Monday, December 27, 2010

The Island of the Fay

"The Island of the Fay," which was first published in the June 1841 issue of "Graham's Magazine," is classified as merely an example of Poe's "plate articles"--brief essays that were written specifically to accompany magazine engravings. In this work, however, Poe took such a mundane enterprise to a sublime level. "Fay," is, indeed, one of his most ethereal and beautiful pieces of writing. It is also one of his earliest works to anticipate his magnum opus, "Eureka." Thus, this seemingly irrelevant piece actually plays a key role in the Poe canon.

The scenario of the sketch is a simple one. The narrator begins his tale by commenting that "the higher order of music is the most thoroughly estimated when we are exclusively alone." Only then, he states, can its "spiritual uses" be fully appreciated. "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." The narrator explains that the presence of any other form of life other than "the green things which grow upon the soil and are voiceless" is "at war with the genius of the scene." The "dark valleys," the "grey rocks," the "waters that silently smile," the "proud watchful mountains" are "the colossal members of one vast animate and sentient whole...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 animalculæe which infest the brain--a being which we, in consequence, regard as purely inanimate and material, much in the same manner as these animalculæe must thus regard us."

In a declaration Poe would echo seven years later in "Eureka," he states the unity of all things in the universe. "As we find cycle within cycle without end--yet all revolving around one far-distant centre which is the Godhead, 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."

The narrator then describes how, on one of his solitary wanderings through the wilderness, he chanced upon a little river with a small circular island. The western extremity of this islet was "all one radiant harem of garden beauties" that "glowed and blushed beneath the eye of the slant sunlight...There seemed a deep sense of life and joy about all..."

The eastern end, by contrast, "was whelmed in the blackest shade. A sombre, yet beautiful and peaceful gloom here pervaded all things." The trees "conveyed ideas of mortal sorrow and untimely death," the grass had the aspect of mournful cypress, and the many small hillocks resembled graves.John Sartain engraving of The Island of the FayTo the narrator, the island appeared enchanted--"the haunt of the few gentle Fays who remain from the wreck of the race." As he daydreamed, he fancied he actually saw a fairy circling the island in a fragile canoe. She radiated joy as she floated amid the sunlight of the western half of the isle, but became deformed by sorrow as she passed into the shadows of the east. Over and over, the narrator watched her pass from light and life, to darkness and death, and back again. "The revolution which has just been made by the Fay," he thought, "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." He asks, "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?"

With each cycle, the fairy became increasingly indistinct, and enveloped in shadow. Finally, as the sun set, she and her boat disappeared into the "ebony flood," and "darkness fell over all things, and I beheld her magical figure no more."

What was Poe revealing in this allegorical prose poem? All that is, is intelligence, and intelligence is God. By contemplating nature and music in solitude, we come closer to communing with God and understanding our place in the universe. The meditative exploration of nature is the exploration of the universe, which is within all intelligence. In nature, we are able to observe ourselves--the God within us, or that is us--and we can establish a direct relationship with that God. (Poe explored these same themes in "The Domain of Arnheim," "Landor's Cottage," "Instinct vs. Reason," and "The Philosophy of Furniture.")

Even shadows are substance and therefore intelligence. As the intelligent waters "imbibe" them, the waters are nourished and enriched. The gradual dissolution of the fairy into the darkness is one aspect of eternity--the cycle of life, never-ending, repeated everywhere--which man can observe and comprehend as the work of God.

And it is still popularly believed that Poe was amoral and irreligious!

In "Marginalia," published in the "Southern Literary Messenger" in June 1849, Poe wrote that "Not only do I think it paradoxical to speak of a man of genius as personally ignoble, but I confidently maintain that the highest genius is but the loftiest moral nobility." He expressed this same sentiment indirectly in his more overtly metaphysical writings such as "Island of the Fay." Men and women of true genius (as opposed to those who are merely intellectually clever) are those rare individuals who exist on a higher plane, and because of their elevation, they have a better understanding of who we are, why we are here, our place in the universe, and our relation to "the Godhead." Figures such as Poe--one of the most purely idealistic writers of the modern era--channel their vision of heaven to less enlightened humanity through fiction, poetry, art, philosophy, music, and other creative expressions. Their proximity to what Poe called the Spirit Divine, or Supernal Beauty, eliminates the possibility of an ignoble nature. They cannot perceive, contemplate, and channel the world of the spirit and yet lead degraded lives--no matter how desperately Poe's enemies and his biographers (pardon the redundancy) want us to believe otherwise.

While those very rare geniuses, such as Poe, channel their vision of the universe through their creative work, he also made it clear that by contemplating nature, meditating upon it in solitude, any of us can achieve a more direct relationship with the Divine.

This is why it is exasperating how Poe is commonly labeled simply as a "horror" or "Gothic" writer. This is far from the case. In truth, he was a pure mystic (and a highly-underrated satirist.) Reducing his remarkable and utterly unique body of work to mere "sensationalist" fiction, or worse, simplistic Freudian autobiography, does him the ultimate disservice. Insult Poe if you please, but do not cheapen him.