Edgar Allan Poe

The Island of the Fay

Nullus enim locus sine genio est.


"LA MUSIQUE," says Marmontel, in those "Contes Moraux"<1> which in all our 
translations, we have insisted upon calling "Moral Tales," as if in mockery of 
their spirit–"la musique est le seul des talents qui jouissent de lui-meme; tous 
les autres veulent des temoins." He here confounds the pleasure derivable from 
sweet sounds with the capacity for creating them. No more than any other talent, 
is that for music susceptible of complete enjoyment, where there is no second 
party to appreciate its exercise. And it is only in common with other talents 
that it produces effects which may be fully enjoyed in solitude. The idea which 
the raconteur has either failed to entertain clearly, or has sacrificed in its 
expression to his national love of point, is, doubtless, the very tenable one 
that the higher order of music is the most thoroughly estimated when we are 
exclusively alone. The proposition, in this form, will be admitted at once by 
those who love the lyre for its own sake, and for its spiritual uses. But there 
is one pleasure still within the reach of fAllan mortality and perhaps only 
one–which owes even more than does music to the accessory sentiment of 
seclusion. I mean the happiness experienced in the contemplation of natural 
scenery. In truth, the man who would behold aright the glory of God upon earth 
must in solitude behold that glory. To me, at least, the presence–not of human 
life only, but of life in any other form than that of the green things which 
grow upon the soil and are voiceless–is a stain upon the landscape–is at war 
with the genius of the scene. I love, indeed, to regard the dark valleys, and 
the gray rocks, and the waters that silently smile, and the forests that sigh in 
uneasy slumbers, and the proud watchful mountains that look down upon all,–I 
love to regard these as themselves but the colossal members of one vast animate 
and sentient whole–a whole whose form (that of the sphere) is the most perfect 
and most inclusive of all; whose path is among associate planets; whose meek 
handmaiden is the moon, whose mediate sovereign is the sun; whose life is 
eternity, whose thought is that of a God; whose enjoyment is knowledge; whose 
destinies are lost in immensity, whose cognizance of ourselves is akin with our 
own cognizance of the animalculae which infest the brain–a being which we, in 
consequence, regard as purely inanimate and material much in the same manner as 
these animalculae must thus regard us.

Our telescopes and our mathematical investigations assure us on every 
hand–notwithstanding the cant of the more ignorant of the priesthood–that space, 
and therefore that bulk, is an important consideration in the eyes of the 
Almighty. The cycles in which the stars move are those best adapted for the 
evolution, without collision, of the greatest possible number of bodies. The 
forms of those bodies are accurately such as, within a given surface, to include 
the greatest possible amount of matter;–while the surfaces themselves are so 
disposed as to accommodate a denser population than could be accommodated on the 
same surfaces otherwise arranged. Nor is it any argument against bulk being an 
object with God, that space itself is infinite; for there may be an infinity of 
matter to fill it. And since we see clearly that the endowment of matter with 
vitality is a principle–indeed, as far as our judgments extend, the leading 
principle in the operations of Deity,–it is scarcely logical to imagine it 
confined to the regions of the minute, where we daily trace it, and not 
extending to those of the august. As we find cycle within cycle without end,–yet 
all revolving around one far-distant centre which is the God-head, may we not 
analogically suppose in the same manner, life within life, the less within the 
greater, and all within the Spirit Divine? In short, we are madly erring, 
through self-esteem, in believing man, in either his temporal or future 
destinies, to be of more moment in the universe than that vast "clod of the 
valley" which he tills and contemns, and to which he denies a soul for no more 
profound reason than that he does not behold it in operation.<2>

These fancies, and such as these, have always given to my meditations among the 
mountains and the forests, by the rivers and the ocean, a tinge of what the 
everyday world would not fail to term fantastic. My wanderings amid such scenes 
have been many, and far-searching, and often solitary; and the interest with 
which I have strayed through many a dim, deep valley, or gazed into the 
reflected Heaven of many a bright lake, has been an interest greatly deepened by 
the thought that I have strayed and gazed alone. What flippant Frenchman was it 
who said in allusion to the well-known work of Zimmerman, that, "la solitude est 
une belle chose; mais il faut quelqu'un pour vous dire que la solitude est une 
belle chose?" The epigram cannot be gainsayed; but the necessity is a thing that 
does not exist.

It was during one of my lonely journeyings, amid a far distant region of 
mountain locked within mountain, and sad rivers and melancholy tarn writhing or 
sleeping within all–that I chanced upon a certain rivulet and island. I came 
upon them suddenly in the leafy June, and threw myself upon the turf, beneath 
the branches of an unknown odorous shrub, that I might doze as I contemplated 
the scene. I felt that thus only should I look upon it–such was the character of 
phantasm which it wore.

On all sides–save to the west, where the sun was about sinking- arose the 
verdant walls of the forest. The little river which turned sharply in its 
course, and was thus immediately lost to sight, seemed to have no exit from its 
prison, but to be absorbed by the deep green foliage of the trees to the 
east–while in the opposite quarter (so it appeared to me as I lay at length and 
glanced upward) there poured down noiselessly and continuously into the valley, 
a rich golden and crimson waterfall from the sunset fountains of the sky.

About midway in the short vista which my dreamy vision took in, one small 
circular island, profusely verdured, reposed upon the bosom of the stream.

So blended bank and shadow there

That each seemed pendulous in air-

so mirror-like was the glassy water, that it was scarcely possible to say at 
what point upon the slope of the emerald turf its crystal dominion began.

My position enabled me to include in a single view both the eastern and western 
extremities of the islet; and I observed a singularly-marked difference in their 
aspects. The latter was all one radiant harem of garden beauties. It glowed and 
blushed beneath the eyes of the slant sunlight, and fairly laughed with flowers. 
The grass was short, springy, sweet-scented, and Asphodel-interspersed. The 
trees were lithe, mirthful, erect–bright, slender, and graceful,- of eastern 
figure and foliage, with bark smooth, glossy, and parti-colored. There seemed a 
deep sense of life and joy about all; and although no airs blew from out the 
heavens, yet every thing had motion through the gentle sweepings to and fro of 
innumerable butterflies, that might have been mistaken for tulips with wings.<3>

The other or eastern end of the isle was whelmed in the blackest shade. A 
sombre, yet beautiful and peaceful gloom here pervaded all things. The trees 
were dark in color, and mournful in form and attitude, wreathing themselves into 
sad, solemn, and spectral shapes that conveyed ideas of mortal sorrow and 
untimely death. The grass wore the deep tint of the cypress, and the heads of 
its blades hung droopingly, and hither and thither among it were many small 
unsightly hillocks, low and narrow, and not very long, that had the aspect of 
graves, but were not; although over and all about them the rue and the rosemary 
clambered. The shade of the trees fell heavily upon the water, and seemed to 
bury itself therein, impregnating the depths of the element with darkness. I 
fancied that each shadow, as the sun descended lower and lower, separated itself 
sullenly from the trunk that gave it birth, and thus became absorbed by the 
stream; while other shadows issued momently from the trees, taking the place of 
their predecessors thus entombed.

This idea, having once seized upon my fancy, greatly excited it, and I lost 
myself forthwith in revery. "If ever island were enchanted," said I to myself, 
"this is it. This is the haunt of the few gentle Fays who remain from the wreck 
of the race. Are these green tombs theirs?–or do they yield up their sweet lives 
as mankind yield up their own? In dying, do they not rather waste away 
mournfully, rendering unto God, little by little, their existence, as these 
trees render up shadow after shadow, exhausting their substance unto 
dissolution? What the wasting tree is to the water that imbibes its shade, 
growing thus blacker by what it preys upon, may not the life of the Fay be to 
the death which engulfs it?"

As I thus mused, with half-shut eyes, while the sun sank rapidly to rest, and 
eddying currents careered round and round the island, bearing upon their bosom 
large, dazzling, white flakes of the bark of the sycamore-flakes which, in their 
multiform positions upon the water, a quick imagination might have converted 
into any thing it pleased, while I thus mused, it appeared to me that the form 
of one of those very Fays about whom I had been pondering made its way slowly 
into the darkness from out the light at the western end of the island. She stood 
erect in a singularly fragile canoe, and urged it with the mere phantom of an 
oar. While within the influence of the lingering sunbeams, her attitude seemed 
indicative of joy–but sorrow deformed it as she passed within the shade. Slowly 
she glided along, and at length rounded the islet and re-entered the region of 
light. "The revolution which has just been made by the Fay," continued I, 
musingly, "is the cycle of the brief year of her life. She has floated through 
her winter and through her summer. She is a year nearer unto Death; for I did 
not fail to see that, as she came into the shade, her shadow fell from her, and 
was swallowed up in the dark water, making its blackness more black."

And again the boat appeared and the Fay, but about the attitude of the latter 
there was more of care and uncertainty and less of elastic joy. She floated 
again from out the light and into the gloom (which deepened momently) and again 
her shadow fell from her into the ebony water, and became absorbed into its 
blackness. And again and again she made the circuit of the island, (while the 
sun rushed down to his slumbers), and at each issuing into the light there was 
more sorrow about her person, while it grew feebler and far fainter and more 
indistinct, and at each passage into the gloom there fell from her a darker 
shade, which became whelmed in a shadow more black. But at length when the sun 
had utterly departed, the Fay, now the mere ghost of her former self, went 
disconsolately with her boat into the region of the ebony flood, and that she 
issued thence at all I cannot say, for darkness fell over an things and I beheld 
her magical figure no more.

<1> Moraux is here derived from moeurs, and its meaning is "fashionable" or more 
strictly "of manners."

<2> Speaking of the tides, Pomponius Mela, in his treatise "De Situ Orbis," says 
"either the world is a great animal, or" etc.

<3> Florem putares nare per liquidum aethera.–P. Commire.