Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “The Island of the Fay,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. II: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 597-606 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 597:]


This charming fantasy is one of the most beautiful of Poe's stories. It was originally published as a plate article in Graham's Magazine, accompanying a steel engraving by John Sartain “after an original by Martin.” The Martin named was undoubtedly the contemporary English artist John Martin, whose powerfully imaginative historical paintings and later mezzotint illustrations of the Bible and “Paradise Lost” were enthusiastically admired by some and as vehemently condemned by others. John Sartain had known Martin in London, thought highly of him, and owned a number of his etchings. Certainly Sartain's engraving and Poe's story are closely interrelated; probably each contributed to the development of the other.*

Poe may have obtained something from a well-known story about William Blake, repeated as an introduction to a poem of ten quatrains signed “A” in the New-York Mirror, June 21, 1834:


Reading, the other day, Macnish's very interesting volume on the “Philosophy of Sleep,” I was much struck with his brief, but very characteristic account [page 598:] of the painter Blake. He was remarkable for his “habit of conversing with angels, demons and heroes, and taking their likenesses .”... One of his visions appeared to me so particularly poetical in its conception, that I was irresistibly impelled to ... give it a poetic dress.

“Did you ever see a fairy's funeral, madam?” He once said to a lady ... “Never, sir,” was the answer. “I have,” said Blake, “but not before last night. I was walking alone in my garden; there was great stillness among the branches and flowers, and more than common sweetness in the air; I heard a low and pleasant sound, and knew not whence it came. At last I saw the broad leaf of a flower move, and underneath I saw a procession of creatures of the size and color of green and gray grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose-leaf, which they buried with songs, and then disappeared. It was a fairy funeral.”

Suggestions of tone and color, and the annual cycle, may owe something to “A Fairy Tale” in the Southern Literary Messenger for January 1836. A lonely fairy, “placed by Titania on this lower earth,” was alternately rejoiced and desolated, year after year, by the spring blossoming and autumn death of the special flower to which she had given her heart, until “she wished never again to fix her heart upon the perishing flowers of Earth ... and she sighed for another home.” When “the time of her sojourn was over ... she slept” and on awakening found herself in Fairy-land: “... The longings of her heart were over. She had found a home utterly free from the chilling shadows of mortality.”

Poe drew also upon a dream fantasy — perhaps his own — which he described in the early versions (1835, 1840) of “Hans Pfaall” — a passage later canceled:

And out of this melancholy water arose a forest of tall eastern trees like a wilderness of dreams. And I bore in mind that the shadows of the trees which fell upon the lake remained not on the surface where they fell — but sunk slowly [page 599:] and steadily down, and commingled with the waves, while from the trunks of the trees other shadows were continually coming out, and taking the places of their brothers thus entombed. “This then,” I said thoughtfully, “is the very reason why the waters of this lake grow blacker with age, and more melancholy as the hours run on.”

Poe's story was written presumably about April 1841, while the June issue of Graham's Magazine was being prepared.


(A) Graham's Magazine for June 1841 (18:253-255); (B) Broadway Journal, October 4, 1845 (2:188-190); (C) Works (1850), I, 360-365. PHANTASY-PIECES, title only.

Griswold's text (C) is followed. It contains a new footnote and one other verbal change.


Nullus enim locus sine genio est. — Servius.   [[n]]   [[v]]

La musique,”{a} says Marmontel, {bb}in those “Contes Moraux”* {c} which, in all our translations, we have insisted upon calling “Moral Tales,” as if in mockery of their spirit{bb} — “la musique est le seul [page 600:] des talens qui jouissent de lui-même;{d} tous les autres veulent des témoins.”{e} (1) He here confounds the pleasure derivable from sweet sounds with the capacity for creating them. No more than any other talent, is that for music susceptible of complete enjoyment, where there is no second party to appreciate its exercise. And it is only in common with other talents that it produces effects which may be fully enjoyed in solitude. The idea which the raconteur has either failed to entertain clearly, or has sacrificed in its expression to his national love of point, is, doubtless, the very tenable one that the higher order of music is the most thoroughly estimated when we are{f} exclusively alone. The proposition, in this form, will be admitted at once by those who love the lyre for its own sake, and for its spiritual uses. But there is one pleasure still within the reach of fallen mortality — and perhaps only one — which owes even more than does music to the accessory sentiment of seclusion. I mean the happiness experienced in the contemplation of natural scenery. In truth, the man who would behold aright the glory of God upon earth must in solitude behold that glory. To me, at least, the presence — not of human life only — but of life in any other form than that of the green things which grow upon the soil and are voiceless — is a stain upon the landscape — is at war with the genius of the scene. I love, indeed, to regard the dark valleys, and the grey rocks, and the waters that silently smile,(2) and the forests that sigh in uneasy slumbers, and the proud watchful mountains that look down upon all — I love to regard these as themselves but the colossal members of one vast animate and sentient whole — a whole whose form (that of the sphere) is the most perfect and{g} most inclusive of all; whose path is among associate planets; whose meek handmaiden is the moon; whose mediate sovereign is the sun; whose life is eternity; whose thought{h} is that of a God; whose enjoyment is knowledge; whose destinies are lost in immensity; whose cognizance of ourselves is akin with our own cognizance of the animalculæ{i} which infest the brain — a being which we, in [page 601:] consequence, regard as purely inanimate and material, much in the same manner as these animalculæ{j} must thus regard us.

Our telescopes, and our mathematical investigations assure us on every hand — notwithstanding the cant of the more ignorant of the priesthood — that space, and therefore that bulk, is an important consideration in the eyes of the Almighty. The cycles in which the stars move are those best adapted for the evolution, without collision, of the greatest possible number of bodies. The forms of those{k} bodies are accurately such as, within a given surface, to include the greatest possible amount of matter; — while the surfaces themselves are so disposed as to accommodate a denser population than could be accommodated on the same surfaces otherwise arranged. Nor is it any argument against bulk being an object with God, that space itself is infinite; for there may be an infinity of matter to fill it. And since we see clearly that the endowment of matter with vitality is a principle — indeed, as far as our judgments{l} extend, the leading principle in the operations of Deity — it is scarcely logical to imagine it{m} confined to the regions of the minute, where we daily trace it, and {nn}not extending{nn} to those of the august. As we find cycle within cycle without end — yet all revolving around one far-distant centre which is the Godhead, may we not analogically suppose, in the same manner, life within life, the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine?(3) In short, we are madly erring, through self-esteem, in believing man, in either his temporal or future destinies, to be of more moment in the universe than that vast “clod of the valley”(4) which he tills and contemns, and to which he denies a soul for no more profound reason than that he does not behold it in{o} operation. {p} (5)

These fancies, and such as these, have always given to my meditations among the mountains, and the forests, by the rivers and the ocean, a tinge of what the every-day world would not fail to term the fantastic. My wanderings amid such scenes have been many, [page 602:] and far-searching, and often solitary; and{q} the interest with which I have strayed through many a dim deep valley, or gazed into the reflected Heaven of many a bright lake, has been an interest greatly deepened by the thought that I have strayed and gazed alone. What flippant Frenchman {r} was it who said, in allusion to the well-known work of Zimmerman, that, “la solitude est une belle chose; mais il faut quelqu’un pour vous dire que la solitude est une belle chose?(6) The epigram cannot be gainsayed;{s} but the necessity is a thing that does not exist.

It was during one of my lonely journeyings, amid a far-distant region of mountain locked within mountain, and sad rivers and melancholy tarns writhing or sleeping within all — that I chanced upon a certain{t} rivulet and island.{u} I came upon them suddenly in the leafy June, and threw myself upon the turf, beneath the branches of an unknown odorous shrub, that I might doze as I contemplated the scene. I felt that thus only should I look upon it — such was the character of phantasm which it wore.

On all sides — save to the west, where the sun was about sinking — arose the verdant walls of the forest. The little river which turned sharply in its course, and was thus immediately lost to sight, seemed to have no exit from its prison, but to be absorbed by the deep green foliage of the trees to the east — while in the opposite quarter (so it appeared to me as I lay at length and glanced upward) there poured down noiselessly and continuously into the valley, a rich golden and crimson water-fall from the sunset fountains of the sky.(7)

About midway in the short vista which my dreamy vision took in, one small circular island, profusely{v} verdured, reposed upon the bosom of the stream.

So blended bank and shadow there,

that each seemed pendulous in air —

so mirror-like was the glassy water, that it was scarcely possible to [page 603:] say at what point upon the slope of the emerald turf its crystal dominion began.(8)

My position enabled me to include in a single view both the eastern and western extremities of the islet; and I observed a singularly-marked difference in their aspects.(9) The latter was all one radiant harem of garden beauties. It glowed and blushed beneath the eye of the slant sunlight, and fairly laughed with flowers. The grass was short, springy, sweet-scented, and Asphodel-interspersed.(10) The trees were lithe, mirthful, erect — bright, slender and graceful — of eastern figure and foliage, with bark smooth, glossy, and parti-colored.(11) There seemed a deep sense of life and{w} joy about all; and although no airs blew from out the Heavens,(12) yet every thing had motion through the gentle sweepings to and fro of innumerable butterflies, that might have been mistaken for tulips with wings.§

The other or eastern end of the isle was whelmed in the blackest shade. A sombre, yet beautiful and peaceful gloom here pervaded all things. The trees were dark in color and mournful in form and attitude — wreathing themselves into sad, solemn, and spectral shapes, that conveyed ideas of mortal sorrow and untimely death. The grass wore the deep tint of the cypress, and the heads of its blades hung droopingly, and, hither and thither among it, were many small unsightly hillocks, low, and narrow, and not very long, that had the aspect of graves, but were not; although over and all about them the rue and the rosemary clambered.(13) The shade of the trees fell heavily upon the water, and seemed to bury itself therein, impregnating the depths of the element with darkness. I fancied that each shadow, as the sun descended lower and lower, separated itself sullenly from the trunk that gave it birth, and thus became absorbed by the stream; while other shadows issued momently from the trees, taking the place of their predecessors thus{x} entombed.(14)

This idea, having once seized upon my fancy, greatly excited it, and I lost myself forthwith in revery. “If ever island were enchanted,” [page 604:] said I to myself, “this is it. This is the haunt of the few gentle Fays who remain from the wreck of the race. Are these green tombs theirs? — or do they yield up{y} their sweet lives as mankind yield up their own? In dying, do they not rather waste away mournfully; rendering unto God {zz}little by little their existence,{zz} as these trees render up shadow after shadow,(15) exhausting their substance{a} unto dissolution? What the wasting tree is to the water that imbibes its shade, growing thus blacker by what it preys upon, may not the life of the Fay be to the death which ingulfs it?”{b}

As I thus mused, with half-shut eyes,(16) while the sun sank rapidly{c} to rest, and eddying currents careered round and round the island, bearing upon their bosom large, dazzling, white flakes{d} of the bark of the sycamore — flakes which, in their multiform positions upon the water, a quick imagination might have converted into any thing it pleased — while I thus mused, it appeared to me that the form of one of those very Fays about whom I had been pondering, made its way slowly into the darkness from out the light at the western end of the island. She stood erect in a singularly fragile canoe, and urged it with the mere phantom of an oar. While within the influence of the lingering sunbeams, her attitude seemed indicative of joy — but sorrow deformed it as she passed within the shade. Slowly she glided along, and at length rounded the islet and re-entered the region of light. “The revolution which has just been made by the Fay,” continued I, musingly, “is the cycle of the brief year of her life. She has floated through her winter and through her summer. She is a year nearer unto{e} Death: for I did not fail to see that as she came into the shade, her shadow fell from her, and was swallowed up in the dark water, making its blackness more black.”

And again the boat appeared, and the Fay; but about the attitude of the latter there was more of care and uncertainty, and less of elastic joy. She floated again from out the light, and into the [page 605:] gloom (which deepened momently) and again her shadow fell from her into the ebony water, and became absorbed into its blackness. And again and again she made the circuit of the island, (while the sun rushed down to his slumbers) and at each issuing{f} into the light, there was more sorrow about her person, while it grew feebler, and far fainter, and more indistinct; and at each passage into the gloom, there fell from her a darker shade, which became whelmed in a shadow more black. But at length, when the sun had utterly departed, the Fay, now the mere ghost of her former self, went disconsolately with her boat into the region of the ebony flood — and that she issued thence at all I cannot say, — for darkness fell over all things, and I beheld her magical figure no more.

[[Poe's Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears near the bottom of page 599:]

*  Moraux is here derived from mœurs, and its meaning is “fashionable,” or, more strictly, “of manners.” [Poe's note]

[The following footnote appears near the bottom of page 601:]

  Speaking of the tides, Pomponius Mela, in his treatise “De Sitû Orbis,” says “either the world is a great animal, or” &c. [Poe's note]

[The following footnote appears near the bottom of page 602:]

  Balzac — in substance — I do not remember the words. [Poe's note]

[The following footnote appears near the bottom of page 603:]

§  Florem putares nare per liquidum æthera. — P. Commire. [Poe's note]


[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 599:]

Motto:  Poe at first used a version of his “Sonnet — To Science.”

SCIENCE, true daughter of old Time thou art,

Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes!

Why prey'st thou thus upon the poet's heart,

Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

How should he love thee, or how deem thee wise

Who wouldst not leave him, in his wandering,

To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,

Albeit be [sic] soared with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?

And driven the Hamadryad from the wood?

Has thou not spoilt a story in each star?

Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood?

The elfin from the grass? — the dainty fay,

The witch, the sprite, the goblin — where are they?

Anon. (A)

a  No part of the quotation is italicized (A)

bb ... bb  with the same odd confusion of thought and language which leads him to give his very equivocal narratives the title of “Contes Moraux(A)

c  Note omitted (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 600:]

d  lui même; (A); lui même; (B, C)

e  temoins.” (A); temoins.” (B, C)

f  are the most (A)

g  and the (A)

h  intelligence (A)

i  animalculæ in crystal, or of those (A); animalculæ (C)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 601:]

j  animalculæ (A); animalculæ (C)

k  these (A)

l  judgments (B) misprint

m  that it is (A)

nn ... nn  that it does not extend (A)

o  it in / its (A)

p  Note omitted (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 602:]

q  and (B) misprint

r  Note omitted (A, B)

s  gainsayed; (A, B, C)

t  a certain / the (A)

u  island. / the island which are the subject of our engraving. (A)

v  fantastically (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 603:]

w  and of (A)

x  Omitted (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 604:]

y  up at all (A)

zz ... zz  their existence little by little, (A)

a  substances (A, B)

b  it — but what fairy-like form is this which glides so solemnly along the water?” (A)

c  sank rapidly / rapidly sank (A)

d  flakes, (C) comma deleted to follow A, B

e  to (A)

[The following variant appears at the bottom of page 605:]

f  issuing forth (A)

[page 605, continued:]


Mottoes:  For the first version Poe used his own “Sonnet — To Science” marked as anonymous, altering the ending to adapt it to the tale. The motto in later versions, which means “No place is without its genius,” is slightly misquoted from Servius’ Commentary on Vergil's Æneid, V, 95. Poe's form is precisely like that in Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), Book VII, chapter V, near the end, which obviously is his source. Burton Pollin called my attention to this source. [See his Discoveries in Poe, pp. 21-22.]

1.  See Jean-François Marmontel (1723-1799), Contes Moraux, “La Bergère des Alpes,” in Oeuvres Complètes (Paris, 1818), III, 272, and in Contes (Paris, 1829), II, 78. There is an English translation by C. Dennis and R. Lloyd, about 1790, but Poe probably took his quotation from Bulwer's Ernest Maltravers (1837), Book VII, chapter 2; it means, “Music is the only talent which gives pleasure of itself; all the others require witnesses.”

2.  Compare “Al Aaraaf,” II, 132-133: “To lone lake that smiles, / In its dream of deep rest.”

3.  Compare the last sentence of Eureka: “In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life — Life — Life within Life — the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine.”

4.  For “clods of the valley” see Job 21:33.

5.  Pomponius Mela, De situ orbis, III, i, “Mundus ... si ... unum animal est: an ...” Poe took his quotation from Hugh Murray's Encyclopaedia of Geography, as Richard Wilbur pointed out to me. On p. 37 of the London (1834) edition we find that Pomponius Mela speculated on the cause of the tides: “... either the world is a great animal whose breathings excite the alternate movements; [page 606:] or it contains deep caves, into which the waters are alternately absorbed and ejected.” Murray continues: “He does, however mention the theory that supposes them influenced by the moon ...

6.  Johann Georg von Zimmermann's first essay on Solitude (Einsamkeit) was not published until 1756. The flippant remark that “solitude is a fine thing, but one needs somebody to tell that solitude is a fine thing” was made about something else, for it comes from “Entretien Premier” in Les Entretiens of Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac (Leyden, 1659), p. 62, and Balzac thought he had said it before. Poe, as his footnote indicates, quoted from memory. Balzac wrote: “La solitude est certainement une belle chose; mais il y a plaisir d’avoir quelqu’un qui scache respondre, à qui on puisse dire de temps en temps, que c’est une belle chose!”

7.  Compare “The Valley Nis” (first version of “The Valley of Unrest”), lines 38-42, “the gorgeous clouds do fly / ... Rolling like a waterfall / O’er th’ horizon's fiery wall.”

8.  The couplet is altered from Poe's own “City in the Sea.” Compare “Landor's Cottage”: “... so clear was this heaven, so perfectly, at times, did it reflect all objects above it, that where the true bank ended and where the mimic one commenced, it was a point of no little difficulty to determine.”

9.  For a discussion of Poe's treatment of the west in this story, see Edwin Fussell, Frontier: American Literature and the American West (1965), pp. 164-165.

10.  Poe mentions “the quiet asphodel” in “The Valley Nis,” line 26. It is usually a symbol of death, as it is in “Berenicë,” but the flower is used with a difference in “Eleonora” and perhaps here.

11.  Compare the last paragraph of “The Domain of Amheim”: “... there is a dream-like intermingling to the eye of tall slender Eastern trees —”

12.  Compare “The Valley of Unrest,” lines 17-18, “Ah, by no wind those clouds are driven / That rustle through the unquiet Heaven.” The footnote below is the eleventh line of Père Jean Commire's “Papilio et Apis,” which I find in Johannis Commirii Carmina (Paris, 1714), I, 308. Poe, however, probably found it with a translation among “Some Ingenious Thoughts” in Isaac D’Israeli's Curiosities of Literature: “P. Commire, a pleasing writer of Latin verse, says of the flight of a butterfly, ‘... IT FLIES, and swims a flower in liquid air!’ ”

13.  Compare “For Annie,” lines 63-64, “A rosemary odor, / Commingled with pansies” which also alludes to Ophelia's speech in Hamlet, IV, v, 175-186.

14.  Compare the canceled passage from “Hans Pfaall” quoted in the introduction above.

15.  An echo of St. Matthew 22:21, “Render... unto God the things that are God's.”

16.  Compare “Al Aaraaf,” II, 72-73, “Bright beings! that ponder, / With half-closing eyes.”


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 597:]

*  See P. DeWolfe Miller, AL, May 1942; John Sartain's Reminiscences of a Very Old Man (1899), pp. 15-17; and Thomas Balston, John Martin 1789-1854: His Life and Works (London, 1947). [Burton R. Pollin has gathered evidence on which to base a persuasive argument that Martin's “original” was a simple etching illustrating one of his pamphlets (1828) on a water supply for London, and that Sartain in his engraving greatly elaborated and adapted Martin's work in response to suggestions from Poe. See his article in The Mystery and Detection Annual (Beverly Hills, 1972).]

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 598:]

  Poe might have seen the anecdote in Robert Macnish's book itself (Glasgow, 1830) — it appeared on pp. 227-228 of the New York edition of 1834 — or he might even have seen it in the source cited by Macnish, volume II of Allan Cunningham's Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters ... (London, 1829), pp. 137-138 of the edition issued by J. and J. Harper (New York, 1831).

  David K. Jackson called this story to my attention. See his Poe and the Southern Literary Messenger (1934), p. 106. The author was probably Margaret Mercer, a sister of Charles Fenton Mercer, congressman from Virginia for many years. The story may also have influenced Poe's “Eleonora,” which has much in common with “The Island of the Fay.” [Professor Pollin thinks both tales are indebted to La Motte-Fouque's Undine, in Grenville Mellen's translation, which was reviewed by Poe in Burton's for September 1839. See his article “Undine in the Works of Poe,” Studies in Romanticism, Winter 1975.]





[S:1 - TOM2T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions-The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (The Island of the Fay)