Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

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Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came painted by Thomas Moran in 1859.

"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" is a narrative poem by English author Robert Browning, written on January 2, 1852[1] and first published in 1855 in the anthology titled Men and Women.[2] The poem is often noted for its dark and atmospheric imagery, inversion of classical tropes, and use of unreliable narration. Childe Roland, the only speaker in the poem, describes his journey towards "the Dark Tower," and his horror at what he sees on his quest. The poem ends when Roland finally reaches the tower, leaving his ultimate fate ambiguous.[3]

Synopsis[edit]

The poem opens with Roland's suspicion about the truthfulness of a crippled man, whose advice he nevertheless follows by choosing a fork in the road that leads to the Dark Tower. The gloomy, cynical Roland describes how he had been searching for the tower for so long that he could barely feel any joy at finally finding the road to it, just a grim hope "that some end might be". Roland describes himself as being like "a sick man very near to death" whose friends have all abandoned him, as Roland had always been dismissed as a member of "The Band"—a group of knights searching for the Dark Tower, all of whom had failed in their quest. Despite that, all Roland wants is to join The Band, whatever the cost.

As soon as he steps into the path towards the Dark Tower, the landscape around him shifts, and Roland finds himself completely alone in a featureless wasteland. Wandering onwards, he describes the desolate conditions with increasing despair, until he finds the emaciated body of a horse. Roland is disgusted by its appearance, saying "I never saw a brute I hated so; / He must be wicked to deserve such pain."

In an attempt to regain some semblance of strength after the trauma of his surroundings, Roland tries to remember happier times, and thinks back on his old friends. The memory of his friends and fellow knights Cuthbert and Giles bring him comfort, but he then remembers the downfall of each of them (Cuthbert by "one night's disgrace," and Giles by being hanged and declared a traitor by his friends), and his heart is shattered all over again.

Declaring "better this present than a past like that," Roland finds the energy to keep on moving. He reaches a river which he fords with trepidation, half-convinced that he's stepping on dead bodies floating under the water. Reaching the other bank, Roland is disturbed once more by the apocalyptic landscape, envisioning some dreadful battle that must have happened to create the scene of devastation he observes. Eventually the plain gives way to mountains, and Roland finds himself stuck, unable to find a clear path forward.

Suddenly, Roland realizes that the mountain he's been looking at is the very one that hides the Dark Tower.

The sunset sets the scene ablaze at that very moment, and a strange sound fills the air. "in a sheet of flame" Roland sees the faces of his dead friends, and hears their names whispered in his ears. Remembering their lives, Roland finds himself surrounded by a "living frame" of old friends. Filled with inspiration, he pulls out his "slug-horn," and blows, shouting "Childe Roland to the dark tower came".

At this, the poem ends, leaving what lies inside of the Dark Tower a mystery.

Inspiration[edit]

The title, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", which forms the last words of the poem, is a line from William Shakespeare's play King Lear (ca. 1607). In the play, Gloucester's son, Edgar, lends credence to his disguise as Tom o' Bedlam by talking nonsense, of which this is a part:

Child Rowland to the dark tower came.
His word was still "Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man."[4]

— King Lear, Act 3, scene 4, lines 195-197

A "Childe" in this context is the eldest son of a nobleman who has not yet attained knighthood, or who has not yet "won his spurs."[5] It has been proposed that Browning also took inspiration from the 11th-century epic poem The Song of Roland,[6] which features Roland, Charlemagne's loyal paladin, blowing his hunting horn (as Childe Roland also does at the end of the poem) to call for help before he dies.

Browning claimed that the poem came to him in a dream, saying "I was conscious of no allegorical intention of writing it ... Childe Roland came upon me as a kind of dream. I had to write it then and there, and I finished it the same day, I believe. I do not know what I meant beyond that, and I do not know now. But I am very fond of it."[7]

Structure[edit]

Browning explores Roland's journey to the Dark Tower in 34 six line stanzas with the rhyme scheme A-B-B-A-A-B, using iambic pentameter throughout. It is filled with images from nightmare, but the setting is given unusual reality by much fuller descriptions of the landscape than was normal for Browning at any other time in his career. Many complex visual motifs are woven throughout the poem, including images of disease and deformity, as well as fire (connected with redness and death), eyes (both seeing and blinded), the idea of being suddenly trapped, and destroyed plant life.[8]

Despite having a clear narrative structure, the precise point at which a given scene shifts to another is made unclear throughout much of the poem, creating a sense of "esthetic inevitability" in the reader.[9]

Setting[edit]

The setting of Childe Roland is nightmarish and hallucinatory in nature, and seems to act as a sort of mirror to Roland's psyche throughout the poem. Catharine Blass writes:

“Roland participates in a seemingly endless, futile quest deep into a landscape that he can never be certain exists outside of his own mind. He is unable to rely fully on his senses to determine his place or direction, which leaves him in mental and emotional agony. At times, he sees things that immediately after disappear, or that shift in front of his eyes; at other times, his senses abandon him completely....The speaker appears to see these images with his eyes as he would something tangible; yet, his sight proves unreliable since these supposedly concrete, observable images....move in and out of his consciousness. His “seeing” of these figures occurs, in part, within his own mind, and is inseparable from his conscious thoughts about seeing each.”[10]

Interpretation[edit]

William Lyon Phelps proposes three different interpretations of the poem: In the first two, the Tower is a symbol of a knightly quest. Success only comes through failure or the end is the realization of futility. In his third interpretation, the Tower is simply damnation.

For Margaret Atwood, Childe Roland is Browning himself, his quest is to write this poem, and the Dark Tower contains that which Roland/Browning fears most: Roland/Browning "in his poem-writing aspect".[11]

Harold Bloom reads the poem as a "loving critique" of Shelley, and describes Roland as questing for his own failure.[12]

A footnote in the Penguin Classics edition (Robert Browning Selected Poems) advises against allegorical interpretation, saying “readers who wish to try their hand should be warned that the enterprise strongly resembles carving a statue out of fog.”[13] This sentiment is echoed by many critics, who believe any quest for interpretation will ultimately fail, due to the dreamlike, illusionary nature of the poem.

Influences on, and references in, other works[edit]

"Childe Roland" has served as inspiration to a number of popular works of fiction, including:

References[edit]

  1. ^ Turner, W. Craig (1987). "Browning, "'Childe Roland,'" and the Whole Poet". South Central Review. 4 (4): 40–52. doi:10.2307/3189026. ISSN 0743-6831. JSTOR 3189026.
  2. ^ Huebenthal, John (1966). "The Dating of Browning's "Love Among the Ruins," "Women and Roses," and "Childe Roland"". Victorian Poetry. 4 (1): 51–54. ISSN 0042-5206. JSTOR 40001335.
  3. ^ Rumens, Carol (25 August 2008). "Poem of the week: Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  4. ^ "Folger Digital Texts". www.folgerdigitaltexts.org. Retrieved 31 December 2019.
  5. ^ Wood, James, "C", The Nuttall Encyclopædia, retrieved 24 September 2020
  6. ^ Francisco, Eric. "The Poem That Inspired 'The Dark Tower' by Stephen King". Inverse. Retrieved 25 September 2020.
  7. ^ Kennedy, Richard; Hair, Donald (2007). The Dramatic Imagination of Robert Browning: A Literary Life. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press. p. 221. ISBN 978-0-8262-1691-5.
  8. ^ Aiken, Susan Hardy (1977). "Structural Imagery in "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came"". Browning Institute Studies. 5: 23–36. ISSN 0092-4725.
  9. ^ Willoughby, John W. (1963). "Browning's "'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came'"". Victorian Poetry. 1 (4): 291–299. ISSN 0042-5206.
  10. ^ Blass, Catherine (1 May 2014). "The Deception of Perception: Browning, Childe Roland, and Supersensory Belief". All Theses.
  11. ^ Atwood, Margaret (2002). Negotiating with the Dead. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. p. 33. ISBN 0-521-66260-5.
  12. ^ Bloom, Harold (1974). "HOW TO READ A POEM: BROWNING'S "CHILDE ROLAND"". The Georgia Review. 28 (3): 404–418. ISSN 0016-8386.
  13. ^ cdkeimling (9 June 2013). "Approaching the Dark Tower". Man Verses Poetry. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  14. ^ Steven Moore, "Alexander Theroux: An Introduction," Review of Contemporary Fiction 11.1 (Spring 1991): 10-13.
  15. ^ Berridge, Louise. "André de Roland". A.L.Berridge - Author. Retrieved 6 September 2013.
  16. ^ "Louis MacNeice Biography". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 6 September 2013.
  17. ^ MacNeice, Louis (1947). The Dark Tower and other radio scripts. London: Faber and Faber Ltd.
  18. ^ "The Dark Tower". BBC. British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 30 October 2017.
  19. ^ Wodehouse, P.G. (2008). The Mating Season. London: Arrow Books. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-09-951377-3.
  20. ^ Wodehouse, P.G. (2011) [1938]. The Code of the Woosters. London: W.W. Norton & Company. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-393-33981-9.
  21. ^ Aiken, Conrad (1961). Selected Poems. USA: New York Oxford University Press. p. 73. ISBN 9780195165470.

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