The work is based on an earlier poem entitled "Looney", which Tolkien had published in The Oxford Magazine in 1934. The 1962 version of the poem is considerably darker than, and twice as long as, the earlier version. Tolkien was initially reluctant to include the work in the collection, feeling that it was out of keeping with the other poems. Although "Looney" was composed long before Tolkien began work on The Lord of the Rings, the 1962 version is subtitled "Frodos Dreme". Tolkien's mock-academic introduction to the collection suggests that, although the poem may not have been composed by Frodo Baggins, it was associated with him by its readers and reflects the dark dreams that plagued him in his final days in the Shire.
The poem is a first person narrative by a speaker who is never identified in the main body of the poem. The rhyme scheme and metre are highly elaborate.
"The Sea-Bell" opens with the speaker coming across a white shell "like a sea-bell" as he walks by the shore. He hears the sound of distant harbours and seas as he holds the shell in his hand. Suddenly a boat appears and he is borne away "to a forgotten strand in a strange land./ In the twilight beyond the deep".
The land he arrives in is glittering, beautiful and mysterious. He hears the sound of distant music, voices and footfalls, but when he seeks the source of the sound the mysterious inhabitants of the land flee from him. Climbing onto a mound he presumptuously names himself king of the land, and challenges its people to come forth. Darkness descends upon him and he falls to the ground, blinded and bent. For a year and a day afterwards he dwells in the wood "wandering in wit" and growing grey and old.
Eventually, broken and weary, he seeks out the sea and boards a ship that will take him back to his own land. However, when he arrives home the sea-bell no longer carries sounds from over the sea to him.The poem ends on a note of anguish as the speaker finds himself alienated from his own world, misunderstood and forsaken by those he once knew. The final image is of the narrator walking along a dark, rainy street talking to himself "for still they speak not, men that I meet".
Themes and Reception
The poem touches on many themes which are recurrent in Tolkien's work: mortality, the otherworld, alienation, desire, suffering, pride, the sea and nature. It has been suggested that the poem that follows it in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, "The Last Ship", is a companion piece. Verlyn Flieger has argued that the association of "The Sea-Bell" with Frodo gives the poem considerably more depth than it had in its 1934 recension and adds much to our understanding of the central character of The Lord of the Rings. W. H. Auden considered it Tolkien's best poetic work.
- Michael D. C. Drout, J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, Routledge, 2013, p. 517.
- Verlyn Flieger, A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien's Road to Faërie, The Kent State University Press, 1997, p. 208.
- Flieger (1997), p. 213.