In my recent book, Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse, I discussed how the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a period during which outside influences began to alter native fairy beliefs profoundly. The Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance were two such, a third was the work of doctor, astrologer and alchemist Paracelsus, whose theories I have examined before.
The impact of these influences, especially that of Paracelsus, may be neatly contained in a single fairy poem, Kensington Gardens by Thomas Tickell (1686-1740). Tickell was born near Carlisle and was a graduate of Oxford. He held various government positions but is mainly recalled as a poet. He produced a translation of Homer’s Iliad, which he published at the very same time as Alexander Pope’s version in 1715, a coincidence which caused some tension between the two. The poem Kensington Gardens appeared in 1722 and is a heroic epic describing the fall of a fairy kingdom that once existed on the land that eventually became the park.
Strictly speaking, the poem should be described as Georgian, but Tickell’s birth and education took place within the Stuart period, and it is doubtless fair to assume that Tickell’s outlook and beliefs belong to the seventeenth century. Kensington Gardens is of interest, therefore, because it encapsulates the mixture of traditional fairy belief and innovation that typified fairies in literature throughout the 1600s.
Tradition in Tickell’s Epic
Concepts of fairy conduct inherited by the author from much earlier include the fairies’ delight in leisure: “Their midnight pranks the sprightly fairies played/ On every hill and danced in every shade.” They rewarded women for their domestic cleanliness:
“When cleanly servants, if we trust old tales,
Beside their wages had good Fairy vailes,
Whole heaps of silver Tokens, nightly paid,
The careful wife, or the neat dairy-maid…”
But they also stole babies, one of whom is Albion, the hero of the story:
“By magic fenc’d, by spells encompass’d round,
No Mortal touch’d this interdicted ground;
No Mortal enter’d, those alone who came
Stolen from the couch of some terrestrial dame:
For oft of babes they robb’d the matron’s bed,
And left some sickly changeling in their stead.”
Albion is a human child brought up by fairies and kept artificially small by them, although he is still noticeably tall at twelve inches in height. He falls in love with the fae Kenna, an affair that precipitates the fall of the fairy realm when Oberon discovers and jealously expels the young man.
Newer elements sit alongside these age-old ideas. Tickell’s king of faery is Oberon. This name has a long continental pedigree but it was made particularly popular in Britain by Shakespeare’s use of it in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Oberon’s subjects are especially worthy of note. As we have already seen, they are small: they are described as a “pigmy race” elsewhere in the poem. This diminutive stature was a noteworthy development in seventeenth century literature. Small faes had existed before, but Mercutio’s soliloquy on Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet gave impetus to an elaboration of the possibilities of miniature beings and poets- most importantly Michael Drayton and Robert Herrick- exploited the potential of this idea. Tickell merely observed what was already a convention by the time he wrote.
Lastly, the fairies of Kensington Gardens are said to have “airy forms.” This notion of fairies as insubstantial, as well as tiny, derives directly from the work of Paracelsus. He had proposed in the sixteenth century that the world was supported and kept functioning by elemental beings- the gnomes of the ground, undines of water, salamanders of fire and the sylphs of the air. Parallels could readily be drawn between these creatures that he imagined and the fairies and goblins of native belief, and that is precisely what happened. In his Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, Robert Burton included a ‘Digression of Spirits’ in which he summarised views about fairies from across Europe. For example, he describes:
“… those Naiades or water Nymphs which have been heretofore conversant about waters and rivers. The water (as Paracelsus thinks) is their Chaos, wherein they live; some call them Fairies… Paracelsus hath several stories of them that have lived and been married to mortal men…”
Later Burton notes Paracelsus’ views on what he classes as “terrestrial devils,” a group which includes “Faunes, Satyrs, Wood-nymphs… Fairies, Robin Goodfellowes, Trulli etc.” Two things are notable from these short passages. Not only has Burton incorporated Paracelsus’ concepts of undines and gnomes; he has liberally strewn his text with classical Greek and Roman terminology. (Burton, Part I, section 2)
Forty years later, in 1665, a new version of Reginald Scot’s well-known book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, was published. Scot’s 1584 original contains a wealth of fairy information; the new edition was expanded with the addition of ‘A Discourse Concerning the Nature and Substance of Devils and Spirits.’ This new text (like Burton’s) owes a great deal to the new thought of the Renaissance and to Paracelsus’ scientific theories; for example, reference is made to the Neo-Platonists. Fairies are termed “Astral Spirits,” having an “elemental quality.” They live in water, air, flames and under the earth; they have hunger and passions; they wage war and procreate; they have no physical body and can live for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (Scot, 1665, Book II, cc.1 & 4)
This later text demonstrates how much the new theories about the nature of fairies had infiltrated British thought. These ideas, along with references to nymphs, satyrs and other classical beings, were all indiscriminately mixed together, confusing and reshaping fairy belief for future generations.
Tickell’s poem is symptomatic of its age. His fairies are miniscule, insubstantial forms- a state confirmed in the climactic battle of the war. Albion fights with Fairy Prince Azuriel and their combat seems to be concluded when:
“With his keen sword he cleaves his Fairy foe,
Sheer from the shoulder to the waste he cleaves,
And of one Arm the tott’ring trunk bereaves.”
However, Albion is fighting a fairy, and different rules apply:
“His useless steel brave Albion wields no more,
But sternly smiles, and thinks the combat o’er:
So had it been, had aught of mortal strain,
Or less than Fairy, felt the deadly pain.
But Empyreal forms, howe’er in fight
Gash’d and dismember’d, easily unite…
So did Azuriel’s Arm, if fame say true,
Rejoin the vital trunk whence first it grew;
And, whilst in wonder fixt poor Albion stood,
Plung’d the curst sabre in his heart’s warm blood.”
Albion is struck down and Kenna is unable to revivify him: “the Fates alike deny/
The Dead to live, or Fairy forms to die.”
Ultimately, classical Greek sea god Neptune intervenes in fairy affairs. With a sweep of his trident, he destroys Oberon’s divided, fractious kingdom, leaving only ruins on the site where later the new Hanoverian dynasty created its pleasure gardens and named it after Albion’s love, the ‘Aerial maid’ Kenna.
Oberon’s fairy nation is scattered: “Wing’d with like fear his abdicated bands.” They flee to secluded corners of Britain where they can still be glimpsed from time to time as they “featly foot the green,/ While from their steps a Circling verdure springs.” The fairies are not gone entirely, therefore, but they are scattered.
Tickell concludes his epic with several reminders of the transformed nature of his British fairies. They are small, they are winged and they are sylph-like, aery beings. In fact, a direct link with Paracelsus’ elementals of the air had already been made by rival poet Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock, which was published in 1712. He was the first to introduce this term in English literature, but once he had connected “sylphs and sylphids, fays, fairies, genii, elves and daemons,” British fairies could never be the same again.
Tickell had hoped his lengthy poem would be celebrated as a heroic fairy epic- a landmark in national literary history. Sadly, it is largely forgotten now, except amongst enthusiasts of Georgian poetry and, of course, fans of faery. Nonetheless, it’s worth reading- it’s quite entertaining, once you’ve got used to his florid style, and it tells us lots about the fairy faith as one era merged into another.
In conclusion, I’ll repeat what I said at the outset: the seventeenth century was a turning point in British fairy beliefs and Thomas Tickell’s fairy epic encapsulates the old and new ideas that were in ferment.
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