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Typo... and some more thoughts

by Arnold_the_Frog, September 01, 2012

46 out of 102 people found this helpful

"Not best" should be "Nor beat".
I've seen this in Stephen King's citation of the poem at the end of _The Dark Tower_ too.
I read it, went into a mental tail-spin, and worked out what it ought to be just before I
gave up and looked it up (I was right).

... and "stupified" should be "stupefied".

Curious that the commentator doesn't reference Spenser, who is surely the godfather
in English of poems about knightly quests! Indeed, the reference to the Holy Grail
seems in the notes seems like a mere wild shot in the dark. Carbonek may be hard
to get to, and "without a counterpart" (unless one thinks of Sarras), but it's not described
as windowless ("blind as the fool's heart"). Roland has clearly spent a significant portion
of his life ("dotard" suggests a very significant portion of a long life) pursuing the road which
has led to the Dark Tower, and he sees himself in a long succession of people with the same
aim. The categories he chooses for "the lost adventurers" - strong, bold, fortunate - don't
apply obviously to a spiritual quest - they would simply mark Roland as clueless, and we
don't have a basis for conveniently saying that he doesn't understand what he's looking
for at least as well as we do.

What else can we tell? The nature of Cuthbert's "one night's disgrace" isn't quite
clear - it hints very faintly at sexual rivalry: but whose fault was that? Giles is called a
"traitor", but then he's called "the soul of honour", too. I take it that he is hanging on a
gallows, with a paper of his guilt attached: but that means, of course, that someone else
has had the last word. Is Roland a reliable judge? I think it's clear that he isn't.

Presumably the setting says *something* to Browning about his own circumstances,
but why think of the poem (rather unnaturally?) as being set in modern times?
Why not think of "My Last Duchess" as contemporary with, say, The Leopard?
"Claus of Innsbruck" doesn't help (apparently, there never was one).
I hardly think so. The displacement into a world of romance, which perhaps inevitably
appears as a displacement in time, makes it hard to judge as a comment on
"modernity" - surely it is one, but the relationship is very ambiguous. There is
nothing "modern" about suggesting that knights on quests find it a lonely business.
One might even want to argue that loneliness is more familiar in modern times, and
dealing with it less of an exceptional heroic task. Just about the only thing that
might mark the poem as modern is the rusty engine, which actually *does* sound
like a bit of discarded agricultural machinery: but that's not what Roland thinks of,
even if he does suggestively use the word "harrow". It may make slightly better
sense to think of Roland as an archaic figure with a modern problem, rather than
as a modern figure losing himself in romantic alienation. I don't think that's very
fruitful, though: the "cultural discontinuity" may be there, but I'm not sure it's a matter
of time. At least, it's not a matter of "deep time" - "the heroes of the past" form a line
extend to not earlier than Giles, "ten years ago", That's the measure of the long,
lonely quest, not of a quasi-geological period of transformation,

People find lots of difficulties with Browning's syntax, but what's wrong with
"With the dock's harsh swarth leaves"? How *can* one read it confusedly?
"harsh" as a noun, "swarth" as the subject of the verb "leaves"? What?
If you meant that missing out "so" before "bruised" was confusing, then
it would have helped if you actually quoted the relevant context!

It's not quite true that the waste-land is "dark and marshy" - in fact, it
seems to be quite variegated, and only uniform in lacking what looks like
live vegetation. It contains *something* he seems to kill as he crosses
the river, but he seems not to blame himself for that: sounding "like a baby's
shriek" seems to be something unfair the landscape has done to him, rather
than something he can take responsibility for.

Under the circumstances, saying that this supremely self-absorbed and flinching
hero "knows" "that his quest and his life have come to an end" is relying on him
too much. He's not reliable. He goes into conniptions about everything, hungrily
eager to find the worst - not even as a boast of his own tough-guy ability to deal
with it, but to provoke himself into being spooked by his own imagination. A bit of
discarded machinery - quite possibly a mere literal harrow, an agricultural tool -
has him speculating rather crazily about its possibilities as an instrument of torture.
More, he engages in a rather ugly bit of moral rationalising when he thinksof the
horse that "He must be wicked to deserve such pain". This must amount to "He
must be wicked and therefore deserve such pain", just because the suffering is there.
Like Dante in his Inferno (and with the references to "Tophet's tool"), we are offered a
luxury of unqualified hatred, of suffering which we MUST accept as deserved. It is
one of the privileges of romance that it can resolve the obvious tensions between
desert and reward: it opens itself up to the obvious abuse, of deciding that
misfortune is manifest justice. Coming from someone who now decides (one hopes
it's temporary) that it's better to go on with the quest and fail than to turn aside,
but also that it's better to fail than to succeed, it doesn't seem so good.

No, I think that this is a different sort of story, though I admit that it's not blazingly
clear. This really is a man being spooked, mostly if not entirely by himself. His
judgment really is shattered. He himself obliquely recognises this, as he finds
that he has nearly missed the very thing he was looking for, the very thing in
front of him, even after the way to it has been pointed out to him. The old man
may or may not have been lying, but his eye is positively stated to be
"malicious". Yet e seems only to have told the way when asked ("and ask the
road"), and to have pointed predictably into the place where "all agree" that the
Dark Tower can be found. Roland starts by supposing
the old cripple lies ("he must be wicked to deserve such pain" again?), then
has second thoughts about his own doubts, then ... This is surely about the
moment of decision, right at the end, when Roland finds that, after all, he is
going to go on with it. It is quite possible that he will fail, but he's stopped
telling himself that that's the best that can be hoped for. Nobody hears
Roland's horn? Well, the other and more famous Roland did sound his horn
at the end, and it was heard, but too late to save him. Nobody appreciates
his deeds? That has yet to be decided. Mostly, it depends on what he does
next. Roland has emerged from an inner darkness to do what he came for:
that is already one sort of victory, and if it does not guarantee success, it is
a necessary condition of it. The journey from "My first thought was, he lied
in every word" to "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" is considerable.
His problem is not that he "has no-one with whom to celebrate his success",
but that he hasn't had a success yet. That's a better sort of problem. It's
hardly true that nobody knows or cares about the Dark Tower - on the
contrary, "all agree" at least roughly where it is. This isn't a story about
futility, but about how one deals with a sense of futility: and how "the soldier's
art" must begin with thought - thought, which paralysed Hamlet - but only
becomes real when it issues in action. More literally than most poems, this
one moves to a resolution, Roland even describes himself as "dauntless":
something hardly imaginable at the start of the poem. Not that he has ceased
to be afraid, but that he is resolved.


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