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Bilbo's Last Poem

Day is ended, dim my eyes,

but journey long before me lies.
Farewell, friends! I hear the call.
The ship's beside the stony wall.
Foam is white and waves are grey;
beyond the sunset leads my way.
Foam is salt, the wind is free;
I hear the rising of the Sea.
Farewell, friends! The sails are set,
the wind is east, the moorings fret.
Shadows long before me lie,
beneath the ever-bending sky,
but islands lie behind the Sun
that I shall raise ere all is done;
lands there are to west of West,
where night is quiet and sleep is rest.
Guided by the Lonely Star,
beyond the utmost harbour-bar,
I'll find the heavens fair and free,
and beaches of the Starlit Sea.
Ship, my ship! I seek the West,
and fields and mountains ever blest.
Farewell to Middle-earth at last.
I see the Star above my mast!
-- J. R. R. Tolkien

For many years, Joy Hill served as secretary for J.R.R. Tolkien, and a
close relationship they had. As the story goes, Professor Tolkien used to
joke that, if ever a diamond bracelet were to fall out of an envelope of
the correspondence she handled for him, it would be hers.
Near the end of Professor Tolkien's life, as she helped him pack his office
for a move, a poem Professor Tolkien had written fell out of a book. Ms.
Hill read it, and fell in love with the short, three-verse piece; and
Tolkien made it a gift to her, her "diamond bracelet", so to speak.
Some time shortly later, after Professor Tolkien's death in 1973, Ms. Hill
gave the poem to the composer Donald Swann, who in 1967 had worked with
Professor Tolkien himself to set many of Tolkien's songs to music in the
collection _The Road Goes Ever On_. Mr. Swann himself was so moved by the
piece that he set it to music, and added it to the 2nd edition of the
collection, which was published in 1978. The same poem was published as a
poster in 1974, illustrated by Pauline Baynes, one of Tolkien's favorite
illustrators; and was included in the BBC audio production of the _Lord of
the Rings_.
The poem does not itself actually appear in _The Return of the King_, the
last volume of the _The Lord of the Rings_ trilogy, but takes place at its
very end, when many of the principal heroes of the War of the Ring prepare
to set sail into the West, to leave Middle Earth forever: among them the
great wizard Gandalf the White; Frodo Baggins, the great Ringbearer; and
his elder Bilbo, who found the Ring so long before.

" 'Well, here at last, dear friends," [said Gandalf], "on the shores of
the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I
will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.'
Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard;
and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped
away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that
Frodo bore glimmered and was lost.
-Chapter 9, "The Gray Havens", _The Return of the King_
The poem is Bilbo's farewell to his friends and to Middle Earth, and in a
sense, this poem is Tolkien's farewell as well: to the Middle Earth he
created, to the secretary who served him so faithfully; and to us, his
readers, who came to cherish the world he created. But the poem's depth and
meaning still rings strong even for those who know nothing of Tolkien's
great masterpiece. The feelings Bilbo sings of are universal. In a few
short lines Tolkien has for me, and so many others, captured perfectly the
sorrow and hope alloyed together that make up all partings, from the ends
of visits with beloved friends and family, to the final departure for
mysteries unknown that all of us must one day face. And in that
achievement, Tolkien demonstrates again the genius that has made him one of
the greatest poets of this, or any, age.
Sources include the Foreward to the 2nd Edition (1978) of _The Road Goes
Ever On and On: A Song Cycle_, by Donald Swann; and various Usenet and
Internet sources, available upon request.
-Jeffrey Huo