Long Poem #3: 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came'

'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came'

by Robert Browning
(Men and Women, 1855)

1. What the critics say

Browning's poem has been described as a "nightmare", a "dream narrative", an "impenetrable allegory", and, most usefully perhaps, as a "psychological landscape". Browning himself consistently refused to explain the poem: "Childe Roland came upon me as a dream", he said in 1887, more than thirty years after it was published. "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." <www.victorianweb.org/authors/rb/roland>

One modern attempt at analysis of Childe Roland notes its stark, relentless, linearity that propels the protagonist (and the reader) towards the Dark Tower. "As in the best horror stories...a naturalist setting and a narrative style allow terror and dismay to emerge all the more convincingly...The poem's very formality, with its regular and Roman-numbered stanzas marching on with a consistent dignified iambic tread...tells a chillingly good story." <www.guardian.com/books/...poem of the week> 

This is a simple description of the poet's technique, of how Browning has achieved an affect on his readers. But it leaves a fundamental question mark over the poem completely unmoved. And it rather suits Browning's intention to maintain the obscurity of the poem's meaning (as expressed above).

The American critic Harold Bloom is, characteristically, more direct in his assessment of the poet's work. Bloom asserts that Browning's poems are neither 'dramatic' nor 'monologues' (despite the general convention that that is precisely what they are -- 'dramatic monologues'). Instead, his "company of ruined questers, imperfect poets, self-sabotaged artists, failed lovers, inspired fanatics, charlatans, monomaniacs, and self-deceiving confidence men all have a certain family resemblance". That is, in each member of this 'company' "many voices speak, including several that belong to Browning himself".

Browning is "a kind of psychological atomist", according to Bloom. "In his work, older conceptions of personality disappear, and a more incoherent individual continuity is allowed to express the truths of actual existence...his art constantly explores the multiplicity of selves that inhabit apparently single, unitary personalities, some of them not at all unlike some of his own. Each of his men and women is at least several men and women, and his lovers learn that we can never embrace any one person at a time, but only the whole of an incoherence, the cluster of voices and beings that jostles in any separate self." 
[Wow! Please feel free to pause, take a deep breath, and perhaps an antacid for linguistic congestion.]

Turning to Childe Roland, I think there is some evidence of what Bloom calls Browning's "uncanny greatness" in this poem. A "multitude of selves" is expressed in moments of "incoherence", in little verbal 'slippages' that 'betray' the complexity within the "wilfully ruined quester". It is Browning's 'uncanny' ability to portray this 'competition' of consciousnesses [Sorry!], this 'jostling' of inner 'selves', through inadvertent 'betrayals' of his inconsistencies and contradictions in this 'conversation' with the reader. An example of this is Childe Roland's barely suppressed resentment at Cuthbert and Giles, those former comrades whose perfidy he  blames for his own disillusionment. Roland's attitude of cynical world-weariness, professed throughout the poem, would seem to preclude the impact of past emotional hurts. He is above all that surely, in some barren space beyond the reach of such trivial conceits. And yet they seep out any how.

2. A framework of a 'lived-life'

In my not very original view, Browning's Childe Roland (1855) is a literary progenitor to T.S. Eliot's Waste Land (1922). My response to both poems in this series of posts is to treat them as a (partly) explanatory framework, as outlines on which to lay the fabric of 'lived-lives'. In Eliot's case I used The Waste Land as a model to depict a group of people, a social sub-set of squatters and their heirs. In Browning's case I intend to follow a similar path, but this time for an individual, for a single 'lived-life'.

I like the word 'autobiography' for its clear etymology. It is easily dissected into its original Greek parts: autos = 'self', bios = 'life', and graphe = 'writing'. Auto-bio-graphy is therefore self-life-writing. In their letters Home, their daily journals, and their personal memoirs, the Western District squatters are all producing this type of writing. Some are composed more formally than others, but essentially they are all involve the same elements of writing about their own lives.

What I find interesting about the squatters' 'self-life-writing' is that, despite any intentions to the contrary, they cannot help but reveal the different facets of their personality. As Bloom remarks of Browning's principal speakers, there is a "multiplicity of selves that inhabit apparently single, unitary personalities", a "cluster of voices and beings that jostles in any separate self". In other words, I don't have to try to emulate Browning's "uncanny" slippages and betrayals. I can 'let' a squatter's diary do it instead.

Horatio Spencer Howe Wills (1811-1861) wrote his diary on his 120,000 acre Lexington run between April 1843 and August 1851. It is an 'uneven' record of his 'middle years'. Entries were made irregularly. When Wills did sit down to write in his journal it was often under strain -- late at night when he was over-tired and could not sleep, or when particularly 'rattled' at the day's events and worried about his own 'righteousness'.

In my arrangement of Wills' diary, I have inserted additional information from external historical sources. These additions are always placed in parentheses. The result is a 'compression' of his life into 27 stanzas, 'interrupted' by references to what, for various reasons, he does not write. It is an imaginative work, a vigorously edited version of Wills' account, even though it is in his own words.

Finally, it seems appropriate in this 'introduction' to the next post, to explain my inclusion of "the lady in white" towards the end of the poem. This is more than literary artifice. According to his son Cedric, "the lady in white" appeared to Wills on a number of occasions, in each instance as a premonition of impending misfortune. The last two visitations (reported in a letter to his wife) occurred shortly before the Cullin-la-ringo massacre of 1861, when local Aborigines killed Wills and eighteen of his employees and their families on his new Queensland run.

3. Main References

'Diary of Horatio Spencer Wills, 30 April 1843 - 22 August 1851, at Lexington, Mount William', State Library of Victoria, MS 9139, MSB 455.

'Letter from Thomas Wentworth Wills to Henry Antill Harrison, 24 October 1861', State Library of Victoria, MS 7679, MSB 29/1(b).

'An early episode in the life of Horatio Spencer Wills, pioneer Australian pastoralist, as told in narrative form by R.H. Antill (n.d.), State Library of Victoria, MS 8951, MSB 447.

Presland G (ed), 1980, Journals of George Augustus Robinson, May - August 1841, Victorian Archaeological Survey, No 11.

'In from the Cold: Tom Wills - A Nineteenth Century Sporting Hero', G.M. de More, PhD Thesis, 2008, Victoria University <www.staff.vu.edu.au/robhess/gregorydemoore.pdf>

Harold Bloom, 2007, The Best Poems of the English Language, Harper Perennial, New York.


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