O! Happy Mariners

I know a window in a western tower
That opens on celestial seas,
And wind that has been blowing round the stars
Comes to nestle in its tossing draperies.
It is a white tower builded in the Twilight Isles,
Where Evening sits for ever in the shade;
It glimmers like a spike of lonely pearl
That mirrors beams forlorn and lights that fade;
And sea goes washing round the dark rock where it stands,
And fairy boats go by to gloaming lands
All piled and twinkling in the gloom
With hoarded sparks of orient fire
That divers won in waters of the unknown Sun —
And, maybe, ‘tis a throbbing silver lyre,
Or voices of grey sailors echo up
Afloat among the shadows of the world
In oarless shallop and with canvas furled;
For often seems there ring of feet and song
Or twilit twinkle of a trembling gong.

O! happy mariners upon a journey long
To those great portals on the Western shores
Where far away constellate fountains leap,
And dashed against Night’s dragon-headed doors,
In foam of stars fall sparkling in the deep.
While I alone look out behind the Moon
From in my white and windy tower,
Ye bide no moment and await no hour,
But chanting snatches of a mystic tune
Go through the shadows and the dangerous seas
Past sunless lands to fairy leas
Where stars upon the jacinth wall of space
Do tangle burst and interlace.
Ye follow Earendel through the West,
The shining mariner, to Islands blest;
While only from beyond that sombre rim
A wind returns to stir these crystal panes
And murmur magically of golden rains
That fall for ever in those spaces dim.

~ J.R.R. Tolkien

In the unfinished works called “The Lost Tales,” there are some stupendous hidden gems of Tolkien poetry. This one has always been one of my favorites; the image of wind that was blown around the stars but comes to nestle softly in the curtains of a tower window made me catch my breath at the beauty.

As poetry, it is not the most refined or developed. And Tolkien definitely has works that have much tighter rhythms and poetics. But this one poem has a special place in my heart for the making me taste, feel, and smell the summer wind that twines around that lonely room.

According to the notes, (the appendices of Lost Tales Part 2,) this poem is written from the perspective of Elwing, the wife of Earendel. Both of them were half-human and half-elven, and could choose which race they wanted to live as. Earendel wanted to be human, but because his wife preferred to be part of the elves, he chose to stay with her. Sadly, they were chased across Middle-Earth because of the Silmaril – a jewel with the light of the heavens – that they had inherited. When Earendel made his way west over the sea to the Valar to ask for them to take care of the Silmaril, the Valar instead decided to set the jewel in Earendel’s ship and to make the ship and it’s crew a part of the night sky. Earendel did not have the option of returning for Elwing before he was made into a star.

Some legends say that when Elwing saw her husband as a star, she transformed into a seagull and flew out to join him. But later versions of the tale say that she remained in middle-earth, living in a white tower on the edge of the sundering sea, where she could watch the stars for her husband’s ship.

The happy couple was separated because they had tried to protect the world from the greed surrounding the jewel. Their only connection is through the wind. Because they are elves, they will live until the end of the world, only able to watch each other.

I cannot dissect this poem to give you the reasons why I think it is wonderful. But somehow the language evokes the feeling of a sea breeze on my skin, of  longing for the stars, of patience with eternal waiting. This is the poem I turn to when I need a deep breath of fresh air and an infusion of hope.

O! Happy mariners!

Drawn by my lovely sister.

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9 thoughts on “O! Happy Mariners

  1. Dissection can only happen after a thing is dead. Some things must be dissected for study or performance, but for simple enjoyment, the worst thing you can do is dissect it. Understand Mark Twain:
    “Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!”

    So I say do NOT dissect the poem. Leave the majesty and beauty of the poetry undisturbed as a treasure. Another poem will teach you just as much in dissection without forcing you to know too much.

    • I do agree with you poetry is something alive and cannot be studied in a cold and 100% scientific way. However “love follows knowledge” as Saint Thomas Aquinas once said. The more you understand the poem, its meaning, imagery, relations to other works…. the more you will enjoy it.
      As for the word “dissect”,I used it because the author did and I thought it was a nice way of putting it. I did not intend to kill anybody’s work.

      • It was my poor word choice with “dissect”. Thank you both for calling me out on it. 😉

        I should have said “analyze”. Frankly, some things about this poem do throw me: the slightly awkward rhythm, the strangely placed rhymes, etc.

        However – to bring in Aquinas again! – “id quod visum placet”. Despite its flaws of form, this poem does please upon being seen.

        What other Tolkien poems would you recommend?

  2. I’m afraid I cannot help much with Tolkien’s poetry and you seem much better versed in it. The story of Luthien “more fair than mortal tongue can tell” is one my favorites though…
    By the way, congratulations for your blog. It’s fantastic to see that great Thomas continues to be a source of wisdom for people.

    • “The leaves were long, the grass was green,
      The Hemlock umbles tall and fair,
      And in the glade as light was seen
      Of stars in shadow glistening”

      I once tried to memorize the Luthien lay, but I quickly forgot it. Except for that one verse. I just love the rhyme of ‘glistening’ and ‘seen’ and ‘green’. It seems like to should’t work, but it does! And the picture of a forest glade with star in shadow . . . beautiful! 😉

      Also, I cannot figure out or picture an ‘umble’. Maybe that explains my fascination with that verse,

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