Evaluating the Poetry of JRR Tolkien

Brian G Turner

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#1
tolkien-poetry.jpg


Something I'd be interested in discussing is JRR Tolkien's contribution to poetry. Clearly he is a giant of English literature for his work Lord of the Rings. However, LOTR itself contains a lot of poetry - yet I can't recall coming across any discussion of Tolkien's contribution to the field of poetry within English Literature.

Is this because LOTR is seen as a niche work, or not mainstream literature? Or is it the case that Tolkien's poetry is too focused on imitating sagas and thus falls foul of general classifications of poetry in English?

Or does English literature simply turn its nose up at Tolkien's poetry for being tied directly and only to his fictional works? As opposed to a recognized poet such as DH Lawrence who wrote both novels and poetry intended for a general readership? Or is it because they are less poems and more like songs?

I know we have a few English teachers and lecturers here, so hopefully we can see a few interesting approaches to this topic. :)

In the meantime, the while a couple of Tolkien's poems stand out - The Road Goes Ever On, and the Merry Inn sung in Bree in particular - but probably the most memorable poem for me is Gilgalad Was an Elven King, particularly Stephen Oliver's rendition of it to music for the BBC Radio adaptation of Lord of the Rings:

 

J Riff

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#2
Weel, I skimmed the poems, the long ones, because I read JR as action/adventure. Seem to recall the songs filling in parts of the story here and there, so he's off the hook there as far as trying to be a noted songster-poet, but none of them stuck in memory, I just get images of Hobbits bashing on tables and singing.
 

Extollager

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#4
One way to get into Tolkien’s poetry would be to focus, at first, on poems that Tolkien published outside the context of compelling prose narrative in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. (If one zeroes in on poems embedded in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, one’s experience of the poem is bound to be affected by its prose setting.) One would be focusing on poems Tolkien regarded as finished. For sure, there’s poetry published after his death that’s worth reading. But to start with, we could focus on:
---“The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun,” published in The Welsh Review (1945), and then recently as a book with commentary by Verlyn Flieger
---“Imram,” published in Time and Tide (1955), and in Sauron Defeated, a volume in The History of Middle-earth (1992)
--the 16 poems in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962); Tolkien read six of them for the Caedmon LP record Poems and Songs of Middle-earth (1967; he reads also “A Elbereth Gilthoniel” from LotR); this record featured a performance of (most of) The Road Goes Ever On. The CD version should be available:
https://www.amazon.com/dp/0694525707/?tag=id2100-20
The recordings might also be available on YouTube, etc. If possible, one should hear the Professor reading his own verse. Most poetry, at least, is meant to be heard.
Contents of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil:
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil - Tolkien Gateway
--The Road Goes Ever On (Tolkien poems set to music by Donald Swann) (1967)
--“Once Upon a Time” and “The Dragon’s Visit,” first made available in an American book in Ballantine’s anthology The Young Magicians edited by Lin Carter (1969). “The Dragon’s Visit” is also available in The Annotated Hobbit.
That comes to about 20 poems.
Most of the poems in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil were originally written many years before the book’s publication, and presumably Tolkien didn’t anticipate their becoming attached to his legendarium.
Additional Information
After Tolkien’s death, a wealth of additional verse was published. Of particular interest in this connection is Vol. 3 of The History of Middle-earth, The Lays of Beleriand (1985), where you can see Tolkien working on the story of Beren and Lúthien before he had begun to write The Lord of the Rings in December 1937. In other words, we find verse belonging to the legendarium that predated the Middle-earth works in which the story was to becoming an integral part.
Not connected with Tolkien’s legendarium are The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009) and The Fall of Arthur (2013) – both of these books being concerned with unfinished works.
Chronsters might find this item useful:
Index:Poems by J.R.R. Tolkien - Tolkien Gateway
 

CTRandall

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#7
I suspect there are a couple of things going on here. First is, as both Brian and Extollager poimted out, how closely his poetry is associated to his novels. It's difficult to read the poems outside the context of Middle Earth, even in the cases where they were published separately.

Second, Tolkein's poems didn't fit the fashions of his time very well. Most of what he did was rhyming verse with straightforward schemes and metres. While this fit well with his novels, it didn't have much in common with e. e. cummings experiments with wordplay and syntax, Elliot's care with structure and sometimes obscure metaphor, Pound's orientalism and minimalism. Tolkein's poetry, in comparison, doesn't do anything to challenge readers or conventions. It exists to add humour and depth to Middle Earth and so isn't of much interest beyond those bounds.
 

Extollager

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#8
Tolkien's verse might not seem to have much to offer readers who wanted specifically Modernist poems. On the other hand, W. H. Auden contributed the appreciative liner notes to the Caedmon LP record album mentioned above.

W.H. Auden's Tolkien ~ The Imaginative Conservative

Auden singles out "The Sea-Bell" as Tolkien's finest poem. It is a poem of Middle-earth only by a tenuous connection made in the preface to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. "The Sea-Bell" was first published, in a different version, as "Looney," in The Oxford Magazine in 1934. It's a poem of weird experience and alienation.

Tolkien reads "The Sea-Bell" here:


This blog appears to reproduce the text of "The Sea-Bell":

Beyond The Loneliest Star: Tolkien's Best Poem?

Would this be a good poem to discuss now? I think it would have been a fine entry in some anthology edited by, say, Walter de la Mare...
 

Lafayette

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#9
I for one enjoy Tolkien's verses. I'm reluctant to call them poems for what happen to me on this forum. I wrote what I thought was a poem from my unpublished novel concerning the demise of an evil dragon. I was quite proud of it. It however received a bashing from the cretiquers here. One telling me it was not a poem.

To answer the question of why an old English don's writing is not respected as poetry I think it goes back to an old idea that poetry like music is suppose to be universal. In other words it needs speak to everyone, the plumber, the nurse, the electrician, the housewife, the artist, and little Susie.

Most of these folk can't or don't want to identify with dwarves, elves, or dragons.
 

J-WO

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#10
Second, Tolkein's poems didn't fit the fashions of his time very well. Most of what he did was rhyming verse with straightforward schemes and metres. While this fit well with his novels, it didn't have much in common with e. e. cummings experiments with wordplay and syntax, Elliot's care with structure and sometimes obscure metaphor, Pound's orientalism and minimalism. Tolkein's poetry, in comparison, doesn't do anything to challenge readers or conventions. It exists to add humour and depth to Middle Earth and so isn't of much interest beyond those bounds.
Imagine if he'd been mates with Eliot and got him to write all the poetry in the Hobbit and LOTR. Every time Legolas opens his mouth to sing The Wasteland pops out. That'd be, er... something...
 

awesomesauce

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#11
Something I'd be interested in discussing is JRR Tolkien's contribution to poetry. Clearly he is a giant of English literature for his work Lord of the Rings. However, LOTR itself contains a lot of poetry - yet I can't recall coming across any discussion of Tolkien's contribution to the field of poetry within English Literature.
I don't have much to add, except The Tolkien Professor does go into Tolkien's poetry. In his LOTR lecture series he talks a lot about the songs in the books. (Podcast links, in case you're interested. : )
 

SilentRoamer

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#13
Just something I wanted to share.

I lost a very good friend relatively recently. He was a massive Tolkien fan and Lord of the Rings was his favorite work, we would often talk about LotR and he always had so much knowledge and insight on it, those discussions will always stay with ,e.

As a tribute his best friend read Tolkiens Sit beside the fire, from the hobbit, I found this poem very very touching when I considered its words (having read the book previously and given little though to it).

When I hear or read this it makes me smile sadly and reminds me of a friend I won't ever forget. Brings a lump to my throat every time.

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.
 

Lafayette

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#14
That was great. That was enjoyable and touching.

Before coming to your post I remembered something. Many years ago, for some unknown reason, I started reading out loud the first page of the hobbit. I was impressed to find that it had a musical quality.

This led me later to read a song out loud. The song was written by a Scotsman name Archie Moore the song is 'The Witch of the Westmoreland'. The version I read was slightly rewritten by the late Stan Rogers. Here is a link to it sung by Stan Rogers .
 

CTRandall

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#15
Thanks @Extollager for "The Sea-Bell" link. It's a side of Tolkein's poetry I wasn't familiar with and certainly moves beyond most of what appears in LotR. It reminds me of Poe, to a degree, though that might be more the tone than anything else.

@SilentRoamer Thanks for reminding me that one of the great beauties of art lies in its ability to mean so many different things, all at once. It's a profound wonder that a poem written for a piece of fantasy fiction can take on such powerful meaning. So much art does this kind of thing on a daily basis and it's easy to forget how remarkable that is.
 

Extollager

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#16
Thanks @Extollager for "The Sea-Bell" link. It's a side of Tolkein's poetry I wasn't familiar with and certainly moves beyond most of what appears in LotR. It reminds me of Poe, to a degree, though that might be more the tone than anything else.
And I was thinking -- change to a modern-day setting and an sf paperback plot & it would be like early PKD, say Time Out of Joint. Well, a little. This sense that something that could seem ordinary could somehow get you into a place and a series of experiences that estranged you from the life you had known.

I love "The Sea-Bell" and wouldn't even want to analyze it too much. But who would have thought that a poem by this beloved author would end as this one does? "Still they speak not, men that I meet."

And how superbly Tolkien reads it.
 

aThenian

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#17
Not really qualified to talk about the poems as poems, in a literary sense, but they do add so much to LOTR (admittedly some of them do go on a bit).

I'm thinking especially of:
"Three Rings for Elven Kings, under the sky
Seven for dwarf lords in their halls of stone...
culminating in
"One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie."
Always sends shivers down my spine.
 

aThenian

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#18
To answer the question of why an old English don's writing is not respected as poetry I think it goes back to an old idea that poetry like music is suppose to be universal. In other words it needs speak to everyone, the plumber, the nurse, the electrician, the housewife, the artist, and little Susie.

Most of these folk can't or don't want to identify with dwarves, elves, or dragons.
Have to say don't think this can be right. Because I can't imagine that all these folk would find it easier to identify with The Wasteland.
 

Extollager

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#19
We haven't done justice to "The Sea-Bell," but perhaps there would be interest in "The Hoard," which is much more closely tied to Tolkien's legendarium. It too is from that wonderful little book The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.

"The Hoard" is an almost quintessential Tolkienian piece, because (1) it is a powerful expression of his lifelong concern with the sin of possessiveness and (2) it is somethingof an epitome of his mythology: Gods (the Valar), the Eldar, Dwarves, the dragon, and men. It is as if a Man or a hobbit made this poem based on traditions come down from ancient times. And (3) the poem is quintessentailly Tolkienian because it's flavored by Beowulf, the medieval poem with which Tolkien is most emphatically associated.

Tolkien reads "The Hoard" here:


Here's a text of the poem that I found online:

THE HOARD

'When the moon was new and the sun young
of silver and gold the gods sung:
in the green grass they silver spilled,
and the white waters they with gold filled.
Ere the pit was dug or Hell yawned,
ere dwarf was bred or dragon spawned,
there were Elves of old, and strong spells
under green hills in hollow dells
they sang as they wrought many fair things,
and the bright crowns of the Elf-kings.
But their doom fell, and their song waned,
by iron hewn and by steel chained.
Greed that sang not, nor with mouth smiled,
in dark holes their wealth piled,
graven silver and carven gold:
over Elvenhome the shadow rolled.

There was an old dwarf in a dark cave,
to silver and gold his fingers clave;
with hammer and tongs and anvil-stone
he worked his hands to the hard bone.
and coins he made, and strings of rings,
and thought to buy the power of kings.
But his eyes grew dim and his ears dull
and the skin yellow on his old skull;
through his bony claw with a pale sheen
the stony jewels slipped unseen.
No feet he heard, though the earth quaked.
when the young dragon his thirst slaked.
and the stream smoked at his dark door.
The flames hissed on the dank floor,
and he died alone in the red fire;
his bones were ashes in the hot mire.

There was an old dragon under grey stone;
his red eyes blinked as he lay alone.
His joy was dead and his youth spent,
he was knobbed and wrinkled, and his limbs bent
in the long years to his gold chained;
in his heart's furnace the fire waned.
To his belly's slime gems stuck thick,
silver and gold he would snuff and lick:
he knew the place of the least ring
beneath the shadow of his black wing.
Of thieves he thought on his hard bed,
and dreamed that on their flesh he fed,
their bones crushed, and their blood drank:
his ears drooped and his breath sank.
Mail-rings rang. He heard them not.
A voice echoed in his deep grot:
a young warrior with a bright sword
called him forth to defend his hoard.
His teeth were knives, and of horn his hide,
but iron tore him, and his flame died.

There was an old king on a high throne:
his white beard lay on knees of bone;
his mouth savoured neither meat nor drink,
nor his ears song; he could only think
of his huge chest with carven lid
where pale gems and gold lay hid
in secret treasury in the dark ground;
its strong doors were iron-bound.
The swords of his thanes were dull with rust,
his glory fallen, his rule unjust,
his halls hollow, and his bowers cold,
but king he was of elvish gold.
He heard not the horns in the mountain-pass,
he smelt not the blood on the trodden grass,
but his halls were burned, his kingdom lost;
in a cold pit his bones were tossed.

There is an old hoard in a dark rock,
forgotten behind doors none can unlock;
that grim gate no man can pass.
On the mound grows the green grass;
there sheep feed and the larks soar,
and the wind blows from the sea-shore.
The old hoard the Night shall keep,
while earth waits and the Elves sleep.'
 

Extollager

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#20
How about, then, a discussion of Tolkien's creepy, grimly humorous poem "The Mewlips"?

The shadows where the Mewlips dwell
Are dark and wet as ink,
And slow and softly rings their bell,
As in the slime you sink.

You sink into the slime, who dare
To knock upon their door,
While down the grinning gargoyles stare
And noisome waters pour.

Beside the rotting river-strand
The drooping willows weep,
And gloomily the gorcrows stand
Croaking in their sleep.

Over the Merlock Mountains a long and weary way,
In a mouldy valley where the trees are grey,
By a dark pool's borders without wind or tide,
Moonless and sunless, the Mewlips hide.

The cellars where the Mewlips sit
Are deep and dank and cold
With single sickly candle lit;
And there they count their gold.

Their walls are wet, their ceilings drip;
Their feet upon the floor
Go softly with a squish-flap-flip,
As they sidle to the door.

They peep out slyly; through a crack
Their feeling fingers creep,
And when they've finished, in a sack
Your bones they take to keep.

Beyond the Merlock Mountains, a long and lonely road,
Through the spider-shadows and the marsh of Tode,
And through the wood of hanging trees and gallows-weed,
You go to find the Mewlips - and the Mewlips feed.

Tolkien reads it here:



1550006167206.png

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Just for fun, read Lord Dunsany's short story -- one of his best -- "The Hoard of the Gibbelins," & say whether you think Tolkien likely was influenced by it.

1550006206346.png


Text of Dunsany's story:

The Book of Wonder: The Hoard of the Gibbelins

An essay that suggests "The Mewlips" may be integrated more securely in Middle-earth than is at first apparent:

“The Shadows Where the Mewlips [really] dwell” – Mapping the road to Mordor?
 
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