Stevie Smith's Rolandine 

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 could imagine the scenes of war - ‘Because it was the same as the poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ I was reading at school’.

The poem was written by Robert Browning and he took the title from the scene in Shakespeare's ‘King Lear’, when Lear is wandering over the heath with Edgar who, 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 Smith wrote a poem called ‘Childe Rolandine’ which I’ll explore in the light of Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’.

Browning’s poem tells the story of a knight who sets off towards a fearful Dark Tower. 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.

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  himself wrote that the Dark Tower was, "about the development of a soul, little else is worth study."

Smith’s poem, ‘Childe Rolandine’, begins on a dark day, but 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.'

I believe that Smith is less despairing than Browning; the best that his hero can do in the face of the desolation is to blow the horn that is the signal for his adversary to come and fight a battle that seems certain to end his life. In Smith’s poem she feeds her despair and hate to the mighty spirit who lives on our deaths and is our immortality and at the end of the poem

'Childe Rolandine bowed her head and in the evening
Drew the picture of the spirit from Heaven'

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, whats more, Smith’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 withand even applauds the absurdities of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ but still seems to feel uneasy with the way Stevie harnesses the absurd and the desperate. Does she succeed in moving and intriguing her readers? You must  judge that for yourself.

Link here to Smith’s Lifeconnections , music , the poems  CatsFrog PrinceJungle HusbandSuburb Fafnir Smith’s relationship with God or the Darwin Homepage © Anne Bryan 2018