My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the workings 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.
What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
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.
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
Now hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.
For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,
What with my search drawn out through 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.
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 bit the other go, draw breath
Freelier outside, (‘since all is o’er,’ he saith
And the blow fallen no grieving can amend;’)
When 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.
Thus, I had so long suffered in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among ’The Band’ to wit,
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?
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.
For mark! No sooner was I fairly found
Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two,
Than, pausing to throw backwards 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, naught else remained to do.
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,
You’d think; a burr had been a treasure trove.
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 Judgement’s fire must cure this place
Calcine its clods and set my prisoners free.’
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
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.
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 stupified, however he came there:
Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud!
Alive? he might be dead for aught I knew,
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.
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:
One taste of the old time sets all to rights.
Not it! I fancied Cuthbert’s reddening face
Beneath its garniture of curly gold,
Dear fellow, till I almost felt him fold
An arm to mine to fix me to the place,
The way he used. Alas, one night’s disgrace!
Out went my heart’s new fire and left it cold.
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.
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!
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.
A sudden little river crossed my path
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.
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,
Whate’er that was, rolled by, deterred no whit.
Which, while I forded - good saints, how I feared
To set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek,
Each step, of 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.
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,
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 -
The fight must so have seemed in that fell cirque,
What penned them there, with all the plain to choose?
No footprint 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.
And more than that - a furlong on - why, there!
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.
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 -
Bog, clay and rubble, sand, and stark black dearth.
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.
And just as far as ever from the end!
Naught in the distance but the evening, naught
To point my footstep further! At the thought,
A great black bird, Apollyon’s bosom friend,
Sailed past, not best his wide wing dragon-penned
That brushed my cap - perchance the guide I sought.
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.
Yet half I seemed to recognise some trick
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.
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,
After a life spent training for the sight!
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.
Not see? because of night perhaps? - why day
Came back again for that! before it left
The dying sunset kindled through a cleft:
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!’
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.
There they stood, ranged along the hillsides, met
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.’
Published in the volume Men and Women, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” takes its title and its inspiration from the song sung by Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear, when he pretends to be a madman. “Childe” is an archaic aristocratic title indicating a young man who has not yet been knighted. This particular young man is on a quest for the “Dark Tower”: what the tower’s significance is we do not know (perhaps it holds the Holy Grail). He wanders through a dark, marshy waste-land, filled with horrors and terrible noises. He thinks of home and old friends as he presses forward. Fighting discouragement and fear, he reaches the tower, where he sounds his horn, knowing as he does that his quest and his life have come to an end.
“Childe Roland” divides into six-line stanzas, mostly in irregularly stressed pentameter lines. The stanzas rhyme ABBAAB. Much of the language in this poem makes a rough, even unpoetic impression: it reflects the ugly scenery and hellish journey it discusses. Lines such as “In the dock’s harsh swarth leaves...” wind so contortedly that they nearly confound all attempts at reading them aloud. Both the rhyme scheme and the poem’s vocabulary suggest a deliberate archaicness, similar to some of Tennyson’s poems. However, unlike Tennyson’s poems, this poem recreates a medieval world that does not evoke pleasant fairy tales, but rather dark horrors.
Browning’s vision of the wasteland prefigures T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and other works of high modernism. The barren plains symbolize the sterile, corrupted conditions of modern life. Although they are depopulated and remote, they serve as a stand-in for the city. Childe Roland hallucinates about dead comrades and imagines horrors that aren’t actually there: like the modern city, this place strains his psyche and provokes abnormal responses. Indeed, he has only arrived here by way of a malevolent guide: Roland’s first instinct is to think that the man is lying to him, but his lack of spiritual guidance and his general confusion lead him to accept the man’s directions.
Childe Roland’s quest has no pertinence to the modern world, a fact evidenced by the fact that the young man has no one with whom to celebrate his success—in fact, no one will even know of it. In this way his journey speaks to the anonymity and isolation of the modern individual. The meaninglessness of Roland’s quest is reinforced by its origins: Childe Roland is not the creation of a genuine madman, but of a man (Edgar in Lear) who pretends to be mad to escape his half-brother’s murderous intentions. The inspiration for Browning’s poem thus springs from no sincere emotion, not even from genuine madness: it is a convenience and a folly, a sane man’s approximation of what madness might look like. The inspiration is an empty performance, just as the quest described here is an empty adventure.
Much of the poem’s imagery references the storm scene in Lear from whence its inspiration comes. Shakespeare is, of course, the patriarch of all English literature, particularly poetry; but here Browning tries to work out his own relationship to the English literary tradition. He also tries to analyze the continued importance of canonical works in a much-changed modern world. (Via his reference to Shakespeare and to medieval themes, Browning places especial emphasis on these two eras of literature.) He suggests that while the Shakespearean and medieval modes still have aesthetic value, their cultural maintains a less certain relevance. That no one hears Roland’s horn or appreciates his deeds suggests cultural discontinuity: Roland has more in common with the heroes of the past than with his peers; he has nothing in common with Browning’s contemporaries except an overwhelming sense of futility. Indeed, the poem laments a meaninglessness so all-pervasive that even the idea of the wasteland cannot truly describe modern life or make a statement about that life; it is this sense of meaninglessness that dominates the poem.