March 6, 2023

The Faëry Chasm

         It’s been a little while since I posted a fantasy poem, so today here’s one by William Wordsworth (UK, 1770-1850).  This is a sonnet published in 1820.

No fiction was it of the antique age:
A sky-blue stone, within this sunless cleft,
Is of the very footmarks unbereft
Which tiny Elves impressed; – on that smooth stage
Dancing with all their brilliant equipage
In secret revels – haply after theft
Of some sweet Babe – Flower stolen, and coarse Weed left
For the distracted Mother to assuage
Her grief with, as she might! – But, where, oh! where
Is traceable a vestige of the notes
That ruled those dances wild in character? –
Deep underground? Or in the upper air,
On the shrill wind of midnight? or where floats
O’er twilight fields the autumnal gossamer?

        I definitely dislike the line “Is of the very footmarks unbereft” which, ironically for a poet claiming to use the language of the common man, is an opaque double negative presumably jammed in there just to get the rhyme.  But on the other hand, there are two parts of the poem I find particularly moving.  One is the mention of the changeling in lines 6 through 9.  In terms of the “plot” of the poem, it’s just a throwaway line to say “Maybe the fairies were celebrating after stealing a human child.”  But the lines beautifully express the human mother’s complex feelings in a nightmare situation.
        I also really like the punch line of the whole thing: we can see the marks of their footprints, but where is there any trace of the most important part of the dance, the music?  That leaves no vestige.  I’m reminded of the lines from my own book Sleeping Legends Lie, “When a song is interrupted in the middle, where does the music go?  Is the song dead?  Does the song have a ghost?  No, it is as though it never existed.  It leaves no ash, no shadow, nothing.”

[Picture: Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, watercolor by William Blake, c. 1786 (Image from Tate).]

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