Saturday, April 04, 2009


Flower of the Trees

In a letter to W.H. Auden (June 7, 1955), J.R.R. Tolkien wrote:
I learned Anglo-Saxon at school (also Gothic, but that was an accident quite unconnected with the curriculum though decisive — I discovered in it not only modern historical philology, which appealed to the historical and scientific side, but for the first time the study of a language out of mere love: I mean for the acute aesthetic pleasure derived from a language for its own sake, not only free from being useful but free even from being the 'vehicle of a literature').
Breathing new life into the dead language, Tolkien later wrote a poem in Gothic, with the title Bagme Bloma. The poem was first published in Songs for the Philologists (London: English Department, University College, 1936), p. 12, and later in Appendix B of Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, rev. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003):
Brunaim bairiþ Bairka bogum
laubans liubans liudandei,
gilwagroni, glitmunjandei,
bagme bloma, blauandei,
fagrafahsa, liþulinþi,
fraujinondei fairguni.

Wopjand windos, wagjand lindos,
lutiþ limam laikandei;
slaihta, raihta, hweitarinda,
razda rodeiþ reirandei,
bandwa bairhta, runa goda,
þiuda meina þiuþjandei.

Andanahti milhmam neipiþ,
liuhteiþ liuhmam lauhmuni;
laubos liubai fliugand lausai,
tulgus, triggwa, standandei.
Bairka baza beidiþ blaika
fraujinondei fairguni.
I don't understand a word of Gothic, although I derive some aesthetic pleasure just looking at the words and trying to sound them out — the poem is read aloud here (.mp3 format). A useful aid to understanding is Luzius Thöny, Bagme Bloma by J.R.R. Tolkien: Grammatische Analyse (.pdf format).

Fortunately, many translations are available, including Shippey's prose version:
The birch bears fine leaves on shining boughs, it grows pale green and glittering, the flower of the trees in bloom, fair-haired and supple-limbed, the ruler of the mountain.

The winds call, they shake gently, she bends her boughs low in sport; smooth, straight and white-barked, trembling she speaks a language, a bright token, a good mystery, blessing my people.

Evening grows dark with clouds, the lightning flashes, the fine leaves fly free, but firm and faithful the white birch stands bare and waits, ruling the mountain.
The translation by N.Z. Strider (a pseudonym?) is noteworthy for its reproduction of the rhythm and the alliterative effect of the original:
Bears the birch on brightened branches
lovely leaves that light the air;
green she grows, and glitters whitely;
bloom of boles, she blossoms fair,
handsome-haired with limbs so lissom,
mistress of the mountains there.

Winds are wafting, waving gently;
boughs she bends in blithesome play;
smooth and slender, silver-barkéd,
wisps of words she'd wavering say,
trusty tokens, runes of riches,
blessing all my band this day.

Close of day nears, clouds array fears,
lightning leaps with lashing brands;
leaves so lovely lie now scattered.
Firm and faithful, still she stands;
bare and bald the birch abideth,
mistress of the mountainlands.
Isaak Levitan, Birch Grove

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