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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Number 102: Robert Browning "How They Brought the Good News From Ghent to Aix"


How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix

I SPRANG to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.

Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace
Neck by neck, stride by stride, never changing our place;
I turned in my saddle and made its girths tight,
Then shortened each stirrup, and set the pique right,
Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chained slacker the bit,
Nor galloped less steadily Roland a whit.

’Twas moonset at starting; but while we drew near
Lokeren, the cocks crew and twilight dawned clear;
At Boom, a great yellow star came out to see;
At Düffeld, ’twas morning as plain as could be;
And from Mecheln church-steeple we heard the half-chime,
So Joris broke silence with ‘Yet there is time!’

At Aerschot, up leaped of a sudden the sun,
And against him the cattle stood black every one,
To stare through the mist at us galloping past,
And I saw my stout galloper Roland at last,
With resolute shoulders, each butting away
The haze, as some bluff river headland its spray.

And his low head and crest, just one sharp ear bent back
For my voice, and the other pricked out on his track;
And one eye’s black intelligence,—ever that glance
O’er its white edge at me, his own master, askance!
And the thick heavy spume-flakes which aye and anon
His fierce lips shook upwards in galloping on.

By Hasselt, Dirck groaned; and cried Joris, ‘Stay spur!
Your Roos galloped bravely, the fault’s not in her,
We’ll remember at Aix’—for one heard the quick wheeze
Of her chest, saw the stretched neck and staggering knees,
And sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank,
As down on her haunches she shuddered and sank.

So we were left galloping, Joris and I,
Past Looz and past Tongres, no cloud in the sky;
The broad sun above laughed a pitiless laugh,
’Neath our feet broke the brittle bright stubble like chaff;
Till over by Dalhem a dome-spire sprang white,
And ‘Gallop,’ gasped Joris, ‘for Aix is in sight!’

‘How they’ll greet us!’—and all in a moment his roan
Rolled neck and croup over, lay dead as a stone;
And there was my Roland to bear the whole weight
Of the news which alone could save Aix from her fate,
With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim,
And with circles of red for his eye-sockets’ rim.

Then I cast loose my buffcoat, each holster let fall,
Shook off both my jack-boots, let go belt and all,
Stood up in the stirrup, leaned, patted his ear,
Called my Roland his pet-name, my horse without peer;
Clapped my hands, laughed and sang, any noise, bad or good,
Till at length into Aix Roland galloped and stood.

And all I remember is, friends flocking round
As I sat with his head ’twixt my knees on the ground;
And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,
As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine,
Which (the Burgesses voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.

--Robert Browning

Hap Notes: Robert Browning (1812-1889) was a master of narrative verse and he does something quite unusual in this poem, or rather, he does something that is usual for Browning but not for other poets. He does not tell you what the "good news" is. Three riders take off with highly time-sensitive information from Ghent (a city in Belgium in the Flemish region) to Aix (Aix-la-Chapelle, also known as Aachen) for about a 90 mile trip on horseback. As you read the verses aloud, you will hear the galloping of the horses as the three men ride urgently towards their destination. I remember when I read it as a kid it always left me as breathless as Roland, the narrator's tired and valiant horse.

The cities (Lokeren, Boom, Düffeld, Mecheln, Aershot, Hasselt, Looz, Tongres, Dalhem ) are all real ones and chart the progress of the riders (the narrator, Dirck and Joris) as they ride on with their important information. As for all that horsey equipage, you're on your own: as the narrator "set the pique right/Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chained slacker the bit," I'm guessing he's making the horse and his equipment more comfortable and efficient. Someone who rides and cares for a horse can tell you why these things work. I'm trusting Browning that they are necessary. First Dirck, and then Joris, lose their mounts to exhaustion and the narrator and Roland are left to carry on.

If you've ever been on a long road trip, the idea of singing and clapping and laughing to keep you going may be familiar, especially in bad weather, although certainly not on a horse but perhaps in a trusted and dependable vehicle. It's not quite the same as having a companion like a horse is but it will have to do when trying to feel the urgency and determination to get somewhere in a hurry after starting out in the middle of the night.

You can hear Browning start to recite his poem here:www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYot5-WuAjE

Browning was at a dinner party where his host had a recording machine. It's extraordinary to hear his voice even if he does (charmingly) forget his poem.

Browning, of course, is well known for his love affair with and subsequent marriage to poet Elizabeth Barrett. An invalid and six years his senior, she was surprised by the vigorous Browning's love for her. Her love sonnets to him (Sonnets From the Portuguese) are legendary. Who in the world does not know "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways"?

Browning had a gift for the dramatic monologue (a favorite of mine is "My Last Duchess") in which the speaker inadvertently shows us something about himself that is never spoken. Browning lets the speaker reveal his flaws through wording and what is and is not spoken. This is pretty incredible stuff, by the way- Browning has to think like the character and let little things leak out in a casual way. He's masterful at this. I've always like the The Ring and the Book, but my God, it's long- a book length free verse poem with 10 separate narrators. I don't think that's a good Browning work to start with if you're not familiar with him- it's a bit daunting. Browning, by the way, was a great admirer of Shelley.

Browning also wrote the Pied Piper of Hamelin (you are no doubt familiar with this story?). Men and Women is probably Browning's most famous collection but, lucky us, we can get his whole canon in one book now. He's a very good read.

Here's a nice Browning quote: "Perhaps one has to be very old before one learns to be amused rather than shocked."

and another: "Who hears music feels his solitude peopled at once."


You can read more Browning here: www.englishverse.com/poets/browning_robert



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