[(essay date 2001) In the following essay, Blain suggests a connection between Robert Browning’s long poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and Beddoes’s Death’s Jest-Book, speculating that Browning’s discomfort with the homoeroticism in Beddoes’s work inspired the nightmarish, homophobic imagery of his own poem.]
Robert Browning is said, by some accounts including his own, to have composed the famously enigmatic poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” springing from a line from King Lear, when he was in Paris in early 1852. He had made a New Year’s resolution to write a poem a day: apparently, this was the third of three. Other accounts assert its composition date was a year later, in Florence in early 1853 (Jack and Inglesfield xii ff.)—in either case, Browning was already familiar with the work of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, published posthumously 1850-51. “Childe Roland” first appeared in Browning’s 1855 collection, Men and Women, a volume which did much to establish his fame. The poem has been read variously over time, but has always defied rational interpretation. The poet himself insisted it had no logical meaning: “[It] came upon me as a kind of dream. I had to write it, then and there, and I finished it the same day, I believe […] it was simply that I had to do it. I did not know then what I meant beyond that, and I’m sure I don’t know now” (Jack and Inglesfield 129). All that critics have been able to agree upon, apart from the poem’s structure as a perverted kind of quest through a nightmarish landscape, is that it is this very quality of enigma blended with a peculiar strain of gothic horror, that lends “Childe Roland” its continuing fascination. I want to suggest that there may be a connection between certain elements of gothic horror in this poem and Browning’s recent reading of Beddoes’s works, which are peculiarly rich in that mode; and that there may even be a further connection, in that the mystery or enigma of Browning’s poem could well derive from a deeply homophobic response to the intuited presence of homosexual desire in Beddoes himself, thus mixing fascination with horror. My argument, however, will not rest on any attempt to “prove” a line of influence between the two poets, as it is my belief that this would be as difficult as it is unnecessary. Browning’s homophobia could have derived from multiple influences in his reading and in his life; but his later response to the mystery surrounding Beddoes’s sordid end strongly suggests that it was deeply embedded.
Freud’s View of Paranoid Fantasies
Since Freud, dreams have most commonly been interpreted in some degree as a kind of return of the repressed, and it is therefore hard to escape from the tempting illusion that a dream poem might carry a hidden message direct from the poet’s subconscious; and if the poet himself was a pre-Freudian, as Browning was, then we generally assume that he was most likely...