Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 10. The Curse of Kehama

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

VIII. Southey

§ 10. The Curse of Kehama

It might not be a bad question from the point of view of the arrest of hasty criticism: “What rank would you have accorded to Southey as a poet, if he had left no long poem but the best parts of Thalaba and The Curse of Kehama, and no short ones but the half-dozen ballads and lyrics noticed above?” It is difficult to see how even the positive verdict could have been anything but a very high estimate indeed; while nine critics out of ten would probably have added that “If Southey had been permitted or had cared to pursue poetry further, there is no knowing, etc.” In almost all respects but one, Kehama is invulnerable. The verse stanzas of the Thalaba kind, but longer, more varied and rimed, are extremely effective. The story, in itself, is interesting and well managed; the conclusion is positively dramatic; the characters have at least epic, if not dramatic, sufficiency. As for pure poetry of execution, anybody who denies this to the curse itself, to Landor’s favourite picture of the “gem-lighted city” and to a dozen other passages, is either blind by nature or has made himself so by prejudice. But the one excepted point remains—the injudicious choice of subject and the attempt to make it more acceptable by a mass of quasi-learned notes. It is said by Englishmen who have taught orientals that, to them, if you can elicit their genuine feeling, western romance, especially of the supernatural kind, appears simply absurd—the most passionate passages evoking shouts of laughter. It is certain that, except in the rarest cases and under the most skilful treatment, Hindu romance, especially of the supernatural kind, has, to western readers, an element not so much of absurdity as of extravagance and boredom which it is possible for very few to get over. That, and that only, is the weak point of The Curse of Kehama.