The Dark Tower

I’ve decided to take a break from my Childe Harold Project and instead write about a different childe, Childe Roland.

Robert Browning’s haunting poem is as nightmarish as it is ambiguous, and I’m reading it from the Penguin Classics Edition (PCE), which offers some helpful footnotes. I’ve also defined some of the less common words and offered some of my own amateur speculation as to the poem’s meaning. Your comments are welcome. For more, see my previous post Approaching the Dark Tower

Childe Harold to the Dark Tower Came

My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working 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
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.

A “childe” if you recall, is a candidate for knighthood; a knight-in-training who has not yet won his spurs.

The “hoary” cripple (hoary meaning white or grey with age) is a sinister figure. He serves to usher Roland into the hellscape that that hides the Dark Tower. Precisely what lies does he tell? At first, I thought the old man is merely in the habit of giving false directions, but Roland already seems to know the way, when he says, “If at his counsel I should turn aside into that ominous tract which, all agree, hides the Dark Tower.” Roland knows he’s getting warmer, even if he’s unaware of exactly where within the “ominous tract” (a tract is an indefinite strech of land) he will find the tower. The cripple ensnares travellers, perhaps, by convincing them to take the path of no return. He reminds me of Charon, the boatman, who ferries souls across the river Styx into Hades.

The demented glee of the old man looking at Roland through the corner (askance) of his “malicious eye,” his “skull-like” laugh, and the words like “ensnaring” and “waylay” (to waylay is to ambush) create a memorable image. Roland is fully aware he is walking into a trap, and the old man laughs at his doom.

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 bid the other go, draw breath
Freelier outside, (“since all is o’er,” he saith,
“And the blow fallen no grieving can amend;”)

While 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.

obstreperous — means “stubbornly resistant to control: unruly.”

“…finding failure in its scope” — Perhaps I’m reading this wrong, but its seems like Roland feels good about finding failure, which makes me recall George Orwell, writing of his experiences with poverty:

“It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”
― George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

I think this is analogous to what Roland is experiencing. He’s finally arrived.

staves — verses (of the funeral psalm) [according to Penguin Classic Edition].

A recurring subject of the poem is Roland’s weariness. The object of his quest no longer matters as much as its conclusion. He only wants his protracted journey to end. Like “a sick man very near to death” he doesn’t want to linger at the threshold of death’s door.

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 backward a last view
O’er the safe road, ’twas gone; gray plain all round:
Nothing but plain to the horizon’s bound.
I might go on; nought else remained to do.

I want to point out the geography here — the cripple is stationed on a “thoroughfare” or “highway,” a “safe road.” Roland, at the cripple’s counsel, turns aside, “into that ominous tract.” I can’t help getting the sense that Roland is departing from a well-beaten path, and I leave you to interpret that as you wish. The word estray is interesting, it is a legal term for stray animal [according to the PCE]. I wonder — is Childe Roland straying from the straight and narrow, deviating into darkness, or is he bravely leaving the herd, struggling to find a goal seemingly impossible to attain? Knights and quests usually have positive associations, so why does a cloud of damnation seem to hang over Roland? Why have so many others — to wit, The Band — failed to find the Dark Tower? What exactly are they searching for, and why are they so obsessed? I have no idea.

Now Roland enters a mysterious, barren realm, filled with grotesque sights:

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 the 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 Judgment’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 docks 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.

The “gray plain” Roland finds himself in is nearly devoid of life. No flowers. No cockles or spurge. (Cockles are a type of weed, spurge is “any of a family of widely distributed herbs, shrubs and trees often with a bitter milky juice.”)
penury — “a cramping and oppressive lack of resources (as money); esp.: severe poverty” or “extreme and often niggardly frugality.”
calcine — “burn to ashes, utterly consume, with the additional sense of refine, purge” [PCE]
bents — coarse grasses
docks — “any of certain coarse weedy plants with long taproots…”
Nature herself objects to the scene. This is isn’t a just desert — this is a sickly, unwholesome, spiritually polluted place. Life itself has been pashed (smashed) out by unseen brutes. It’s the antithesis of a well-cultivated garden.

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 stupefied, however he came there:
Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud!

Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,
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.

stud — a stable where studs are kept.
This is one of the most grotesque images of the poem: An skeletal red horse. The “colloped neck” description proves difficult to understand. A collop can mean a slice of meat ; the PCE speculates that by “colloped”, Browning means “raw-looking,” like meat. A collop can also mean a fold of fat flesh, which wouldn’t quite make sense. Perhaps Browning mistakenly chose this word, intending to mean a neck with folds of excess skin hanging from it. That’s my own speculation. I’ve never seen a starved horse.

What does the horse, symbolize, if anything? Horses and knights are linked. Perhaps the horse is a reflection of Roland, a blind, starved creature, not quite dead or alive. Like the horse, he shuts his eyes:

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 in mine to fix me to the place,
That way he used. Alas, one night’s disgrace!
Out went my heart’s new fire and left it cold.

Giles then, the soul of honor—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.

Roland, horrified by the sight of the undead horse, tries in vain to conjure up images of a happier past. He vividly sees his old army buddies, but instead of nostalgia, he remembers their crimes. There’s Cuthbert — “Alas, one night’s disgrace” — what did he do? And then there’s his friend Giles, who was hanged as a traitor. If these members of the band are guilty, what burdens Roland?
howlet — owl

A sudden little river crossed my path
As unexpected as a serpent comes.
No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms;
This, as it froth’d 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;
Drench’d 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, or 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.

Roland seems an untrustworthy narrator from the very beginning. After his encounter with the unaccountably evil cripple, he walks “a pace or two” and looks back, only to find that he’s disappeared. As the landscape shifts from mere unnatural sickliness to something more lurid and hellish, Roland’s imagination seems increasingly hyperactive and hallicinatory. It’s not clear what’s real and what isn’t. Is he superimposing his thoughts on his surroundings, as I suspect? Or has he crossed over into hell? After thinking about his fellow knights condemned for unspecified crimes, perhaps he is now contemplating his own damnation. To me, he is the dark, grim opposite of the idealistic Don Quixote.

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 foot-print 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.

presage — prediction
plash — marshy pool
cirque — amphitheatre
mews — cage

Where are the bodies? What explains the absence of footprints, going to or from this seeming battlefield? Is his mind playing tricks on him?

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.

furlong — 220 yards
Tophet — a biblical name for hell, although sadly, it was inspired by an actual place:

“In the Hebrew bible Tophet or Topheth … was a location in Jerusalem, in the Valley of Hinnom, where worshipers influenced by the Canaanite Pantheon sacrificed children to the gods Moloch and Baal by burning them alive.” – wikipedia.

Roland’s imagination is in overdrive, it seems. In place of conventional rusty farming equipment, he envisions a device from hell. A harrow is “a cultivating implement set with spikes, spring teeth, or disks and used primarily for pulverizing and smoothing the soil.” A “brake” is a machine; but according to PCE, it can also mean “trap” or “cage.” After the trampled battlefield, this image perhaps is meant to be a metaphor for war, a machine that grinds up fields of men with its 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, colored gay and grim,
Now patches where some leanness of the soil’s
Broke into moss or substances like thus;
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.

Roland notes a changing landscape that seems ravaged by man: “so a fool finds mirth, makes a thing and then mars it.” A “rood” is a British unit equal to a quarter acre. Browning, by having Roland note distances (a furlong and a rood) and mundane details about the ground’s composition (bog, clay, rubble, sand) is perhaps trying to make us retain trust in his sanity. But then the landscape resumes its foreboding aspect: a cleft in a tree becomes a mouth “gaping at death.” Previously, he interpreted the sight of trees as a crowd of suicides flinging themselves into a river. I can’t help but think of Satan in Paradise Lost, when he realizes that hell is not so much a place as a state of mind:

“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”
― John Milton, Paradise Lost

And just as far as ever from the end,
Nought in the distance but the evening, nought
To point my footstep further! At the thought,
A great black bird, Apollyon’s bosom-friend,
Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned
That brushed my cap—perchance the guide I sought.

More hellish imagery — according to PCE: “Apollyon in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a ‘foul fiend’ with wings like a dragon, named after the ‘angel of the bottomless pit.’ ”

Christian's Combat With Apollyon

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 recognize 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.

Roland finally acknowledges the dream-like state he has found himself in, and invites the reader to explain it! The jarring changes of scenery (a disappearing cripple, a river that crosses his path like a snake, and now mountains that suddenly surround him like thugs in an alley) make sense in this context. Roland is fully aware of his delirium and his entrapment. What’s strange is that he recognizes his destination, but only when he is in the midst of it, and only after years of searching, where others have failed.

Burningly it came on me all at once,
This was the place! those two hills on the right,
Couched 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.

dotard — a person in his or her dotage, that is, “a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness.”
nonce — the one, particular, or present occasion, purpose, or use <for the nonce>
turret — a little tower
blind as the fool’s heart — The PCE mentions Pslam 14:1: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.”

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 hill-sides, 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.”

Roland is reuinited with the soldiers. Do they share the same fate as him? Or have these ghostly spirits arrived to cast judgement? Ranged along the hillsides, elevated above him, gives me the sense that they have come to judge him. His blowing of the horn seems to be an act of defiance. Who knows?

footnote from PCE: “slug-horn A horn used in battle or to sound a challenge (Browning’s mistake, following Chatterton; the word is in fact a form of Anglo-Saxon ‘slogan’, battle-cry.) The context recalls another Roland, the hero of Charlemagne’s time and subsequent legend, who sounded his horn (too late) at Roncevalles.”

“in a sheet of flame” — backlit by the rising sun, I’m guessing, but the description fits with the overall atmosphere of damnation.

The unassuming appearance of the tower is also curious — round, squat, brown — without windows. Is this an entrance to the underworld?

Coming soon: More reflections on the meaning of Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

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