How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix
[ Issue 19 ]

'How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix' is a particular interest of Emily Bronto

Bikwil salutes 'How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix'

How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix

Bet Briggs investigates Robert Browning's galloping poem How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix.  In particular she busies herself trying to find out what the “good news” really was.

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My Good News Week — Bet Briggs

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Not 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!”

My 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.

I 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.”

Immediately, 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.

Before 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.

True 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.

About 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.

“At 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”.

That 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 Limburg.

“By Hasselt”, the capital, suddenly Dirck’s horse collapsed. So Joris and “I” galloped on “Past Looz” (now Boorgloon) and past Tongres (or Tongeren) where

. . . no cloud in the sky;
The broad sun above laughed a pitiless laugh.

Next 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,
And “Gallop”, gasped Joris, “for Aix is in sight”.

There was anticipation in the next remark: “How they’ll greet us!” Joris, however, would not be greeted, for

. . . all in a moment his roan,
Rolled neck and croup over, lay dead as a stone.

So it was left to “I” and his Roland

. . . to bear the whole weight
Of the news which alone could save Aix from her fate.

“I”, 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,
Which (the burgesses voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.

Breathless 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.

But, 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.

These 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.

At 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.

Two 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.”

Well, 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 poet.

On 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 again.

Thanks 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.

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