Bagmē Blōma “Flower of the Trees”: Tolkien’s Gothic poem

J.R.R. Tolkien‘s adventures in language creation are well known and do not need elaboration here. But, in addition to his conlanging projects, he also composed an original 18-line poem in the Gothic language, the best-attested member of the extinct East Germanic language family. The bulk of the Gothic corpus is the Codex Argenteus, which contains portions of the Gospels translated by the bishop Wulfila (c. 311–383).

Bagmē Blōma, “Flower of the Trees,” is an ode in three stanzas to the birch tree, and features both rhyme and alliteration (the latter being a crucial feature of old Germanic poetry). The poem reflects Tolkien’s own sense of aesthetics—fans of his work may detect prosodic similarities to his Elvish poetry—and is not intended to reflect how the Gothic poetry of Wulfila’s time would have been structured.

Since the historical Gothic corpus is so limited, Tolkien took it upon himself to reconstruct more Gothic words that likely existed, using a knowledge of historical linguistics and lexical items from Proto-Germanic that had been reconstructed based on Old English, Old High German, and Old Norse. An example from below is brūnáim, the dative plural of non-existent *brūns; this is a nod towards Proto-Germanic *brūnaz ‘brown,’ which itself is securely reconstructed from English brown, German brown, Dutch bruin, etc. In my commentary, I indicate whether each word is a form of an attested Gothic word or a reconstruction on the part of the poet.

Here it is, with commentary and translation that is as literal as possible:

Bagmē Blōma

Brūnáim baíriþ baírka bōgum
láubans liubans liudandei,
gilwagrōni, glitmunjandei,
bagmē blōma, blauandei,
fagrafahsa, liþulinþi, 5
fráujinōndei faírguni.

Wōpjand windōs, wagjand lindōs,
lūtiþ limam láikandei;
slaíhta, raíhta, ƕeitarinda,
razda rōdeiþ reirandei, 10
bandwa baírhta, rūna gōda,
þiuda meina þiuþjandei.

Andanahti milhmam neipiþ,
liuhteiþ liuhmam laúhmuni;
láubos liubái fliugand láusái, 15
tulgus, triggwa, standandei.
Baírka baza beidiþ bláika
fráujinōndei faírguni.

1   brūnáim *brūnaz dat pl ‘brown’—baíriþ V baíran; the object is l. 2 láubans liubansbaírka *berkō ‘birch’—bōgum *bōguz ‘bough’

2   liubans adj liufs masc acc pl ‘dear, lovely’ (German lieb, archaic modern English lief)—liudandei II liudan fem nom pres part ‘growing, springing up’; agrees with l. 1 baírka

3   gilwa|grōni fem jō nom sg; a composition of *gelwaz ‘yellow’ and *grōnijaz ‘green’; the sense is adverbial—glitmunjandei fem nom pres part 1 glitmunjan ‘gleaming’; the abundance of Germanic gl– words in the semantic domain ‘shine’ is not a coincidence; they (along with gold, yellow, etc.) all come from the zero-grade of PIE *ģʰ(e)lh3– (cf. also Greek χλωρός ‘pale green’; Polish złoty ‘golden’)

4   bagmē gen pl bagms ‘trees’; cf. German Baum, English beamblōma ō ‘flower, bloom’; cf. German Blume, Dutch bloem; here evidently used with bagmē as a kenning for the birch itself (for the extension of ‘flower of’ to ‘best of, exemplar of,’ cf. anthology, lit. ‘a selection (λέγω) of flowers (ἄνθος)’)—blauandei VII *blēaną fem nom pres part ‘blowing’

5   fagrafahsa fem ō nom sg; a bahuvrihi composition of fagrs ‘fair’ and *fahsą ‘hair’; the referent is l. 4 blōmaliþu|linþi liþus ‘limb (cf. Dutch lid, German Glied)’ + *linþijaz (cf. lithe, German lind)

6   fráujinōndei fem nom pres part 2 fráujinōn ‘ruling; (substantivized) ruler, lady’—faírguni neut ja faírguni acc sg; take as the object of fráujinōndei

7   wōpjand VII wōpjan 3 pl ‘call, cry out’—wagjand 1 wagjan 3 pl ‘(cause to) move, shake’—lindōs fem ō *lindō acc pl ‘lime trees, linden trees’; cf. German Linde

8   lūtiþ II *lūtaną 3 sg ‘stoops, bends low’; cf. lout, OE lūtanlimam *limuz dat pl ‘limbs, branches’; historically a u-stem noun, but here with an a-stem ending—láikandei fem nom pres part VII láikan ‘jumping, dancing, playing’; cf. Old English lācan ‘swing, wave’

9   slaíhta ō ‘smooth’—raíhta ‘straight’ (cf. [up]right)—ƕeita|rinda fem ō nom sg; a bahuvrihi composition of ƕeits ‘white’ and *rindō ‘bark, crust’

10   razda fem ō acc sg ‘language, speech’; OE reord, OHG rartarōdeiþ 1 rōdjan 3 sg ‘speaks’—reirandei fem nom sg pres part 3 reiran ‘trembling’

11   bandwa fem ō ‘sign, token’—baírhta ‘bright’—rūna fem ō ‘secret, mystery’; cf. rune

12   þiuda fem ō acc sg ‘people, folk’ < cf. archaic modern English thede, German Deut[sch], Old Irish túath < PIE *tewtéh2; with meina, the object of þiuþjandeiþiuþjandei fem nom sg pres part 1 þiuþjan ‘doing good to, blessing’

13   anda|nahti neut ja ‘evening’ = ‘before (PIE *h2entí, cf. Greek ἀντί) night (*nahwt-)—milhmam masc n milhma dat pl ‘clouds’—neipiþ 1 *nīpaną; cf. OE nīpan (eg. genāp under nihthelm “it darkened under night’s helm,” The Wanderer l. 96a)

14   liuhteiþ 1 *leuhtijaną 3 sg ‘illuminates, lights up’; cf. German leuchtenliuhmam masc n *leuhman- dat pl ‘lights’; is this an adverbial usage of the dative plural (cf. OE wundrum ‘wonderfully’) = ‘brightly’?—laúhmuni neut ja ‘lightning’

15   fliugand II *fleuganą 3 pl ‘fly, glide’

16   tulgus u ‘steadfast’—triggwa fem ō ‘covenant’; the word is a noun built on triggws ‘trustworthy’ (cf. true, trust); but the word is a deliberate pun here, as the Old English cognate trēow can mean both ‘truth, faith’ and ‘tree’

17   baza ō *bazaz ‘bare’—bláika ō *blaikaz ‘bright, shining’

The Flower of the Trees

On brown boughs bears the birch
lovely leaves, growing them,
yellow-green, gleaming,
the flower of the trees, blowing,
fair-faxed, limb-lithe, 5
mistress of the mountain.

The winds wail, they stir the limes;
playing, she bends down with her limbs;
smooth, straight, white-barked,
she speaks a language, trembling, 10
a bright sign, a good mystery,
she blesses my people.

The evening darkens with clouds,
lightning illuminates brightly;
Lovely leaves fly loose, 15
steadfast, a covenant, standing.
The bare shining birch waits,
mistress of the mountain.