The Curse of Kehama

Lorrinite the evil sorceress.

Lorrinite the evil sorceress.

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.)

  • Dragons
  • Tigers
  • Curses
  • Vengeance
  • 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
  • Dancing

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.

Quote:

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.

Belinda

Lady Delacour before the masquerade.

Lady Delacour before the masquerade.

Belinda, Maria Edgeworth, 1801

I want to wake Maria Edgeworth from the dead so I can high five her for writing Belinda.  That’s how much I love this book.  After months of slogging through the dry, dense and dull literature of the 1700s, my faith in novels has been restored!  I truly enjoyed reading this book.  This is the first novel on the list that is more entertaining than edifying.  Forgive me, but if I must learn something from a novel, I prefer a tiny kernel of knowledge or understanding swimming in a sea of delightful characters, thrilling plot, well-crafted prose and/or hilarity.

Let me tell you a little bit about this book.  Belinda is a young girl in her first London season.  She is pretty and pure of heart.  I know, I know, I have been complaining about this character prototype for months.  The title character is not what makes this book great.  Lil’ Belinda is staying with Lady Delacour, a fashionable woman who knows all sorts of potential husbands.  Lady Delacour is a complicated and relatable character with more than the 1-3 personality traits allowed to characters in earlier novels.  She is by far the most active and opinionated female character I have encountered on the Book List so far.  One of the most admirable traits for a lady in this era was “simplicity” meaning that she had no hidden designs behind her actions.  Well, Lady Delacour has all kinds of hidden designs.  She has secrets and schemes.  Belinda is not actually about Belinda, but about the rise, fall and redemption of Lady Delacour.

The male lead is also fascinating.  I know Jane Austen fans are numerous and fierce, but I am going to go ahead and compare her disfavorably to Maria Edgeworth now.  I have a hard time feeling invested in the outcome of a Jane Austen novel.  Austen tells instead of showing.  She describes a character’s traits, but we don’t get to see those traits in action much.  For example, why am I supposed to be happy about Elinor’s marriage in Sense and Sensibility?  What do I know about her husband?  Almost nothing.  Elinor’s lover does not complete a single action in the course of the novel until he proposes.  So, why on earth would I be rooting for their love?  Belinda’s lover does all kinds of stuff.  He gets in and out of trouble.  He forms friendships.  He demonstrates over and over that he is better than everyone at every possible competition, but he still has flaws.  He hatches a mind-bogglingly hair-brained scheme that I will not give away right now, because at least one person (Simone) will read this book after reading this review.  I love him and I want him to be happy, because I am invested in him as a character.

The plot of this novel kicks the pants off all preceding novels in English.  ALL OF THEM.  I actually called out in alarm during the climactic scenes.  I hope you Austenites can forgive me for the thoughts above, because I think you would really like this book.  Edgeworth was a major influence on Austen and I find their style quite similar in ways.  Check out this first paragraph:

Mrs. Stanhope, a well-bred woman, accomplished in that branch of knowledge which is called the art of rising in the world, had, with but a small fortune, contrived to live in the highest company.  She prided herself upon having established half a dozen nieces most happily, that is to say, upon having married them to men of fortunes far superior to their own.  One niece still remained unmarried—Belinda Portman—of whom she was determined to get rid with all convenient expedition.  Belinda was handsome, graceful, sprightly, and highly accomplished; her aunt had endeavored to teach her that a young lady’s chief business is to please in society, that all her charms and accomplishments should be invariably subservient to one grand object—establishing herself in the world.

Boom!  Sounds Austen-y, right?  We know so much about the situation and disposition of these two characters already, huh?  You want to read the next paragraph, don’t you?  I know you do.  Here it is:

Mrs. Stanhope did not find Belinda such a docile pupil as her other nieces, for she had been educated chiefly in the country; she had early been inspired with a taste for domestic pleasures; she was fond of reading and disposed to conduct herself with prudence and integrity.  Her character, however, was yet to be developed by circumstance. 

OMG, she likes reading?  Me too!  What is going to happen to her undeveloped character when her prudence and integrity are tested by her aunt’s pressure to please society and marry rich?  Read Belinda to find out!

I can’t get over how much I love this book.  Two more points and I’ll stop raving.  Edgeworth uses doubling really well, which is a device well-loved by Russian authors in which characters have doppelgangers who represent alternate fates.  Actually, the more I think about it, Edgeworth doesn’t exactly use doubles.  You could say that Lady Percival and Harriet Freke are doubles for Lady Delacour, but that would make Lady Delacour and Lady Percival doubles for Belinda.  (Yeah, I know “triples” would be more accurate.  Whatever.)  More precisely, Edgeworth creates a web of characters that represent the possible life choices for women during this era.  She uses this web to illustrate and analyze the influences, traits and decisions that make a woman into either a domestic goddess or a dissipated lady of fashion.

I should note that Belinda was controversial for depicting an interracial marriage.  This was edited out of later versions.  Edgeworth’s treatment of race is complicated.  The interracial marriage is progressive, but there’s a clownish African servant minor character and some not so progressive minor Jewish characters too.  A Jewish fan wrote to Edgeworth complaining about her depiction of Jews and Edgeworth responded by writing Harrington, which has the first sympathetic Jewish character in English literature.  So. . .yeah.

You might like Belinda if:

  • you like George Elliot. 
  • you like Jane Austen.
  • you like British humor.

You might not like Belinda if:

  • you are not into classic literature at all.  In which case, you are probably not reading this sentence. 

Final thoughts: I am stumped as to why I was forced to read Pride and Prejudice twice in school, but no one even told me about Maria Edgeworth.  This book is wonderful.  You should read it.

Lyrical Ballads

Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

Notable for:

  • initiating the Romantic Era in literature. 
  • containing the first known Public Service Announcement about albatross curses.

In 1798 Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth wanted to go on a walking tour of the Lake District in northern England.  Their conversation went something like this:

Wordsworth: Would you like to go on vacation?

Coleridge: Yes, but I haven’t any money.

Wordsworth: Hmm.  Shall we write some poems?

Coleridge: That will surely provide the necessary funds.

So they each wrote some poems and published a little volume called Lyrical Ballads.  The publication funded their walking tour and launched a new era in English literature.  Jealous?  Are you wishing you were a Romantic poet and this was your life?  I wish that.  Almost every day.

IMG_0365

In 1800 Wordsworth produced a second, highly modified, version of Lyrical Ballads.  He removed the best poem in the original volume, Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”  I read both versions.  “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” is a ballad about a sailor who shoots an albatross. Why? Why!  Killing the bird dooms the entire crew.  Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that they spend some time undead and the mariner must spend eternity spreading the message “Did you know that the gods love the albatross?  Well they do, so don’t mess with them!”  It is creepy and wonderful and one of my favorite poems.

The majority of the remaining poems are by Wordsworth.  It took me a long time to get through this volume, because I have a limited attention span for Wordsworth.  He was dedicated to making poetry more accessible to the Joe Plumbers of his time by using simpler language than his predecessors with their predilection for ornate style, classical references and sporadic Middle English phrases.  Ironically, I don’t find Wordsworth all that relatable.  In poems such as “The Female Vagrant,” “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman” and “Song for the wandering Jew” Wordsworth writes from the perspective of common people, but ends up romanticizing and dramatizing their experiences so thoroughly that the poems feel disingenuous and bizarre. I mentioned before that I think his attempts to emulate Robert Burns failed.   Wordworth wanted to write about being a poor farmer, but he was not a poor farmer so his odes to poverty and rural living lack Burns’ sincerity and vitality.  Wordsworth is much better when he writes about his own experiences, as in “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey.”  You can probably tell that good old WW is not my favorite Romantic poet (Keats! Coleridge!), but I found myself enjoying “Tintern Abbey” immensely.  I was actually inspired by the sentiment contained in the poem, and I can definitely relate to Wordsworth’s description of himself recalling scenes of natural beauty to ease his mind whilst in the city.  I do that.

C

You may like Lyrical Ballads if:

  • you love Romantic poetry.
  • you are interested in the origin of the Romantic movement.

You may not like Lyrical Ballads if:

  • you are not a huge fan of William Wordsworth.

Final Thoughts: This is an incredibly important work in the history of English literature.  If you’re a literature nerd, you should read it.  If you’re more casual in your poetry reading, you would probably prefer selected poems by these two authors.

The Mysteries of Udolpho

Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe, 1794

Notable for:

  • providing the prototype for the Gothic novel.
  • influencing later authors including Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe.

I am the only one who will suffer if I turn out to be wrong about this, so I’m gonna go ahead and say it: this is the worst piece of literature on the Book List.  This has to be the nadir of my journey through the English canon.  I just don’t understand how Poe and Austen could have taken this as an influence and gone on to write anything worthwhile.  It’s so bad in so many ways! Ughghghghgh.

Radcliffe does one thing (only) well.  Her descriptions of European scenery are lovely.  As a young reader I was always tempted to skip over descriptive passages.  Who cares about the sunset; get back to the plot.  As a mature reader, I could read that stuff all day.  Tell me more about the shadows on the mountains!  Dear author, please continue surveying the shrubs that grow in the region you chose for the setting of your novel.  If you don’t have infinite patience and appreciation for details of landscape, there is nothing for you in The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Everything else sucks.  Plot, pacing, characterization all suck.  So much.

I just tried to summarize the plot for you, but I got too filled with rage.  These bullet points on why I hate this book will have to suffice:

  • Plot movement is stiflingly, exhaustingly slow.  So many scenes and plot lines could be eliminated with no effect on the overall story.
  • The protagonist, Emily St. Aubert sucks so much.  Every time something happens to her she faints.  Which means that every scene takes three to a billion times longer than necessary, because Radcliffe pauses the action every few sentences to inform the reader that Emily has yet again fainted and been revived.  Here’s an example of how a scene in this book might go:

Random Character: I have bad news.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: Your father has died.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: He asked you to burn all of his journals.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: He asked to be buried in the monastery nearby.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

  • Swooning is not an acceptable response to danger.  Very ineffective.  This would be a better story if the first time Emily swoons she gets eaten by a wolf.
  • Radcliffe’s idea of mystery and suspense is to withhold all of the interesting information until the last 20 of 600 pages.  For example, Emily sees something really scary and of course passes out.  Radcliffe waits another 300 pages to explain what she saw.  That would an acceptable literary device if those 300 pages contained anything else compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest.  But they don’t.
  • Characterization is weak.  Radcliffe just tells you that the villain, Montoni, has a mean look in his eye.  She does nothing else to make him seem scary.  He doesn’t actually do anything too frightening until about page 400.  Yet, Emily swoons 50 times from fear of him before page 400.
  • All the supernatural phenomena are explained in the end.  Just like an episode of “Scooby Doo,” the ghosts turn out to be dudes in costumes.  I like my ghosts to be scary ass ghosts, not just regular guys wearing cloaks.  I liked “Scooby Doo” as a kid, but I always hoped that just once the swamp monster wouldn’t take of his scales and confess to being a local businessman.
  • I have to stop.  This book fails in many other ways, but I’m losing interest so you must be too.

Final thoughts: Don’t read it.

Charlotte Temple

So downtrodden.

So downtrodden.

Charlotte Temple, Susanna Rowson, 1794

Notable for:

  • being the most popular American novel until Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  What?  Yes!  And you’d never heard of it, huh?

Charlotte Temple is another of those morality tales for women.  Just like Evelina and Clarissa it warns of the danger that seductive men pose to innocent, susceptible ladies.  Charlotte Temple, however, is much more susceptible than either Evelina or Clarissa.  Those venerable ladies mount sustained resistance to their would-be seducers.  Charlotte just gets confused and does whatever the closest person to her tells her to do.  Sigh.

Poor Charlotte is pretty English girl of just fifteen when Mademoiselle La Rue, a teacher at her boarding school, colludes in her seduction by a handsome young soldier named Montraville.  Her teacher!  Outrage!  La Rue is evil.  Charlotte, La Rue and Montraville go to America.  Montraville really does love Charlotte at first, but he abandons her to marry someone rich, as you do.  When he finds out that Charlotte is with child he sends some money through a f(r)iend who pockets the money and tries to seduce the ruined Charlotte himself.  Our downtrodden protagonist, pining for her loving and morally upright family back in England, appeals to La Rue.  The conversation goes something like this:

Charlotte: It’s pretty much your fault that I’m here.  Can you help get me out of this mess by buying me passage back to England?

La Rue: Whatever.  I’m busy with trying to marry this gullible rich guy and sleeping around.  Also, you’re poor and gross and a buzzkill.  Get off my porch.

I would not call Charlotte Temple a great work of literature by any means, but it is my favorite of the 18th century seduction novels that I read, mostly because it is mercifully brief at only 82 pages.  That leaves little, but still some, room for preaching.  Rowson writes in a melodramatic style that is laughable, but entertaining.

Here’s an example:

“’Oh, my father!’ cried Miss Eldridge, tenderly taking his hand, ‘be not anxious on that account for daily are my prayers offered to heaven that our lives may terminate at the same instant, and one grave receive us both; for why should I live when deprived of my one friend.’”

This novel contains some truly, gut-wrenchingly sexist sentiment.  Rowson describes Charlotte’s mother’s face as “tempered so sweetly with the meek affection and submissive duty of the wife.”  My apologies if you lose your lunch after reading that.  Here’s another piece of drivel, “Look, my dear friends, at yonder lovely Virgin, arrayed in a white robe devoid of ornament; behold the meekness of her gait; her handmaids are Humility, Filial Piety, Conjugal Affection, Industry, and Benevolence; her name is CONTENT.”  See ladies, the path to happiness is filial piety, even if your dad is an asshole.

You might like Charlotte Temple if:

  • you like books that are short.
  • you like melodrama.
  • you have a strong stomach when it comes to sexism.

 

You might not like Charlotte Temple if:

  • the quotes above made you queasy.

Final thoughts: I am so glad I’m done reading 18th century literature.  This genre of novel is worthless.  Worthless!  I find it hard to care about the astoundingly avoidable problems of the 18th century female literary heroine.  If Charlotte’s parents had just switched this conversation:

Parents: Stay away from men.

Charlotte: Why?

Parents: We can’t tell you.  It’s indelicate.  We must protect your innocence.

for this conversation:

Parents: Stay away from men.

Charlotte: Why?

Parents: They are rascals.  They will make you think they love you and then abandon you pregnant in the New World.

Charlotte: What does “pregnant” mean?

Parents: Take a seat, this may take a while.

none of this nonsense would have happened.

Sarah Wentworth Morton

http://www.sydneyreadseverything.wordpress.com

 

Sarah Wentworth Morton, poems, late 1700s

Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton was such a popular poetess in her day that she earned the moniker “American Sappho.”  If you have read any Sappho, you will understand the magnitude of that compliment.  As a native Bostonian, Morton’s poems contain distinctly American subject matter.   I read just two of her poems, the epic Ouabi and her most remembered work The African Chief. 

The African Chief is a stridently anit-slavery poem.  Morton laments the death of a captured African chief.

Ouabi is an epic poem in four cantos.  The story is essentially that of the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot  if Lancelot were a strapping young European who abandons society to wander in the North American wilderness and is taken in by a kind, wise and powerful Indian chief.  The Lancelot figure then of course falls in love with the chief’s lovely bride.  Drama ensues.  Morton’s compassionate yet romanticized view of Native Americans is certainly out of date and may be why this poem has been largely forgotten.  However, she writes incredibly beautiful verse.  Her meter and rhyme are impeccable and unlike Freneau, the last poet reviewed on this blog, she achieves lovely style without needing to twist her sentences into Yoda-like syntax.

A Quote from Ouabi:

Her limbs were straighter than the mountain pine,

Her hair far blacker than the raven’s wing;

Beauty had lent her form the waving line,

Her breath gave fragrance to the balmy spring.

You might like the poetry of Sarah Wentworth Morton if:

  • you like epic poems.
  • you are interested in 18th century attitudes toward minorities.

You might not like the poetry of Sarah Wentworth Morton if

  • you are offended by 18th century attitudes toward minorities.

Final thoughts: Morton writes beautiful poetry.  Her subject matter is controversial and whether you find her perspective refreshing (she’s obviously in favor of better treatment of minorities) or offensive, her poems are certain to arouse some uncomfortable feelings.

Phillip Freneau

the death of Death

Phillip Freneau, poems, late 1700s

Notable for being:

  • the “Poet of the American Revolution.”
  • a proto-Romantic.
  • an originator of the Gothic genre in poetry.

Phillip Freneau’s epithet, Poet of the American Revolution, makes him sound more exciting than he is.  I think he is more notable for what he wrote about than how well he wrote.  He published anti-British poems, which was a big deal at the time, but they don’t hold much interest now as Americans no longer need to be persuaded against being a British colony.  I’ll tell you about a few of his poems.

The Wild Honey Suckle is your typical Romantic “flowers are pretty, life is fleeting” type of poem.

The Indian Burying Ground romanticizes the Native American method of burying the dead in a seated rather than reclining position.  Freneau is for it, because instead of sending the dead off to eternal rest, one sends them to sit among their friends.  I don’t know. It’s tough to relate to the 18th century attitude toward Native Americans.  I’m not a fan.

The House of Night is my favorite of the Freneau pieces that I read, but I don’t love it.  The poem consists of 136 quatrains with an ABCB rhyme scheme.  The narrator relates the tale of a spooky adventure that befell him when he was out walking one night.  He wanders into a garden and then into a house where Death himself lays dying.  Our narrator speaks with Death for a while, who fears his approaching demise as he is worried that he won’t get into heaven.  Really.  The poem ends with a description of Death’s funeral and all the spooks that attend.  It’s not the best poem I have ever read in terms of style, but I like the supernatural subject matter.  The narrator views the death of Death as a good thing, but I’m not sure it wouldn’t result in zombie apocalypse.  Freneau is the first truly American author on this list, which is pleasant because when our narrator describes the trilling of a bird it is a North American bird and he mentions the Chesapeake, which is a body of water that I know.  Feels nice.

Quote:

Dim burnt the lamp, and now the phantom Death

Gave his last groans in horror and despair —

“All hell demands me hence,” — he said, and threw

The red lamp hissing through the midnight air.

You have to admit “All hell demands me hence,” is a pretty great thing to say.

You might like the poetry of Phillip Freneau if:

  • you read all of Wordsworth and are looking for yet further poems about flowers.
  • you like ghost stories.

You might not like the poetry of Phillip Freneau if:

  • you are offended by the “Noble Savage” attitude.
  • you are offended by mediocre poetry.

Final thoughts: No, I did not completely mess up the carpals and metacarpals!  Death has abnormal anatomy specialized for clutching the soul from your body.  Duh.