Poetry in the lord of the rings.

As it has already been mentioned the book is abound in verse. Poetry is an integral part of the narration. For Tolkien’s characters it is as natural to recite verses as to breathe or think. Songs and verses are used to expound, to emphasize, to rarefy the prose, and always verse utterances of various characters are natural and appropriate to the context. Burton Raffel though finds it ‘embarassingly bad’. He considers the poetry included in the boook ” lacking poetic existence in its own right, being no independent literary merit. Why then did Tolkien include it, and what purpose does it serve? It does serve a purpose: the song within the tale breaking into a narrative where a break is needed, providing lyric (or comic) relief, expounding on a characters’ feelings more succinctly than prose might do. In context too, the poetry is less conspicuous than necked on the critical page”. [6]

The answer seems to us quite obvious the more so, as Raffel gives it himself. Songs and verses included into the trilogy are meant to lack existence of their own since they are part of the story. The poetry does much more; many of the verses are charming, imaginative, even evocative and deserve to be enjoyed as poetry.
“To appreciate the Ring poetry fully, one must keep in mind the nature of the work. The Lord of the Rings fulfills the definition of ‘fantasy story’ worked out by Tolkien in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories”.[14]

Speaking about the poetry in the trilogy we should distinguish between ‘styles’ and manners in which verses are composed, whether they belong to the elven-folk, the hobbits or the dwarves. It seems rightful to us to speak about two opposite ‘schools’ of writing and reciting, in general composing, songs and poems. To the first one belong those of the hobbits’ and Tom Bombadil, whose versesy remind us more of nursery rhymes than of poetry proper, though we can encounter some rare exceptions. Hobbits probably see real poetry as not suitable for the serious-minded and businesslike. They reuse old poems of the Shire, altering a word or a phrase to fit the occasion and repeat verses of other folks, for which a tradition exists in the Shire. Bilbo Baggins is the composer of most of the ‘original’ hobbit poems. “Simple and occasional are the words which best describe the poetry of the hobbits. The meter, diction, and imagery of their poems reflect their instinctive love of peace, quiet, and order.” [6, Marry Qella Kelly.]
Reciting or singing verse is for the hobbits the most natural way to express feelings and emotions. They sing when they are happy and comfortable, angry and sad, even when they are troubled or terrified. Usually hobbits’ songs are bound to the context to heighten or intensify the mood of the story while also indicating the emotional state of the speaker. Although their poetry is diverse in subject and matter, the hobbits’ inventiveness with language is rather limited. Very simple rhyme and meter, clumsy phrasing is typical of their verses. Several of the hobbits’ songs express their elation of joy. For them there is no better way to celebrate a happy moment than with a merry song, like this hymn to hot water which the three hobbits sing in Frodo’s new house at Crickhollow.
The four stanzas of the bath-song each have four lines of iambic tetrameter, frequently interspersed with pyrrhic foot, celebrate the pleasures of water that ‘runs as a brook from hills to plain’, or ‘pours at need down a thirsty throat’, or ‘leaps on high in a fountain white beneath the sky’. But the most wellcomed is the water ‘at close of day that washes weary mud away’, and thus ‘Water Hot is a noble thing’.
Predictability is very typical of hobbits’ verses since in most cases Tolkien used the same meter (generally iambic tetrameter), the same rhyme scheme ( aabb or abab, and preferably full rhymes), and often a run-on-line. The song which the hobbits sing shortly after setting out on their quest, is a walking one.

Upon the hearth the fire is red
Beneath the roof there is a bed;
But not yet weary are our feet,
Still round the corner we may meet
A sudden tree or standing stone
That none have seen but we alone
Tree and flower and leaf and grass,
Let them pass! Let them pass!
Hill and water under sky,
Pass them by! Pass them by!
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.
Apple, thorn, and nut and sloe
Let them go! Let them go!
Sand and stone and pool and dell,
Fare you well! Fare you well!
Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night,
Untill the stars are all alight.
Then world behind and home ahead,
We’ll wander back to home and bed.
Mist and twilight, cloud and Shade,
Away shall fade! Away shall fade!
Fire and lamp, and meat and bread,
And then to bed! And then to bed!

The three stanzas of the song each have ten lines of iambic tetrameter couplets, though the latter four lines of the first two stanzas omit the first unstressed syllable. The rhyme is thus suited to a marching song and the effect of the omission is to add emphasis to the concluding lines of stanzas one and two. The first six lines of the first stanza refer to the comforts of home which have been left behind, and the beauty of nature which is yet to meet. The last four lines urge that that these pleasures must be forsaken. But all roads lead in the end back home; in spite of all perils awaiting the wanderers there are ‘fire and lamp, and meat and bread, and bed’ for them.
At the end of the trilogy, as Frodo goes to the Grey Havens to meet the elven folk who are to take him West, he sings softly to himself this song with a new variation of the second stanza:

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.

Thus the vague ‘tomorrow’ has finally arrived for Frodo; the quest is completed, he is free to take the hidden paths to everlasting peace. The walking song conjoins the beginning and the end of his quest more effectively than a prose statement would.
Other hobbit’s states of mind are indicated by singing or by an attempt to sing a song in the face of danger. Sam, bearing the ring after Frodo was captured by Orcs in Cirith Ungol and grieving the loss of his master, unconsciously starts to sing:

In western lands beneath the Sun
the flowers may rise in spring,
the trees may bud, the waters run,
the merry finches sing.

Or there maybe ’tis cloudless night
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.

Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness burried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and stars for ever dwell:

I will not say the Day is done,
No bid the stars farewell.

And the song stirrs new strength inside the exhausted hobbit. In the first eight-line stanza the words depict the joys and beauties of the undying lands where fair Elves dwell. In the second stanza Sam reveals his despair which directly contrasts with the previous ideal picture. Although yet he affirms his hope for the better. Due to its imagery and stylistic devices that Tolkien used here, such as numerous repetitions and parallel constructions, run-on-line and sound interchange, the verse could hardly be applied to a hobbit, even more than that, to a gardener. But we should keep in mind how much he has changed since departing from the Shire. Verse here serves many purposes: first it reveals the state of mind of the character, at the same time it gives the reader a better understanding of the situation; and finally, hearing Sam’s singing the Orcs lead him to Frodo.
The hobbits’ innate love of poetry and song sometimes permits them to enjoy nonsense rhymes. Two of Sam’s verses are especially trying: the Troll song and the rhyme of Oliphaunt, which Sam correctly characterizes: “It ain’t what I call proper poetry, if you understand me: just a bit of nonsense”.[3]
Quite frequently hobbits’ poems sound more like riddles describing things that somehow strike their imagination. They are light-hearted, cheerful and ‘unsophisticated’.

Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flopping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I,
Biggest of all,
Huge, old and tall.
If ever you ‘d met me
You would never forget me
If you never do,
You won’t think i’m true,
But Oliphaunt am I,
And i never lie.

This verse with the Troll-song was included by Tolkien in a separate book of verses called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Unlike most of the songs and poems in the Lord of the Rings these two pieces of poetry can rightfully be considered an independent literary merit and enioyed in their own right. “There are two separate kinds of joke in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, one the scholarly parody, the other is stemming from Tolkien’s amused affection for his hobbit creation.” [11]

The poem of the Stone Troll is an excellent piece of witty intentional nonsense with a skilfully contrived refrain, complicated rhyming scheme (aabccac), internal rhymes, alliteration, stylistic invertion and a fine comic moral – never kick a stone-troll’s behind for you’ll break your foot. Of all the eight seven-lined stanzas we can represent here only the first two and the last one, but even those few can give the reader an idea of the whole rhyme.

Troll sat alone on his seat of stone,
And munched and mumbled a bare old bone;
For many a year he had gnawed it near,
For meat was hard to come by.
Done by! Gum by!
In a cave in his hills he dwelt alone,
And meat was hard to come by.

Up came Tom with his big boots on.
Said he to Troll: ‘Pray, what is yon?
For it looks like a shin o’my nuncle Tim,
As should be a’lyin’ in graveyard.
Caveyard! Paveyard!
This many a year has Tim been gone
And I thought he were lying in graveyard.
After such a serious conversation Tom gave the Troll ‘the boot to larn him, a bump o’the foot on the seat’, but to his bad luck Troll’s flesh ad bone was ‘harder than stone’, and Tom’s toes ‘could feel it’.
Tom’s leg is game, since home he came,
And his bootless foot is lasting lame;
But Troll don’t care, and he’s still there
With the bone he boned from its owner
Doner! Boner!
Troll’s old seat is still the same,
And the bone he boned from its owner!

The rhyme is recited by Sam after the hobbits accompanied by Aragorn saw three stone trolls who had been caught by Gandalf, while quarelling over the right way to cook Bilbo and his dwarf-friends (see The Hobbit).

We can undoubtedly claim that Bombadil’s way of composing verse is very much like the hobbits’. His song and speech, when scanned, seem almost entire poetry, and may be presented in a metrical scheme. Sound rather than sense is important because he, like nature itself, is irrational. Tom’s communications do not require the compressiveness of metaphysical poetry. Just as nature may be coherent and intelligible his speech and singing contain meaning for those with whom he wishes to communicate. He sings in couplets – sometimes poorly rhymed – about his lady Goldberry and all the beauties associated with her, particularly sunlight, starlight, river and flowers.

Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! My darling!
Light goes the weather-wind and the feathered starling.
Down along under Hill, shining in the sunlight,
Waiting on the doorstep for the cold starlight,
There my pretty woman is, River-lady ‘s daughter,
Slender as a willow-wand, clearer than water.
Old Tom Bombadil water-lilies bringing
Comes hopping home again. Can you hear him singing?

Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! and merry-o,
Goldberry! Goldberry! merry yellow berry-o!
Poor old Williow-man, you tuck your roots away!
Tom’s in a hurry now. Evening will follow day.
Tom’s going home again water-lilies bringing.
Hey! Come merry dol! Can you hear him singing?

Joyful, light-hearted nonsense – that is Tom’s style. “One can’t ask him what he means by ‘Hey dol! ring a ding-dong dillo!’ any more than one can ask why a starfish has five points”. [6, Marry Quella Kelly]

These are absolutely nonsenical sounds, syllables, an intentional doggerel pleasant to the ear, which is meant to fill out the measure or express his elation. The irregular and nonrational rhythm suggests Tom’s motion as he hops and dances down the lane towards home. He is constantly singing, murmuring, talking to himself:

Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow;
Bright blue his jacket is and his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom he is a master.
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.

Bombadil’s favourite subjects are the sky and the wind, the wood and the land; he does not think much of what awaits him, he has no fear and cares not for the past or the future. Being wholly a spirit of nature, he possesses immense power of magic, though it is of a different kind of magic that of wizards. Thus, Tom’s poems have a special function in the structure of the story: they cheer the hobbits up, encourage them in their quest and even save them from danger. He teaches them one of his ‘strong songs’, a rhyme to sing, if the hobbits get into trouble:

Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!
By water, wood and hill, by reed and willow,
By fire, sun and moon, harken now and hear us!
Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!

By powers of light which are fire, sun and moon, and the earth – water wood and hill – he orders the Barrow-wight to get out ‘into the barren lands far beyond the mountains’, to be forgotten, and never come ’till the world is mended’.
Some critics blamed Tolkien for simplicity and even primitivism. As a matter of fact the borderline between these two phenomena is rather vague and can be determined only through individual perception. It is always purely subjective. Bombadil’s verses are not ballads, or sonnets, or philosophical parables thus should be considered without any attempt to find double spiritual meaning in them. His simplicity is meant, as it happens, to hide an incredible strength and wizdom of innumerable ages beyond realization of mortal men.

Next: Ballads, poems and laments.

2 thoughts on “Poetry in the lord of the rings.

  1. aditya menon

    Hi, thanks for the article! I wanted to ask if you knew of any place where I can get all the songs in Tolkien’s books put to music? I am totally in love with the song “Far over the misty mountains cold” in “The Hobbit” movie by Peter Jackson (2012) and would love to hear more! That’s what brought me here after a search on Google :) Good day!

    Reply
  2. Henriikka

    Hi! I’m a big Tolkien fan, and I would like to translate part of your article in Finnish and use it on my blog as source of my ‘idea on the text.’ I would (of course) name this page on the origin of the quotation.
    Is it okay?

    Henriikka

    Reply

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