National Poetry Month, day 18: JRRT

This is a repost, but I’m adding something at the end.

I’ve occasionally seen comment that JRR Tolkien’s poetry in The Lord of the Rings is generally weak, but from my perspective, it’s one of my favorite aspects of the book, and I find myself enjoying the verse in LOTR more each time I read it. My favorite poem in the book is almost certainly the “walking song” that is quoted a number of times throughout, and each time has a variation to reflect the events surrounding it and everything that has happened.

It begins like this, at the end of The Hobbit:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

This is when Bilbo is about to return home to his beloved Shire, but he is forever changed by the things he has seen beyond his home’s borders. The next time we encounter a version of this poem, Bilbo is striking out again, after giving up the Ring and heading for Rivendell:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Much later we hear it again spoken by Bilbo, when he is starting to age quickly and after the entire adventure and the War of the Ring have ended. Bilbo is old and tired, and the walking song’s symbolism here is obvious:

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Finally there is a haunting variant that Frodo sings, not long before he boards the ship that will bear him, along with the last of the Elves, to the faraway land:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

Is Tolkien a great poet? I don’t know, and I’m prepared to allow the experts to have their say, but it does seem to me that there’s something to be said for the fact that his verse is still being read, recited, and set to music this many decades after it was written.

UPDATE 4/18/2022:

Just up above I say that I’m prepared to allow the experts to have their say as to Tolkien’s poetic abilities, but you know what? To hell with that!

There’s an odd thing I’ve noticed in my online life the last several years: every few months a whole new discussion of Tolkien arises, and it’s always a depressing one for me because it’s invariably a whole lot of people giving themselves permission to dump all over him and say “It’s OK to not read him! You can find him boring! Just watch the movies, they’re all you need!”

I’m not going to go into a full defense of Tolkien here, but I will note that it has lately occurred to me that Tolkien wasn’t just one of my gateway writers for the fantasy genre, but he was my gateway writer for poetry, as well. His books teem with poetry, and the way he uses that poetry is amazingly diverse. In the first chapters of The Hobbit you encounter humorous verse:

Chip the glasses and crack the plates!
Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates—
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!

Cut the cloth and tread on the fat!
Pour the milk on the pantry floor!
Leave the bones on the bedroom mat!
Splash the wine on every door!

Dump the crocks in a boiling bowl;
Pound them up with a thumping pole;
And when you’ve finished if any are whole,
Send them down the hall to roll!

That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!
So, carefully! carefully with the plates!

And epic poetry that helps to set the stage for the story to come.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.

For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gleaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought, and light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.

On silver necklaces they strung
The flowering stars, on crowns they hung
The dragon-fire, in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun.

This use of poetry continues in The Lord of the Rings: there is sad poetry for the death of a companion, and there are tales of times gone by, and there is even a long song sung in a tavern that filled me with delight when I realized that Tolkien had actually incorporated into his epic book an enlarged version of the classic old nursery rhyme, “Hey Diddle Diddle”:

There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
One night to drink his fill.

The ostler has a tipsy cat
that plays a five-stringed fiddle;
And up and down he runs his bow,
Now squeaking high, now purring low,
Now sawing in the middle.

The landlord keeps a little dog
that is mighty fond of jokes;
When there’s good cheer among the guests,
He cocks an ear at all the jests
and laughs until he chokes.

They also keep a hornéd cow
as proud as any queen;
But music turns her head like ale,
And makes her wave her tufted tail
and dance upon the green.

And O! the rows of silver dishes
and the store of silver spoons!
For Sunday there’s a special pair,
And these they polish up with care
on Saturday afternoons.

The Man in the Moon was drinking deep,
and the cat began to wail;
A dish and a spoon on the table danced,
The cow in the garden madly pranced,
and the little dog chased his tail.

The Man in the Moon took another mug,
and then rolled beneath his chair;
And there he dozed and dreamed of ale,
Till in the sky the stars were pale,
and dawn was in the air.

Then the ostler said to his tipsy cat;
‘The white horses of the Moon,
They neigh and champ their silver bits;
But their master’s been and drowned his wits,
and the Sun’ll be rising soon!’

So the cat on his fiddle played hey-diddle-diddle,
a jig that would wake the dead:
He squeaked and sawed and quickened the tune,
While the landlord shook the Man in the Moon:’
‘It’s after three!’ he said.

They rolled the Man slowly up the hill
and bundled him into the Moon,
While the horses galloped up in rear,
And the cow came capering like a deer,
and a dish ran up with a spoon.

Now quicker the fiddle went deedle-dum-diddle;
the dog began to roar,
The cow and the horses stood on their heads;
The guests all bounded from their beds
and danced upon the floor.

With a ping and a long the fiddle-strings broke!
the cow jumped over the Moon,
And the little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the Saturday dish went off at a run
with the silver Sunday spoon.

The round Moon rolled behind the hill,
as the Sun raised up her head.
She hardly believed her fiery eyes:
For though it was day, to her surprise
they all went back to bed!

My poetic life would be very different without JRR Tolkien. That’s not something I would expect of an unskilled poet.


This entry was posted in poetry and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.