Thursday, September 6, 2007

Bilbo's Last Song (At the Grey Havens) by JRR Tolkien

Bilbo's Last Song (At the Grey Havens)

Day is ended, dim my eyes,
But journey long before me lies.
Farewell, friends! I hear the call.
The ship's beside the stony wall.
Foam is white and waves are grey;
Beyond the sunset leads my way.
Foam is salt, the wind is free;
I hear the rising of the sea.

Farewell, friends! The sails are set,
The wind is east, the moorings fret.
Shadows long before me lie,
Beneath the ever-bending sky,
But islands lie behind the Sun
That I shall raise ere all is done;
Lands there are to west of West,
Where night is quiet and sleep is rest.

Guided by the Lonely Star,
Beyond the utmost harbour-bar,
I'll find the heavens fair and free,
And beaches of the Starlit Sea.
Ship my ship! I seek the West,
And fields and mountains ever blest.
Farewell to Middle-earth at last.
I see the star above my mast!
--JRR Tolkien

I don't find this one as sad as Legolas's poem about the sea. Bilbo is old and tired and done with living in this world of woe. It's like the difference between the funeral of a relatively young accident victim, and the funeral of a great grandparent who lived a full live, and has finally succumbed to a terminal illness.

I like how this poem, though obviously written for a specific occasion in this particular book, can easily be moved out of its original context. Rather than losing something because you don't know the backstory, it gains a universal quality. It's not just about Bilbo sailing away to the undying lands with the elves, it's about anyone saying goodbye to this life, and sailing off into the sunset, over the horizon to "the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns." To me, one measure of a good poem or song is how universal and specific it can be at the same time. In musical theater, for instance, you could have a great song, but if it makes no sense outside the context of your show, it'll be tough for it to get very popular, whereas if it's universal, then people could imagine that this love song is really talking about their particular love, and so they'll want to sing or listen to it a lot (an exception to this is "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" -- which, when you think about it, doesn't really make much sense in context to begin with).

I also like the idea of using a sea voyage as a metaphor for death. Tolkien is certainly not the first to use it. So many people sailed away, never to return, that it's a natural connection to make. It's also comforting to imagine that for the traveler, it's just the beginning of a new adventure. Somewhere out there, on a beautiful South Sea island, they're enjoying peace and comfort not generally available to mere mortals.

No comments:

Post a Comment