How good a poet was J.R.R.Tolkien? Reluctantly, I have to go along with his great admirer W.H.Auden in saying ‘not very’, but with the caveat that this may be the wrong question. Tolkien did not belong, or wish to belong, to any modern tradition: his is a much older lineage, of scop and skald and bard, poets who were judged on their skill in making complex sound patterns in somewhat arcane language rather than, necessarily, on their success in the quest for inner truth and meaning that one likes to think is the business of poetry today. I do not think that line can be profitably resurrected, so I have to reckon Tolkien as a very skilled versifier rather than as a poet as I understand it. The prose is another matter: always clear and serviceable, at best it can have haunting rhythms and an evocative precision, as in this description of the garden of Ithilien from ‘The Two Towers’. It often seems to me that the real hero of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is Middle Earth itself, that ‘mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day’. Certainly I find its weathers and landscapes one of the great joys of the trilogy, and one that lifts it well clear of most other works in the fantasy genre. This particular passage reminds me of D.H.Lawrence’s loving depictions of the Mediterranean flora, though somehow I don’t imagine that Tolkien was much of a Lawrence reader.
Before them, as they turned west, gentle slopes ran down into dim hazes far below. All about them were small woods of resinous trees, fir and cedar and cypress, and other kinds unknown in the Shire, with wide glades among them; and everywhere there was a wealth of sweet-smelling herbs and shrubs. The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.
South and west it looked towards the warm lower vales of Anduin, shielded from the east by the Ephel Duath and yet not under the mountain-shadow, protected from the north by the Emyn Muil, open to the southern airs and the moist winds from the Sea far away. Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age amid a riot of careless descendants, and groves and thickets there were of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their creeping woody stems mantling in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green; and marjorams and new-sprouting parsleys, and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam. The grots and rocky walls were already starred with saxifrages and stonecrops. Primeroles and anemones were awake in the filbert-brakes; and asphodel and many lily-flowers nodded their half-opened heads in the grass: deep green grass beside the pools, where falling streams halted in cool hollows on their journey down to Anduin.
Good choice of passage – it is a classic, I think.
I have had to re-read the books recently for the analysis of the whole epic as a chiasmic structure. It is in my book – whenever I get find a cover to publish it!
Thankfully the epic ‘matures’ as it progresses – if you had chosen the early Shire passage it would have been a different matter, perhaps. These later descriptions have much to recommend them.
Thanks Michael. Yes, the first chapter of the first volume is still very much in the world of ‘The Hobbit’, which is fine in its own right but does have wobbles of tone. But I think by the time we get to the Old Forest Tolkien has hit his new stride.