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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1525. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 29 October 1808 ⁠* 

8.

Dost thou tremble O Indra, – O God of the Sky
Dost thou tremble on high for thy throne? –
Many a day to Seevas shrine
His daily victim hath Kehama led,
Nine & ninety days are fled,
Nine & ninety steeds have bled, –
One more the rite will be compleat, –
This victim more, this dreadful day,
Then will the impious Rajah seize thy seat
And wrest the thunder-sceptre from thy sway.
Along the mead the hallowed steed
Yet bends at liberty his way;
Noon shall see the victim bleed,
His consummating blood x at noon will flow. –
O day of woe! above, below
That blood confirms the Almighty Tyrants power.
Thou tremblest O Indra, O God of the Sky
Thou tremblest on high for thy throne!
But where is Veeshnoo at this hour –
But where is Seeva’s eye?
Is then the Destroyer blind!
Is the Preserver careless for mankind!

Along the mead the hallowed steed
Still wanders wheresoeer he will
Oer hill or dale or plain;
No human hand hath trickd that mane
From which he shakes the morning dew;
His mouth has never felt the rein,
His lips have never frothd the chain,
For pure of blemish & of stain,
His neck unbroke to mortal yoke
Like Nature free the steed must be,
Fit offering for the Immortals he.
A year & day the steed must stray
Wherever chance may guide his way,
Before he bleed at Seevas shrine;
The year & day have past away
Nor touch of man hath marrd the rite divine.
And now at noon the steed must bleed,
The perfect rite to day must force the meed
Which Fate reluctant shudders to bestow,
Then must the Swerga-God
Yield to the Tyrant of the world below,
Then must the Devetas obey
The Rajahs rod & groan beneath his hateful sway

The Sun rides high, the hour is nigh
The multitude who long
Lest aught should mar the rite,
In circle wide on every side
Have kept the steed in sight
Contract their circle now & drive him on
Drawn in long files before the temple-court
The Rajahs archers flank an ample space
Here moving onward still, they drive him near,
Then opening give him way to enter here.
Behold him, how he starts & flings his head!
On either side in glittering order spread
The archers ranged in narrowing lines appear;
The multitude behind close in the rear
With moon-like bend, & silently await
The rite that shall from Indra wrest his power.
In front, with far-stretchd walls & many a tower
Turret, & dome, & pinnacle, elate,
The huge pagoda seems to load the land;
And there before the gate
The Bramin band expectant stand,
The axe is ready for Kehamas hand.
Hark! from the Golden Palaces
The Bramin strikes the hour
One – two – three – four – thrice told he struck
One – two again; one more
Is wanting yet, twill soon be due; –
The Sun rides high, the noon is nigh,
And silently as if spell-bound
The multitude await the sound.

Lo how the steed with sudden start
Turns his quick head to every part,
Long files of men on every side appear, –
A sight might well his heart affright,
And yet the silence that is here
Inspires a stranger fear,
For not a murmur, not a sound
Of voice or motion rises round,
No stir is heard in all that mighty crowd;
He neighs, & from the temple-wall
The neigh re-echoes loud, –
Loud & distinct, as from a hill
Across a lonely dale when all is still.

Within the temple on his golden throne
Reclind, Kehama lies
Watching with steady eyes,
The measured light which burns before his sight
And marks the passing hours.
On either hand his eunuchs stand,
Freshening with fans of peacock-plumes the air,
Which redolent of all rich flowers
Seems overcharged with sweets, to stagnate there.
Lo the time-tapers flame ascending slow
Creeps up its coil toward the fated line.
Kehama rises & goes forth,
And from the altar where it lies
He takes the axe of sacrifice.

That instant from the crowd a man sprang out
To lay upon the steed his hand profane.
A thousand archers drew at him their bows
And with their shower of arrows filld the sky.
In vain they fall upon him fast as rain,
He bears a charmed life which may defy
All weapons, & the darts that round him fly,
As from an adamantine panoply
Repelld & blunted, drop & strew the ground.
Kehama claspd his hands in agony,
And saw him grasp the hallowed coursers mane,
Spring up with sudden bound,
And with a frantic cry
And madmans gesture gallop round & round.

They seize, they drag him to the Rajahs feet.
What doom will now be his? what vengeance meet
Will he who knows no mercy now require?
The obsequious guards around with blood-hound eye
Look for the word, in slow-consuming fire
By piece meal death to make the wretch expire,
Or hoist his living carcase hookd on high,
To feed the fowls & insects of the sky;
Or if aught worse inventive cruelty
To the remorseless heart of royalty
Might prompt, accursed instruments they stand
To work the wicked will with wicked hand.
Far other thoughts were in the multitude,
Pity & human feelings held them still;
And stifled sighs & groans supprest were there,
And many a secret curse & inward prayer
Calld on the insulted Gods to save mankind.
Expecting some new crime in fear they stood,
Some horror which would make the natural blood
Start; with cold shudderings thrill the sinking heart,
Whiten the lip, & make the abhorrent eye
Roll back & close, prest in for agony.
How then fared he for whom the mighty crowd
Suffered in spirit thus? – how then fared he? –
A ghastly smile was on his lip, his eye
Glared with a ghastly hope as he drew nigh
And cried aloud, yes Rajah, – it is I, –
And wilt thou kill me now?
The countenance of the Almighty Man
Fell when he knew Ladurlad, & his brow
Was clouded with despite as one asham’d.
That wretch again! indignant he exclaimd;
And smote his forehead, & stood silently
Awhile in wrath. Then with a savage smile,
Let him go free! he cried; he hath his curse,
And vengeance upon him can wreck no worse.
But ye who let him do it, – tremble ye!

He bade the archers pile their weapons there,
No manly courage filled the slavish band
No sweetening vengeance roused a brave despair.
He called his horsemen then & gave command
To hem the offenders in & hew them down.
Ten thousand scymetars at once upreard
Flash up, like waters flowing to the sun
A second time the fatal brands appear’d
Lifted aloft, – they glitterd then no more,
Their light was gone; their splendour quenchd {in gore.}
At noon the massacre begun
And night closed in before the work of death was done. [1] 

___________

My dear Wynn

You are perfectly right in all your objections to the plan of Kehama, which will I dare say be utterly uninteresting in its story to 999 readers out of a thousand. If I had not felt this, the poem would in all likelihood have been finished seven years ago, – but this feeling I had, – it prevented me from going on with the fragment, – & the fragment prevented me from beginning any thing else. Wm Taylor said as you say, – let it drop. Elmsley was the only person who said go on; the River Sharpe thought it was very extraordinary & liked it, – but Landor turnd the scale in its favour. – I am half way thro, & will finish it if it be only for him & my brother Tom. – Sympathy is clearly out of reach & out of sight – but if I do not excite astonishment, terror, & sometimes delight, the fault will be in the poetry not in the materials of the narrative. – That it will be published is by no means so certain. It is work of supererogation, & will bring my hand in for Pelayo, [2]  & for Robin Hood. [3] 

I am sorry for all your losses, reparable & irreparable. Your neighbours I suppose will benefit by one of them, inasmuch as you will of course indict the roads in due time for the future, & keep them in good order. These are serious things, & it is well it is no worse. – Were any of the MSS. unique? It is provoking to recollect what treasures have at various times been destroyed by fire, – & xxxxxxxxx to think that all {none of our} great libraries are yet made fire-proof.

Have you ever read Capt Beavers ‘African Memoranda’? [4]  I do not remember ever to have read a work which made me so compleatly fall in admiration with the author. I see he has the Acasta frigate at present, but such a man as that ought not to be up cooped on ship board. – I was not herald enough to detect Scotts blunders, nor did I think pay attention enough to the facts of his poem [5]  to discover the faulty chronology. The mixture of that kind of truth with fiction is abominable.

I will shortly tell you as much as I can about the plan of Pelayo, – that you may tell me what you think of the story, before thi I begin upon it. It will be written in blank verse, & pitched, upon the whole, in rather a higher key than Madoc. [6]  – There are four more sections of Kehama to be transcribed, – a good deal will be done to it hereafter in rounding the versification, & inlaying it with costume & description.

God bless you

RS.

Oct. 29. 1808


Notes

* Address: To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqr. M. P./ [deletions and readdress in another hand] Llangedwin/ Oswestry./ Wrexham
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Location: National Library of Wales, MS 4819E
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 485–487 (omitting section from Kehama). BACK

[1] Verse written in double columns; draft of Southey’s The Curse of Kehama (1810), Book 8. BACK

[2] An early name for the poem which became Roderick, Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

[3] Southey had begun to plan a romance on this subject in 1804; it was not until 1823 that he began drafting the verse, in collaboration with Caroline Bowles (1786–1854; DNB). The poem remained unfinished, and was published posthumously as a fragment in an edition by Bowles: Robin Hood: a Fragment by the Late Robert Southey and Caroline Southey, with other Fragments and Poems (1847). BACK

[4] Philip Beaver (1766–1813; DNB), naval officer, who in 1791 participated in a scheme for colonizing the island of Bulama, near Sierra Leone. The scheme failed and he returned in 1794, publishing his Bulama experiences in African Memoranda (1805). In 1806 he was appointed to the 40-gun frigate Acasta and in her went to the West Indies, where he remained until after the capture of Martinique in February 1809 (DNB). BACK

[5] Marmion (1808). BACK

[6] Madoc (1805). BACK

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August 2013