Robin: Poetry about fairies goes back many centuries. Back in the fourteenth century, the father of English poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer, mentioned fairies in the Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath describes the fairies as a vanished breed, which I see as one expression of the ancient tendency of every human generation to believe that they are less romantic and more sceptical than the last.

When good King Arthur ruled in ancient days
(A king that every Briton loves to praise)
This was a land brim-full of fairy folk.
The Elf-Queen and her courtiers joined and broke
Their elfin dance on many a green mead,
Or so was the opinion once, I read,
Hundreds of years ago, in days of yore.
But no one now sees fairies any more.

Fairies actually do appear in two anonymous mediaeval poems, Sir Orfeo and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sir Orfeo rescues his wife from the fairy king, in an English retelling of the Orpheus myth. The Green Knight is recognized by King’s Arthur’s men as a were fade – mediaeval for a faerie man. The knight has green hair, green skin, and green clothes, bears a giant axe in one hand, and a holly bob in the other.

The Green Knight

Two centuries later, Sweet Will Shakespeare wrote enchanting fairy lyrics for the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and for Ariel in The Tempest.

Where the bee sucks, there suck I
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily:
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

Oberon’s speech “I know a bank whereon the wild thyme grows” is one of Shakespeare’s best-loved verses.

From the same time, Edmund Spenser’s long poem The Faerie Queen is set in Faerieland and presents the Virtues through the doings of the Arthurian knights. The Faerie Queen, Gloriana, is Queen Elizabeth I in allegorical disguise. She sends forth the knights on their adventures from her romantic feudal court.

Robert Herrick in the next century wrote poems on Oberon’s Palace and Feast, while Michael Drayton wrote a mock-epic, Nymphidia; here he describes the fairy palace:

This palace standeth in the air,
By necromancy placed there,
That it no tempests needs to fear,
Which way soe’er it blow it.
And somewhat southward toward the noon,
Whence lies a way up to the moon,
And thence the Fairy can as soon
Pass to the earth below it.

The walls of spiders’ legs are made,
Well mortised and finely laid;
He was the master of his trade
It curiously builded;
The windows of the eyes of cats,
And for the roof, instead of slats,
Is covered with the skins of bats,
With moonshine that are gilded.

In the eighteenth century fairy poetry was represented by Thomas Tickell’s Kensington Gardens, which reveals the secret history of the London park. Again fairies are consigned to the distant past:

The landscape now so sweet we well may praise:
But far, far sweeter in its ancient days,
Far sweeter was it, when its peopled ground
With fairy domes and dazzling towers was crown’d.
Where in the midst those verdant pillars spring,
Rose the proud palace of the Elfin king…
Their midnight pranks the sprightly fairies play’d
On every hill, and danc’d in every shade.
But, foes to sun-shine, most they took delight
In dells and dales conceal’d from human sight:

These fairies of Kensington Gardens are revived in The Little White Bird in the early twentieth century, when they befriend the baby Peter Pan.

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