Explain how Robert Browning's "Childe Roland Ran to the Dark Tower" can be seen as a poem of optimism.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

At the start, it seems at first difficult to find anything optimistic in the reading of Robert Browning's poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." (Some believe this is the story of Rolande, the knight, but others argue that it is not—but simply anyone's journey in life.)

The mood of the poem is set with the description of the man (or a demon? Death?) who gives the narrator directions regarding which path he should choose.

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...

The very appearance of the old man throws the narrator off, and makes him suspect that the old man is moved by malice to send the narrator on this particular path, dangerous though it may be. Even so he continues, not sure what lies ahead—though it might even be death.

As the narrator continues his journey (which may actually take years), the scenery he passes is particularly depressing. There is no color in the countryside; everything is grey and seemingly dead. The narrator comes to a place where there is water, but here, too, death seems to linger.

For a short moment, the narrator wants to remember the past and the way things were: even to find beauty in the world around him.

I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart.

As a man calls for wine before he fights,

I asked one draught of earlier, happier sights...

However, he is met with images of those he has known. Cuthbert, who one night did something disgraceful, and their friendship ended. Then the narrator turns to Giles, "a brave and honorable man," who sometime later is hanged as a traitor. In retrospect, the narrator chooses to remain with the unpleasant present, rather than the heart-breaking past.

And so he moves on to the Dark Tower: seen either as a knight's challenge or that of "every man." This is where the poem ends.

It is easy to see that this poem might be allegorical for the passage of one's life, especially as one may approach the latter years, when younger days seems so much more pleasant and hopeful, but reality reveals that they had their pain as well. Or it could refer to the hope that one loses when surrounded so long by things which seem to drive us to our knees. However, Browning himself said this was not an allegory. Though we can admit that what an author intends with his art and the life the art takes on when separated from the artist may be two very different things.

The optimism is found in the narrator's arrival at the castle. We do not know what will happen, while we do know the journey has been hard. However, we realize that through all of this, the narrator has been steadfast, moving forward without losing sight of his goal. Having arrived, we are also able to find optimism that anything is possible. Contrary to the mood promoted throughout the poem, the speaker has achieved something amazing in simply reaching his goal, and we can hope that he whatever he will face in the tower, that his perseverance will reward him, as is often the case in tales of heroes and knights—and dedicated people.

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