Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

Robert Browning

"More than one great English poem has been inspired by some fragmentary utterance of Shakespeare. It is as if genius needed but the touch of genius to set the poetic torch aflame; as if the one poet finished the thought of the other. “Mariana in the Moated Grange,” that classic of loneliness, is one of such. From the brief words, “There, at the moated grange,” Tennyson has conjured a marvelous picture of utter desolation and decay; a perfect expression of absolute misery. Of similar origin, but greater from its heroic quality, is Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the dark tower came.” Beginning with the words of Edgar’s snatch of mad song in “Lear,” in this short poem he gives magnificent voice to all the nobility of all the heroes who have ever recklessly surrendered themselves to the truth that he who would save his life must lose it. Vainly does man strive to gain his life and keep it. In vain shall he listen to the sweet world-voices that cajole and flatter. They call him knight, and hero, but he knows that each applauded quest is not the quest. The dragons he slays are undoubtedly dragons; but he has not slain the beast. He has not yet met the monster with which the noblest of his peers fought their last and bravest fight.
When, at last, after fruitless or meagerly fruitful adventure, he turns to the real, essential quest, the world’s applause is changed to sneers. Did he attack social evil, intemperance, corruption in government, or what not, he received his meed of applause. But when he turns aside from light quests, and inquires the way to the dark tower of his own heart’s sin, he becomes aware that the world’s applause has ceased and in the hush can hear the evil chuckle of “that hoary cripple, with malicious eye,” who impersonates all the sneers and all the bitter scorn of the Spirit of sin. The devil was not perturbed when the quest was outward; but now, when he turns his steps toward the very stronghold of sin, which is his own heart, he is chilled by the simulated glee of the evil powers, who are too wise to warn the knight of his danger, lest his courage be increased.

Excerpt from The
Methodist Review (Vol. 95) 1913

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