Monday, April 11, 2016

National Poetry Month, day eleven

I've occasionally seen comment that JRR Tolkien's poetry in The Lord of the Rings is generally weak, but from my perspective, it's one of my favorite aspects of the book, and I find myself enjoying the verse in LOTR more each time I read it. My favorite poem in the book is almost certainly the "walking song" that is quoted a number of times throughout, and each time has a variation to reflect the events surrounding it and everything that has happened.

It begins like this, at the end of The Hobbit:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

This is when Bilbo is about to return home to his beloved Shire, but he is forever changed by the things he has seen beyond his home's borders. The next time we encounter a version of this poem, Bilbo is striking out again, after giving up the Ring and heading for Rivendell:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Much later we hear it again spoken by Bilbo, when he is starting to age quickly and after the entire adventure and the War of the Ring have ended. Bilbo is old and tired, and the walking song's symbolism here is obvious:

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Finally there is a haunting variant that Frodo sings, not long before he boards the ship that will bear him, along with the last of the Elves, to the faraway land:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
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.

Is Tolkien a great poet? I don't know, and I'm prepared to allow the experts to have their say, but it does seem to me that there's something to be said for the fact that his verse is still being read, recited, and set to music this many decades after it was written.

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