Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Thrill of a Great Ride: Browning's How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix

Photo by Gene Devine on Unsplash
The past week or so I've been doing a lot of reflection on Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," easily one of the great songs of the Sixties and from his own remarkable catalog. It begins with those classic lines, "There must be some kind of way out of here," said the joker to the thief "There's too much confusion. I can't get no relief."

Those words alone serve perk you up, to dial you in to something intense and immense about to happen. But that's another blog post altogether.

While collecting my thoughts on how to approach Dylan's now classic song, I began mulling over the very last part where he sings, "Two riders were approaching, and the wind begins to howl."

How is it that we always think of horses? He never says horses. Yet I doubt that anyone has ever pictured camels, or donkeys, two other means of transport in the wilderness Middle East. Or men being pulled by chariots.

In fact, he never says wilderness, yet it has always seemed to be a wilderness setting, and an ancient one. There are some students of Dylan's lyrics who suggest the imagery here is based on Isaiah 21 from the Old Testament. Interestingly, the word "watchtower" only appears twice in the Bible. Both times it is in Isaiah 21. (Only once in the New International Version, fwiw.)

What's more, Isaiah writes, “Go, post a lookout and have him report what he sees. When he sees chariots with teams of horses, riders on donkeys or riders on camels, let him be alert, fully alert.”

Two riders were approaching, Dylan states. What picture did you have in your mind?

* * * *

Robert Browning (Public domain.)
When I think of riders I think of horses. And when I think of riders on horses my mind goes to the galloping cadence in Robert Browning's poem "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix."

When my kids were young I liked to sometimes read poems to them that would instill in them an appreciation for poetic verse. The aim was to show that poetry and the language arts can be fun, engaging and entertaining. It's always been my hope to one day give a reading called "An Hour of Poetry for Those Who Are Not Into Poetry." It would be a selection of readings designed to show that poetry really can be fun.

One of the poems that I'd read during that hour would be this one.

I love the rhythm that Browning carries throughout to create the effect of galloping. He does this by using two unstressed syllable followed by one stressed, which (professionals have names for everything) is called an anapest. The first line is stressed on sprang, stir, Jor and he. The second on gal, gal, gal three.

It's an absolute blast reading this aloud, not to mention the wonderful flow of images that Browning weaves into the story, a story of achievement that is an achievement itself.

It's my understanding that there is no real incident described here, no "good news" of a victory won or enemy conquered. But one can be sure that moments like this have occurred throughout history, at least before the telegraph, and later social media.

Here's the poem. Enjoy it. Read it aloud. Share it.

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.

* * * *
Now wasn't that a great ride? Not just what Roland did, but what Browning did, carrying readers along, leaving us almost breathless at the end.

And speaking of great rides, hasn't Bob Dylan's career been a great ride? Indeed! Yes, to the very end.

Related Links
About Robert Browning (Courtesy the Poetry Foundation)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Love Sonnet to Robert
A Little More About Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Incentives Matter


Phil said...

But "the very end" has not happened yet, thankfully.

More Dylan, more music, more legend!

Ed Newman said...

Very true. And the Never Ending Tour has been a truly great ride.
thanks for the note.