Sunday, February 03, 2013


Wikipedia Commons
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing
c. 1786
Blake let his imagination roam widely as had Shakespeare before him. They both wrote about fairies as if they had a first hand acquaintance. In Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare takes us into the world which awakes while we sleep and dream, ruled by the king and queen of fairies. Blake pictured a joyful image of fairies dancing before their king and queen with Puck who was given the power to alter how individuals perceived one another. Blake pictured the same pair, Oberon and Titania, on Plate 5 of Song of Los resting comfortably within two adjacent lilies. Titania sleeps while Oberon holds a sceptre.

In a very early biography of Blake (Life of Blake, By Allan Cunningham) there is reported a conversation of Blake with a lady at a dinner party:
"'Did you ever see a fairy's funeral, madam?' he once said to a lady, who happened to sit by him in company. 'Never, sir!' was the answer. 'I have,' said Blake, 'but not before last night. I was walking alone in my garden, there was great stillness among the branches and flowers and more than common sweetness in the air; I heard a low and pleasant sound, and I knew not whence it came. At last I saw the broad leaf of a flower move, and underneath I saw a procession of creatures of the size and colour of green and gray grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose leaf, which they buried with songs, and then disappeared. It was a fairy funeral.'"

In his Descriptive Catalogue, Blake introduces the idea that in Shakespeare and Chaucer fairies are rulers of the vegetable world, perhaps indicating that he uses them in the same way.

Descriptive Catalogue, (E 535)
"By way of illustration, I instance Shakspeare's Witches in
Macbeth.  Those who dress them for the stage, consider
them as wretched old women, and not as Shakspeare intended, the
Goddesses of Destiny; this shews how Chaucer has been
misunderstood in his sublime work.  Shakspeare's Fairies also
are the rulers of the vegetable world, and so are Chaucer's;
let them be so considered, and then the poet will be understood,
and not else."

Blake's best known passage about a fairy introduces his prophecy Europe which he published in 1794. In Blake's system fairies are associated with the Element air, and the Zoa Urizen.

Europe, Plate iii, (E 60)
"Five windows light the cavern'd Man; thro' one he breathes the air;
Thro' one, hears music of the spheres; thro' one, the eternal vine
Flourishes, that he may recieve the grapes; thro' one can look.
And see small portions of the eternal world that ever groweth;
Thro' one, himself pass out what time he please, but he will not;
For stolen joys are sweet, & bread eaten in secret pleasant.

So sang a Fairy mocking as he sat on a streak'd Tulip,
Thinking none saw him: when he ceas'd I started from the trees!
And caught him in my hat as boys knock down a butterfly.
How know you this said I small Sir? where did you learn this song? 
Seeing himself in my possession thus he answered me:
My master, I am yours. command me, for I must obey.

Then tell me, what is the material world, and is it dead?
He laughing answer'd: I will write a book on leaves of flowers,
If you will feed me on love-thoughts, & give me now and then   
A cup of sparkling poetic fancies; so when I am tipsie,
I'll sing to you to this soft lute; and shew you all alive
The world, when every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.

I took him home in my warm bosom: as we went along
Wild flowers I gatherd; & he shew'd me each eternal flower:     
He laugh'd aloud to see them whimper because they were pluck'd.
They hover'd round me like a cloud of incense: when I came
Into my parlour and sat down, and took my pen to write:
My Fairy sat upon the table, and dictated EUROPE."

The conversation of Blake about the fairy funeral which sent ripples out in the literary world may be pursued at this website about Lucy Hooper.

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