Four-footed poets

I just read a bit of verse in a book that reminded me, because of its rhythm, of Tolkien. It looked like a quotation, so I Googled it, and discovered that it was actually a riff on a particular Tolkien poem, “The Song of Beren and Lúthien,” the one that starts thusly:

The leaves were long, the grass was green,

The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,

And in the glade a light was seen

Of stars in shadow shimmering.

And I started thinking about how quintessentially Tolkienian that particular metrical scheme is. And I was thinking maybe I should put together a quiz: made-up verse with the meter and rhyme scheme of various poets, to see whether y'all could guess the poet from the meter.

And then I realized that the above-shown Tolkien meter is actually shared (almost) by another of the most beloved poets of our time:

My hat is old. My teeth are gold.

I have a bird I like to hold.

My shoe is off. My foot is cold.

And now my story is all told.

The only significant metrical difference, I think, is that Tolkien loves to end a quatrain of iambic tetrameter with a dactyl, usually an -ing verb (shimmering, listening, wavering, quivering, etc.), leaving that last syllable unstressed, whereas Seuss follows through on the iambs and finishes on a stressed syllable.

Of course, there are lots of poets who use iambic tetrameter. Like Marlowe, in “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”:

Come live with me and be my love,

And we will all the pleasures prove

That hills and valleys, dale and field,

And all the craggy mountains yield.

So it's not just meter that makes Tolkien and Seuss so distinctive. It's also diction (imagine Seuss writing the phrase “hemlock-umbels”!) and rhyme scheme and sentence structure; the similarity of structure in the abovequoted first lines of the Tolkien and Seuss pieces is what initially juxtaposed them in my head, but Tolkien combines the two simple declarative sentences and makes them just the first two clauses of a much longer sentence.

This sort of analysis can yield all sorts of interesting mashups. What if Seuss had written the Passionate Shepherd?

Come live with me. Come be my love.

We'll fit together, hand in glove.

From hill to dale, from push to shove,

We'll look at mountains up above.

Or, for that matter, Tolkien, perhaps channeling Wordsworth a little:

Come live with me, come be my dream,

And wander, lovely as a cloud,

O'er hill and dale, o'er field and stream,

With mountains craggy glowering.

And so on.

One Response to “Four-footed poets”

  1. Anonymous

    Interesting. Tolkien’s also heavy on the alliteration, at least in your examples above, compared with the other two. leaves/long, grass/green …

    and alliteration is definitely what gives the last line that magical, prophetic quality:
    stars in shadow shimmering.


Join the Conversation