Robert Browning (1812-1889)
"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came"
(See Edgar's song in Shakespeare's King Lear.)
1My first thought was, he lied in every word,
2 That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
3 Askance to watch the working of his lie
4On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
5Suppression of the glee that pursed and scored
6 Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.
7What else should he be set for, with his staff?
8 What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
9 All travellers who might find him posted there,
10And ask the road? I guessed what skull-like laugh
11Would break, what crutch 'gin write my epitaph
12 For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,
13If at his counsel I should turn aside
14 Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
15 Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
16I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
17Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
18 So much as gladness that some end might be.
19For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,
20 What with my search drawn out thro' years, my hope
21 Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope
22With that obstreperous joy success would bring,
23I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring
24 My heart made, finding failure in its scope.
25As when a sick man very near to death
26 Seems dead indeed, and feels begin and end
27 The tears and takes the farewell of each friend,
28And hears one bid the other go, draw breath
29Freelier outside ("since all is o'er," he saith,
30 "And the blow fallen no grieving can amend";)
31While some discuss if near the other graves
32 Be room enough for this, and when a day
33 Suits best for carrying the corpse away,
34With care about the banners, scarves and staves:
35And still the man hears all, and only craves
36 He may not shame such tender love and stay.
37Thus, I had so long suffered in this quest,
38 Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
39 So many times among "The Band"--to wit,
40The knights who to the Dark Tower's search addressed
41Their steps--that just to fail as they, seemed best,
42 And all the doubt was now--should I be fit?
43So, quiet as despair, I turned from him,
44 That hateful cripple, out of his highway
45 Into the path he pointed. All the day
46Had been a dreary one at best, and dim
47Was settling to its close, yet shot one grim
48 Red leer to see the plain catch its estray.
49For mark! no sooner was I fairly found
50 Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two,
51 Than, pausing to throw backward a last view
52O'er the safe road, 'twas gone; grey plain all round:
53Nothing but plain to the horizon's bound.
54 I might go on; nought else remained to do.
55So, on I went. I think I never saw
56 Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:
57 For flowers--as well expect a cedar grove!
58But cockle, spurge, according to their law
59Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,
60 You'd think; a burr had been a treasure-trove.
61No! penury, inertness and grimace,
62 In some strange sort, were the land's portion. "See
63 Or shut your eyes," said Nature peevishly,
64"It nothing skills: I cannot help my case:
65'Tis the Last Judgment's fire must cure this place,
66 Calcine its clods and set my prisoners free."
67If there pushed any ragged thistle-stalk
68 Above its mates, the head was chopped; the bents
69 Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents
70In the dock's harsh swarth leaves, bruised as to baulk
71All hope of greenness? 'tis a brute must walk
72 Pashing their life out, with a brute's intents.
73As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
74 In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud
75 Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood.
76One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,
77Stood stupefied, however he came there:
78 Thrust out past service from the devil's stud!
79Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,
80 With that red gaunt and colloped neck a-strain,
81 And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;
82Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;
83I never saw a brute I hated so;
84 He must be wicked to deserve such pain.
85I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart.
86 As a man calls for wine before he fights,
87 I asked one draught of earlier, happier sights,
88Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.
89Think first, fight afterwards--the soldier's art:
90 One taste of the old time sets all to rights.
91Not it! I fancied Cuthbert's reddening face
92 Beneath its garniture of curly gold,
93 Dear fellow, till I almost felt him fold
94An arm in mine to fix me to the place
95That way he used. Alas, one night's disgrace!
96 Out went my heart's new fire and left it cold.
97Giles then, the soul of honour--there he stands
98 Frank as ten years ago when knighted first.
99 What honest men should dare (he said) he durst.
100Good--but the scene shifts--faugh! what hangman hands
101In to his breast a parchment? His own bands
102 Read it. Poor traitor, spit upon and curst!
103Better this present than a past like that;
104 Back therefore to my darkening path again!
105 No sound, no sight as far as eye could strain.
106Will the night send a howlet or a bat?
107I asked: when something on the dismal flat
108 Came to arrest my thoughts and change their train.
109A sudden little river crossed my path
110 As unexpected as a serpent comes.
111 No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms;
112This, as it frothed by, might have been a bath
113For the fiend's glowing hoof--to see the wrath
114 Of its black eddy bespate with flakes and spumes.
115So petty yet so spiteful! All along
116 Low scrubby alders kneeled down over it;
117 Drenched willows flung them headlong in a fit
118Of mute despair, a suicidal throng:
119The river which had done them all the wrong,
120 Whate'er that was, rolled by, deterred no whit.
121Which, while I forded,--good saints, how I feared
122 To set my foot upon a dead man's cheek,
123 Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek
124For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard!
125--It may have been a water-rat I speared,
126 But, ugh! it sounded like a baby's shriek.
127Glad was I when I reached the other bank.
128 Now for a better country. Vain presage!
129 Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage,
130Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank
131Soil to a plash? Toads in a poisoned tank,
132 Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage--
133The fight must so have seemed in that fell cirque.
134 What penned them there, with all the plain to choose?
135 No foot-print leading to that horrid mews,
136None out of it. Mad brewage set to work
137Their brains, no doubt, like galley-slaves the Turk
138 Pits for his pastime, Christians against Jews.
139And more than that--a furlong on--why, there!
140 What bad use was that engine for, that wheel,
141 Or brake, not wheel--that harrow fit to reel
142Men's bodies out like silk? with all the air
143Of Tophet's tool, on earth left unaware,
144 Or brought to sharpen its rusty teeth of steel.
145Then came a bit of stubbed ground, once a wood,
146 Next a marsh, it would seem, and now mere earth
147 Desperate and done with; (so a fool finds mirth,
148Makes a thing and then mars it, till his mood
149Changes and off he goes!) within a rood--
150 Bog, clay and rubble, sand and stark black dearth.
151Now blotches rankling, coloured gay and grim,
152 Now patches where some leanness of the soil's
153 Broke into moss or substances like boils;
154Then came some palsied oak, a cleft in him
155Like a distorted mouth that splits its rim
156 Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils.
157And just as far as ever from the end!
158 Nought in the distance but the evening, nought
159 To point my footstep further! At the thought,
160A great black bird, Apollyon's bosom-friend,
161Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned
162 That brushed my cap--perchance the guide I sought.
163For, looking up, aware I somehow grew,
164 'Spite of the dusk, the plain had given place
165 All round to mountains--with such name to grace
166Mere ugly heights and heaps now stolen in view.
167How thus they had surprised me,--solve it, you!
168 How to get from them was no clearer case.
169Yet half I seemed to recognise some trick
170 Of mischief happened to me, God knows when--
171 In a bad dream perhaps. Here ended, then,
172Progress this way. When, in the very nick
173Of giving up, one time more, came a click
174 As when a trap shuts--you're inside the den!
175Burningly it came on me all at once,
176 This was the place! those two hills on the right,
177 Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight;
178While to the left, a tall scalped mountain . . . Dunce,
179Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,
180 After a life spent training for the sight!
181What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
182 The round squat turret, blind as the fool's heart
183 Built of brown stone, without a counterpart
184In the whole world. The tempest's mocking elf
185Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
186 He strikes on, only when the timbers start.
187Not see? because of night perhaps?--why, day
188 Came back again for that! before it left,
189 The dying sunset kindled through a cleft:
190The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay
191Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay,--
192 "Now stab and end the creature--to the heft!"
193Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it tolled
194 Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears
195 Of all the lost adventurers my peers,--
196How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
197And such was fortunate, yet each of old
198 Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years.
199There they stood, ranged along the hillsides, met
200 To view the last of me, a living frame
201 For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
202I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
203Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
204 And blew. "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came."
1] The title of the poem, and in Browning's own account the source of the theme, is spoken as a line of nonsense by the disguised Edgar in King Lear (at the end of III, iv).
"Childe" indicates a candidate for knighthood, the medieval sense being "a well-born youth."
48] estray: a tame beast found wandering or without an owner.
66] calcine: made friable by means of heat.
68] bents: blades of stiff grass.
70] as to: as if to.
72] Pashing: smashing.
80] colloped: ridged with lumps like collops of meat.
161] dragon-penned: winged like a dragon.
179] nonce: occasion.
182] the fool's heart. "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God" (Psalm 14:1).
203] slug-horn: usually explained as a corruption of slogan, used here by Browning in the mistaken idea that it means a horn. Chatterton made this mistake in his Battle of Hastings, II, 10: "Some caught a slughorne and an onset wound." But there is the hyphenated word slug-horn, meaning a short and ill-formed horn of some animal of the ox kind. It is possible that Browning used the word in this sense. To have a misshapen horn hanging at the gate would be in keeping with the other features of the poem.
Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department
of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services,
University of Toronto Libraries.
Original text: Robert Browning, Men and Women, 2 vols. (1855.) Rev. 1863.
First publication date:
RPO poem editor: F. E. L. Priestley
RP edition: 3RP 3.146.
Recent editing: 2:2001/12/17
Other poems by Robert Browning