The Island Of The Fay by Edgar Allan Poe


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1850
THE ISLAND OF THE FAY
by Edgar Allan Poe

Nullus enim locus sine genio est.
SERVIUS

“LA MUSIQUE,” says Marmontel, in those “Contes Moraux”* which in all
our translations, we have insisted upon calling “Moral Tales,” as if
in mockery of their spirit- “la musique est le seul des talents qui
jouissent de lui-meme; tous les autres veulent des temoins.” 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 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 gray rocks, and the waters that silently smile, 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
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 destinies are lost in immensity, whose cognizance
of ourselves is akin with our own cognizance of the animalculae
which infest the brain- a being which we, in consequence, regard as
purely inanimate and material much in the same manner as these
animalculae must thus regard us.

* Moraux is here derived from moeurs, and its meaning is
“fashionable” or more strictly “of manners.”

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 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 extend, the
leading principle in the operations of Deity,- it is scarcely
logical to imagine it confined to the regions of the minute, where
we daily trace it, and not extending to those of the august. As we
find cycle within cycle without end,- yet all revolving around one
far-distant centre which is the God-head, may we not analogically
suppose in the same manner, life within life, the less within the
greater, and all within the Spirit Divine? 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” 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 operation.*

* Speaking of the tides, Pomponius Mela, in his treatise “De Situ
Orbis,” says “either the world is a great animal, or” etc.

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 everyday world would not fail to term
fantastic. My wanderings amid such scenes have been many, and
far-searching, and often solitary; and 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 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?”
The epigram cannot be gainsayed; 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 tarn writhing or sleeping within all- that I chanced upon a
certain rivulet and island. 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 waterfall from the sunset fountains of the
sky.
About midway in the short vista which my dreamy vision took in,
one small circular island, profusely 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 say at what point upon the slope of the emerald turf its crystal
dominion began.
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. The latter was all
one radiant harem of garden beauties. It glowed and blushed beneath
the eyes of the slant sunlight, and fairly laughed with flowers. The
grass was short, springy, sweet-scented, and Asphodel-interspersed.
The trees were lithe, mirthful, erect- bright, slender, and graceful,-
of eastern figure and foliage, with bark smooth, glossy, and
parti-colored. There seemed a deep sense of life and joy about all;
and although no airs blew from out the heavens, yet every thing had
motion through the gentle sweepings to and fro of innumerable
butterflies, that might have been mistaken for tulips with wings.*

* Florem putares nare per liquidum aethera.- P. Commire.

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. 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 entombed.
This idea, having once seized upon my fancy, greatly excited it, and
I lost myself forthwith in revery. “If ever 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. Are these green tombs
theirs?- or do they yield up their sweet lives as mankind yield up
their own? In dying, do they not rather waste away mournfully,
rendering unto God, little by little, their existence, as these
trees render up shadow after shadow, exhausting their substance 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 engulfs it?”
As I thus mused, with half-shut eyes, while the sun sank rapidly
to rest, and eddying currents careered round and round the island,
bearing upon their bosom large, dazzling, white flakes 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
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 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 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 an things and I beheld her
magical figure no more.
THE END

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