The second, third, and fourth stanzas of Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, after Roland encounters the ‘hoary cripple, with malicious eye’ who points the way to the tower:
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 guess’d 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.
Louise Macneice – who did a radio play adaptation of the poem in the mid 40s – said of its meaning:
‘a work which does not admit of a completely rational analysis and [one which] still less adds up to any clear moral or message. This poem has the solidity of a dream; the writer of such a poem, though he may be aware of the “meanings” implicit in his dream, must not take the dream to pieces, … must allow the story to persist as a story and not dwindle into a diagram.
Several decades later Harold Bloom – who, in my experience, never refused his intellect the delight of diagramming – had this opening to his article How to Read a Poem: Browning’s Childe Rolande (Georgia Review 28.3):
The reader, like Browning’s belated quester, might wish to separate origins like from Browning’s aims, but the price of internalization in poetic as in human romance, is that aims wander back towards origins. A study of misprision allows the reader to see that interpretation of Browning’s great poem is mocked by the poem itself, since Roland’s monologue is his sublime and grotesque exercise of the will-to-power over the interpretation of his own text. Roland rides with us as interpreter; his every interpretation is a powerful misreading; and yet the union of those misreadings enables him to accept destruction in the triumphant realization that his ordeal, his trial by landscape, has provided us with one of the most powerful of texts that any hero-villain since Milton’s Satan has given us.
The poem’s opening swerve is marked rhetorically by the trope of irony, imagistically by an interplay of presence and absence, and psychologically by Roland’s reaction-formation against his own destructive impulses. All this is as might be expected, but Browning’s enormous skill at substitution is evident as his poem gets underway, for the strong poet shows his saving difference from himself as well as others even in his initial phrases. Roland says one thing and means another, and both the saying and the meaning seek to void a now intolerable presence. For a Post-Enlightment poem to begin, it must know and demonstrate that nothing is in its right place. Displacement affects at once the precursor and the poet’s own earlier or idealized self, as these were a near-identity. But the precursor, like the idealized self, does not locate only in the superego or ego ideal. For a poet, both the youth he was and his imaginative father reside also in the poetic equivalent of the id. In Romantic quest or internalized romance, an object of desire or even a sublimated devotion to an abstract idea cannot replace the precursor-element in the id, but it does replace the ego ideal, as Freud posited. For Roland, the Dark Tower has been put in the place of the ego ideal of traditional quest, but the obsessed Childe remains haunted by precursor-forces and traces of his own former self in the id. Against these forces, his psyche has defended itself by the cramping reaction-the formation of his will-to-fail, his perverse and negative stance that begins the poem.