Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

According to Browning, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” descended upon him as a sort of dream and was written in a single day, January 2, 1852. Browning denied any allegorical intentions in writing it and was characteristically reluctant to offer any help in interpreting it. Many years later, Browning said that the poem had demanded to be written and that he was aware of no particular meaning when he composed it. When a friend asked if the poem’s meaning could be described as “He that endureth to the end shall be saved,” Browning replied affirmatively.

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“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” has been the subject of numerous studies. William Clyde DeVane has found in Gerard de Lairesse’s The Art of Painting (translated into English in 1778), a book that had a profound and permanent influence on Browning, the origin of many of the poem’s images, including the cripple, the pathless field, the diseased vegetation, the river, the water rat, the claustrophobic mountains, and the malevolent sunset. The image of the tower was suggested by one he had seen several times in Italy, and he told Mrs. Orr, his early biographer, that the horse came to him from a figure in a tapestry he owned.

Because of its suggestion of allegory, this poem has been a favorite subject of interpretation of Browning societies. Some see in the poem a dark pessimism reflecting unresolved conflicts in the poet’s psyche. Others see it as a study of courage. Clearly, the poem draws heavily on the conventions of quest literature, and it has many affinities with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (fourteenth century). Both Browning’s persona and Gawain traverse dangerous and frightening terrains in their search; they are beset with self-doubt and fear; they are forced to look deep within themselves and summon up their last vestiges of courage and will. Finally, the objects of their quests are disappointing. The Green Chapel is merely an earthen mound, and the Dark Tower is no more than a “round squat turret” made of brown stone. The tower has no intrinsic beauty or value. What is important is the quest itself. Considered in this way, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is a clear statement of “success in failure,” a theme Browning explored often. Making the effort to overcome obstacles to Browning is far more spiritually fulfilling than anything the world regards as success. Browning’s heroes embrace life and death fully and fiercely. The “ungirt loin and the unlit lamp” are sins that loom large in Browning’s writing. Timidity and a turning away from challenges have no place in Browning’s strong optimism.

The persona of “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is a hero. His life is fulfilled in a splendid expenditure of energy; he has far more in common with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses than with T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock. Taken in the broad context of Browning’s poetry, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” despite its general ambience of gloom, affirms the ultimate value of human effort. It is a poem of unbridled optimism.

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