Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

(See Edgar's song in "Lear")


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 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,


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 the 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
O'er 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 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 as 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 a-stare,
Stood stupefied, however he came there:
  Thrust out past service from 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 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 sets 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
That 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 man should dare (he said) he durst.
Good—but the scene shifts—faugh! what hangman 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 the 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 the wrong,
  Whate'er that was, rolled by, deterred no whit. 


Which, while I forded,—good saints, how I feared
  To set my foot upon a dead man's cheek,
  Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek
For hollows, 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 stubbed 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 recognize 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,
Dotard, a-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 shelf
  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 hill-sides, 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."


  1. In this case, the noun “tract” bears multiple meanings. On one level, “tract” refers to the expanse of land to which the old man directs the speaker and which encompasses the Dark Tower. On another level, a tract can refer to a written agreement or pact. By taking the old man’s direction and heading to the tower, the speaker is, in a certain sense, accepting a tract. That the tract is “ominous” foreshadows the dark nature of the journey ahead.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. The noun “knights” conjures images of chivalric tales, in which heroes battle evil and retrieve priceless treasures, as in the Arthurian Legends. The word “Childe” in the poem’s title refers to an untested knight, one who has yet to be granted knighthood. If the speaker is indeed the titular Roland, then his quest may be the test he faces in order to become a knight.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. The speaker affirms that his journey has purpose; he seeks the Dark Tower for a particular reason. Quest narratives in prose and verse generally feature a seeker, a destination, a stated reason for going there, trials and tribulations on the journey, and finally a real, or revealed, reason for going there. While Browning’s speaker’s quest includes nearly all of these features, the stated reason is notably absent; readers do not know why he seeks the Dark Tower. This places more emphasis on the journey itself and the challenges the speaker faces, since his background and motivation remain a mystery.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. John Donne’s 1633 poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” features a stanza very similar to this one. In both poems, a group surrounds a man on his deathbed to witness his last moments. However, where Donne’s concerns the body, Browning’s focuses on the dying man, registering the farewells of his friends and hoping “he may not shame such tender love.” This and the next stanza attend to the speaker’s thoughts of death, of perishing in pursuit of the Dark Tower. In this meditation, he questions whether or not he is worthy of remembrance.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. The repetition of the initial w sound is a marked example of both alliteration and consonance, or the internal rhyming of consonant sounds. As is the case here, alliteration and consonance are used to emphasize passages in prose and verse, either to convey an effect or anchor the line in readers’ minds. In this passage, the w sound forces readers to slow down, drawing out the phrase in such a way that mimics the duration of the speaker’s quest.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. The prospect of finding the Dark Tower does not necessarily fill the speaker with joy. Since “neither pride nor hope” comes from the decision to accept the hoary cripple’s advice, the speaker acknowledges that his only solace comes from knowing that he is approaching the end of his quest. For him, any end—even failing to find the Dark Tower—is preferable. Regardless of whether or not the hoary cripple has malicious intent, the speaker resigns himself to whatever end may come.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. Despite his reluctance to believe the hoary cripple, the speaker acknowledges that “all agree” that the path to the Dark Tower is off the thoroughfare and down another path. This inclusiveness suggests that the speaker has foreknowledge of the road to his destination, but his reluctance to initially accept the directions from the hoary cripple indicates a skepticism, possibly brought on by the hoary cripple’s demeanor or from the speaker’s many years of fruitless searching.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. This stanza is an extension of the previous one, in which the speaker guesses what would happen if he were to follow the hoary cripple’s advice. Most of the poem consists of the speaker’s interior thoughts as he reacts to the perils of his journey, creating an ongoing impression of his mental state that often conceals the actuality of the nightmarish events.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. The abbreviation “‘gin” is an Elizabethan shorthand for “begin.” Browning uses this form to help the line conform to the meter of his poem. The speaker wonders what laugh would come from the hoary cripple as he writes the speaker’s epigraph, or grave inscription, upon the road with his staff, referred to here as a crutch. It is a bleak fantasy, one of many the speaker entertains throughout the poem.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. The verb “to waylay” means to obstruct someone from going somewhere or to attack someone from a hidden place. Since the hoary cripple does so with “his lies,” his motivations are obscured. The speaker does not know whether the hoary cripple intends to mislead him and send him down the wrong path or whether he intends to slow the speaker’s progress for a nefarious purpose.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. The speaker uses the hoary cripple’s staff to justify the distrust he feels in the man’s presence. While a staff would be necessary to aid a cripple in moving, it also has mystical associations as the tool of sorcerers and wizards. This suggests that the speaker distrusts him because he possesses otherworldly power and harbors malevolent goals. Nathaniel Hawthorne does something similar in “Young Goodman Brown” when the titular Goodman Brown encounters an old man in the forest whose only remarkable feature is his sinister staff.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. The speaker realizes that the hoary cripple has trained his gaze on the speaker’s own eyes, seeking to assess whether or not his information, his alleged lies, have had an affect on the speaker’s behavior. The eagerness with which the hoary cripple looks for a reaction suggests that he derives immense pleasure from deceiving victims with his misdirection.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. A malicious eye has historically served as a curse in folklore, in the sense of someone giving another the “evil eye.” Edgar Allan Poe even went so far as to use such an eye as a character’s justification for murder in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Here, the speaker marks the malevolent gleam in the hoary cripple’s visage, a sign that causes him to doubt the man’s advice.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. Browning’s speaker encounters the “hoary cripple,” whom he immediately suspects of lying to him. The adjective “hoary” describes someone as having gray or white hair from old age. In a broader sense, it can also mean “extremely old,” with connotations of respectability, as in an ancient legend or tradition. The cripple is therefore placed among the wizened old men that appear throughout heroic epics, offering their wisdom to the questing heroes; however, Browning subverts the archetypal helpful wizard with the deceitful seer.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. Browning’s speaker introduces an element of deceit at the very beginning of the poem. Careful readers should note too that since the speaker finds himself questioning the veracity of the hoary cripple, the truth of the speaker’s subsequent journey is open for interrogation. Much like Edgar’s Poor Tom in King Lear, Browning’s speaker undergoes trials and tribulations that may not be reliably recounted.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. The poem begins in medias res, a Latin phrase meaning “in the middle of things.” Beginning in this way allows Browning to immediately place readers in the action without addressing the backstory of the speaker. This provides a more gripping hook to attract readers’ attention and also keeps them engaged throughout the tale by slowly revealing why the speaker has come to this place to speak with this “hoary cripple.”

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. Browning repeatedly denied any conscious literary influence on this poem other than this nod to Shakespeare’s King Lear, in which Edgar, feigning madness as Poor Tom, sings of his struggles to King Lear in almost nonsensical verse. The torments he describes include a “foul fiend” who leads Poor Tom “through fire and through flame, through ford and whirlipool, o’er bog and quagmire….” This allusion frames the poem not only by foreshadowing the course of the speaker’s journey, but also by casting doubt on the reality of all the events since Edgar’s song is told under the guise of madness.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor