Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" was published in the poet's most famous and most successful collection of poems, almost programmatically entitled Men and Women (1855). Although everybody interested in English poetry has a vague knowledge of this volume of poetry, very few readers have indeed paid attention to the atypical dimension of a poem that obviously offers a radical change from the common run of dramatic monologues, and even inside the lengthy corpus of Browning's poetry. The traditional dramatic monologue has three necessary elements: the speaker, the silent hearer, and the extreme urgency of the speech the poem actually consists in. With "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came", there is no cultural context apart from the pseudo-medieval setting suggested by the speaker and the very title of the poem, and, what is more, there is absolutely no audience inside the poem. The title itself, with its direct reference to Shakespeare's King Lear and the literary tradition of medievalism, is more problematic than helpful in understanding the "meaning" of the poem (if this noun can be properly applied to poetry). The speaker's discourse — that is, the poem — is not addressed to a silent hearer whom the speaker would have to seduce, compel, convince, or manipulate; it is much more self-oriented, as if the poem itself could indeed only stage the very possibility of its own utterance, along the syntaxic line of its own verbal and ambiguous, not to say tortuous, development. "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" is much more a soliloquy than a monologue, even though it has traditionally been referred to as a monologue, and not a soliloquy.
"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" belongs to a series of great poems that were composed at a time when Browning had firmly decided to write a poem a day, in a new year's resolution for 1852. More than the performance, the genesis of the poem should be focused on and analysed in a way that throws light both on Browning's poetic creation and the fundamentally romantic nature of the poem. Instead of the rational, although often deceptive, discourse of a garrulous speaker whose word at the same time must and cannot be understood and accepted as such, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" was presented by the poet as the result of a dream, a vision, a sequence of powerful images and scenes:
Childe Roland came upon me as a kind of dream. I had to write it, then and there, and I finished it the same day, I believe. But it was simply that I had to do it. I did not know then what I meant beyond that, and I'm sure I don't know now.
In contrast to the supposedly meticulous composition of Browning's more famous dramatic monologues, the poet presented "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" in 1887 as the perfect illustration of unconscious, involuntary inspiration --as if the text of the poem had been imposed on him as such by a dream, as if it were not the result of hard work and meticulous composition but the apparently arbitrary necessity of a natural event and the uncontrollable nature of an overwhelming desire.
From this point of view, the poetic trajectory of "Childe Roland" seems to be clear, but many questions immediately arise, such as the nature, implications, and structure of the text, the last line of which is an utterance, which is the open repetition of the title. What is more, the medieval pilgrimage the speaker's discourse alludes to and seems to describe apparently has a highly symbolic quality, thus inviting the reader to translate the poem into another context, idiom, and field. The problem is that the poem invites the reader to find a symbolic meaning behind the poem, but at the same time it obstinately refuses to yield that symbolic meaning. In other words, the apparently symbolic transparency immediately leads the reader to a textual opacity that traps the reader into conceiving a meaning that immediately becomes its own purpose and problem, as if Childe Roland's pilgrimage were an illustration of the reader's own pilgrimage and quest for an ever-elusive meaning. The very conditions of the composition of the monologue themselves throw light on the problematic nature of the poem, which was still impossible to understand for the author even after decades. It had presented itself to Browning with the urgency and the necessity generally staged and carefully prepared for the immoral speakers of the most popular dramatic monologues: "I had to write it" and "it was simply that I had to do it."
Generally speaking, the speaker of a dramatic monologue is literally, if not systematically, cornered in a social context and situation that lead him to try and speak his way out of the trap he actually himself sets and awkwardly and pathetically tries to defuse. In fact, the pleasure derived from this poetic genre generally lies in both this complexity and the evidence of the speaker's difficult situation, a situation in which he has to betray himself and confess what he should necessarily hide. In "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came", apart from the so-called trap Browning openly and bizarrely identified as the dream that actually compelled him to write the poem, the only traps alluded to are those imagined, if not exaggerated, not to say invented, by the speaker: "My first thought was, he lied in every word" (1), "one more victim gained thereby" (6), "As when a trap shuts — -you're inside the den!" (174), "to see the game at bay" (191), "To view the last of me" (200). If there is a prison or a trap in "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came", it is its very formal structure, since the whole monologue begins with the title, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came", and ends with this final, rather enigmatic utterance, a direct quotation from Shakespeare's King Lear, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came", i.e. a direct repetition of the very quotation that is the title itself of the famous poem.
In a way, the knight's pilgrimage, which apparently sounds a little like a pilgrim's progress in a fundamentally hostile environment, is all the more problematic and enigmatic as it itself refers to other pilgrimages, which have traditionally constituted the perilous journeys of mythological heroes, whereas the body of the monologue is, by definition, never supported by any extra-textual and tangible reality, for instance by the discourse of a companion, an ally, or an opponent. As we have seen, Childe Roland, being the only speaker of the poem, expresses the only vision the poem is entirely made with, without even the slightest distance obliquely introduced by the purported presence of a hearer, whereas the nature of the pilgrimage should logically and traditionally imply or necessitate a third-person narrative in which the narrator presents the deeds and thoughts of a hero, confronted as he is with the tension between his mission and all those whose only purpose and reason to be are the preventing of the hero from succeeding in his mission. In other words, the pilgrimage, traps, and opponents only appear in the speaker's monologue, as if the world and reality could be summoned and summed up by the only voice the poem is made with. We thus now realise that the monologue unquestionably happens to rely on something else than the very few diegetic elements the poem is nevertheless supposed to follow and develop scrupulously. If "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" is a rather atypical monologue, the poem also has to be defined as an atypical kind of epic, with the absence of a material object as the necessary origin and fundamental justification for the pilgrimage.
This problem is all the more insoluble as the monologue constantly refers to the "Dark Tower" as an end for the quest, some kind of ultimate and necessary confrontation in which the knight must be defeated, after the final revelation that sounds like an apocalypse: "Burningly it came on me all at once, this was the place!" (175-176) The poem sounds like a permanent confrontation, or a permanently elusive, if not delusive and impossible, encounter. The very first lines of the poem are an in medias res beginning, a technique rendered almost necessary by the dramatic monologue in general, since the speaker has obliquely to suggest the context, the presence of listeners or witnesses. "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" is here very different from the norm set by Browning since the only human presence, the "hoary cripple" of line 2, is not directly introduced in the poem by the use of a second person — the addressee — , but alluded to as a "no-person", to use Benveniste's expression. In other words, this "hoary cripple" is the figure of the other, the alien, i.e. an object. This preliminary encounter, which by the way sounds more like the pessimistic interpretation of a common incident, than a genuine encounter, with what it entails, gives the reader a very clear, although oblique and retrospective, introduction to the whole poem, and more precisely to the way it works, develops, and unravels.
When I said that the first stanza of the monologue is an interpretation of an incident, I actually meant that the poem constantly presents elements with the very interpretation of those elements at the same time. Without the authority of a third-person narrator or narrative that traditionally and artificially injects reality into a text, the speaker of "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" actually expects the reader to accept not reality but an interpretation of it, that is the reading of a world in which he desperately looks for a direction, a way, and a meaning in an open maze of poetic creation, a maze we readers can look into in order to look at poetry in the making. The second stanza of the poem obviously exemplifies that point:
What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travellers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? [Lines 7-10]
Questions and negations combine into a recurring structure that prevents the reader from doubting the speaker's strange perception, not to say interpretation, of reality. In other words, although "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" is not a dramatic monologue, mainly because of the absence of a silent audience alluded to and characterised inside the poem, it nevertheless clearly belongs to the genre of the monologue, with the highly subjective, thus highly biased and partial, conception and interpretation of reality. Since the speaker is alone in the poem and thus does not need to seduce or convince a hostile audience, his speech is not only the poem but also becomes the supposed reality that should exist outside the poem. In other words, if there is no audience inside the poem, that does not prevent "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" from being a monologue. The main difference is that the monologue is particularly self-oriented, i.e. the speech that constitutes the poem deals with nothing else but itself, there does not seem to be any reality outside the speaker's perception of the path supposedly leading the speaker to the purportedly perilous Dark Tower, whose very name sounds symbolical enough to suggest the existence of a physical context the poem is nevertheless cruelly deprived of.
Although the poem supposedly relates the pilgrimage of a knight whose unique mission is to defeat his arch-enemy, the notorious Dark Tower, the journey itself is at the antipodes of a traditional mythological journey relying on both legendary facts and fabled elements whose coherence is based on the faithful description of a journey from a place to another, i.e. from a situation to another, hence the transition and ritual this journey is usually considered to be the symbol of. Generally speaking, mythological narratives include the notorious nekyia, or at least an allusion to it, the journey that consists for the hero of the narrative in going through an infernal place in which he might have to floor his most ferocious enemies in an ultimate confrontation. With "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came", the monologue seems to be the Nekyia itself; in other words, instead of narrating the hero's journey to an infernal region, the speaker himself builds, inside his very speech, which constitutes the very body of the poem, a verbal Nekyia, that is to say the maze of poetic creation. As the speaker himself states, "Back therefore to my darkening path again!" (line 104), as if the "path" of poetic creation were one, even though the directions were numerous. In a way, the speaker seems to be doomed to the unique line/path of his speech, whereas the very principle of his pilgrimage and quest should imply many different roads, episodes, and directions.
When, in the thirty-first stanza of a poem that comprises thirty-four stanzas, the speaker is apparently confronted with the tower itself, this belated confrontation sounds like a frustration to the reader, since the tower is curiously defined as something that does not physically exist, something that is curiously deprived of material existence:
What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
The round squat turret, blind as the fool's heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counterpart
In the whole world. (Lines 181-184)
Of course, the plain reading of this short definition would only allude to the fact that the tower is unique, that it is to be found nowhere else — in other words that there is only one tower. On a second level of reading, though, this description can also define the dark tower as a monument made of words and images and not made of "brown stone". In other words, and as is the case in the whole poem, the reality described by the speaker is limited to the content of his speech, in other words: there is not reality outside the description of his perception. "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" could thus be characterised by the absence of reality outside the poem, the text thus being its only object and the representation of its only body of words. Of course, that undermines the poem as an epic, but as we have already seen, Browning's epic is by definition an atypical epic, not to say a self-oriented epic, that is to say a poem that does not narrate a pilgrimage or a quest but a speech as poem (the very definition by Browning himself in "One Word more", also published in Men and Women in 1855). In such circumstances, the poem only deals with the creation of the poem, which accounts for the repetition of the title "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" in the very last line of the poem. Indeed, what the speaker reaches is not the mysterious dark tower, whose presence is only confirmed, is not dreamt, by him, but the utterance "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came". In other words, the speaker eventually reaches the very title of the poem, the poem itself being the aesthetic maze of its own elaboration in the making.
This is not by chance that Charles Flint Thomas, in his book entitled Art and Architecture in the Poetry of Robert Browning, tried and found the tower itself that inspired the poet when he created "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came". Indeed, this notorious tower, the recurring, not to say obsessive, nightmare of the speaker led the Browning specialist to discover the building itself in Italy. He even took a picture of the tower he supposed should be considered to be the dark tower itself. Logically enough, especially in a monologue that does not describe the very tower, except in the two following lines "The round squat turret, blind as the fool's heart, / Built of brown stone" (lines 182-183), the picture is all the more disappointing as the reader imagines his own tower and recreates it in a way that is both very personal and that must correspond to the speaker's constant anxiety and terror. It goes without saying that the picture of the tower does not carry anxiety or terror and that it reinforces, as the neutral photograph of a dilapidated edifice, the dreamlike vision, journey, detour and pilgrimage the monologue consists in. Since the dark tower has "no counterpart / In the whole world", since it has no reality but the speech the poem is, the dark tower is but an illusion, a representation, and a dream. The last line is logically the title of the poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came", the poem being only the circular maze of its own aesthetic elaboration, its own purpose, its own justification, and the very end of a poetic journey that has of course "no counterpart / In the whole world".
The circular nature of "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" is undoubtedly another element that establishes the monologue as self-oriented poem, a poem, as we have already seen, in which there is very little reality outside the speaker's speech and anxiety. The fifteenth stanza itself presents the traveller as a willingly blind traveller who chooses to turn his eyes to his own mind, instead of facing reality in its diversity: "I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart" (line 85). As we have seen, the end of the monologue is the beginning and the speaker's journey is a verbal nekyia that is not the consequence and the result of physical movement. In other words, the poem consists in only one episode; there is indeed no passage, no transition from a place to another, a structural monotony that is formally echoed by the regularity of the metre, that is the blank verse. That is even echoed by the static dimension of Roland's journey: all the encountered elements of the setting of the knight's quest are actually details, animals and objects that come to him. In other words, the setting and its various objects indeed come across him, whereas the reader could expect Roland to discover them on his way. Childe Roland's journey is paradoxically a static journey, in other words, Childe Roland is a motionless traveller in his own inner maze of aesthetic creation and tormented elaboration.
For instance, the speaker does not have to cross a river that stands in his way as a possible obstacle; if there is a river, it is itself deformed, it is itself a moving obstacle that comes to our static speaker: "A sudden little river crossed my path / As unexpected as a serpent comes." (lines 109) Stanza twenty-five adopts the same structure : "Then came a bit of stubbed ground [Š]" (line 145), "Burningly it came on me all at once, / This was the place!" (lines 175-176) The poem provides the reader with a setting that moves and literally encounters the traveller; in a way, the setting is provided to the traveller exactly the way the reader is progressively provided with the poem. What is more, instead of telling the reader what he comes across in his quest, the speaker invites the reader to guess what he dare not describe, thanks to negations and anti-descriptions. In stanza thirty-one, the dark tower suddenly appears, as if summoned by a trickster, "What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?" (line 181) Again, the setting is presented as an evidence, as if nothing else were feasible, and that evidence necessarily rules out any other possibility; the reader thus has no other choice than accept the misshapen setting as the only setting. As a consequence, and this is perfectly compatible with the obsessive circularity of the monologue, Childe Roland's journey can be easily defined as a static rigid journey. Nothing is actually discovered, everything is evident, nightmarish, and necessary.
Why, then, should Childe Roland's journey be full of detours, since the path has no twist and turn? His journey is indeed nightmarishly static, all he is confronted with a tower and a setting being only made of the fabric of his anxiety and the material he unearths from his own imaginary fears. In other words, the speaker of "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" is engaged in a motionless, self-oriented, nightmarish, imaginary, and aesthetic journey whose detours are the detours of poetic creation, and not the geographical detours of a daring traveller embarked in a perilous journey. The very first line of stanza thirty sounds like a revelation, both intellectual AND sensory, through which the journey finds its own direction, meaning, and purpose: "Burningly it came on me all at once" (line 175). Again, if the journey is only made of perceptions, dreams, fears, and images, it loses its original status and meaning, and ultimately becomes the powerful imaginary representation of a literally frozen landscape, which is itself the terrifying image of an inner landscape. This is precisely the most disquieting part of every Nekyia, i.e. the moment when the hero eventually realises that the journey has to be a journey inside his own mind, and that he is himself the very maze in which he loses his way. That point is all the more important for the speaker's perilous journey as the speaker actually never loses his way and never really looks for the way that leads to the ominous "Dark Tower".
As is usual in the traveller's speech, the path and the way are actual evidences that cannot be missed or misunderstood:
What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travellers 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. (Lines 7-12)
This second stanza is particularly interesting to focus on, for several reasons: firstly, its structure already announces in the monologue the interrogative nature of a speech often built on evidences. Secondly, this geographic evidence is also an obvious trap for the traveller, which should become in itself a good reason not to follow the road pointed at by the "hoary cripple" (line 2); and yet, the traveller cannot but follow the direction nevertheless defined as a snare. Thirdly, the traveller's flippancy is in sharp contrast with the supposedly serious nature of the journey, which of course necessarily debunks the very possibility of a mythology-oriented narrative. In spite of the apparently epic dimension of the poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" is not a narrative. The speaker speaks, as the speakers of other monologues, but he never actually narrates his own or someone else's adventures.
The various creatures, characters, animals, and entities encountered in the speaker's journey indeed populate a setting and a place that are not materially guaranteed by the presence of witnesses, as is generally the tradition in the dramatic monologue. If a diegesis needs passages, transitions, and evolutions in time and space, there is literally no diegesis in "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came". Nothing really happens, even though everything comes to the speaker. As is already the case with Robert Browning's other dramatic monologues, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" is a poem made with an act of language — or an act of language made into a poem — and its own conclusion is the final utterance "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came", hence the structural circularity of the poem. The very end of the poem is itself rather atypical, since the title is not only repeated, but it is also quoted with inverted commas, as if the sentence "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" were actually turned into an utterance, this utterance having perilously followed the difficult trajectory of the enunciation of the monologue. Indeed, as we have seen, Childe Roland and his pilgrimage are turned into poetry, lines and words, as if the poem could not refer to anything outside itself, as if, in other words, there were no reality, no beauty, and no geography outside the text.
We thus cannot but realise that the atmosphere and anxiety surrounding the speaker's journey is remarkably summoned by the doubts of a speaker who thus manages to inspire fear and anxiety. "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" works as a poetic nightmare whose meanders and detours just add to the general atmosphere of the poem. The very beginning of the monologue, with the in medias res encounter with the "hoary cripple" is a first invitation to both a journey and an adventure, a technique Browning already used in one of his most criticised poems, an epic poem entitled Sordello. The technique in question consists in a poetic journey in a disquieting setting whose arbitrary presence even adds to the ominous hostility of both the environment and the encountered creatures. In a way, the very reading of the poem becomes the journey itself, reading being a pilgrimage and a quest for a meaning which cannot be reduced to the patient accumulation of iambic pentameters. This partly accounts for the presence of the quotation of the title, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came", in the final line of the monologue. The end of the poem sends us to the title of the poem, i.e. its very beginning, not to say the text before the beginning. The end mirrors the title, and such an echo, which, by the way, cannot be expected before the end itself, destabilises the reader of the monologue at a moment when he precisely expects the closure and justification of the poem. The end of the poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came", escapes the reader just the way the "Dark Tower" seems to escape the speaker, although he undoubtedly anticipates and anxiously looks forward to the ultimate confrontation with what has become but an illusion.
I would like to conclude this reading of one of the most famous monologues by Browning, if not one of the most famous Victorian poems, by pointing out a parallel with the poet's most successful dramatic monologue, "My Last Duchess." After the its publication, Browning was recurrently asked about the unsaid dimension in the poem, and especially what had presumably and mysteriously happened to the Duke's wife. As a poet, Browning simply answered that all he wrote and meant was inside the poem and nowhere else, a clear, if not terribly frustrating, answer, which limited the text to itself. In other words, the epic dimension that readers expected in "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came," with its dangerous journey and perilous pilgrimage, is never the medievalist influence apparently referred to in the monologue, but the convoluted journey that leads to the aesthetic production of the difficult music of language and the elusive nature of meaning. The aesthetic articulation of both elements makes it possible for poetry to emerge, and justifies the literary maze the utterance "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" is a beautiful example of. From Shakespeare's King Lear to Victorian poetry, the utterance itself has journeyed through centuries and has become the ultimate goal of the speaker's monologue, as if poetry were its own and only justification. Childe Roland himself gives a definition of his journey and mission, with the expression "my whole world-wide wandering" (line 19), and this oblique definition could very well apply to literary creation in particular, with its constant conflict between music and meaning, a conflict that makes poetry a perilous journey indeed but a beautiful journey beyond the shade, reach and scope of the Dark Tower.
Modified 10 September 2004