Thursday, March 15, 2007

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

Reflections of Confusion:

Robert Browning’s

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

Robert Browning makes no attempt to make his poetry accessible for his readers. Accessible poetry to Browning is poetry that shows the reader something that he already knows and is therefore easily extractable and identifiable in the poetry. For Browning, the aim of poetry is to “put the infinite within the finite” (Erickson 134). This is clearly an intricate task, but in Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, Browning elevates and perfects this dictum. Childe Roland is a difficult poem because of its potential depth and obscurity, and it can be interpreted in numerous ways. I see Childe Roland as a poem illuminating the utmost spiritual confusion. This in part explains the obscurity of the poetry: the verse mimics the theme.

On a first reading it is not likely that the reader should have any decent formulation of what happens in the poem. The narrator is Roland, a man who is on a quest through a foul and hideous land to a place called the Dark Tower. He will face a difficult trial there which none have passed. On reaching the Dark Tower and his trial, the poem abruptly ends. What happens to Roland? Does his quest fail? What occurred for him at the Tower? It is all confusion and mystery.

The reader knows that Roland loathes his quest and his life. With Roland’s desire to pass his trial at the Tower, he has spoiled and squandered his present life and reality to such an abyssal degree that the victory he once sought is now beyond the capacity of his reason. All he wants now is to fail and be done with a life wretched and grotesque. Roland has dedicated his whole life to a trial which he no longer wants to win. Browning turns the whole world upside down. The poem is given in past tense, yet the reader is led to believe that the poem may end with Roland’s death (this is left unresolved by Browning). Roland claims that he “had so long suffered in this quest,” and yet he is addressed as a childe (37). A childe, as Bloom points out, is “a noble youth not yet a knight” that must accomplish an act of bravery (Bloom 81). This all seems quite queer to the reader and that is Browning’s intent. Who is the narrator? The true landscape, the identity and age of the narrator, and the meaning of the Dark Tower, are all confusing and left a mystery by the author.

Roland’s foul personality creates the atmosphere of confusion. Roland himself is unreliable. The poem begins with Roland speaking of the “hoary cripple” that “lied in every word” (2,1). Yet by the third stanza Roland speaks of that same lie as “that ominous track which, all agree, / Hides the Dark Tower” (14-15). The “hoary cripple” is clearly not lying as his directions are correct and prove to be so later in the poem. This creates the primary confusion of reality that Browning never resolves: what is real and what is not.

Roland borders on madness. He is paranoid and delusional. The cause of his psychosis is his fear of failure and the uncertainty of whether he is “fit” enough to overcome the trial that lies before him. The torment and anguish of such an obstacle casts a melancholic shadow of gloom upon his world. It is not that he has fears, all men do, but that he dwells on them unceasingly. His life physically transmogrifies into this inner despair. In depression, he no longer sees why success is worth his agonizing effort. With the tainting of his present life by fears of failure, the goal he seeks becomes devalued.

The imagery of Childe Roland suggests that the trial Roland faces at the Dark Tower is his death. The quest to The Tower is metaphorical to Roland’s life, reaching the Dark Tower is his death; the success or failure of his quest is whether, through death, he will earn an afterlife. Roland’s quest for The Dark Tower is consistent and analogous with a human understanding of life. Roland talks about “The Band” that has come to the Tower and failed, but on his own path, there is “No foot-print leading to that horrid mews, / None out of it” (135-136). No one has lived his life or walked his path. His quest is his own, and this assists the reader in understanding the grotesque landscape of the poem. The scenery of the poem is painted by the confusion of the quester only. There are no other people on his path (The cripple put him on the path but was not on it himself.). Through his journey and fear of his goal, Roland neglects and thereby spoils the life he has. He grows wicked and distrustful through the implausibility of his own mission. He dwells on it. The portrayal of the landscape of the poem is warped by this inner-squalor of Roland’s mind and spirit and are not his true physical surroundings - though, it is logical to think that his perceptions are mal-distortions of those true physical features. The confusion, then, is a spiritual confusion of how to live and how to die. Roland is too preoccupied by the future.

The future that has captivated him is the reaching of the Dark Tower. It is the goal and focal point toward which the poem and its madness move. For Roland, the Dark Tower is the realization of all of his hopes and dreams. It is the end and goal of his quest and the location of his trial. All who have come to The Tower before him have failed. He calls his predecessors “The Band” and views them with both honor and contempt (39). On reaching The Tower, Roland sees “The Band” anthropomorphized in the mountains surrounding him, “ranging along the hill-sides, met, / To view the last of [him]” (199-200). Browning leaves the ending ambiguous; whether or not Roland succeeds or fails like all the others is maybe the most tempting mystery of the poem.

The Dark Tower is the incarnation of his fear; it is the mystery that plagues his dreams and poisons his reality. The Tower is a “round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart, / Built of brown stone, without a counterpart / In the whole world” (182-184). What is important is that the Tower is always in the future. The poem ends with his reaching it. It is the goal, but the poem represents the quest, and the quest is obscene. It is logical then, to see Roland’s quest and the Tower as reflective of each other. Because his fear and knowledge of the Tower predate his quest, the Tower, then, has tainted his quest and not visa versa.

If the reader believes that the Dark Tower is a metaphor for Roland’s death, then it is understandable why he sees death everywhere around him. In each example, in everything Roland encounters, there is an image of death. It starts with “the skull-like laugh” of “the hoary cripple,” to the metaphor of the dying man, to the failures of “the Band,” to the horse who “might be dead,” and on and on (10,2,39,79). The horse is a telling example because, through the suffering of the horse, Roland actually sees the metaphor for his own life where he doesn’t see it elsewhere (meaning he doesn’t realize that it is he that is projecting his reality). He says, “I never saw a brute I hated so,” as he surely hates his life (79). In the suffering of the horse he sees his own suffering and misery. The example is also curious in his statement that he thinks the horse “must be wicked to suffer so” (80). There is no other direct evidence of Roland hating himself, but he clearly hates his life, and here the reader sees that he holds himself to blame and not some higher force or being.

Roland meets also “Apollyon’s” bird, another image of death, which he deems as a guide for the remainder of his quest (160). The devil-bird brings a new image to all of Roland’s projections. Now Hell can be considered as a label that the reader may choose to categorize this world of Roland’s. It is fitting. Due to the shear desolation and near unrivaled grotesqueness of Browning’s landscape, it is conceivable that Roland is in Hell. However, I don’t insinuate that Roland is dead. The past tense would support such a claim, but he has not yet faced the Dark Tower and his judgment. Childe Roland is in a living Hell, self-created and born of his own fear and confusion. It is that he cannot see that he is in hell, and that his path there is self-appointed, that is the author’s interest. If Roland creates his own reality by projecting his inner-consciousness upon his landscape, then where he built a hell with bricks of fear, he could have grown a heaven by planting seeds of acceptance and reaping beauty and peace. The fear Roland festers is by worrying and living in the confusion of an uncertain future. It can be inferred, then, that by living and concentrating on the present, Roland could have forgone his confusion of the future and found value in the present.

It is with this thought [inner-reflection] where the deepest interpretation of Childe Roland can be found. Browning himself promotes the analogue to life and death, but that itself serves as a metaphor for a more subtle meaning. Life and death are analogous for path and destination. This is similar to quest and the Dark Tower, but now in a universal sense and understanding. I refer to all goals and the means by which we come to them. This is the “infinite within the finite” that Browning writes with his poetry. He shows the reader a quester is a miserable search for a Tower. The reader is lead to sense that it represents his life and death; it does, but it is also his every action, his every pursuit and goal.

Through Roland, Browning shows what happens when a person is fixated on the future goal and not appreciative of the path and means by which he acquires it. Love and beauty are not inconspicuously absent, rather they are blatantly and intentionally so. These are the missing elements of Roland’s life. Roland once mentions “not shaming such tender love,” but the love to which he refers is itself twisted. He speaks of the love of those who would plan his death and burial while in his presence. He hopes to die in order to not shame this “tender love” by making their plans untimely. This also is only a thought in his mind. Roland never mentions any family or friends, anyone whom he loves or is loved by. He is alone and cannot see love or beauty anywhere. In fact, he never looks for it. This is the root of his confusion. The hell he suffers is his perception. There are always two points of view and Roland only sees the darker half. Wasn’t that horse’s perseverance commendable? What of the solitude, or the sunset he saw? The possibilities of the present were not important to Roland.

At the end, I believe Roland realizes that the present moment should have been important to him. There is a change in the mood of the poem in the last stanzas, a stay in the confusion. There is a new vitality in the language, an optimism in the phrasing that is new to Roland. It begins in, “Dunce, / Dotard, a-dozing at the very nunce” (178-179). This language is almost playful. Roland seems to rise up and challenge his own death. He doesn’t flinch, saying, “Now stab and end the creature - to the heft!” (192). The change is that the moment that Roland has been awaiting for so long has finally arrived. He is on the threshold of what he has long desired. The uplifting language represents the uplifting spirit of Roland. He feels a joy and in this he finds a small sort of revelation. Roland calls the Tower “blind as the fool’s heart” (182). He is the fool and only now, on reaching his goal, can he see or sense beauty (the beauty of accomplishing a goal). Only on reaching his goal can he realize how blind he has been along his quest.

Roland is a Tom O’bedlam character whose dread for his own future dominates and therefore taints his own reality. Only at arriving at his destination does he see that his confused reality could have been otherwise, that, had he chosen, “The dying sunset kindled within the cleft,” could have kindled for other glories in the world (189). Through Roland, Browning teaches his readers to appreciate the moment, to live in the present, or else you may make for yourself a hell. Look for beauty and love in the world, in the present, and the path shall be as worthwhile as the destination. Is it too late for Roland? Browning doesn’t share, but Roland blows his horn triumphantly and sings his own song: Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York:

Scribner, 2000.

Browning, Robert. The Poems of Robert Browning.

Ed. Donald Smalley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Comp., 1956.

Erickson, Lee. Robert Browning: His Poetry and His

Audiences. Ithica: Cornell University Press,



Denis said...

Wowsers! Read it and loved it.

mrdeadpt said...


Thanks for your interpretation of "Childe Roland". I've just finished Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series and have become interested in the poem that inspired him. I'm a climber, too! And now, the father of a six-month-old boy. Sail on!

Dave Pfurr