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The Fairies -- William Allingham

       
(Poem #919) The Fairies
 Up the airy mountain
      Down the rushy glen,
 We daren't go a-hunting,
      For fear of little men;
 Wee folk, good folk,
      Trooping all together;
 Green jacket, red cap,
      And white owl's feather.
 Down along the rocky shore
      Some make their home,
 They live on crispy pancakes
      Of yellow tide-foam;
 Some in the reeds
      Of the black mountain-lake,
 With frogs for their watch-dogs,
      All night awake.

 High on the hill-top
      The old King sits;
 He is now so old and gray
      He's nigh lost his wits.
 With a bridge of white mist
      Columbkill he crosses,
 On his stately journeys
      From Slieveleague to Rosses;
 Or going up with music,
      On cold starry nights,
 To sup with the Queen,
      Of the gay Northern Lights.

 They stole little Bridget
      For seven years long;
 When she came down again
      Her friends were all gone.
 They took her lightly back
      Between the night and morrow;
 They thought she was fast asleep,
      But she was dead with sorrow.
 They have kept her ever since
      Deep within the lake,
 On a bed of flag leaves,
      Watching till she wake.

 By the craggy hill-side,
      Through the mosses bare,
 They have planted thorn trees
      For pleasure here and there.
 Is any man so daring
      As dig them up in spite?
 He shall find the thornies set
      In his bed at night.

 Up the airy mountain
      Down the rushy glen,
 We daren't go a-hunting,
      For fear of little men;
 Wee folk, good folk,
      Trooping all together;
 Green jacket, red cap,
      And white owl's feather.
-- William Allingham
Viewed against the Blytonised, Disneyfied and generally "made to sound all
soft and sappy / just to keep the children happy" version of fairies and
elves that is currently prevalent, today's poem strikes a rather discordant
note. Where, after all, does the "fear of little men" come in? What could
one possibly have to fear from little, gauzy-winged creatures resplendent in
primary colours?

The following, somewhat tangentially related quote from Pratchett comes to
mind...

  Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
  Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
  Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
  Elves are glamourous. They project glamour.
  Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
  Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

  The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if
  you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their
  meaning.

        --Terry Pratchett, "Lords and Ladies"

However, in Irish folklore, the primary characteristic of the sidhe is not
that they are *evil*, per se, but that they are powerful and capricious, and
have ways of thought and action not altogether human.

  Who are they? "Fallen angels who were not good enough to be saved, nor bad
  enough to be lost," say the peasantry. "The gods of the earth," says the
  Book of Armagh. " The gods of pagan Ireland," say the Irish antiquarians,
  "the Tuatha De Danan, who, when no longer worshipped and fed with
  offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a
  few spans high."

        -- William Butler Yeats, "Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry"

The third verse of today's poem is an excellent illustration; the almost
casual playfulness of the wee folk -  "they took her lightly back" contrasts
starkly with the plight of the hapless child, who is, unbeknownst to her
captors, "dead with sorrow".

In almost dissonant contrast to the "fear of little men" note is the light,
tripping metre of the poem; a reminder that the wee folk are indeed wondrous
and magical, and a harbinger, in its nursery-rhyme sing-song, of a time when
they would dwindle in significance to "fairy tales".

Biography:

  Born in Ballyshannon, Co.Donegal, where he was in the Customs Service,
  Allingham published his first book of poems in 1850. He visited London in
  1847, and in 1851 began a lifelong friendship with Tennyson, the star of
  the Diary ­ Tennyson talking and walking, airing his prejudices, reading
  his poems. Browning and Carlyle in London feature prominently, and Leigh
  Hunt, Thackeray, Emerson, George Eliot, William Morris, the Rossettis,
  Patmore, William Barnes, Froude, Palgrave, Burne-Jones, Turgenev are other
  dramatis personae of a diary covering nearly half a century.

  Allingham's poem The Fairies ­ Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy
  glen... ­ continues to be widely known and loved, whilst his verse-novel
  Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland was admired, not least by Turgenev.

  He died in Hampstead, London, in 1889; his urn lies buried in the
  churchyard at Ballyshannon.

        -- "William Allingham's Diary 1847-1889"
        [broken link] http://www.opengate.demon.co.uk/frame31177.html

Links:

  'Fairies' was set to music by Sir Arnold Bax:
    http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/b/bax.html

  An excellent collection of Celtic folklore and mythology
    [broken link] http://www.belinus.co.uk/folklore/Homeextra.htm

  See, especially, Yeats on the Trooping Fairies:
    [broken link] http://www.belinus.co.uk/folklore/Files8/WBYTroopingFairies.htm

  "Some Disturbing Thoughts About Fairies" - long, but interesting essay
    http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/darkgreen.htm

-martin

18 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Kay Clover said...

My mother would read me this strange and scary poem when I was a child.(taken from an old 1918 4th grade primer from when she was a child). I was fascinated! In 2nd grade, we had to recite a memorized poem for a class project; so, among all the simple Mother Goose rhymes offered by my classmates, I recited this long and darkling tale of Irish elves and changling children. Needless to say, my teacher was taken aback at first, but later, finding out that I could also read the entire old primer, she became my mentor and tutor.
To this day, I can recite this poem. It is strange getting old...childhood things are still so fresh, while last week becomes foggy. The brain plays tricks, sort of like the 'little people' in this poem.

DAVID IRESON said...

Like another correspondent i can remember my Mother reciting this poem, and I think I once saw it printed in a book- o 45 years ago. Why it popped into my head after all thes years i don't know, but I'm glad to be reunited with it

Tim Mckinstry said...

I once heard the first verse of this poem as a child and was immediatly
enchanted by the words although I did not much understand it. Many years
later I came upon the rest of the poem and was surprised to discover from my
mother that we are related to William Allingham. My family name is
Mckinstry, my mother's maiden name was Richardson and her mother's maiden
name was Allingham. I can see his artistic touch still runs in the family
to this day.

Thank you for researching and uploading this poem to the web, saved me alot
of time looking for it.

morgan said...

Hello,
When I was a little girl back in the very early 1930's, this poem was a
favourite, but it always sent a frisson running up my spine. I've come
across it every few decades and love it over and over again. The rhythm
made it so easy to memorize. I've apparently given away a book that had
this poem in it, and have been searching all over the place...couldn't
even remember the title let alone the author. And here it is. I'm glad
to see it is still read and loved.

annie morgan

dow drake said...

As many will have observed, the first verse is recited to Charlie by a mysterious stranger outside the gates of Wonka's chocolate factory early in 'Charlie and the Chocolate factory.'

Shannon Love said...

The first four lines could easily rank as the creepiest poetry in the English language. They force the listener to construct and entire story of their own in the head. Indeed, I think the lines have inspired several fantasy authors to write entire novels.

I do wonder about the meter, however, several lines seem off quite a bit. For example,

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting,
For fear of little men;

... seems like it should be:

Up the airy mountain
AND Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting,
For fear of little men;

Perhaps it is because of change in the cadence of the vernacular in the last 150 years?

Or maybe it's just because my ears has been corrupted by my West Texas accent.

Viagra said...

mytic beings, some tell that this little being could give you a wish, other tell that faeries fool you to lead you to a disaster, and others said that are part of the great spirit.

Anonymous said...

Shannon Love wonders about the meter. It seems to me that the poem should be vocalized with two very strong stresses per line, with less stressed intervening syllables sped up or slowed down as needed to keep the strong stresses on a steady beat. In short, this is jump-rope meter. I hear it in my mind's ear as if spoken by chorused children on the soundtrack of some Stephen King horror flick.

Ideas de negocios said...

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Zhoen said...

I was made to memorize this in grade school (early 1960's) without any background. Laid the groundwork for my hating poetry. Thank you for this, it helps.

Anonymous said...

Back in the early 1970s in Dublin, a Mr. Ward - retired publican from Ballybofey, Donegal, Ireland - told me that the 'little Bridget' of this poem was, in fact, his aunt. Said she had been stolen for several years and then allowed to return home for a visit. Her family was determined to keep her even tho she begged to be allowed to return 'to the music and the dancing.' In the end, according to Mr. Ward, she was sent to America to prevent her from returning to her life under the mountains. I'd love to know if anyone else ever heard this?

adrian frost said...

you dont think the " little bridget ' part of the poem contains ancient celtic mythe oh for an interpreter of the class of robert graves to tell me the sybolism of & years long , who weree all her friends thaT EWERE GONE tHEY TOOK HER lightly BACK BETWEEN NIGHT AND MORROW THEY THOUGHT SHE WAS ASLEEP but she was Dead with sorrow this has bot to be linked with an avnc ient tale What does the name bridget signify ?

Anonymous said...

Some of ur links are broken and i would like to see the collection of Celtic folklore and mythology

NAIRDA RENIDRAG said...

I REMEMBER THIS LITTLE GEM OF A POEM WHICH I WAS THOUGHT AT A CBS SCHOOL. IN LIMERICK IRELAND IN 1961..IT HAUNTS ME STILL AND I PICTURE IN MY MIND THE MOUNTAIN AND THE GLEN,I HAVE SINCE THOUGHT IT TO MY THREE CHILDREN.IT BELONGS TO A TIME LONG SINCE GONE,ITS NICE TO STEP BACK INTO TIME WHEN POEMS FILLED OUR IMAGINATIONS

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