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© 2010 Festival in the Shire Journal. All rights reserved.

City of Still-Present Sorrow

Written for U.S. Memorial Day, May 30/31, 2010

A cairn we might build. - Legolas

What tears from the East, ever-minding wind, do you bring to me at dawn?
What shade of G. B. Smith? For he is long time gone--gone, gone into the dark--
Thither has many a brave one gone, since man on man first set upon.
Finrod fairest, thine harp forever stilled,
Thy wild-springing field much too early tilled,
Into Darknesse fell thy brow-star, to rest (Dulce et decorum est)
In foreign fields where many are.
Eärendil bright no light can shine, nor ward all wounds and harm,
Where Durin, deathless, is deep-buried by menace of darkling mine,
Where the Sleeper in the Tower of Pearl is wakened by the gun;
Where an Immortal Four forever
Can be whittled down to two--or is it one?

So let us sing to Being
The simbelmynë, that we may not forget our dead;
Here, mound-diapering celandine, to crown a gold-locked head;
Then seregon, to mark this hill where the Third of Themes was sped.
We still remember,
We who dwell in this far land beneath the trees
(And all our trees, Kortirion, lament):
The Fruit of Noon is easy spent, though bitter bought;
The dregs of the cup, birch’s tears, always with blood are blent.
Tomling’s leg is game, since home he came, and his bootless foot is lasting lame;
This many a year has Tim been gone, and I thought he were lyin’ in graveyard.

A first view of a battle of men against men,
And I do not like it much:
At eve the whetstone rings upon the blade.
O what are you doing, and where are you going? What lies or threats?!
O the hoot! O the toot! O the merry happy flute!
He dances sprightly down the lane, and his name is Tinfang Warble!
As all the world becomes a Hamelin, he pipes for the blood of all;
He pipes for me, he pipes for thee, o war-fain Tinfang Warble!
Who shall heed a small wan craft, women wailing, children crying?
“Why do we wait?” says each to each. “Come, bear me away!”
They have heard the hails of Makar, and shall hear them to their death.

Now they are off down the road, where the muzzle flashes glowed,
And pretty deadly shells are flying.
Hey dol, merry dol, can you hear him playing?
Tinfang’s not that far ahead, just there by the Withywindle;
He’s gone a-piping down their path, corpse-candles for to kindle.
Murdering devil. Behold his Music!
Mortal men each doomed to die, one and one he binds them,
And chains their arms to a sheer black wall, whence only memory will find them.

By the many-willowed margin of the still, memorial Thames,
Grey night going, gables not yet burning,
(Sing willow, willow, willow!) I sojourned in Nan-tathren;
Leaned upon a willow stem, watched the water quiver,
Marked their dark slow words of sleep, not the jewel-bright fisher.
A boat whispered by, low upon the water’s breast. Ah, the spear in my heart!
My feet sank deep in clay. It was my brother, dead.
My father, my grandfather, my cousin, my son,
Dead, all dead. Sad faces, and proud.
No wonder that they waded deep, the punt was there full-laden;
Armies had danced together till the dawn, a single Shadow making.
In a boat, then, kinsmen, far afloat, you must labour down to sea,
Whiles I beg of the Dawn Wind to know why it was
Your lives were the Piper’s fee.

The free-wheeling salt foam-flower mews, Shoreward Piper’s swallows--
Starwing starlings, tidings of death have many wings, ‘tis said--;
That tearful breath, piercing-keen as death, which is borne upon their breeze;
And the fearful knell of Clúain-ferta’s bell, tolling of Morwen, mourning come,
Mourning and a wind from the sea...
Must it always be so, Sam?
We know not, You and Me.
Chanting is in Lonely Isle, sadly sing the monks of Ely:
“We love not the sword, nor the arrow,
Nor the engine dragon, which even so deliver us the City:
This City of our present sorrow.”

Alyssa House-Thomas
Sacramento, CA, USA.


Editors comment

The poem speaks to us of a subject important to us now, but also to all of JRR Tolkien's generation - the futilty and waste of war (though being a pragmatist, Tolkien understood that sometimes wars cannot be avoided, though that is another subject in and of itself).

This is an old, secret sorrow of mine; when I read Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front as a teenager in high school, already thoroughly Tolkien-mad by that point, my first and recurring thought was, “That could have been J. R. R.” One stray bullet, and this immense subcreation that so many people the world over have found meaningful and beautiful would never have come into being. How many other Niggles had had their tree cut off at the shoot in the War to End All Wars? That train of thought then expanded outward, to mourning the immense waste of human endeavour that has been created by the sum of all wars and genocides in human history. As a species, all we do when we engage in those activities is to rob ourselves. How many potential curers of cancer, how many future captains of industry, how many people who could have added to the cultural and artistic capital of their society in one way or another, have had that chance taken away by the disruptions of war? Seen in this way, there are no winners in battle; we all lose. That is the impulse behind the universalizing list “my brother, my father, my grandfather, my cousin, my son,” and also behind the opening lines about G. B. Smith, the writer who didn’t get his fair chance, which are what drove me from bed at an ungodly hour to throw down a first draft.


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