturally than it would have otherwise have done. I am a patient transcriber, & usually in transcribing make so many alterations that the time so bestowed is not unprofitably spent, & if you will find out the faults here half as keenly as you have found out the beauties of Madoc, [3]  I will send section after section, as leisure & opportunity may serve.

Your letter would have been more welcome but for the intelligence with which it concluded. That mind of yours is so vigorous & that heart so young, – so beyond the reach of time & infirmity, that I would fain persuade myself the system is yet sound, notwithstanding the attacks which it has sustained. As for presentiments there are many facts which tend to prove that they act just contrary to the manner in which they are commonly supposed to do, – & that when persons fix the day or hour for their death, & are punctual to the engagement, they are kept alive to that moment by their faith that they shall not die before it, which otherwise would have been the case. I feared [MS torn] were ill, because a longer time than usual had elapsed without my hearing from you.

It would be in vain to argue with you about the Cid, [4]  – you are as insensible to the beauties of that stile of history, as I am to the charms of music, & hundreds have the same want of faculty in both cases. To me that Chronicle [5]  seems not only one of the most curious pieces of history in existence (that it is assuredly is,) but also one of the most delightful; & no employment ever gave me more pleasure than that of reducing it to the shape in which it now appears. But I am historian as well as poet, & you do not sympathize with me in the emotions that an old Chronicle excites.

Do not mistake me about peace. It is an abuse of words to talk of peace with Bonaparte. Such peace as Prussia has we might obtain, but that is submission. Such peace as Mr Addington made [6]  we might make again, – the experiment has happily been made, & it proved to be only a truce, – but that gives him all he wanted, & we get only a breathing time by it, when blessed be God we are not out of breath. Is there any man in England fool enough to believe that the word or oath of Bonaparte is to be trusted? that he would make peace with us for a with any other intent than that of creating a navy to destroy us? – It is not my sentiments that have changed; – precisely the same principles which made me the loud enemy of war in 1793 make me now the loud enemy of peace; for the same reasons that I abominated then & ever shall abominate Pitt [7]  & his cursed crew, precisely do I in like manner abominate the French Government now. What I love best on earth is liberty; – it xxx xxxx xxxxx Milton & Hutchinson [8]  did not love it more religiously than I do. But if this country bends her knee to France, – & it is only on her knees that the deadly truce is to be had, – there will be no liberty left on earth. It is mere bigotry to call for peace now, because the war was unjust ten years ago.

You have well commented upon Hayleys senseless comparison of Cowper with Milton. [9]  The success of his feeble piece of biography seems to have turned Hayleys head, as He has mistaken the liking of the public for admiration; Cowpers letters are easy & unaffected, sometimes sprightly, sometimes elegant, always natural. You like him the better, – that is the Public like him the better because they find an intellect quite level with their own, & their own imbecility is never made to feel his strength. The Yardley Oak [10]  & the Task [11]  would not be expected from those Letters, – & even there Cowper is not to be named, not to be thought of with Milton. Am I wrong in suspecting that Cowper, tho he has not more applause than he rightly deserves, is indebted for one half of his crazy superstition, & for good part of the other because he is more often footing than flying? – Both he & Churchill [12]  were slovens in rhyme for fear of being coxcombs. I believe it possible to give to rhyme the who strength & manliness of blank verse, but this they never arrived at, & this must not be in the couplet. Our Miltonic Sonnets have effected it, – & I hope you will find something of this union in some of the Kehama, where the subject requires a slow movement.

If Carys [13]  be not an hereditary affection it will probably pass away. In general genius is a preservative against madness, – it affords vent, scope & purpose to those feelings & passionate thoughts, which if pent up, undefined & undirected, overthrow the intellect mind of man. When the fit is over (I trust it is but a fit) the best advice that can be given him, is to suspend every study or pursuit as soon as he finds that he dreams about it. This is my receipt for keeping in sound health of nerves; – I have two or three things of nearly equal interest in hand at once, & pass from one to the other in the same day, quieting all at night with half an hours desultory reading. Experience taught me the necessity of the system, & my sleep is in consequence as sweet as an infants.

R Southey

Dec. 29. 1808.


* Address: To/ Miss Seward/ Lichfield/ Single
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Endorsement: Mr Southey (Poet Laureat) to Miss Seward; [in another hand] From Mr. Southey to Miss Seward/ 1st Section of Kehama here also 1st specimen
MS: Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield, MS 2001.71.59. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] A draft of The Curse of Kehama (1810). For the text, and for other manuscript drafts, see volume 4 of Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1793–1810, gen ed. Lynda Pratt, 5 vols (London, 2004). BACK

[2] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[3] Madoc (1805) which had been praised by Seward. BACK

[4] Southey’s edition of the Chronicle of the Cid (1808). BACK

[5] Southey’s edition of the Chronicle of the Cid (1808) was based on translations from the Crónica particular del Cid (published 1593), with additions from the Crónica de España of Alphonso the Wise (1541) and Romancero e Historia del Cid (1632). BACK

[6] The Peace of Amiens between Britain and France was made in March 1802 under Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth (1757–1844; DNB), who had been Prime Minister since 1801. The Peace lasted until May 1803; Addington was forced from office in May 1804. BACK

[7] William Pitt (1759–1806; DNB), the Prime Minister whose repressive and pro-war policies in the 1790s led Southey to resent him. BACK

[8] John Milton (1608–1674; DNB), republican polemicist as well as poet; Colonel John Hutchinson (1615–1664; DNB), a Puritan commander in the English civil war and a signatory of the death warrant of King Charles I, as revealed in a posthumously published memoir by his widow, Lucy Hutchinson (1620–1681; DNB): Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson (1806). In the Annual Review for 1806, 5 (1807), 361–378, Southey extolled the conduct and morality of Hutchinson. BACK

[9] William Hayley (1745–1820; DNB), author of The Poetical Works of John Milton with a Life of the Author (1794–1797), a Life of Milton (1796) and The Life and Posthumous Writings [chiefly Letters] of W. Cowper (1803). BACK

[10] An unfinished Miltonic poem published for the first time in Hayley’s Life and Posthumous Writings. BACK

[11] Cowper’s Miltonic blank-verse poem of 1785. BACK

[12] Charles Churchill (1732–1764; DNB), author of The Rosciad (1761) and many other long poems in heroic couplets. BACK

[13] Henry Francis Cary (1772–1844; DNB), translator of Dante, poet. In 1807 Cary’s family was afflicted by typhus, and his younger daughter, Harriet, died of the disease, aged six. Cary was consequently afflicted with a mental illness which recurred in future years (DNB). BACK