“A Song of Aryador” by J.R.R. Tolkien

The recent dearth of posts is not what I had planned for this month, but is caused by intensive training for my new job. The review for Series 3 of Doctor Who is in the works (as it should have been long ago), and I am happily taking notes on Series 4 now. I am also continuing through George MacDonald’s Lilith, and am finding it as fascinating and perplexing as was Phantastes. And in the realm of webcomics, I have been reading through the famed Gunnerkrigg Court, a story about an intelligent English girl at a very strange boarding school surrounded by the shadows of fairy tales and myths (and a little sci-fi). But as you wait for more news on those fronts, I’d like to present an especially beautiful poem by the Professor, and one even less well known than his others.

It is found only in The Book of Lost Tales 1, at the end of the section entitled “The Coming of the Elves.” Christopher Tolkien tells us that it was written in an army camp in Lichenfield on September 12, 1915. It appears to be a song of an ancient group of men about the Lost Elves (those who had not gone to Valinor), whom they feared.

A Song of Aryador

J.R.R. Tolkien

In the vales of Aryador
By the wooded inland shore
Green the lakeward bents and meads
Sloping down to murmurous reeds
That whisper in the dusk o’er Aryador:

‘Do you hear the many bells
Of the goats upon the fells
Where the valley tumbles downward from the pines?
Do you hear the blue woods moan
When the Sun has gone alone
To hunt the mountain-shadows in the pines?

She is lost among the hills
And the upland slowly fills
With the shadow-folk that murmur in the fern;
And still there are the bells
And the voices on the fells
While Eastward a few stars begin to burn.

Men are kindling tiny gleams
Far below by mountain-streams
Where they dwell among the beechwoods near the shore,
But the great woods on the height
Watch the waning western light
And whisper to the wind of things of yore,

When the valley was unknown,
And the waters roared alone,
And the shadow-folk danced downward all the night,
When the Sun fared abroad
Through great forests unexplored
And the woods were full of wandering beams of light.

Then were voices in the fells
And a sound of ghostly bells
And a march of shadow-people o’er the height.
In the mountains by the shore
In forgotten Aryador
There was dancing and was ringing;
There were shadow-people singing
Ancient songs of olden gods in Aryador.’

Chesterton’s “Chord of Colour”

Capital hat, good man!

Ah, Chesterton, witty Christian sage! Here he expounds again on his favorite subject: how the unspiritual man blinds himself to the magnificent glories of God’s creation. In this poem, we appear to have a narrator utterly besotted with his Lady fair; and yet not so besotted as to worship her at the exclusion of the God who created her. On the contrary, the splendor of the Lady’s beauty calls his attention to all the other splendors God has made. The Lady wears gray, he exults in gray spires, gray morning skies, and the gray hairs that mark the wisdom and honor of old age. She wears green, and every grass and tree seems to shine like an emerald. She wears blue, and he is awed and grateful at the Creator’s artistry in using that same color for the sky.

My friends, I have only just discovered this poem, but it grows increasingly beautiful to me as I reflect on it. What Chesterton has given us is a picture of how the romantic love between a godly man and woman will of its own accord, and quite naturally, magnify their own love for God. And since their love for each other comes from God Himself, well, you see what a wonderful, eternal cycle this is.

And yet this cycle of love, joy, and beauty, is not enjoyed by all. The “evil sage” at the end—I guess that Chesterton is hinting at scholars and intelligentsia who care not to think of God—looks at the world, and sees only a bubble, not even then noting the colorful beauty of bubbles themselves!

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

A Chord of Colour

My Lady clad herself in grey,
That caught and clung about her throat;
Then all the long grey winter day
On me a living splendour smote;
And why grey palmers holy are,
And why grey minsters great in story,
And grey skies ring the morning star,
And grey hairs are a crown of glory.

My Lady clad herself in green,
Like meadows where the wind-waves pass;
Then round my spirit spread, I ween,
A splendour of forgotten grass.
Then all that dropped of stem or sod,
Hoarded as emeralds might be,
I bowed to every bush, and trod
Amid the live grass fearfully.

My Lady clad herself in blue,
Then on me, like the seer long gone,
The likeness of a sapphire grew,
The throne of him that sat thereon.
Then knew I why the Fashioner
Splashed reckless blue on sky and sea;
And ere ’twas good enough for her,
He tried it on Eternity.

Beneath the gnarled old Knowledge-tree
Sat, like an owl, the evil sage:
‘The World’s a bubble,’ solemnly
He read, and turned a second page.
‘A bubble, then, old crow,’ I cried,
‘God keep you in your weary wit!
‘A bubble–have you ever spied
‘The colours I have seen on it?’

Source: The Wild Knight and Other Poems by G.K. Chesterton, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

“The Last Voyage of Eärendel” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Eärendil the Mariner, by Ted Nasmith
Eärendil the Mariner, by Ted Nasmith

This is the first poem written by Tolkien about the character of Eärendil, the famous voyager who in Middle-Earth mythology carried the morning star on his brow across the sky. Interestingly enough, the character’s name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Éarendel, a name associated with the star Rigel in Orion, which is a wandering star and the brightest of that constellation. Subsequently, it is an extremely important star for navigation, and makes a fitting inspiration for the name of Tolkien’s great seafaring man. But even apart from these associations the poem is immensely beautiful, a wonderful example of mythopoeia.

The Last Voyage of Eärendel

J.R.R. Tolkien

Eärendel arose where the shadow flows
At Ocean’s silent brim;
Through the mouth of night as a ray of light
Where the shores are sheer and dim
He launched his bark like a silver spark
From the last and lonely sand;
Then on sunlit breath of the day’s fiery death
He sailed from Westerland.

He threaded his path o’er the aftermath
Of the splendour of the Sun,
And wandered far past many a star
In his gleaming galleon.
On the gathering tide of darkness ride
The argosies of the sky,
And spangle the night with their sails of light
As the streaming star goes by.

Unheeding he dips past these twinkling ships,
By his wayward spirit whirled
On an endless quest through the darkling West
O’er the margin of the world;
And he fares in haste o’er the jewelled waste
And the dusk from whence he came
With his heart afire with bright desire
And his face in silver flame.

The Ship of the Moon from the East comes soon
From the Haven of the Sun,
Whose white gates gleam in the coming beam
Of the mighty silver one.
Lo! with bellying clouds as his vessel’s shrouds
He weighs anchor down the dark,
And on shimmering oars leaves the blazing shores
In his argent-timbered bark.

Then Éarendel fled from that Shipman dread
Beyond the dark earth’s pale,
Back under the rim of the Ocean dim,
And behind the world set sail;
And he heard the mirth of the folk of earth
And the falling of their tears,
As the world dropped back in a cloudy wrack
On its journey down the years.

Then he glimmering passed to the starless vast
As an isléd lamp at sea,
And beyond the ken of mortal men
Set his lonely errantry,
Tracking the Sun in his galleon
Through the pathless firmament,
Till his light grew old in abysses cold
And his eager flame was spent.

The Book of Lost Tales 2, pages 271-3

"On an endless quest through the darkling West..."

“The Fairies” by William Allingham (1824-1889)

William Allingham was a man of letters, born in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, who was known for beautiful descriptive lyric poetry. This poem, however, reminds us that the fair folk can be quite dangerous and capricious in nature. Sixteen of his poems may be read online here.

The Fairies

William Allingham

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!
Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake.

High on the hill-top
The old King sits;
He is now so old and gray
He’s nigh lost his wits.
With a bridge of white mist
Columbkill he crosses,
On his stately journeys
From Slieveleague to Rosses;
Or going up with music
On cold starry nights,
To sup with the Queen
Of the gay Northern Lights.

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.
They took her lightly back,
Between the night and morrow,
They thought that she was fast asleep,
But she was dead with sorrow.
They have kept her ever since
Deep within the lake,
On a bed of flag-leaves,
Watching till she wake.

By the craggy hill-side,
Through the mosses bare,
They have planted thorn-trees
For pleasure here and there.
Is any man so daring
As dig them up in spite,
He shall find their sharpest thorns
In his bed at night.

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!

“The Vampyre” by Rudyard Kipling

I should say right up front that I don’t understand this poem. Because I can make so little sense of it, I don’t like it. I have read it and reread it, and broken it down logically and grammatically, and still have reached no satisfying conclusion on the natures of the narrator (a “fool” he calls himself) and the strange, possibly evil woman he “calls his lady fair.” Nor do I understand the various parenthetical statements. It is frustrating. I have yet to figure out who the vampire of the title is, although I am assured that the monster must be there, because the poem is first in a collection entitled Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror & Fantasy, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman (ed., Stephen Jones. New York: Fall River Press, 2010).

If you can explicate this poem for me, please do!

Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)

The Vampyre

A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair,
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair–
(Even as you and I!)

Oh the years we waste and the tears we waste,
And the work of our head and hand,
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)
And did not understand!

A fool there was and his goods he spent,
(Even as you and I!)
Honor and faith and a sure intent
But a fool must follow his natural bent
(And it wasn’t the least what the lady meant),
(Even as you and I!)

Oh the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
And the excellent things we planned
Belong to the woman who didn’t know why
(And now we know she never knew why)
And did not understand!

The fool we stripped to his foolish hide,
(Even as you and I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside–
(But it isn’t on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died–
(Even as you and I!)

‘And it isn’t the shame and it isn’t the blame
That stings like a white hot brand–

It’s coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing at last she could never know why)
And never could understand!’

“The Memory”: a poem by Lord Dunsany (1878 – 1957)

In this poem Lord Dunsany uses some beautiful imagery to evoke the intense and tragic longing of this lovesick lord of Tartary.

This romantic fairy tale comes from Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, one of the great British fantasists of the turn of the century, the remarkable period that also produced such greats as C.S. Lewis (a fellow Irishman), J.R.R. Tolkien,  G.K. Chesterton, and W.B. Yeats (another Irishman). I have yet to read anything else of Dunsany, though one of his novels is waiting on my bookshelf. In this poem he uses some beautiful imagery to evoke the intense and tragic longing of this lovesick lord of Tartary.

Lord Dunsany (1878 – 1957)

The Memory

I watch the doctors walking with the nurses to and fro
And I hear them softly talking in the garden where they go,
But I envy not their learning, nor their right of walking free,
For the emperor of Tartary has died for love of me.

I can see his face all golden beneath his night-black hair,
And the temples strange and olden in the gleaming eastern air,
Where he walked alone and sighing because I would not sail
To the lands where he was dying for a love of no avail.

He had seen my face by magic in a mirror that they make
For those rulers proud and tragic by their lotus-covered lake,
Where there hangs a pale-blue tiling on an alabaster wall.
And he loved my way of smiling, and loved nothing else at all.

There were peacocks there and peaches, and green monuments of jade,
Where macaws with sudden screeches made the little dogs afraid,
And the silver fountains sprinkled foreign flowers on the sward
As they rose and curved and tinkled for their listless yellow lord.

Ah well, he’s dead and rotten in his far magnolia grove,
But his love is unforgotten and I need no other love,
And with open eyes when sleeping, or closed eyes when awake,
I can see the fountains leaping by the borders of the lake.

They call it my delusion; they may call it what they will,
For the times are in confusion and are growing wilder still,
And there are no splendid memories in any face I see.
But an emperor of Tartary has died for love of me.

The Book of Celtic Verse, ed. John Matthews, p. 137-138.