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For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,
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.

IV.

* * *

Returning to the Dark Tower after eleven years, I was struck by my former claim that “Roland’s dreary, almost fatalistic outlook is difficult to relate to.” I see I had not yet experienced the kinds of situations that could help me understand why he is the way he is. It was with an aching heart that I decided to give this poem another reading, and—well, an aching heart, I did find.

But first, a word on Browning’s language (no pun intended). He is not the easiest of English poets to read. His syntax takes some teasing-out to comprehend, making Wordsworth look simplistic by comparison. Each stanza provokes a slow reading, and sometimes a rereading, to realize what he is saying. Some stanzas have to be read together. Take 2 & 3, for example:

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
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.

II.–III.

From what I gather—Roland mistrusts the wayside stranger, feeling certain that this sinister individual is trying to lead people astray and gloat over their deaths. But he turns in the direction the stranger is pointing, not filled with pride nor hope, but out of relief that maybe there will be “some end” to his quest.

This is how the poem begins. We don’t know much about this knight, other than he is following a path many knights have gone before him. Falling “quiet as despair,” he has long since lost hope of a different outcome than failure. Only a question remains—will he be “fit” to share their terrible fate? He likens himself to a sick man who welcomes death rather than prolong the farewells of friends. Roland is looking for closure.

What a dismal place it is! After leaving the stranger, Roland is all alone, only spying a foul horse and bird as other signs of life. (Interestingly, our knight is on foot; no horse of his own.) He wades through some hideous flora, a river with unseen creatures, and a deserted battleground. He tries to brace himself with memories of old friends, only to recall those friendships ended badly. “Better this present than a past like that,” he avows.

Is this, then, where we can find a scrap of reason in Roland’s madness? Or is the landscape tainting his fond memories with only the bad in them?

There are a number of ways this poem could be read. The suffering hero striding through the Mordor-like wastelands is one angle, and in my previous review, I covered “fealty to the ideal,” which would partly explain Roland’s resignation to what lies ahead. On the other hand . . . there are details about the ending which make me wonder if it isn’t Hell we’re actually looking at, casting a more dubious light on our narrator. (Wikipedia assures me I am not the first person to have this notion.) We might also ask ourselves how much of this story is real and how much of it is taking place inside Roland’s head.

Frankly, I’m pleased Browning left it ambiguous—he is quoted as having said:

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.

This poem holds plenty of dreadful imagery, but stylistically, it is “gentler” than Edgar Allan Poe. Its fierceness dwells in undercurrents of uncertainty and vague disasters; it is a poem that refuses to be pinned down.

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!”

XXXII.


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