Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Poetics of Perception in Southey's the Curse of Kehama and Byron's the Giaour

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Poetics of Perception in Southey's the Curse of Kehama and Byron's the Giaour

Article excerpt

When considering Byron and Southey's poetic relationship, it is difficult to avoid the bitingly funny satire of the "Dedication" to Don Juan, where Byron labels the older poet insular, impotent, and insolent, among other things. Despite the suppression of the "Dedication," pirated copies and literary gossip ensured that Southey knew of Byron's scalding portrait of him, as Emily Lorraine de Montluzin suggests in "Southey's 'Satanic School' Remarks: An Old Charge for a New Offender" (29). Southey's rejoinder, to brand Byron and several of his generation as "The Satanic School," has, aside from provoking Byron into writing 'The Vision. of Judgment, attracted much derision from scholars who find Southey's epical machinery, to misquote Byron, "drowsy, frowzy, and their aversion" (Don Juan Canto 3, stanza 94; in Byron: the. Major Works). Yet, as Herbert Tucker convincingly shows in his "Southey the Epic-Headed," "If Southey had not been comparatively good, he would never have drawn out Byron's best in those satirical volleys that were undertaken, at bottom, in order to reprehend not the want of talent but its wastage." Byron recognized the poet in Southey, even if the feeling was not mutual; even amidst Byron's most devastating stanzas in the "Dedication," he admits of the Lake School that "You're shabby fellows--true--but poets still,/ And duly seated on the immortal hill" (Don Juan "Dedication" 6). Southey, the so-called shabby poet, was a strong influence on the young Shelley, and Byron too benefited from his epical experiments. Not only did Byron develop the Orientalist flavor of The Curse of Kehama and Thalaba the Destroyer, Southey also offered Byron a model of perception, heroism, and formal arrangement, both to reject and to adopt, that influenced the younger poet's work throughout his career.

The Curse of Kehama shows Southey displaying some of his most interesting presentations of perception, as he manipulates the reader's impressions with skilful ease. As Michael O'Neill shows in his essay "Southey and Shelley Reconsidered," Kehama's curse on Ladurlad is "one of the finest and most-neglected passages of first-generation Romantic poetry," yet I would extend this praise, and suggest, that the power of Kehama's curse is built to such an incantatory crescendo by Ladurlad's plea for mercy. Kehama's curse required Ladurlad's desperate appeal to bring it to the pinnacle of poetic achievement. Southey's juxtaposition of Ladurlad's all too human speech with Kehama's relentlessly evil curse heightens the dramatic tension of the poetry, as the poignancy of Ladurlad's speech is heightened by Kehama's evil, just as the reader's perception of Kehama's malevolence is increased by Ladulad's tremulous vulnerability:

  But while the fearful silence yet endur'd,
    Ladurlad rous'd his soul;
    Ere yet the voice of destiny
  Which trembled on the Rajah's lips was loos'd
    Eager he interposed, ...
  As if despair had waken'd him to hope;
  Mercy! oh mercy! ... only in defence ...
    Only instinctively, ...
  Only to save my child, I smote the Prince;
    King of the world, be merciful!
    Crush me, ... but torture not!
    (Book 2, lines 125-35: in Kehama)

The alternating line lengths, as they move between pentameter, trimeter, and tetrameter, witness the terror and disorder of Ladurlad's mental state. His plea, some six lines into the eleven line stanza, reveals the depths of Ladurlad's wide-eyed panic. The five line speech contains four exclamation marks, and several caesuras, as Southey draws attention to the fractured and desperate hope Ladurlad harbors within. Far from seeming like an obvious poetic device, Southey captures the rhythms of human speech, and the discombobulating effect of fear on the voice.

In contrast to this mixture of line lengths and strained rhymes, kehama's curse, as it invests a. swaying mysticism into its short trimeter lines, seems a paradigm of poetic power, like the "one portentous glare" made by the ten thousand torches that blots out the lights of heaven at the poem's opening, the self-contained force of Kehama's words swallows up Ladurlad's plea, overpowering him and the reader as he recites his curse:

    I charm thy life
  From the weapons of strife,
  From stone and from wood,
  From fire and from flood,
  From the serpent's tooth,
  And the beasts of blood:
  From Sickness I charm thee,
  And Time shall not harm thee;
  But Earth which is mine,
  Its fruits shall deny thee;
  And Water shall hear me,
  And know thee and fly thee;
  And the Winds shall not touch thee
    When they pass by thee,
  (Book 2, lines 144-57)

Southey's use of repetition makes the curse seem simple, yet its complexity lies in the bareness of its phrasing. …

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