‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’ begins with the wonderfully rhythmical lines ‘I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he; / I gallop’d, Dirck gallop’d, we gallop’d all three’. This energetic Robert Browning poem describes a horse-ride to deliver some important news, although we never learn what the news actually is. Instead, the emphasis is on the journey itself, with the sound of the galloping horses excellently captured through the metre of the verse.
How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I gallop’d, Dirck gallop’d, we gallop’d 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 gallop’d abreast.
Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace
Neck by neck, stride by stride, never changing our place;
I turn’d in my saddle and made its girths tight,
Then shorten’d each stirrup, and set the pique right,
Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chain’d slacker the bit,
Nor gallop’d less steadily Roland a whit.
’T was moonset at starting; but while we drew near
Lokeren, the cocks crew and twilight dawn’d clear;
At Boom, a great yellow star came out to see;
At Düffeld, ’t was morning as plain as could be;
And from Mechelm church-steeple we heard the half chime,
So, Joris broke silence with, “Yet there is time!”
At Aershot, up leap’d of a sudden the sun,
And against him the cattle stood black every one,
To stare thro’ 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 prick’d 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 groan’d; and cried Joris “Stay spur!
Your Roos gallop’d bravely, the fault’s not in her,
We ’ll remember at Aix”—for one heard the quick wheeze
Of her chest, saw the stretch’d neck and staggering knees,
And sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank,
As down on her haunches she shudder’d and sank.
So, we were left galloping, Joris and I,
Past Looz and past Tongres, no cloud in the sky;
The broad sun above laugh’d 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
Roll’d 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, lean’d, patted his ear,
Call’d my Roland his pet name, my horse without peer;
Clapp’d my hands, laugh’d and sang, any noise, bad or good,
Till at length into Aix Roland gallop’d 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 pour’d 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.
Rhythm is everything in this poem, and the metre perfectly suits the horse-ride being described. For ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’ is in the anapaestic metre – that is, two light stresses followed by a heavy stress. So in the line ‘As I sat with his head ’twixt my knees on the ground’, the heavy stresses fall on ‘sat’, ‘head’, ‘knees’, and ‘ground’: ‘As I sat with his head ’twixt my knees on the ground’. This anapaestic metre – more specifically, anapaestic tetrameter – is perfect for conveying the frantic riding of the horses, the galloping rhythms of the riders.
Anapaestic metre is relatively rare in English poetry, because we don’t tend to go around speaking in anapaests and it is difficult to construct lines of verse which don’t sound too contrived to fit the metre. Here, in ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’, Robert Browning varies the metre by using iambic substitutions, as in the first line: ‘I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he’, where the first foot of the line ‘I sprang’ is one light stress short of being an anapaest. Many other lines in the poem also begin with iambs rather than the full anapaest.
Three riders – the speaker of the poem, and the wonderfully named Joris and Dirck – ride from Ghent to Aix in France, to deliver the ‘good news’, whatever that news might be (the speaker forgets to tell us). And forgetting was to play a key part in this poem’s later life: ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’ has a notable claim to fame because, in 1889, it became the first poem (spoken by the author) to be recorded on a phonograph, when Browning recited words from the poem into an Edison phonograph at a dinner party. Unfortunately, he forget the words to his own poem, and was reduced to shouting his own name into the cylinder. You can hear this wonderful moment here. For more about Browning’s biography, you might enjoy our short introduction to Browning’s interesting life