Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. VI. Fancy: Sentiment
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume VI. Fancy.  1904.
 
Poems of Fancy: II. Fairies: Elves: Sprites
The Culprit Fay
Joseph Rodman Drake (1795–1820)
 
 “My visual orbs are purged from film, and, lo!
  Instead of Anster’s turnip-bearing vales,
I see old fairy land’s miraculous show!
  Her trees of tinsel kissed by freakish gales,
Her ouphs that, cloaked in leaf-gold, skim the breeze,
  And fairies, swarming———”
—Tennant’s “Anster Fair”    

’T IS the middle watch of a summer’s night,—
The earth is dark, but the heavens are bright;
Naught is seen in the vault on high
But the moon, and the stars, and the cloudless sky,
And the flood which rolls its milky hue,        5
A river of light on the welkin blue.
The moon looks down on old Cro’nest;
She mellows the shades on his shaggy breast,
And seems his huge gray form to throw
In a silver cone on the wave below.        10
His sides are broken by spots of shade,
By the walnut bough and the cedar made;
And through their clustering branches dark
Glimmers and dies the firefly’s spark,—
Like starry twinkles that momently break        15
Through the rifts of the gathering tempest’s rack.
 
The stars are on the moving stream,
  And fling, as its ripples gently flow,
A burnished length of wavy beam
  In an eel-like, spiral line below;        20
The winds are whist, and the owl is still;
  The bat in the shelvy rock is hid;
And naught is heard on the lonely hill
But the cricket’s chirp, and the answer shrill
  Of the gauze-winged katydid;        25
And the plaint of the wailing whippoorwill,
  Who moans unseen, and ceaseless sings
Ever a note of wail and woe,
  Till morning spreads her rosy wings,
And earth and sky in her glances glow.        30
 
’T is the hour of fairy ban and spell:
The wood-tick has kept the minutes well;
He has counted them all with click and stroke
Deep in the heart of the mountain-oak,
And he has awakened the sentry elve        35
  Who sleeps with him in the haunted tree,
To bid him ring the hour of twelve,
  And call the fays to their revelry;
Twelve small strokes on his tinkling bell
(’T was made of the white snail’s pearly shell):        40
“Midnight comes, and all is well!
Hither, hither wing your way!
’T is the dawn of the fairy-day.”
 
They come from beds of lichen green,
They creep from the mullein’s velvet screen;        45
  Some on the backs of beetles fly
From the silver tops of moon-touched trees,
  Where they swung in their cobweb hammocks high,
And rocked about in the evening breeze;
  Some from the hum-bird’s downy nest,—        50
They had driven him out by elfin power,
  And, pillowed on plumes of his rainbow breast,
Had slumbered there till the charmèd hour;
  Some had lain in the scoop of the rock,
With glittering ising-stars inlaid;        55
  And some had opened the four-o’clock,
And stole within its purple shade.
  And now they throng the moonlight glade,
Above, below, on every side,—
  Their little minim forms arrayed        60
In the tricksy pomp of fairy pride!
 
They come not now to print the lea,
In freak and dance around the tree,
Or at the mushroom board to sup,
And drink the dew from the buttercup;        65
A scene of sorrow waits them now,
For an ouphe has broken his vestal vow;
He has loved an earthly maid,
And left for her his woodland shade;
He has lain upon her lip of dew,        70
And sunned him in her eye of blue,
Fanned her cheek with his wing of air,
Played in the ringlets of her hair,
And nestling on her snowy breast,
Forgot the lily-king’s behest.        75
For this the shadowy tribes of air
  To the elfin court must haste away:
And now they stand expectant there,
  To hear the doom of the culprit fay.
 
The throne was reared upon the grass,        80
Of spice-wood and of sassafras;
On pillars of mottled tortoise-shell
  Hung the burnished canopy,—
And o’er it gorgeous curtains fell
  Of the tulip’s crimson drapery.        85
The monarch sat on his judgment-seat,
  On his brow the crown imperial shone,
The prisoner fay was at his feet,
  And his peers were ranged around the throne.
He waved his sceptre in the air,        90
  He looked around and calmly spoke;
His brow was grave and his eye severe,
  But his voice in a softened accent broke:
 
“Fairy! fairy! list and mark:
  Thou hast broke thine elfin chain;        95
Thy flame-wood lamp is quenched and dark,
  And thy wings are dyed with a deadly stain,—
Thou hast sullied thine elfin purity
  In the glance of a mortal maiden’s eye;
Thou hast scorned our dread decree,        100
  And thou shouldst pay the forfeit high.
But well I know her sinless mind
  Is pure as the angel forms above,
Gentle and meek, and chaste and kind,
  Such as a spirit well might love.        105
Fairy! had she spot or taint,
Bitter had been thy punishment:
Tied to the hornet’s shardy wings;
Tossed on the pricks of nettles’ stings;
Or seven long ages doomed to dwell        110
With the lazy worm in the walnut-shell;
Or every night to writhe and bleed
Beneath the tread of the centipede;
Or bound in a cobweb-dungeon dim,
Your jailer a spider, huge and grim,        115
Amid the carrion bodies to lie
Of the worm, and the bug, and the murdered fly:
These it had been your lot to bear,
Had a stain been found on the earthly fair.
Now list, and mark our mild decree,—        120
Fairy, this your doom must be:
 
“Thou shalt seek the beach of sand
Where the water bounds the elfin land;
Thou shalt watch the oozy brine
Till the sturgeon leaps in the bright moonshine,        125
Then dart the glistening arch below,
And catch a drop from his silver bow.
The water-sprites will wield their arms
  And dash around, with roar and rave,
And vain are the woodland spirits’ charms;        130
  They are the imps that rule the wave.
Yet trust thee in thy single might:
If thy heart be pure and thy spirit right,
Thou shalt win the warlock fight.
 
“If the spray-bead gem be won,        135
  The stain of thy wing is washed away;
But another errand must be done
  Ere thy crime be lost for aye:
Thy flame-wood lamp is quenched and dark,
Thou must re-illume its spark.        140
Mount thy steed, and spur him high
To the heaven’s blue canopy;
And when thou seest a shooting star,
Follow it fast, and follow it far,—
The last faint spark of its burning train        145
Shall light the elfin lamp again.
Thou hast heard our sentence, fay;
Hence! to the water-side, away!”
 
The goblin marked his monarch well;
  He spake not, but he bowed him low,        150
Then plucked a crimson colen-bell,
  And turned him round in act to go.
The way is long, he cannot fly,
  His soilèd wing has lost its power,
And he winds adown the mountain high,        155
For many a sore and weary hour.
Through dreary beds of tangled fern,
Through groves of nightshade dark and dern,
Over the grass and through the brake,
Where toils the ant and sleeps the snake;        160
  Now o’er the violet’s azure flush
He skips along in lightsome mood;
  And now he thrids the bramble-bush,
Till its points are dyed in fairy blood.
He has leaped the bog, he has pierced the brier,        165
He has swum the brook, and waded the mire,
Till his spirits sank, and his limbs grew weak,
And the red waxed fainter in his cheek.
He had fallen to the ground outright,
  For rugged and dim was his onward track,        170
But there came a spotted toad in sight,
  And he laughed as he jumped upon her back;
He bridled her mouth with a silkweed twist,
  He lashed her sides with an osier thong;
And now, through evening’s dewy mist,        175
  With leap and spring they bound along,
Till the mountain’s magic verge is past,
And the beach of sand is reached at last.
 
Soft and pale is the moony beam,
Moveless still the glassy stream;        180
The wave is clear, the beach is bright
  With snowy shells and sparkling stones;
The shore-surge comes in ripples light,
  In murmurings faint and distant moans;
And ever afar in the silence deep        185
Is heard the splash of the sturgeon’s leap,
And the bend of his graceful bow is seen,—
A glittering arch of silver sheen,
Spanning the wave of burnished blue,
And dripping with gems of the river-dew.        190
 
The elfin cast a glance around,
  As he lighted down from his courser toad,
Then round his breast his wings he wound,
  And close to the river’s brink he strode;
He sprang on a rock, he breathed a prayer,        195
  Above his head his arms he threw,
Then tossed a tiny curve in air,
  And headlong plunged in the waters blue.
 
Up sprung the spirits of the waves
From the sea-silk beds in their coral caves;        200
With snail-plate armor, snatched in haste,
They speed their way through the liquid waste;
Some are rapidly borne along
On the mailèd shrimp or the prickly prong;
Some on the blood-red leeches glide,        205
Some on the stony star-fish ride,
Some on the back of the lancing squab,
Some on the sideling soldier-crab;
And some on the jellied quarl, that flings
At once a thousand streamy stings;        210
They cut the wave with the living oar,
And hurry on to the moonlight shore,
To guard their realms and chase away
The footsteps of the invading fay.
 
Fearlessly he skims along,        215
His hope his high, and his limbs are strong;
He spreads his arms like the swallow’s wing,
And throws his feet with a frog-like fling;
His locks of gold on the waters shine,
  At his breast the tiny foam-bees rise,        220
His back gleams bright above the brine,
  And the wake-line foam behind him lies.
But the water-sprites are gathering near
  To check his course along the tide;
Their warriors come in swift career        225
  And hem him round on every side;
On his thigh the leech has fixed his hold,
The quarl’s long arms are round him rolled,
The prickly prong has pierced his skin,
And the squab has thrown his javelin;        230
The gritty star has rubbed him raw,
And the crab has struck with his giant claw;
He howls with rage, and he shrieks with pain;
He strikes around, but his blows are vain;
Hopeless is the unequal fight,        235
Fairy! naught is left but flight.
 
  He turned him round, and fled amain,
With hurry and dash, to the beach again;
He twisted over from side to side,
And laid his cheek to the cleaving tide;        240
The strokes of his plunging arms are fleet,
And with all his might he flings his feet,
But the water-sprites are round him still,
To cross his path and work him ill.
They bade the wave before him rise;        245
They flung the sea-fire in his eyes;
And they stunned his ears with the scallop-stroke,
With the porpoise heave and the drum-fish croak.
O, but a weary wight was he
When he reached the foot of the dogwood-tree.        250
Gashed and wounded, and stiff and sore,
He laid him down on the sandy shore;
He blessed the force of the charmèd line,
  And he banned the water-goblins’ spite,
For he saw around in the sweet moonshine        255
Their little wee faces above the brine,
  Giggling and laughing with all their might
  At the piteous hap of the fairy wight.
 
Soon he gathered the balsam dew
  From the sorrel-leaf and the henbane bud;        260
Over each wound the balm he drew,
  And with cobweb lint he stanched the blood.
The mild west-wind was soft and low,
It cooled the heat of his burning brow;
And he felt new life in his sinews shoot,        265
As he drank the juice of the calamus-root;
And now he treads the fatal shore
As fresh and vigorous as before.
 
Wrapped in musing stands the sprite;
’T is the middle wane of night;        270
  His task is hard, his way is far,
But he must do his errand right
  Ere dawning mounts her beamy car,
And rolls her chariot wheels of light;
And vain are the spells of fairy-land,—        275
He must work with a human hand.
 
He cast a saddened look around;
  But he felt new joy his bosom swell,
When, glittering on the shadowed ground,
  He saw a purple muscle-shell;        280
Thither he ran, and he bent him low,
He heaved at the stern and he heaved at the bow,
And he pushed her over the yielding sand
Till he came to the verge of the haunted land.
She was as lovely a pleasure-boat        285
  As ever fairy had paddled in,
For she glowed with purple paint without,
  And shone with silvery pearl within;
A sculler’s notch in the stern he made,
An oar he shaped of the bootle-blade;        290
Then sprung to his seat with a lightsome leap,
And launched afar on the calm, blue deep.
 
The imps of the river yell and rave.
They had no power above the wave;
But they heaved the billow before the prow,        295
  And they dashed the surge against her side,
And they struck her keel with jerk and blow,
  Till the gunwale bent to the rocking tide.
She wimpled about to the pale moonbeam,
Like a feather that floats on a wind-tossed stream;        300
And momently athwart her track
The quarl upreared his island back,
And the fluttering scallop behind would float,
And patter the water about the boat;
But he bailed her out with his colen-bell,        305
  And he kept her trimmed with a wary tread,
While on every side, like lightning, fell
  The heavy strokes of his bootle-blade.
 
Onward still he held his way,
Till he came where the column of moonshine lay,        310
And saw beneath the surface dim
The brown-backed sturgeon slowly swim;
Around him were the goblin train,—
But he sculled with all his might and main,
And followed wherever the sturgeon led,        315
Till he saw him upward point his head;
Then he dropped his paddle-blade,
And held his colen-goblet up
To catch the drop in its crimson cup.
 
With sweeping tail and quivering fin        320
  Through the wave the sturgeon flew,
And, like the heaven-shot javelin,
  He sprung above the waters blue.
Instant as the star-fall light
  He plunged him in the deep again.        325
But he left an arch of silver bright,
  The rainbow of the moony main.
It was a strange and lovely sight
  To see the puny goblin there;
He seemed an angel form of light,        330
  With azure wing and sunny hair,
  Throned on a cloud of purple fair,
Circled with blue and edged with white,
And sitting, at the fall of even,
Beneath the bow of summer heaven.        335
 
A moment, and its lustre fell;
  But ere it met the billow blue
He caught within his crimson bell
  A droplet of its sparkling dew!—
Joy to thee, fay! thy task is done,        340
Thy wings are pure, for the gem is won,—
Cheerly ply thy dripping oar,
And haste away to the elfin shore.
 
He turns, and lo! on either side
The ripples on his path divide;        345
And the track o’er which his boat must pass
Is smooth as a sheet of polished glass.
Around, their limbs the sea-nymphs lave,
  With snowy arms half swelling out,
While on the glossed and gleamy wave        350
  Their sea-green ringlets loosely float.
They swim around with smile and song;
  They press the bark with pearly hand,
And gently urge her course along
  Toward the beach of speckled sand,        355
And, as he lightly leaped to land,
They bade adieu with nod and bow;
  Then gayly kissed each little hand,
And dropped in the crystal deep below.
 
A moment stayed the fairy there;        360
He kissed the beach and breathed a prayer;
Then spread his wings of gilded blue,
And on to the elfin court he flew.
As ever ye saw a bubble rise,
And shine with a thousand changing dyes,        365
Till, lessening far, through ether driven,
It mingles with the hues of heaven;
As, at the glimpse of morning pale,
The lance-fly spreads his silken sail,
And gleams with blendings soft and bright        370
Till lost in the shades of fading night,—
So rose from earth the lovely fay;
So vanished, far in heaven away!
*        *        *        *        *
Up, fairy! quit thy chickweed bower,
The cricket has called the second hour;        375
Twice again, and the lark will rise
To kiss the streaking of the skies,—
Up! thy charmèd armor don,
Thou ’lt need it ere the night be gone.
 
He put his acorn helmet on;        380
It was plumed of the silk of the thistle-down;
The corselet plate that guarded his breast
Was once the wild bee’s golden vest;
His cloak, of a thousand mingled dyes,
Was formed of the wings of butterflies;        385
His shield was the shell of a lady-bug queen,
Studs of gold on a ground of green;
And the quivering lance which he brandished bright
Was the sting of a wasp he had slain in fight.
Swift he bestrode his firefly steed;        390
  He bared his blade of the bent-grass blue;
He drove his spurs of the cockle-seed,
  And away like a glance of thought he flew
To skim the heavens, and follow far
The fiery trail of the rocket-star.        395
 
The moth-fly, as he shot in air,
Crept under the leaf, and hid her there;
The katydid forgot its lay,
The prowling gnat fled fast away,
The fell mosquito checked his drone        400
And folded his wings till the fay was gone,
And the wily beetle dropped his head,
And fell on the ground as if he were dead;
They crouched them close in the darksome shade,
  They quaked all o’er with awe and fear,        405
For they had felt the blue-bent blade,
  And writhed at the prick of the elfin spear.
Many a time, on a summer’s night,
When the sky was clear, and the moon was bright,
They had been roused from the haunted ground        410
By the yelp and bay of the fairy hound;
  They had heard the tiny bugle-horn,
They had heard the twang of the maize-silk string,
When the vine-twig bows were tightly drawn,
  And the needle-shaft through air was borne,        415
Feathered with down of the hum-bird’s wing.
And now they deemed the courier ouphe
  Some hunter-sprite of the elfin ground,
And they watched till they saw him mount the roof
  That canopies the world around;        420
Then glad they left their covert lair,
And freaked about in the midnight air.
 
Up to the vaulted firmament
His path the firefly courser bent,
And at every gallop on the wind        425
He flung a glittering spark behind;
He flies like a feather in the blast
Till the first light cloud in heaven is past.
  But the shapes of air have begun their work,
And a drizzly mist is round him cast;        430
  He cannot see through the mantle murk;
He shivers with cold, but he urges fast;
  Through storm and darkness, sleet and shade,
He lashes his steed, and spurs amain,—
For shadowy hands have twitched the rein,        435
  And flame-shot tongues around him played,
And near him many a fiendish eye
Glared with a fell malignity,
And yells of rage, and shrieks of fear,
Came screaming on his startled ear.        440
 
His wings are wet around his breast,
The plume hangs dripping from his crest,
His eyes are blurred with the lightning’s glare,
And his ears are stunned with the thunder’s blare.
But he gave a shout and his blade he drew,        445
  He thrust before and he struck behind,
Till he pierced their cloudy bodies through,
  And gashed their shadowy limbs of wind:
Howling the misty spectres flew,
  They rend the air with frightful cries;        450
For he has gained the welkin blue,
  And the land of clouds beneath him lies.
 
Up to the cope careering swift,
  In breathless motion fast,
Fleet as the swallow cuts the drift,        455
  Or the sea-roc rides the blast,
The sapphire sheet of eve is shot,
  The spherèd moon is past,
The earth but seems a tiny blot
  On a sheet of azure cast.        460
O, it was sweet, in the clear moonlight,
  To tread the starry plain of even!
To meet the thousand eyes of night,
  And feel the cooling breath of heaven!
But the elfin made no stop or stay        465
Till he came to the bank of the Milky Way;
Then he checked his courser’s foot,
And watched for the glimpse of the planet-shoot.
 
Sudden along the snowy tide
  That swelled to meet their footsteps’ fall,        470
The sylphs of heaven were seen to glide,
  Attired in sunset’s crimson pall;
Around the fay they weave the dance,
  They skip before him on the plain,
And one has taken his wasp-sting lance,        475
  And one upholds his bridle-rein;
With warblings wild they lead him on
  To where, through clouds of amber seen,
Studded with stars, resplendent shone
  The palace of the sylphid queen.        480
Its spiral columns, gleaming bright,
Were streamers of the northern light;
Its curtain’s light and lovely flush
Was of the morning’s rosy blush;
And the ceiling fair that rose aboon,        485
The white and feathery fleece of noon.
 
But, O, how fair the shape that lay
  Beneath a rainbow bending bright!
She seemed to the entrancèd fay
  The loveliest of the forms of light;        490
Her mantle was the purple rolled
  At twilight in the west afar;
’T was tied with threads of dawning gold,
  And buttoned with a sparkling star.
Her face was like the lily roon        495
  That veils the vestal planet’s hue;
Her eyes, two beamlets from the moon,
  Set floating in the welkin blue.
Her hair is like the sunny beam,
And the diamond gems which round it gleam        500
Are the pure drops of dewy even
That ne’er have left their native heaven.
 
She raised her eyes to the wondering sprite,
  And they leaped with smiles; for well I ween
Never before in the bowers of light        505
  Had the form of an earthly fay been seen.
Long she looked in his tiny face;
  Long with his butterfly cloak she played;
She smoothed his wings of azure lace,
  And handled the tassel of his blade;        510
And as he told, in accents low,
The story of his love and woe,
She felt new pains in her bosom rise,
And the tear-drop started in her eyes.
And “O, sweet spirit of earth,” she cried,        515
  “Return no more to your woodland height,
But ever here with me abide
  In the land of everlasting light!
Within the fleecy drift we ’ll lie,
  We ’ll hang upon the rainbow’s rim;        520
And all the jewels of the sky
  Around thy brow shall brightly beam!
And thou shalt bathe thee in the stream
  That rolls its whitening foam aboon,
And ride upon the lightning’s gleam,        525
  And dance upon the orbèd moon!
We ’ll sit within the Pleiad ring,
  We ’ll rest on Orion’s starry belt,
And I will bid my sylphs to sing
  The song that makes the dew-mist melt;        530
Their harps are of the umber shade
  That hides the blush of waking day,
And every gleamy string is made
  Of silvery moonshine’s lengthened ray;
And thou shalt pillow on my breast,        535
  While heavenly breathings float around,
And, with the sylphs of ether blest,
  Forget the joys of fairy ground.”
 
She was lovely and fair to see,
And the elfin’s heart beat fitfully;        540
But lovelier far, and still more fair,
The earthly form imprinted there;
Naught he saw in the heavens above
Was half so dear as his mortal love,
For he thought upon her looks so meek,        545
And he thought of the light flush on her cheek.
Never again might he bask and lie
On that sweet cheek and moonlight eye;
But in his dreams her form to see,
To clasp her in his revery,        550
To think upon his virgin bride,
Was worth all heaven, and earth beside.
 
“Lady,” he cried, “I have sworn to-night,
On the word of a fairy knight,
To do my sentence-task aright;        555
My honor scarce is free from stain,—
I may not soil its snows again;
Betide me weal, betide me woe,
Its mandate must be answered now.”
Her bosom heaved with many a sigh,        560
The tear was in her drooping eye;
But she led him to the palace gate,
  And called the sylphs who hovered there,
And bade them fly and bring him straight,
  Of clouds condensed, a sable car.        565
With charm and spell she blessed it there,
From all the fiends of upper air;
Then round him cast the shadowy shroud,
And tied his steed behind the cloud;
And pressed his hand as she bade him fly        570
Far to the verge of the northern sky,
For by its wane and wavering light
There was a star would fall to-night.
 
Borne afar on the wings of the blast,
Northward away he speeds him fast,        575
And his courser follows the cloudy wain
Till the hoof-strokes fall like pattering rain.
The clouds roll backward as he flies,
Each flickering star behind him lies,
And he has reached the northern plain,        580
And backed his firefly steed again,
Ready to follow in its flight
The streaming of the rocket-light.
 
The star is yet in the vault of heaven,
  But it rocks in the summer gale;        585
And now ’t is fitful and uneven,
  And now ’t is deadly pale;
And now ’t is wrapped in sulphur-smoke,
  And quenched is its rayless beam;
And now with a rattling thunder-stroke        590
  It bursts in flash and flame.
As swift as the glance of the arrowy lance
  That the storm-spirit flings from high,
The star-shot flew o’er the welkin blue,
  As it fell from the sheeted sky.        595
As swift as the wind in its train behind
  The elfin gallops along:
The fiends of the clouds are bellowing loud,
  But the sylphid charm is strong;
He gallops unhurt in the shower of fire,        600
  While the cloud-fiends fly from the blaze;
He watches each flake till its sparks expire,
  And rides in the light of its rays.
But he drove his steed to the lightning’s speed,
  And caught a glimmering spark;        605
Then wheeled around to the fairy ground,
  And sped through the midnight dark.
*        *        *        *        *
Ouphe and goblin! imp and sprite!
  Elf of eve! and starry fay!
Ye that love the moon’s soft light,        610
  Hither,—hither wend your way;
Twine ye in a jocund ring,
  Sing and trip it merrily,
Hand to hand, and wing to wing,
  Round the wild witch-hazel tree.        615
 
Hail the wanderer again
  With dance and song, and lute and lyre;
Pure his wing and strong his chain,
  And doubly bright his fairy fire.
Twine ye in an airy round,        620
  Brush the dew and print the lea;
Skip and gambol, hop and bound,
  Round the wild witch-hazel tree.
 
The beetle guards our holy ground,
  He flies about the haunted place,        625
And if mortal there be found,
  He hums in his ears and flaps his face;
The leaf-harp sounds our roundelay,
  The owlet’s eyes our lanterns be;
Thus we sing and dance and play        630
  Round the wild witch-hazel tree.
 
But hark! from tower to tree-top high,
  The sentry-elf his call has made;
A streak is in the eastern sky,
  Shapes of moonlight! flit and fade!        635
The hill-tops gleam in morning’s spring,
The skylark shakes his dappled wing,
The day-glimpse glimmers on the lawn,
The cock has crowed, and the fays are gone.
 
 
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