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?
And with these pessimistic thoughts, the narrator–Childe Roland–sets out on a byway to find the infamous Dark Tower, from which none of his friends ever returned.
This is a very odd poem, to my mind. Robert Browning quotes a phrase from King Lear and uses it as both the title and the centerpiece, but in the most literal sense–bringing the hero no farther than the Dark Tower. The imagery is gothic and gory…”Drenched willows flung them headlong in a fit / Of mute despair, a suicidal throng / The river which had done them all the wrong”…..”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”. Unlike Poe’s wallowing morbidity, Browning’s doom and gloom has a sharper tinge to it–the terror is not buried, but quite alive in the narrator’s mind.
I liked the poem, but not so much as to put it among my favorites. Roland’s dreary, almost fatalistic outlook is difficult to relate to. He never once seemed to have any hope of survival; he appears to run headlong into danger just for the sake of it. The other thing I disliked was the brevity of the poem. It stops just when it’s getting good; and it adds to the impression that Roland meets his end, just like all the other knights did.
Is there a message in it? The note to my editions says:
“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.
Others’ interpretations can be found at Wikipedia. I prefer the one above, though it didn’t present itself as the message, in the poem itself.
Overall rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
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