Sunday, August 31, 2014

3. A Miniature Island from Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Island of the Fay (1841) is a short but effective prose poem, originally published in Graham’s Lady and Gentleman’s Magazine. In just a few pages, the author ranges from broad philosophical speculations to a single dramatic and somber image that personifies his ideas.

A fay—I had to look this up, too—is an archaic term for elf, fairy, or sprite.  But this is not the cute, diminutive lawn ornament or a cousin of Tinkerbell.  Depending on the particular folk tradition, a fay can be a demoted angel or pagan deity, a spirit of the dead, a demon, the personification of some elemental force, or even the secretive remnant of a vanished race. 

Poe makes this explicit connection when he comments about the island he observes in his brief tale:

“If ever an island were enchanted,” said I to myself, “this is it.  This is the haunt of the few gentle Fays who remain from the wreck of the race.”

Etymologically speaking, the word 'fay' is ultimately derived from the Latin fātum, meaning fate, or fata, ‘the Fates’.  This connotation makes sense, given the use Poe makes of this concept in his story.   
The Island of the Fay begins with several broad philosophical comments about the importance of solitude to the enjoyment of music as well as the appreciation of nature.  The latter experience he elaborates into a remarkably pantheist world view, which also includes an early statement of what H.P. Lovecraft and his principal biographer would describe as the cosmic, or cosmicist perspective.  Expressing his awe of the beauty of nature—dark valleys, rocks, flowing water, forests, mountains—he remarks:

“…I love to regard these as themselves but the colossal members of one vast animate and sentient whole—a whole whose form (that of a sphere) is the perfect and 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 is that of a God; whose enjoyment is knowledge; whose destines are lost in immensity; whose cognizance of ourselves is akin with our own cognizance of the animalculæ which infest the brain…”

The mood is positive and expansive, at least initially.  The author goes on to talk about the wonders of astronomy and infinite space, the relative significance of humankind, and the concept of God in the center of such a vast universe.  But the mood changes significantly as the author finally begins his narrative:  “It was during one of my lonely journeyings, amid a far distant region of mountain…” 

As the sun is beginning to set, the traveler discovers a tiny island in the midst of a small river.  From his vantage point, he can see the entire island, east to west, which he divides in half on the basis of the late afternoon sun’s illumination.  The western end is verdant and idyllic, a midsummer scene of bright green grass, butterflies, and flowers—most notably Asphodel, a plant in the lily family that is associated in Greek mythology with the underworld and the dead.

The eastern end, in growing shadow, is naturally the section of the island where Poe, as the narrator, focuses his attention.  He carefully blurs the edges of shadows, trees, and water to create a mysterious, dream like setting.  As in Clark Ashton Smith’s The Uncharted Isle, discussed in an earlier post, the author is careful to make it ambiguous whether or not events are hallucinatory or real.  An optical illusion caused by the setting sun creates the visual impression of shadows forming in the trees and dropping into the river to be absorbed in the increasing darkness.

At the illumined end of the island the form of a female Fay appears.  She is standing upright in a little canoe that she guides along the edge of the island into the dark region.  Once there she becomes filled with shadow and drops into the black water.  The narrator observes this cycle repeated, and concludes that each time she makes this circuit, it

“…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 to Death…”   

Eventually darkness overwhelms the entire island as the sun sets, and the Fay disappears from view.  The image is somber and poignant, and also links the melancholic vignette with Poe’s broader speculations at the beginning of the story.  The horror here is subtle, and the mood is more one of resignation than a need for sudden flight.  Unlike Smith’s The Uncharted Isle, or Blackwood’s terrifying The Willows, the narrator of The Island of the Fay does not actually visit the island; he observes it at some distance.  It is after all a very small island, and Poe has used it to ruminate on the pitifully small place a human lifetime occupies in the vast universe.

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