Stevie Smith's Dark Tower
The Dark Tower of 1914 - 18
When Stevie was in her early teens some soldiers wounded in the first world war were billeted nearby and would visit her mother's house.
Stevie wrote in the poem, 'A Soldier Dear to Us' that ‘Basil never spoke of the trenches,’
but she saw the scene of the war -
‘Because it was the same as the poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came I was reading at school.’
The Dark Tower theme
The poem she was reading was written by Robert Browning and he took the title from Shakespeare's King Lear, from the scene on the heath when Edgar, in his guise as poor Tom the fool, talks aimlessly of Childe Roland coming to a dark tower. Going back further, Childe Roland was one of Charlemagne's knights. Going forward, Browning’s poem is the inspiration for Stephen King’s Dark Tower Trilogy. Stevie wrote a poem called Childe Rolandine. I thought it might be interesting to compare Browning’s ‘Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ with Stevie’s ‘Childe Rolandine’.
Browning's Childe Roland
Browning’s poem tells the story of a knight who sets off towards a fearful Dark Tower, click on the link to read the full text of the poem. The knight is inured to failure, nearly dead from exhaustion, thinks it best to die, to fail, and then, puzzlingly, wonders if he is fit ( for death for failure, who is not fit? ). He wanders through this desolate landscape, crosses a wrathful river full of corpses, over land marked by brutal battles, sees nothing alive but a devilishly grotesque horse and a black, dragon winged bird. Dreadful mountains appear, and he realises he has reached the Dark Tower. Dauntless, in the face of a terrible vision of the lost dead seen in a sheet of flame, he blows a horn to signal his arrival at the Dark Tower, a signal that traditionally invites the occupant of a castle to come and do battle.
Exploring Browning's poem
Is this a debunking of the myth of the quest, for this hero does not achieve anything and it seems impossible that he will survive? Is it about the despair of being without belief in God, a nightmare of many Victorians who felt that without belief in God mankind would be lost?
Browning wrote that the Dark Tower was, "about the development of a soul, little else is worth study."
Stevie's Childe Rolandine
Stevie’s poem begins on a dark day, but it diverges from Browning’s as her desolate landscape, unlike Browning’s, where the vegetation is all blighted, contains a tree that bears fruit; the tears of Rolandine water the tree and the sap of this wicked tree rises. Her soul will fry in hell because of this hatred of her oppressors, her rich employers, but those who she hates will go to heaven as they cannot be blamed for her suffering. She prays to heaven to keep her thoughts unspoken, but then decides to speak, as silence is vanity.
'Then she took the bugle and put it to her lips, crying:
there is a spirit that feed on our tears, I give him mine,
Mighty human feelings are his food
Passion and grief and joy his flesh and blood
That he may live and grow fat we daily die
This cropping one is our immortality.'
Childe Rolandine's progress
I believe that Stevie is less despairing than Browning, the best that his hero can do in the face of the desolation that is so brilliantly evoked is to simply go on until he blows the horn, signalling his adversary to come and fight a battle that seems certain to end his life. In Stevie’s poem she feeds even her despair and her hate to the mighty spirit who lives on our deaths and is our immortality. Childe Rolandine takes off on a similar journey to Browning’s almost hopeless quest for victory against impossible odds in a desolate landscape, but she makes it her own quest which has a different end. Browning says nothing of the nature of the occupant of the Dark Tower, but Stevie tries to visualise the spirit that accepts her grief and rage. Her poem ends:
'Childe Rolandine bowed her head and in the evening
Drew the picture of the spirit from Heaven'
Comparing the Childes
I can imagine though, that a less partial reader of Stevie Smith than I am might ask: how can I compare a poem which starts with lines:
'Dark was the day for Childe Rolandine the artist
When she went to work as a secretary typist.'
with Browning’s sublimely desolate poem. The reader might add that to compare the situation of Browning’s knight to that of a girl who is unhappy being a typist is absurd, and, what’s more, Stevie’s rhymes are absurd, and the first two lines doggerel. Maybe the lines are absurd because Stevie recognises that the comparison can be seen as absurd, and yet she recognises that hate and bitterness she feels will lead her soul to hell, and she feels that this horrible situation gives her the right to compare herself to Childe Rolande.
Stevie 's dark poetry was rooted in the poetry that came before her, even though she expresses herself in a way which is very much her own, and is often odd, absurd and frivolous. Life, though, is often odd, absurd and frivolous, and it seems an odd convention that turns away from her absurdity. Literature copes with the absurdities of Alice in Wonderland, and accepts that they may be profound, but still seem to feel uneasy with the way Stevie harnesses the absurd and the desperate. Does she succeed in moving and intriguing her readers? You can be the judge.
Read the Collected Poems
As Stevie's poems are still in copyright I am deterred from giving the full text of the poem on Childe Rolandine, If you aren't familiar with Stevie Smith’s poems give yourself a treat and buy 'The Collected Poems & Drawings of Stevie Smith' which was published in hardback by Faber and Faber in 2015, edited and with an introduction by Will May. As a second best, previous editions of Smith's collected poems are available second hand and as a very third best ‘Selected Poems’ is also available in paperback. Anne Bryan
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If you aren't familiar with Stevie Smith’s poems give yourself a treat and buy 'The Collected Poems & Drawings of Stevie Smith' which was published in hardback by Faber and Faber in 2015, edited and with an introduction by Will May. As a second best, previous editions of Smith's collected poems are available second hand and as a very third best ‘Selected Poems’ is also available in paperback.
If you want to quote from my work for essays or course work you are welcome to do so as long as you attribute the work to Anne Bryan and this web site. Stevie Smith's work may not be downloaded, reprinted, or reproduced in any other form without the permission of the Stevie Smith Estate who may be contacted at Faber and Faber
Follow the links to find out more about Stevie Smith:
Stevie Smith Biography - a short account of Stevie's life and work.
Stevie Smith's Suburb - Palmers Green, North London and how it features in Stevie's work
Stevie Smith’s Connections - an exploration of Stevie’s connections to her contemporary writers, with a quick look at Stevie's possible influence on today's poets.
Childe Rolandine - this poem is considered together with Robert Browning’s famous poem 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.'
'The Jungle Husband' - this dark poem about a jungle which is green on top is explored.
The Frog Prince - a dive into a deceptively simple poem with hidden depths.
Smiths suburban cats NEW an introduction to three of Smith's suburban cat poems: 'Tidzal', 'The Singing Cat' and 'My Cat Major'.
Stevie's religious poems are explored in the light of the religious ideas of the time and the relevance of her poems today is considered
Stevie Smith Festival at Palmer’s Green - an account of a memorable poetry reading in the streets of Palmers Green to celebrate the centenary of Stevie Smith’s birth, with thoughts on the poems which were read.
Stevie and music - musical adaptations of Stevie's work
Stevie's Blue plaque: an account of the unveiling of a blue plaque at Stevie Smith's house in Palmers Green, London, on 16th September 2005 by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion.
Remembering Stevie at Torquay - where her ashes were scattered
Stevie Smith links to other sites which feature her work.
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