Monday, January 27, 2014

The fire was red, it flaming spread

If you think of poetry as verse that embodies large pans of longwinded rhetoric, like a character's speech in Shakespear, well, I am afraid you will not find these words poetic. It is not only short, but even a bit redundant. A modern poet who does away with the verse would cut the word "flaming", which would of course totally destroy the rhythm of the verse form I call the Tolkien Stanza or Tolkien Quatrain. Compare:

The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.


The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it spread;
The trees blazed like torches.

Or even:

The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night.
The fire spread;
The trees blazed like torches.

The second is less constructed, no words there "just" for rhythm (or for rhythm and emphasis), but precisely therefore it has no rhythm. The third is less just out of rhythm (like a certain song by Alanis Morisette) but now the fire has neither redness nor flames, just expansion. Let us restore both redness and flames in a fourth version, with more "natural" word order:

The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night.
The fire spread in red flames;
The trees blazed like torches.

Now the end of line three is the only line without a rhyme at all (internally or to other line ending), but there is again a rhyme in it on the sixth syllable. The fine parallel in rhyme and rhythm between the first two lines cannot be eliminated, it is quite natural, in order to make prose of it, you would have to change the meaning or make it less direct, but this fine parallel is by the new "concision" or otherwise "naturalness" of last two lines reduced to an accident.

Let us get back to the original:

The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.

If you think of poetry as interesting narrative without any real troughs of low interest and further heightened by verse, that is by rhythm and rhyme, and by verse ideally meant to be sung, this is on the contrary great poetry. And you get the sounds before the sight of the fire.

And there is a point about rhetoric too. In this stanza, the third line which is parted into two parts that rhyme should ideally be a kind of very emphatic point. I have tried my hands at it and sometimes failed to make that crucial third line sufficiently interesting and for that matter self contained. The sense parallel to first half of third line is ideally the second half of the third line. It is so on this stanza - the seventh of the poem - and only once is the parallel of the first half of the third line expanded beyond the second half of the third line. That once its expansion is the whole of the fourth line, and this fourth line is also divided into two halves, so as to balance this overlap. Ninth stanza:

The mountain smoked beneath the moon;
The dwarves they heard the tramp of doom.
They fled their hall to dying fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon.

Instead of 4 syllables plus 4 syllables (third line), you have 4 syllables plus 3*4 syllables (third and fourth line). In all other cases is the balance precisely 4 syllables plus 4 syllables (third line), or else the balance around the cut in the middle of line three is extended both ways, except in this next to final stanza. Precisely as the third line is the next to final line in each stanza.

I said that it did also happen that the balance extended both before and after line three. In stanza three the first line stands alone, the second goes with first half of line three, and the fourth continues second half of line three: 2*4 + 3*4 + 3*4 syllables. Even a bit more intricate, fourth stanza:

On silver necklaces they strung
The flowering stars, on crowns they hung
The dragon-fire, in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun.

In more like prose, or rather, no. It needs no "translation", but here the natural "cuts" are 3*4 + 2*4 + 3*4 syllables. The inversions here are more "natural" than "it flaming spread", you hardly notice them if you are enjoying the rhythm with the narrative.

But typically the cuts can be seen as 2*4 + 2*4 + 4*4, with 4*4 = 4 + 4 + 2*4. If and when Tolkien departs from that, as seen, he does so with taste and balance.

Each stanza has its content. First, fifth and tenth are near identical, they repeat the intention. Three stanzas between first and fifth tell of the dwarves' skilful production, each with its own aspect, four between fifth and tenth tell first briefly about the happiness of the dwarves (one stanza) and then about its catastrophic ending (three stanzas, like those before the "refrain"). In the three about production, we first have spells and darkness of it, then riches and might of it as a benefit given to neighbours, then light and beauty of it, each aspect taking one stanza, though the riches and might aspect is not devoid of light and beauty. In the three of the disaster, you first get one of sensory aspect of the fire, before you know it comes from a dragon, then the disaster as hitting a community, with ringing a tocsin and houses laid low - fire briefly mentioned as chief aspect of disaster, in the third of them it is the dwarves that are hit and the dying as fleeing is described as a defeat.

It is so easy to make the content of one stanza continue formlessly into the next one, and begin a new subject in the middle of it: Tolkien does not.

I do not think I have enjoyed the analysis of a poem so much since I had to analyse as a boy Die Glocke by Friedrich Schiller. Except, of course, reading Tolkien's own analysis of Beowulf. Indeed, there may be some influence between the poems. In Die Glocke each stanza - eight lines in all - starts with four lines where two and four rhyme between them, and then the rhyming there also speeds up in the third quarter with two lines that rhyme between them. But in Die Glocke, the last two lines also rhyme between them. There also you get both a picture of production in very hot circumstances, of producers making a thing of beauty, of feasting - and of tocsin being sounded in alarm over disaster, which in this case also is a fire. Though, unlike Tolkien's example, not from the mouth of Smaug, but from an element breaking loose from civilisational control - a pretty clear difference in outlook, since Smaug is, as can be seen from his conversation with Bilbo, civilised himself.

The poem Far over the misty mountains cold* is not Tolkien's only one in this stanza. We also have Farewell We Call to Hearth and Hall!** and ... I actually had the impression there was more of it. Eärendil was a mariner*** also is in quatrains, but here the internal rhyme is between end of first and first half of second line. As if trying in the beginning to combine four iambics as in the over all quatrain with the six iambics of a senarius, by rhyming the extra bit. A bit less stately, a bit more lively than what I called the Tolkien Quatrain. The Road Goes Ever On and On° if obviously not in it, but may have contributed to the impression, since Donald Swann made first two, next two and last two lines on similar rhythm but made fifth and sixth lines contrast having same melody or at least rhythm between them, two lines thus melodically a bit like the two halflines of line three in the form I have been analysing here. Melodically, but not metrically, since that poem is two quatrains with crossing rhymes (ababcdcd).

I wonder a bit if the wiki on Tolkien gateway is giving the right version of the poem. The first line of the recurrent stanza (first, fifth and tenth) is cited as "Far over the misty mountains cold" with one extra syllable, unless you pronounce "over" as "o'er". I remember it rather as "Far over misty mountains cold" without he article. But with the exactly right number of syllables. Not sure if there is bad memory on my part (remaking of the line after the general metre) or grammatical over correctness on part of the copier in that wiki.

As said, the metre is there so that the story can be told with a steady rhythm and with rhymes that punctuate it. Is this really essential to the telling of it? First of all, these are aids to memory. They are thus aids to a real correct retelling without too much variation from original. Verse is meant to be learnt by heart. But second, both that and the portrayal of happiness before disaster makes it much more spontaneously attractive as a protest against aerial attacks than Picasso's famous or infamous painting. In order for Picasso's work to have its due effect, you must basically either force yourself or be forced by a teacher to look at it. Tolkien makes the reading attractive and the condemnation of "fire from heaven" so much better understood, since so much more spontaneously read. Precisely as analysing the evil of the human heart is done with same exactness between Dostojevski and Tolkien, but better effect on part of him who interspersed it with hobbitry and elvish beauty and an advanture story and a war story, so also Picasso and Tolkien both condemn aerial attacks, but Tolkien more effectively, because he makes the reading - both here and in the chapter about "my military colleague" (I was in the "air defense" during my military service) Bard the Archer much more bearable than the watching of Picasso's painting is.

I looked up if Guernica was perpetrated before or after Tolkien wrote this. It was actually done in April 1937, it was not inspired by the book, which was not publisehed till September same year, and the book was not inspired by it, since the story had been in the writing since the twenties and the completion was being done in the early thirties. But Guernica was not the first aerial attack. In 1911 the Italian-Turkish war featured an Italian aircraft bombing in Tripoli aria - which might explain some attitudes on part of Ghadafi, if you consider how slow the Spanish left is in forgiving Guernica. And then aerial attacks went on in the First Balkan War. And Chesterton had to protest against a British pilot who had offered "fireworks" to an Irish wedding - nobody really hurt, but a foul humour and taste in unnecessary domination. Not to mention that a Zeppelin was bombing Antwerp in 1914, the War where Tolkien fought. This of course before The Hobbit was written.°°

Tolkien certainly felt that Guernica was a bad act committed by people otherwise fighting for the good side. Tolkien could have felt that the Italian bombardment in 1911 might have been so too - he was hardly per se a partisan of Ottoman Empire, but then again Italy had before the atrocity of a bombardmant also committed the near sacrilegious crime of annecting the Papal States during the Risorgimento in 1870. He very clearly stated more than once that atrocities are bad even if committed for a good cause and they hurt and corrupt such a cause, and he very clearly stated in this poem as well as in the whole of The Hobbit that bombarding civilians with "fire from heaven" is an atrocity. He has probably done much more than Picasso to civilise Occidental public conscience about such things. And he has done so by the fact of making - among other passages also very great - a good and rhythmic poem with an æsthetic and exciting narrative. Let anyone who will cavil about clumsiness in one line, like the one giving its title to this essay, I very much will not, and I will not even concede that the line is clumsy in context. As opposed of course to citing it in isolation, which a fault-finder might do.

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Nanterre UL
St Angela Merici
and Translation of
St John Chrysostomus

PS, I nearly forgot my usual comparison between Mozart for music and Tolkien for narrative. But the fact that it is the translation of John Chrysostom Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart's first patron saint of course reminded me. Kudos to the Roman Martyrology for that!

* Far over the misty mountains cold

** Farewell We Call to Hearth and Hall!!

*** Eärendil was a mariner

° The Road Goes Ever On and On

°° Many thanks to diverse articles in the French wikipedia, as well as to Tolkien Gateway for the article on The Hobbit.

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