034 — Sickness begets hallucinatory visions

Sadly, not on my part…

First, I know this is very late, but I have been pretty sick. I spent an entire day doing nothing but lying on a couch, in a room that was at least 80 degrees, in a blanket, playing Pokemon and reading Robert Browning. Christ I’m weird. Well anyway, let’s talk about the second of those things while I’m thinking about it, hey? You ever read “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came?”

And yes, I know about Stephen King’s books. I own most of them, in fact, though I have yet to read them. I would set myself the task right now in the blog of reading some this summer and blogging about them, but we saw how well the “Beat that Game” section of the site did (or I saw, you probably never noticed, but it was supposed to be a regular feature). And the Bond pieces are still coming semi-regularly, as I planned, but I’m running out of things to keep the Roger Moore at bay…

OK, right, anyway. Robert Browning was a Victorian poet. If you’re into literary history you will be amused to know that he was known as “Mr. Elizabeth Browning” at the time, because his wife was so much more famous than him. Which makes me a little sad to have to say I probably prefer old Robert to his wife, just because he did so much weird shit. Aside from what we’re talking about today, he wrote “Porphyria’s Lover” (a crazy person strangles a woman with her own hair; the woman may or may not have been his lover); “Fra Lippo Lippi” (a priest stares at women as they go by on the street); and “My Last Duchess” (see! You have read some Browning!).

“Childe Roland” is all about a knight, or possibly knight candidate, finally making his way to his long quested for goal. Some critics say it’s about hope, others say it’s about nihilism. I agree with those who throw their hands up and just say The Waste Land probably cribbed notes from it. “Childe Roland” is originally a Shakespeare reference – in King Lear Edgar loses his birthright to his scheming younger brother and, in the guise of “Mad Tom” falls in with Lear. They wander the countryside together for a while, Edgar spouting weird bullshit the whole time. At one point he talks about “Childe Rowland” getting to the dark tower. Browning just filled in the details, I suppose.

Those details are weird. From Roland being way too obsessed with the old man who gives him directions to possibly dying after seeing a fire spring from nowhere and the ghosts of all the knights who came before him (and who all failed, the poem suggests, to get to the tower), this poem is just one fucked up trip into the dark psyche of … well, of…

That’s sort of the point. There’s one of those famous statements no one can ever fucking source that says “every reader is his [or her!] own allegorist” when reading “Childe Roland.” That is, everyone finds something different that it is about, but the poem behaves as though it is about one specific thing, so it will feel to each reader as though they’re absolutely right, and not just recording their feelings. It shows how far we’ve come in the “quest” of literary criticism – you know, where everyone assumes that about everything they read, now, rather than just some pieces. Sigh.

Well, you can’t talk about a poem without quoting you some poetry! First let me just show you some examples of the setting:

I think I never saw

Such starv’d 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 the strange sort, were the land’s portion. “See

Or shut your eyes,” said Nature peevishly,

“It nothing skills: I cannot help my case:

’T is the Last Judgment’s fire must cure this place,

Calcine its clods and set my prisoners free.”

Also, he compares the thin grass (I thought nothing grew there, you might say. Exactly, is my response. Exactly) to a leper’s hair shortly after the above quoted passage where he says the Last Judgment might make the countryside habitable, but nothing short of that – thus comparing the landscape to the ruin of Revelations while reminding readers of the semi-religious nature of Roland’s quest. Which is, by the way, a fucking mystery. He never really says what he’s doing. You can assume it’s the Holy Grail, or the cure for cancer, or whatever, but it never says, we have no idea, and that’s probably part of the reason the poem’s so good. It creates a mysterious, blasted, dead world in which one obsessive knight-errant continues his quest past all hope of accomplishing it or of returning to anyone worth returning to afterwards. His quest seems meaningless, as do all things around him. There’s an old man in the first stanza, and, well, this is what Roland says about him:

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 purs’d and scor’d

Its edge, at one more victim gain’d thereby.

Roland meets an old man who’s willing to give directions! Hurray! He responds with totally unwarranted and baffling paranoia. Uh… Boo?

You can tell it’s unwarranted for two reasons. The cheaty, lit. crit. one is that Browning is famous for that shit. See “My Last Duchess.” The second, better reason, though, is that the narrator, Roland, pays too much attention to the old man’s face and almost none to his words. We are never told what he says. The best we get is that the “cripple” would write Roland’s epitaph in the dirt were Roland to

turn aside

Into that ominous tract which, all agree,

Hides the Dark Tower.

Isn’t that where Roland’s going? Shouldn’t he want that? Well, a bit later he talks about how he can no longer countenance success because he’s failed for too long, and supposedly better men have failed before him – a little later than that, and we learn they weren’t exactly better. One was a traitor and another was, uh, um, well, he committed “one night’s disgrace.” You know, probably he slept with someone’s wife or something, who knows?

So it’s a quest we don’t know the object for in a land we don’t recognize, full of apparent dangers (and one horse that might be starving to death – that’s so weird even Roland admits it’s fucking weird), and with no hope for either accomplishing the quest or receiving anything for it.

Which makes it a neat allegory for life itself, don’t you think? I said you can make any allegory you want, and that’s the one that strikes me today (but then, you’ll remember up top where I mentioned the being sick and the physical misery and all).


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