Last week I talked about one of the “standard patterns” of poetry that JRR Tolkien uses in The Lord of the Rings. That was where the poem was written in successive pairs of lines each with 4 metrical beats – stressed syllables. That form is used by elves of Rivendell, and also hobbits, men, and even barrow wights, with varying levels of irregular straying from the basic pulse. The rhyming schemes vary a little, and seem less fundamental in Tolkien’s thought than the metre. My belief is that Tolkien used this commonality of pattern as a tangible outworking of his mythological position that the world was created by musical harmony.
But not all poems – not even all elvish poems – use this 4+4 pattern. The second common form is 4+3, where the second line of each couplet has one less stressed syllable than the first. Some of my absolute favourite poems of the entire trilogy are built on this pattern. It comes into full flower with the elves of Lorien, but in fact we first meet it in Sauron’s ring poem (albeit quite irregular):
One Ring to rule them all
One Ring to find them
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them
And also with Tom Bombadil, who amongst all his apparently nonsense rhyming actually turns out a lot of metrical regularity:
Hop along my little friends
Up the Withywindle
Tom’s going on ahead
candles for to kindle
But it is after we leave Rivendell, and especially when we start to cross the Misty Mountains that this pattern comes into its own. A whole string of poems, sung by different people from different cultures, use the 4+3 pattern to build their poetry.
For example, Legolas sings of Nimrodel on the borders of Lothlorien:
An Elven-maid there was of old,
A shining star by day:
Her mantle white was hemmed with gold,
Her shoes of silver-grey.
And, perhaps preeminently, it appears in Galadriel’s song:
I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold,
and leaves of gold there grew:
Of wind I sang, a wind there came,
and in the branches blew.
The Lament sung for Boromir, partly each by Aragorn and Legolas, is based on 4+3 with occasional unstressed syllables thrown in:
Through Rohan over fen and field
where the long grass grows…
From the mouths of the Sea the South Wind blows
from the sandhills and the stones…
From the cradle of Kings the North Wind blows
and past the roaring falls…
And when we move across to the forest of Fangorn, we find that the Ents are also adept at 4+3:
When Spring unfolds the beechen leaf,
and sap is in the bough;
When light is on the wild wood stream,
and wind is on the brow
O rowan fair, upon your hair
how white the blossom lay
Both of these are laments, or at least sad songs, and the Ents certainly could create 4+4 songs as well:
To Isengard, though Isengard
be ringed and barred with doors of stone
– of course, this is a marching song so pretty much has to have an even pulse.
But others on the eastern side of the mountains use 4+4 as well: Gimli’s song at the start of the journey through Moria is like this:
The world was young, the mountains green
no stain yet on the Moon was seen
Others too, including Gandalf and Galadriel, turn out 4+4 when the occasion requires.
So, although I was originally speculating that Tolkien had intended the change in Elvish poetry patterns to be geographical – West and East of the Misty Mountains using different rhythms – this does not seem to be systematically followed through. It seems to me that it is more likely to be related to mood or subject matter. Many of the 4+3 examples are laments, or describing the decline of the old ways, whereas the 4+4 are more historical or didactic in nature. Either way, we have two clear root metrical patterns for the various ancient inhabitants of Middle Earth. Are these the first two themes of the Music of Iluvatar?
Which all brings us to human poetry, especially as our slow read has just brought us to Edoras, and the poetry of the Rohirrim. As I hope I have convinced you by now, the 4+4 and 4+3 metrical patterns dominate the poetry we have seen up until now. But you’ll have to wait a while to find out what will happen next. I’m going to leave human material for another post when our slow read through the book has got further into the kingdoms of men…