Monday, 16 September 2013

'The Patriot' - An Acknowledgement or a Denial?

Robert Browning was an English poet and playwright born in the 17th Century. He is not only known for his works of poetry, but also for his translations of Aeschylus (which feature in Rattigan's play The Browning Version), amongst other Greek translations. Here is his poem The Patriot:


It was roses, roses, all the way,
With myrtle mixed in my path like mad:
The house-roofs seemed to heave and sway,
The church-spires flamed, such flags they had,
A year ago on this very day.

The air broke into a mist with bells,
The old walls rocked with the crowd and cries.
Had I said, ``Good folk, mere noise repels---
But give me your sun from yonder skies!''
They had answered, ``And afterward, what else?''

Alack, it was I who leaped at the sun
To give it my loving friends to keep!
Nought man could do, have I left undone:
And you see my harvest, what I reap
This very day, now a year is run.

There's nobody on the house-tops now---
Just a palsied few at the windows set;
For the best of the sight is, all allow,
At the Shambles' Gate---or, better yet,
By the very scaffold's foot, I trow.

I go in the rain, and, more than needs,
A rope cuts both my wrists behind;
And I think, by the feel, my forehead bleeds,
For they fling, whoever has a mind,
Stones at me for my year's misdeeds.

Thus I entered, and thus I go!
In triumphs, people have dropped down dead.
``Paid by the world, what dost thou owe
``Me?''---God might question; now instead,
'Tis God shall repay: I am safer so. 

Robert Browning’s poem The Patriot is written in dramatic monologue, as are many of his poems, and it recounts the macabre tale of an esteemed soldier’s fall from grace. The title doesn’t mention any country or person in particular, meaning it is universal and is relevant to almost any situation. The poem is presented as even more generic by the sub-title, An Old Story, which not only conveys the age of this account, but it also implies that it is a rather universal story. This makes the poem easily accessible for the average person.

The first stanza is an account of the patriot’s return home, when he is praised and cheered. The roses that are thrown at him symbolize love, and myrtle, in Victorian times, symbolized victory and glory. The tone for this stanza is joyful, and this is shown by the high tempo, which is created by Browning’s use of asyndeton – you will notice that there is only one ‘and’ in the entirety of the first stanza.

In the second stanza Browning uses a hyperbole to highlight the people’s reverence of the soldier, and the soldier explains to us that if he had requested the sun, then they would have replied ‘And afterwards, what else?’ This displays the extent the people are willing to go to praise the patriot for his victory, and again the tempo of this stanza is fast, showing that he is still recounting a jubilant period.

As we enter the third stanza we are immediately struck by the word ‘Alack’ which notifies us of the inevitable change in tone. Here the soldier is perhaps comparing himself to Icarus, the mythological Greek character who flew too close to the sun, despite warnings, leading to the melting of his wings and his drowning. This metaphor implies that the patriot went too far in what he was attempting, and that this was indeed the reason for his foreseeable downfall.

This part of the story is told with the wisdom of an older, parent like figure. The patriot didn’t understand at the time, but perhaps now he realises that he is to blame – it is because of his ignorance and ignoring of warnings that he has gained this position.

This is reinforced by the line: ‘And you see my harvest, what I reap…’ The use of this phrase suggests that the soldier acknowledges that his past actions are the cause of his current troubles, and that he now has to live with this blame.

At the beginning of the fourth stanza a huge contrast is introduced by the line: ‘There’s nobody on the house-tops now…’ When put in conjunction with the third line (‘The house roofs seemed to heave and sway…’) we can now see the nostalgia that the patriot is feeling, and this is highlighted by the contrast between past and present, shown by Browning’s use of imagery. A vast amount of macabre detail is then presented to us when the soldier informs us of the best place from which to view the hanging, and this demonstrates the wretched, despondent state of his mind.

The contrast also emphasizes that nobody cares about him anymore. People have disregarded and are ignoring the fact that he was once a much-loved war-hero, and are now focusing on his ‘misdeeds’, as he calls them.

The use of pathetic fallacy (‘I go in the rain…’) again accentuates the dejected thought-patterns of the soldier. He is made to feel yet more isolated by the rain, because he is forced to remain outside in the foul weather. However this use of pathetic fallacy is perhaps rather unnecessary and distasteful – it is extremely typical of authors to present sad scenes in the rain, and therefore Browning is perhaps degrading himself.

The next paragraph raises the important question of the soldier’s sanity – it seems to the reader that he is comparing himself with Jesus as he walks up Golgotha, bearing the cross. We see this comparison in a number of ways – firstly the sentence ‘And I think, by the feel, my forehead bleeds…’ which resembles the crown of thorns which Jesus was forced to bear, and secondly the fact that the people are throwing rocks at him, a very common practice in the time of Jesus.

The use of the word ‘fling’ suggests that the stones are being thrown nonchalantly as if they don’t care. It also says: ‘Whoever has a mind…’ which implies that anybody with any sense realises that what the soldier did was criminal, and that he must be punished for it. Again, all of this highlights that the soldier’s society has neglected him, and exaggerates their hatred for him.

The use of dialogue in the final stanza adds drama to the poem and makes it seem much more real, despite it being a completely theoretical conversation; catching the reader’s attention, it signifies the crux of the poem.

This is an ill fate for a man who spent his life serving his countrymen. However the poignant poem is concluded with the soldier taking a positive output. He believes himself to be innocent, meaning that when he escapes the fickleness of human condition, God ‘shall repay’ him. He thinks it better to die in a bad condition that to die in the midst of one’s glory, because now things can only get better. However this slightly contradicts earlier parts of the poem, where it can be perceived that he admits his wrongdoings. Perhaps he has, as I have already mentioned, indeed lost his sanity in the shadow of death – what he once thought to be sin, is now innocence. Is this poem an acknowledgement of his evils, or indeed a denial?

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