(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.
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