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.
“Tinúviel! Tinúviel!”
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.

16 thoughts on “Poetry Survey Series Post Nine: The Lay of Beren and Luthien by J. R. R. Tolkien

  1. I don’t think I’m cynical now ( I was for many years), but I’m having trouble with this poem. Of course, since I’ve never read Tolkien, or C.S.Lewis for that matter, the approach to poetry & story telling here is foreign to me–or maybe that’s why I avoided those authors, not seeing any relevance to my interests, needs, beliefs about art, etc. So I ask for your patience, those for whom works like this are familiar and satisfying.

    I am hoping to learn something, to broaden my view, enrich my experience of poetry if not of life. And right there is my big question: what does this poem have to do with life? I understand how allegory works, and metaphor – and I’m wondering if that’s the point that I’m missing, the effectiveness of fantasy stories in revealing important things about real life.

    My other question is about one word in the poem : “doom.” What happened to Tinuviel? Is it that she is a spirit, and shouldn’t give in to romantic attraction? I don’t get it. Help!

    Like

      • Thank you! This is quite good. Where have I been?

        I know where: in my bubble of bias. Once Tolkien became popular, I got suspicious. Strangely enougn, I have long believed much of what he says here, except the idea that writers could imitate such stories successfully, or invent them. Now perhaps I shall be more open to them.

        Like

          • Or crassly commercialized. Why spend a lifetime studying philology and mythology when you can read a book by Joseph Campbell, throw together some ideas into a visually pleasing movie and make a billion dollars? The former approaches the human experience with humility of intellect and rightly-ordered curiosity. The latter attempts to commodify it.

            Like

            • Yes, the rewards are not always proportionate to the effort, are they?

              All the same, very few people have Tolkien’s advantages: his intelligence, his sensitivity, his education, his position, his family, and his friends. If he becomes the standard, the rest of us might as well stop writing.

              I also wonder why commercialization is described as crass. Does commercialization mean selling something? Because Tolkien did that. Does it mean selling something over and over in different forms? Because his estate has done that.

              To my mind, commerce is a sacred thing. I believe there is commerce between God and man, and that the commerce between men allows us to live and enjoy life, and is therefore a good gift given by God. I’ve never felt that I paid too much for the joy I’ve recieved and the enlargement of my world either from Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.

              Fun With the Millenial Falcon

              I also credit George Lucas with a certain amount of cultural renewal, to be honest. For one thing, he gainfully employed John Williams on six separate occasions. He should get a trophy just for that, because if you look at the classical music world you are going to wonder where in the world the tradition of beautiful, elevated, and intelligible music went to. Answer: John Williams single-handedly kept it alive while bearing the heaped-up scorn of the entire music world. For another thing, Lucas was a huge part of the impetus that moved people to look for meaning in archetypal forms again. That can only help culture in the long run if Lewis is right that all the archetypes come true.

              Like

            • My computer ate my response twice, so I apologize if this attempt is a bit disjointed. I also apologize for the length of this post and I don’t want to hijack the thread so I promise to bring it back to the poem. I agree with you completely, especially about Lucas reviving mythical archetypes and classical music in popular culture (God bless John Williams!) I personally love the original trilogy. I also agree about commerce being sacred, especially as it relates back to the idea of communing and communion. I’m just not sure if “commercialization” as a word can be redeemed, which is why I added the pejorative “crass”. I use it to refer to the type of commercialization that exploits something (or someone), usually on a massive level, and usually with a cheapening effect, for the purpose of profit (monetary, or at least, purely material). The thing, person, idea, etc. being commercialized is not being treated as an end in itself, but as a means to what is ultimately a lesser end. Of course Tolkien did not give his books away for free! But it’s pretty safe to say his primary end in writing and then selling them was not monetary profit. The subtle shift in value judgment when something becomes commercialized can be dangerous, but especially so when applied to that whole vast horizon of mythology, types, ideas, etc. because it lead to the commodification of human experience itself. They are worth only as much as induce people to buy toys and other products, or pay for a cathartic experience in the movie theater.

              The mythological types (and the poetry, literature and images through which they are conveyed) invoke in us strong desires. These desires are ultimately good, for they are meant to find fulfillment in the reality contained within the types themselves, the permanent, the universal, the good and true and beautiful. But at its worst, what commercialization can do is use very carefully constructed words or images of these types, strip them of all meaningful content and deliberately direct the desires they invoke towards the cheap, the kitsch, the counterfeit, the impermanent, the purely material, the commercial product. These poor substitutes leave us feeling hungrier than before, and so we consume more and more until we end up hating first the desire, then the image/words, then the type itself, believing it to be the trigger of a disordered and insatiable discontent instead of a way towards a fuller understanding of reality.

              So I hope with all my heart that reviving these types in modern culture, in whatever form and for whatever ends, will ultimately benefit the culture. My own love of Tolkien began with the movies. I was deeply touched by the image of Arwen giving up her immortality and lingering on after all she knew died or changed. When I read the Lay of Beren and Luthien my heart aches. The poem rests on my soul as the fulfillment of some great desire to put words and images to longings already there, while simultaneously awakening in me even greater desire for such things as the union of the mortal with the immortal in eternal love. But I fear that for the majority, commercializing mythical types will ultimately lead to cynicism. I don’t know how else to explain why the very same culture enamored with Lord of the Rings 10 years ago are now enamored with the nihilism of Game of Thrones. The images are the same, but the content has been watered-down adn finally replaced with something dangerous.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Steph: So your central contention is that exploiting, for profit, both art and the human desire for Other, results in literary fast-food that fills people with the mere insubstantial semblance of mental nourishment?

              ***

              Games of Thrones isn’t nihilistic. Nor is it a mere debased imitation of Lord of the Rings. If Tolkien made his characters visible souls, Martin reveals his characters only through their action. If Tolkien’s theme is saving what can be saved despite the loss of grace, Martin’s theme is the rise of mystery from the ruins of a deeply corrupted world. What Tolkien demonstrates on almost every page through his elevated tone, Martin is at great pains to disguise through a brutal realism so that it can be rediscovered in the event. Tolkien creates an ancient world that is more or less Christian; Martin creates a medieval war that is more or less pagan. (Their mythological imagery differs appropriately.)

              Martin’s mythology and his accomplishment is not equal to Tolkien’s but it is to his everlasting credit that he writes solidly within his own scope. And it is an enormous scope. I am very interested to see how the cycle will end. A confrontation between Jon Snow (ice) and Daenerys Targaryen (fire) seems inevitable.

              ***

              On this blog we don’t have any silly rules like “Stay On Topic.” As long as your comment has some virtue, any virtue, to it, you will be welcome. Interesting is a virtue.

              Like

    • Albert, I’m sorry in a way that you had to struggle with this one but on the other hand, I envy you with all of the Inklings before you yet undiscovered! Also, thank you for asking these important questions and getting our discussion going.

      C. S. Lewis said this about ‘The Lord of the Rings,’

      “…one of the main things the author wants to say is that the real life of men is of that mythical and heroic quality. One can see the principle at work in his characterisation. Much that in a realistic work would be done by ‘character delineation’ is here done simply by making the character an elf, a dwarf, or a hobbit. The imagined beings have their insides on the outside; they are visible souls. And Man as a whole, Man pitted against the universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale? In the book Eomer rashly contrasts ‘the gren earth’ with ‘legends.’ Aaragorn replies that the green earth itself is ‘a mighty matter of legend.’ The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’ … If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality, we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly. I do not think he could have done it in any other way.”

      This is certainly the way I experienced Lord of the Rings. When I was 19 I fell in love with someone I considered to be too good for me, so I didn’t pursue him and instead stayed home from college for a year and ate my heart out. Phew! Anyway, during that year of sitting out, I read Lord of the Rings for the first time. When I read about elves in Lothlorien, I was stricken by the feeling of the hobbits for the elves, the way they experienced elevated feelings for the first time by entering Lothlorien and meeting Galadriel and the other “fair folk.” That feeling partook so much of the yearning and reverence I experienced for that young man I knew I could never have. So much of my life since then has been spent trying to catch up to that ideal. Anyway, I wrote a rather maudlin poem about it at the time but, it shows just how much that sort of thing has to do with life, I think.

      You can read that poem on this page, the second poem down from the top, to see the way I felt about it.

      https://alanaroberts.wordpress.com/juvenalia/twenty-years-old/

      So yes, “the effectiveness of fantasy stories to reveal important things about real life,” is a good way to put it. I would add that the fantasy stories are never completely unreal if they succeed in doing that. They have a lot of reality in them, but it is reality presented in a surprising way. If wonder is real, if awe and mystery and delight and good jokes and the comforts of home are real and have to do centrally with life; if there are different kinds of people, and complex situations, and the requirement to struggle with evil both inside oneself and outside oneself, and if there is a doom that a man encounters when he meets with life and acts upon it in a way he can’t go back on – then these stories of Middle-Earth are at least in some sense “true.’

      ***

      ‘Doom,’ besides being one of Tolkien’s favorite good Anglo-Saxon words, is what he says where other people would say ‘fate.’ I suspect that he considers fate to be a tainted concept because it is determinist. Tinuviel’s doom is her “foregone destination” or “fortune” – not from all time, but once she allows herself to be held a single time in Beren’s arms. Because, you know. That happens.

      Tinuviel is an elf and Beren is human. Their marriage founds two great races: the long-lived men, and a family of elves. So, the doom is not a punishment – it is a destination, a result, a decision weighted with necessary consequences. The elves don’t belong exactly in our world but they brought something irreplaceable with them – an alien grace that makes the very woods grow differently. They are physical, but their physicality is slightly more subtle than ours. Their life-force is more entwined with the forces of mute nature, so a man who falls in love with an elf is someone who is falling in love a little, with “woven woods” and “sudden springs” and “music of a pipe unseen” (like a bird singing in the trees outside your house.) In the story, little by little, the elves are going back to where they came from. It’s a great sorrow for the world. They can die, but they needn’t die. They are immortal “elven-wise” – that is, in the elvish way.

      Not unless they marry a human being and accept a mortal life need they die. Tinuviel does this. (Other elves in the story must choose whether to join the mortals in a war against a great spiritual evil that is destroying the natural world – another way they can die.)

      As I said, the poem needs the context of Lord of the Rings or The Silmarilion. It’s understandable you would have been a bit lost. Mmmm, have you read any fairy stories lately?

      Liked by 1 person

      • ” . . . with all of the Inklings before you yet undiscovered! ” Well, it took me long enough. And I thought of myself as an educated, well rounded person!

        I think one major obstacle was my early misfortunate meeting with C.S. Lewis. I was encouraged to read The Screwtape Letters at a young age. I didn’t understand how to read him. Nor did I have a real concept of devils. Much much later I saw the move “Shadowlands. Then read A Grief Observed, and was quite moved. Sadly, not moved enough to investigate his religious, intellectual, & literary writings. Recently a friend from St Basil the Great Orthodox church loaned me The Abolition of Man and six novels by Charles Williams, so at least I have begun the journey . . .

        Like

        • Oh dear. C. S. Lewis himself became very depressed while writing the Screwtape Letters. They make good points but caution should be used, I think.

          I had a similar experience, in that my first encounter was ‘That Hideous Strength.’ I believe I was 16. I was unable to finish the book till a decade later. But later someone recommended Narnia and I was enthralled. Maybe Narnia is the best place to start. I think it probably is. ‘The Abolition of Man’ is great, also. But you meet with many of the same ideas in Narnia, only in imaginative form.

          I’m only just starting on Charles Williams myself: I’m a few chapters into Descent Into Hell. Oh yes, and I read All Hallow’s Eve several years ago.

          Like

  2. Ach! I cannot listen to this without breaking into deep sobs! It fills me with such grief and longing. By the time we reach “sorrowless” I am undone.

    Like

    • Yes! For me it is ravishing and brings the slow tears and my heart turning over like the sleeper awaking. I am working hard to memorize the song because I cannot bear the thought that every time I walk away from the page I don’t take this with me. I think I’ve listened to it a hundred times.

      Like

Chime In!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s