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From Browning's Childe Roland:

If there push’d any ragged thistle-stalk
Above its mates, the head was chopp’d; the bents
Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents
In the dock’s harsh swarth leaves, bruis’d as to baulk
All hope of greenness? ’T is a brute must walk
Pashing their life out, with a brute’s intents.

Per Wiktionary, the "bents" are

Any of various stiff or reedy grasses.

But why were they "jealous"? I found several senses of the word, but I'm not sure. This is not helped by the fact that I'm not sure how to understand "else" here. I get something like:

"The bents were also [protective of something]"

"The bents were [enviously resentful of someone] otherwise"

This does not seem right.

Should the bents be jealous of something? All the high thistle-stalks have their heads chopped, so there's nothing to be jealous of.

Does the poet imply that it is the jealous bents that somehow led to the chopping of the thistle heads? That's odd.


P.S. I've just come across this explanation that explained nothing to me:

enter image description here

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    "Otherwise the bents would be jealous" -- the low grasses would be jealous of the taller thistles. This were is another irrealis. – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 30 '16 at 16:54
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    I'm downvoting because I don't think questions about archaic/poetic usages are really relevant to "learning English" (but I'm not closevoting because I'm not sure they're unquestionably Off Topic). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jun 30 '16 at 17:34
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    Though I agree that most learners have enough on their plate without trying to digest Browning, I still think that's a terrible reason to downvote such a carefully-crafted and well-researched question. +1 from me. – J.R. Jun 30 '16 at 17:39
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    @FumbleFingers - what skills it, if one learns English through House M.D. or through Childe Rowland? It's English still. ^_^ – CowperKettle Jun 30 '16 at 17:39
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    @FumbleFingers: Every now and then, a question about Browning refreshes the spirit. And there are things to be learned about the contemporary language through the study of the English of centuries past. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 30 '16 at 18:00
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This is a simple allusion. The field of bents represents the oppressing mass of humanity. The head of thistle which dares to thrust itself above the mass is likened to a person who strives to rise above the mass, and who is "chopp'd," because the mass is jealous of her audacity.

As you propose, the word "else" here is equivalent to "otherwise" in modern parlance.

In modern poetry, Bob Dylan expresses the same sentiment in It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding):

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society's pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole that he's in

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The word else has been transposed from where we expect it in regular speech. If we move it like so:

If there push’d any ragged thistle-stalk above its mates, the head was chopp’d; else the bents were jealous

It's clearer now that else here means if it was not or otherwise.

To put it in plainer english:

When a thistle dared to rise above, it's head was chopped off; if it wasn't, the thistles who were bent would be jealous (of the unchopped thistle)

There are two interpretations of this that come to mind:

  1. The bent thistles want those that rise above to be chopped down, like crabs in a bucket ("if I can't have it, neither can you"), similar to what P.E. Dant said.
  2. If the thistles standing tall weren't chopped down, the bent thistles might get ideas and want to stand tall themselves.
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"Otherwise the bents would be jealous" -- the low grasses would be jealous of the taller thistles. This were is another irrealis.

(Kudos to StoneyB)

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This stanza is one of several describing what appears to be hell on earth. I'm not sure that the blades of grass represent humanity. It's possible. In the previous stanza, Nature says:

’Tis the Last Judgement’s fire must cure this place

Calcine its clods and set my prisoners free.’

This is a horrible place, at least in Roland's head. Dry grass grows like hair on a leper. Underneath the mud it looks like a dough made of blood. He sees a standing skeleton of a horse. The only way to save the prisoners of this place is for God to burn it down.

I would think these jealous bents are just cursed minions of the hell/wasteland he's traveling through -- not necessarily symbolic of anything more than that.

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