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From Tolkien Gateway

Imram (The Death of Saint Brendan) is a poem written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in Time and Tide on 3 December 1955.[1] The title is Irish for "voyage"; Immrama were Celtic tales about Irish explorers who sought the Land of Promise in the Atlantic.


In his deathbed, Saint Brendan is questioned by a disciple about his sea travels to the west. He does not remember much, save for a Cloud, a Tree and a Star. Sailing with his company, he had travelled for a year when they were covered by a Cloud. This came from a very high mountain that rose shoreless in the sea, the remnants of a land of powerful kings. They kept sailing till the Cloud was left behind, reaching a beautiful isle. Landing there, they crossed a silent dale and found a giant Tree with white leaves and a trunk as a tower. Brendan and his company felt they were in a dream and wished to remain there, but then the Tree shook. Leaves felt and a song from the Elvenkind was sung from high. Brendan's disciple asks him about the Star, and he explains that he saw it after they crossed a old road above the round world. The disciple insists on knowing what he saw beyond in the Living Land, as it is said Brendan was the only one who visited it, but Brendan answers that if he wants to know that land full of flowers, "in a boat then, brother, far afloat / you must labour in the sea, / and find for yourself things out of mind: / you will learn no more of me." Then Saint Brendan died and journed where no ship can return.

History of composition

Tolkien first composed the poem to be included in The Notion Club Papers (1945), in which Philip Frankley is the author and reads it to the Club. This causes amazement to Lowdham, which comments the correlations of the poem with his mind exploration of the Atlantis mythos.[2] As Christopher Tolkien comments, his father put a great effort in the composition of the poem before and after, as it is reflected in the several versions of the poem. The first text was titled The Ballad of St. Brendan's Death, while the following versions were The Death of Saint Brendan. Some of these versions were included in the narrative of different manuscripts of The Notion Club Papers. Tolkien kept reworking the poem with the title Imram till it was published in Time and Tide in 1955. Christopher included the full poem in Sauron Defeated, as it was hard to find.[3]

Full Poem

At last out of the deep seas he passed,
and mist rolled on the shore;
under clouded moon the waves were loud,
as the laden ship him bore
to Ireland, back to wood and mire,
to the tower tall and grey,
where the knell of Cluian-ferta’s bell
tolled in the green Galway.
Where Shannon down to Lough Derg ran
under a rainclad sky
Saint Brendan came to his journey’s end
to await his hour to die.

‘O! tell me, father, for I loved you well,
if still you have words for me,
of things strange in the remembering
in the long and lonely sea,
of islands by deep spells beguiled
where dwell the Elven-kind:
in seven long years the road to Heaven
or the Living Land did you find?’

‘The things I have seen, the many things,
have long now faded far;
only three come clear now back to me:
a Cloud, a Tree, a Star.
We sailed for a year and a day and hailed
no field nor coast of mean;
no boat nor bird saw we ever afloat
for forty days and ten.
We saw no sun at set or dawn,
but a dun cloud lay ahead,
and a drumming there was like thunder coming
and a gleam of fiery red.

Upreared from sea to cloud then sheer
a shoreless mountain stood;
its sides were black from the sullen tide
to the red lining of its hood.
No cloak of cloud, no lowering smoke,
no looming storm of thunder
in the world of men saw I ever unfurled
like the pall that we passed under.
We turned away, and we left astern
the rumbling and the gloom;
then the smoking cloud asunder broke,
and we saw the Tower of Doom:
in its ashen head was a crown of red,
where the fishes flamed and fell.
Tall as a column in High Heaven’s hall,
its feet were deep as Hell;
grounded in chasms the water drowned
and buried long ago,
it stands, I ween, in forgotten lands
where the kings of kings lie low.

We sailed then on, till the wind had failed,
and we toiled then with the oar,
and hunger an thirst us sorely wrung,
and we sang our psalms no more.
A land at last with a silver strand
at the end of strenght we found;
the waves were singing in pillared caves
and pearls lay on the ground;
and steep the shores went upward leaping
to slopes of green and gold,
and a stream out of rich and teeming
through a coomb of shadow rolled.

Through gates of stone we rowed in haste,
and passed and left the sea;
and silence like dew fell in that isle,
and holy it seemed to be.
As a green cup, deep in a brim of green,
that with wine the white sun fills
was the land we found, and we saw there stand
on a laund between the hills
a tree more fair than ever I deemed
might climb in Paradise;
its foot was like a great tower’s root,
it height beyond men’s eyes;
so wide its branches, the least could hold
in shade an acre long,
and they rose as steep as mountain-snows
those boughs so broad and strong;
for white as a winter to my sight
the leaves of that tree were,
they grew more close than swan-wing plumes,
all long and soft and fair.

We deemed then, maybe, as in a dream,
that time had passed away
and our journey ended; for no return
we hoped, but there to stay.
In the silence of that hollow isle,
in the stillness, then we sang-
softly us seemed, but the sound aloft
like a pealing organ rang.
Then trembled the tree from crown to stem;
from the limbs the leaves in air
as white birds fled in wheeling flight,
and left the branches bare.
From the the sky came dropping down on high
a music not of bird,
not voice of man, nor angel’s voice;
but maybe there is a third
fair kindred in the world yet lingers
beyond the foundered land.
Yet steep are the seas and the waters deep
beyond the White-tree Strand.’

‘O! stay now father! There’s more to say.
But two things you have told:
The Tree, the Cloud; but you spoke of three.
The Star in mind you hold?’
‘The Star? Yes, I saw it, high and far,
at the parting of the ways,
a light on the edge of the Outer Night
like silver set ablaze,
where the round world plunges steeply down,
but on the old road goes,
as an unseen bridge that on the arches runs
to coasts than no man knows.’

‘But men say, father that ere the end
you went where none have been.
I would here you tell me, father dear,
of the last land you have seen.’

‘In my mind the Star I still can find,
and the parting of the seas,
and the breath as sweet and keen as death
that was borne upon the breeze.
But where they they bloom those flowers fair,
in what air or land they grow,
what words beyond the world I heard,
if you would seek to know,
in a boat then, brother, far afloat
you must labour in the sea,
and find for yourself things out of mind:
you will learn no more of me.’

In Ireland, over wood and mire,
in the tower tall and grey,
the knell of Cluain-ferta’s bell
was tolling in green Galway.
Saint Brendan had come to his life’s end
under a rainclad sky,
and journeyed whence no ship returns,
and his bones in Ireland lie.

See also

External links


  1. Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond (2006), The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: I. Chronology, p. 480
  2. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Sauron Defeated, "Part Two: The Notion Club Papers Part Two: Night 69", pp. 261-265
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Sauron Defeated, "Part Two: The Notion Club Papers Part Two: Note on 'The Death of Saint Brendan' with the text of the published form 'Imram'", pp. 295-296