Poesie: Tolkien’s The Last Ship

‘I cannot come!’ they heard her cry. / ‘I was born Earth’s daughter!’

The Last Ship is a poem of the lore of the Shire, originating in the Fourth Age.  It speaks about Fíriel, a woman who was so beautiful that the Elves offered to carry her over the Straight Road to Valinor, but she, not being of elvenkind, decided not to accompany them.  It is a sad poem in a way, and then again it isn’t, for the young woman knows where she belongs, and death is a boon granted, after all.  Besides, it has my favorite bird in it!

The Last Ship

Fíriel looked out at three o’clock:
the gray night was going;
far away a golden cock
clear and shrill was crowing.
The trees were dark, and the dawn pale,
waking birds were cheeping,
a wind moved cool and frail
through dim leaves creeping.

She watched the gleam at window grow,
till the long light was shimmering
on land and leaf; on grass below
grey dew was glimmering.
Over the floor her white feet crept,
down the stair they twinkled,
through the grass they dancing stepped
all with dew besprinkled.

Her gown had jewels upon its hem,
as she ran down to the river,
and leaned upon a willow-stem,
and watched the water quiver.
A kingfisher plunged down like a stone
in a blue flash falling,
bending reeds were softly blown,
lily-leaves were sprawling.

A sudden music to her came,
as she stood there gleaming
with free hair in the morning’s flame
on her shoulders streaming.
Flutes there were, and harps were wrung,
and there was sound of singing,
like wind-voices, keen and young
and far bells ringing.

A ship with golden beak and oar
and timbers white came gliding;
swans went sailing on before,
her tall prow guiding.
Fair folk out of Elvenland
in silver-grey were rowing,
and three with crowns she saw there stand
with bright hair flowing.

With harp in hand they sang their song
to the slow oars swinging;
‘Green is the land, the leaves are long,
and the birds are singing.
Many a day with dawn of gold
this earth will lighten,
many a flower will yet unfold,
ere the cornfields whiten.

‘Then whither go ye, boatmen fair,
down the river gliding?
To twilight and to secret lair
in the great forest hiding?
To Northern isles and shores of stone
on strong swans flying,
by cold waves to dwell alone
with the white gulls crying?’

‘Nay!’ they answered. ‘Far away
on the last road faring,
leaving western havens grey,
the sea of shadow daring,
we go back to Elvenhome,
where the White Tree is growing,
and the Star shines upon the foam
on the last shore flowing.

‘To mortal fields say farewell,
Middle-earth forsaking!
In Elvenhome a clear bell
in the high tower is shaking.
Here grass fades and leaves fall,
and sun and moon whither,
and we have heard the far call
that bids us journey thither’.

The oars were stayed.  They turned aside:
‘Do you hear the call, Earth-maiden?
Fíriel! Fíriel!’ they cried.
‘Our ship is not full-laden.
One more only may we bear.
Come! For your days are speeding.
Come! Earth-maiden elven-fair,
our last call heeding.’

Fíriel looked from the river bank,
one step daring;
then deep in clay her feet sank,
and she halted, staring.
Slowly the elven-ship went by
whispering through the water:
‘I cannot come!’ they heard her cry.
‘I was born Earth’s daughter!’

No jewels white her gown bore,
as she walked back from the meadow
under roof and dark door,
under the house-shadow.
She donned her smock of russet-brown,
her long hair braided,
and to her work came stepping down.
Soon the sunlight faded.

Year still after year flows
down the Seven Rivers;
cloud passes, sunlight glows,
reed and willow quivers
as morn and eve, but never more
westward ships have waded
in mortal waters as before,
and their song has faded.

J.R.R. Tolkien

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Our Own Dear John Ronald: The Ultimate Artists

Ars longa, vita brevis? Not for the Elves.

Tolkien believed devoutly that there had once been an Eden on earth, and that man’s original sin and subsequent dethronement were responsible for the ills of the world; but his elves, though capable of sin and error, have not ‘fallen’ in the theological sense, and so are able to achieve much beyond the powers of men.  They are craftsmen, poets, scribes, creators of works of beauty far surpassing human artefacts.  Most important of all they are, unless slain in battle, immortal.  Old age, disease, and death do not bring their work to an end while it is still unfinished or imperfect.  They are therefore the ideal of every artist.

These, then, are the elves of THE SILMARILLION, and of THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  Tolkien himself summed up their nature when he wrote of them: ‘They are made by man in his own image and likeness; but freed from those limitations which he feels most to press upon him.  They are immortal, and their will is directly effective for the achievement of imagination and desire.’

Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography

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