Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Early responses to “Goblin Feet”

Ah, “Goblin Feet”, that debatable trifle, with its flittermice, beetle-things, gnomes, goblins, golden honey-flies. This short poem, first published in the collection, Oxford Poetry 1915, is as lovely and charming to some readers as it is nauseatingly twee to others. Many people have obviously enjoyed it (or at least editors have assumed that children would enjoy it; do they?), since the poem has been reprinted in many different anthologies.

But Tolkien’s own opinion soured, more and more Grinch-like, with the years. Looking back on it more than a half-century later, he wrote — to the editor of yet another anthology requesting permission to reprint it — “I wish the unhappy little thing, representing all that I came (so soon after) to fervently dislike, could be buried for ever.” I’ve written a good deal about both the poem and Tolkien’s attitude toward it (notably this piece), and I think there is some reason to question the vehemence of Tolkien’s response. (John Garth, for one, seems to agree; he suggests we might read Tolkien’s damnation of the poem “with perhaps a hint of self-parody”.) But let me not repeat myself unduly. However it happened, and to whatever degree, it’s a fact that Tolkien came to dislike “Goblin Feet”. Not so some of his earliest readers.

Geraldine Hodgson, writing in 1919, a scant four years after Tolkien’s poem first appeared in print, saw fit to single it out as one of “the better poems in the 1915 volume [of Oxford Poetry]”, referring to “Mr. Tolkien’s delightfully childlike, ineffably gay Goblin Feet” [1]. The reference comes in “English Poetry of the Early Twentieth Century”, the seventh, and penultimate, chapter of her book — a commendably audacious subject, since she was less than two decades into that century at the time the undertook her assessment. She admits at the outset, “[w]e are too close to it to appraise recent Poetry, too close to leave it entirely out of account” [2].

The chapter is quite interesting, in large part because of the author’s catholic approach and her close proximity to the poetry in question (proximity in time, not in person; she points out in her preface that she has no connection to any of the poets she discusses, save one, killed in France during the Great War). With today’s “canon is king” mentality, you’d be hard-pressed to find critics meticulously picking a path through university publications the way Hodgson does. She considers works of the War Poets, Walter de la Mare, John Masefield, Edwardians and Georgians, and — more to the point for us — “a younger coterie […], one immensely aware of itself and its work, viz. that succession of young Oxford singers, whose work, since 1910, Mr. Blackwell has so generously published […].” Hodgson continues: “There have been among them not a few poems of interest, some of promise, but, on the whole, as perhaps is only to be expected, they are far more good College exercises than lasting Poetry. Their particular weakness, with a few notable exceptions, is that their form is more distinguished than their matter […]” [3].

But remember, Hodgson singled out Tolkien’s poem as one of the best in the series, evidently one of the “few notable exceptions”. She also admits that “[i]t is temerarious to attempt definitive judgments on poems of a new generation while they are still so fresh” [4]. Fresh indeed! Hodgson’s is surely one of the earliest published responses to Tolkien’s creative work, in all likelihood the earliest (the earliest I’ve seen, at any rate) — and what’s most interesting to me is that it’s complimentary of a poem Tolkien would later wish he’d never written!

In fact, Hodgson liked “Goblin Feet” enough to mention it again in another book a few years later. This time, she reproduced the entire poem, with some minor deviations from the text in Oxford Poetry 1915. It had already been reprinted in two or three other anthologies by this time; perhaps the variants were introduced in one of these. She writes that
Mr. Tolkien, who appeared among the ‘Oxford Poets,’ in 1915, wrote a delightful poem of this kind, Goblin Feet. It has not Mr. de la Mare’s guileful guilelessness quite; but it cares for the things for which children care. […] Goblin Feet stands rather more than half-way from Mr. de la Mare’s spontaneous child-like attitude, and rather less than that from the following rather mild specimen of the fantastic artificiality and self-consciousness of that newer school which was perhaps born of the jazz music, discordant colours, and general clatter which, lately, so many people have so much sought after and apparently enjoyed. [5]
“The King of China’s Daughter” is the poem to which she refers, and Edith Sitwell the poet — today, a better known poet than Tolkien, yet Hodgson apparently considers “Goblin Feet” the superior work. This too, though four years later (1923), must still be one of the earliest appraisals of Tolkien’s creative work.

What a shame, and terrible coincidence, it is that Geraldine Hodgson died in 1937, probably missing out on a work she would surely have enjoyed — The Hobbit. But she wasn’t the only early commentator to notice “Goblin Feet” before Tolkien’s rise to prominence in fantasy literature. Just a couple of years before The Hobbit appeared, but twenty after “Goblin Feet” was first published, Blanche Weekes situated Tolkien’s poem alongside works by Paul Dunbar, Rabindranath Tagore, and others, as representative of “poems which children are likely to enjoy when they have reached the higher elementary grades”. Sadly, she botched his name as “J. R. Tolkein” [6]. Well, she wasn’t the first, and she won’t be the last. [7]

Clearly, the poem has made a lasting mark. It has been reprinted in at least seven anthologies over four decades (and perhaps some others I’ve missed). It simply won’t go away. And perhaps it was the poem’s refusal to “go gently into that good night”, as much as its twee style, that really nettled Tolkien in his own failing years. He could not complete “The Silmarillion”, but this unforgivably elfin thing would outlive him?! Oh yes, that would have been enough to irritate the Professor, I think. I, for one, am glad the poem survived — and I’m clearly not alone.

Let me conclude with a chronological appendix of poetry anthologies in which “Goblin Feet” has appeared (often with minor variants). Can anyone add to this list? There should have been another in 1971, or thereabouts, but it is to be presumed that Tolkien withheld his permission. Note that I am excluding Mallorn, The Annotated Hobbit, and other Tolkien books where the poem (or parts of it) has been reprinted. The following list is limited to poetry anthologies (and pretty ephemeral ones, at that):
  • Crow, G.D.H. and T.W. Earp, eds. Oxford Poetry 1915. Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1915, pp. 64–5.
  • Crow, G.D.H. and W.S.V., eds. Oxford Poetry 19141916. Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1917, pp. 120–1. This is a wholesale reprint of the 1914, 1915, and 1916 anthologies, bound in one volume.
  • Owen, Dora, ed. The Book of Fairy Poetry. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1920, pp. 177–8.
  • [Unknown, ed.] Fifty New Poems for Children: An Anthology Selected from Books Recently Published By Basil Blackwell, Oxford. Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1922, pp. 26–7. I haven’t seen a Blackwell copy, but the same collection was published in America (New York: Brentano’s), where Tolkien’s name is misspelled “Tolkein”. This edition was printed in Great Britain, so I would hazard a guess that the British edition is basically identical.
  • Hodgson, Geraldine E[mma]. English Literature: With Illustrations from Poetry and Prose. Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1923, pp. 124–5.
  • Stokes, Anne [Knott], ed. The Open Door to Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931, pp. 5–6. She misspells Tolkien’s name as “J. R. R. Tolkein”.
  • Adshead, Gladys L. and Annis Duff, ed. An Inheritance of Poetry. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948, pp. 66–7. This collection includes “Goblin Feet” as well as poems and riddles from The Hobbit.
  • Ferris, Helen J. ed. Favorite Poems Old and New: Selected for Boys and Girls. New York: Doubleday, 1957, pp. 369–70. She also reprints “Roads Go Ever On and On”.
[1] Hodgson, Geraldine E. Criticism at a Venture. London: Erskine Macdonald, 1919, p. 174.
[2] p. 156.
[3] p. 173.
[4] p. 174.
[5] Hodgson, Geraldine E. English Literature: With Illustrations from Poetry and Prose. Oxford: Blackwell, 1923, p. 124–5.
[6] Weekes, Blanche Ethel. Literature and the Child. New York: Silver, Burdett & Co., 1935, p. 217.
[7] The earliest such conspicuous misspelling of Tolkien I’ve seen is 1922, in the Oxford University Calendar. For shame! But it’s also spelled correctly elsewhere in the same issue. :-/


  1. Jason thanks for this. When I found Oxford Poetry 1915 online for the Kindle I read through all the poems and think Tolkien's one of the best. I have just finished readimg Charles Kingsley's Water Babies and am in the middle of Peter Pan and it is fascinating to see the fairy literature background Tolkien wrote this early poetry in - something as you say Dimitra Fimi outlines in great detail and scope in her book. i also find it intetesting that in a lettwr to Edith around 1916-17 he refers to working on "his nonsense fairy language" wonder what Tolkien's real attitude to fairys was when he was working on Book of Lost Tales and am currently doing some digging into the early lexicons to establish this - he certainly came up with several original names for the fairy's. But then as Dimitra says in her book World War One came and the fairy tradition changed.

    Thanks Andy

  2. Andrew, after you read Peter Pan you might read Barrie's play Mary Rose, which seems to have got under Tolkien's skin (see the annotated edition of On Fairy-Stories for his comments). It is impressive, if one can go on the basis of reading it a couple of times. I didn't see the recent New York revival, which seems to have been successful:

    Curiously, Alfred Hitchcock apparently was interested in filming an altered version of the play:

  3. Andy:

    I have just finished readimg Charles Kingsley's Water Babies […]

    One of my favorites! :)

    i also find it intetesting that in a lettwr to Edith around 1916-17 he refers to working on “his nonsense fairy language” wonder what Tolkien’s real attitude to fairys was when he was working on Book of Lost Tales and am currently doing some digging into the early lexicons to establish this […]

    I tend to think Tolkien was being self-deprecating here. I don’t think he thought it was nonsense, but I think he used the work because it was his assumption that everybody else thought it was.

    And to both you and Dale: I haven’t ever read any Barrie. I suppose I really should get aroung to that one of these days.

  4. I once noted a passage in Barrie's short play, A Well-Remembered Voice, that is suggestive of a passage in The Lord of the Rings.

  5. That’s quite interesting. Nice find!

  6. Where in the 1922 Oxford University Calendar was Tolkien's name misspelled? If it was in the lists of members of Exeter or of the university, it was fixed by 1926, which is the earliest edition I have. I don't know where else he'd be listed in 1922, as I don't believe he had any other connection with the university at the time.

  7. David, yes, exactly. First, in the list of members of Exeter College, p. 317: “1916 Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel”; then, in the list of members of the University, p. 695: “Tolkein [sic], J.R.R. (MA) Exeter 1916”.

  8. I've always been surprised how much Tolkien praised Peter Pan, a story I truly loathe - it gives me the shivers. I even wrote a fan fiction which takes Legolas to Neverland to rescue poor lonely Peter and Tinkerbell......... well, to the point, is it not possible that Tolkien did indeed like Goblin Feet more than he liked to admit, simply because it was his very own work, one of his earliest and one of the first to be published. These simple human facts would excuse his retaining a soft spot for it.

  9. Right. Plus, I think Tolkien had a tendency to overstate and self-deprecate. See my comment to Andy above.

  10. Indeed so, I read that - he was of course brought up in a time when people were encouraged to be 'ever so 'umble', or at least not to brag about their talents or achievements. So was I; the greatest insult levelled at folk around our way was 'He'm proper bigative.' Tolkien would not have wanted to be that!

  11. Sandra Miesel5/21/2011 2:05 PM

    An illustration to "Goblin Feet" done by Warwick Goble for the Dora Owen anthology above appears in GOBLE'S FAIRY TALE ILLUSTRATIONS, ed. Jeff Menges (Dover, 2008).

    Despite the delightful concept of flittermice, I think it's an awfully weak poem.