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Short poem

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: 1855
RPO poem editor: F. E. L. Priestley
RP edition: 3RP 3.146.
Recent editing: 2:2001/12/17

Composition date: January 1852
Rhyme: abbaab

Other poems by Robert Browning