Poetry Survey Series Post Nine: The Lay of Beren and Luthien by J. R. R. Tolkien
For this poem, I’m sending us back to youtube for a musical version.
Many people say that Tolkien was not a good poet. They love what he did for the fantasy novel genre, but he should have just realized he wasn’t a poet. People say the same thing about C. S. Lewis, interestingly enough. Both Lewis and Tolkien, however, were consciously pursuing the same aesthetic aims in their novels and in their poetry (something like a continuation, a new flowering, even a maturation, of the Romantic movement in literature.) Those who approve the great fantastists’ novels but not their poetry usually seem to allow a wide latitude in the scope of the language, subject, and genres of novels, but are startlingly priggish in their idea of what a poem is allowed to say and how a poem is allowed to say it.
I think that, heard as a song, this poems suddenly reveals to the modern eye its true loveliness. For some reason, we are able to suspend our cynicism when listening to a song, but we are afraid to think that way when reading a poem.
Those who wish to participate in upcoming poetry challenges on this blog may wish to note carefully (on a second or third read-through) the technical virtues of the poem.
1) Generally, each line is a complete phrase (with at least subject and verb.)
2) The use of adjectives is model in my opinion: adjectives are not outlawed as in much contemporary writing, but in general you have one adjective to a noun, and the adjective adds to the mythic feeling of the poem. Mountains are tall or cold; feet are swift or dancing or light. The adjectives generally work toward quality or kind. This is very workmanlike.
3) The rhyme-scheme is abacbabc – followed by dedcedec. In every stanza, in other words, the fourth and eighth lines have the same rhymes.
4) The meter is quite regular (or you wouldn’t have been able to make a song of it.) And yet at a few places two quick syllables are fitted in place of one slow syllable.
5) Words are sometimes re-used in order to meet the requirements of the rhyme scheme. The way they are used has so much character in each case – they are never rhymes of convenience – that the effect is masterly and deepens the atmosphere of the poem.
6) Various syntactical arrangements are used – it’s worth noting both the effect and the practicality of these arrangements. For instance, when adjectives follow the noun instead of preceding it, the effect is solemn because the pacing is sober. To return to our drama/syntax comparison, when the thing appears first on the stage, and then its quality is colored in afterward, this is what I mean by sober pacing. It’s logical.
7) Finally, the ‘c’ rhyme words have a slightly different spoken rhythm than the shorter words which other wise predominate. Like the name ‘Tinuviel’ they depend, for their place in the meter, on a slight emphasis of the final syllable. And yet in the way they are normally spoken, that emphasis really is quite light – lighter than most of the syllables that are stressed. When I hear the spoken and the formal rhythm of a poem interacting in this way, to create very slight variations in the music, I feel that I am hearing something very refined. The effect, when read or sung properly, is like a “dying fall” in the voice. The accomplishment, in my opinion, is considerable and is one of the ways that monotony is avoided.
I don’t want to give my readers the idea that I think poetry should never be introspective, confessional, colloquial, and propositional. My real belief is that poetry is so broad in some senses that its scope (as far as language, tone, and subject matter) can hardly be defined. What I object to is the contemporary assumption that all good poetry is necessarily introspective, confessional, colloquial, and propositional. This tone in poetry does not necessarily and co-extensively belong to “being alive in the 21st century” as is so often asserted. It is co-extensive solely with the purpose, mood, and character of the poet, just as in every era.
We should, in my opinion, allowp oetry to challenge our cynicism once in a while.
As an added observation, I think that Tolkien also illustrates what I have commented on previously – that the more context a poem has in the world of experience, the more meaningful a poem is. (Likewise, poetry becomes less meaningful as it becomes more abstract.) In this case, the poem is meaningful precisely because of the vision of elf-kind Tolkien has given us in his works, and because of our experience of the world of elevated joy and loss we have often entered there.
In case you are unable to watch the video on your device, the text follows the video.
The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
Tinúviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering.
There Beren came from mountains cold,
And lost he wandered under leaves,
And where the Elven-river rolled
He walked alone and sorrowing.
He peered between the hemlock-leaves
And saw in wonder flowers of gold
Upon her mantle and her sleeves,
And her hair like shadow following.
Enchantment healed his weary feet
That over hills were doomed to roam;
And forth he hastened, strong and fleet,
And grasped at moonbeams glistening.
Through woven woods in Elvenhome
She lightly fled on dancing feet,
And left him lonely still to roam
In the silent forest listening.
He heard there oft the flying sound
Of feet as light as linden-leaves,
Or music welling underground,
In hidden hollows quavering.
Now withered lay the hemlock-sheaves,
And one by one with sighing sound
Whispering fell the beachen leaves
In the wintry woodland wavering.
He sought her ever, wandering far
Where leaves of years were thickly strewn,
By light of moon and ray of star
In frosty heavens shivering.
Her mantle glinted in the moon,
As on a hill-top high and far
She danced, and at her feet was strewn
A mist of silver quivering.
When winter passed, she came again,
And her song released the sudden spring,
Like rising lark, and falling rain,
And melting water bubbling.
He saw the elven-flowers spring
About her feet, and healed again
He longed by her to dance and sing
Upon the grass untroubling.
Again she fled, but swift he came.
He called her by her elvish name;
And there she halted listening.
One moment stood she, and a spell
His voice laid on her: Beren came,
And doom fell on Tinúviel
That in his arms lay glistening.
As Beren looked into her eyes
Within the shadows of her hair,
The trembling starlight of the skies
He saw there mirrored shimmering.
Tinúviel the elven-fair,
Immortal maiden elven-wise,
About him cast her shadowy hair
And arms like silver glimmering.
Long was the way that fate them bore,
O’er stony mountains cold and grey,
Through halls of iron and darkling door,
And woods of nightshade morrowless.
The Sundering Seas between them lay,
And yet at last they met once more,
And long ago they passed away
In the forest singing sorrowless.