Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" and the Landscapes of the Anthropocene

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" and the Landscapes of the Anthropocene

Article excerpt

IN HER CRITICAL WORK ON Emily Dickinson and nineteenth-century poetry, Susan Howe comments that, "for the Robert Browning of 'Childe Roland' [...] velocity, mechanics, heat, thermodynamics, light, chaos of formulae, electromagnetic induction must be called back into the Sublime, found and forgotten." (1) It is a passing observation, but it suggests something of the way Brownings 1855 poem, despite its medieval setting and fantastical trappings, seems to offer a strangely modern and perhaps unsettling vision of the material world. (2) And yet, as Ivan Kreilkamp has argued, the poem's dreamlike quality seems to have discouraged critics from taking the kind of historical approaches that would contextualize Howe's insight, and, in his words, "situate the poem in the particular cultural conditions of the 1850s." (3) Such situating work offers intriguing possibilities; he comments that "to consider Browning in such a super-charged realm of electricity, speed, heat, and light might yet lead to a provocative new vision of him as a prophet of the 'shocking encounters' produced within a technologically mediated nineteenth-century modernity." (4) In an essay on what he terms Browning's "optical unconscious," he persuasively discusses the impact of emergent photographic media technologies on "Childe Roland." In this essay, I would like to follow Kreilkamp's lead, but focus on a different aspect of the poem's "technologically mediated modernity": its depiction of widespread environmental collapse. This feature of the poem is salient and unmistakable: Browning describes a land of "bog, clay, and rubble, sand and stark black dearth" (150) where the grass grows "scant as hair in leprosy" (73-74), and the earth looks used up, "desperate and done with" (147). (5) Indeed, the ruined landscape is perhaps the single most memorable thing about the poem. Yet the common assumption is that this landscape is not real, that it functions as a projection of some aspect of, or conflict within, Childe Roland himself. For most critics, the external environment is "a world of his own imagining" (Carol Christ); a sign of "the unconscious mind projecting itself in the action of the poem" (John Willoughby); or the representation of an "apocalyptic consciousness" (Harold Bloom). The search for the dark tower thus becomes a form of "interior questing" (Edward Strickland)." (6)

But the assumption that the environment is reducible to the inner state of the protagonist has perhaps prevented us from reckoning with the ways in which the poem might express anxiety about actual degraded material environments during a period when they were of undeniable interest to the culture. After all, the poem was written at a time of acute ecological crisis, on display most spectacularly in cities like London and Manchester, but also in ostensibly "rural" territories and the outskirts of populated areas. Consider Dickens's description in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841): "they came, by slow degrees, upon a cheerless region, where not a blade of grass was seen to grow, where not a bud put forth its promise in the spring, where nothing green could live but on the surface of stagnant pools, which here and there lay idly sweltering by the black road-side." (7) Or F. R. Conders account of his journey into the "carbonised landscape" of South Staffordshire and North Worcester in 1868: "a pair of lofty cupolas vomiting flame. All around the earth is black [...] The cranks and wheels of the gaunt, skeleton-like steam-engines, working without shelter and without rest, raise a dismal clatter." (8) These are the kinds of "mean landscapes" that G. K. Chesterton saw reflected in the world of Brownings poem. (9) For Chesterton, "Childe Roland" evoked at once the "grey mean street" of the Victorian city and "the shabby and hungry aspect of the earth itself," that is, a world poised uncertainly between the urban and the rural, the natural and the industrial. (10) But although we now read works by Dickens, Ruskin, Gaskell, Kingsley, Disraeli, and many of Brownings other Victorian contemporaries in such terms, (11) as texts deeply concerned about the strange new material environments produced by a rising industrial modernity, Brownings wasteland has received, since Chesterton, almost no such attention. …

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