Monthly Archives: September 2018


from Ursula le Guin:

‘All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people.’

Le Guin Wave in the mind


from Ursula Le Guin:

‘So my search for a story, when I get impatient, is not so much looking for a topic or subject or nexus or resonance of place-time…as casting about in my head for a stranger. I wander about the mental landscape looking for somebody…who will…begin telling me their story and not let me go until it’s told.
The times when nobody is in the landscape are silent and lonely. They can go on and on until I think nobody will ever be there again but one stupid old woman who used to write books. But it’s no use trying to populate it by willpower. These people come only when they’re ready, and they do not answer to a call, They answer silence.
Many writers now call any period of silence “a block.”
Would it not be better to look on it as a clearing? A way to go till you get to where you need to be?’
the wave in the mind

pic    Dan Tuffs (001 310 774 1780)

What is it but a dream?[1]

Tolkien’s Sea-bell and Yeats’ Man who dreamed of Faeryland.


This essay will seek to draw out by comparison of texts and of contexts, some commonalities and differences between the two poems named above.   All traditional works mentioned are there to establish the tradition, not to imply a direct relationship.    Moreover, while each of these two authors might have read the other’s poem, each work is an expression of the vision of its own author.  I am interested only in illuminating each by the light of the other, mindful of Tom Shippey’s warning; Many things look similar if you paraphrase them ruthlessly and selectively.  (Shippey, Mallorn 49 Spring 2010, p11)


The man who dreamed of Faeryland was first published in The National Observer on February 7, 1891, under the title: A Man who dreamed of Fairyland. (Ross, 150)  An early version of the text also appears in Volume 1 of Macmillan’s 1908 Poetical works of William Butler Yeats (pp 191-194) under the title: The man who dreamed of Faeryland.  The poem was extensively revised by Yeats, and the more familiar later version may be found in many editions. (Collected poems, pp 35-36)

The Sea-Bell was first published in: The adventures of Tom Bombadil and other verses from the Red Book in 1962. (pp 57-60)  However, an earlier poem, of which the Sea-Bell is a revision, was published in The Oxford Magazine on January 18th 1934, under the title: Looney. (OM, 340)

Cultural context; a brief overview

Each of these poems takes as its foundation a concept – Faëry or Faeryland – that had, from the late eighteenth and through the nineteenth century, moved from a position within that body of informal knowledge and belief largely dismissed by scholars as superstitions of the peasant and servant classes, into the newly respectable discipline of myth and folklore studies.  Richard Dorson says; Folklore emerged as a new field of learning in the nineteenth century, when antiquaries in England and philologists in Germany began to look closely at the lower classes. (Dorson, Folklore & Folklife, 1)

Collections and editions of fairytales and folktales, together with derivative literary tales, became a growing feature of bookshelves outside the nursery, as well as within.  Shippey describes this process as ….a kind of literary rescue archaeology. (Shippey, Author, 13)  While many tales were collected and edited with children in mind, such as the fairy-books of Andrew Lang,[2] many were gathered for the sake of their place in cultural heritage. Verlyn Flieger asserts: The pairing of philology and fairy-stories was established by Jacob Grimm, whose collection and investigation of Germanic Kinder und Hausmarchen were impelled by his conviction that folk language was the repository of a culture’s myth.” (Flieger, QT, p224) However, as Shippey points out: ….in England there had been no such nineteenth-century project of collection and reinvention. (Shippey, Author, XV)   For Tolkien it was this very pairing of philology and fairy-stories that provided the matrix for the germination and growth of his legendarium.   In a long letter to a Mr. Rang, Tolkien stated;

The most important name in this connexion is Eärendil.  This name is in fact (as is obvious) derived from A-S éarendel.  When first studying A-S professionally (1913- )…..I was struck by the great beauty of this word (or name), entirely coherent with the normal style of A-S, but euphonic to a peculiar degree in that pleasing but not ‘delectable’ language.  (Letter 297 p 385)

He goes on to discuss the meaning of the word, and its probable significance as the Anglo-Saxon proper name of the morning star, and to summarise the development of the crucially important character and story of Eärendil into a pivotal element in the structure of ‘The Silmarillion’.  A philologist struck by the euphony of a single word went on to seek the story behind the name, and to evolve a huge cycle of tales.

For both writers there was a significant link between language and identity.  Tolkien’s sense of his familial history centred on the West Midlands led him to comment to W. H. Auden; “I am a West-Midlander by blood, and took to early West-midland Middle English as to a known tongue as soon as I set eyes on it.” (Letter 163, p213)  There is also a story told about W.B. Yeats: once, when asked what his language was, Yeats answered unhesitatingly that it was Irish, acknowledging that unfortunately he did not know the language. ( While this state of unknowing would not have been endurable for Tolkien, the sentiment does show Yeats’ realisation that language, mythology and tradition all go together to build a sense of national and individual identity.

Returning from language to the importance of the newly-respectable concept of Faëry; in both men’s works this traditional idea evolved into something that, while still imbued with its mythological and folkloristic origins, expressed their personal visions.  In Tolkien’s legendarium, Faëry became; Elvenhome in the West, Doriath, Gondolin, Nargothrond, Greenwood, Hollin, Lothlorien, and the Faëry of Smith’s wanderings;  a sequence of elven kingdoms and realms, each embodying aspects of the magic and peril and beauty of Faëry.  In Yeats, we find the early concept of the waters and the wild (Collected poems, 15) to which the fairies lead their changeling child, evolving into the Island of Forgetfulness…… and The Islands of Dancing and of Victories (Wanderings of Oisin, Book 2) where Oisin is taken by Niamh and where he lives for ages away from mortal lands.

Other disciplines and beliefs were developing in Europe during the same period; among them psychology, nationalism and a wider belief in the supernatural than was contained within organised religions.  Each of these had its links with the recovered interest in mythologies and folklore.  Each feeds into the themes, diction and narratives of the two poems under discussion, as into the authors’ wider bodies of work.  These three areas of thought are briefly discussed below.


Psychoanalytic interpretations of folktales emerged alongside those of the dreams and experiences of individuals. Dorson says:

From the viewpoint of folklore…..Jungians and Freudians have much in common.  Both circles regard folklore as an integral part of their discipline. ……Both Freud and Jung interpret myths and fairy-tales by the method of symbolism.  (Dorson, Folklore and Folklife 31)

Besides the increasing use of psychological methods to interpret fairy and folk tales, Faëry itself may be found as a feature of traditional concepts of mental health.   A common description of someone in a state of mental abstraction, ranging from daydreaming to acute mental distress and dissociation, is Away with the fairies.

Persons in a short trance-state of two or three days are said to be away with the fairies enjoying a festival…..Sometimes one may thus go to Faerie for an hour or two; or may remain there for seven, fourteen or twenty-one years.  The mind of a person coming out of fairyland is usually a blank as to what has been seen and done there. (Evans-Wentz, 47)

This passage clearly shows an association with madness or abstractedness, not necessarily a physical absence.

Lady Gregory records several traditional Irish herbal cures, not only for physical ailments but also to bring back children that are ‘away’.  Lus-mor, or mullein, is the herb credited with the ability to recall from Faery such individuals as changed children or mothers taken in child-bed.  (Lady Gregory Poets and dreamers, 116-118) Moreover, in her essay Reading a woman’s death; colonial text and oral tradition in nineteenth-century Ireland, Angela Bourke writes:

Adult women taken by the fairies were generally said to be brides, or pregnant, or lactating, and again it is not difficult to imagine the variety of physical or mental illnesses, from anorexia to tuberculosis to post-natal and other depression, for which the discourse of fairy abduction might be found appropriate. (Bourke, 446)

These emphases on mental health are especially interesting in the light of Tolkien’s original title, Looney, and with regard to a certain detachment from society that is discernible in the eponymous Man who dreamed of Faeryland.   Barrett, in his seminal study of the treatment of people suffering from schizophrenia, reveals the prevalence in the mental-health establishment well into the twentieth century, of the use of traditional descriptions of such conditions, some of them pejorative, and among them away with the fairies. (Barrett, 147)  Although concerned to reduce instances of negative language applied to patients by health professionals Barrett, later in the same book, found the metaphor useful;

The focus on trajectories has pointed to the salience of spatial metaphors in the understanding and description of acute psychosis.  It was as a state in which the person was situated metaphorically in a state outside the mundane world and outside the self. Though bodily present, he or she was ‘away with the fairies’, and the process of recovery involved returning to mundane reality and re-entry into the self.  (Barrett, 177)

Tolkien himself also spoke of:  Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) as a re-gaining – regaining of a clear view. (OFS Para 83, p67 Flieger 2008)  Here he links his theory of eucatastrophe, of the turn in the fairy-tale that leads to recovery, in a direct way to the recovery of health, either mental or physical.  Later in the same essay he speaks of …the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous turn. (OFS, Para 98 P75 Flieger 2008).  We shall see below that these links between the desire for Faery, and questions of mental health and happiness, are implicit in both the poems under consideration.


After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the reconstituted states of Europe perhaps assumed that a balance of power had been established that would last forever.  The subsequent upsurge of nationalist feeling across the continent revealed this to be a hollow hope.   The concepts of cultural and linguistic heritage evolved as a counterforce to assumptions of political statehood; some of the emotional context for this was supplied by the rediscovery of myth and folklore and the new departures in literature that were fed by them.

Romanticism created a folklore movement in Europe, especially in those nations that were young or otherwise in need of support for their cultural identity.  ….. Folklore was a description of a people by the people itself; its collective experiences and moods were crystallised in the words of folk poems. (Honko, Introduction, 7-8)

A people seeking its independence requires evidence of its discrete identity; both to demonstrate to its perceived oppressors and potential allies the rightness of its cause and to sustain itself emotionally through years or decades of struggle.

….there has been a constant effort….to return to popular sources, to the origins – true or false – of the nation.  It is not only language that there have been attempts to reconstitute and bring back to life, but also ancient traditions – which attempts have, sometimes, been successful.  (Mauss, 93)

While emphasising the relatively recent origin of concepts of nationhood, whether ethnic, geographical or political, Stuart Woolf further underlines the role of self-identity and its cultural substrata;

From the earliest expressions of modern nationalism, historians, antiquarians and savants played a significant part in articulating a sense of national identity through their researches aimed at discovering (or inventing) the distant origins and ancient glories of their people.  History, language, folklore, territory, culture or religion could all be used to demonstrate the past traditions of a nation, symbolic evidence of its historic continuity and hence its authenticity. (Woolf, Introduction, 2)

The supernatural

There is far too little space here to consider in detail the multiplicity of factors that broke down old certainties in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Among them Darwin’s work on evolution and Muller’s on solar myth, as well as the work of their later commentators and detractors, shook the surface acceptance of Christianity that had characterised Victorianism in England.  The First World War, and the multitudinous deaths it caused, opened the way to an upsurge in Spiritualist beliefs.  Among those espousing Spiritualism was Arthur Conan Doyle, who also became convinced of the existence of minute fairies at the bottom of a garden in Cottingley.  (Doyle: The Coming of the Fairies)  Jonathan Barnes, reviewing Arthur Conan Doyle’s Complete Works in fifty-six volumes notes:  in The coming of the fairies Doyle argues for the existence of a population which may be as numerous as the human race, which pursues its own strange life in its own strange way, and which is only separated from ourselves by some difference of vibrations.  Barnes also mentions that in 1916 … Doyle announced his complete conversion to spiritualism, having joined the Society for Psychical Research in the previous century. (Barnes, TLS 23 June 2010)  Fimi, discussing the dominance in the popular imagination of Victorian images of pretty fairy sprites well into the twentieth century, refers to the Cottingley affair as…..ironically, mark[ing] the end of the domination of fairies in popular culture. (Fimi, 29) However, with the ‘pretty little fairies’ cleared away, one potential obstacle to Tolkien’s promulgation of his nobler vision of the Fair Folk was also removed.

While disparate, these movements have in common a characteristic of openness towards notions of Otherness, toward alternative explanations of the world and of human existence, which might predispose readers to seek out writings that speak of what may lie beyond the visible and the mundane. Yeats himself became a member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the most influential occult group to emerge from the end of the nineteenth century occult revival. The main achievement of the group, and of its more influential individuals, was to create a working system of magic, bonded from the various separate strands of tradition in existence at the time. (Parkinson, online)  Tolkien remained true for life to his Catholic view of the supernatural world.

The origins of Spiritualism are usually dated to the 1840’s; Spiritualists are in the habit of taking March 31st 1848 as the beginning of all psychic things, because their own movement dates from that day.  (Doyle, History of spiritualism, 1)  However, its fortunes are acknowledged to improve in times of great trauma in society:

The subsequent perception of the war was an important aspect of its wider impact. This was partly a matter of the presentation of the experience of conflict, and also of the struggle to come to terms with mass bereavement. Both played a major role in inter-war collective memory. The scale of the sacrifice was indeed unprecedented, and this had a major impact on society, with the loss of so many sons, husbands and fathers. Furthermore, there were large numbers of wounded. The impact was felt in family economies and the general economy, and in private and public senses of grief. A major revival in interest in spiritualism and the occult was one consequence, prefiguring a similar, but less pronounced, revival after WW2. (

Jenny Hazelgrove confirms this tendency in her study of Spiritualism between the wars: The experiences of the trenches eluded conventional theological explanation, and legends concerning the supernatural abounded. (Hazelgrove, 13)

Within the wide sweep of these and many other cultural, political and literary movements, are situated some of the impulses that led both Yeats and Tolkien to write, and to include within their writing some of their sense of Faëry.  Each man had dreams and ideas in youth about what he might achieve, and each lived to doubt and to modify that early, pure artistic vision.

Yeats’….desire to express t[his] nationalism was given voice through a Celtic literature that he hoped would inform and inspire his countrymen…. to produce an Irish literature that would accomplish the goals of educating the Irish about their heritage, linking their heroic past with their somewhat uncertain present, giving them a sense of pride and a literature of nationalism. (Funaro, 1 and 2-3)

The unrolling of the Irish struggle for independence and nationhood indeed brought about a sense of pride, but the realities of war led the mature Yeats to a more considered view;

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More Substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 (Collected Poems, 174)


The cold reality of the individual death Yeats has witnessed now stands as a symbol of the bloodiness of the civil war, against his younger self’s dream of enthusiastic revival through arts and culture.   The sad refrain of September 1913 underlines his sense of loss; Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone/ It’s with O’Leary in the grave. (Collected poems, 86-87)

            Tolkien’s early dreams also ran up against the realities of war.  As Hammond and Scull explain; If any clear statement of the aims of the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society; see Garth, 6) was ever written down, it does not appear to survive;  (Hammond and Scull, Guide, page 1001, para 3)  However, as Garth concludes in his evocation of the ‘Council of London’ in December 1914;

That the T.C.B.S. was somehow great was a long-standing conviction based on mutual admiration….Tolkien felt….the inspiration that even a few hours with the four always brought to all of us.…all four must open up about their deepest conviction….Tolkien put religion, human love, patriotic duty and nationalism on the agenda.  (Garth Tolkien and the Great War, 58)

Garth has amply demonstrated the devastation of these dreams; in his book-length study of Tolkien’s experiences in the Great War and of how the loss and pain of that time contributed to the evolution of Tolkien’s legendarium; and in his paper given at Exeter College in August 2006.  (Garth –Exeter College and the Great War)

Verlyn Flieger too has focused on the loss of Tolkien’s T.C.B.S. companions in A question of time and in her own paper at the same conference; Gilson, Smith and Baggins. (Flieger; Gilson, Smith and Baggins AND: QT Ch 10).  Tolkien’s own words sum up bleakly what happened: By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.  (Fellowship, Foreword, 7). This sentence is a simple enough statement; Flieger expands on it in her paper by re-imagining Tolkien’s experience on the night that he received the news of Gilson’s death.  One and a half years after the ‘Council of London’ the first blow has struck the plans of the T.C.B.S. and shaken Tolkien’s certainties.

Tolkien, ….a deeply devout twenty-four year old not long out of university, in the throes of extreme mental shock, sitting alone in a dark wood trying to reason his way out of a crisis at once emotional, religious, and philosophical. He was trying to find some meaning in the apparently meaningless death of a dear friend in a useless battle that achieved nothing. (Flieger; Gilson, Smith and Baggins, Sources of inspiration, 87)


Yet Tolkien pulled away from this point of despair; his life was full of achievements, academic and literary, among them his vast and detailed writings on the nature of Faëry, filled with insights into how humanity may be enabled to deal with the awareness of mortality.   Writing to G.B. Smith in 1916, after Gilson’s death, Tolkien can be seen feeling his way toward the possibility of going on with ones work as an assertion against loss and pain;

…. I cannot abandon the hope and ambitions (inchoate and cloudy I know) that first became conscious at the Council of London.  That Council was as you know followed in my own case with my finding a voice for all kinds of pent up things and a tremendous opening up of everything for me. (Tolkien, Letters, No 5)

The nature and the vast extent of this ‘opening up’ are seen today in Tolkien’s Legendarium.

Yeats too continued his creative life, and in much of it made use of faery symbolism and references, even while grasping the more practical demands of his involvement in the cultural and political life of his country.  He was one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, which opened in 1904 and was the first state-subsidized theatre in the English-speaking world. In its early years, the theatre was closely associated with the writers of the Irish Literary Revival.

Krans, writing in 1904 after Yeats’ lecture tour of the USA, (Krans, 41) describes him as a leading light of the revival, who has had a part in every aspect of it; the representative man of the movement. In the Cambridge Companion to Yeats, Marjorie Howes details how the early desire to inform and inspire his countrymen [Funaro, above] was for Yeats a part of realising his personal poetic vision, not a separate objective.  He did not approve of overt political propaganda in art but continued to appeal to a time when, he believed, the arts had been a more urgent part of everyday life; when they moved a whole people.  (Howes, 218-9)

There is an echo here of Tolkien’s dislike of the notion that his writings might be allegories, pure and simple, of conflicts in the world around him, specifically of either of the two world wars of the twentieth century.  While allowing for varied applicability to the thought and experience of the reader, Tolkien rejects the purposed domination of the author. (Fellowship, preface, 7)

Yeats served as a Senator of the Irish Free State from 1922-1928, delivering in 1925 a notable speech on the subject of Divorce.[3]  The Poetry Foundation suggests that Yeats saw himself as a representative of order amid the chaotic new nation’s slow progress toward stability[4], and in his poem Among school children, he describes himself as a sixty-year-old smiling public man. (Collected poems, 183) Tolkien too had a full and effective life of public commitment and achievement; his work on the New English Dictionary, his academic career at Leeds and Oxford, and his academic publications and editions.  Each of these men had a smiling public face, a status within the structure and function of his society and culture; yet each harboured dreams of Faery, and created poems and tales that embodied those dreams.

A further theme common to the works and ideas of each writer is an idealisation of the pre-industrial past.  Deborah Fleming says of Yeats and his contemporaries: The writers of the Irish Literary Revival reacted to centralized industrialism and its attendant “progress,” modernity, and commercialism by idealizing the peasants. The values of tradition, archaism, peace, and communion with nature, which were inherent in – or imposed on – the Irish peasants, were held to be in opposition to those of materialist England.  (Fleming, 46)

Tolkien too sets his hobbit tale long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green.  (Hobbit, 9)  Indeed he famously asserts: I am in fact a Hobbit, (in all but size).  I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; – (Letter 213, p288).  The landscapes and political economies of Middle-earth are resolutely pre-industrial, and only the evil characters are associated with machinery and industry; Sauron, Saruman, the Orcs.

Turning to the religious backgrounds of the two writers, a pattern of difference emerges.  Tolkien was a Catholic, because of his mother’s conversion, in a country at least nominally Protestant and with a long history of discrimination against Catholics and others; Yeats was born into the Protestant Ascendancy in a country with a Catholic history.  His role in the ‘Irish’ literary revival, which was in some ways almost an English revival as so much of its literature was produced in the English language[5], provides an ironic mirror-image of the role of Tolkien, a committed Catholic, seeking to revive a sense of pride in national identity and culture in the England that had for so long suppressed his religion.

Literary Background

Various genres of poetry and tale bear upon the pedigrees of these two poems; journeys to Faery, journeys oversea and dream literature are the most important.  There is a close link between the motifs of journeying across the sea, most often into the west, and that of visiting Faery; in these two poems Yeats and Tolkien both locate Faery on islands to the west, but include reference to forests and/or trees.

Going to Faery

The land of Faery is traditionally located oversea, usually to the west, or underground, within the mounds or tumuli left by early cultures across north-west Europe.  It may also lie within a forest. There is, therefore, a link between the Otherworld of Faery and the Afterworld of death, for in many cultures, notably the Celtic and Ancient Egyptian, the land of the dead is also across water to the west, and the tumuli were the dwellings of the dead.  (Shippey AC, 283-289; Brier, 42) Both Yeats and Tolkien conceive of Faërie in more than one manifestation; sometimes as lying oversea or sometimes as a region that can be walked into by mortals who set off from their familiar homelands into the waters and the wild.  (Yeats, Collected poems, 14-15) Annie Kinniburgh has noted that the Otherworlds of the Noldor and the Tuatha Dé Danaan are not inaccessible; in fact they can be reached by concrete methods… both cases, the Otherworld is an immortal land located within the mortal realm.  (Kinniburgh, Mythlore 107/108, p 40)

In spite of its associations with places of the dead, Faërie is not a place connected with religious belief.  Tolkien quotes lines from Thomas Rhymer (Child, 325) that define the road to fair Elfland as a third way between the path of Righteousness and the path of Wickedness. (OFS para 6, Flieger edn, 28-9)  Flieger emphasises this in her scholarly edition of Smith of Wootton Major, suggesting that instead it stands for a breaking out (at least in mind) from the iron ring of the familiar – Faery might be said indeed to represent imagination.  (Smith Flieger ed, 100-1) It will become evident on closer study that the Faërian encounters of Yeats’ and Tolkien’s protagonists in the poems under discussion are in part negatively influenced by the limitations of their imaginations.

Tolkien’s own definition of fairyland is straightforward and full of detail:

….Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.  Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted. (OFS, Para 10, Flieger ed, 32)  See also: Gilliver, Marshall and Weiner, 124-128)


He goes on to state: Most good ‘fairy-stories’ are about the aventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches. (OFS Para 11, Flieger Ed, 32) This does not, however, necessarily assert anything about the tone or content of such a “good” fairy-tale. If we may look ahead briefly at the Sea-Bell,  we find that Allan Turner describes it as an introspective exploration of the dangers of fantasy and imagination, (Hiley, 5) while in the same collection Maria Raffaella Benvenuto describes the poem as Tolkien’s vision of the relationship between mortals and faerie at its most pessimistic. (Ibid 257) Yet its literary quality and the nature of its protagonist’s journey do make the poem a “good fairy-tale.”

In his longer tales Tolkien takes the hobbits, who most closely represent the viewpoint of the ‘ordinary human’, into Faërie: Bilbo to Rivendell and to the Elf-Kingdom in Mirkwood, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin to Rivendell and to Lorien.  These encounters, especially those in the later and longer work, are not simple experiences of wonder, but have a sharp edge to them; the imprisoned Dwarves and the invisible Bilbo find the Elf-King’s halls far less enchanting than the haven of Rivendell.  In Lorien Samwise, who has longed to see elves and magic, ends by saying; I wish I had never come here, and I don’t want to see no more magic… (FotR II, 7, 378)  This sharpness reappears in both The Sea-Bell and in Smith of Wootton Major.  Yeats too, in The man who dreamed of Faeryland as well as The wanderings of Oisin, is writing of Faërie in terms of its effect on mortal men and, like Tolkien, he does not write of Faërie in a simplistic way.  Oisin does not find the island of content, (Wanderings of Oisin, Book 2)  and the fairies leading away The stolen child speak not only of the world’s weeping, but of the everyday homely things the child is losing and will never see again. (Collected poems, 14-15)

An important and consistent characteristic of Faërie in tradition and in literature is that Time moves differently there:

 Medieval descriptions of journeys to the Other World often contain a temporal distortion which their protagonists experience personally; their spatial movement leads them to cross a temporal border too, so that their return to the earthly space does not coincide with a return to the time which they have left; the time spent in the Other World turns out to be substantially reduced or expanded if compared to the one they spent in this world; such distortions are analogous to some of the implications of the theory of relativity. (Bonafin, 1)

Tolkien, in his essay on Smith of Wootton Major, comments upon this motif: In many fairy tales use is made of the idea that time passes quickly in Faery, so that a man who finds his way there may come out after what seems a brief episode to find that years, even centuries have passed. (Essay on Smith, Flieger ed, 84)  Although Tolkien goes on to say I have always felt this to be a mistake….in credibility, he does make subtle use of the idea in the visit of the Fellowship of the Ring to Lorien. (FoTR, II, 9, 404) Although he does not use it in Smith, it surfaces again in The Sea-Bell (see below).  Yeats uses the trope in The wanderings of Oisin, specifically bringing Oisin back to Ireland after three centuries to find that the land has changed from the pagan Celtic culture he knew, to a Christian land where St. Patrick holds sway. (The wanderings of Oisin, Book 1, Line 3)

Furthermore, it is widely established that fays or elves live longer than humans, perhaps ‘forever’.  (Briggs, 123) We may note Frodo’s startled response to Elrond when the elf-lord reminisces at the Council about the gathering of the Last Alliance:  ‘You remember…. But I thought…. I thought that the fall of Gil-Galad was long ago.’ ‘So it was indeed… But my memory reaches back to the Elder Days….. I have seen three ages in the West of the world, and many defeats, and many fruitless victories.’  (FoTR, 256) Tolkien explores this notion throughout his works, and indeed has stated: ….I should say, if asked, the tale [LotR] is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going; it is about death and the desire for deathlessness (letter 203, P262).  Kevin Aldrich, examining the themes of death and Immortality in The lord of the rings, points out that in the first three lines of the Ring-verse, humanity is characterised by the fact of its doom (not ‘gift’ here) of death.  The main note of man’s existence…. seems to be his mortality. (Aldrich 89-90)   Yeats’ Danaans live, like Tolkien’s Eldar, as long as the life of the created world– ‘till God burn nature with a kiss.’  (The man who dreamed of Faeryland line 47)  Oisin is magically sustained for many years in the Islands, but when he sets foot again in Ireland his age falls upon him and death soon follows. (Oisin, Bk 1, pp 1-4; Collected poems, 307)

Travellers’ tales

….and silence like dew fell in that isle

and holy it seemed to be


On high we heard in the starlit sky

a song, but not of bird:

neither noise of man nor angel’s voice,

but maybe there is a third

fair kindred in the world yet lingers

beyond the foundered land. (Sauron defeated, 298)


As for Yeats’ Dreamer, he travels a little within a delimited region of Sligo, but does not journey to Fairyland.  He conceives of the possibility of such a journey, but this awareness seems if anything to dull his energy for activity within his daily life, rather than impelling him to seek for a way to Faery.


Dream vision narrative

               Shiloh Carroll provides some useful definitions of dream vision in his article on Labyrinth.   He emphasises its long history and its popularity in mediaeval literature.  (Carroll, S; 104/5 ff)  However dream literature, like the traveller’s tale, is another category about which Tolkien warns the reader when he is defining the nature of fairy-story: ….I would also exclude, or rule out of order, any story that uses the machinery of Dream, the dreaming of actual human sleep, to explain the apparent occurrence of its marvels. (OFS para 17 Flieger edn, 35) By this definition, for example, Alice’s adventures in wonderland and through the looking-glass  would not qualify as fairy-tales.  Yet Tolkien goes on to allow that Dream is not unconnected with Faerie….. A real dream may indeed be a fairy-story of almost elvish ease and skill – while it is being dreamed. (Ibid) Certainly Tolkien himself makes use of dreams within his tales; Stanton devotes a chapter of Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards to the topic.  Being unbounded by space, time or probability, dreams can be very useful… especially for writers of fantasy… Dreams can foreshadow, prophesy, echo, suggest or even reveal.  (Stanton, 167-170).   Frodo’s green country dream, which comes true at the end of The Lord of the Rings, is itself a foreshadowing of a voyage to faery; (Stanton, 168) Flieger links it both with the mediaeval tradition of dream-vision that Tolkien knew well, and with the Sea-Bell’s negative vision, in Splintered Light. (164/5) Yeats constantly employs the word dream and its derivatives throughout The man who dreamed of Faeryland.  While neither Yeats nor Tolkien equates fantasy with dream each is, in the texts under consideration, presenting the reader with a dream of Faërie; the status of the two poems as dreams and/or as journeys is a major question for this study.  It can be argued that the Sea-bell is not a dream in its earlier manifestation as Looney, more of a miniature version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, though it is not clear to whom narrator is speaking.  (Coleridge, 48-68) However, the ‘editorial’ note in the preface to The adventures of Tom Bombadil leads the reader to associate the revised version with the phrase Frodo’s Dreme.  Yet the revision is not edited in such a way as to frame the tale with any representation of a dreamer saying this is what I dreamed, in the manner of, for example, Pearl or Pilgrim’s Progress. Nevertheless Flieger for one is convinced that it is a dream, or rather a nightmare. (Scull & Hammond, 881/2, and Flieger SL, 163)

Yeats’ Dreamer seems not actually to dream, or even to daydream – he instead experiences a series of reveries while musing in various identifiable places in the Sligo region of western Eire.  The first indication of anyone actually dreaming comes in the final stanza, and then the dreamers are the Danaans – the Dreamer is already dead.  Although he is suddenly alerted by his reveries or visions to the existence of possibilities of otherness, beyond his trivial round, he is left rather with a sense of the emptiness of the everyday than with any feelings of inspiration, challenge or delight.  His mood seems consistently to be summed up in the question: Is this all there is?  Susan Sontag refers in On Photography to the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany. (Sontag, 19-20)  This seems descriptive of the Dreamer’s reactions, which could not be further from the concept of being Surprised by Joy, as C.S. Lewis describes it:

It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden…. comes somewhere near it.  It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? …. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.  (Lewis SJ, 19)

The sense of insignificance does not lead Lewis to despair or to a sense of futility; as Tolkien relates in On fairy-stories, this kind of joyful epiphany ….awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably….  (OFS para 55 page 55 Flieger edn) We shall see below that neither protagonist of our texts has any experience of satisfied desire. 

The Poems

Early and Late versions

Flieger, in A question of time, and Shippey, in The road to Middle-earth, give clear accounts of the changes between Looney and The Sea-Bell.  Most obviously, The Sea-Bell is twice as long as its original; and Tolkien has attempted to draw it into the setting of Middle-earth through his editorial comments on the scrawled addition of the words Frodo’s Dreme to the ‘manuscript.’  More subtly, both commentators agree that the later version is darker and more despairing than the earlier one. (Flieger, QT, 21-211 and Shippey, Road, 322)  This is perhaps the most straightforward way in which it resembles The man who dreamed of Faeryland.

A man who dreamed of fairyland and The man who dreamed of Faeryland are superficially more like each other than the two versions of Tolkien’s poem.  The length remains the same, and there is no shift in the framing such as Tolkien employs.  However, there are sufficient changes in diction and tone to produce a tighter and darker poem by the time the familiar version is achieved.  In line 4, for example, sleepy care becomes stony care; and in line 30 the little, all unneeded voice of the knotgrass becomes unnecessary, cruel voice.

Each of the authors expressed ambivalent attitudes to his poem.  Tolkien’s own words in several of his letters indicate dissatisfaction with his work: The Sea-Bell is one of those about which he is …altogether doubtful; I do not even know if they have any virtue at all.  Again he refers to: The Sea-Bell, the poorest, and not really one I should wish to include.   He is delighted when the poem is praised by W. H. Auden; I was greatly cheered….by your praise of Frodo’s Dreme.  That really made me wag my tail. (Letters: no 233 p 309, no235 p312, n 237 pp314/5, no295 pp378/9)  Yeats is reported by David A. Ross to have thought his poem a bad one.   By 1931, Yeats had arrived at the opinion that The Man who dreamed of Faeryland was a “bad poem,” and he refused to read it even upon request. (Ross, 150)

The main discussions of aspects of the two poems, below, will focus on their respective late versions.  Note that for brevity of reference the protagonist of Tolkien’s poem is referred to as the Voyager, and Yeats’ as the Dreamer.

Narrators and narratives

The Sea-Bell is narrated by the Voyager as a first-person narrative, resulting in deep intensity of experience for the reader within a completely enclosed world of the voyage/dream.  There is a sense of entrapment within that world, of observing through the eyes of the Voyager without any chance of observing from a different perspective or drawing any different conclusions.  Although much longer than The man who dreamed of Faery-land, Tolkien’s poem moves along at a faster pace, pulling the reader along with it, so that even the enforced captivity of a year and a day (see discussion below) passes by with the same dream-like hustling from one scene to another.

Yeats’ poem employs a third-person narrator and it is this voice that conveys to us the experiences of the Dreamer, and what his reactions to them are.  Each scene is evoked in a few vivid details, enough to establish the real-world situation, before turning to the moment of ‘dream’ and a telling by the narrator of how the momentary vision affected the Dreamer’s feelings and his life.

This more distanced choice of narrator colours the tone of the Yeats poem; it is altogether calmer, on the surface at least, than Tolkien’s.  In each case the effects of the choice of narrative style are underscored by other aspects of the writing, notably the forms now to be discussed.


The verse-form of The sea-bell is based upon Anglo-Saxon alliterative four-stress lines with a mid-break.  However, while Anglo-Saxon normally demonstrates only limited use of internal or end-rhyme[6], Tolkien uses both in a four-line pattern consistent throughout, as follows;

o   Line 1) a, a

o   Line 2) b

o   Line3) c, c

o   Line 4) b

Tolkien delights in his alliterations, and in exuberant word-play may also add an extra rhyme, or use half-rhyme and assonance to carry the rhyme-scheme along.  Here are lines 57-59, illustrating the basic rhyme-scheme and showing alliterations on ‘r’, ‘m’ and ‘sh’; there are other examples scattered though the poem:

Of river-leaves and the rush-sheaves

I made me a mantle of jewel-green,

A tall wand to hold, and a flag of gold

My eyes shone like the star-sheen. [My emphases]


For extra rhyming, see line 48 with voles out of holes in the first half-line, and for half-rhyme line 91: when the rain in my face took a salt taste….

Yeats’ stanzas are sonnet-like in form, although each of the four consists only of twelve lines, not fourteen, and the rhyme-scheme varies from standard sonnet forms.  Each stanza repeats the scheme; abba, cddc, effe.  The most common sonnet rhyme-schemes are: The Italian/Petrarchan with rhyme-scheme abbaabba followed by variations on cdcdcd; the Spenserian with rhyme scheme ababbcbccdcdee and the English/Shakespearian with ababcdcdefefgg. (Miller, 1-7)

Retained by Yeats from the sonnet form are; the line – the iambic pentameter – and the ‘turn’.[7]  The turn occurs in each stanza after the opening quatrain, and sets against each quatrain the subsequent octave.  The significance of this sonnet-like turn is that it sets up the dialectic between the life of Sligo and the inner dream or vision that is the burden of the poem, thus binding form to matter. [8]

Diction, Imagery and connotation

In both these well-worked poems there is a careful choice of words, emended over time to enhance both effect and significance.  Beginning with the titles: Yeats gives us two nouns and a verb; man, dreamed, fairyland.  Tolkien gives us a hyphenated noun – sea-bell.

And what is a sea-bell?  Two possibilities arise in the text of Tolkien’s poem; firstly the shell that ‘comes’ to the walker by the sea, a white shell like a sea-bell. This may be a conch shell[9], by tradition the shell in which one can ‘hear the sea’[10], and that is what Pauline Baynes depicts in her illustration of the poem. (Baynes, (Tolkien) ATB, Front jacket illustration)   In line 3 the shell itself is said to be like a bell – and the sound within is not of the sea, but of a bell swinging on a harbour-buoy.  The listener interprets this sound as a call, although in reality these bells are set up as warnings. The Voyager hears the bell again in line 17, for the last time in the poem.  On his return journey he hears only a withering wind. (Line 87)

Yeats title-words have even less presence in the body of the poem than Tolkien’s.  Faeryland is never used again, and dream occurs in the penultimate line, but refers to the Danaans, not to the Dreamer.  The word man recurs three times, referring twice to the Dreamer, in the final stanza, and once to a fish seller in the first.  None of the people in the poem is ever given a personal name, any more than Tolkien’s voyager is within his, (despite the hint given in Tolkien’s foreword that this may be Frodo’s dream).

Each poet evokes the otherworldly by means of words relating to light and shadow.  Tolkien refers once to stars, mirrored in the sea (line 22), and also uses many other light-related words – white, glimmer, glitter, gleaming – that Yeats does not.  Both however rely to some extent on the powerful imagery of silver and gold with their colour and light connotations. Yeats uses silver and gold in each of his first three stanzas; Tolkien uses silver once and gold once, but generally uses more colour-references than Yeats.

In describing the natural world, both poets display a keen observation of creatures and flora, but Tolkien’s choices of reference are more traditionally ‘poetic’ than Yeats’.  In the early stages of the Voyager’s exploration of the strange land, particularly in lines 33-50, Tolkien uses many positive images of nature: greenness, water, heart’s ease, flowers, star, river, animals and birds.  Hares, voles, moths and badgers people a near-romantic picture of nature and its effect on the beholder; here Tolkien sets up a fall for protagonist and reader, since the tone of the poem is shortly to darken into fear.

Yeats by contrast chooses less usual denizens of nature to act as messengers to his man.  Fish, lugworm[11], knot-grass[12], worms – all these are humble and to some extent distasteful.   The lugworms in stanza 2 are grey and muddy, and although the fish in stanza 1 may be silver they are also dead.  The knot-grass in 3 is small and unassertive, while the worms in the final stanza are engaged in eating the man’s body.  None of the four is such a conventionally ‘poetic’ messenger as daffodils, waterfalls, swallows or robins.  Although Tolkien also employs less attractive images of nature – lines 77-79 of the Sea-Bell almost constitute a list of agents of decay; beetles, puffballs, mould and spiders – Yeats leans entirely toward the commonplace and liminal.

While the Sea-Bell is permeated with imagery of motion; walked, leapt, hurried, climbing, crept, stumbled, and finally walk again – Yeats’ Dreamer is characterised by a static quality.  The words chosen to describe him in each stanza are: stood, wandered, mused and slept.  Although the Voyager, when enchanted, is condemned to stillness for a year and a day, he is in general less associated with passivity than the Dreamer.  Even when he stands, the Dreamer is declaring his notion of himself and his status: Here now I stand, King of this land (line 65).  By contrast, Stood among (line 1) does not sound participatory, wandered (line 13) does not sound purposeful, mused (line 25) does not sound engaged. We are told that the Dreamer has known some tenderness, some prudent years – not many or much, just some. And the musing upon the mockers is qualified – it would have been fine revenge if he had taken it. (26-28) The diction undercuts and renders partial, anything positive and successful in his feelings and undertakings.  Finally, he finds no comfort; again a positive word is undercut by its qualifier.

The conjunction but is selected to bear a heavy load of meaning in both poems.  The first three stanzas of the Yeats poem all rely on but in their fourth lines to carry the turn of each stanza, shifting from the quatrain that describes a point in the Dreamer’s life at which his circumstances may seem congenial enough, and plunging both him and the reader into the octet that expresses the sense of unfulfilled longing that is the dream of the title.   In the fourth stanza, now replaces but, indicating that now all the man’s chances are lost.

Tolkien’s Voyager has only one chance to establish himself in a good relationship with Faërie and its inhabitants; but in line 53 carries the turn of the whole poem away from any chance of a positive outcome.  Both poets know the pivotal power of a well-chosen workaday word.

The vocabulary of margins, of liminality, forges a strong point of similarity between the two poems:  shores, wells, seas, sands, fish, ships, things that live or move between elements – here, choice of diction leads into theme (see below).  The sight of fish in a market leads to thoughts of ravelled seas; the finding of a shell in the sand leads to hearing the distant bell, taking it as a summons and launching upon the seas. The three messengers to the Dreamer are all liminal beings.  Their names and their descriptors evoke the marginal places of the world as forcefully as Tolkien’s opening on the sandy strip between sea and dry land.  The pile of fish brings the sea into the land; the lugworm dwells in a plashy place …grey and muddy; the knotgrass grows at the edge of the well, on the margin between the water and the grass. Both the Dreamer and the Voyager are moving, or dreaming of moving, across boundaries.

Settings, Themes, Story

Continuing with the primacy in these two poems of liminality and margins, as revealed in the previous section, we find a useful summary by Jason Marc Harris:

One of the prevailing tendencies of folk-legends is that the intrusion of the supernatural into the everyday world most often occurs along the borders between the wild and the civilized, whether it be on the edge of the woods, near the entrance to the underworld (a cave), or along the bank of a river or the shore of a lake, sea or ocean. Part of the reason for this dynamic of a metaphysical contact zone along a shore is that it is the realm where the known and the unknown worlds collide (Harris, 6)

It is precisely on this margin between water and land that the Sea-Bell has its opening, and that the first three moments of dream or epiphany come to the Dreamer in Yeats’ poem.  Each protagonist is presented from the outset, firmly established in a place where the known and the unknown worlds collide: I walked by the sea; He stood among a crowd; He wandered by the sands; He mused beside the well.  The focus is at once upon the person, and not upon any physical description of where the action of the poem is going to take place.  Tolkien’s ‘editorial’ note might imply that this is a dream of Middle-earth and of the elven isles to the west, but there is no indication of that within the action.  The shore, the sea, the island could be anywhere, while Yeats’ isle is somewhere to north or west or south (Line 19). [13]

Similarly, even though Yeats names each location in which the man is troubled by his ‘dream’, and even though each location is a real place in Sligo, that matters less than the liminal nature of each spot.  The presence of the fish upon the earth is the focus of the Dromahair experience, not the market-place or even the woman who inhabits the silken dress. The grey muddy lugworm is the focus at Lissadell, not the elegant country house that was home to the Gore-Booths.  The plant growing on the margins of the pool is central to the Scanavin experience, rather than the Hawk’s Well itself.  (Kirby, 1962)   Both the Voyager to the otherworld and the Dreamer troubled by thoughts of it, are set only loosely in their own ‘real’ worlds, and for each the cessation of contact with the otherworld or the flash of desire for it, is marked by even greater isolation.   By the end of each poem this isolation is complete; the description of the townscape at the end of the Sea-Bell where the Voyager walks alone is itself nightmarish, while the Dreamer passes into a post-death state that allows him no escape from his pains, for his yearnings have literally followed him into the grave.

On his arrival on the forgotten strand in a strange land (line 15) Tolkien’s traveller seems at first to have reached an enchanted place of superlative beauty, with shining seas and sands like jewels.  However, he is alarmed by the glooming caves (line 29) and hurries away from them.   All seems well again when, far from the seas, he reaches the fair meadows of ever-eve, and is charmed by the trees, flowers, birds and beasts he finds there.  (L 33-52).  The first stanza of Yeats’ poem, too, seems at first to be describing a happy time in the Dreamer’s life, when he is young and has fallen in love: His heart hung all upon a silken dress/And he had known at last some tenderness (lines 2-3). This is a brief moment, and is shattered by the vision, induced by the tumbling pile of silver fish, of the woven world-forgotten isle.   Like the Voyager in Tolkien’s strange land, the Dreamer in Dromahair is shaken out of his ease by the turn of events.

Line 53 of the Sea-Bell marks this parallel turning of dream to nightmare.  The music and dancing that the Voyager hears but cannot take part in, serve to emphasise his exclusion and isolation.   This theme of vanishing Fairy feasts and dances is a traditional one, and Tolkien also uses it in The Hobbit when Thorin, Bilbo and the dwarves are lost in Mirkwood. (Hobbit, Flies and spiders, 162-168)  Sir Orfeo too, in his forest exile, hears the horns of elfland and sees the King’s hunt pass by, but is distanced from them and does not know where they came from or where they go. (Orfeo 257-277)  This failure to make contact with the hidden dwellers in Faerie angers the Voyager and he turns from wandering aimlessly to a determined attempt to establish his status and importance in the land.  Like a child playing at King-of-the-castle, he dresses up in leaves and flowers, and demands to be acknowledged as king of this land.  (65) The result is disaster, a catastrophe that recalls the long tradition in folktale and myth of the dangers of breaking prohibitions, sometimes known but sometimes unknown.  From earliest times this theme has served as a warning of the dangers of hubris or ofermod.  The setting of an obligation or prohibition by a figure of power triggers the loss of paradise in the Judaeo-Christian tale of Eden, when Adam and Eve fail to adhere to the ban on eating fruits of the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and lose their blessed state of innocence. (Book of Genesis, Ch 3) The story of Cupid and Psyche has close parallels with the Eden story, both featuring a turn to disaster when a devotee of the God is tempted by another into disobedience. (Guerber, 98-108) In Celtic tradition, heroes are frequently bound by geasa, which may be prohibitive or prescriptive, some of them being incompatible with one another and therefore leading inexorably to the hero’s downfall. (Gregory, 315-316; Cuchulain is forbidden to eat dogflesh, and also forbidden to be discourteous to women) These prohibitions feature in literary fairy-tales too, with Bluebeard’s forbidden cupboard (Lang, 290-295) and Andersen’s Garden of paradise among them. (Andersen, 142-156)  Tolkien himself tells of the attempt by Ar-Pharazon the Golden to wrest from [the Valar] everlasting life within the circles of the world. (Silmarillion, 278-9)  In this tale Ar-Pharazon is tempted into his disobedience by an intermediary, as Eve and Psyche are; but Smith of Wootton Major by contrast stands as an example of unwitting transgression.  When he treads upon the mysterious lake in Faery and brings pain and suffering to the birch tree, Smith has no ill intention. (Smith, 28-30)   Similarly, the Voyager is breaking an unknown prohibition, but he has less innocent motives than Smith; his desire for aggrandisement is stronger than the simple drive to know that characterises Smith’s relationship with Faery.

No such specific and irrevocable disaster-point comes for the Dreamer, who seems paralysed by his visions and does not even think of actually seeking the otherland at any time.  He seems to feel he has no right to anything beyond the everyday, while the Voyager  thinks he has a right to everything, it is all for him – shell, boat, island , inhabitants.  The Dreamer wanders aimlessly through the Sligo landscape and through the years of his life, infrequently roused even to the idea of action, and then only to lapse into passivity.  Like Firiel in The last ship, he hears the call but cannot conceive that it is possible for him to respond. (ATB, 61-64) However, there may be a discernible parallel between the turn in line 53 of the Sea-Bell and a shift in the Dreamer’s position between stanzas two and three.  Yeats portrays increased disillusionment, a shift away from love to money cares and from those to brooding upon a sense of being mocked, a desire for vengeance.  Each protagonist, whatever his dreams may have been of enchantment and delight, falls instead into disenchantment, via some degree of ofermod and ends in collapse/death.  Shippey suggests that the turn in the Sea-Bell: seems to come as a punishment for hubris. (Shippey, Author 282)  It could be argued that the sense of ennui, the sense that nothing is quite good enough, may stem from pridefulness on the Dreamer’s part as much as from the arbitrary nature of life or fate; he, like the Voyager, brings about his own exile from Faery.

As the Yeats’ poem repeats with variations the experience of a bright vision that yet brings despair to the Dreamer, so the Voyager is plunged from the excitement of adventure into a madness that develops into a stasis of terror from which there will never be a full escape:

Black came a cloud as a night-shroud.
Like a dark mole groping I went,
to the ground falling, on my hands crawling
with eyes blind and my back bent.
I crept to a wood: silent it stood
in its dead leaves; bare were its boughs.
There must I sit, wandering in wit,
while owls snored in their hollow house.
For a year and day there must I stay:
beetles were tapping in the rotten trees,
spiders were weaving, in the mould heaving
puffballs loomed about my knees.
(Lines 69-80)

This passage references three traditional themes of folk- and fairy-tale; becoming lost in a wood, wandering in wit, and being held for a year and a day.

Lost in a haunted wood.

Instances abound in literature of a parallelism between being physically lost in a dense forest, and being out of one’s mind: Sir Lancelot, Sir Orfeo and Merlin are three good examples.

Sir Lancelot’s madness begins when he is deceived – not for the first time – into sleeping with Elaine, daughter of King Pelles.  And whan sir Launcelot awoke oute of hys swoghe, he lepte oute at a bay-wyndow into a gardyne, and there wyth thornys he was all to-cracched of his vysage and hys body, and so he ran furth he knew nat whothir, and was as wylde [woode] as ever was man.  And so he ran two yere, and never man had grace to know him. (Malory, 594)

Sir Orfeo is directly referenced by Shippey in a passage about The Sea-Bell, emphasising the sense that the Voyager brings his black cloud upon himself by the hubris of his actions: it casts him down, turns him into a sort of Orfeo-in-the-wilderness (Shippey, Road, 323) However, Orfeo himself is driven mad by grief rather than by guilt; after his wife Dame Heurodis is abducted by the King of Faërie, he renounces his kingdom and leaves it in the hands of his steward, declaring;  Into the wilderness I will flee/and there will live forever more/with the wild beasts in forests hoar. (212-214)  The poet devotes fifty-three lines (227-280) to a description of Orfeo’s miserable state, emphasising in some of them the animal nature of his existence.

….now he must grub and dig all day,

With roots his hunger to allay.

In summer on wildwood fruit he feeds

Or berries poor to serve his needs;

In winter nothing can he find

Save roots and herbs and bitter rind.

All his body was wasted thin

By hardship, and all cracked his skin……

…..His hair and beard all black and rank

Down to his waist hung long and lank. (255-268)


Yeats also describes, in The madness of King Goll, a state of derangement and of alienation from humanity that closely resembles the Orfeo passage.

And now I wander in the woods

When summer gluts the golden bees,

Or in autumnal solitudes

Arise the leopard-coloured trees;

Or when along the wintry strands

The cormorants shiver on their rocks;

I wander on, and wave my hands,

And sing, and shake my heavy locks.

The grey wolf knows me; by one ear

I lead along the woodland deer;

The hares run by me growing bold.

They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter round me, the beech leaves old. (Collected Poems, 12-130)

Merlin/Myrddin is portrayed in old Welsh tales as a Wild Man of the Woods living in Coed Celyddon (the ‘Caledonian Forest’).  When Merlin’s lord, King Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio, is killed at the Battle of Arfderydd, Merlin takes to the forest in a fit of madness which is thought to be the source of his ability to compose prophetic poetry; a number of later prophetic poems are attributed to him.  (Anwyl, p20)

Geoffrey of Monmouth details this legend in his Vita Merlini :

…a strange madness came upon him. He crept away and fled to the woods, unwilling that any should see his going. Into the forest he went; glad to lie hidden beneath the ash trees. He watched the wild creatures grazing on the pasture of the glades. Sometimes he would follow them, sometimes pass them in his course. He made use of the roots of plants and of grasses, of fruit from trees and of the blackberries in the thicket. He became a Man of the Woods, as if dedicated to the woods. So for a whole summer he stayed hidden in the woods, discovered by none, forgetful of himself and of his own, lurking like a wild thing. (Geoffrey, 253)

The common motif among these three traditional episodes is that of an overwhelmingly traumatic experience leading the protagonist to flee into the forest, where he experiences an episode of insanity.  This recurs almost identically in the experience of Tolkien’s Voyager; however, it is not exactly paralleled in the life of Yeats’ Dreamer, who instead moves gradually into locations, and into states of mind, roughly equivalent to those locations, that express his increasing isolation from his social setting, and from happiness.  In every instance, the reality of everyday life becomes to a greater or lesser extent unbearable or empty of meaning, and a fugue or regression takes place.  The equivalence between dissociation from reality and being lost in a forest is one that recurs into later periods of literature as well as mediaeval.  W. H. Auden uses it in his September 1st, 1939: Lest we should see where we are/ Lost in a haunted wood/ Children afraid of the night/ Who have never been happy or good.  Robert Pogue Harrison further underlines the ambivalent image that the forest carries, in his study: Forests: the shadow of civilization

…..Western Civilization literally cleared its space in the midst of forests. A sylvan fringe of darkness defined the limits of its cultivation, the margins of its cities, the boundaries of its institutional domain; but also the extravagance of its imagination. – (Harrison, ix)

However, the symbol of the wood or forest is not entirely negative in fairy-tale.  Just as entry into an underground realm carries with it the possibility of entry into death and that of entry into the enchanted realm, so the forest may be an entry into enchantment and joy rather than into alienation and insanity.  Yet it is generally assumed in tradition and tale that it is not good for humankind to remain forever in Faerie, nor for them to attempt to assume control of any kind.  Some individuals who are taken or who enter willingly into the otherworld later need to be rescued; while some come to learn that they must accept a return to their own world.

It would seem natural for a lover of trees to imagine the forest as the habitation of the elves, and indeed Flieger focuses on Tolkien’s liking for a wood rather than a hill or mound.  She suggests: His preference for a wood rather than the more usual fairy-story topos of the underground (usually in the form of a fairy mound or hill) as the place of entry is surely connected not just to The Mabinogion but also to the association of Middle English wode, wood with both “wood” and “mad”, that is, outside the realm of ordinary experience. (Flieger QT, 249-250)

Tolkien himself says: My symbol is….the Forest: the regions still immune from human activities, not yet dominated by them….If faery Time is at points contiguous with ours, the contiguity will also occur at certain points in space – or that is the theory for the purpose of the story. (Tolkien, Essay on Smith, 86-7 Flieger Edn)  He goes on to say that once the transition is made through this contiguous point, deeper into Faery, then the traveller is no longer exactly in the wood at all, but passing further and further away from a familiar or anthropocentric world.  Indeed, eventually – as in Smith’s case – such a traveller will discover that Faery is ‘limitless’ and is mainly involved in vast regions and events that do not concern Men and are impenetrable by them. (Ibid)

In general, Tolkien depicts elves living underground or concealed by mountains only in times of war and fear, and these realms often come to grief, as is the case with Doriath, Gondolin and Nargothrond. (Silmarillion, 232-4; 238-245; 211-15)  Underground realms are more strongly linked to evil characters: even the dwarven-realms of Erebor and Khazad-Dûm are taken over by Smaug and by Orcs, and Orcs dwell inside the Misty Mountains above Imladris (Hobbit; LoTR) Although at the end of the Third Age all the Elven Kingdoms of Middle-earth fade, it is in the forest realm of Lorien that the enchantment lingers longest.

Also relevant to this study is Flieger’s point about the connotations of the word wood.  Etymologically, wode, insane, appears to derive from a different source from wood, forest. [14]  The two words are, however, homonyms, and the association of the forest with wildness, with states of being beyond the everyday, would tend to work together with the coincidence of sound to bind the connotations of the two concepts.  The rich web of associations woven by and with this binding underlies many traditional tales, romances and fantasy fiction.  In this context, it is noteworthy that even Tolkien’s most beloved forest, Lorien, is seen by mortals as a dangerous and uncanny place; “Then there is a Lady in the Golden wood, as old tales tell!” he said.  “Few escape her nets, they say.”  (Eomer in Two Towers, 35)

Away for a year and a day

The Voyager’s madness in the forest comes to an end after a year and a day. (Line 77) This formulaic time-span has long been used in traditional lore and tales to indicate the period for which a geas or contract was binding.  Deanna Conway suggests that the expression may originate in the shift from the lunar year to the solar year for legal, agricultural and administrative purposes. (Conway, 47; 49)   One example of a legal application is the rule of common law that in order for homicide to have been committed, the victim’s death must occur within a year and a day after the act that allegedly caused it.  ( Perhaps the most famous mediaeval geas that lasts a year and a day is that placed by the Green Knight upon Gawain: ….I schal bide ðe first bur as bare as I sitte………And I schal stonde hym a strok, stif on ðis flet,……And 3et gif hym respite,/ A twelvemonth and a day. (Gawain, 9 lines 294-7; 84, note)

Tolkien here uses the term to delimit the Voyager’s impression of the length of time he spends trapped within the wood.  However, upon leaving the wood and seeking the shore to escape from the Isle, the Voyager says:

At last there came light in my long night,
and I saw my hair hanging grey.

… and years were heavy upon my back, (Lines 81-2, line89)


This evokes yet another tradition regarding the effect upon mortals of a stay in faery; the differences in the passage of time in the two worlds.  Although the Voyager speaks of a year and a day, he has evidently aged, as if outside his enchanted wood, the years have flown by.  In traditional tales, there are many variations on this theme; most commonly, one entering faery may feel that only a day or a week has passed, but on escape or rescue learns that they have been away for many years, and, like Rip van Winkle, have become a legend in their own home village.   Sometimes there is a risk of being kept in the Otherworld for a set period, often seven years, if one eats of the Faery food.   Sometimes, the subjective awareness of time passing is vague, but centuries may have passed in mortal lands. (Bottigheimer, 15)

Both Yeats and Tolkien make use of this motif; Oisin in Yeats’ long poem loses all sense of time while dwelling with Niamh, and falls into the decrepitude of a supernaturally great old age when he sets foot again in Ireland. (Collected poems, 307)  The Fellowship of the Ring, upon leaving their refuge in Lorien, find that they cannot make sense of the phases of the moon and realise that time has not run at the same rate there as it has in the surrounding realms.  (Fellowship, 404-5)

Flieger comments that Tolkien is here presenting that element of Elvish craft that relates to preservation; Frodo for example feels that he has passed over a bridge into a past time.  (Flieger, QT, Ch 4) Generally speaking, the experience of the Fellowship in Lorien is positive.  Each member, except perhaps Boromir, feels welcomed and respected by the elves, and has time for recovery from the grief of Gandalf’s loss.   Although we learn later that to the outside world Lorien is a mysterious and dangerous place, (See Eomer, above) overall Tolkien directs the reader to the conclusion that those who find danger in Lorien do so because of the attitudes they bring with them. (Two Towers, 288) This is exactly the case with the Voyager who comes to grief in the Sea-Bell.

In considering these triple faery themes of wandering in the forest, madness and the strange passage of time, we are considering the area of greatest divergence between the Sea-Bell and The man who dreamed of Faeryland.  The Voyager of Tolkien’s poem, seeking the imagined joys of Faery, comes to grief and sorrow through his intrusion into the realm.  Yeats’ Dreamer, by contrast, never reaches faery, and his reveries consist of positive images of that land: gold; love; exulting; gentle; rejoice; peace; dancer; dream.  Yet he shares with the Voyager the discontent and regret, the loss, that come from this vision of a better, finer, freer land somewhere beyond the everyday.  His visions of the otherworld undercut all his attempts at living a successful life; we never hear of any outcome to his feeling for the woman wearing the silken dress, (line 2) for example.  Except for the crowd in the market-place in stanza one, the Dreamer is always depicted in solitary situations, away from human habitation in a way that parallels the exile of the Voyager.

And back again

Each protagonist returns from his otherworld experiences. The Voyager returns from the island in the same boat that carried him there, which mysteriously awaits him (101-8).  His is a once-and-for-all journey there and back again, while the Dreamer’s reveries alternate with repeated returns to awareness of the real world and its shortcomings.  Simonson writes, of this tension between actual and possible worlds:  Tolkien presented several versions of fictional heroes that are torn between a love for a particular place and a longing for a different reality, deeper and more meaningful than everyday life is able to offer. (Simonson, 233) This is as true of the Dreamer as of the Voyager, and underlines the similarities between the two poems.  Funaro takes the tension between the two worlds further in his study:

The immaterial world needed the material one, and vice versa, but couldn’t become one; day and night, moon and sun, silver and gold; all were related but distinctly different from each other.  The tension between the two worlds reverberates in “The man who dreamed of fairyland…in which the dreamer of the poem can find no comfort in this life when his thoughts are constantly turned to the other.  (Funaro, 3)

What complexities of dream and desire, then, combine to motivate these two characters?  Yeats’ Dreamer never does seem engaged with his surroundings, so maybe he is ripe for the ‘dreams’, has been discontent long before the narrator first describes him to us standing in the market-place at Dromahair.  The Voyager, in Tolkien’s revision, is given no such context at the beginning of the poem.  He is alone by the sea, but we have no clue as to whether he is habitually alone; his unhappy position vis-à-vis his community is not spelt out until the end of the poem.  Yet he seems driven by desire for otherness, and by a sense that time is running out.  Both characters seem driven by malaise and discontent, by a desire for something other than what is, a desire to be somewhere else.  But this is almost certainly not a simple desire for escape from toil, for ease and music and dancing on the mysterious islands; more acute is the longing for immortality.

Tolkien himself speaks of …the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape, the Escape from Death. (OFS, p74 para 97 Flieger Ed)  The ironic outcome for the Dreamer and the Voyager is that they both waste away the time at their disposal in the real world, the Dreamer by his reveries and discontent in his daily round, the Voyager through his imprisonment in the wood that ages him and turns him out wasted and faded.  Each approaches death having never apparently gained anything positive from life.

Death features strongly in the Yeats poem.  Each stanza refers forward to it, except the last which posits continued discontent after death. The reference comes before the turn in each verse; before the keyword but three times; and in the final stanza, before now. [15]  In the case of the Voyager it is less plainly evident that the driving force may be the fear of death; yet whoever speaks line 11, the vessel or the Voyager, its urgency is clear: It is later than late!  Why do we wait? Whether the opportunity be taken or not, there is clearly a conviction that to travel to the enchanted island would offer a chance of a more meaningful life, and perhaps of Immortality.

Other consistent themes that we have discerned in the two poems include loss, and the trio of experiences that for Tolkien characterise fairy-tale; recovery, escape, consolation.   Or more accurately, some are present and some are conspicuous by their absence.  The Dreamer and the Voyager certainly both experience loss; loss of identity, of a sense of direction, of purpose, of hope: I have lost myself, and I know not the way. (80-84) Or in Yeats’ words, the unnecessary cruel voice of the knotgrass drove his fine angry mood away.  (Lines 30 & 36)   In each poem Faëry, whether as an idea or as an experience, leads the protagonists to failure and to sorrow.  There is no evidence of real escape, or of recovery, or of consolation.  The Voyager is further alienated, not less so, when he returns home; the Dreamer is constantly fretted and disturbed by his visions and by his awaking from them into an everyday world rendered dull by comparison with them. As Slack notes (273-274), Smith attains the state that neither of the two is able to reach;  ….he seemed to be both in the world and in Faery, and also outside them, and surveying them, so that he was at once in bereavement, and ownership, and in peace. (Smith, 38 Flieger Ed) Of these, only bereavement is familiar from the two poems.

Conclusions and questions

            Insofar as it is possible to answer the question that forms the title of this essay, the answer would seem to be that in the case of Yeats’ Dreamer, the subject of the poem is not literally his dreams, but his series of visions, epiphanies or daydreams.   With regard to Tolkien’s Voyager, either the experience described is a dream, or it is a report of an actual voyage; but the former might never have come into the equation had not the hand …scrawled at its head Frodo’s Dreme.    It could therefore be argued that the chief thing these poems have in common is the ambiguity of their typological status, or to state the same idea more positively, the rich mix of traditions blended into each work.

We have seen that while each contains elements of fairy-tale, dream narrative and the Imram or fantastic voyage, to differing degrees, neither is easily definable as one simple type.  One reason for this may be the psychological depth of the two works, which both operate more consciously on an epistemological level than traditional tales might have done.  By comparing the two we have illuminated the interesting point that while Yeats depicts a history of lack and loss in a man who never goes to Faëry, Tolkien records the same effect in someone who does go.   There is something distinctly modern in the emphasis on alienation and isolation – we have observed that neither protagonist seems to make real contact with other people. The Dreamer is depicted among a crowd (once) then only in solitary situations, while the woman is only a dress and some tenderness. His thoughts of vengeance are only a potential encounter with others, which is not fulfilled.  His mind is always on something other than the place he is in, even after death.

In Yeats’ poem there is a clear distinction between the protagonist and the narrator.  In Tolkien’s it seems that the Voyager is narrating, but it is not wholly clear whether he is: talking to an audience; running the memory of the dream or journey over in his head; or writing it down – (Flieger in QT calls him ‘the poet,’ ‘the speaker’ and ‘the voyager’ at different points in her discussion).  Only at the end does he state that he talks to himself – in common parlance the first sign of madness –  but that is intended to refer to his condition after his journey, and does not clarify the mode of narration of the voyage.  This may be clarified a little by reference to Shippey, (Shippey, Road, 324) who says that the Voyager is not able to return, even in memory. Yet we do have a poem in front of us, which is presented to us as having been written down by someone; so it may in fact be a memory of the person writing it down, in which case it is a return in memory.  Or it may not relate to the ‘author’ created by Tolkien by his note in the preface, it may represent the experience of the protagonist, but then what is it that we are seeing as the events are narrated?  Either he is in a waking state and running miserably over it in his head, telling the tale again to himself or he is dreaming it, and a recurrent dream or nightmare is surely in one sense a return in memory?  Is it not the memory of a trauma that causes the kind of pain the Voyager is clearly suffering?  However we label it, this narrative is more definable as a dream, even if it be a recurring dream of an ‘actual’ voyage, than is the experience of the ‘Dreamer’.  Yeats’ lines in Meditations pin down this sense of personal futility, and could apply to the Voyager and the Dreamer equally: I turn away and shut the door, and on the stair/ Wonder how many times I could have proved my worth/ In something that all others understand and share. (Collected poems, 175)

Each poem implies, but never states, a psychological context of bleakness in the ‘real’ lives of the subjects.  Analysed above are the repeated examples of half-heartedness in terms of involvement and achievement in the Dreamer; in the case of the Voyager, particularly after the suppression of the frame from Looney, which showed him speaking to another person, we have no evidence that he was engaged in his society before his voyage.  A deep sense of sorrow lies in the later version’s still they speak not.  [My emphasis] There is a sense that the Voyager’s hope may have been not only for the experience of Faëry, but also for an improved status on his return.  Sadly, it is the source of his despair that he has not been able to experience Faëry properly, nor been able to shake off the experience, nor to establish any contentment back at home.  By contrast, the source of despair and disquiet for the Dreamer is rather that of never having tried, never having sought out the possible source of the visions that persist throughout his life and pursue him into the grave.

Flieger’s analysis of The Sea-Bell in Splintered Light includes the comment that the Voyager’s situation is recognizable as a variation of a common fairy-tale motif, the story of the adventurer who wanders into Faërie and returns after an apparently brief time, often to find himself changed and his world unrecognisable.  (SL 162-3)  It may be argued that the repeated brief visions of Yeats’ Dreamer have the same effect in his life, insofar as after the turn of each stanza, things are different for him, his view of the world, and of himself, is subtly shifted in the direction of discontent and hopelessness.

Flieger goes on to remark that the fact that the “Sea-Bell” ends with a situation in which a speaker fails to generate meaning, fails in his attempts to communicate with others,  is a startling, unsettling development. (SL, 167-168)  She is referencing the point that Tolkien, for whom language is central to all creativity and thought, has created a character who ceases to be able to use language at all.  This too has its parallel in Yeats.  We never hear the voice of the dreamer, or any strong suggestion that others engage in talk with him; he ‘hears’ only the ‘voices’ of his supernatural messengers.  Is this why others mock him? (Stanza 3)

Later, Flieger says of the Voyager:  He is a man of antitheses, both spiritually and literally between worlds, having lost one and yet not gained another……conscious of loss and through that loss conscious of change, poised at the turn.  (SL 171/2)  However, neither the Voyager nor the Dreamer is able to embrace change or to move beyond the turn.  There is no eucatastrophe, (OFS para 98, p75 Flieger Ed) no happy ending for either of them– the repeated turns in Yeats’ stanzas and the single turn in the Sea-Bell lead toward disaster and despair.

Margaret Hiley points out that the Voyager: brings peril with him to Faërie.  The cause of his disaster in Faërie lies only within himself….. (Hiley, 289) This is also true of the Dreamer, who seems unable to call up out of himself the strength to make a commitment either to seek Faëry, or to turn wholeheartedly instead to the life that lies before him in Sligo. He too carries the source of his despair within himself.  These inner stresses in the protagonists form part of a pattern of tensions – between this world that may be unsatisfactory and another that may be transcendent; between hope and disillusionment; between the two halves of the ‘not-quite-sonnets’, with their turn on the word but; between early and late versions of the poems; between the Sea-Bell up to line 51, and the Sea-Bell after that line – a turn for the whole poem.   One could widen this perspective to include visible tensions between the pull towards faery, and a fear of it, in the works – and possibly the hearts – of both poets.  In Yeats poem The Changeling the implication is that it is good for the human child to come away to the waters and the wild – this will protect him from the sorrows of mortal life, from a world more full of weeping/ Than he can understand. (Collected poems, 15) However, King Goll finds only madness in the enchanted wood. (Collected poems 12-13) Tolkien’s Smith experiences far more good than harm in Faery, in complete contrast to the Voyager; while the Dreamer stays in the world full of weeping.

Tolkien’s (“The Editor’s”) preface to The adventures of Tom Bombadil (ATB, 7-9) seeks to set the Sea-Bell within the Middle-earth legendarium, simply by describing the scribbled words Frodo’s Dreme on the manuscript.  But even this revised version does not name any localities in Middle-earth, unless the reference to ‘a land of ever-eve’ (line 36) can be taken as such.  The poem does not in fact need to be Frodo’s dream to be an effective nightmare, any more than Yeats’ Dreamer needs to be an Irishman in Sligo to experience his sense of something elusive beyond the everyday.   Whose dreams are the poems dealing with – to the extent that they are in fact dealing with dreams?

Can we understand the Voyager’s nightmare to be to some extent Tolkien’s own dream?  In a discussion of the resemblances between the experience of war and the experience of Faerie, Flieger states: Whoever the voice in “The Sea-Bell” is intended to be (and it is certainly Tolkien, whoever else it is), the words of the poem, the suffering of the speaker, describe an experience all too recognizable to anyone who lived through it, of alienation from the reference points of familiar experience…..”  (QT, 224)  It would certainly be no surprise to learn that a war veteran should experience nightmares.   Moreover, dreams are known to have been significant to Tolkien; apart from his use of dreams experienced by various characters in his legendarium, he speaks of his own Atlantis wave dream:

…I have what some might call an Atlantis complex…..I mean the terrible recurrent dream (Beginning with memory) of the Great Wave, towering up, and coming in ineluctably over the trees and green fields.


What I might call my Atlantis-haunting.  This legend or myth or dim memory of some ancient history has always troubled me.  In sleep I had the dreadful dream of the ineluctable Wave, either coming out of the quiet sea or coming in towering over the green inlands. It still occurs occasionally [1964] though now exorcised by writing about it. It always ends by surrender and I awake gasping out of deep water.  (Letters to: (1) Auden, 163 p 213; and (2) Bretherton, 257 p347).

Tolkien further says that the thought of the sea, ever-present in the hobbit imagination (ATB, 9) was also a dominant image for him: Of all the mythical or ‘archetypal’ images this is the one most deeply seated in my imagination.  (Letters, page 361)   It is clear from his descriptive vocabulary that these ‘dreams’ were nightmarish; terrible, dreadful, ineluctable, surrender, gasping, troubled.  This experience of nightmare, together with the intensity of the first-person narration of the Sea-Bell, lends support to the supposition that there is at least a partial reflection in the poem of Tolkien’s own dream-life.

Nightmarish too is the situation in the final stanza of The man who dreamed of Faeryland.  The narrator comments that in the grave, the Dreamermight have known at last unhaunted sleep. (Line 38) The implication here is that the Dreamer’s sleep during his lifetime has been troubled, that he has felt haunted by night as well as during his flashes of waking vision.  However, the third-person narration distances Yeats considerably from the experiences described in the poem, by contrast to the feeling in the Tolkien poem that the Voyager and the readers are trapped in a nightmare together.    Can we identify the ‘dreaming’ as Yeats’ own?

Certainly there is a shift of voice discernible in lines 46-47, almost at the end of the poem.  The man is dead.  Is it therefore his voice that cries:

Why should those lovers that no lovers miss

Dream, until God burn nature with a kiss?

Or has Yeats here pulled back the perspective of the poem so that the narrator’s, or even the poet’s voice, can be heard?  Certainly Yeats believed in the power and significance of dreams, and may be seen in this poem as disapproving of the protagonist’s failure to engage with dream, to experience what dream/Faery has to offer.  Brenda S. Webster says: Few poets have been so acutely aware of dreams and their importance to art as William Butler Yeats.  …..Yeats theorized about the nature of dreams and their importance to creativity as a gateway to images stored deep in the self. (Webster, p41)   We have considered above the fact that the Dreamer’s experience is neither dream of nor yearning for Faery in the common sense of those words, but that there is a negative quality to his epiphanies.  Yeats, however, embraced dream as life-enhancing, and it may be that some of his own early dream-visions of Faery are referenced in the flashes of description in the poem.

Each of these two protagonists is in some sense cheated of his expectations, desires, or dreams, however defined.  The Dreamer sees in his visions the gold and silver beauty of his imagined isles, but never reaches them; while the Voyager sees at first-hand the beauty of the island, only for it to collapse into nightmare, that persists when he has come home.  The Dreamer and the Voyager are cheated both of life in the real world and life in the Otherworld.  The lack of ‘comfort’ in the grave, the ultimate isolation, of the Dreamer is a parallel to the loneliness and isolation of the Voyager on his return.  So divorced are both from the full enjoyment of life that one could almost speculate as to whether the Voyager is also dead at the end of Sea-Bell?  His being a ghost would explain his sense of not belonging in the streets of the town, and the fact of people not speaking to him.  J.M. Synge’s story attests to the fact that one meaning of away with the fairies could be death. (Synge, 76)

With regard to the sense of being cheated, the experience of despair, of hope undercut, disappointment, disenchantment and catastrophe unreversed that is expressed in both poems, Long makes a comment that serves to underline the extent to which responsibility for these sorrows lies within the self….. Faery fails the moment at which the hearer no longer takes it seriously.  (Long, 92)  Later in the same essay, Long uses the interesting expression: the severity of Faery – he means that Nokes does not take Faery seriously enough, but the word severity provides an apt descriptor for the way in which faery impinges on the Dreamer and the Voyager; each has expected light and beauty, each has met with severity. (IBID, 95)

Flieger says of the Voyager that what he wants is not offstage but at the edge of vision. (QT, 214)   She also quotes G. B Smith’s poem, The House of Eld:

….the old ghosts cry to me from the air

Of a fair isle set in the western sea,

And of the evening sunlight lingering there.

Ah! I am bound here, bound and fettered,

The dark house crumbles and the woods decay…. (QT, 223)


Flieger points out the similarity of tone and ethos between this and the Sea-Bell; there are also echoes of The man who dreamed of Faery-land in the awareness of the isle to the west that seems forever out of reach – at the edge of vision.

Flieger describes the Sea-Bell as a cry of longing for lost beauty. (QT, 228) This echoes a lament in one of Yeats’ early poems, The Song of the happy shepherd:  The woods of Arcady are dead, / And over is their antique joy; /Of old the world on dreaming fed; /Grey Truth is now her painted toy; (Collected poems, 3-4) Here an element of nostalgic longing for what once was but is no longer, can been seen blended into the longing for what has never yet been experienced.  She draws out further elements from her study of Tolkien’s poem – that seem to fit equally well with Yeats – later in her book, describing the Voyager as baffled and alienated (IBID, 237) and positing: …..exclusion both from Faery and from human contact [as] the whole point of the Sea-Bell…. (IBID, 239)

Exploring the qualities of these two poems has led to multiple reflections on their similarities and their differences.  No ready conclusion is at hand, except that each poet has made use of his own vision of faery to awake our own visions, evoke our own responses, to the possibility or dream of there being other worlds than these (King, 210) and other modes of seeing.


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Gilliver, Peter and Jeremy Marshall, Edmund Weiner The ring of words; Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary Oxford; OUP, 2006 ISBN 0198610696

Gregory, Augusta (Lady) and Douglas Hyde Poets and dreamers; studies and translations from the Irish.  Dublin; Hollis, Figgin and Co, 1903

Gregory, Augusta (Lady) Cuchulain of Muirthemne; the story of the men of the Red Branch of Ulster, London; John Murray, 1902

Guerber, H.A. Greece and Rome; myths and legends series London; Guild Publishing, 1986 (Facsimile of original edition, Harrap, 1907)

Harris, Jason Marc Perilous shores; the unfathomable supernaturalism of water, Mythlore 28:1/2 Fall/Winter 2009, p6)

Harrison, Robert Pogue Forests: the shadow of civilization Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1993 ISBN 0226318079

Hazelgrove, Jenny Spiritualism and British society between the wars Manchester; Manchester University press, 2000 ISBN 071905558x

Hiley, Margaret and Frank Weinreich (Eds) Tolkien’s shorter works; proceedings of the 4th seminar of the Deutsche Tolkien Gesellschaft & Walking Tree Publishers decennial conference, 2007 Zurich and Jena; Walking Tree Press, 2008 ISBN 9783905703115

Hiley, Margaret ‘Journeys in the dark’ in Tolkien’s shorter works; proceedings of the 4th seminar of the Deutsche Tolkien Gesellschaft & Walking Tree Publishers decennial conference 2007,  edited by Margaret Hiley and Frank Weinreich.   Zurich and Jena; Walking Tree Press, 2008 ISBN 9783905703115

Honko, Lauri (Ed): Religion, myth, and folklore in the world’s epics: the Kalevala and its predecessors Berlin; New York; Mouton de Gruyter 1990 ISBN 3110122537

Howes, Marjorie Elizabeth and John S. Kelly The Cambridge companion to W.B. Yeats Cambridge; CUP, 2006 ISBN 0521658861

Jenkins, Sue “Love, loss and seeking; maternal deprivation and the quest” in Children’s Literature in Education Vol 15, No. 2, (whole number 53) (Summer 1984) pp73-83.

King, Stephen The dark tower I; The gunslinger London; Hodder and Stoughton 2003 ISBN 9780340829752

 Kinniburgh, ‘The Noldor and the Tuatha de Danaan; Tolkien’s Irish influences’ in Mythlore 107/108, 2009 ISSN 0146-9339

Kirby, Sheelah The Yeats country; a guide to places in the West of Ireland associated with the life and writings of William Butler Yeats; Compiled by Sheelah Kirby, edited by Patrick Gallagher, with drawings and maps by Ruth Brandt.  Dublin; the Dolmen Press, 1962

Krans, Horatio Sheafe: William Butler Yeats and the Irish Literary Revival New York; Macmillan, 1904

Lang, Andrew The Blue Fairy Book London: Longmans Green and Company, 1889 (pp. 290-295 tell the story of Bluebeard, from Perrault’s original)

Long, Josh B ‘Two views of faerie in Smith of Wootton Major; Nokes and his cake, Smith and his star’ in Mythlore 26:3/4 Spring/Summer 2008

Lewis, Clive Staples

  • Surprised by joy; the shape of my early life London; Fontana Books, 1959
  • The voyage of the Dawn Treader Harmondsworth; Penguin Books, 1955

Malory, Sir Thomas Works; edited by Eugene Vinaver London; OUP, 1954

Mauss, Marcel Nation, nationality, internationalism IN Woolf, Nationalism in Europe London; Routledge, 1996 ISBN 0203432851

Miller, Nelson Basic sonnet forms

Parkinson, Daniel The golden dawn

Ross, David A.  Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats; a Literary Reference to His Life and Work NY, Facts on File, Inc.  2009, ISBN 9780816058952

Sands, Donald B. (Ed) Middle English verse romances, Chicago; Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966

Scull, Christina and Wayne G. Hammond The J.R.R. Tolkien companion and guide; reader’s guide London; HarperCollins, 2006 ISBN 9780007149186

Shippey, Tom

  • R.R. Tolkien; author of the century London; HarperCollins, 2000 ISBN 0261104012
  • The road to Middle-earth; how J.R.R. Tolkien created a new mythology London: Harper Collins 2005 (REV). ISBN 0261102753
  • ‘A question of sources’; Mallorn 49, Spring 2010, p11

Simonson, Martin ‘Redefining the romantic hero’ in Tolkien’s shorter works; proceedings of the 4th seminar of the Deutsche Tolkien Gesellschaft & Walking Tree Publishers decennial conference2007,  edited by Margaret Hiley and Frank Weinreich.   Zurich and Jena; Walking Tree Press, 2008 ISBN 9783905703115


Sir Orfeo:

  • Middle English text in: Middle English verse romances, edited by Donald B. Sands. Chicago; Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966 pp 185-200.
  • Modern English text in: Sir Gawain and the green knight; Pearl and Sir Orfeo, Translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London; HarperCollins, 2006 ISBN 0261102591 P128-144


Slack, Anna E. ‘A star above the mast; Tolkien, Faërie and the Great Escape’ in Tolkien’s shorter works; proceedings of the 4th seminar of the Deutsche Tolkien Gesellschaft & Walking Tree Publishers decennial conference2007,  edited by Margaret Hiley and Frank Weinreich.   Zurich and Jena; Walking Tree Press, 2008 ISBN 9783905703115

Sontag, Susan On Photography Harmondsworth; Penguin Books, 1979 ISBN 0140053972

Stanton, Michael N. Hobbits, elves, and wizards: exploring the wonders and worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings. 2nd Ed. New York; Palgrave Macmillan, 2002 ISBN 1403960259

Synge, John Millington The Aran Islands Teddington; The Echo Library, 2006 ISBN 1847022847

Tolkien, J.R.R

  • The adventures of Tom Bombadil and other verses from the Red Book London; George Allen and Unwin 1962 (Third impression 1968) SBN 045210196
  • The book of lost tales, part II, edited by Christopher Tolkien London; George Allen and Unwin 1984 ISBN 0048232653
  • The fellowship of the ring; being the first part of the lord of the rings (2nd Ed) London; George Allen and Unwin, 1966 SBN 048230456
  • The happy mariners (Tha eadigan saelidan) in The book of lost tales, part II, (pp273-276) edited by Christopher Tolkien London; George Allen and Unwin 1984 ISBN 0048232653
  • The hobbit (3rd Ed) London; George Allen and Unwin, 1966
  • Letters, selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter, Boston; Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981 ISBN 0395315557
  • Looney in: The Oxford magazine, January 18th
  • On fairy-stories; expanded edition with commentary and notes, edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson London; HarperCollins 2008 ISBN 9780007244669
  • Sauron defeated; history of Middle-earth, IX (Ed. Christopher Tolkien) London; HarperCollins, 1992 ISBN 0261102400
  • The sea-bell; Poem number 15 in: The adventures of Tom Bombadil and other verses from the Red Book London; George Allen and Unwin 1962 (Third impression 1968) SBN 045210196
  • The Silmarillion London; George Allen and Unwin, 1977 ISBN 0048231398
  • Sir Gawain and the green knight; Pearl and Sir Orfeo, Translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London; HarperCollins, 2006 ISBN 0261102591
  • Smith of Wootton Major; extended edition edited by Verlyn Flieger London; HarperCollins 2005 ISBN 0007202474

Webster Brenda S.  Yeats: a psychoanalytic study London; MacMillan, 1974 SBN 333166213

Woolf, Stuart (Ed) Nationalism in Europe London; Routledge, 1996 ISBN 0203432851

Yeats, William Butler

~ Collected poems of William Butler Yeats London: Wordsworth editions, 2000 ISBN 9781853264542

~ Poetical works of William Butler Yeats Two volumes; Volume 1, Lyrical Poems London: MacMillan & Co. Ltd, 1908.

Websites (All accessed 18/09/2018),

 Thanks to;

Janet B. Croft, Edith Crowe, David Gransby and Alan Reynolds for help accessing sources; and to Caitlin Jenkins for a skilful assessment of the text.


[1] Lewis Carroll, A boat beneath a sunny sky – acrostic poem on the name of Alice Pleasance Liddell, final verse:

Ever drifting down the stream–
Lingering in the golden gleam–
Life, what is it but a dream? (Carroll, L, p 245)

[2] Lang’s series of twelve Fairy books enjoyed great popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; each was named for the colour of its cover, from the Red fairy book to the Olive fairy book. Ruth Berman discusses Tolkien’s relationship to these tales in Mythlore 26:1/2, 127-135.

[3] [Link to a review that gives some detail of this speech, accessed 03/2010]

[4] [accessed 03/2010]

[5] In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Brooke and Moore started what was then called the “Gaelic literary revival” and it was based upon antiquarian interest. The Irish literary revival was the continuance of this, marking, at the same time, the beginning of that large body of fiction and poetry called Anglo-Irish literature. The term “revival” is somewhat misguiding for what it produced was completely new: a body of Irish literature in English. ( van Essen, 23)

[6] Old English poetry is accentual and alliterative verse. Its meter is defined by its stress patterns, not by vowel length or number of syllables. The Old English poetic line has two halves, divided by a sharp pause, or caesura. There are two beats to each half-line. Thus there are four beats to the line. The alliteration of the whole line is determined by the first heavily stressed syllable of the second half-line. This third stress will alliterate with either or both of the two stresses in the first half-line. The third stress is the key sound that locks the two half-lines together. The fourth stress does not usually alliterate. Naturally there must be at least four syllables in each half-line so that two stresses can be made. A varying number of unaccented syllables surrounding the stresses is permitted. (Chickering, 29)

[7] …..the turn’s location appears widely flexible ……… it can appear anywhere…… (Evans, 1-7)

[8] A sonnet is fundamentally a dialectical construct which allows the poet to examine the nature and ramifications of two usually contrastive ideas, emotions, states of mind, beliefs, actions, events, images, etc., by juxtaposing the two against each other, and possibly resolving or just revealing the tensions created and operative between the two. (Miller, 1-7; See also Funaro, below)


[9] As an interesting aside, Wikepedia claims that the solution to Exeter Book riddle 60 is a conch shell, a beguiling notion since the first 6.5 lines of the Riddle  speak of a liminal location between land and sea, that evokes the opening lines of the Sea-Bell. However, other commentators define the riddle object as a chalice or a reed pen.  (Wikepedia, Conch, accessed 18/02/2010)

[10] In popular folklore, it is believed that if one holds an open conch shell (or any other large marine snail shell) to the ear, the ocean can be heard. This phenomenon is caused by the resonant cavity of the shell producing a form of pink noise from the surrounding background ambiance. (Wikepedia, Conch)

[11] The lugworm or sandworm is a large marine worm of the phylum Annelida. Its coiled castings are a familiar sight on a beach at low tide but the animal itself is not seen except by those who, from curiosity or to use as fishing bait, dig the worm out of the sand


[12] Knotgrass; Scientific name: Polygonum aviculare L. Habitat; all sorts of open ground. Distribution: Commonest species of genus throughout British Isles except in North Scotland.  Sprawling, spreading across waste places, roadsides and seashores, this plain, weedy, very variable, low growing – sometimes completely prostrate  – wildflower is best viewed through a hand-lens where its tiny little flowers come as quite a surprise.  When viewed closely, these small, white – sometimes pink – flowers (1-2mm across) have green centres and they emerge from leaf axils, sometimes solitarily, sometimes in small clusters.  They bloom from June to November.  The leaves are oval with the junction between them and the stem surrounded by an ochrea or papery sheath.  The stem leaves on this plant are larger than the leaves on the side branches.  This native plant is an annual and it belongs to the Polygonaceae family.   17th century herbalist and apothecary, Nicholas Culpeper, wrote of Knotgrass ‘It is generally known so well that it needs no description’.  He goes on to say that ‘Being boiled in wine and drank, it is profitable to those that are stung or bitten by venomous creatures’.   In modern herbalism, Knotgrass is used to treat dysentery.  Also known in some parts as ‘Bird-weed’, this wildflower is much visited by seed-eating birds.  [Information from,


[13] Annie Kinniburgh, in Mythlore 28, 1-2, Issue 107/8 p40-41, as part of her: “The Noldor and the Tuatha de Danaan; J.R.R. Tolkien’s Irish influences”, discusses the location and accessibility of the faerie realms.

[14] wood (adj.):  “violently insane” (now obsolete), from O.E. wod “mad, frenzied,” from P.Gmc. *woth- (cf. Goth. woþs “possessed, mad,” O.H.G. wuot “mad, madness,” Ger. wut “rage, fury”), from PIE *wet- “to blow, inspire, spiritually arouse;” source of L. vates “seer, poet,” O.Ir. faith “poet;” “with a common element of mental excitement” [Buck].  Cf: O.E. woþ “sound, melody, song,” and O.N. oðr “poetry,” and the god-name Odin (accessed 09/05/10)

Wood  (n.)  O.E. wudu, earlier widu “tree, trees collectively, the substance of which trees are made,” from P.Gmc. *widuz (cf. O.N. viðr, Dan., Swed. ved “tree, wood,” O.H.G. witu “wood”), perhaps from PIE *widhu- “tree, wood” (cf. Welsh gwydd “trees,” Gael. fiodh- “wood, timber,” O.Ir. fid “tree, wood”)……..Out of the woods “safe” is from 1792. [ibid]


[15] Note that Yeats himself sleeps beneath the hill – Under bare Ben Bulben’s shade/ in Drumcliffe churchyard Yeats is laid. (Collected Poems  304)

The_Adventures_of_Tom_Bombadil_cover  TOLKIEN'S POETRY COVER IMAGE



I haven’t been blogging much lately anyway, due to RL stuff, but when I get onto WordPress there seems to be a problem with my notifications which I can’t overcome.

The alert ‘bell’ indicates that a comment or response is waiting, but when I click on it all that happens is a turning circle in the middle of the screen that seems prepared to go on forever.

Has anyone else experienced this?  Any help gratefully received,  it’s very off-putting and I have no idea how to overcome it.