since my schooldays have I read Robert Browning’s poem How They Brought
the Good News from Ghent to Aix. Recently a friend asked me, “What was
the good news?” — a simple question easily answered, I thought. I had no
ready answer, however, but my curiosity was stirred and out of long habit
out popped my catchphrase: “I’ll look that up!”
friend’s question was timely for I had been feeling dispirited and
directionless. So I was pleased to go into action: to don specs, take up
my old sleuthing weapons of pen and paper and magnifying glass for the
fine print and begin to investigate.
began, of course, with the poem. It must have some clues and by careful
reading surely I would detect one. At once I spotted under the title two
figures in brackets thus: [16 —]. “Ah!” I pounced. “A date. A
reference to an historical event perhaps.”
like the poem’s character Joris and Dirck and “I” (the narrator) who
“sprang to the stirrup” and “galloped all three”, I, too, was on my high
horse galloping hopefully to discovery. At the same time I was mindful of
the need to maintain a certain control and detachment — the coolness and
focus of the lone sleuth — and not become a Charley Farley or one of the
cops or law and order boys.
examining that half-date and horsing through the maze of 17th century
history, I checked the poem for other possible clues. I noted all the
places that “I” and Joris and Dirck (Dutch for George and Derrick)
galloped by: from Ghent past Lokeren, Boom, Düffeld, Mecheln, Aershot,
Hasselt, Looz, Tongres, Dalhem to journey’s end at Aix.
to my words I looked them up: in a gazetteer. All of them, save for Dalhem
and Aix, were communes in various provinces of Belgium and easy to find on
my map. Dalhem proved difficult to locate. The only reference I could find
was to a town of that name far to the north of Belgium on Gotland Island
in the Baltic Sea! As for Aix, there were several, but the one that made
sense in the context of the poem was Aix-la-Chapelle, better known as
Aachen in North-Rhine Westphalia on the Belgian border.
both place and time the narrative of the poem is specific. So I was able,
with my list of geographical detail, my map and the poem in front of me,
to trace the progression of that extraordinary gallop of Joris and Dirck
and “I” across Belgium from west to east, or south-east to be precise.
moonset” the three riders left Ghent, the capital of East Flanders
province in north-west Belgium and “galloped abreast” in silence “into the
midnight”. As they passed Lokeren “the cocks crew and twilight dawned
clear”. At Boom in Antwerp province “a great yellow star came out to see”,
and soon after “At Düffeld ‘twas morning as plain as could be”, and “from
Mecheln church steeple” they “heard the half-chime”.
prompted Joris to break their silence and say, “Yet there is time!”, a
remark I thought could mean, though they still had far to go, time was on
their side. They kept galloping: across Brabant province where “At Aershot,
up leaped of a sudden the sun”, then they crossed into the province of
Hasselt”, the capital, suddenly Dirck’s horse collapsed. So Joris and “I”
galloped on “Past Looz” (now Boorgloon) and past Tongres (or Tongeren)
. . .
no cloud in the sky;
broad sun above laughed a pitiless laugh.
they approached Dalhem, the one I couldn’t find, and it was obviously
close to Aix, for, as we are told:
. . .
over by Dalhem a dome-spire sprang white,
“Gallop”, gasped Joris, “for Aix is in sight”.
was anticipation in the next remark: “How they’ll greet us!” Joris,
however, would not be greeted, for
. . .
all in a moment his roan,
neck and croup over, lay dead as a stone.
was left to “I” and his Roland
. . .
to bear the whole weight
the news which alone could save Aix from her fate.
casting loose his buffcoat, holsters, jackboots and belt, coaxed and
encouraged his “horse without peer” all the way, “Till at length into Aix
Roland galloped and stood”. All “I” remembered was “friends flocking
round” as he sat with Roland’s head between his knees to give him their
. . .
last measure of wine,
(the burgesses voted by common consent)
no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.
myself after all that galloping, so vividly depicted, I paused to
reassess. While I was in doubt as to how the good news was brought
I was no wiser as to the what! No closer to knowing the nature of
the good news which compelled Joris and Dirck and “I” to ride so urgently
from one side of Belgium to the other with such dire consequences: two
horses dead, two men stranded or worse and, now, one sleuth nonplussed.
like “I” the last rider, I had to keep going. Besides, I had one other
clue: that tantalising half-date! Spurred on again I began to pick a trail
through 17th century history via encyclopaedias and history books. Some
references to Ghent and Aix revealed links with Louis XIV (1638-1715) King
of France, “The Sun King”, an absolute monarch, ambitious and territorial.
Of many wars he fought where he secured victories, two seemed relevant to
my enquiry. The War of Devolution in 1668 in which Louis attempted to
seize the Spanish Netherlands ended with a treaty drawn up at
Aix-la-Chapelle. During the Franco-Dutch War (1672-78) he strengthened
French frontiers by a series of strategic gains and captured Ghent and
Ypres in 1678.
intriguing snippets, however, just tantalised me more than ever and still
I had no answer to the original question “What was the good news?” I was
back where I started. Frustrating but instructive for me. Rather than
admit defeat and file my notes under Unfinished Cases I worried away at
the question, or more to the point, it nagged me. So I started my enquiry
again right from scratch.
home in my own library I consulted a recent acquisition The Wordsworth
Companion to Literature in English. There to my astonishment How
They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix has an entry to itself.
Two points: one, that it was published in Browning’s Dramatic Romances
and Lyrics in 1845, and two, that it was favourite of anthologists
(which I already knew) were superfluous to my enquiry.
other points were crucial. Imagine, though, my punctured ego when I read:
“Despite appearances the narrative does not refer to any historical
event”. Browning’s version, moreover, of what he was trying to achieve was
“that he simply wanted to evoke the rhythm of horses galloping”. Double
checking as I usually do, I found both these bald statements were
confirmed by a succinct entry in Benet’s The Reader’s Encyclopedia,
again under the poem’s title: “Noted for its onomatopoetic effects it
describes a purely imaginary incident.”
to find out after a week of painstaking, page-turning,
midnight-oil-burning research that Browning’s “Good News” is no news and
all onomatopoetic effect and rhythm of horses galloping was, as I said,
deflating. But not for long. I still wonder what sparked the narrative.
Browning, according to one biographer, was an avid reader and had ample
resources. His father, a bibliophile and scholar had a library of 6000
volumes in several languages and it became the source of young Robert’s
education. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that among those vast
resources he read something which inspired the ideas for his poem.
Whatever the case, his imaginative power and skill to create the dramatic
incident which seems like a real event, is admirable, the mark of a fine
reflection I regard my enquiry with optimism and gratitude. Not for the
first time in my career of literary sleuthing have I ridden Fizzler, the
wrong horse on the wrong trail. For a while I’ve galloped! Now I’m back at
the hitching post, reined in but not hobbled. I’ll be up and galloping
to my friend and Robert Browning the results of my investigation have not
been negative: even if “Good News” is no news, no matter. This week has
been my good news week.