“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”
H.P. Lovecraft called the poem “hideous,” and meant that as a compliment. Stephen King, inspired by it, wrote a series of books, entitled The Dark Tower. Robert Browning, its author, explained that “Childe Roland came upon me as a kind of dream.”
Indeed, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came offers perhaps the best depiction of a nightmare landscape ever put to paper. The vivid and baffling images of the poem only enhance its effect, leaving us with questions. What does the dark tower symbolize? What happens when the world-weary knight, Roland, wandering through a blighted, barren land, finally finds the elusive tower and blows his horn? We don’t know, because that’s where the poem ends — as if someone blew a horn to rouse Browning from his slumbers.
Browning claimed he had no conscious intent of writing an allegory — a seemingly evasive statement that can be defended if one considers that dreams can have meanings that elude the wakened mind. In performing its nightly dredging of the subconscious, the mind pulls up things from the depths that are often unexplained. And even as we wake, the night visions leak from our heads like a sieve, slipping back into the deep waters from which they came. A glimpse of the subconscious is often the best we can hope for. The symbols don’t make sense, but haunt us nevertheless.
A footnote in the Penguin Classics edition (Robert Browning Selected Poems) advises against allegorical interpretation: “readers who wish to try their hand should be warned that the enterprise strongly resembles carving a statue out of fog.”
Next: we approach the tower — with caution.