Museum News

The Critic Who Burned “Fairy-Land”

Editor Nathaniel Parker Willis once burned a manuscript of Poe’s “Fairy-Land.” That seems like pretty harsh treatment from a literary editor; and we wonder why such atmospheric lines as “Dim vales-and shadowy floods- / And cloudy-looking woods” might receive such severe critical feedback? The answer lies in comparing the poem we commonly know with its alternative publishing in Poe’s anthology of poems in 1831.

Poems, 1831

Poems, 1831

It was no secret that Poe was always at work altering lines and switching words-“Fairy-Land” was no exception.

Our readers may be familiar with the classic verse, which reads,

Dim vales—and shadowy floods—

And cloudy-looking woods,

Whose forms we can’t discover

For the tears that drip all over:

Huge moons there wax and wane—


Every moment of the night—

Forever changing places—

And they put out the star-light

With the breath from their pale faces.

About twelve by the moon-dial,

One more filmy than the rest

(A kind which, upon trial,

They have found to be the best)

Comes down—still down—and down

With its centre on the crown

Of a mountain’s eminence,

While its wide circumference

In easy drapery falls

Over hamlets, over halls,

Wherever they may be—

O’er the strange woods—o’er the sea—

Over spirits on the wing—

Over every drowsy thing—

And buries them up quite

In a labyrinth of light—

And then, how, deep! —O, deep,

Is the passion of their sleep.

In the morning they arise,

And their moony covering

Is soaring in the skies,

With the tempests as they toss,

Like—almost any thing—

Or a yellow Albatross.

They use that moon no more

For the same end as before,

Videlicet, a tent—

Which I think extravagant:

Its atomies, however,

Into a shower dissever,

Of which those butterflies

Of Earth, who seek the skies,

And so come down again

(Never-contented things!)

Have brought a specimen

Upon their quivering wings.

The following is what N. P. Willis had to say about this version of the poem:

It is quite exciting to lean over eagerly as the flame eats in upon the letters, and make out the imperfect sentences and trace the faint strokes in the tinder as it trembles in the ascending air of the chimney. There, for instance, goes a gilt-edged sheet which we remember was covered with some sickly rhymes on Fairy-land….Now it [the flame] flashes up in a broad blaze, and now it reaches a marked verse-let us see-the fire devours as we read:
“They use that moon no more,
For the same end as before-
Videlicet, a tent,
Which I think extravagant.”
Burn on, good fire!
(From The Editor’s Table’ of the American Monthly for November, here found in The Poe Log, 99).

Critic Nathaniel Parker Willis

Critic Nathaniel Parker Willis

Whether Willis truly burned the manuscript the twenty-year-old Poe poured his heart into, or whether he figuratively made this claim to prove a striking point, we may infer that the notice may have burned Poe so severely that it caused him to turn the memorable piece into a less than memorable one. Here is the following revised version found in his 1831, Poems, just two years after Willis’ scathing review,
Sit down beside me, Isabel,

Here, dearest, where the moonbeam fell

Just now so fairy-like and well.

Now thou art dress’d for paradise!

I am star-stricken with thine eyes!

My soul is lolling on thy sighs!

Thy hair is lifted by the moon

Like flowers by the low breath of June!

Sit down, sit down — how came we here?

Or is it all but a dream, my dear?


You know that most enormous flower —

That rose — that what d’ye call it — that hung

Up like a dog-star in this bower —

To-day (the wind blew, and) it swung

So impudently in my face,

So like a thing alive you know,

I tore it from its pride of place

And shook it into pieces — so

Be all ingratitude requited.

The winds ran off with it delighted,

And, thro’ the opening left, as soon

As she threw off her cloak, yon moon

Has sent a ray down with a tune.


And this ray is a fairy ray —

Did you not say so, Isabel?

How fantastically it fell

With a spiral twist and a swell,

And over the wet grass rippled away

With a tinkling like a bell!

In my own country all the way

We can discover a moon ray

Which thro’ some tatter’d curtain pries

Into the darkness of a room,

Is by (the very source of gloom)

The motes, and dust, and flies,

On which it trembles and lies

Like joy upon sorrow!

O, when will come the morrow?

Isabel! do you not fear

The night and the wonders here?

Dim vales! and shadowy floods!

And cloudy-looking woods

Whose forms we can’t discover

For the tears that drip all over!


Huge moons — see! wax and wane

Again — again — again —

Every moment of the night —

Forever changing places!

How they put out the starlight

With the breath from their pale faces!


Lo! one is coming down

With its centre on the crown

Of a mountain’s eminence!

Down — still down —   and down —

Now deep shall be — O deep!

The passion of our sleep!

For that wide circumference

In easy drapery falls

Drowsily over halls —

Over ruin’d walls —

Over waterfalls,

(Silent waterfalls!)

O’re the strange woods — o’er the sea —

Alas! over the sea! (Taken from here).

We question Poe’s motives in changing the poem, causing it to become so lengthy and awkward; even a fellow Poe enthusiast was left shaking their head in confusion, stating, “I don’t even recognize that poem. Isabel-?!” Perhaps this alternate “Fairy Land” is truly that-an alternate “Fairy Land.” Thus, shouldn’t it be treated as its own poem and published, perhaps, alongside our final version of “Fairy-Land?” It is noted in Mabbott’s Complete Poems that Poe never republished “Fairy Land” (which is noted here as “Fairy Land [II]”). He may have been ashamed of his lengthy alternative and thus stuck with his original, scathed “Fairy-Land,” pushing its popularity and thus allowing it to be the one contemporary audiences may be more familiar with. This is not to say that both poems have not been published side-by-side, in some cases, since; however, the author of this post would like to point out that two of her own Poe volumes do not contain “Fairy Land” from 1831 Poems.

What do you think about the alternate piece? Do you think both versions should be, or continue to be, published in future Poe anthologies? Which version do you prefer?


Poetry Inspired by Poe

In case you missed the poetry reading last night at the Poe Museum, we are posting one of the Poe-inspired poems read at the event by J. Ronald Smith, Poet in Residence at St. Christopher’s School. The following poem imagines one of Poe’s 1849 visits to the home of his last fiancee, Elmira Shelton, in Richmond.

Edgar Poe Tries to Get His Act Together L


Mr. Poe sits in Mrs. Shelton’s parlor, freshly
purchased hat on freshly creased knees,
the place smelling somehow, he’s decided,
like a chemist’s cupel. The sullen weight
of the room’s horsehair and mahogan
gathers in his eyes.

Read the rest of this entry »