Chip the glasses and crack the plates!
Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates-
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!
Cut the cloth and tread on the fat!
Pour the milk on the pantry floor!
Leave the bones on the bedroom mat!
Splash the wine on every door!
Dump the crocks in a boiling bowl;
Pound them up with a thumping pole;
And when you’ve finished, if any are whole,
Send them down the hall to roll!
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!
So carefully! carefully with the plates!
—“The Washing Song”, J.R.R.Tolkien
I refuse to believe that I have to explain to anyone who J.R.R. Tolkien is or what he wrote, so I won’t.*
But while most people know that he was an author and a linguist and very British and created characters whose names and species have entered our cultural lexicons . . . what is often overlooked, taken for granted, or glossed over is that he was a fine poet as well.**
This is, I think, because his writing style is lyrical to begin with and also because Tolkien was a World Building Master. He wove backstories like Gandalf weaves machinations and planted cultural histories like Hobbits burrow themselves into smials.
And he understood that three things that all established cultures have, each in their own distinctive way, are stories, music, and poetry.
So Tolkein gave his immortal Elves elegant poems based on ancient personal memories of things long gone but never forgotten:
Namarie, or Galadriel’s Lament
Ah! like gold fall the leaves in the wind, long years
numberless as the wings of trees! The long years
have passed like swift draughts of the sweet mead
in lofty halls beyond the West, beneath the blue
vaults of Varda wherein the stars tremble in the
song of her voice, holy and queenly.
Who now shall refill the cup for me?
For now the Kindler, Varda, the Queen of Stars,
from Mount Everwhite has uplifted her hands like
clouds, and all paths are drowned deep in shadow;
and out of a grey country darkness lies on the
foaming waves between us, and mist covers the
jewels of Calacirya for ever. Now lost, lost for
those from the East is Valimar!
Farewell! Maybe thou shalt find Valimar. Maybe
even thou shalt find it. Farewell!
Poem which, I might add, are beautiful in whichever language they are recited.
The poetry of Tolkien’s Dwarrow Clans—Dwarves to those of us who aren’t of a linguistic bent—is based on family lore, pride, and grudges, which make up the basis for a rich, ritualistic oral history that, in my subjective opinion, is incredibly effective when chanted by baritones used to the rhythms of a mine or a forge.
The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone,
When Durin woke and walked alone.
He named the nameless hills and dells;
He drank from yet untasted wells;
He stooped and looked in Mirrormere,
And saw a crown of stars appear,
As gems upon a silver thread,
Above the shadow of his head.
The world was fair, the mountains tall,
In Elder Days before the fall
Of mighty Kings in Nargothrond
And Gondolin, who now beyond
The Western Seas have passed away:
The world was fair in Durin’s Day.
A king he was on carven throne
In many-pillared halls of stone
With golden roof and silver floor,
And runes of power upon the door.
The light of sun and star and moon
In shining lamps of crystal hewn
Undimmed by cloud or shade of night
There shown forever far and bright.
There hammer on the anvil smote,
There chisel clove, and graver wrote;
There forged was bladed and bound was hilt;
The delver mined the mason built.
There beryl, pearl, and opal pale
And metel wrought like fishes’ mail,
Buckler and corslet, axe and sword,
And shining spears were laid in horde.
Unwearied then were Durin’s folk;
Beneath the mountains music woke:
The harpers harped, the minstrels sang,
And at the gates the trumpets rang.
The world is grey, the mountains old,
The forge’s fire is ashen-cold;
No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:
The darkness dwells in Durin’s halls;
The shadow lies upon his tomb
In Moria, in Khazad-dûm.
But still the sunken stars appear
In dark and windless Mirrormere;
There lies his crown in water deep,
Till Durin wakes again from sleep.
That doesn’t mean that drinking and stirring up trouble don’t make it into verse (see “The Washing Song” above), because even Dwarves need a break from the brooding now and again.
As for Hobbits—or at least one of them—Tolkien provided several thoughtful poems (and a few drinking songs as well) on behalf of a people who measure their lives in decades, not centuries, and for whom going there and back again is a recent, personal memory that time may not allow them to repeat.
Though one can always hope.
I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been;
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 and 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.
And all of these fit seamlessly into Tolkien ‘s narrative, helping to create these separate peoples and anchor his imaginary world into our own literary culture—so much so that it hardly registers as poetry at all.
It just is, and was, and always will be.
Well done, sir.
*If you sincerely don’t know, go to a library and find copies of The Hobbit and the first volume of The Lord of the Rings in book form and read them. If you don’t care enough to read the rest of LOTR, I can’t help you. On hte other hand, if you go on to tackle the Silmarillion, I applaud you, but I won’t be able to help you much at all, because whew!
**We will not be mentioning Tom Bombadil’s poetry in this post. Tom Bombadil is a classic Nature’s Fool, with bits of wisdom hidden in his ridiculous rhymes, and he probably deserves his own post, but he irritates the crap out of me in several different ways, his poems go ever on and on and on, and this is my blog. If you wish to write your own post about the obvious literary significance of each syllable spoken by this powerful, tree-living citizen of Middle Earth and the ignorance of some people about his significance, please feel free to send me a link. But I’m old and I get tired and this guy drives me up the nearest Ent.