Thursday, January 3, 2008

Tolkien's Best Poem?

W.H. Auden, a contemporary poet of Tolkien's time, said that this was Tolkien's best poem. It is true that it is beautiful but I wasn't able to make a whole lot of sense out of it. I was wondering if any of you smart readers could give me some enlightening comments.

Wikipedia says, "It is a piece of great metrical and rhythmical complexity that recounts a journey to a strange land beyond the sea. Drawing on medieval 'dream vision' poetry and Irish 'imram' poems the piece is markedly melancholic and the final note is one of alienation and disillusion." I'm not sure that's a very good synopsis...

"The Sea Bell"or "Frodo's Dreme"

I walked by the sea, and there came to me,
as a star-beam on the wet sand,
a white shell like a sea-bell;
trembling it lay in my wet hand.

In my fingers shaken I heard waken
a ding within, by a harbour bar
a buoy swinging, a call ringing
over endless seas, faint now and far.

Then I saw a boat silently float
on the night-tide, empty and grey.
'It is later than late! Why do we wait?'
I leapt in and cried: 'Bear me away!'

It bore me away, wetted with spray,
wrapped in a mist, wound in a sleep,
to a forgotten strand in a strange land.
In the twilight beyond the deep

I heard a sea-bell swing in the swell,
dinging, dinging, and the breakers roar
on the hidden teeth of a perilous reef;
and at last I came to a long shore.

White it glimmered, and the sea simmered
with star-mirrors in a silver net;
cliffs of stone pale as ruel-bone
in the moon-foam were gleaming wet.

Glittering sand slid through my hand,
dust of pearl and jewel-grist,
trumpets of opal, roses of coral,
flutes of green and amethyst.

But under cliff-eaves there were glooming caves,
weed-curtained, dark and grey;
a cold air stirred in my hair,
and the light waned, as I hurried away.

Down from a hill ran a green rill;
its water I drank to my heart's ease.
Up its fountain-stair to a country fair
of ever-eve I came, far from the seas,

climbing into meadows of fluttering shadows:
flowers lay there like fallen stars,
and on a blue pool, glassy and cool,
like floating moons the nenuphars.

Alders were sleeping, and willows weeping
by a slow river of rippling weeds;
gladdon-swords guarded the fords,
and green spears, and arrow-reeds.

There was echo of song all the evening long
down in the valley; many a thing
running to and fro: hares white as snow,
voles out of holes; moths on the wing

with lantern-eyes; in quiet surprise
brocks were staring out of dark doors.
I heard dancing there, music in the air,
feet going quick on the green floors.

But whenever I came it was ever the same:
the feet fled, and all was still;
never a greeting, only the fleeting pipes,
voices, horns on the hill.

Of river-leaves and the rush-sheaves
I made me a mantle of jewel-green,
a tall wand to hold, and a flag of gold;
my eyes shone like the star-sheen.

With flowers crowned I stood on a mound,
and shrill as a call at cock-crow
proudly I cried: 'Why do you hide?
Why do none speak, wherever I go?

Here now I stand, king of this land,
with gladdon-sword and reed-mace.
Answer my call! Come forth all!
Speak to me words! Show me a face!'

Black came a cloud as a night-shroud.
Like a dark mole groping I went,
to the ground falling, on my hands crawling
with eyes blind and my back bent.

I crept to a wood: silent it stood
in its dead leaves, bare were its boughs.
There must I sit, wandering in wit,
while owls snored in their hollow house.

For a year and a day there must I stay:
beetles were tapping in the rotten trees,
spiders were weaving, in the mould heaving
puffballs loomed about my knees.

At last there came light in my long night,
and I saw my hair hanging grey.
'Bent though I be, I must find the sea!
I have lost myself, and I know not the way,
but let me be gone!' Then I stumbled on;
like a hunting bat shadow was over me;
in my ears dinned a withering wind,
and with ragged briars I tried to cover me.
My hands were torn and my knees worn,
and years were heavy upon my back,
when the rain in my face took a salt taste,
and I smelled the smell of sea-wrack.

Birds came sailing, mewing, wailing;
I heard voices in cold caves,
seals barking, and rocks snarling,
and in spout-holes the gulping of waves.
Winter came fast; into a mist I passed,
to land's end my years I bore;
snow was in the air, ice in my hair,
darkness was lying on the last shore.

There still afloat waited the boat,
in the tide lifting, its prow tossing.
Weary I lay, as it bore me away,
the waves climbing, the seas crossing,
passing old hulls clustered with gulls
and great ships laden with light,
coming to haven, dark as a raven,
silent as snow, deep in the night.

Houses were shuttered, wind round them muttered,
roads were empty. I sat by a door,
and where drizzling rain poured down a drain
I cast away all that I bore:
in my clutching hand some grains of sand,
and a sea-shell silent and dead.
Never will my ear that bell hear,
never my feet that shore tread.
Never again, as in sad lane,
in blind alley and in long street
ragged I walk. To myself I talk;
for still they speak not, men that I meet.
-J.R.R. Tolkien

Seize The Day!


wings above earth said...

This poem was originally written in 1931-2 and published in 1934 under the title "Looney". As such, initially, it would not have referred to Frodo. (There is no doubt that later JRRT made that connection.) But the question remains: initially, what was Tolkien referring to with this bleak poem?

First, the Sea Bell itself is a type of sea shell. As such it is intended to represent Faerie, the sound of the Sea that drives us on to the unknown. It represents the longing to go beyond our hard world to reach the land of Faerie.

"Looney", as initially written (1934?), probably contained references to (at least) Tolkien's own post-World War I feelings. I have read that the veterans who came back from that war, who were heroes in it, yet were broken men because of what it did to them, were not honoured in Britain because they were not understood. Which sounds a lot like Frodo. The Britain they came back to, I'm told, was a very different place than they'd left. It had changed into a modern society while they were at war, and so they lost what they had gone to war to save; and saddest of all, those who remained behind, being so close to it, couldn't even tell that they themselves were different. I can imagine that, caught off guard, looking in a veteran's eyes, saw their own strangeness, and couldn't stand the sight and so looked away from the veteran. Again, very much like what happened to Frodo. Perhaps this is something like what Tolkien was trying to express in Seabell?

I see Tolkien is speaking about his own feelings - and these are the same themes as in Sea-bell, although stated in a less drastic way.

At base, then, Sea-bell is about Frodo and Tolkien and all of us -the difficulty of entering into that magical realm and especially of communicating our experience when we do so.


Antane said...

It is said to represent the dark and despairing dreams Frodo had during his anniversary illnesses. Not likely to have been written by Frodo himself, but someone very close to him who would have known of his struggle with what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder which he had after the Quest.

God bless you and him!