The Patriot by Robert Browning
Public emotions, as opposed to public opinion, are volatile. When manipulated cunningly, it sways the public mood, making people to behave in a mercurial manner. The consequences are deleterious for the society, as it fuels frenzied support to a certain individual or a particular ideology. It can cause upheavals, unrest, irrational hero worship, or unjustified demonization of an otherwise noble person.
History is replete with examples hideous characters rising to great heights, and then falling suddenly from grace to suffer incarceration, death, or lifelong vilification. Hitler, once the apple of the common German’s eyes, is now a figure no one wants to remember or talk about. Same fate has besmirched Stalin, Lenin, Mussolini, and many others.
This phenomenon of instant adulation of a person, and their equally quick condemnation has been there in human society in all ages. It is an aberration that has caused much pain and suffering to individuals.
In this poem The Patriot’, Robert Browning, narrates the fate one such victim of violent swing of public mood. It is a lament that should cause some soul-searching in minds of present day society’s opinion makers.
The poem …
A patriot walks down the street as citizens jostle with one another to pour their adulation on him. His service to his country is hailed with much frenzy and euphoric clamor. Rose petals are strewn on the road for him to walk on. People sit on vantage points to have a good view of him. National flags are tied to church spires to show how the country is obliged to the hero for his service. The whole town is aglow with the aura of the great man’s splendid service to the nation. He walks triumphantly among the crowd gleefully acknowledging their praise.
The poet continues to describe the electrifying atmosphere in the city. The hero’s charisma has gripped the imagination of the citizens. They are standing atop some old buildings to catch his view.
All this happened just a year ago. The public virtually fawned over him. They were ready to give him just anything he wanted. Even, the life-giving Sun wouldn’t have been a big thing to ask for. If he had asked for something more after getting the Sun, the people would have given him. So much they adored him, and felt grateful to him for his service to the nation.
In this part, the speaker (the hero of the plot) reflects upon what he did for the country. The speaker takes us to Greek mythology to describe how Icarus, and his genius Daedalus who have broken free from their prison cell built atop a tower by a very ingenious innovation. They have succeeded to make a pair of wings each by gluing bird feathers with wax. It enabled them to fly away from the prison tower. But, Icarus gets carried away by his success, and flies higher and higher until he reaches the dangerous vicinity of the Sun. The wax melts in the heat, and Icarus falls to death. All his friends have died earlier.
By citing this example, the speaker alludes to his own excesses. He overdid his role as the country’s benefactor and achieved something that was not achievable. This excessive zeal proved to be his undoing. He uses the terms ‘harvest’ and ‘reap’ to refer to the missteps he took to bring glory to his country. He laments his failings and accepts the consequences as something that is inevitable. He is reconciled to the darkness that lies ahead of him.
Stanza 4 ..
The heydays are history now. It has been a year since. The world has become a hot hostile place for the speaker (the disgraced hero). Now, he has been convicted and condemned to death. The authorities reckon that he has done something grievously wrong. He deserves to be hanged. He has been tightly handcuffed in his back. It is raining. He is being led to Shambles Gate, the place where he will be executed. The crowd, who cheered him in the same street a year ago, have gone to the hanging ground to jeer at him. Only a solitary crippled man is visible. What a cruel turn of fate!
Stanza 5 ..
The speaker (the fallen hero) is at the receiving end of the people’s wrath. They want revenge against the speaker whom they had spiritedly applauded just a year ago. The tight handcuff causes him wrenching pain, as it bites into his flesh, chafing him relentlessly. The speaker bears it stoically. He feels that blood is streaming down from his forehead. Apparently, a stone hurled at him by the onlookers has hurt him. The speaker ignores it. As a mark of remarkable equanimity, he doesn’t feel any animosity towards his vengeful detractors. Instead, he feels they have used their mind to gauge his ‘misdeeds’. The speaker knows for certain that the people have misjudged his action and proclaimed him guilty. So, it is a case of ‘misjudgment’ on the part of his people. He is not angry with them for ‘misunderstanding’ him.
The speaker reflects on his fate that so cruelly cast made a villain of a patriot in so sort a time. In this hour of reflection and reckoning, philosophical and spiritual thoughts are bound to come. In the core of his heart, he knows he has done no wrong. It is his own people who have wrongly understood him. So, before God, he remains a virtuous and noble son, notwithstanding the venom his people poured on him. So, he has no feeling of guilt, no remorse.
He concludes that God will treat him kindly, because his execution has cleansed him of remaining sins, if any.
——————————To be contd———————–
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ..
Why do you think Robert Browning wrote this poem? Answer .. From the dawn of human civilization, humans have reveled at victory, and despaired in defeat. The gallant are glorified, and the vanquished are vilified. Commanders, who lead their men to victory are showered with raise, adulation and accolades. A commander, who has fought really well, but has been defeated faces disgrace, and merciless denigration. Citizens fail t realize that there is always an element of luck in battles. On a bad day, or due to a bad decision, a battle can be lost. Rationally speaking, such a defeat does never point to a lack of valor on the part of the soldiers and their commander.
The author is pained by such U-turn in the public’s reaction to victory and defeat. Such dramatic reversal of public mood is very unsettling. The author is clearly disturbed by such romanticization of victory, and castigation of defeat. He feels so strongly about such attitude that he chooses to use ‘first person’ to describe the plight and humiliation of the war hero being led to the gallows. Sadly, Indians display such hysterical response to victory and defeat in the cricket field.
What thoughts pass through the commander’s mind when he heads to the gallows? .. Answer .. No doubt, the defeated war hero is distraught and devastated, but he holds back all tendencies to get angry, hate his people, and loathe his fellow men. Instead, he is forgiving towards his people. He attributes his misery to the error of judgement of his people. When blood flows down from his forehead due to a stone-hit, he doesn’t react, or get annoyed. He displays remarkable forbearance and equanimity even if he is just minutes away from his most disgracing death.