The title is a direct quotation from a song of Edgar in William Shakespeare’s King Lear (c. 1605-1606). It has traditionally been assumed that the persona is Roland, although such an assumption is unwarranted. This poem is an interior monologue, a hybrid of the soliloquy and the dramatic monologue, and the “narrator” is simply thinking aloud. The thinker-narrator is a quester of many years, something that the mythical Roland was not. Moreover, the persona does not appear to be a very young man preparing for knighthood, as the word “childe” would suggest.
“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” begins in medias res. Since no background or explanation is given for what is happening, the reader is initially confounded. Gradually, it becomes clear that the persona is searching for the “Dark Tower” and has just asked an aged cripple for directions. Suspicious that the cripple has maliciously misdirected him even to his death, he nevertheless proceeds on the appointed path. He is exhausted by his search, “drawn out through years,” and would be glad to reach an end of any kind, even if the end should mean failure or death.
At line 43, the persona turns away from the ominous cripple-guide to continue his search. Immediately on entering the gray plain, the safe road vanishes. The protagonist finds himself amid gathering darkness, entrapped in a grotesque, alien environment. Much of the remainder of the poem describes changing scenes from this landscape of nightmare, which in many ways parallels the diseased garden of The Sensitive Plant (1820) by Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of Robert Browning’s favorite poets. From the tenth stanza intermittently to the thirty-first, the poem is, in large measure, a series of vivid verbal pictures that put one in mind of the surreal paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, and Salvador Dalí.
As he continues his search for the Dark Tower, the persona confronts not only the physical horrors of a stunted, deformed nature but also the memory of earlier comrades who, in their quest for the Dark Tower, came to miserable ends. His memory of “Cuthbert’s reddening face” and Giles, “the soul of honor,” is more harrowing to him than the “starved ignoble nature” by which he is surrounded. At last, the plain gives way to mountains, and in a final ray of sunset between two hills the Tower is revealed to the persona. His mind filled with the names of “all the lost adventurers” who had gone before him and feeling like a helpless prey for the gigantic hills, which are “Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight,” the persona is dauntless and sounds his horn in defiance and triumph: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” On this note the poem ends—as abruptly as it began.
The poem consists of 204 lines divided into thirty-four stanzas. As is the case with many of Browning’s dramatic poems, the meter keeps to a conversational (in this case thoughtful) rhythm while remaining predominantly iambic pentameter. “In the dock’s harsh swarth leaves, bruised as to balk” is a telling exception. The rhyme scheme of the six-line stanzas is fixed at abbaab. A powerful effect of emphasis and finality is often achieved by means of the rhyme of the final line of the stanza echoing that of the third line. Stanzas 2, 9, and 16 are good examples of this sound effect.
In the hands of a lesser poet, the use of a fixed stanza form could inhibit the free flow of thought and reduce credibility by making the reader question the appropriateness of the...
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form for the substance. Such is not the case, however, with this poem. Through the frequent use of enjambment and internal stops, Browning is able to approximate the fluidity of consciousness. In this freeing of the restraints of form, this poem is a tour de force in the manner of Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” in which naturalness of speech is achieved within the confines of rhymed couplets.
In “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” Browning makes extensive use of cacophony, simile, and metaphor. The harsh ugliness of the landscape is conveyed by means of such shrill words and phrases as “cockle,” “spurge,” “blotches,” “chopped,” “bespate,” “ugh,” “ragged thistle stalk,” “dank/ Soil to a plash,” and “ugly heights and heaps.” Browning was especially comfortable using unpleasant sounds to create desired effects, as one may see in “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” and “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix.”
Similes in this poem are what might be called “organic.” They are vital embodiments of the persona’s perceptions. The persona’s comparison of the “sudden little river” to a serpent indicates his sense of danger; the phrase “quiet as despair” in stanza 8 suggests his exhaustion. That he has “supp’d full with horrors” is seen in his perception of the cleft in the oak tree as “a distorted mouth that splits its rim/ Gaping at death” in stanza 26.
The various states of the persona’s consciousness are similarly delineated by metaphors. As he leaves the public path in stanza 8, he sees himself as a lost farm animal: The sun “shot one grim/ Red leer to see the plan catch its estray.” The doomed ship in stanza 31 and the exposed, vulnerable prey of gigantic hunters in stanza 32 are additional indications of the persona’s acute fear and sense of danger.