The Curse of Kehama, Robert Southey, 1810
So here I am reading about poets on Wikipedia as I am wont to do and I see something about a Robert Southey. He was one of the Romantics and part of the Lake Poet group that includes Wordsworth and Coleridge. Despite holding the title Poet Laureate for 30 years, he is not so well known today. I was thinking of skipping him until I saw his poem titled “The Curse of Kehama.” Well, if there’s a curse, I’m in! I prefer sorcery and mystical beasts in my literature.
Let me tell you gang, this poem has it all! (I want to you read this list in your most enthusiastic voice, so you get an impression of how excited I am about this poem.)
- Sea monsters
- Elephant gods
- Statues that come to life
- An evil sorceress
- A ghost
- A trip to the underworld
- Romance between a mortal and some sort of demi-god with wings Wings!
- Underdogs overcoming the odds
- Many-armed deities
- An underwater temple
- Potential apocalypse
- A tyrant
I mean, dang. “The Curse of Kehama” is kind of a Frankenstein’s monster of a poem. It is an incredibly long epic poem, about 250 pages. Let me define that term for all you non-English majors. An epic poem is simply a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds and victory over some sinister force. Southey sets the action in India, but the poem contains a hodgepodge of Hindu, Greek, Christian and Zoroastrian mythology. Or so I read; I wouldn’t recognize Zoroastrian mythology if it appeared before me incarnate. Unlike many poets, Southey does not stick to any one meter, rhyme scheme or stanza length. Which is fine by me.
Kehama is a powerful sorcerer and raja. The poem begins with the funeral of his son, Arvalan, who was killed by a peasant, Ladurlad, when Arvalan tried to force himself on Ladurlad’s daughter. Arvalan’s character is not improved by death. He makes a nasty ghost. Kehama curses Ladurlad to a life of perpetual agony. He is constantly in pain and can seek no relief. Wind, water, fire and even plants shun him. He is also immune to blows from weapons, so he can’t escape his curse through death. Do you see what Kehama did there? He inadvertently turned Ladurlad into an unstoppable superhero who can walk into fire, withstand any assault and go to the bottom of the ocean. Dummy.
Com’st thou, son, for aid to me ?
Tell me who have injur’d thee,
Where they are, and who they be;
Of the Earth, or of the Sea,
Or of the aerial company
Earth, nor Sea, nor Air is free
From the powers who wait on me,
And my tremendous witchery.
That’s the kind of mother I am going to be. Did someone mess with you, child? I will jack them up with witchcraft!
You might like “The Curse of Kehama” if:
- you’re into fantasy. Don’t lie, you are. You’ve seen the “Lord of the Rings” series ten times.
You might not like “The Curse of Kehama” if:
- you don’t have the patience for epic poetry.
Final thoughts: This poem is amazing. I loved it so much I almost put a dozen “o”s in the word “loved” in this sentence. If you have any interest in epic poetry, you should give it a whirl. It’s so much fun.