Poetry of J.R.R. Tolkien

Discussions about the Professor's poetic verses from Middle-earth
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Merry
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Post by Merry » Tue Jan 12, 2010 12:42 am

We should never have doubted him. :wink:
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

Iolanthe
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Post by Iolanthe » Tue Jan 12, 2010 11:01 am

Yup :lol: . Go Professor!

I've been reading through the notes about Mythopoeia in the invaluable Scull and Hammond Reader's Guide where they expand on the discussion between Tolkien, Lewis and Dyson that set the whole thing off. It's clear the Lewis appreciated myth, believed they were powerful and had favourites that he loved. I think the thing that really set Tolkien off was the use of the word 'lies' - that they were lies 'though breathed through silver'. So being a valid and beautiful way to see the world is only part of the poem's argument - Lewis agreed with that - the nub of it was the section Marbretherese has quoted below. That subcreation is it's own reality and therefore not a lie.
though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, 'twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we're made.
A lie would be a sin - we're really getting to the heart of Tolkien here, aren't we? - but sub-creation is our right and is part of what marks us as made in the image of God. So Lewis, using that particular word, must have really got Tolkien's argumentative hackles up. As a non-believer at the time, Lewis was degrading myth into something that smacked of immorality, misleading the credulous all be it ever so beautifully.

There's a nice snippet from Scull and Hammond, taken from a marginal note Tolkien made by the poem:
Tolkien commented that he referred to trees in the opening lines of the poem ('You look at trees and label them just so, / for trees are 'trees' and growing is to 'grow') 'because they are at once easily classifiable and innumerably individual; but as this may be said of other things, then I will say, because I notice them more than most other things (far more than people). In any case the mental scenic background of these lines is the Grove and Walks of Magdalen at night'.
Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather...

Iolanthe
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Post by Iolanthe » Fri Jan 15, 2010 6:06 pm

It's gone very quiet here - does anyone else have any thoughts on this poem? Or have I finished everyone off :lol: .

One other comment I've got is that his mythical images all come so emphatically from his own sub-creation - mainly the elves:

'and looking forward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.'

'...a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned'

'Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins...'

The other things he mentions that are all in his own stories are Dragons, the 'fabled West', the 'image blurred of distant king' and the 'Iron Crown'. The poem is so deeply personal - intended for 'those in the know' i.e. friends who would be familiar with his own stories, but excluding the more common myths that anyone outside would understand as examples. I can't imagine he was thinking about it being published when he first wrote it. For the general reader, Elves would seem a very strange choice to go for as your main example of the reality of the mythological world in the human mind. They'd been reduced to minor folklore before LotR came out and Tolkien shone a great beam of light on them.
Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather...

Merry
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Post by Merry » Fri Jan 15, 2010 11:50 pm

Oh, I'm not finished yet! It's just that the book is at school when I'm at home and at home when I'm at school. I have it with me now, though, so more this weekend.

Yes, I agree that he did not imagine this would be published. (I think much of what has been published would have been against his wishes.) I was very touched by how personal this was when I first looked at it. It's sort of like his own manifesto. And I can imagine him dashing it out in quite a hurry. Amazing: he has had a memorable discussion and has lots of thoughts and feelings about it that he needs to express, and it all comes out in poetry!
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

Iolanthe
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Post by Iolanthe » Sat Jan 16, 2010 5:58 pm

That is remarkable. Good point. Most people wouldn't dash off a poem after a heavy disussion but I can't think of any better way for him to make his point so forcefully. What an amazing mind.

He did revise the poem a few times, but then he revised everything.
Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather...

Merry
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Post by Merry » Sun Jan 17, 2010 8:07 pm

I've been rereading the line
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves,
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.
This image of weaving on a loom to stand for creating myths is also used elsewhere in the poem. I'm not sure he is just saying that elves are real because they are real in subcreation. There are places in the letters in which he writes that elves stand for artists and other makers.

He also writes in the letters that he lacks courage, so this stanza is probably pretty autobiographical:
Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow's sway.
This reminds me of all the small characters in LOTR who do this; in their own small way, they "shut the gate". I'm thinkig of Butterbur, who is terrified of Mordor, but guarantees to the hobbits that the Riders won't get to them under his roof.
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

Iolanthe
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Post by Iolanthe » Mon Jan 18, 2010 11:27 am

Which is the sort of everyday courage that most people display daily in difficult times.

That last passage could also be autobiographical in that he's describing his own writing, 'weaving tissues gilded by the far-off day' only shared with this friends. This weaving analogy is interesting. It also makes me think of Luthien, weaving her hair into a dark robe.

Thanks for pointing out that he's equated Elves with artists and makers in the letters, all of whom are creating their own worlds in one way or another, fashioning their own vision out of paint, metals and all things that come from the earth. The real being transmuted by imagination in the 'forges in the mind'.

The more I look at the two lines before your quote the more interesting they are:
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
'Panning the vein of spirit out of sense' is just wonderful. It sums up his argument that this all comes from something real and important that lies beneath the superficial 'this and that'.
Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather...

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Post by marbretherese » Wed Jan 20, 2010 2:06 pm

I've finally had a chance to re-read the poem properly, along with the introduction to Tree & Leaf. The chunk I quoted earlier on this thread is the same part of the poem that (as Merry mentions in the thread intro) Tolkien included in On Fairy Stories, except that, typically of Tolkien, it was at that time in a different form to the poem as now published. It's those lines in the poem which were Tolkien's first response to Lewis's "lies breathed through silver" comment , and at the time he wrote it in the form of a letter, which starts 'Dear Sir,' I said, 'Although now long estranged'. Over time he built the rest of the poem around that core; and any further traces of the original written in letter form have vanished.

I was also struck by this passage (just before the 'oddity of cows' :D ):
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
I wonder if the reference to tingling nerves sums up Tolkien's own response to trees, and to nature generally? or am I just being fanciful?
"Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back.
But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy."


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Merry
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Post by Merry » Wed Jan 20, 2010 3:17 pm

Here's how I understand that passage, marbretherese, and some similar ones in the poem: there are some philosophers called analytic or linguistic philosophers, who think that they cannot know fore sure that there is a real world out there, with such things as God and trees and rocks and humans in it. I imagine that there are and were linguists in English departments who followed suit. They think that philosophy and language in general is sort of like a math or code game, and they try to symbolize everything like an equation, thereby making philosophy as surely true as math. I've never seen the value of that, since it wouldn't be about anything real anyway!

So I think Tolkien is trying to say that all those words don't mean anything unless they are connected to a real world, made by God, and perceived by human beings with the unique power to understand. So it's an assertion of a traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic worldview over the modern one which was in vogue in universities at the time. Go Tolkien!
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

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Post by marbretherese » Wed Jan 20, 2010 3:22 pm

Thanks for those insights, Merry!
"Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back.
But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy."


http://www.marbretherese.com
http://marbretherese.blogspot.com/

Iolanthe
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Post by Iolanthe » Wed Jan 20, 2010 8:17 pm

That's interesting about the core of the poem being the passage you quoted, Marbretherese. I'm not at all surprised that it sits at the heart of it. Does the "'Dear Sir,' I said, 'Although now long estranged'" start to the letter mean he was addressing Lewis as an estranged friend at that point?
marbrethese wrote:I wonder if the reference to tingling nerves sums up Tolkien's own response to trees, and to nature generally? or am I just being fanciful?


It does seem to sum up the Tolkien's own keen connection with nature, doesn't it? And the absurdity of intellectually stepping back from it as though it wasn't 'real' in any meaningful sense. What is 'real' anyway?

Any insights as to why he uses the term 'homuncular' men, Merry? I know all the definitions of the term but I'm not sure what Tolkien is getting at using it here. Is he referring to all men, or the type of men that he's aiming his poem at? It's confusing because the whole sentence has 'rock-like rock' 'tree-like trees', 'earth-like earth' and 'star-like stars' (petreous, arboreal, tellurian, stellar) when you boil it down. In that context we have 'man-like men'. Is this all part of the philosphical view you're describing? The more I read those lines the wierder they seem.
Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather...

Merry
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Post by Merry » Wed Jan 20, 2010 9:47 pm

I don't think CSL and JRRT were estranged at this point, were they?

A homunculus is a little man--the ending is a diminuative. Before people knew of the existence of the human ovum, it was thought that a sperm contained an entire little human person, just ready to be planted in the womb like a seed in the soil. (It's why the medievals were so upset by masturbation, but that's another story! :D ) They called this the homunculus.

So I'm guessing that 'homuncular men' refers to these academics who are not fully 'men' in that they just see themselves and the world from the strictly logical, materialist, scientific worldview. So the trees and rocks and earth are just what they are, but these men are less than what they should be.
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

marbretherese
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Post by marbretherese » Thu Jan 21, 2010 12:47 pm

No, Tolkien and Lewis weren't estranged at this point; not at all! Tolkien is addressing Lewis with his "Dear Sir". At various times, apparently, the full poem has started either "You look at trees" or "He looks at trees" , with the you/he referring to Lewis.

Although it's possible to read Mythopeia as a bitter diatribe against that merely logical, scientific, materialist worldview, Tolkien wrote it after what we can assume was a heated but friendly discussion with Lewis and Dyson, to expand on Tolkien's point of view and influence Lewis's thinking. Not so much bitter as passionate!

As Merry points out in her intro Lewis himself cited that discussion as a turning point in his beliefs - presumably reinforced by the poem.
"Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back.
But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy."


http://www.marbretherese.com
http://marbretherese.blogspot.com/

Merry
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Post by Merry » Thu Jan 21, 2010 3:11 pm

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Assuming the 'Wise' here refers to God, I think Tolkien means to say the estrangement is between 'man' and God, doesn't he?
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

Iolanthe
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Post by Iolanthe » Thu Jan 21, 2010 3:32 pm

I thought that Lewis and Tolkien were still firm friends, so what I was trying to say was that I didn't understand this:
marbretherese wrote:It's those lines in the poem which were Tolkien's first response to Lewis's "lies breathed through silver" comment , and at the time he wrote it in the form of a letter, which starts 'Dear Sir,' I said, 'Although now long estranged'.
I realise now it's actually one of the lines in the poem. I thought you were saying it was the way Tolkien personally addressed Lewis in the letter 'Dear Sir, although now long estranged.'

Complete misunderstanding :wink: .
Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather...

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