21 March 2018

Icarus, Bruegel, Auden

Detail of "Icarus", by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Collection of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


Musée des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
    walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy
    life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
W. H. Auden (1939)





Many thanks to @EFLOxford for tweeting Auden's poem out this morning on World Poetry Day.

20 March 2018

'You are grown up now' (RK 6.vii.996)

'I am with you at present,' said Gandalf, 'but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.
(RK 6.vii.996)
Gandalf is quite right of course. When the four hobbits arrive to discover the evil that has been at work in the Shire during their absence, they handle it quickly and deftly, restoring the quiet anarchy* which had reigned there for as long as anyone could remember. They make not a single misstep. In The Scouring of the Shire the hobbits rescue themselves.

How different this all is from the first steps of their journey when -- as we were discussing recently on Exploring the Lord of the Rings -- they had to be rescued almost every day, by Gildor and his company, twice by Tom Bombadil, and finally by Strider in Bree. Even before they leave Bag End, they are saved from a Black Rider by the Gaffer's ignorance that Frodo, Sam, and Pippin are still there. Then, too, at Bucklebury Ferry, aided by Farmer Maggot and his wagon, they make it across the Brandywine just before the arrival of a Black Rider. So chance, perhaps, or direct intervention save them repeatedly. Indeed the only day they do not have a close call is the day they spend safely  under Tom Bombadil's roof, going nowhere. From Bag End to the common room at The Prancing Pony they fail to grasp the caution that is required by the perils they face. They are not yet afraid enough, as Strider points out (FR 1.x.165). Their immaturity, to borrow Gandalf's metaphor, is in keeping with their current romantic and unrealistic understanding of what an 'adventure' is. In the same way, the maturity they gain from the real griefs they suffer on their 'adventures' balances the ending of the tale against its beginning.

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* On this kind of anarchy, see Letters, no. 52 (italics mine): 'My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)....' To be sure, Tolkien is on a bit of a rant in this letter to his son, Christopher, and so his opinion here need not be taken as a considered one, but anarchy of this kind is precisely what we see in the Shire.


04 March 2018

'I sit beside the fire and think' -- Home, Hearth, Hobbits



For Tolkien Reading Day, 25 March 2018

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been; 
Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see. 
For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know. 
But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.


Ever since the first time I read 'I sit beside the fire and think' as a young boy, it's been my favorite. It has always spoken to me of home, just as I think it does to Bilbo, but it speaks in a more complex and poignant way than most other hobbit songs.

Of these, Pippin's 'Sing hey! for the bath at close of day' (FR 1.v.101) is probably the most purely hobbit-like. In a simple meter -- iambic tetrameter, which seems characteristic of hobbit poetry* -- it embraces the beauty and pleasures of water in its various forms, but emphasizes the special joy and even nobility of the hot bath 'that washes the weary mud away'.  Few things could conjure a more comforting image of home than Water Hot which so thoroughly redeems our weariness that we end up playfully splashing water with our feet, or even, as in Pippin's case, creating a fountain.

Similarly in Three Is Company the hobbits sing a song -- 'Upon the hearth the fire is red' -- which begins and ends by evoking hearth and home, roof and bed (FR 1.iii.77-78). Yet Bilbo wrote the words to this song, and his experiences gave him a deeper perspective. '[N]ot yet weary are our feet' tells us that we are not ready for home and bed. Adventure and discovery await us before then. We never know where we may find 'the hidden paths that run / Towards the Moon or to the Sun'. All that we may meet on our journey, however, will in the end fade before the lights of hearth and lamp that summon us home to bed and board.

Immediately after the end of this song, however, the approach of a Black Rider impresses the dangers of the journey upon them. After their last near encounter earlier in the day the hobbits had seen Bilbo's warning about the perils of stepping out the front door take on new meaning, as it must when Ringwraiths show up down the lane. Adventures are too often 'not a kind of holiday ... like Bilbo's' (FR 1.ii.62), nor, as events at Crickhollow will show, do front doors keep all perils out (FR 1.xi.176-77).

We may also discover a little noticed counterpoint to the hobbits' song in the hymn** to Elbereth sung by the elves whose arrival drives off the Black Rider. The longing for their home '[i]n a far land beyond the Sea', which lies at this song's heart, balances the exile of the elves against the security the hobbits (wrongly) feel is their due in their own Shire (FR 1.iii.83). Though the elves know where to find those 'hidden paths', they linger 'in this far land beneath the trees.' Their 'chance meeting' with Frodo, who regards his own journey as a flight into 'exile' for himself and his companions, brings face to face those whose age-long exile is nearly over with one who senses that his home will soon be forever lost to him, if indeed it has not already been lost.

If we take a further step back towards that home, we come to the first song that Frodo sings, Bilbo's 'The road goes ever on and on', which he recalls, not from conscious memory, but from some deeper place beyond all names. Yet, as many have remarked, Frodo's version differs in a single word from the one Bilbo recited as he left Bag End seventeen years earlier. Bilbo sets off on the road, 'pursuing it with eager feet'  (FR 1.i.35), but Frodo's feet are 'weary' from the start (FR 1.iii.73). Recall 'the weary mud' in Pippin's bath song, to be washed off at journey's end. Recall the 'not yet weary' feet of Bilbo's walking song. These songs better suit the 'eager' feet of Bilbo, who embraces both journey and journey's end: 'I want to see the wild country again before I die, and the Mountains' (FR 1.i.33). That Frodo has a different attitude towards his journey is part of the tragic situation in which he finds himself, for which the Ring is largely, though perhaps not solely, to blame. Like Merry, who 'loved the thought of [mountains] marching on the edge of stories brought from far away', Frodo may have 'longed to shut out [their] immensity in a quiet room by a fire' (RK 5.iii.x.791). If  so, that was not to be.

Bilbo's embrace of journey and journey's end alike is also visible in 'I sit beside the fire and think', yet this poem is also firmly tied to the idea of hearth and home by the repetition of the initial line to begin the third and fifth quatrains and the variation of it in the first line of the last. It is the song of someone whose days of adventure are over, but for whom memory and reflection on the time he spent journeying enrich the life he now lives by hearth and home. Nor need we think of this poem as applying only to Bilbo in his years in Rivendell, where he introduces us to the poem. We can also easily imagine it across the decades he spent in the Shire after his return, dawdling with his book, walking the countryside with Frodo and talking of adventure, 'learning' young Sam Gamgee his letters and telling him tales of the Elves. The walking song he composed the words to, the evolution and distillation of 'The road goes ever on' from the poem we first see at the end of The Hobbit, and his meditations on the 'dangerous business' of stepping out of one's home and into the road, all point to the close connection between 'there' and 'back again'. So, too, does his exchange with Sam and Frodo at Rivendell:
'Books ought to have good endings.[said Bilbo] How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?'  
'It will do well, if it ever comes to that,' said Frodo. 
'Ah!' said Sam. 'And where will they live? That's what I often wonder.' 
(FR 2.iii.273-74)
And Bilbo's last quatrain, especially its final words, is significant in that it comes after the bow to approaching death in 'a spring that I shall never see'. For tales goes on despite death.  With 'I listen for returning feet / and voices at the door' Bilbo also accepts that his part in the tale has already ended and that others will carry it on and bring the word of their journeys back to him. In just this way he awaits the return of Sam and Frodo. In this way, too, Sam and Frodo, who both finally expect not to survive their quest, imagine that their part in the great tale in which they have found themselves will come to an end for them, but that others will have their own parts to play later on. It is no accident that the book itself ends with Sam at home in his chair by the fire. 

At the last, that is what all the tales are about.


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'I sit beside the fire and think' is not in iambic tetrameter, but in alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, which is more characteristic of Elvish poetry, and likely shows the influence of such poetry on Bilbo.

** If alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter distinguish Elvish poetry, one may rightly ask why the hymn to Elbereth is not in this meter, or in the single lines of heptameter which also occur (e.g., 'Nimrodel'). The answer lies in the fact that the song is mediated through the understanding of the hobbits -- as the text explicitly says at FR 1.iii.83: 
It was singing in the fair elven-tongue, of which Frodo knew only a little, and the others knew nothing. Yet the sound blending with the melody seemed to shape itself in their thought into words which they only partly understood. This was the song as Frodo heard it...



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All citations reference the single volume fiftieth anniversary edition of The Lord of the Rings, Houghton Mifflin (2004).