What criteria for good poetry from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh apply to "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" by Robert Browning, and how might the application to "Childe Roland" be analyzed?
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Elizabeth Barret Browning talks about a good many criteria for poetry. The format and objectives of eNotes precludes an in-depth discussion but we can help you get started in this large undertaking.
Among other ideas about poetry, E. B. Browning discusses these criteria in Book V:
- Humanizing requirement of poetry: it is to bring abstracts to a human level.
- Relate temporal space-time being with the spiritual being.
- Find the poetic-heroic in their own age.
- See with "double vision" so the remote is made intimate and the intimate is made understandable.
- Attend to the eternal content of poems rather to the form of poems (function over form).
- Attend to writing poetry as expression of artistic perception without an eye to critics or to favorable acceptance.
- Express in the second life of poetry the eternal truths apparent in the over-abundant suffering of the first life.
Robert Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" demonstrates at least some of these criteria. For instance, as this poem is interpreted as a symbolic expression of how "despair" is conquered by unflinching loyalty to the "ideal," it is clear that "Childe Roland" expresses eternal concepts.
The opening stanzas illustrate the humanizing qualities poetry must posses. This quality of humanization contrasts with simple description. Poetry can render truthful descriptions of personalities or objects in nature but unless these are humanized, made vivid in terms of human emotions, joys, desires, yearnings, then the descriptions poetically fail. In other words, if we find no sympathy, no harmonic resonance within our own souls with the person or tree or child or mountain being described, poetry has failed. Browning instantly and immediately brings the villain of this poem to harmonic resonance: we sympathize on a human level though the sympathetic human impulse is repulsion.
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.
One further comment is that Browning also unites "Childe Roland" with the spiritual world through his description of the landscape he walks through when Nature takes on a voice through pathetic fallacy (a sub-type of personification that is applicable to personification of nature) and explains the resolution to the plight and blight he sees. Nature says that the only thing that can help the devastate condition of the landscape around the poetic persona is the "Final Judgement" and the fire of the sun that must melt (i.e., "calcine") the "clods" earth, thus setting free the prisoners of blight he beholds.
... I think I never saw
Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:
For flowers-as well expect a cedar grove!
You'd think; a burr had been a treasure trove.
Two other great examples of Victorian poetry which address the interface between reality and fantasy are Robert Browning's 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came' and Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market'. Both of these are much shorter than Aurora Leigh, but still long enough to develop the fantasy theme adequately.
Browning's poem shows us a Knight Errant who arrives near the end of his quest, but who along the way has begun to doubt the reality of the world he lives in. Browning exploits our sense of the artificiality of the world of poetry to examine what sort of a morality is possible in a world with no epistemology (an idea also explored in Bishop Blougram's Apology). Browning's Knight eventually decides to persevere with the morality which has brought him so far, even though he no longer trusts it (similar absurdist heroics underly Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade and Maud).
Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market is like an early flowering of surrealism. Rossetti presents a preposterous situation (two young girls buying fruit from Goblins) but loads her narrative with such convincing detail that we lose sight of the way that the poem is pure fantasy (Rossetti may have learned the trick from Blake). At one level we see that the poem is a fanciful tale about bogles and elves, but the sincerity of Rossetti's telling, and the precision of her vision, convince us that the poem must be about something more serious as well.
Rossetti never tells us what more serious topic she intends (Christina's sanity was already unsteady by the time she wrote) - so the reader is at liberty to apply the fantasy to whichever aspect of reality she choose.
It is worth remembering that in some senses reality really was fragile for Victorians. The countryside lifestyle which had been the natural world for most Englishmen was rapidly dissolving as Britain industrialised, and the recent experiences of the French Revolution had shown that neither Church nor King were as stable as most folk had always assumed.
Victorians knew that families and lifestyles could vanish in a matter of months, and so could religions and governments. They were in a strong position to feel insecure about anything.
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