Dramatic Romances, by Robert Browning

“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”

(See Edgar’s song in “LEAR.”)

I

My first thought was, he lied in every word,

That hoary cripple, with malicious eye

Askance to watch the working of his lie

On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford

Suppression of the glee, that pursed and scored

Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.

II

What else should he be set for, with his staff?

What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare

10

All travellers who might find him posted there,

And ask the road? I guessed what skull-like laugh

Would break, what crutch ‘gin write my epitaph

For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,

III

If at his counsel I should turn aside

Into that ominous tract which, all agree

Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly

I did turn as he pointed: neither pride

Nor hope rekindling at the end descried

So much as gladness that some end might be.

IV

For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,

20

What with my search drawn out thro’ years, my hope

Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope

With that obstreperous joy success would bring,

I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring

My heart made, finding failure in its scope.

V

As when a sick man very near to death

Seems dead indeed, and feels begin and end

The tears and takes the farewell of each friend,

And hears one bid the other go, draw breath

Freelier outside (“since all is o’er,” he saith,

30

“And the blow fallen no grieving can amend”);

VI

While some discuss if near the other graves

Be room enough for this, and when a day

Suits best for carrying the corpse away,

With care about the banners, scarves and staves:

And still the man hears all, and only craves

He may not shame such tender love and stay.

VII

Thus, I had so long suffered in this quest,

Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ

So many times among “The Band”— to wit,

40

The knights who to the Dark Tower’s search addressed

Their steps — that just to fail as they, seemed best,

And all the doubt was now — should I be fit?

VIII

So, quiet as despair, I turned from him,

That hateful cripple, out of his highway

Into the path he pointed. All the day

Had been a dreary one at best, and dim

Was settling to its close, yet shot one grim

Red leer to see the plain catch its estray.

IX

For mark! no sooner was I fairly found

50

Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two,

Than, pausing to throw backward a last view

O’er the safe road, ’twas gone; grey plain all round:

Nothing but plain to the horizon’s bound.

I might go on; nought else remained to do.

X

So, on I went. I think I never saw

Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:

For flowers-as well expect a cedar grove!

But cockle, spurge, according to their law

Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,

60

You’d think; a burr had been a treasure trove.

XI

No! penury, inertness and grimace,

In some strange sort, were the land’s portion. “See

Or shut your eyes,” said Nature peevishly,

“It nothing skills: I cannot help my case:

’Tis the Last Judgment’s fire must cure this place,

Calcine its clods and set my prisoners free.”

XII

If there pushed any ragged thistle-stalk

Above its mates, the head was chopped; the bents

Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents

70

In the dock’s harsh swarth leaves, bruised as to baulk

All hope of greenness? ’tis a brute must walk

Pashing their life out, with a brute’s intents.

XIII

As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair

In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud

Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood.

One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,

Stood stupefied, however he came there:

Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud!

XIV

Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,

80

With that red gaunt and colloped neck a-strain,

And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;

Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;

I never saw a brute I hated so;

He must be wicked to deserve such pain.

XV

I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart.

As a man calls for wine before he fights,

I asked one draught of earlier, happier sights,

Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.

Think first, fight afterwards — the soldier’s art:

90

One taste of the old time sets all to rights.

XVI

Not it! I fancied Cuthbert’s reddening face

Beneath its garniture of curly gold,

Dear fellow, till I almost felt him fold

An arm in mine to fix me to the place

That way he used. Alas, one night’s disgrace!

Out went my heart’s new fire and left it cold.

XVII

Giles then, the soul of honour — there he stands

Frank as ten years ago when knighted first.

What honest man should dare (he said) he durst.

100

Good-=but the scene shifts — faugh! what hangman hands

Pin to his breast a parchment? His own bands

Read it. Poor traitor, spit upon and curst!

XVIII

Better this present than a past like that;

Back therefore to my darkening path again!

No sound, no sight as far as eye could strain.

Will the night send a howlet or a bat?

I asked: when something on the dismal flat

Came to arrest my thoughts and change their train.

XIX

A sudden little river crossed my path

110

As unexpected as a serpent comes.

No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms;

This, as it frothed by, might have been a bath

For the fiend’s glowing hoof — to see the wrath

Of its black eddy bespate with flakes and spumes.

XX

So petty yet so spiteful! All along,

Low scrubby alders kneeled down over it

Drenched willows flung them headlong in a fit

Of mute despair, a suicidal throng:

The river which had done them all the wrong,

120

Whate’er that was, rolled by, deterred no whit.

XXI

Which, while I forded — good saints, how I feared

To set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek,

Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek

For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard!

— It may have been a water-rat I speared,

But, ugh! it sounded like a baby’s shriek.

XXII

Glad was I when I reached the other bank.

Now for a better country. Vain presage!

Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage,

130

Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank

Soil to a plash? Toads in a poisoned tank,

Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage —

XXIII

The fight must so have seemed in that fell cirque.

What penned them there, with all the plain to choose?

No foot-print leading to that horrid mews,

None out of it. Mad brewage set to work

Their brains, no doubt, like galley-slaves the Turk

Pits for his pastime, Christians against Jews.

XXIV

And more than that — a furlong on — why, there!

140

What bad use was that engine for, that wheel,

Or brake, not wheel — that harrow fit to reel

Men’s bodies out like silk? with all the air

Of Tophet’s tool, on earth left unaware

Or brought to sharpen its rusty teeth of steel.

XXV

Then came a bit of stubbed ground, once a wood,

Next a marsh, it would seem, and now mere earth

Desperate and done with; (so a fool finds mirth,

Makes a thing and then mars it, till his mood

Changes and off he goes!) within a rood —

150

Bog, clay and rubble, sand and stark black dearth.

XXVI

Now blotches rankling, coloured gay and grim,

Now patches where some leanness of the soil’s

Broke into moss or substances like boils;

Then came some palsied oak, a cleft in him

Like a distorted mouth that splits its rim

Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils.

XXVII

And just as far as ever from the end!

Nought in the distance but the evening, nought

To point my footstep further! At the thought

160

A great black bird, Apollyon’s bosom-friend,

Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned

That brushed my cap — perchance the guide I sought.

XXVIII

For, looking up, aware I somehow grew,

‘Spite of the dusk, the plain had given place

All round to mountains — with such name to grace

Mere ugly heights and heaps now stolen in view.

How thus they had surprised me — solve it, you!

How to get from them was no clearer case.

XXIX

Yet half I seemed to recognize some trick

170

Of mischief happened to me, God knows when —

In a bad dream perhaps. Here ended, then,

Progress this way. When, in the very nick

Of giving up, one time more, came a click

As when a trap shuts — you’re inside the den!

XXX

Burningly it came on me all at once,

This was the place! those two hills on the right

Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight;

While to the left, a tall scalped mountain . . . Dunce,

Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,

180

After a life spent training for the sight!

XXXI

What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?

The round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart,

Built of brown stone, without a counterpart

In the whole world. The tempest’s mocking elf

Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf

He strikes on, only when the timbers start.

XXXII

Not see? because of night perhaps? — why, day

Came back again for that! before it left,

The dying sunset kindled through a cleft:

190

The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay,

Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay —

“Now stab and end the creature — to the heft!”

XXXIII

Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it tolled

Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears

Of all the lost adventurers my peers —

How such a one was strong, and such was bold,

And such was fortunate, yet each of old

Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years.

XXXIV

There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met

200

To view the last of me, a living frame

For one more picture! in a sheet of flame

I saw them and I knew them all. And yet

Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,

And blew. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.”

“Childe Roland” symbolizes the conquest of despair by fealty to the ideal. Browning emphatically disclaimed any precise allegorical intention in this poem. He acknowledged only an ideal purport in which the significance of the whole, as suggesting a vision of life and the saving power of constancy, had its due place. Certain picturesque materials which had made their impressions on the poet’s mind contributed towards the building up of this realistic fantasy: a tower he saw in the Carrara Mountains; a painting which caught his eye later in Paris; the figure of a horse in the tapestry in his own drawing-room — welded together with the remembrance of the line cited from King Lear, iii. 4, 187, which last, it should be remembered, has a background of ballads and legend cycles of which a man like Browning was not unaware. For allegorical schemes of the Poem see Nettleship’s “Essays and Thoughts,” and The Critic, Apr. 24, 1886; for an antidote to these, The Critic, May 8, 1886; an orthodox view, Poet-lore, Nov. 1890: for interpretations touching on the ballad sources, London Browning Society Papers, part iii. p. 21, and Poet-lore, Aug.-Sept. 1892.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32