When did Bilbo write "I sit beside the fire and think"?

Bruce N H

Active Member
Hi all,

The poem "I sit beside the fire and think" is particularly apt to the precise situation where Bilbo recites it. Yes, he's getting old and so sitting and thinking of all he has seen is natural, but it's that last stanza, where he is listening "for returning feet and voices at the door" - most specifically the feet of Frodo and company, returning safely from their perilous quest that they are just about to set off on. This raises the question, when did Bilbo write this?

- Perhaps he composed it on the spot, his poet's mind putting his current situation into words.
- Perhaps he just knows lots and lots of poems, and picked out one that was particularly timely (perhaps subconsciously).
- Perhaps he was taking a poem he already knew, but changed the last stanza on the spot, fitting it to his current situation. (IMO this is most likely.)

What do you think? We've had this sort of question before. E.g. "The Road goes ever on" - when Frodo recites it in Three is Company he changes "eager feet" to "weary feet", which fits his situation better than when Bilbo said it earlier. Frodo says "It came to me then, as if I was making it up; but I may have heard it long ago." Later Bilbo will change it again in Many Partings. Similarly we get a reworking of "Still round the corner" from the start of their adventures to the end. When Frodo is about to take the Straight Road he changes "And though we pass them by today, Tomorrow we may come this way And take the hidden paths that run Towards the Moon or to the Sun." into "And though I oft have passed them by, A day will come at last when I Shall take the hidden paths that run West of the Moon, East of the Sun." Because he is literally about to take the path that leads beyond the sun and moon. Both Frodo and Bilbo (and maybe Sam, thinking of Troll sat alone) are likely to spontaneously adapt existing poems to their current situations.

Bruce
 

Rachel Port

Well-Known Member
I hadn't thought about this, but it would make sense that Bilbo wrote it sometime between the Council of Elrond and the day the Company departs. I think he would be feeling his age, and wondering if his death is connected in some way to the destruction of the Ring. And having lived in the timelessness of Rivendell among elves who live at a different tempo, he would also have been thinking of the world going on after his death, as it did before his birth. And all of this is combined with his worry about what will happen to Frodo, whether death or worse, so his thoughts about time and the world going on come back to his particular situation in the last verse.

For what it's worth, I find this poem comes very close to expressing the way I feel as I get older.
 

Bruce N H

Active Member
Oh, good, that's a fourth option.

- Bilbo wrote this recently, after the decision at the Council. That would make sense of why it comes so easily to his mind here - he's been muttering this to himself for several days as he puzzled out the words.

Bruce
 
I hadn't thought about this, but it would make sense that Bilbo wrote it sometime between the Council of Elrond and the day the Company departs. I think he would be feeling his age, and wondering if his death is connected in some way to the destruction of the Ring. And having lived in the timelessness of Rivendell among elves who live at a different tempo, he would also have been thinking of the world going on after his death, as it did before his birth. And all of this is combined with his worry about what will happen to Frodo, whether death or worse, so his thoughts about time and the world going on come back to his particular situation in the last verse.

For what it's worth, I find this poem comes very close to expressing the way I feel as I get older.

This is my favorite of all of the poems in the legendarium. Hands down. It always was, but I get older the lyrics are just that much more meaningful.
 

TThurston

Member
I'm sure it was probably discussed in class, but I find it interesting for Bilbo to be composing and singing such a song while living among the ageless, immortal elves in Rivendell, a place that seems to ignore the passing of time or the possibility of death. Of course, much of his occupation there seems to be the consideration of songs, tales and history, some involving himself, but also those of elves who have gone. Perhaps also there is a thought of returning feet of those who are part of those tales and songs, and for whom they are written. After all, he does say "take as much care of yourself as you can, and bring back all the news you can, and any old songs and tales you come by." Then he turns away and sings his little song.

Hmm. I'm also reminded of all those collectors of folk songs who wandered England during Tolkien's early lifetime, collecting, recording, and cataloguing folksongs (like Ralph Vaughn Williams, Cecil Sharp and Lucy Broadwood). Bilbo would fit right into this group, except that now he leaves it to others to do the field work, whose return he awaits so he can add to his collection. I wonder if that might be part of what Bilbo did between leaving the Shire and settling in Rivendell, collecting tales and songs. After all, when he first left the Shire with Thorin and company the first report beyond the hobbit-lands is "then they came to lands where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before." Songs seem to be important to Bilbo.

And then (sort of off topic, but) when I hear the lines,

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been;

I can't help hearing in my mind

The time has come,' the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —

The Wikipedia article about the latter poem reports that "The poem is composed ... in an alternation of iambic tetrameters and iambic trimeters. ... The rhyming and rhythmical scheme used, as well as some archaisms and syntactical turns, are those of the traditional English ballad." So, Bilbo's little song follows the form of traditional English ballad. Interesting. I suppose the tune we should use to sing this song of Bilbo's would one of those traditional English ballads. I wonder if it matters which one. Any suggestion?
 
Last edited:

Rachel Port

Well-Known Member
I think living in Rivendell among the elves who live in a completely different relationship to time has shown Bilbo a different way to relate to time. In the chat on YouTube nostalgia came up, and what I find so amazing about this song is that it expresses nostalgia for the future that he will not see. I see his acceptance that the world existed long before he did and will exist after he dies, and an acceptance of his own mortality.

And it's not true that the elves live without the possibility of death. Elrond's twin brother chose mortality ages ago, and he has had to live without a twin for thousands of years. Given that his sons seem to be identical, he may have lost an identical twin and the special closeness of that relationship. And by the time Bilbo comes to Rivendell Elrond also knows that his daughter has chosen mortality. Those are final losses; their souls will not meet again. I think the grief death brings is very present for Elrond. And there are many elves who have been killed in wars, whose memories must exist for many of the other elves in Rivendell. They know that their spirits will meet again - that is the real difference between elves and mortals - not death so much as what happens after death.

The rhythm of Bilbo's poem (and Lewis Carroll's) is possibly the most common rhythm for songs in the English language - it's hard to read a poem in that rhythm without singing, or thinking about singing, it and adding a silent fourth beat in the trimeter line. Tolkien's Troll Song recording takes an already existing melody, and I can imagine that Bilbo and Sam didn't write songs, they wrote new words for existing tunes, so poetry is actually a pretty accurate rendering of what they created. I wonder how Tolkien sang this one (and the Man in the Moon song).
 

Bruce N H

Active Member
Good point that a musical setting of this would be in 4/4 time, with a rest on the 4th beat of every other line.

Also cool to connect this with the Walrus and the Carpenter. You should bring that up next week (I fell asleep half way through class on Tuesday, but I assume we didn't finish the poem), or maybe when we're doing Alice in Mythgard Academy next year.

Bruce
 

Flammifer

Well-Known Member
I think that Bilbo 'wrote' this poem (down in his book) sometime after the Company left Rivendell.

However, I suspect that he 'composed' it in two efforts, on the spot, during his conversation with Frodo. The first effort was when, "He turned away and looked out of the window, trying to hum a tune."

I think he got part of it during that attempt, but it was not clear yet. By the time, "He broke off and turned to the window again," and sang it, it had become clear.

Of course, how exactly Bilbo could have composed this in the midst of an emotional gift-giving conversation, I don't know. Quite likely he had composed many elements sometime previously, but, I think, completed and finalized it in two bursts of inspiration on the spur of the moment.
 

Bruce N H

Active Member
Okay, here's my new proposal:

At some point in recent years Bilbo wrote a version of the first four stanzas. These go through the seasons, and even though the winter stanza implies old age and coming death, we still end with spring and new journeys to see new things (the "new green").

Recently, after the Hall of Fire and the Council, Bilbo knows his journeys are over, and he composed the fifth stanza. His time for adventures is over, other people will see a world he will never know.

In the gift-giving scene with Frodo, this song is coming to mind. When he first turns to the window and tries to hum a tune, this is the song he is thinking, but he's "trying to hum" because he's distracted. Yes, by his emotions, but also his thoughts about Frodo are inspiring a new stanza.

Then, when he turns back to the window, singing softly, he adds a first draft of the final stanza, making it up on the spot.

After Frodo and company depart, remember, Bilbo doesn't do much more writing. From Return of the King "Many Partings"* Sam says "I don’t think, Mr. Frodo, that he’s done much writing while we’ve been away."** Bilbo rouses himself from sleep to agree, but adds "when I have time to write, I only really like writing poetry". So he has been working on poems in the meantime.

So, Frodo gathers up Bilbo's notes, including his poems, including one of the poems he's been working on in the last nine months, including his revised and edited version of "I Sit Beside the Fire and Think".

So when Frodo is writing up what will become Lord of the Rings, he's not writing down the poem as he heard it that Christmas morning in Bilbo's room. He probably wasn't in the best emotional state at the time to perfectly remember the lines. Instead he's copying out the revised version he found in Bilbo's scattered notes.

Bruce

* Hey - I never realized this before. The chapter where they get to Rivendell in Fellowship is "Many Meetings". On their return trip, they get back to Rivendell in the chapter "Many Partings." Cool.

**BTW, that means that almost all of LotR was written by Frodo (and Sam), with very little actually penned by Bilbo. I always sort of thought that Bilbo wrote all of the pre-Rivendell stuff. At the Council he told Frodo "I tried to make a few notes, but we shall have to go over it all again together some time, if I am to write it up. There are whole chapters of stuff before you ever got here!" Later that day Bilbo says "What about helping me with my book, and making a start on the next? Have you thought of an ending?" And in the weeks before the Ring actually Goes South, Frodo and Sam spend a lot of time with Bilbo "Then Bilbo would read passages from his book (which still seemed very incomplete), or scraps of his verses, or would take notes of Frodo’s adventures." So in my head I thought that Bilbo took those notes and wrote up the first half of Fellowship while Frodo was away, but in the passage from Many Partings we see he didn't do that at all. Maybe he got parts written up through Three is Company, which is why those earlier chapters have more of the same style as The Hobbit (thinking especially of the thinking fox). He would especially have enjoyed writing about the meeting with Gildor's elves. From Grey Havens we get a description of the book Frodo gives Sam: "At the beginning there were many leaves covered with Bilbo’s thin wandering hand; but most of it was written in Frodo’s firm flowing script. It was divided into chapters but Chapter 80*** was unfinished, and after that were some blank leaves." So Frodo wrote by far the bulk of it.

*** Wait - 80 chapters? The Hobbit has 19 chapters, Lord of the Rings has 62. That should be 81 chapters all told. I had always thought the last chapter was unfinished because it was up to this point, and Sam would have to record the trip to the Havens to tie up the last few pages of the book. But chapter 80 would be the Scouring. Did Tolkien just do a math error here, or was he just rounding? Those both seem unlikely given all of the math in Nature of Middle Earth, including where we was doing long division to the umpteenth decimal. Maybe in the revising of Lord of the Rings for publication there was some point where what was originally one chapter was broken into two, and Tolkien never went back and revised this line?

Bruce
 

Rachel Port

Well-Known Member
At some point in recent years Bilbo wrote a version of the first four stanzas. These go through the seasons, and even though the winter stanza implies old age and coming death, we still end with spring and new journeys to see new things (the "new green").

Recently, after the Hall of Fire and the Council, Bilbo knows his journeys are over, and he composed the fifth stanza. His time for adventures is over, other people will see a world he will never know.
I sit beside the fire and think
Of how the world will be
When winter comes without a spring
That I shall ever see

For still there are so many things
That I have never seen
In every wood in every spring
There is a different green.


I don't see these as ending on an optimistic note of new springs and new journeys. Bilbo is essentially saying that in all his 128 years he has seen many springs, but after he dies, not only will winter continue to bring spring, but those springs will be new and different from those he has known.

Bilbo, even before The Hobbit, enjoyed long walks in the Shire, sometimes camping out, consorting with elves and all sorts of people so that his neighbors find him quite odd. In Unfinsished Tales, Gandalf tells of his visit to the Shire to see Bilbo after 20 years, and his high hopes of his readiness for adventure because Bilbo's neighbors tell him about these wanderings. And when Bilbo speaks with Gandalf just before leaving Bag End, he says that Frodo is still in love with the Shire - he has taught Frodo to appreciate all those different greens in the woods of the Shire, and Frodo has not yet seen his fill of them.

And there's a wonderful metaphor in the third and fourth lines above - there will come a time when the death of winter will be final for him, and he will no longer be able to experience the rejuvenation of spring. And even without him to see them, every spring will still bring new life (new greens). This is what I find so compelling about this poem - the bittersweet tone that is at once longing and acceptance.
 

Flammifer

Well-Known Member
Hi Bruce N H,

I think your account of Bilbo's process for composing the poem is most likely.

As far as '80 chapters', I suspect that Chapter 80, 'The Scouring of the Shire' had the first (almost) half written by Frodo. Sam picked up writing where, "Sam turned aside and galloped off down the lane that led south to Cotton's." Frodo might have written some of the later parts of the chapter, or made notes. However, the Sam and Rosie interchange at the Cottons' farm was probably written by Sam (Frodo was not there). When Sam returns from the Cottons', the paragraph starts, "When Sam got back he found the whole village roused". This sounds to me like Sam is still writing. If Frodo were writing, it would be more likely he would say something like, "By the time Sam got back, the whole village had been roused." I think it likely that Sam kept on writing most of the rest of this chapter, perhaps incorporating sections or notes from Frodo.

Then Sam wrote all of Chapter 81, "The Grey Havens".
 
Top