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Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came (Robert Browning)

Published onFeb 05, 2024
Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came (Robert Browning)

“Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came”

By Robert Browning


My first thought was, he lied in every word,

   That hoary cripple, with the malicious eye

   Askance to watch the working of his lie

On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford

Supression of the glee, that pursed and scored

   Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.


What else should he be set for, with his staff?

   What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare

   All travelers who might find him posted there,

And ask the road? I guessed what skull-like laugh

Would break, what crutch 'gin write my epitaph

   For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,

If at his counsel I should turn aside

   Into that ominous tract which, all agree,

   Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiesingly

I did turn as he pointed: neither pride

Nor hope rekindling at the end described,

   So much as gladness that some end might be.

For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,

   What with my search drawn out through the years, my hope

   Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope

With that obstreperous joy success would bring,

I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring

   My heart made, finding failure in its scope.


As when a sick man very near to death

   Seems dead indeed, and feels begin and end

   The tears and takes farewell of each friend,

And hears one bid the other go, draw breath

Freelier ouside, ("since all is o'er," he saith,

   "And the blow fallen no grieving can amend";)


While some discuss if near the the other graves

   Be roon enough for this, and when a day

   Suits best for carrying the corpse away,

With care about the banners, scarves and staves:

And still the man hears all, and only craves

   He may not shame such tender love and stay.


Thus, I had so long suffered in this quest,

   Heard failure prosephied so oft, been writ

   So many times among "The Band"- to wit,

The knights who to the Dark Tower's search addressed

their steps- that just to fail as they, seemed best,

   And all the doubt was now- should I be fit?


So, quiet as despair, I turned from him,

   That hateful cripple, out of his highway

   Into the path he pointed. All the day

Had been a dreary one at best, and dim

Was settling to its close, yet shot one grim

   Red leer to see the plain catch its estray.


For mark! no sooner was I fairly found

   Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two,

   Than, pausing to throw backward a last view

O'er the safe road, 'twas gone; gray plain all round:

Nothing but plain to the horizon's bound.

   I might go on; naught else remained to do.


So, on I went. I think I never saw

   Such starved noble nature; nothing throve:

   For flowers- as well expect a cedar grove!

But cockle, spurge, according to their law

Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,

   You'd think; a burr had been a treasure trove.


No! penury, inertness and grimace,

   In some strange sort, were the land's portion. "See

   Or shut your eyes," said Nature peevishly,

"It nothing skills: I cannot help my case:

'Tis the Last Judgment's fire must cure this place,

   Calcine its clode and set my prisoners free."


If there pushed any ragged thistle-stalk

   Above its mates, the head was chopped; the bents

   Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents

In the dock's harsh swarth leaves, bruised as to balk

All hope of greenness? 'tis a brute must walk

   Pashing their life out, with a brute's intents.


As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair

   In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked with mud

   Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood.

One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,

Stood stupefied, however he came there:

   Thrust out past service from the devil's stud!


Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,

   With that red gaunt and collapsed neck a-strain,

   And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;

Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;

I never saw a brute I hated so;

   He must be wicked to deserve such pain.


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,

Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.

Think first, fight afterwards- the soldier's art:

   One taste of the old time sets all to rights.


Not it! I fancied Cuthbert's reddening face

   Beneath its garniture of curly gold,

   Dear fellow, till I almost felt him fold

An arm in mine to fix me to the place,

That way he used. Alas, one night's disgrace!

   Out went my heart's new fire and left it cold.


Giles then, the soul of honor- there he stands

   Frank as ten years ago when knighted first.

   What honest man should dare (he said) he durst.

Good - but the scene shifts - faugh! what hangman-hands

Pin to his breast a parchment? His own hands

   Read it. Poor traitor, spit upon and curst!


Better this present than a past like that;

   Back to my darkening path again!

   No sound, no sight as far as the eye could strain.

Will the night send a howlet or a bat?

I asked: when something on the dismal flat

   Came to arrest my thoughts and change their train.


A sudden little river crossed my path

   As unexpected as a serpant comes.

   No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms;

This, as it frothed by, might have been a bath

For a fiend's glowing hoof- to see the wrath

   Of its black eddy bespate with flakes and spumes.


So petty yet so spiteful! All along,

   Low scrubby alders kneeled down over it;

   Drenched willows flung themselves headlong into a fit

Of mute despair, a suicidal throng:

The river which had done them all wrong,

   Whate'er that was, rolled by, deterred no whit.


Which, while I forded,- good saints, how I feared

   To set my foot upon a dead man's cheek,

   Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek

For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard!

- It may have been a water rat I speared,

   But, ugh! it sounded like a baby's shriek.


Glad was I when I reached the other bank.

   Now for a better country. Vain presage!

   Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage,

Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank

Soil to a plash? Toads in a poisoned tank,

   Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage-


The fight must so have seemed in that fell cirque.

   What penned them there, with all the plain to choose?

   No footprint leading to that horrid mews,

None out of it. Mad brewage set to work

Their brains, no doubt, like galley-slaves the Turk

   Pits for his pastime, Christians against Jews.


And more than that- a furlong on- why, there!

   What bad use was that engine for, that wheel,

   Or brake, not wheel- that harrow fit to reel

Men's bodies out like silk? with all the air

Of Tophet's tool, on earth left unaware,

   Or brought to sharpen its rusty teeth of steel.


Then came a bit of stubbed ground, once a wood,

   Next a marsh, it would seem, and now mere earth

   Desperate and done with; (so a fool finds mirth,

Makes a thing and then mars it, till his mood

Changes and off he goes!) within a rood-

   Bog, clay and rubble, sand and stark black dearth.


Now blotches rankling, colored gay and grim,

   Now patches where some leanness of the soil's

   Broke into moss or substance like boils;

Then came some palsied oak, a cleft in him

Like a disturbed mouth that splits its rim

   Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils.


And just as far as ever from the end!

   Naught in the distance but the evening, naught

   To point my footstep further! At the thought,

A great black bird, Apollyon's bosom-friend,

Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned

   That brushed my cap- perchance the guide I sought.


For, looking up, aware I somehow grew,

   'Spite of the dusk, the plains had given place

   All round to mountains- with such name to grace

Mere ugly heights and heaps now stolen into view.

How thus they had surprised me,- solve it, you!

   How to get from them was no clearer case.


Yet half I seemed to recognize some trick

   Of mischief happened to me, God knows when-

   In a bad dream perhaps. Here ended, then,

Progress this way. When, in the very nick

Of giving up, one more time, came a click

   As when a trap shuts- you're inside the den!


Burningly it came on me all at once,

   This was the place! those two hills on the right,

   Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight;

While to the left, a tall scalped mountain... Dunce,

Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,

   After a life spent training for the sight!


What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?

   The round squat turret, blind as a fool's heart,

   Built of brown stone, without a counterpart

In the whole world. The tempest's mocking elf

Points to the shipman thus the unsees self

   He strikes on, only when the timbers start.


Not see? because of night perhaps?- why, day

   Came back again for that! before it left,

   The dying sunset kindled through a cleft:

The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay,

Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay,-

   "Now stab and end the creature- to the heft!"


Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it tolled

   Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears

   Of all the lost adventurers my peers,-

How such a one was strong, and such was bold,

And such was fortunate, yet each of old

   Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years.


There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met

   To view the last of me, a living frame

   For one more picture! in a sheet of flame

I saw them and I knew them all. And yet

Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips set,

   And blew. "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came."

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