Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came: A Darkly Uplifting tale

This is the first of three blogs I am writing to make up for absences during the seminar and discussion portion of this class. I am writing on the readings and topics discussed in class.

In Childe Roland to the Dark Tower, Browning crafts through a physical quest toward a dark tower, a psychological portrait of the narrator. While not professionally trained in psychology or psychiatry, I was interested to view the poem through a psychological lens reading it as Browning’s exploration of mental illness and psychological turmoil.

From the start, the poem is filled with paranoia and bitterness with the narrator’s first thought being, “he lied in every word.” His cynical and pessimistic assumption of the world is immediately revealed. When he describes the man having a “Malicious eye” you can see that he believes the worst in people.

Images of death, suicide pervade the poem, yet paradoxically I find a stoic strength and resolve in his determination and acceptance of the path before him. He moves forward despite knowing that “The band” of those have walked the same path have all failed and died. Ironically, despite the grim imagery throughout the poem, there is a grim acceptance of the inevitability of the misery.

His hope for any more positive of an end crumble when he describes how his “hope dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope.” I am really interested in the way he describes his hope to be good enough to join the “band” before him. His morbid interest and pursuit of ultimate failure is extremely fatalist and the rest of the gloomy language in the poem serve to emphasize this. I find his determination and admiration for the quest admirable and dignified nonethless. Though dark and hopeless, this traveler shows loyalty to the notion of a chivalric code in his respect for the quest.

The nightmarish descriptions of the landscape reveal an inner psychological landscape of doubt and gruesome anguish. He describes the thistles and vegation as looking like its , “head was chopp’d”. His continuous personification of the landscape further shows that his imagined brutal imagery of it is a projection of his cynical perspective not on the inanimate environment but of fellow mankind. He describes the bush “as being jalous. And “bruised” further emphasizing its emotional capacity and physiology of human organic life. In his imagery, he acts conceptual violence upon the personified landscape when describes the the mud as looking” kneaded up with blood.”

His aggressive hatred of a horse that he comes upon is especially pronounced and suggests an inner self hatred. When he says“I never saw a brute I hated so; he must be wicked to deserve such pain.” You wonder at the attitude and opinion on himself deserving the misery he is going through. of his own sense of deserving his own suffering. This gooes back to how he strangely embraces his suffering, and feels that he is not good enough for anything else. It also reminds me of the self-minimization in believing is not even good enough to join a group of failures.

Then the poem turns inward literally, as he shuts his eyes and “turn’d them on my heart.”

He tries to think of happier thoughts in a brief but futile effort to lift out of this depression. But as he recalls the doomed and tragic lives of his friends he quickly returns to an inevitable acceptance of the dark and miserable state of the human condition.

He seems almost masochistic in his insistence on his own suffering. “Better this present than a past like that’” He prefers his own inner turmoil then the guilt and disgrace of his friends. We see here the distinction in his suffering from others. He takes special pride in the dignity of his acceptance of his fate. At least he has dignity and a weird sense of honor and superiority. We saw this sense of pride and dignity earlier in his respect for the quest and in his attitude towards the horse but also in his commitment to the journey.

His descriptions of the landscape hereafter continue to have gruesome and morbid imagery. Here is reference directly to suicide, “drench’d willos flun them headlong in a fit of mute despair, a suicidal throng;” A violent contempt to the point of desiring to do harm to others is revealed in the conceptual violence done through his language to the landscape. “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”

By seeing images of death, despair and misery in his landscape, he has projected the psychological wounds and inner violence outward. Yet strangely, I interpret his dark acceptance of this miserable perpsective as ultimately uplifting. He meets life where it is at and asks for no more. He continues to plod onward despite knowing the darkness and futility. In that way, it is to me a message of dark inspiration. While filled with despair and horror, Browning’s poem ironically inspires a sense of motivation and positive acceptance of the suffering and difficulty of life.

-Diana Zhu


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