Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came

by

Robert Browning


                Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

        

        

        My first thought was, he lied in every word

           That hoary cripple, with malicious eye

           Askance to watch the working of his lie

        On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford

        Suppression 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 that might find him posted there,

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

        Would break, what crutch 'gin 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 acquiescingly

        I did turn as he pointed; neither pride

        Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,

           So much as gladness that some end might be.

        

        For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,

           What with my search drawn out thro' 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 the farewell of each friend

        And hears one bid the other go, draw breath

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

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

        

        While some discuss if near the other graves

           Be room 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 prophesied 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 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

        To the safe road, 'twas gone: grey plain all round;

        Nothing but plain to the horizon's bound.

           I might go on; nought else remained to do.

        

        So, on I went, I think I never saw

           Such starved ignoble 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 clods 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 so as to baulk

        All hope of greenness? 'tis a brute must walk

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

        

        As for the grass, it grew scant as hair

           In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud

           Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood

        One stiff blind horse, his every bone astare,

        Stood stupefied, however he came there:

           Thrust out past service as the devil's stud!

        

        Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,

           With that red, gaunt and colloped 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 for 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 set 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

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

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

        

        Giles then, the soul of honour - there he stands

           Frank as ten years ago when knighted first

           What honest men should dare (he said) he durst

        Good - but then the scene shifts - faugh! what hangman's hands

        Pin to his breast a parchment? his own bands

           Read it. Poor traitor, spit upon and curst!

        

        Better this Present than a Past like that:

           Back therefore to my darkening path again.

           No sound, no sight as far as 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 serpent comes

           No sluggish tide congenial to its glooms -

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

        For the 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 them headlong in a fit

        Of mute despair, a suicidal throng:

        The river which had done them all wrong,

           Whate'er that was, rolled by, determined no wit.

        

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

           To set my foot upon a dead man's cheek

           Each step, or fell the spear I thrust to seek

        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 foot-print 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 stubbled 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, coloured gay and grim,

           Now patches where some leanness of the soil's

           Broke into moss or substances like boils

        Then came some palsied oak, a cleft in him,

        Like a distorted mouth that splits its rim

           Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils.

        

        And just as far as ever from the end!

           Nought in the distance but the evening, nought

           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 plain had given place

           All round to mountains - with such name to grace

        Mere ugly heights and heaps now stolen in view.

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

           How to get from them was no clearer case.

        

        Yet half I seemed to recognise 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 time more, 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,

        Fool, to be 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 the 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 unseen 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 hillsides, 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 I set,

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

        



1999-2004 The Dark Tower Compendium
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