Reflections of Confusion:
Childe Roland to the
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
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
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
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
The future that has captivated him is the reaching of the
If the reader believes that the
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
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
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
Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why.
Browning, Robert. The Poems of Robert Browning.
Ed. Donald Smalley.
Erickson, Lee. Robert Browning: His Poetry and His