Sunday, 28 July 2013

'The city by the fording': Some Oxford Poems

I learned just yesterday that Tolkien wrote a poem about Oxford. It's untitled, and it goes like this:

From the many-willow'd margin of the immemorial Thames,
Standing in a vale outcarven in a world-forgotten day,
There is dimly seen uprising through the greenly veiled stems,
Many-mansion'd, tower-crowned in its dreamy robe of grey,
All the city by the fording: aged in the lives of men,
Proudly wrapt in mystic mem'ry overpassing human ken.

According to this book, the poem was written in October 1911 (Tolkien's first term in Oxford) and published in 1913 in the Exeter College student magazine.  It seems to anticipate to an almost absurd extent - for just six lines! - the interests of Tolkien's later work: willows and towers and things 'aged in the lives of men', not to mention the etymologising touch in 'the city by the fording'.  The willows in question grow at Iffley (shown in the picture above), from where I personally have never been able to see the towers of Oxford - but perhaps things were different a century ago.

'Tower-crowned' is a particularly nice description of Oxford (and not the cliche it might seem at first); the city's crenellations do look like crowns, especially from a distance. To me it recalls one of the most famous poems written about the city, Gerard Manley Hopkins' 'Duns Scotus' Oxford':

Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and poisèd powers;

Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural, rural keeping — folk, flocks, and flowers.

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;

Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.

Even the form of Tolkien's 'many-mansion'd, tower-crowned' seems to echo that distinctive series of compounds, 'bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded' - but it doesn't seem possible that Tolkien can have read Hopkins' poem, which (although written in 1879) was not published until 1918.

For comparison, this is C. S. Lewis' poem 'Oxford', published in Spirits in Bondage in 1919, when he too was a young undergraduate (although he had already been to war, and thus knew more about 'red battle's animal net' than most):

It is well that there are palaces of peace
And discipline and dreaming and desire,
Lest we forget our heritage and cease
The Spirit’s work — to hunger and aspire:

Lest we forget that we were born divine,
Now tangled in red battle’s animal net,
Murder the work and lust the anodyne,
Pains of the beast 'gainst bestial solace set.

But this shall never be: to us remains
One city that has nothing of the beast,
That was not built for gross, material gains,
Sharp, wolfish power or empire’s glutted feast.

We are not wholly brute. To us remains
A clean, sweet city lulled by ancient streams,
A place of visions and of loosening chains,
A refuge of the elect, a tower of dreams.

She was not builded out of common stone
But out of all men’s yearning and all prayer
That she might live, eternally our own,
The Spirit’s stronghold — barred against despair.

Just as 'From the many-willow'd margin' reflects Tolkien's fascination with memory and time, you might say that this poem points to Lewis' abiding interest in the tension between the bestial and the spiritual within human nature (though it's possible to take this kind of thing too far...) Speaking of echoes, conscious or unconscious, I've always wondered whether that last verse deliberately recalls Kipling's hymn to England in Puck of Pook's Hill:

She is not any common Earth,
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin's Isle of Gramarye,
Where you and I will fare.

(Note that the rhyme is the same - air/prayer). Lewis wrote of his admiration for Puck of Pook's Hill in a number of letters from c.1915, so perhaps this is conscious homage. 'Gramarye' is not a place-name but a noun, from Middle English gramarie, and it means both 'magic' and 'learning'; perhaps Lewis saw a connection between Merlin's Isle and the city whose enchantment is cast by her scholarly ideals, 'a place of visions and of loosening chains'.

I'm surprised that Lewis and Tolkien's poems about Oxford aren't better-known, given how eager both city and university are to cash in on anything related to the Inklings. But since both poems like to imagine the city as essentially unworldly, or other-worldly, perhaps we should be glad they remain relatively obscure.

1 comment:

John Garth said...

Thanks for this piece. You are absolutely spot-on about the prescience of Tolkien’s 1911 poem ‘From Iffley’ for his later, famous writings. It also has a more immediate descendant in ‘The City of Present Sorrow’, which he wrote in March 1916. He was visiting Oxford for his graduation ceremony after nine months’ army training; his embarkation orders for the Somme were a couple of months away.

It’s full of echoes of the earlier poem from the outset:

There is a city that far distant lies
And a vale outcarven in forgotten days…

But the war transforms the mood to elegiac, and there’s a foretaste of the ‘little candles’ lit by the dead of the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings:

O agéd city of an all too brief sojourn,
I see thy clustered windows each one burn
With lamps and candles of departed men.

‘The City of Present Sorrow’ forms a diptych with ‘The Town of Dreams’, a poem about Warwick (where his fiancée Edith Bratt had lived for the past three years). Warwick is old, sleepy, complacent, forgetful; Oxford is ancient but perpetually renewed, alert, on guard – a treasury of memory for which its ‘sons‘ are prepared to fight. I suspect Tolkien was mindful of the 1914 destruction of the medieval library of Louvain when he wrote here of Oxford,

Lo! though along thy paths no laughter runs
While war untimely takes thy many sons,
No tide of evil can thy glory drown
Robed in sad majesty, the stars thy crown.

Here is the template for Middle-earth’s citadels of lore – Gondolin, Rivendell, Minas Tirith in its prime – all of them repositories of ancient wisdom but also (at their best) actively on guard against present threats to civilisation.

The only element of ‘From Iffley’ that is missing from this 1916 Oxford is the dreaminess, which is necessarily pared away to be associated instead with complacent Warwick.

There‘s a further dimension to the two 1916 poems: together with a short preface they are jointly titled ‘The Wanderer‘s Allegiance’, which hints at a personal mental journey from complacency to responsibility.

‘The Wanderer’s Allegiance’ is published in The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two. I discuss these and other ramifications in my book Tolkien and the Great War.