Tortured Knights: Eliot, Byron, and Browning

February 1, 2021 by Essay Writer

Though they come from the shores of different eras and the minds of different authors, the protagonists of Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” are all knights in their own way. One can go even further: they are, basically, all the very same man. Childe Harold and the Byron narrator, Childe Roland, and J. Alfred Prufrock are all tortured men on a kind of a search; they are each of them haunted by thoughts of their past. Their goals overlap and blend with one another; each man finds himself hopeless, facing his own doubt, and he seeks a relief that he doesn’t believe in. And though their methods are admittedly different, each one of them ultimately self-destructs. Within the context of their respective eras, each hero ends up at a tragic dead-end; these poems capture the moments before they attain it, caught up in small seconds that reach towards an ending. “In a minute there is time,” says Prufrock, “For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” (47-8). His “love song” spans the minutes he’s too scared to undo. Childe Harold wanders sadly forth and keeps no track of time; and Childe Roland is left standing, remembering his past, paralyzed in “one moment [that] knelled the woe of years” (198). These men summarize their destinies in matters of mere moments, and go on to fulfill them. If their struggles and answers seem to meld as one, it is perhaps because the authors who created them each strove in his own time to overcome the same issues—issues of worry, of doubt, of fleeting success and lasting regret—looking back at the works come before them and then finding release in a fictional knight on an actual quest. When Childe Harold begins his quest he is already jaded, having spent his days overindulging in pleasures that have grown stale. The opportunity to live in unbounded hedonism might initially appear a blessing, but to Harold it has become a malediction. His well-fed appetite becomes “worse than adversity,”—perhaps because it eventually leads him to seek adversity as others would enjoyment, and adversity’s possibilities become therefore limitless (Canto I, 33). The repetition of the “er” vowel sound, first in worse and then in adversity, subtly links the two words together—so that when the reader reads “adversity,” he or she hears a faint echo of “worse” still resounding. Besides being euphonious, this effect underscores the impact of “worse” since it’s almost as if we are hearing it twice—and the word’s carrying power in this stanza suggests, in its own way, the effect that this pleasure-driven “adversity” will have on Harold’s life. It is worse than conventional oppression because like “worse,” it extends its grasp to reoccur without limit. “With pleasure drugg’d,” Harold actively seeks its opposite; he “almost long’d for woe,/ And e’en for change of scene would seek the shades below” (I 54-5). The word “drugged” gives a concise picture of Harold’s torpor as he floats from one locale to the other with little lucidity or any real desire for it. And the assertion that Harold would seek the underworld itself—like the hellish landscape faced by Roland, or the inner torment endured by Prufrock—merely for new scenery is effective for its shock value. Yet Byron’s claims that Harold (who might just as well have been called Byron, by the poet’s later admission) fled his home merely from an excess of pleasure are dubious at best, especially considering that this comes just after a stanza describing Harold’s (or, again, Byron’s) own lost love. Having “sigh’d to many though he lov’d but one, /And that lov’d one, alas! Could ne’er be his” (I, 39-40). In what is probably a reference to Byron’s doomed relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, Byron here reveals that Harold has certainly known something other than amusement. He has known loss, perhaps the greatest hurt of all, and it has driven him to roam the world in search of nothing. Byron’s narrator alter-ego welcomes the aimlessness of the ocean at the start of III, just before he plunges back in to the saga of Harold: Once more upon the waters! yet once more! And the waves bound beneath me as a steed That knows his rider. Welcome, to their roar! Swift be their guidance, wheresoe’er it lead! (III, 10-13)The multiple exclamation points and energetic rhythm give the lines a sense of reckless exhilaration that is perhaps natural to someone who is willing to trust his fate to the ocean’s untamed waters. Byron’s narrator has just emerged from a wistful reverie about his distant daughter, Ada (Byron’s own daughter was named Augusta Ada), in which he hopes against hope that he will see her again. Awakened very suddenly, he immediately immerses himself in the danger and uncertainty around him—almost as a kind of emboldened antidote to the private loss that he suffers. When Byron returns officially to Harold a few stanzas later, he describes the changes that Harold’s quest has wreaked on him: He, who grown aged in this world of woe, In deeds, not years, piercing the depths of life, So that no wonder waits him. (III 37-9)This is Harold’s fate, the one he chose for himself. He has “pierced” life like a warrior, but it holds no passion for him. He wanders from one end to another, caring little which one is his true final end. At heart he is nothing less than the Byronic hero—that emblem of Romanticism who, so wasted by life’s fierce emotion and anguish, wallows just outside it but never escapes it. Though admittedly different from Harold’s background, Childe Roland’s own past has a similarly self-destructive effect on him. Unlike Harold, Roland (whose very name, curiously, is a near-annagramic inversion of the name “Harold”) has had less than his share of pleasure–which distinction might always have been intentional on Browning’s part. Perhaps Roland, Harold’s backwards cousin/brother, is fated to pay for the many visits to “Sin’s long labyrinth” for which Harold never atoned (I, 37). It is revealed through Roland’s inner monologue that he once formed part of a brave company, and has watched it diminish one friend at a time. The memory of his fallen comrades comes back to Roland repeatedly in this his final journey, ringing in his ears like an immutable doom—most forcefully towards the end of the poem, when Roland faces the Dark Tower at last. Not hear? When noise was everywhere! it tolled Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears Of all the lost adventurers my peers— How such a one was strong, and such was bold, And such was fortunate, yet each of old Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years. (193-8) It is important to note that we don’t know where this sound is actually coming from, or if the sound is actual at all. Roland gives no indication that a bell or anything like it is really ringing; though this is always possible, it is not clearly stated. Yet to him the idea of not hearing the noise is unfathomable, even ludicrous: “Not hear?” he says. “When noise was everywhere!” This is his defensive anticipation of a question that hasn’t been asked, and cannot be asked since he is completely alone—yet he feels instinctively that someone, somewhere, is insulting him with the suggestion that he cannot hear this incredible sound. His vehement but unsupported explanation that “noise was everywhere!” suggests that on some level he is beyond reason. In all likelihood the noise’s origins are in Roland’s own tortured mind, where the names of his fellows resound unceasingly. He remembers only their good qualities—one was strong, another bold, and a third, bizarrely, was “fortunate;” this is strange since all of these men clearly met sad ends, to the point that Roland cannot turn to their memories for comfort anymore. At a point, earlier in the poem, when he tries to find strength in thoughts of his friends, he finds himself overwhelmed with visions of tragedy and death. “Better this present than a past like that;” he says. “Back therefore to my darkening path again!” (103-4) The fact that he later remembers some of them as “fortunate” is deeply disturbing; one possible explanation is that, amazed by the toll of imagined bells, Roland has simply lost his wits at this point. Perhaps he decides, subconsciously or not, to revise the past—delude himself, if necessary—in order to make it bearable and find the comfort he needs at this final rallying point. Thus all the men were bold, all were strong, and all were somehow fortunate. Another rationale, perhaps even more unsettling, is that Roland is lucid when he thinks of one as fortunate—that, given the horror he now finds himself faced with, he considers him lucky who is already dead. If this is the case then his attitude at the beginning of the poem makes lamentable sense; like Harold’s narrator, who lets the ocean’s waves take him where they will, Roland has long ceased to care where his journey ends. When he is directed, at the poem’s, by a “hoary cripple” (2) whom Roland suspects of dishonesty, he follows the man’s direction not out of trust but out of weary indifference: ….Yet acquiescingly I did turn as he pointed: neither pride Nor hope rekindling at the end descried, So much as gladness that some end might be. (15-18)He speaks of hope “rekindling,” evoking an image of hope as a light or flame that contrasts poignantly with the “darkening path” that he returns to later (104). Above all he wishes not for the end, but any end—or, as he puts it, “some” end. Having “so long suffered in this quest” (37), feeling old with “hope dwindled” (20-21), his sole wish now is to find the failure that found his friends—but also to feel worthy of it. With a thought that strongly anticipates J. Alfred Prufrock’s cries of “Do I dare? and, Do I dare?” (38), Roland’s ultimate worry is: “And all the doubt was now—should I be fit?” (42)The difference between Roland and Prufrock, as we will soon see, is that Roland meets his end in the hope that he is fit; Prufrock faces his still convinced that he isn’t. The fact that Roland raises his slug-horn and flings himself forward might seem anti-Victorian in its daring and boldness but for Browning, who defined himself by flaunting codes of tact, this end is exactly what we would expect. J. Alfred Prufrock doesn’t need a Dark Tower to unveil his future; that much he discovered a long time ago. The only quest he undertakes is one of memory, of regretful revising and unwishful thinking. In this case, however, it is extremely difficult to pin down precisely what in his past motivates him–or, at a more basic level, to even pin down what is in his past. Time is treated very ambiguously in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and the lines memory and imagination are often deliberately blurred. We are left to infer a life told through omission; forced to follow Prufrock’s thoughts, we necessarily dwell not on what he has done, but on what he has not. More than this, even, we look at what he could do—what he might have done (but will never do.) Thus when Prufrock asks, Would it have been worth while, To have bitten off the matter with a smile, To have squeezed the universe into a ball To roll it toward some overwhelming question To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’—(90-5)he in this way admits that he never did this—that he never did roll the universe into a ball, never did roll it toward some overwhelming question. And when he continues with the condition that had he done so it could only be If one, settling a pillow by her head, Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.’ (96-8)he confides to us his reasoning, the fears that held him back. At the same time Prufrock attempts to justify his choice—as, indeed, the entire poem is a kind of justification—when he suggests that attacking life as he might have would in fact have been something callous, something glib and aggressive. He equates the facing of life and love with “bit[ing] off the matter with a smile”—suggesting with the word “bite” a kind of casual savagery, and with “smile” an unfitting levity. The question of whether Prufrock ought to have lived life, to live life more fully—as Prince Hamlet say, and not merely “an attendant lord”—is clearly one that torments him to the extreme (111-12). He holds for life a kind of reverence that perhaps only the true timids understand, because only they are willing to sacrifice their own lives for an unshattered ideal of it. So for Prufrock, whose lust for life is stronger than anyone’s but whose fear of it grows in direct correlation, biting off the matter with a smile is simultaneously something he longs for and something he scoffs at. If had had been bold enough to “force the moment to its crisis,” as he says earlier, he would doubtless look on the idea differently (80). But since he is not bold enough he suggests that such boldness is somehow distasteful and generally pointless. For even if he had been bold—even if he had found his own revelation and spread it around—he feels a sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere, would have contradicted him anyhow. Much like the imagined naysayers that Roland scorns with his “sound everywhere,” Prufrock envisages “one” who will tell him that he has been wrong—who ‘should say,/ ‘That is not it at all, /That is not what I meant, at all’” (109-110). It is easier for Prufrock to assume that any effort he made would be repulsed by someone stronger, and the fear of this disgrace is enough to keep him from trying—although deep down he knows that the fact that he needs proof is proof in itself that he can’t quite believe it. Secretly he realizes that convincing yourself is an impossible task, and the very act of trying means you cannot be convinced. In his own way, then, Prufrock is just as self-destructive as either Harold, Byron, or Roland; within the Modernist perspective, especially Eliot’s own anti-Romantic subset of it, self-destruction has by this point come to mean something different. Prufrock’s fate is his choice, but at the same time it’s the ultimate punishment. Trapped in his own private torment, like Montefeltro in the quote from Dante’s Inferno that prefaces the poem, Prufrock confesses his regret only because he knows that it will go nowhere—because just as he tries to convince only himself, he tries so to confess only to himself. “‘Do I dare?’” he asks himself–“and, ‘Do I dare?’” (38) The answer, of course, is no; the consuming torture of his situation is that, cursed with a removed perspective on his own pain, Prufrock knows exactly what he’s suffered and exactly what he’s going to suffer. Yet he does nothing about it, because recognizing his paralysis is the only indulgence he will allow himself. Thus his love song, though full of hidden sadness that he can’t quite repress, is designed at least to be more like an anti-love song—a lost love song. It mourns emotions that it will not allow for itself. And so like Childe Harold, “grown aged in this world of woe” (III 37), and like Childe Roland, whose hope “dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope/ With that obstreperous joy success would bring” (21-2), Prufrock ages–becomes an old man who lives his whole life in a day, so that each day becomes a whole lifetime of waste. For I have known them all already, known them all— Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons, I know the voices dying with a dying fall Beneath the music from a further room. (49-53)These lines are full of repetition, repetition that trips and falls over itself to emphasize how unfairly this life has already been lived. Prufrock has “known them all,” “known them all” [much like Roland who, defiantly facing the hillsides who frame his last end, says that “ I saw them and I knew them all” (202)] and it all has been measured with the mundane and minute unite of a coffee spoon. The coffee spoon evokes at once the drudgery of day to day life, and with its smallness the futility of measuring it out; it also connotes morning, just after Prufrock has actually said “mornings” in the previous line. “Dying” echoes in the fourth line like “worse” for Childe Harold, and like the fallen friends of Childe Roland—a dismal, tolling idea that cannot be rubbed out. It is under the pressure of this planned future that Prufrock feels himself aging: “I grow old…I grow old…/ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” (120-1), again latching onto diurnal practicalities with a self-contained terror. Prufrock is like Roland, “quiet as despair” as he turns from the cripple towards the Dark Tower (43). He is like Harold, who has grown “secure in guarded coldness” (III 82), so cut off from his fellow men that he has nothing left to feel— …So that no wonder waits him; nor below Can love, or sorrow, fame, ambition, strife, Cut to his heart again with the keen knife Of silent, sharp endurance: he can tell Why thought seeks refuge in lone caves, yet rife With airy images, and shapes which dwell Still unimpair’d, though old, in the soul’s haunted cell (III 40-45).The last words in particular—“the soul’s haunted cell”—are painfully accurate for Prufrock, who is unique for the fact that unlike Harold and Roland, he has nothing—and, therefore, everything—to regret. He is not haunted by a forbidden love, or a lost band of men, but by simply—nothing. One can say that he speaks of lost love, but only because it’s so overwhelmingly, thoroughly lost that it never even took place. Prufrock dreams of mermaids singing, but he cannot believe they are within his grasp. “I do not think,” he says, “that they will sing to me” (125). So while Harold rides the waves and Roland passes through the flames, Prufrock “lingers in the chambers of the sea” and ultimately drowns (129). Though each knight and each author struggles with much the same problem, it is only Byron—the first—who clearly states a solution. More similar to Harold than perhaps anybody on earth, Harold’s problems were his own; and, paradoxically, Byron solved both sets of problems by inventing the latter. His creation of a fictional character in Harold was his great consolation and only solution; “ ‘Tis to create, and in creating live…gaining as we give/ The life we image, even as I do now. What am I?” he says. “Nothing; but not so art thou, /Soul of my thought!” (III 46-51) In Harold he found the “One” who could soothe the worries of a restless soul, the One who lent purpose to a frustrated life: In my youth’s summer I did sing of One, The wandering outlaw of his own dark mind…(III, 19-20) …in that Tale I find The furrows of long thought, and dried-up tears, Which, ebbing, leave a sterile track behind, O’er which all heavily the journeying years Plod the last sands of life,–where not a flower appears. (III, 23-7)His use of natural imagery vividly contrasts the exterior of his “youth’s summer,” like the bright “hope rekindling” (17) that Roland gave up on, with the frightening interior of “his own dark mind.” Harold came to embody Byron’s inner doubts—just as Roland’s dark path and Prufrock’s dark sadness served the same function for Browning and Eliot. The sterile track made by tears, where no flowers grow, rises before us not just in “Childe Harold” but again in “Childe Roland,” where Roland think[s] I never saw Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve: For flowers—as well expect a cedar grove! (55-7)–trapped in a landscape where hope has long died. And the One comes to us not uniquely with Harold, but also with Prufrock—who imagines “one” who, “settling a pillow by her head,/ Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all’” (96-7). This one for Prufrock, this “wandering outlaw of his own dark mind” (III, 19-20), is as much a curse as a comfort—taunting his ambition before he acts on it–but in either case it displays to us the vital importance, for all writers, in creating a person outside of themselves to endow with the worry that they cannot live with. If the great quest at hand is to corner despair, to live with regret and to conquer self-doubt, for these writers the answer was very simple: if you’re no knight yourself you can always create one, to keep on with fighting once you’ve finished writing. And even if these knights do not win their battles, their presence—for authors—marks a quest fulfilled.

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