Robert BrowningPhysical and Mental Landscapes in “Childe Roland” by Robert Browning
On a doomed quest to conquer the evil of the Dark Tower, Childe Roland wanders through a wasteland filled with barren natural images and memories of once-heroic, now-fallen friends. The poem is alarming in the way the stark, barren terrain through which Roland travels offers no sensual or imaginative detail, but more so for its unflinching portrayal of
The opening lines of the poem are more shocking than the grimness of the detail because they illustrate the bleak mood of the hero. He is distrustful “My first thought was, he lied in every word” and bitter: “That hoary cripple, with malicious eye”. His despair and paranoia become evident in the inconsistency of his thought: if the man was lying about where to find
the Dark Tower, why the barely suppressed “glee” at the prospect of Roland’s death? This paranoia and sense of foreboding is all-consuming; he is convinced he will not reach his goal, that the cripple deceived him, and traps lie in his way. His fears, however, fail to materialize. He does reach the tower, evidently the hermit did give accurate instructions, and nothing deters him from his quest. His fear is projected onto the landscape, and his morbid mind runs wild, imagining a stiff old horse as one of the “devil’s stud” and picturing dead bodies choking the river as he wades across. Instead he only encounters a water-rat that shrieks as he
spears it, but even that to his tortured mind seems the scream of a baby. Everything he sees or thinks fills him with loathing and sorrow. Despair and uncertainty play a major role in “Childe Roland”. The knight does not know where to turn. We learn early on in the poem that for
Roland the impetus for confronting the threat of the Dark Tower comes from the desolation of his own mind- he desires an end to his troubled wanderings: “…neither pride/ Nor hope rekindling at the end descried, / So much as gladness that some end might be.” Fearing he has travelled too far to return from his journey, Roland seems to long primarily for
resolution rather than for victory.
He travels alone, for his companions have all failed in their quest. He cannot bear to look to the future because he believes that he will never reach his destination. The bleakness of his present surroundings horrifies him, so he tries to find refuge in a happier past. Trying desperately to escape the present that threatens him from without, he seeks to look into himself and remember brighter times. Perhaps some pleasant memories, sipped and tasted like wine, can bring him a few drops of solace and numb his anxiety. Then he can “play his part” and move onward. His recollections of his former companions, however, rapidly turn bitter: “Poor traitor, spit upon and curst!”
Looking back does not help; it only serves to remind him how the past became the terrible and lonely present. His old companions failed in one way or the other, only he remains. Severed from his past, afraid of the future, the bleakness consumes him from without and within. He can only continue. Upon reaching his destination, the phantom memories of his comrades surround him and “one moment knells the woe of years”. They view him for the last time, but he cannot go back. He must release the past and move on, into the unknown future. Bringing the horn to his lips he blows his song, announcing his intention to charge.
Through the plaintive song of the knight, Browning paints the picture of a depressed personality. Browning uses the form of dramatic monologue, which creates a sense of isolation; Roland is utterly alone, and we imagine him voicing his misery to himself as he traipses through the wasteland, with the ethereal reader as his only audience. It is as if we, the reader, are in Roland’s mind with him, so tangible is his pain.
The use of rhyming (abbaab) stanzas, resembling a ballad, evokes the traditional form of ‘heroic epic‘ poem. “Childe Roland” has many of the components of a heroic epic, yet rends asunder its emotive impact. Browning even subverts the heroic subject matter- the archetypal trusty steed is a grotesque and unhealthy “devil’s stud”. True to the structure of the heroic epic, Roland does arrive at the Dark Tower and make his stand in the end, and this in a way signifies his redemption and fulfils the Browning ideal that life can only truly be lived in the endeavour to encompass a task that is beyond one’s powers. That failure is predestined
and yet, paradoxically, proves to be the greatest success, in that man fully tests, extends, and ultimately transcends his limitations in the excitement of the struggle. As Andrea del Sarto puts it: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?“However, Roland is haunted by the question that Browning’s other heroes never ask; “should I be fit?“
Childe Roland indirectly contemplates the worthiness of the endeavor, when weighed against his survival. In his friends, he finds those who succumbed to the temptation of immediate gratification. He decides that the choice has already been made as to his fate, and that he must not turn away from it. Thus, as the poem concludes, despite the ghosts of all of those that he has known who have fought and lost that he can see, he calls out the phrase which defines the purpose of his training, and of his life: “Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower came.” Whether he dies or not has no relevance, and, fittingly, that information remains ommitted, and because
of this omission the conclusion to the poem avoids entirely debunking the notion of the heroic epic. While Browning does not destroy this type of epic legend per se, he brings social realism to the heroic journey as a means of demythifying the heroic ideal.
This undercutting of the heroic ideal and subversion of the form and images of the epic adds to the desolation in both physical and mental landscape, in that the bleak wasteland through which Roland travels on his quest for the Dark Tower represents his own hopeless, unheroic state of mind. Roland attempts to attribute sinister and fiendish qualities to a place almost entirely devoid of life. In his visions of hellish horses and rivers full of bodies, we see only his anger and despair made manifest. The horse, though ugly, is not evil, and yet Roland exclaims: “I never saw a brute I hated so“. Even the unassuming rivulet is “unexpected as a serpent comes” and “so pretty yet so spiteful!“ Similarly the cripple is an object of hate, but at the same time he is Roland himself in a different form. He has the same “malicious eye”- the instrument Roland uses to view all around him, and in different ways both men are crippled; the old man physically and Roland imaginatively. When Roland scorns his guide, he really expresses anger at himself for he knows he will inevitably fail to conquer whatever evil lurks at the Dark Tower. His sense of fate is represented by the fact the way back is lost almost immediately: “the safe road, ‘twas gone! grey plain all round!”
In contrast to Tennyson’s “Mariana”, in which the physical world reflects the emotions of the narrator, the external reality of this world is the internal emotional reality of Roland. The wasteland exists within Roland’s mind. The poem can be read as an allegory, functioning both as an imaginative journey, and a journey through the imagination. Roland’s acquiescence to death, his frustration in his journey, and his own disappointment in himself, all combine to weaken his imaginative powers. On the allegorical level, the tortured landscape the narrator depicts represents his own imagination, fallen prey to these negative forces. This is shown in his painful attempt to recall happier times; “Out went my heart’s new fire and left it cold.”
However, a dramatic change takes place when Roland finally discovers the Tower; or when perhaps the Dark Tower discovers him; “Burningly it came on me all at once,” Roland exclaims, and the “burning” although again a simple of destruction, also has a purifying effect. It purges Roland of his malaise and hatred, essentially ridding him of his ego and restoring
his heroic sense of self-sacrifice. This change in him is reflected in the landscape- mountains rise, bells chime, he has a vision of his ghostly comrades. His imaginative powers are reawakened with his sense of duty, and “dauntless” he goes to face his doom.