March 25th is a significant date in Tolkien’s secondary world, the downfall of Sauron. Since 2003, the Tolkien Society has celebrated by naming March 25 Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction. You can check out the Tolkien Society website to see what various individuals, groups, libraries, and museums around the world are planning for this day, or look for #TolkienReadingDay on Twitter, Instagram, or any number of other sites such as Facebook.
In honour of Tolkien Reading Day, I’d like to present two of my favourite poems from The Lord of the Rings to try to convince you that these are great poems to memorize: “Upon the hearth the fire is red” and “In western lands.”
Some of you may be wondering why you would want to memorize a poem when you can have it at your fingertips in a book or online. A number of reasons come to mind, but I think that the best one was summarized a few years ago in a New Yorker article, “Why We Should Memorize” by Brad Leithauser:
…you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.
A good example of a poem that you can know in both your brain and your body is the walking poem “Upon the hearth the fire is red” (in “Three is Company” in The Fellowship of the Ring ) — especially if you recite it while walking!
I find that the 4-beat lines make the perfect rhythm for a walk. Look at the first few lines, where I’ve put the stressed syllables in caps:
UpON the HEARTH the FIRE is RED
Still ROUND the CORner WE may MEET
a SUDden TREE or STANDing STONE
that NONE have SEEN but WE aLONE
If you lift and advance your foot on the unstressed syllable and place it down on the ground on the stressed syllable, you’ll feel the rhythm. Stand up and try it! The poem can adapt to your pace. Say it faster for a brisk walk; slow it down if you’re tired or would like to take in the scenery.
If we’re being technical, not all of the lines fit as neatly into this stress pattern. For example,
beNEATH the ROOF there is a BED
If you want to exaggerate the stress pattern and keep it consistent, you’d put more stress on “IS” than it typically would hold. But if it feels right, go ahead. (Geoffrey Russom, in his article “Tolkien’s Versecraft,” identifies this replacement of a weak syllable where a strongly stressed one should be as fairly common practice in English poems. Read his article if you want to know about “pyrrhic substitution”).
Now, to walk and recite while looking about you, you’ll need to memorize the poem. I always find that writing out the poem by hand — not typing it — is the best way to start connecting the words to the body and the mind. Then it will require repetition. Saying the lines aloud helps. Let the rhymes remind you of what comes next. Repeat, repeat, repeat until you’ve made it your own. I admit that when I was memorizing this poem, I could be seen walking around town with a little card in my hand that contained the written poem, a memory aid for my repetitions until I could recite it confidently without props.
If you’re reading the poem aloud, you’ll notice that some lines are shorter than the opening lines in each stanza. For example, “Let them pass! Let then pass!” I find this just makes me pick up the pace a bit and fuels my energy.
It also helps to think about the structure of the poem when trying to remember what comes next. We start at home — “Upon the hearth the fire is red, / Beneath the roof there is a bed” (lines 1-2) but then we leave this comfortable place pretty quickly on a walking trip in the first stanza, heading out into the world. In the middle stanza, we realize that there are other paths that could be taken some day — “Still round the corner there may wait / A new road or a secret gate” (lines 11-12), and in the final stanza we return home to food and a good night’s sleep, “Fire and lamp, and meat and bread, / And then to bed! And then to bed!” (lines 29-30).
Elvenking’s gate from across the river (detail) by Tolkien
Another reason to memorize a poem would be to have some beautiful words or images ready at hand to describe what you’re seeing or doing, or just because something reminds you of a line. For me, “In western lands” (in “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” chapter in Return of the King) contains this beautiful image:
Or there maybe ’tis cloudless night
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair. (lines 5-8)
[the second and fourth lines above should be indented; my program is not co-operating]
I love the way the branches of the trees are seen as strands of hair — reinforced by the image of the trees as “swaying” — and the stars that you can see through the branches become the jewels in their hair. I remember sitting out in the backyard one summer evening and looking up to see exactly what Tolkien is describing in this passage, a beautiful sight that needed his words to complete the scene.
Of course, there’s more to this poem than just one striking image. This is a poem about hope; it goes from normal life to despair and then finds a reason for going on. Sam sings this song as he despairs of finding Frodo in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and it leads to his discovery of his friend.
I like the movement of the poem. It starts by having us look down to the earth, “beneath the Sun” to see a world starting to grow and bloom. Then we look up through the trees to the stars. In the second stanza, we’re buried deep and far from all this loveliness — “Though here at journey’s end I lie / in darkness buried deep” (lines 9-10). But even so, we know that “above all shadows rides the Sun/ and Stars for ever dwell” (lines 13-14). The poem ends with an affirmation that no matter how deeply buried in darkness we might be, we can find hope: “I will not say the Day is done, / nor bid the Stars farewell” (lines 15-16).
You can spend a lot of time contemplating a good poem, and there is much to say about this one that won’t fit into a blog post. If you’d like some good ideas to spur your thinking, you can try a couple of essays in the book, Tolkien’s Poetry, edited by Julian Eilmann and Allan Turner (Walking Tree Publishers, 2013). In that book, Petra Zimmermann’s essay explores the development of “In western lands” through several drafts and discusses Sam’s creative process. And Lynn Forest-Hill’s essay looks at the connection of earthly and spiritual imagery in the poem.
If you have your own favourite poems for memorizing, let me know in the comments!
“Upon the hearth” can be found in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring and “In western lands” is in The Return of the King.
Tolkien’s artwork, “Elvenking’s gate from across the river,” can be found in The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, HarperCollins, 2011, fig. 50, p. 79.
The other photos are copyright Anna Smol. They were taken in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Forest-Hill, Lynn. “Poetic Form and Spiritual Function: Praise, Invocation and Prayer in The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien’s Poetry, edited by Julian Eilmann and Allan Turner. Walking Tree Publishers, 2013, pp. 91-116.
Leithauser, Brad. “Why We Should Memorize” The New Yorker 25 Jan. 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/why-we-should-memorize
Russom, Geoffrey. “Tolkien’s Versecraft in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.” J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth, edited by George Clark and Daniel Timmons. Greenwood Press, 2000, pp. 53-69.
Zimmermann, Petra. “‘The glimmer of limitless extensions in time and space’: The Function of Poems in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien’s Poetry, edited by Julian Eilmann and Allan Turner. Walking Tree Publishers, 2013, pp. 59-89.