By Robert Browning
Form: 34 six-line stanzas.
Meter: iambic pentameter.
Rhyme scheme: abbaab.
001 My first thought was, he lied in every word,
002 That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
003 Askance to watch the working of his lie
004 On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
005 Suppression of the glee that pursed and scored
006 Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.
007 What else should he be set for, with his staff?
008 What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
009 All travellers who might find him posted there,
010 And ask the road? I guessed what skull-like laugh
011 Would break, what crutch 'gin write my epitaph
012 For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,
013 If at his counsel I should turn aside
014 Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
015 Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
016 I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
017 Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
018 So much as gladness that some end might be.
019 For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,
020 What with my search drawn out thro' years, my hope
021 Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope
022 With that obstreperous joy success would bring,
023 I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring
024 My heart made, finding failure in its scope.
025 As when a sick man very near to death
026 Seems dead indeed, and feels begin and end
027 The tears and takes the farewell of each friend,
028 And hears one bid the other go, draw breath
029 Freelier outside ("since all is o'er," he saith,
030 "And the blow fallen no grieving can amend";)
031 While some discuss if near the other graves
032 Be room enough for this, and when a day
033 Suits best for carrying the corpse away,
034 With care about the banners, scarves and staves:
035 And still the man hears all, and only craves
036 He may not shame such tender love and stay.
037 Thus, I had so long suffered in this quest,
038 Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
039 So many times among "The Band"--to wit,
040 The knights who to the Dark Tower's search addressed
041 Their steps--that just to fail as they, seemed best,
042 And all the doubt was now--should I be fit?
043 So, quiet as despair, I turned from him,
044 That hateful cripple, out of his highway
045 Into the path he pointed. All the day
046 Had been a dreary one at best, and dim
047 Was settling to its close, yet shot one grim
048 Red leer to see the plain catch its estray.
049 For mark! no sooner was I fairly found
050 Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two,
051 Than, pausing to throw backward a last view
052 O'er the safe road, 'twas gone; grey plain all round:
053 Nothing but plain to the horizon's bound.
054 I might go on; nought else remained to do.
055 So, on I went. I think I never saw
056 Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:
057 For flowers--as well expect a cedar grove!
058 But cockle, spurge, according to their law
059 Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,
060 You'd think; a burr had been a treasure-trove.
061 No! penury, inertness and grimace,
062 In some strange sort, were the land's portion. "See
063 Or shut your eyes," said Nature peevishly,
064 "It nothing skills: I cannot help my case:
065 'Tis the Last Judgment's fire must cure this place,
066 Calcine its clods and set my prisoners free."
067 If there pushed any ragged thistle-stalk
068 Above its mates, the head was chopped; the bents
069 Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents
070 In the dock's harsh swarth leaves, bruised as to baulk
071 All hope of greenness? 'tis a brute must walk
072 Pashing their life out, with a brute's intents.
073 As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
074 In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud
075 Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood.
076 One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,
077 Stood stupefied, however he came there:
078 Thrust out past service from the devil's stud!
079 Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,
080 With that red gaunt and colloped neck a-strain,
081 And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;
082 Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;
083 I never saw a brute I hated so;
084 He must be wicked to deserve such pain.
085 I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart.
086 As a man calls for wine before he fights,
087 I asked one draught of earlier, happier sights,
088 Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.
089 Think first, fight afterwards--the soldier's art:
090 One taste of the old time sets all to rights.
091 Not it! I fancied Cuthbert's reddening face
092 Beneath its garniture of curly gold,
093 Dear fellow, till I almost felt him fold
094 An arm in mine to fix me to the place
095 That way he used. Alas, one night's disgrace!
096 Out went my heart's new fire and left it cold.
097 Giles then, the soul of honour--there he stands
098 Frank as ten years ago when knighted first.
099 What honest men should dare (he said) he durst.
100 Good--but the scene shifts--faugh! what hangman hands
101 In to his breast a parchment? His own bands
102 Read it. Poor traitor, spit upon and curst!
103 Better this present than a past like that;
104 Back therefore to my darkening path again!
105 No sound, no sight as far as eye could strain.
106 Will the night send a howlet or a bat?
107 I asked: when something on the dismal flat
108 Came to arrest my thoughts and change their train.
109 A sudden little river crossed my path
110 As unexpected as a serpent comes.
111 No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms;
112 This, as it frothed by, might have been a bath
113 For the fiend's glowing hoof--to see the wrath
114 Of its black eddy bespate with flakes and spumes.
115 So petty yet so spiteful! All along
116 Low scrubby alders kneeled down over it;
117 Drenched willows flung them headlong in a fit
118 Of mute despair, a suicidal throng:
119 The river which had done them all the wrong,
120 Whate'er that was, rolled by, deterred no whit.
121 Which, while I forded,--good saints, how I feared
122 To set my foot upon a dead man's cheek,
123 Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek
124 For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard!
125 --It may have been a water-rat I speared,
126 But, ugh! it sounded like a baby's shriek.
127 Glad was I when I reached the other bank.
128 Now for a better country. Vain presage!
129 Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage,
130 Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank
131 Soil to a plash? Toads in a poisoned tank,
132 Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage--
133 The fight must so have seemed in that fell cirque.
134 What penned them there, with all the plain to choose?
135 No foot-print leading to that horrid mews,
136 None out of it. Mad brewage set to work
137 Their brains, no doubt, like galley-slaves the Turk
138 Pits for his pastime, Christians against Jews.
139 And more than that--a furlong on--why, there!
140 What bad use was that engine for, that wheel,
141 Or brake, not wheel--that harrow fit to reel
142 Men's bodies out like silk? with all the air
143 Of Tophet's tool, on earth left unaware,
144 Or brought to sharpen its rusty teeth of steel.
145 Then came a bit of stubbed ground, once a wood,
146 Next a marsh, it would seem, and now mere earth
147 Desperate and done with; (so a fool finds mirth,
148 Makes a thing and then mars it, till his mood
149 Changes and off he goes!) within a rood--
150 Bog, clay and rubble, sand and stark black dearth.
151 Now blotches rankling, coloured gay and grim,
152 Now patches where some leanness of the soil's
153 Broke into moss or substances like boils;
154 Then came some palsied oak, a cleft in him
155 Like a distorted mouth that splits its rim
156 Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils.
157 And just as far as ever from the end!
158 Nought in the distance but the evening, nought
159 To point my footstep further! At the thought,
160 A great black bird, Apollyon's bosom-friend,
161 Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned
162 That brushed my cap--perchance the guide I sought.
163 For, looking up, aware I somehow grew,
164 'Spite of the dusk, the plain had given place
165 All round to mountains--with such name to grace
166 Mere ugly heights and heaps now stolen in view.
167 How thus they had surprised me,--solve it, you!
168 How to get from them was no clearer case.
169 Yet half I seemed to recognise some trick
170 Of mischief happened to me, God knows when--
171 In a bad dream perhaps. Here ended, then,
172 Progress this way. When, in the very nick
173 Of giving up, one time more, came a click
174 As when a trap shuts--you're inside the den!
175 Burningly it came on me all at once,
176 This was the place! those two hills on the right,
177 Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight;
178 While to the left, a tall scalped mountain . . . Dunce,
179 Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,
180 After a life spent training for the sight!
181 What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
182 The round squat turret, blind as the fool's heart
183 Built of brown stone, without a counterpart
184 In the whole world. The tempest's mocking elf
185 Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
186 He strikes on, only when the timbers start.
187 Not see? because of night perhaps?--why, day
188 Came back again for that! before it left,
189 The dying sunset kindled through a cleft:
190 The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay
191 Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay,--
192 "Now stab and end the creature--to the heft!"
193 Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it tolled
194 Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears
195 Of all the lost adventurers my peers,--
196 How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
197 And such was fortunate, yet each of old
198 Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years.
199 There they stood, ranged along the hillsides, met
200 To view the last of me, a living frame
201 For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
202 I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
203 Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
204 And blew. "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came."