|John Sartain after John Martin, “The Island of the Fay”|
This piece by Edgar Allan Poe starts off a little roughly if you don’t speak French. For those who don’t, the opening phrase reads, “Music is the only talent which one can enjoy all to themselves; all others want witnesses”.
Poe takes this a step further and states that one can experience and appreciate music to a far greater extent while alone, and that the only thing which can surpass this is the ability we have as humans to contemplate in solitude the very nature of our universe.
This is an impressive contemplation by Poe of the world in which we live. Where some would see a simple farmer’s field, he sees the fertile expanse as a living system, part of an almost incomprehensibly larger, living system. Systems within systems, cycles within cycles. In this study, he touches on the Gaia Hypothesis some 18 years before Charles Darwin would publish his monumental “On the Origin of Species” in 1859 (for a little chronological perspective). That’s not to say this is a scientific work, it’s a purely contemplative piece.
Poe takes the exercise further. In your contemplation, if you can envision the Earth as almost a living system of systems, each with checks and balances that keep all the other systems flourishing, then it’s not too difficult to imagine the Earth as something that can bring forth life. And if life, then life of all sorts from the easily conceivable to the fantastic or enchanted, such as the fay, or “fairies”, but you might only perceive the fantastic if you really want to. Like music, it’s all in how you witness it.
He describes lands of the fay that he has envisioned, each one an allegory for things he has observed, each one describing each of the four seasons, and each one part of an island – a cycle within a cycle. The Island of the Fay is, of course, the planet Earth, and the fay are us human beings. I don’t think I’m giving anything away in revealing that. The piece really needs to be read to appreciate the way Poe weaves this all together.
Some see this as Poe rationalizing God, that through reflecting in solitude on our universe we commune with God. I don’t see it this way. In Poe’s writing here I see the same awe, the same visionary wonder about the universe and our place in it as I saw expressed so eloquently by Carl Sagan in his lifetime – “The cosmos is also within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself”. By deeply contemplating our universe, we better understand our place in it. Having written this 173 years ago, Poe hardly had the opportunity to understand what we do now about the furnaces of creation that are the stars in our sky, but I suspect he was piecing it together. Again, I guess it’s all in how you witness it.
The piece concludes on a sombre note, that one trip around the island for a fay – experiencing all four seasons – brings the fay one year closer to death, and with each fay’s death, the fay bodily returns to the island from whence it came, and the island gets a little darker.
This work of Poe’s is not a short story, there’s no mystery, no antagonist nor any great climax. It’s an allegorical study, a spiritual reflection on his universe. This work is only seven short pages in length, but don’t let that fool you. This is a very dense piece of writing and not the kind of work you skim through quickly. Or rather, I didn’t. This is the kind of work that you read slowly and savour. More than once, if possible.
The Island of the Fay was originally published in 1841, and is in the Public Domain in the USA.
- Download the text eBook at Feedbooks
- Download the book read aloud by TriciaG from LibriVox.org (Chapter 13)
- Download the Project Gutenberg text eBook at the Internet Archive
The Island of the Fay has inspired the Progressive Electronic band Tangerine Dream to release in 2011 an album entitled “Edgar Allan Poe’s The Island of the Fay“, starting the band’s “Sonic Poems” series.