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I am having some difficulties in an attempt to understand the meaning of the sentence:

Of many companies of bells that ring
Rousing pale visions of majestic days
The windy years have strewn down different ways;
And in the halls still doth thy spirit sing
Songs of old memory amid thy present tears,
Or hope of days to come half sad with many fears.

Can someone phrase this sentence differently (particularly the last four lines), but so as to lose as less as possible of the original exact meaning?

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    Please attribute the work of JRR Tolkien – Weather Vane Jul 19 at 13:42
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    It's not really a "sentence" – I think it would be more accurate to call it a "lyric" or "verse". And this would be almost impossible to answer without looking at the entire poem; see Details, Please and Why You Should Cite Your Source. – J.R. Jul 19 at 13:49
  • Only this part of the poem? What about the rest -- does all of that make sense to you? – Andrew Jul 19 at 13:54
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    Even that is not the whole sentence, which begins "Thy thousand pinnacles ..." – Weather Vane Jul 19 at 14:01
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According to the link this is from the Book of Lost Tales which means that it is a very early work of Tolkien's. I would describe it as "6 lines of verse"it is not a full sentence, nor is it a separate stanza or other separate section of the poem "The City of Present Sorrow" (Thank you Weather Vane for the link).

The full sentence is 8 lines or verse, specifically:

Thy thousand pinnacles and fretted spires
Are lit with echoes and lambent fires
Of many companies of bells that ring
Rousing pale visions of majestic days
The windy years have strewn down different ways;
And in thy walls still doth thy spirit sing
Songs of old memory amid thy present tears,
Or hope of days to come half-sad with many fears.

Note that verse in general often uses unusual grammatical forms to achieve mete and rhyme, as well as brevity (compressed meaning). Early verse by J.R.R. Tolkien in particular tends to use outdated forms and words, and unusual syntax. I do not advise a learner to imitate this verse as an example, much as I admire Tolkien's writing. All that said, I will attempt to recast the verse into prose, trying to preserve meaning.

[The unnamed city is being addressed as it it were a person] Your many towers are filled with lanterns and with echos of many bells. The ringing of those bells evokes dim images of past items of greatness which images the years have left along your various paths and streets. In your walls your spirit still sings songs which either recall old events, even as you cry from your current sadness, or else the songs express hope for the future, although that hope is saddened by many sources of fear.

I suspect, partly from references in other parts of the poem, and partly from what nI know of JRRT's history, that this is intended to be an image of Oxford during World War I. But I am not sure of that, and the question did not ask for literary analysis in any case. If there is remaining unclarity, please indicate this in a comment.

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    Interesting, I took "The windy years have strewn down different ways" to be metaphorical; with windy being turbulent, and ways being paths (through life), and visions the things strewn. – Weather Vane Jul 19 at 15:38
  • @Weather It could be.The whole thing is an extended metaphor, of course. I agree that the visions (which I rendered as "images") are what is strewn. The word "ways" may have meant "ways of life" but Tolkien was particularly fond of using "way" andf "ways" to man "path" or "road" and the image of "The Road" was an important one for him, as far back as his schoolboy verse 'Goblin Feet", and forward to "The Road goes ever on and on". – David Siegel Jul 19 at 21:15
  • Indeed, the verse "The Road Goes ever On" ends with "... until it [the road] joins some larger way / where many paths and errands meet. / And wither then? I cannot say". Note the use of four near synonyms here: "road", "way", "path", and "errand" (and this is not the most common meaning of "errand") – David Siegel Jul 19 at 21:21
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It seems that some of your confusion may be due to the fact that the last few sentences contain some Old English, like "thy" and "doth", some unusual sentence structures, as well as line breaking in odd places (common in poetry).

Thy thousand pinnacles and fretted spires
Are lit with echoes and the lambent fires
Of many companies of bells that ring
Rousing pale visions of majestic days
The windy years have strewn down different ways;
And in the halls still doth thy spirit sing
Songs of old memory amid thy present tears,
Or hope of days to come half sad with many fears.


Here is the excerpt put all together to show what goes with what, and what phrases refer to others.

Thy thousand pinnacles and fretted spires are lit with echoes, and the lambent fires of many companies of bells that ring, rousing pale visions of majestic days the windy years have strewn down different ways; and in the halls still doth thy spirit sing songs of old memory amid thy present tears, or hope of days to come, half sad with many fears.


Next, I remove the Old English and replace it with modern words.

  • thy: you/your
  • doth: does (often used before a verb expressing fact, and can be simply removed. Here it, along with the adverb "still", is placed before the subject)

Your thousand pinnacles and fretted spires are lit with echoes, and the lambent fires of many companies of bells that ring, rousing pale visions of majestic days the windy years have strewn down different ways; and in the halls your spirit still sings songs of old memory amid your present tears, or hope of days to come, half sad with many fears.


The full thing should be much easier to interpret now, without the need for complete rewording.

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That part of the stanza can be seen as two sentences, broken by the semicolon. As one sentence the first can be clarified with some phrasing and added words.

Thy thousand pinnacles / and fretted spires / are lit with / echoes and lambent fires / of many companies of bells that ring / rousing pale visions of majestic days / [which] the windy years have strewn down different ways.

The second

And in thy walls / still doth thy spirit / sing songs of old memory / amid thy present tears, or [songs of] hope of days to come / half-sad with many fears.

What it means exists in the mind of the reader, but can perhaps be inferred from its title "The City of Present Sorrow."

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