This will have to be quick, as I have lots of homework this weekend. (I think it was Lawrence Kasdan who said that being a writer means you have homework for the rest of your life.)
So, first of all, I always hated this poem, which I had to read as a child -- a sixth-grader, maybe. One of the reasons for my conviction, which I have developed over the course of the year, that literature should not be taught at all to minors is that they are bound to have a bad attitude towards anything that is associated with school -- especially stuff that adults think kids should like, like this poem, which is filled with horses and derring-do. Except you never get to the horses and derring-do because, by the end of line two, you're already have four proper nouns thrown at you that you've never heard of before (or since): Ghent, Aix, Joris, and Dirck. The mind swims. Through the window, the school parking lot begins to look interesting.
Also the meter, whatever it is -- I should be better at prosody than I am -- sounds little-kid like; or, when you're of school-age, baby-like I think it's the same as the "Grinch Who Stole Christmas". Let's see:
’Twas moonset at starting; but while we drew nearWas it the star-bellied Sneetches that came out to see, at the town of Boom? Only Little Cat A knows for sure.
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
Maybe this poem would be more controversial if it were made clearer that two horses died, and one was almost ridden to death, in the making of it:
And there was my Roland to bear the whole weightThat's pretty good; and sort of a typical complex Browning moment -- good news purchased at the cost of proud horses. Unfortunately most readers will have long since checked out.
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.
UPDATE: Bob Going emails me the following:
I have recently picked up a one-volume collection of Robert Browning's extremely-small-type complete works, out of respect for my dear mother, who after her first date with Dad wrote him opining that while Dad's favorite, Stephen Vincent Benet, was very good, Browning was better.
Having previously read a volume of Benet's short stories, I can now conclude that my mother, at least at 22, was nuts. It also appears that Browning never had an un-versed thought. The sheer volume of his poetry is staggering. Much of it I find just impossible to get into, as it is extremely common for him to assume that the reader knows everything about every little crevice and personality of every age in Italy. His versed plays I can mostly see as a somewhat pleasant evening of experimental theater, and his work as a whole is well-crafted, but very, very little of it do I find interesting.
Maybe because most of it is just too long. Duke Machete farts, Rabbi Ben Ezra ponders the meaning of it for 22 stanzas, that sort of thing. Oddly, it is his version of the Pied Piper story, written for a friend's child, that holds up the best. Tells the story without embellishment, in language that children and lesser beings, like 21st century guys with seven years of higher education, can understand.
I haven't completely given up yet, but I do not expect to come across anything like The Devil and Daniel Webster.