Fairy Poems

Edited by Lynne Greenberg
Hardcover
$18.00 US
On sale Mar 14, 2023 | 256 Pages | 978-0-593-53629-2
Here is a wide-ranging and appealingly fairy-sized treasury of fantastical poems from across the centuries and around the world.

Fascination with fairies spans centuries and cultures. With ancient roots in pagan belief, fairies have long populated mythology, folklore, and oral and written poetry. They have seen repeated surges of renewed popularity from the Renaissance to the present fantasy-besotted moment.

Elves, changelings, leprechauns, pixies, brownies, and sprites, England’s Queen Mab, France’s Melusine, Scandinavian nixies, and Scottish selkies: these magical creatures are sometimes mischievous, sometimes dangerous, but always enchanting. This collection brings together a diverse array of literary fairies: here are Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Shakespeare‘s Titania, and Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” but also Arthur Rimbaud’s “Fairy,” Goethe's "Erlking," Claude McKay’s “Snow Fairy,” Denise Levertov’s “Elves,” Sylvia Plath’s “Lorelei," Christopher Okigbo’s “Watermaid,” and Neil Gaiman's “The Fairy Reel.”
Foreword by Lynne Greenberg
 
ENCHANTED PLACES
THOMAS DE ERCIDOUN from Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
GERALD GRIFFIN HyBrasail – The Isle of the Blest
MICHAEL COIMÍN from The Lay of Oisín in the Land of Youth
SARA TEASDALE The Faëry Forest
ARTHUR SYMONS In the Wood of Finvara
ANONYMOUS from Sir Orfeo
MICHAEL DRAYTON from Nymphidia: The Fairy Court
A. E. (GEORGE WILLIAM RUSSELL) The Well of All Healing
ROBERT SOUTHEY The Fountain of the Fairies
ANONYMOUS Lovely Lady
JAMES HOGG from Kilmeny
LUCY MAUD MONTGOMERY The Voyagers
MARY ELIZABETH COLERIDGE St. Andrew’s
CATHAL Ó SEARCAIGH The Berry Hollow of Lag Na Sméar
 
FAIRY FOLK
EDMUND SPENSER from The Faerie Queene
SIR WALTER SCOTT from Tam Lin
PAUL DUNBAR The Discovery
ANONYMOUS The Fairy Host
THOMAS BOYD To the Leanán Sidhe
DENISE LEVERTOV The Elves
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE from Romeo and Juliet
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY from Queen Mab
VICTOR HUGO A Fairy
DORA SIGERSON SHORTER The Banshee
ANONYMOUS Vilas
JOSEPH CAMPBELL The Púca
ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON from Idylls of the King
WALLACE STEVENS The Dwarf
ARTHUR RIMBAUD The Fairy
CHARLOTTE DACRE Will O’ The Wisp
CLAUDE MCKAY The Snow Fairy
A. J. ODASSO Fairy Beekeeper
 
MERMAIDS AND WATERFOLK
ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON The Sea-Fairies
HEINRICH HEINE The Loreley
SYLVIA PLATH Lorelei
CHRISTOPHER OKIGBO Watermaid
T. S. ELIOT from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
PABLO NERUDA Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks
ERIK JOHAN STAGNELIUS Näcken (The Nixie)
MARTIN OTT Return to Mermaid
GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS from A Vision of the Mermaids
JUAN FELIPE HERRERA La Sirena
DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI A Sea-Spell
SYLVIA TOWNSEND WARNER “Naiad, whose sliding lips were mine”
 
QUEER FAIRIES
MICHAEL FIELD (KATHERINE BRADLEY and EDITH COOPER) The Iris Was Yellow, The Moon Was Pale
LANGSTON HUGHES Café: 3 a.m.
CLAUDE MCKAY To O. E. A.
JOHN WIENERS To Charles on His Home
JAMES BROUGHTON only when i
OLIVER BAEZ BENDORF Rainwater From Certain Enchanted Streams
MICHAEL RUMAKER from The Fairies Are Dancing All Over the World
 
FAIRY MUSIC AND DANCE
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE from The Tempest
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE from Songs of the Pixies
ANONYMOUS Cusheen Loo
JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE Elfenlied (Fairy Song)
EDUARD MÖRIKE Elfenlied (Fairy Song)
HENRY DAVID THOREAU Dong, Sounds the Brass in the East
NORA CHESSON HOPPER The Fairy Fiddler
PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR The Corn-Stalk Fiddle
SU SHE Lyrics to the Tune “Fairy Grotto”
ANN RADCLIFFE from The Romance of the Forest
JOHN MILTON from A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH The Faëry Chasm
MADISON JULIUS CAWEIN Faëry Morris
SIMON STEWARD The Fairies Fegaries
FRANCIS LEDWIDGE Fairies
SIR WALTER SCOTT The Fairy Dance
NEIL GAIMAN The Faery Reel
 
FAIRY MISCHIEF AND MALEVOLENCE
THOMAS RAVENSCROFT The Fayries’ Daunce
LEIGH HUNT Song of Fairies Robbing Orchard
WILLIAM ALLINGHAM The Fairies
CICELY FOX SMITH Pixie-Led
CHRISTINA ROSSETTI from Goblin Market
JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE Erlklönig (The Erl-King)
MATTHEW ARNOLD from Tristram and Iseult
ANONYMOUS Swedish Ballad: Sir Olof and the Fairies
 
SEDUCTIONS AND ABDUCTIONS
JOHN KEATS La Belle Dame Sans Merci: A Ballad
MARIE DE FRANCE from Sir Launfal
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS The Song of Wandering Aengus
WALTER DE LA MARE Happy, Happy It Is To Be
MOIREEN FOX CHEAVASA The Fairy Lover
ETHNA CARBERY The Love-Talker
DORA SIGERSON SHORTER The Wind on the Hills
SAMUEL LOVER The Haunted Spring
MARY C. G. BYRON The Fairy Thrall
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS The Stolen Child
JOHN ANSTER The Fairy Child
PATIENCE AGBABI Double
SEROJINI NAIDU Village-Song
CHARLOTTE MEW The Changeling
THEODORA GOSS The Changeling
 
FAIRY SPELLS AND CHARMS
ROBERT HERRICK The Night-Piece, to Julia
ANONYMOUS Gaelic Charm Against Fairy Influence
ANONYMOUS Song to Quell the Elf
THOMAS CAMPION Ayre XVIII
JAMES CLARENCE MANGAN The Romance of the Fairy Cure
WILLIAM CARTWRIGHT from The Ordinary
MICHAEL DRAYTON from Nymphidia: The Fairy Court
BEN JONSON The Fairy Beam Upon You
 
ABSINTHE, THE GREEN FAIRY
CHARLES BAUDELAIRE The Poison
DELMIRA AGUSTINI Another Lineage
GUILLAUME APOLLINAIRE Rhenish Night
PAUL VALÉRY The Vain Dancers
CARL DANIEL FÄLLSTRÖM Absinthe
RAOUL PONCHON L’Absinthe
ANONYMOUS I Am the Green Fairy
 
SYMBOLIC FAIRIES
LESLIE COULSON From the Somme
ROBERT FROST The Spoils of the Dead
SARA TEASDALE Silence
HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW Holidays
FIONA MACLEOD (WILLIAM SHARPE) Dreams Within Dreams
HENRIK JOHAN IBSEN In the Picture Gallery
SEROJINI NAIDU To My Fairy Fancies
WILLIAM WINTER Unwritten Poems
CHARLES BAUDELAIRE The Sick Muse
THOMAS LOVELL BEDDOES Another
E. E. CUMMINGS from Post Impressions
WILLIAM BLAKE The Fairy
FRIEDRICH VON MATTHISSON Lied der Liebe (Song of Love)
SIOBHAN CAMPBELL Quickthorn
KATHERINE MANSFIELD Sorrowing Love
ANNE SEXTON Old Dwarf Heart
MONICA FERRELL Myths of the Disappearance
COUNTEE CULLEN Lines To My Father
ELINOR WYLIE Escape
WILLIAM BROWNE from Visions
EMILY BRONTË A Little Budding Rose
CHARLOTTE SMITH Sonnet LXIII: The Gossamer
EMILY DICKINSON Within my Garden, rides a Bird
SOPHIE JEWETT Across the Border
 
FATE OF THE FAIRIES
SHU¯ZO¯ TAKIGUCHI Fairy Distance
MARIE ELIZABETH JOSEPHINE PITT The Lost Fairies
VALERY BRYUSOV Golden Fairies
A. E. HOUSMAN XXI
LANGSTON HUGHES After Many Springs
RICHARD CORBET Farewell Rewards and Fairies
JOHN RUSKIN from The Emigration of the Sprites
FELICIA DOROTHEA HEMANS Fairies’ Recall
EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY Doubt No More that Oberon
W. H. AUDEN Belief
Foreword
 
With deep roots in pagan traditions and religions, fairies are ubiquitous in mythology and folklore in all periods of recorded history. Their wings’ breadth spans continents, and anthropologists, ethnographers, and folklorists have traced belief in fairies worldwide. The origin stories of fairies are diverse. In Irish tradition, fairies were said to have descended from the Tuatha Dé Danann, a superior race of beings and rulers. Others believed that fairies were fallen angels, of neither heaven nor hell. In the seventeenth century, Robert Kirk, one of the first Gaelic folklorists, wrote: “Siths, or Fairies, they call Sluagh Maith, or the Goodpeople . . . are said to be of a middle nature betwixt man and angel, as were demons thought to be of old.” To still others, fairies were the descendants of monstrous Pre-Christian beings or of Cain. They have alternatively been characterized as restless spirits of the dead. While their origin stories differ, certain attributes of fairies appear in a number of cultures, including superior strength, uncanny intelligence, invisibility, supernatural gifts, and otherworldly physicalities.
 
Fairies, indeed, are endowed with powerful abilities, one of which is their capacity to soar into every literary genre. Transmitted originally through oral cultures, fairy stories are extant in ballads, songs, myths, and legends. Later, fairies become principal characters in epics, romances, dramas, and lyric poetry. Poets, inspired and haunted by fairies, both benevolent and wicked, have created a lasting canon of fairy poetry. This volume offers a sampling of classic works as well as lesser-known works, including traditional ballads, from a range of genres and places, focusing on the English and Irish traditions. Modern and contemporary poems about fairies attest to their enduring influence at the level of myth.

The poems sing of “Faerie,” the enchanted places in which fairies were thought to dwell: Tir Na N’og, the land of youth; HyBrasil, the fabled isle of the blessed; Avalon; forest; fl ower; cairn; body of water; the air itself. “Fairy” as a generic term encompasses a world of creatures, regionally and even locally named. Encyclopedias are devoted to classifying the different fairies, their appearance, behavior, and dwellings. A number of these creatures—elves, pixies, mermaids, and goblins, to name but a few—populate the poems. The characters, from Queen Mab to Robin Goodfellow, are as diverse as the types of fairies. They are kings and queens, helpful domestics, pranksters, muses, lovers, and murderers.
 
Fairies are liminal creatures. Morally ambivalent and having their own codes of behavior, the “good people” or “gentle folk,” as they were euphemistically called in Ireland, have been greeted alternatively with terror, skepticism, and delight. In the Renaissance, Protestant writers decried fairies as satanic beings or illusory manifestations of Satan. In Scotland, an admission of having seen fairies could lead to an accusation of witchcraft. In the seventeenth century, Puritan writers railed against fairy belief as mere superstition. In our time, fairies have been relegated to storybooks and cartoons for children.
 
The poems in this volume reflect the range of human reactions to fairies. Some revel in fairies’ festive activities, their love of dance and song and their guardianship of the natural world. Other poems smile at their mischievous antics. Many of the poems bewail fairies’ malevolence. Preternaturally desirable, both male and female fairies were said to beguile, entice, and seduce the unwary. Fairies were also believed to abduct human children, replacing them with changelings, or fairy children, who would not thrive. These leitmotifs appear often in the poetry and suggest our all-too-human efforts to account for tragedy and disaster. In ages when fairies were feared as a mortal threat, humans sought both to channel and to ward off their magic through medicinal recipes, rituals, prayers, and charms. This volume includes a sampling of such poetic spells.
 
The poems are rich in fae “glamour,” that is, the ability to shapeshift. The poems themselves shift between a range of moods and registers, at times lyrical and whimsical, at other times hypnotic and disturbing. Poets have invoked fairies’ transformative ability to explore the endlessly shifting resonancesand meanings of the word fairy itself. As early as the nineteenth century, the term was used derogatorily to refer to homosexuals. It since has been reclaimed, in part due to Harry Hay, the founder of the Radical Faeries movement in the 1970s. Poets gesture alternatively, and sometimes in closeted ways, to the sexual valences of the term. A separate section of the volume is devoted to poets who wrote of their experiences with absinthe, popularly referred to as la feé verte (the green fairy). Particularly in the late 1900s, absinthe served as a source of inspiration for poets. A number of these poems absorb and are absorbed in the hallucinogenic properties of wormwood. Several of the poems in this volume allude to fairies in symbolic ways: to offer critiques of war, to  mourn the passing of youth, and to celebrate the beloved, nature, even the creative imagination itself. The range of poetic uses of fairies suggests the power of their glamour.

In choosing poems for this volume, the only difficulty was in deciding which works to include from amongst the rich traditions. Regardless of author, genre, or place of creation, each poem has been chosen for its timelessness. Together, they speak to our love of story, collective wonderment at the invisible and unknown, and desire to understand the ineffable mysteries of grief, longing, love, and joy. May these fairy poems offer flight. May they lure and allure you.
 
Lynne Greenberg
 


From Lyrics to “Fairy Grotto” by Su She (Sung Dynasty, 1037-1101)

Skin of ice.
Bones of jade.
Always cool and unperspiring.
To the palace by the water
Comes a breeze,
Filling it with hidden fragrance.
 
From A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.
 
After Many Springs, by Langston Hughes
Now,
In June,
When the night is a vast softness
Filled with blue stars,
And broken shafts of moon-glimmer
Fall upon the earth,
Am I too old to see the fairies dance?
I cannot find them any more.
 
Belief, by W. H. Auden
We do not know
If there be fairies now
Or no.
But why should we ourselves involve
In questions which we cannot solve.
O let’s pretend it’s so
And then perhaps if we are good
Some day we’ll see them in the wood.

About

Here is a wide-ranging and appealingly fairy-sized treasury of fantastical poems from across the centuries and around the world.

Fascination with fairies spans centuries and cultures. With ancient roots in pagan belief, fairies have long populated mythology, folklore, and oral and written poetry. They have seen repeated surges of renewed popularity from the Renaissance to the present fantasy-besotted moment.

Elves, changelings, leprechauns, pixies, brownies, and sprites, England’s Queen Mab, France’s Melusine, Scandinavian nixies, and Scottish selkies: these magical creatures are sometimes mischievous, sometimes dangerous, but always enchanting. This collection brings together a diverse array of literary fairies: here are Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Shakespeare‘s Titania, and Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” but also Arthur Rimbaud’s “Fairy,” Goethe's "Erlking," Claude McKay’s “Snow Fairy,” Denise Levertov’s “Elves,” Sylvia Plath’s “Lorelei," Christopher Okigbo’s “Watermaid,” and Neil Gaiman's “The Fairy Reel.”

Table of Contents

Foreword by Lynne Greenberg
 
ENCHANTED PLACES
THOMAS DE ERCIDOUN from Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
GERALD GRIFFIN HyBrasail – The Isle of the Blest
MICHAEL COIMÍN from The Lay of Oisín in the Land of Youth
SARA TEASDALE The Faëry Forest
ARTHUR SYMONS In the Wood of Finvara
ANONYMOUS from Sir Orfeo
MICHAEL DRAYTON from Nymphidia: The Fairy Court
A. E. (GEORGE WILLIAM RUSSELL) The Well of All Healing
ROBERT SOUTHEY The Fountain of the Fairies
ANONYMOUS Lovely Lady
JAMES HOGG from Kilmeny
LUCY MAUD MONTGOMERY The Voyagers
MARY ELIZABETH COLERIDGE St. Andrew’s
CATHAL Ó SEARCAIGH The Berry Hollow of Lag Na Sméar
 
FAIRY FOLK
EDMUND SPENSER from The Faerie Queene
SIR WALTER SCOTT from Tam Lin
PAUL DUNBAR The Discovery
ANONYMOUS The Fairy Host
THOMAS BOYD To the Leanán Sidhe
DENISE LEVERTOV The Elves
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE from Romeo and Juliet
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY from Queen Mab
VICTOR HUGO A Fairy
DORA SIGERSON SHORTER The Banshee
ANONYMOUS Vilas
JOSEPH CAMPBELL The Púca
ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON from Idylls of the King
WALLACE STEVENS The Dwarf
ARTHUR RIMBAUD The Fairy
CHARLOTTE DACRE Will O’ The Wisp
CLAUDE MCKAY The Snow Fairy
A. J. ODASSO Fairy Beekeeper
 
MERMAIDS AND WATERFOLK
ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON The Sea-Fairies
HEINRICH HEINE The Loreley
SYLVIA PLATH Lorelei
CHRISTOPHER OKIGBO Watermaid
T. S. ELIOT from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
PABLO NERUDA Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks
ERIK JOHAN STAGNELIUS Näcken (The Nixie)
MARTIN OTT Return to Mermaid
GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS from A Vision of the Mermaids
JUAN FELIPE HERRERA La Sirena
DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI A Sea-Spell
SYLVIA TOWNSEND WARNER “Naiad, whose sliding lips were mine”
 
QUEER FAIRIES
MICHAEL FIELD (KATHERINE BRADLEY and EDITH COOPER) The Iris Was Yellow, The Moon Was Pale
LANGSTON HUGHES Café: 3 a.m.
CLAUDE MCKAY To O. E. A.
JOHN WIENERS To Charles on His Home
JAMES BROUGHTON only when i
OLIVER BAEZ BENDORF Rainwater From Certain Enchanted Streams
MICHAEL RUMAKER from The Fairies Are Dancing All Over the World
 
FAIRY MUSIC AND DANCE
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE from The Tempest
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE from Songs of the Pixies
ANONYMOUS Cusheen Loo
JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE Elfenlied (Fairy Song)
EDUARD MÖRIKE Elfenlied (Fairy Song)
HENRY DAVID THOREAU Dong, Sounds the Brass in the East
NORA CHESSON HOPPER The Fairy Fiddler
PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR The Corn-Stalk Fiddle
SU SHE Lyrics to the Tune “Fairy Grotto”
ANN RADCLIFFE from The Romance of the Forest
JOHN MILTON from A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH The Faëry Chasm
MADISON JULIUS CAWEIN Faëry Morris
SIMON STEWARD The Fairies Fegaries
FRANCIS LEDWIDGE Fairies
SIR WALTER SCOTT The Fairy Dance
NEIL GAIMAN The Faery Reel
 
FAIRY MISCHIEF AND MALEVOLENCE
THOMAS RAVENSCROFT The Fayries’ Daunce
LEIGH HUNT Song of Fairies Robbing Orchard
WILLIAM ALLINGHAM The Fairies
CICELY FOX SMITH Pixie-Led
CHRISTINA ROSSETTI from Goblin Market
JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE Erlklönig (The Erl-King)
MATTHEW ARNOLD from Tristram and Iseult
ANONYMOUS Swedish Ballad: Sir Olof and the Fairies
 
SEDUCTIONS AND ABDUCTIONS
JOHN KEATS La Belle Dame Sans Merci: A Ballad
MARIE DE FRANCE from Sir Launfal
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS The Song of Wandering Aengus
WALTER DE LA MARE Happy, Happy It Is To Be
MOIREEN FOX CHEAVASA The Fairy Lover
ETHNA CARBERY The Love-Talker
DORA SIGERSON SHORTER The Wind on the Hills
SAMUEL LOVER The Haunted Spring
MARY C. G. BYRON The Fairy Thrall
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS The Stolen Child
JOHN ANSTER The Fairy Child
PATIENCE AGBABI Double
SEROJINI NAIDU Village-Song
CHARLOTTE MEW The Changeling
THEODORA GOSS The Changeling
 
FAIRY SPELLS AND CHARMS
ROBERT HERRICK The Night-Piece, to Julia
ANONYMOUS Gaelic Charm Against Fairy Influence
ANONYMOUS Song to Quell the Elf
THOMAS CAMPION Ayre XVIII
JAMES CLARENCE MANGAN The Romance of the Fairy Cure
WILLIAM CARTWRIGHT from The Ordinary
MICHAEL DRAYTON from Nymphidia: The Fairy Court
BEN JONSON The Fairy Beam Upon You
 
ABSINTHE, THE GREEN FAIRY
CHARLES BAUDELAIRE The Poison
DELMIRA AGUSTINI Another Lineage
GUILLAUME APOLLINAIRE Rhenish Night
PAUL VALÉRY The Vain Dancers
CARL DANIEL FÄLLSTRÖM Absinthe
RAOUL PONCHON L’Absinthe
ANONYMOUS I Am the Green Fairy
 
SYMBOLIC FAIRIES
LESLIE COULSON From the Somme
ROBERT FROST The Spoils of the Dead
SARA TEASDALE Silence
HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW Holidays
FIONA MACLEOD (WILLIAM SHARPE) Dreams Within Dreams
HENRIK JOHAN IBSEN In the Picture Gallery
SEROJINI NAIDU To My Fairy Fancies
WILLIAM WINTER Unwritten Poems
CHARLES BAUDELAIRE The Sick Muse
THOMAS LOVELL BEDDOES Another
E. E. CUMMINGS from Post Impressions
WILLIAM BLAKE The Fairy
FRIEDRICH VON MATTHISSON Lied der Liebe (Song of Love)
SIOBHAN CAMPBELL Quickthorn
KATHERINE MANSFIELD Sorrowing Love
ANNE SEXTON Old Dwarf Heart
MONICA FERRELL Myths of the Disappearance
COUNTEE CULLEN Lines To My Father
ELINOR WYLIE Escape
WILLIAM BROWNE from Visions
EMILY BRONTË A Little Budding Rose
CHARLOTTE SMITH Sonnet LXIII: The Gossamer
EMILY DICKINSON Within my Garden, rides a Bird
SOPHIE JEWETT Across the Border
 
FATE OF THE FAIRIES
SHU¯ZO¯ TAKIGUCHI Fairy Distance
MARIE ELIZABETH JOSEPHINE PITT The Lost Fairies
VALERY BRYUSOV Golden Fairies
A. E. HOUSMAN XXI
LANGSTON HUGHES After Many Springs
RICHARD CORBET Farewell Rewards and Fairies
JOHN RUSKIN from The Emigration of the Sprites
FELICIA DOROTHEA HEMANS Fairies’ Recall
EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY Doubt No More that Oberon
W. H. AUDEN Belief

Excerpt

Foreword
 
With deep roots in pagan traditions and religions, fairies are ubiquitous in mythology and folklore in all periods of recorded history. Their wings’ breadth spans continents, and anthropologists, ethnographers, and folklorists have traced belief in fairies worldwide. The origin stories of fairies are diverse. In Irish tradition, fairies were said to have descended from the Tuatha Dé Danann, a superior race of beings and rulers. Others believed that fairies were fallen angels, of neither heaven nor hell. In the seventeenth century, Robert Kirk, one of the first Gaelic folklorists, wrote: “Siths, or Fairies, they call Sluagh Maith, or the Goodpeople . . . are said to be of a middle nature betwixt man and angel, as were demons thought to be of old.” To still others, fairies were the descendants of monstrous Pre-Christian beings or of Cain. They have alternatively been characterized as restless spirits of the dead. While their origin stories differ, certain attributes of fairies appear in a number of cultures, including superior strength, uncanny intelligence, invisibility, supernatural gifts, and otherworldly physicalities.
 
Fairies, indeed, are endowed with powerful abilities, one of which is their capacity to soar into every literary genre. Transmitted originally through oral cultures, fairy stories are extant in ballads, songs, myths, and legends. Later, fairies become principal characters in epics, romances, dramas, and lyric poetry. Poets, inspired and haunted by fairies, both benevolent and wicked, have created a lasting canon of fairy poetry. This volume offers a sampling of classic works as well as lesser-known works, including traditional ballads, from a range of genres and places, focusing on the English and Irish traditions. Modern and contemporary poems about fairies attest to their enduring influence at the level of myth.

The poems sing of “Faerie,” the enchanted places in which fairies were thought to dwell: Tir Na N’og, the land of youth; HyBrasil, the fabled isle of the blessed; Avalon; forest; fl ower; cairn; body of water; the air itself. “Fairy” as a generic term encompasses a world of creatures, regionally and even locally named. Encyclopedias are devoted to classifying the different fairies, their appearance, behavior, and dwellings. A number of these creatures—elves, pixies, mermaids, and goblins, to name but a few—populate the poems. The characters, from Queen Mab to Robin Goodfellow, are as diverse as the types of fairies. They are kings and queens, helpful domestics, pranksters, muses, lovers, and murderers.
 
Fairies are liminal creatures. Morally ambivalent and having their own codes of behavior, the “good people” or “gentle folk,” as they were euphemistically called in Ireland, have been greeted alternatively with terror, skepticism, and delight. In the Renaissance, Protestant writers decried fairies as satanic beings or illusory manifestations of Satan. In Scotland, an admission of having seen fairies could lead to an accusation of witchcraft. In the seventeenth century, Puritan writers railed against fairy belief as mere superstition. In our time, fairies have been relegated to storybooks and cartoons for children.
 
The poems in this volume reflect the range of human reactions to fairies. Some revel in fairies’ festive activities, their love of dance and song and their guardianship of the natural world. Other poems smile at their mischievous antics. Many of the poems bewail fairies’ malevolence. Preternaturally desirable, both male and female fairies were said to beguile, entice, and seduce the unwary. Fairies were also believed to abduct human children, replacing them with changelings, or fairy children, who would not thrive. These leitmotifs appear often in the poetry and suggest our all-too-human efforts to account for tragedy and disaster. In ages when fairies were feared as a mortal threat, humans sought both to channel and to ward off their magic through medicinal recipes, rituals, prayers, and charms. This volume includes a sampling of such poetic spells.
 
The poems are rich in fae “glamour,” that is, the ability to shapeshift. The poems themselves shift between a range of moods and registers, at times lyrical and whimsical, at other times hypnotic and disturbing. Poets have invoked fairies’ transformative ability to explore the endlessly shifting resonancesand meanings of the word fairy itself. As early as the nineteenth century, the term was used derogatorily to refer to homosexuals. It since has been reclaimed, in part due to Harry Hay, the founder of the Radical Faeries movement in the 1970s. Poets gesture alternatively, and sometimes in closeted ways, to the sexual valences of the term. A separate section of the volume is devoted to poets who wrote of their experiences with absinthe, popularly referred to as la feé verte (the green fairy). Particularly in the late 1900s, absinthe served as a source of inspiration for poets. A number of these poems absorb and are absorbed in the hallucinogenic properties of wormwood. Several of the poems in this volume allude to fairies in symbolic ways: to offer critiques of war, to  mourn the passing of youth, and to celebrate the beloved, nature, even the creative imagination itself. The range of poetic uses of fairies suggests the power of their glamour.

In choosing poems for this volume, the only difficulty was in deciding which works to include from amongst the rich traditions. Regardless of author, genre, or place of creation, each poem has been chosen for its timelessness. Together, they speak to our love of story, collective wonderment at the invisible and unknown, and desire to understand the ineffable mysteries of grief, longing, love, and joy. May these fairy poems offer flight. May they lure and allure you.
 
Lynne Greenberg
 


From Lyrics to “Fairy Grotto” by Su She (Sung Dynasty, 1037-1101)

Skin of ice.
Bones of jade.
Always cool and unperspiring.
To the palace by the water
Comes a breeze,
Filling it with hidden fragrance.
 
From A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.
 
After Many Springs, by Langston Hughes
Now,
In June,
When the night is a vast softness
Filled with blue stars,
And broken shafts of moon-glimmer
Fall upon the earth,
Am I too old to see the fairies dance?
I cannot find them any more.
 
Belief, by W. H. Auden
We do not know
If there be fairies now
Or no.
But why should we ourselves involve
In questions which we cannot solve.
O let’s pretend it’s so
And then perhaps if we are good
Some day we’ll see them in the wood.

Books for Black History Month

Join Penguin Random House Education in celebrating the contributions of Black authors, creators, and educators. In honor of Black History Month in February, we are highlighting stories about the history of Black America, the experiences of Black women, celebrations of Black music, and essential books by Black writers. Find more books from Penguin Random House:

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