Poetry Redeemed: JRR Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”

It is my pleasure to welcome poet, teacher, and friend Dr. Holly Ordway back to All Nine to once again share her insights and musings, this time on the poetry of JRR Tolkien. Holly is an apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. Follow Dr. Ordway’s reflections on the practice of living a holy life at her website at http://www.hieropraxis.com/or on twitter @HollyOrdway.

Dr. Ordway up a tree on Addison’s Walk, Oxford, UK, August 2011 
(image by Kevin Belmonte)
Poetry Redeemed: JRR Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”

The closing stanza of JRR Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia:

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

(the whole poem can be read here: http://home.ccil.org/~cowan/mythopoeia.html)

Sometimes I write poetry when I suppose I ought to be doing other things: grading papers, answering email, doing laundry, making dinner.

As I write this, it is almost Easter; we are beginning Holy Week. The long penitential season of Lent is hurrying toward the celebration of the Resurrection. Easter marks what has happened and what is to come: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

When he does, when all creation is made new and the Body of Christ is resurrected into eternal life, will there be a place for poetry?

JRR Tolkien’s long poem “Mythopoeia” answers that question with a profound Yes.

Tolkien wrote this poem to his friend CS Lewis, when Lewis was wrestling with the claims of Christianity. At that point, Lewis believed in God, but he was having difficulty with grasping the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross. He did not yet see that in Christ, both Reason and Imagination are fulfilled; that, as Lewis himself would later write, in the Incarnation and Resurrection “myth became fact.”

Tolkien was wise enough to know that fairy tales, myths, and indeed poetry can speak truth in ways that reasoned argument alone cannot. And so he wrote this poem to his friend, urging him to apprehend the truth that the Imagination opened up to him.

While Tolkien’s words were intended first for the reader of imaginative literature, I think these words are of great value to the makers of story and poetry as well.
In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.

These words remind me that truth and beauty have an ultimate Source. Even now, this side of Paradise, as a poet I can try to mirror “the likeness of the True.” While this may at first seem limiting, in truth it is not: since that Source of truth and beauty is the Source also of all creation, I have in Christ an inexhaustible wellspring for poetry. And a good thing too, since my own imaginative resources would run dry immediately if I could only look to myself for inspiration.

Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.

When I write, sometimes the poem comes together, but other times it remains a jumble of lines and fragments, the meaning slipping between my fingers and escaping. Tolkien hints that perhaps the poems I try and fail to write are not for nothing after all.

We are temporal beings, and so each moment’s beauty slips into the past almost before we realize it; but God is eternal. Could it be that all good things, all beauty, all moments of joy are never lost? I think so. Whatever I make that has any value (however flawed) will be redeemed. All those broken lines and half-grasped images: perhaps I will be able, one day, to make them into the poems they ought to be.

Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

Best of all in this poem, I love Tolkien’s calm confidence that we who make poetry do so because we are, in our turn, made in the image of a Maker, the divine Artist whose canvas (or blank page) is the cosmos. If we are made so, we will not cease to make simply because we have been redeemed. And that being so, the poets will be honored in heaven, with “flames upon their head” recalling the flame of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; and each one of us will choose our words and frame our lines, rejoicing.

Perhaps when I set my busy-ness aside and waste time on a poem, I’m doing exactly what I ought to be doing.

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2 thoughts on “Poetry Redeemed: JRR Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”

  1. doctordirk says:

    I deeply appreciate the poet's creative attempt to "renew from mirrored truth the likeness of the True." By no means a poet, I fear that, rather than reflecting God's image, I constantly butcher it with a chainsaw. But, since it is God's image, perhaps it may be reflected through the sawdust! Thanks for the encouragement.

  2. Bethany says:

    I’m not a poet but I love the fleshing out of this idea. For eternity we won’t be spacing out. We will continue to create and “work” perhaps in a redeemed way. Just as in Genesis it was God’s perfect dream world that Adam had a joyous mission or “job” to care for and subdue his garden of perfection. It was only after sin that work’s flavor deformed into drudgery. Renewed again, I think we will find we still have purpose and drive to continue loving our Father through whatever means He has put in us from the beginning.

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