Titania, Oberon and Puck with fairies dancing, 1796
This latest posting examines the poet William Blake’s conceptions of fairies. This is to mark the publication of my latest book, Albion awake, a fairy story for adults that features both the Fairy Queen Mab and William Blake amongst its cast of historical characters.
Blake had a very clear vision of the nature of fairies, although these thoughts were frequently unique to him- not an uncommon situation in the complex mythology that he elaborated over the course of his life! Blake spoke of “the elemental beings called by us by the general name of fairies.” From this it seems clear that he did not conceive of a single class of supernatural being, but of complex variety- as if, of course, the British conception of fairy-kind.
Illustration to Milton’s ‘Il Penseroso V‘- Milton dreams of “six spirits or fairies, hovering on the air with instruments.”
The character of Blake’s fays
In his verse, Blake’s fairies fulfil a number of functions:
- primarily and originally they are remnants of the pagan gods of Britain. In The Four Zoas Blake speaks of the “fairies of Albion, afterwards The Gods of the Heathen.”
- they are emanations of his character Los (broadly ‘time and space’) and accordingly they are the makers of time. In Milton (28, 60) time is described as “the work of fairy hands of the four elements.”
- along with nymphs, gnomes and genii, fairies are spirits that animate the material, vegetative world. They are often associated by him with flowers and natural growth and they are linked to its vigour and fecundity. For example in 1802, after his move to Felpham on the coast, Blake wrote that the trees and fields roundabout his cottage were “full of Fairy elves.” The fairy that dictates Europe to the poet is first discovered “sat on a streak’d Tulip.”
- closely related to the previous characteristic, fairies are understood to be intimately aware of the sensuous nature of life. In Europe, for example, the fairy offers to open Blake’s senses and to “shew you all alive/ The world, where every particle breathes forth its joy.” He demonstrates that the material world is not dead; rather each flower whimpers when it is plucked and its eternal essence then hovers around Blake “like a cloud of incense.” In this respect, then, fairies represent the natural state of human imagination and perception, before it has been blunted and enslaved by logic and reason. In his Motto to the Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake condemns how:
“The good are attracted by men’s perceptions,/ And think not for themselves;/ Til experience teaches them to catch/ And to cage fairies and elves.”
- the keen animation of the fairy senses seems to shade into sensuality and Blake makes some connection between these spirits and female sexuality. In ‘A fairy leapt upon my knee’ the spirit protests to Blake thus:
“Knowest thou not, O Fairies’ lord,/ How much to us contemn’d, abhorred,/ Whatever hides the female form/ That cannot bear the mortal storm?/ Therefore in pity still we give/ Our lives to make the female live;/ And what would turn into disease/ We turn to what will joy and please!”
The verse ‘The fairy’ treats the supernatural creature as ‘king’ of the marriage ring. It appears that Blake saw the emotional and physical obsession of love as some sort of spell that has to be broken. This link to carnal pleasure also seems to feature in his poem The Phoenix, sent to Mrs Butts in 1800 after the move to Felpham. Blake contrasts a fairy to the innocence of children playing. The phoenix flees the sprite for the company of the children and-
“The Fairy to my bosom flew/ weeping tears of morning dew/ I said thou foolish whimpring thing/ Is not that thy Fairy Ring/ Where those children sport and play/ In fairy fancies light and gay?/ Seem the child and be a child/ And the Phoenix is beguild/ But if thou seem a fairy thing/ Then it flies on glancing Wing.”
Illustration to Milton’s L’Allegro V- Queen Mab, fairies & a goblin.
Blake’s tiny fairies
These quite individual conceptions of the nature of faery were elaborated by the poet from pre-existing folk materials of long standing. We have just seen mention of fairy rings and, in one very significant respect, Blake did not depart at all from conventional imaginings of fairies: his creatures are always very small. There are numerous examples of this:
- An early poem, found in the manuscript collection owned by Rossetti, describes how “A fairy leapt upon my knee.” Blake condemns it as a “Thou paltry, gilded, poisonous worm,” emphasising its miniature dimensions.
- In another early poem, found only in manuscript, ‘Little Mary Bell’ keeps a fairy hidden in a nut.
- An illustration for the 1797 edition of Gray’s A long story has fairies riding upon flies;
- In Europe Blake caught the fairy muse in his hat “as boys knock down a butterfly” and then took it home “in my warm bosom” where it perched on his table and dictated the verse. In his early poem, The fairy, Blake likewise catches a elf in his hat after it leaps from some leaves in an effort to escape. He addresses it as his ‘Butterfly.’
- Lastly, in his famous account of a fairy funeral, Blake described “creatures of the size and colour of green and gray grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose leaf.”
Illustration to Gray’s ‘Long story’- fairies riding on flies
Blake’s vision as, of course, a highly personal one and we would seldom be well advised to treat his version of fairy-lore as an authoritative guide to what his contemporaries believed about the supernatural world. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating and coherent conception and a notable element within his overall philosophy.
My interpretation and use of Blake’s fairy lore, my new fairy tale Albion awake!, is available to purchase through Amazon as a Kindle or paperback. I also intend to make related posts separately on johnkruseblog.wordpress.com. An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).
I have discussed William Blake in several other posts: I consider his views on fairy origins, on the nature of the magical realm of Albion and how Blake’s art and poetry has influenced later generations of artists, writers and visionaries.