Nightmares and fairies

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The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

There is a little explored link between fairies and nightmares, an association expressed very well in one of the most famous fairy texts, Mercutio’s description of fairy queen Mab in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  She is (as Shelley crowned her in his poem Queen Mab) the queen of dreams, both good and bad:

 “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,

that presses them and learns them first to bear,

making them women of good carriage.” (Act I, scene 4)

It’s pretty evident here that Shakespeare sees Mab as having a sexual function.  She educates- and maybe even seduces- virgin girls, teaching them how to perform in bed.  That bearing, or carriage, is not about deportment but about receiving a lover lying on top.

In this passage, Mab is called a ‘hag,’ and to be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares. ‘The hagge’ was imagined as a hideous witch who sat on a sleeper’s stomach, causing bad dreams.  The notion of compression was a very early one, as we see from the South English Legendary of about 1300:

“Þe luþere gostes …deriez men in heore slep… And ofte huy ouer-liggez [men], and men cleopiet þe niȝt-mare.”

“The evil ghosts harm men in their sleep and often lie on top of them, which people call ‘the night-mare.’”

There’s a supernatural cause here, but not a fairy one.  However, by the early seventeenth century the fae nature of the affliction was established.  For example, in the Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, one of Robin’s companions, Gull the Fairy, explains how:

“Many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare.”

The victim’s experience is described in The Holly Bush of 1646:

“the nightmare hath prest,

With that weight on their breast,

No returnes of their breath can pass.”

The sixteenth century Scots poem, My Heart is High Above, likewise conveys some sense of how the experience feels: “Then languor on me lies, like Morpheus the mair.”  Devon poet, Robert Herrick, in his poem, The Hag, also described the sensation of a being riding the sleeper:

“The Hag is astride,

This night for to ride;

The Devill and shee together:”

In their 1621 play Thierry and Theodoret, playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher emphasise the unpleasant and exhausting nature of the experience:

“goblins ride me in my sleep to jelly.” (I, 2)

However, the sensation he depicted also has something of pixy-leading about it, as well as reminding us of the stories of fairies actually riding human victims at night for want of an available horse:

“A Thorn or a Burr She takes for a Spurre:
With a lash of a Bramble she rides now,
Through Brakes and through Bryars,
O’re Ditches, and Mires,
She followes the Spirit that guides now.”
    
    miles johnston

Miles Johnston

In these versions, the pressure and shortness of breath are associated with fear rather than sexual activity and arousal, but there was great confusion between the two aspects of the nightmare.  We see this in William Sampson’s 1636 play The Vow Breaker- or the Fair Maid of Clifton in Nottinghamshire, when Ursula remarks to Anne:

“you us’d to say Hobgoblins, Fairies and the like were nothing but our own affrightments and yea, oh my Cuz, I once dreamed of a young batchelor and was ridden with a Nightmare.”

Here we elide seamlessly from fairies to nightmares to sexual fantasy within a single sentence.  In Drayton’s Nymphidia the sensual nature of the sensation is addressed more explicitly:

“And Mab, his merry queen, by night,

Bestrides young folk that lie up-right,

(in older times the mare that hight.)”

In both passages, the poets’ bawdiness is barely concealed.  Ursula being ridden by her lusty young batchelor and the ‘up-right’ wet-dreamers of Drayton are almost solely concerned with erotic dreams rather than horror.  This sexual aspect of the nightmare is underlined by Edward Topsell in his Historie of Serpents, where he mentions “The spirits of the night, called Incubi and Succubi, or else Night-mares.” (p.173)  These two spirits were believed to be supernatural lovers who came to men and women during the night.

The Victorian magazine, Once A Week, in 1867 carried a feature on Devonshire pixies, which informed its readers that they had control over sleeper’s fantasies: “Some may bring nightmares and others sweet dreams.”  Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, given that the pixies of the South West can control the weather and use their powers of glamour to change landmarks and ‘pixy-lead’ victims.

The intertwining of faeries and good and bad dreams is highlighted lastly in Cartwright’s play of 1635, The Ordinary, in which Moth prays that:

“St Francis and St Benedict,

Blesse this house from wicked wight,

From the Nightmare and the Goblin,

That is hight Goodfellow Robin…” (Act III, scene 1)

Here it is Robin Goodfellow himself, otherwise known as Puck, who takes on the role of the wicked wight who brings bad dreams and disturbed sleep.

The word ‘mare’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon mære/ mæra, and derives from a verb meaning ‘to crush.’  In modern English it has fallen together with the word for a female horse (Anglo-Saxon mere).  The words have entirely separate origins, although the sense of riding presumably encouraged them to be mixed up.  It seems this confusion worked in several directions: for instance, in 1696 John Aubrey in his Miscellanies described precautions taken to “prevent the Night-Mare (viz.) the Hag from riding their Horses.”  Fairies are known for taking horses from stables and riding them at night and Aubrey (or perhaps country people he spoke to) understandably, but mistakenly, expanded the term for a fairy dream to cover another well-known fairy activity.

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Further Reading

In more recent times, fairies have come to be associated with much sweeter dreams- as in Rose Fyleman’s verse Fairy Lullaby for a Mortal which imagines the faes bringing dreams and brushing away darkness with their “soft, soft wings.”  These literary and nursery visions of gentle and benign Faery are a long way from earlier perceptions.

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of Queen Mab and see my Fayerie for more on her role in Tudor and Jacobean verse.

“Dwarfish Fairyes elves”- Tudor and Stuart fairies

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Summer School 2011, dress rehearsal of Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Emily Laws School of Acting: Mustardseed, Titania, Cobweb & Peaseblossom.

I have often mentioned before how the robust elf of British tradition has undergone a transformation over the last few centuries into a tiny, winged being.  In this post I’d like to identify some culprits for this process.

Who are we going to blame?

The perception that the frightening and serious fairies of the British Middle Ages had undergone a change at some stage had been with me in vague terms for many years.  Recently, however, I finally got round to reading Minor White Latham’s 1930 book, Elizabethan Fairies.  His study crystallised my thoughts and confirmed what I had always suspected: that William Shakespeare is the major culprit and that 1594/5 marks the turning point in our perception of Faery.  Later poets followed the bard’s lead, but it was Midsummer Night’s Dream that started the trend.

The idea of small fairies was definitely well-established before our major playwrights and poets got their hands on the subject.  For example, from Reginald Scot’s list of fairies, found in his book The discoverie of witchcraft of 1584, we know there was traditional belief in a character called Tom Thumb.  This may surprise British readers, at least, for we think of him as a leading character in pantomimes and nursery stories.  This elf was small, as the name tells us: “but an inch in height, or a quarter of a span” according to a chapbook published in 1630 (a span is the distance from the thumb tip to the little finger tip- standardised at 9″ in imperial measurements).   In his play, The sad shepherd, Ben Jonson also described “span long Elves” carrying changelings (1637, Act II, scene 8)- I might point out that, if you think about it, this should be impossible.

Child sized fays

Generally, it was accepted that there might be both adult sized fairies and those that were shorter, perhaps only appearing like children.  We see both of these in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, of 1599, when an adult woman, Mrs Anne Page, decides to play a trick on Falstaff: she dresses her daughter Nan as the fairy queen, accompanied by some attendants- her “little son” and some other children disguised as “urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white” (Act IV, scene 4).  Nan is a young woman of marriageable age- in her mid- to late-teens perhaps; her court would appear to be infants under ten.  From this episode it seems apparent that a variety of sizes were accepted as normal in Faery by Elizabethan audiences but that the ouphs (elves) and fairies that were seen might very commonly be the size of young children: in The woman’s prize, for example, Beaumont and Fletcher have a character threaten that “children of five year old, like little fairies, will pinch thee into motley.” (Act II, scene 2)

A few thoughts on the word on ‘urchin’ that’ used in the play as a substitute term for fairy.  The word comes from the French, herisson, meaning hedgehog, and it was apparently adopted because of the habit of certain fays (especially pixies) of shape-shifting into the form of hedgehogs.  The terms were for a while interchangeable, until ‘urchin’ increasingly became attached to poor and misbehaving boys (by way of spiteful and prank filled pixies, I assume).  The word is also used to denote fays by Thomas Nashe in Strange Newes (1592), in which he equates “fairies and night urchins,” in the anonymous play The mayde’s metamorphosis of 1600 and in Thomas Dekker’s Whore of Babylon (1607).

Another regularly used term that likewise has some connotations of smallness is ‘puppet.’ This featured in Robert Greene’s James IV of 1594, where Oberon, king of the fairies, is described as “not so big as the king of Clubs” and his subjects as being “Puppets,” and it appeared regularly subsequently: in The Tempest in 1611 Shakespeare called fays “demi-puppets;”  the term’s also used in Randolph’s Amyntas in 1632 and in Henry More’s An antidote against atheism of 1653 (referring to the “dancing places of those little Puppet-Spirits” in Book III, chapter 11).  In The mayde’s metamorphosis there’s also reference to “mawmets” tripping lightly as a bee.  The word has the same sense of a puppet-like being and certainly conveys an idea of diminutive statute- as underlined in Amyntas, where a fairy wife might be sought for in a nutshell.

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The Dream performed at Dewey Mountain, New York, 2017; picture from Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Shakespeare’s legacy

This vocabulary all implies a changing attitude to fairies: that they coming to be seen as tiny, inoffensive, pretty, charming.  We’ve run ahead of ourselves slightly, though, and ought to retrace our steps to 1595 and the first production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Latham has this to say of Shakespeare’s use of fairy themes:

“That the disappearance of the fairies as credible entities should have been hastened by the influence of Shakespeare is one of the greatest ironies of their history. Of all the Elizabethans who made mention of them, there is no one who showed himself more cognizant of the belief in their existence, and no one who featured more prominently their traditional power and activities.” (p.177)

Latham goes on to enumerate the traditional fairy-lore in Shakespeare’s plays: their dangerous enchantments; their substitution of changelings; their pranks- sometimes harmless, sometimes malicious; their generosity to favourites; their midnight dances; their pinching of those who fail to meet their standards;  their pixy-leading.  All of this authentic material was, however, overwhelmed and displaced by what he created in the Dream.  Latham summarises this ‘new Elizabethan’ fairy very succinctly:

“Diminutive, pleasing, and picturesque sprites, with small garden names and small garden affairs, associated with moon-beams and butterflies, they present themselves as a new race of fairies, as different from the popular fairies of tradition as are those fairies from the fays of the medieval romances. ” (p.180)

The medieval fays are the magician women like Morgan le Fay, in some respects related to Titania, but not reigning over a fairy kingdom and much more engaged in the affairs of human kind.  What became the conventional fairy after the Dream was this, according to Latham:

  • they were subjected to a royal court and lost their independent status;
  • they lose their mischievous and changeable sides and become uniformly good;
  • they’re devoted to making the world happier and more beautiful, without imposing any taboos and codes or exacting any penalties;
  • they dislike and avoid disturbance and disruption;
  • they love children and are solicitous of the welfare of all humans;
  • they are “extravagantly” attached to flowers, tending them, named after them, decorated with them; and,
  • they’ve shrunk.  No longer are they infant sized, now they’re tiny: they can hide in acorns; they make their coats from bats’ wings; their fans are butterfly wings; they may drown in a bee’s honey bag should it burst.

It’s these last two characteristics, combined with their new, benign, nature, that marks the real departure for British fairies.   Worse still, they have become comic and ridiculous (as in the whole episode involving Titania and Bottom).  Their dignity and their stature had been diminished and they had become an entirely new race of spirits.

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Exeter Drama Company‘s 2015 production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The earliest example of this change came almost immediately from Shakespeare himself, in Romeo and Juliet.  In Mercutio’s famous description of Queen Mab, she is reduced to a being “In shape no bigger than an agate stone/ On the forefinger of an alderman.”  Other poets then picked up upon the conceit of a minute fairy and had great fun with it.  During the first decades of the next century, several notable writers fixed the idea in the public imagination.  These included most notably:

  • Edward Fairfax, in his 1600 translation of Torquato Tasso’s Godfrey of Bulloigne, was an early adopter of Shakespeare’s new vision of Faery.  His fays are tiny enough to sit under “every trembling leaf” and they are intimately associated with blossoms: for example “Among the nymphs, the fairies, leaves and flowers” (Book 4, stanza 18 and Book 17, stanza 61);
  • Michael Drayton, author of such works as Nimphidia and The Muses’ Elizium, in which fairies use acorn cups as boats, ride upon earwigs and make wedding dresses from primrose leaves.  In his 1613 Poly Olbion, Drayton imagines frisking fairies “as on the light air borne/ Oft run at barley break upon the corn/ And catching drops of dew.”  In the Eighth Nymphal the abiding impression of tininess is expressed directly: “Why, by her smallness you may find,/ That she is of the fairy kind”;
  • William Browne– the third book of his Britannia’s pastorals (c.1625) revels in the possibilities of microscopic fays, whose bread is hazelnut kernels, whose wash basins are sea shells and who dine upon the udders of mice and hornet’s eggs; and,
  • Robert Herrick (1591- 1674), in whose verses “dwarfish Fairyes elves” dine off mushrooms, instead of tables, upon single grains of wheat, washed down with drops of dew.  His Queen Mab’s bed is formed of six dandelion heads, with curtains of gossamer.  In his 1648 collection Hesperides, Herrick includes five fairy poems for which he is particularly remembered: Oberon’s Feast, Oberon’s Palace, Oberon’s Chapel (or the Fairy Temple), The Fairies and The Beggar to Mab, the Fairy Queen.   All are easily accessible and give an authentic picture of the British fairy as it was conceived after Midsummer Night’s Dream.

These depictions pretty much sealed the fate of the fays.  They were now without question “pygmies” (Peter Heylyn, Cosmographie (1648), Book IV, p.196; Milton, Paradise lost (1667), Book IX, line 634).  They are, too, irredeemably linked to images of cuteness and harmlessness: for example in the 1660’s ballad The spring’s glory, “The fairies are tripping and lambs are skipping, /Pretty birds chirping in the wood do sing.”

One last citation will do, which is from the Poems and fancies of Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, published in 1653.  The book is full of fairies and they are uniformly minute, evidently inspired by Drayton and Herrick.  Queen Mab and “all her fairy fry” dance on mole hills, sit under flowers and eat off mushrooms spread with spiders’ webs instead of table cloths (Pastime in fairyland).

Flower fairies

So it is, that little girls in petal like dresses have become fixed in our minds- not just on the stage but in the work of many artists (not least Cicely Mary Barker, Margaret Tarrant and the many other children’s book illustrators of the mid-twentieth century).  In a recent post I laid a heavy burden of blame upon Paracelsus for distorting our concepts of the fairy realm; reluctantly, perhaps, this must be shared with William Shakespeare.  The trends towards smaller and less fearsome fairies were already present in English culture, doubtless, but Shakespeare’s work accelerated and magnified them, an impact exaggerated further by his very status in the literary world.

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2016 production of The Dream by Millennium Charter Academy at Andy Griffith Playhouse, Mount Airy, North Carolina.

Further reading

See Latham, of course (although the book can be rare and expensive), many of my previous posts and, in my 2017 book British fairies, chapters 1 and 28 particularly.  In another posting I’ve also developed some of Latham’s ideas on representations of fairy faces in Tudor drama.

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

 

 

Who is Titania?

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Vivien Leigh as Titania in Midsummer night’s dream

For many of us today, Titania has become the archetype of the fairy queen, if not of female fairies as a class.  Her origins seem to be Elizabethan.  In 1590 Edmond Spenser made his Faerie Queen a descendant of Titania, but the character was most explicitly and effectively introduced into fairy-lore by William Shakespeare in Midsummer night’s dream.  She was not a traditional character of British folklore (as her name might, in any case, suggest) and the playwright was certainly very well aware of the British equivalent: Queen Mab features prominently in a famous speech by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, which was first performed in 1597. The Dream was written in 1605; did Shakespeare merely want a bit of variety or did he have other motives for creating a new faery monarch?

Diana

Somewhat like the name of her consort Oberon, Titania’s name is more descriptive than personal.  ‘Titania’ simply means that she is born of Titans- though this naturally begs some very important questions.  Roman writer Ovid tells us in The Metamorphoses that Titania is another name or aspect of the goddess Diana.  The latter was the Roman deity responsible for childbirth and, as such, there are some parallels with Queen Mab the midwife.  The Romans also linked Diana to the Greek goddess Artemis, who was primarily a goddess of nature, particularly of springs and water courses (she was, for example, known as Limnaia, ‘lady of the lake’, a name which for us now is freighted with resonances of Morgan le Fay and other fay maidens and such like nymphs).  In her guise as goddess of woods and water, Artemis had obvious parallels with native nature spirits and the association makes considerable sense.  However, Shakespeare had already used ‘Diana’ as a character in All’s well that ends well, five years previously to The dream, so perhaps again he merely sought variety- or had pursued the links even more deeply.

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Edwin Landseer, Titania and Bottom, 1851

The Titans

Diana was descended from Titans, a heritage which takes us back to the roots of Greek mythology.  The Titans were a race of giants born of Uranus and Ge (heaven and earth).  Amongst their numbers were the male gods Oceanus, Cronus, Hyperion, Prometheus and Atlas; amongst the goddesses were numbered Thea, Phoebe and Rhea.  The inter-relationships and identities of these beings are far from fixed in the myths, but we need not be concerned with the detail.  It is the general tenor of the stories that’s significant: they contain a variety of fruitful themes and concepts.

Cronus is often seen as the chief of the Titans.  He led a revolt against Zeus and the Olympian gods and was defeated and displaced, being banished with all his kind to imprisonment in Tartarus.  It’s said that Cronus now sleeps eternally on some Western island, and as such his myth has very likely contributed to the growth of the story of King Arthur sleeping in Avalon.  The sister of Cronus was Rhea, but she was also his wife and so mother of a pantheon including Zeus, Poseidon, Hera and others.  In this role Rhea is commonly identified with another goddess, Cybele, who was in turn worshipped across the ancient world as the Great Mother Goddess.  She is another deity of nature, fertility and wild places and, as such, fairly readily linked to a fairy queen of groves and springs.

The daughter of the famous Titan Atlas was the equally well-known Calypso, nymph of the island of Ogygia.  It was she who detained Odysseus for seven years and tried to prevent him ever returning home with promises of immortality.   The time-scale and the reward must trigger for us thoughts of detention in fairyland.

In summary then, these divine female Titans all have attributes and rich associations which provoke thoughts of British equivalents and which tie local beings into a wider and more powerful mythology.  It may be for these reasons that Shakespeare chose the name Titania: she brought with her connotations of power and antiquity.

Shakespeare’s fairy queen

Rather like Artemis/ Diana, Shakespeare’s fairy queen is intimately associated with the natural environment.  Her quarrel with Oberon disrupts the weather and the growing of the crops.  This is summarised by Titania when she tells Bottom that:

“I am a spirit of no common rate./ The summer still doth tend upon my state.” (Act III, scene i)

She rules over the seasons and they follow her moods.

In due course, naturally, the character of Titania took on a life of her own.  The name was taken up by others and became accepted as the appropriate appellation: for example, in Thomas Dekker’s play The whore of Babylon in 1607.

The new queen inherited much of the wanton sexuality of fairies generally and especially that of Queen Mab, giving us the erotically tinged imagery of Fuseli and Simmons as illustrated below.  The buxom wenches of the paintings are ironic given the fact that Artemis, one of Titania’s forms, was also known as a goddess of chastity who was in conflict with Aphrodite (who, in fact, is also of Titan ancestry).

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John Simmons, There sleeps Titania

Titania and Bottom c.1790 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Titania and Bottom c.1790 Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Further reading

This posting was inspired by a reading of Geoffrey Ashe’s excellent Camelot and the vision of Albion.  Robert Graves in The white goddess also has a good deal to say about Cronus and the rest.  See too my consideration of the identity of Shakespeare’s Ariel.

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my books Famous Fairies and Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

“Queen Mab hath been with you”

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Brian Froud, ‘The queen of the bad fairies’

In my fairy/ fantasy story, Albion Awakeone of the main characters is Maeve (Mab), ‘queen’ of the fairies.  She is a very well known name in literary fairy land, thanks amongst others to Shelley (who calls her ‘Queen of Spells’), Drayton and Shakespeare, and in this post I wanted to outline her traditional character (although my version in the new book is departs from convention in some respects).

Tiny Mab

Mab was generally conceived as being a tiny creature- the archetypal fairy.  She is believed to be derived from the Welsh Mabb, queen of the ellyllon, who were minute elves of grove and vale.  The most famous account of her is in Romeo and Juliet (Act One, scene iv) when Mercutio describes her in the following terms: “She comes in shape no bigger than an agate stone,” galloping at night in a coach made from a nut shell.  This diminutive stature is compounded by Shelley in his poem Queen Mab by an insubstantial and wispy physical form.

Whatever her size, though, Mab is source of disturbance.  Mercutio records that she “gallops night by night through lovers’ brains/ And then they dream of love.”  She is the fairy midwife of dreams and enables sleeping humans to realise their desires in fantasy.

Mischievous Mab

Secondly, Mab is mischievous; witness Mercutio again: she “plats the manes of horses in the night and bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs.”  She is responsible for undoing domestic chores and pinches and torments lazy servants- for example Ben Jonson in his 1603 ‘Entertainment at Althorpe’ warns that in the dairy Mab can hinder the churning.

Troublesome dreams

This interference in human affairs is taken one stage further, though, according to Mercutio’s description, and in this final aspect we find a link to the sensual, sexual fairy that I have discussed in an earlier posting.  Romeo’s companion recounts that “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them and learns them first to bear, making them women of good carriage.”  To be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares and ‘the hagge’ was conceived to be a hideous witch or succubus who sat on a sleeper’s stomach and caused bad dreams.  For example, in the Mad pranks and merry jests of Robin Goodfellow (1588, Percy Society 1841, p.42) Gull the Fairy describes how “Many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare.”  This notion is here distorted by Shakespeare into something akin to an incubus seducing- and even educating- virgin girls.

Robert Herrick, in his poem Oberon’s palace, tells of a naked and “moon-tanned” Mab who goes to bed with the elf-king.  These more adult and sinister traits in Mab’s behaviour are something I have chosen to develop in my novel.

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Queen Mab by Henry Fuseli

“A doubtful tale from faery land”- John Keats and faery

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J Waterhouse, ‘La belle dame sans merci’

I am a great admirer of the poetry of John Keats.  At the start of my adult fairy tale, The Elder Queenwhich is available as either a paperback or e-book through Amazon, I quote some verses from his poem La Belle Dame sans Merci, which is a tale of a fatal fairy lover.  Throughout my book, there are sly quotations from Keats which those steeped in his works may spot.  An example is the fairy folk’s name for themselves- they tell Darren at the dance that they are ‘sky children’ which I have shamelessly stolen (or borrowed) from Hyperion line 133.

elder queen

Many writers have explored Keats’ poetry and his interest in faery.  A very good example is Maureen Duffy, The erotic world of faery (1972, pp.260-287), which examines in detail the intertwined themes of fairy women, death, love, sex and Keats’ relationship with his mother.  In this post I will simply highlight some of the main aspects of the poet’s treatment of fairy lore.

Fairies and girls

There is little doubt that one use of faery made by Keats is as a shorthand for girls and sex.  Keats is open in his liking for women (“Nymph of the downward smile” To G A W line 1) and feminine attributes (“Faery lids” in Lines line 7).  He readily goes further too, expressing his desire for physical contact.  He “fondled the maids with breasts of cream” (To Charles Cowden Clark line 34) and on a visit to Dawlish meets a Devon maid he greets as a “tight little fairy, just fresh from the dairy” (Where be ye going line 3).  He expressly tells country wench Betty that he would like to “rumple the daisies” with her (Over the hill line 19).

Fairies and love

It isn’t just a matter of lust though.  Fairies are linked too with love.  Keats fears he will “Never have relish in the faery power/ Of unrequiting love!” (When I have fears line 11) and he knows that they love true, as humans do (When they were come to Faery’s Court & Song of the Four Fairies).  

Country fairies

If you want a field guide to the fairy realm, Keats indicates that faeries are creatures of the countryside- particularly groves (When they were come to Faery’s Court) and glades (To Emma line 7); they are most often found at evening- for example in Ode to a Nightingale line 37 he describes how “the Queen Moon is on her throne, Clustered around by all her starry Fays” (see too To Emma line 7 & Song of the Four Fairies).  Lastly they are often diminutive and delicate (see for example Faery Bird’s Song & Faery Song). 

Perilous fairies

So far, so conventional; these faeries are the tiny sprites of Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet: they may be mischievous, but they are not wicked.  Keats, however, knows another strand of fairy lore.  He is aware that fairies can be perilous and vengeful.  In When they came to the Faery’s Court he alludes to the ‘three great crimes in faery land’, which are playing before them, sleeping in their company and stealing their property.  This sort of disrespect will be punished- a very regular feature of human/ fairy dealings.  The faery folk can be antagonistic and possessive: at the very start of Lamia (Part I, lines 1-2) he recounts “Upon a time before the faery broods/ Drove nymph and satyr from the prosperous woods.”  The fairy folk are jealous of what they control and will not share- and it seems that this applies to lovers too.  Diane Purkis in her book Troublesome things (Penguin 2001) highlights the deadly privilege of being chosen and loved by a faery maiden.  This is a traditional theme epitomised by La Belle Dame sans Merci.  She is alluring, this Lady of the Meads, “Full beautiful, a faery’s child” with her long hair, wild eyes and sweet moan, but association with her is dangerous and almost invariably fatal.  Contact with the lady is literally enchanting: “And nothing else saw all day long./ For sidelong would she bend, and sing/ A faery’s song… and sure, in language strange she said,/ I love thee true.”  Very soon the hapless knight was “in thrall” to the fairy and was deathly pale.

No wonder then that, in Ode to a Nightingale line 70, Keats describes being “In faery lands forlorn.”  Many of his descriptions of the fays imply carefree joy, but John Keats was also alert to the darker side of relations with supernatural beings, that their interest and affection could constitute a curse as well as a blessing.  This theme is something I intend to explore in my books.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).