How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to
performed by Robert Hardy
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 Aershot, 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 hutting 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.
Interpretation by Martin Garrett
Remembered place-names – Aershot and Hasselt, Looz and Tongres - mark the stages of the horsemen's desperate journey. But the poem is also about forgetting: the self-forgetfulness of the unnamed speaker who emphasises not his own heroism but that of his horse. Roland's galloping mattered more, at the time, than politics or war - we never learn what exactly the 'good news' was - and galloping anapaests (two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed) are insistently present. This makes 'How They Brought the Good News' an ideal piece for recitation. In old age, however, Browning faltered after speaking the first few lines into an early Edison phonograph; he is 'incredibly sorry', he can just be heard to say, that he has forgotten his own verses. It is almost as if he wanted to draw attention to the importance of remembering and forgetting in the poem.
Martin Garrett is a scholar and writer and the author of volumes on Byron, Mary Shelley and both Elizabeth and Robert Browning. He has taught on a number of undergraduate courses for the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London.