From Browning's Childe Roland:

So, on I went. I think I never saw
Such starv’d ignoble nature; nothing throve:
For flowers—as well expect a cedar grove!
But cockle, spurge, according to their law
Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,
You ’d think; a burr had been a treasure trove.

I don't get the meaning of this sentence. I understand that the burr here is

A bur; a seed pod with sharp features that stick in fur or clothing. (Wiktionary)

But why a "treasure trove"? On first reading this line, I imagined that "cockle" and "spurge" were the names of some small birds, and for them even burrs were good, maybe as forage. But on finding that these are the names of weed plants, I could no longer make sense of the bolded sentence.

And why "had been"? Why does the author use the Past Perfect?

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  • 1
    In earlier editions there's a colon not semicolon. "You'd think: "
    – TimR
    Jun 28, 2016 at 18:56
  • 1
    Compare Chaucer's This Nicholas anon leet fle a fart / As greet as it had been a thonder-dent
    – TimR
    Jun 28, 2016 at 19:21

1 Answer 1


I'd never seen a landscape with such a dearth of vegetation. I don't just mean there were no flowers—you might as well expect a grove of cedars! But you'd think there'd at least be a lot of weeds—cockle and spurge ought to grow here—but No, even a burr would have been a rare treasure to find here.

Had been = would have been, with past-form have as an irrealis, was already archaic in Browning's day. Browning's syntax in this (and other poems aiming at a mediaeval or Renaissance flavor) is typically the Early Modern English of Jacobean playwrights.

  • Thank you, Stoney! So "Had been" is an antique form of "would have been". I don't see any inversion though, it just looks like an ordinary Past Perfect construction. Jun 28, 2016 at 18:02
  • I thought that Browning begins to say "but no" in the next stanza only. "No! penury, inertness and grimace, \ In the strange sort, were the land’s portion." That's why I though that the line about the burr was not a negation, but a continuation of his "affirmative" musings. Such a tricky poem. Jun 28, 2016 at 18:04
  • @CowperKettle Of course you're right -- I'll fix it. Jun 28, 2016 at 18:05
  • I was going to comment making the same point about the archaic You'd think [it] had been [something else] - good job I scrolled down and saw this, 'cos I hadn't realized it was already at least "dated" at time of writing (deliberately used for its medieval connotations). I've upvoted because the answer is spot on, but I think the question itself is essentially Lit Crit, so I'm far from convinced it should be here in the first place. Jun 28, 2016 at 18:12
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers OP's misunderstanding grew from his reading of had been as an ordinary past perfect rather than a "subjunctive". Jun 28, 2016 at 21:12

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