What you are about to read is the transcript of a conversation recorded at the darkest part of a wakening dusk, by some trees. The interlocutors are unknown; they seem to have been referring to each other by code names. For the purpose of this communiqué, we shall call them "Mr. Amal" and "Jessifer."
Mr. Amal: Jessifer?
Jessifer: Mr. Amal?
Mr. Amal: The moon howls and the owl is tipsy --
Jessifer: on mouse-spirits and gin. Yes, welcome.
Mr. Amal: Quickly. We have one thousand words less thirty-five. Begin.
Jessifer: Let us speak of the dark, then --
Mr. Amal: -- not horror?
Jessifer: No! Dark is the country where horror lives, and it is the country we must learn.
Mr. Amal: Of the dark, then, and of fantasy -- of poetry. What may be said?
Jessifer: I'd rather hoped you would begin.
Mr. Amal: I began last time.
Jessifer: Nevertheless --
Mr. Amal: Very well. The dark is threatening, intriguing, beguiling, because of its capacity to hide, obscure, mislead. Fantasy and myth are the means by which we attempt to articulate and understand the dark. To try to separate darker themes or readings from fantasy, on whatever basis, is to deprive the fantastic of some of its richness.
Jessifer: Well-said! However, how fantasy and darkness work together, especially in poetry, is a somewhat trickier subject. To best illustrate how fantasy and darkness work together in poetry, it is necessary to go and see firsthand what kind of bedfellows they make.
Mr. Amal: Jessifer! How lascivious! You ought not --
Jessifer: -- with that in mind, what are some examples of poetry that is both dark and fantastic?
Mr. Amal: Well, we might first make divisions, that we may have order.
Jessifer: Yes -- we might speak of how we can have a fantasy theme articulated darkly, or a dark theme articulated fantastically, for instance…
Mr. Amal: "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," by the Immortal John Keats, is an excellent example of the former.
Jessifer: Is it not rather the latter?
Mr. Amal: Consider the story. It tells of a man beguiled by a faery woman. Within the context of British folklore, such things happened with surprising regularity, spun in a variety of ways: a child might escape a life of sorrow to dwell in faeryland, which was considered to be a land of eternal youth. But within the poem, the knight is haggard, he is woebegone; he has been undone by the faery woman in ways that recall the maiden robbed of her virtue --
Jessifer: Who's being lascivious now?
Mr. Amal: Oh, hush. The core of the poem is the knight's time with the faery woman -- whatever joy was had there is framed by the knight left "alone and palely loitering," embedding the fantasy within its consequences and making it a cautionary tale.
Jessifer: Your argument is compelling, I grant you. In terms of theme, though, one could argue that "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is truly about desire drawn out to a dark conclusion, and that the fantasy elements of the poem serve as a metaphor to convey a harsh reality.
Mr. Amal: Perhaps...
Jessifer: Do but consider the famous lines:
I saw pale kings, and princes too
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried -- 'La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!'
Mr. Amal: Such beauty breathes within his lines --
Jessifer: Yes, yes, well. Since the Belle Dame is such an ambiguous figure, it seems the warning is more important than that which is warned against. She may be a dangerous supernatural creature; she may represent the dangers of contracting syphilis from prostitutes --
Mr. Amal: Jessifer!
Jessifer: Either way, the fantasy and the darkness are so enmeshed as to defy such artificial separations, since any interpretation of such a poem must ultimately be secondary to the frisson it elicits.
Mr. Amal: And speaking of frissons -- you recall Mary Robinson's "The Haunted Beach"?
Jessifer: Of course! Clearly, a case of a dark theme articulated fantastically.
Mr. Amal: Indeed. Robinson begins by describing a "lonely desart Beach," then draws the reader's gaze to the figures who haunt it; from there, the narrative viewpoint narrows from the haunting down to its cause, pointing to the darkness at the heart of the fantasy.
Jessifer: But is it really so clear?
Mr. Amal: Well, consider the story!
Mr. Amal: ...
Mr. Amal: Drat your dulcet tones and batting lashes... Very well! A brave and resourceful sailor escapes from the watery death that claimed his companions; half-dead, he makes his way along the beach "where the green billows play," only to have a greedy fisherman kill the remaining half! And for what reason? None other than the "packet rich of Spanish gold" our doomed mariner bound 'round his arm, before throwing himself to the sea's mercy! And the sea was merciful, but, oh, not so was man! I am overcome, Jessifer. You must go on.
Jessifer: Tsk! Well, no matter what the fisherman's life may have been before, from that night on he is a curs'd man. In fact,
Full thirty years his task has been
Day after day more weary;
For Heaven design'd his guilty mind
Should dwell on prospects dreary.
Bound by a strong and mystic chain,
He has not pow'r to stray;
But destin'd mis'ry to sustain,
He wastes, in Solitude and Pain
A loathsome life away.
Mr. Amal: Well spoken, with good accent and good discretion --
Jessifer: Not discretion enough -- did you hear that?
Mr. Amal: Alas, I did! Loathsome lark!
Jessifer: Our time draws to a close -- quickly, speak, that we may part --
Mr. Amal: Oh! Well, recall our theme: it is a dark one, centered upon greed, guilt and punishment. The use of fantastical elements -- ghosts and curse -- ironically adds a more substantial dimension to our notions of guilt and revenge, elevating them above their common currency into something of far greater impact.
Jessifer: Alas! It may equally be said that "The Haunted Beach" consists of a fantastic theme articulated darkly! The victimizer in the role of victim via an otherworldly punishment -- we have seen this many times in fantasy works! We have made no progress at all!
Mr. Amal: Calm yourself, Jessifer -- we have, though it is progress along a beaten track. The border between the Dark and Fantasy is fluid, it is a realm of debatable hills, and no ants marching along a tentative map may adequately separate the two.
Jessifer: But there is still so much to say -- though certainly a dark theme can be expressed in many of ways, fantasy suits it particularly well. Fantasy poetry in particular, with its ability to tool language into a haunting refrain, to juxtapose an image with a statement in ways most prose would find quite beyond its powers, to craft a space where metaphors manifest themselves as reality -- well. The children of such a coupling must be handsome indeed.
Mr. Amal: Fantastically so.
Jessifer: A pun?
Mr. Amal: ...Dear Lord.
Jessifer: We are past our time. Quickly, the chant!
(Both voices together): Lisel Mueller! Lisel Mueller! Lisel Mueller! Good night!
Here ends the transmission.
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