- Dickens and Southey: The Mystery of Edwin Drood and The Curse of Kehama
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, begins with a chapter titled “The Dawn.” It opens as follows:
An ancient English Cathedral town? How can the ancient English Cathedral town be here! The well-known massive grey square tower of its old Cathedral? How can that be here! There is no spike of rusty iron in the air, between the eye and it, from any point of the real prospect. What IS the spike that intervenes, and who has set it up? Maybe, it is set up by the Sultan’s orders for the impaling of a horde of Turkish robbers, one by one. It is so, for cymbals clash, and the Sultan goes by to his palace in long procession. Ten thousand scimitars flash in the sunlight, and thrice ten thousand dancing-girls strew flowers. Then, follow white elephants caparisoned in countless gorgeous colors, and infinite in number and attendants. Still, the Cathedral Tower rises in the background, where it cannot be, and still no writhing figure is on the grim spike. Stay! Is the spike so low a thing as the rusty spike on the top of a post of an old bedstead that has tumbled all awry? Some vague period of drowsy laughter must be devoted to the consideration of this possibility.(7; ch. 1)
This first paragraph sketches the delirium of John Jasper, who is lying on a bed in an opium den in London’s East End, dreaming of Cloisterham Cathedral, where he works as a Choirmaster, although here fantastically envisioned as under siege by the Orient. Critics have read this passage alongside the Arabian Nights (first English language version 1706) and James Ridley’s Tales of the Genii (1764), both texts which Dickens read in his youth and which were known influences on his work. As Wendy S. Jacobson puts it, this paragraph seemingly “conflates characteristic elements in all the tales” [End Page 262] (19), rather than alluding to any one story or passage in particular.1 What has so far been missed, however, is the fact that this passage does contain a specific allusion, although it is neither to the Arabian Nights nor Tales of the Genii, but to Robert Southey’s epic poem, The Curse of Kehama (1810).
We know that Dickens owned the 1818 two volume edition of Southey’s poem (Stonehouse 103), and we also know from his diaries that he read the epic in 1839. In an entry dated Saturday 9th February, Dickens noted a visit to London’s Zoological Gardens, then “home to dinner. Alone all the evening, reading Curse of Kehama and thinking about Nickleby” (Letters 1: 640). The conjunction here is ambiguous, but it offers the possibility that Southey’s poem may also have played into his thought while writing Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39).2 What appears likely is that Southey’s poetry was in his mind during the period Dickens composed The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In a note published in 1985, Susan Shatto pointed out that both of the names of Dickens’s murderer seem to have been based on his reading one of Southey’s ballads, “Jaspar.” First published in The Morning Post, May 1798, the ballad narrates the tale of an eponymous murderer and of another character, Jonathan, whom Jaspar seeks to involve in his schemes. In the ballad, the body of Jaspar’s victim is thrown in the river, just as the river is dredged for Edwin’s body, without success, in Dickens’s novel, and Southey ends the poem with his murderer Jaspar going insane.3 Moreover, the character of Jonathan in Southey’s ballad, in refusing to collaborate with Jaspar, functions as his alter-ego, a point which recalls the unwritten ending of Edwin Drood. The novel’s design, revealed to John Forster and recorded in his Life of Charles Dickens, was to be the story of the murder of a nephew by his uncle, and that its original was to consist
in the review of the murderer’s career by himself at the close, when its temptations...