Poe was known for more than horror, the grotesque or the invention of the modern detective: he also wrote a collection of fanciful musings, mournful stories about mysticism, lost islands, lost races, lovely and frail women who tragically die long before their time. ‘The Island of the Fay’ is one such yarn:
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.”
–from ‘The Island of the Fay’ (1841)
Make no mistake; though this Fay is a fairy, an otherworldly creature, she is a woman, and as such is part of one of Poe’s favorite memes: ‘The death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical thing in the world.’
The narrator of this story watches the island from a distance, and watches the Fay circle her boat round and round about the isle, becoming more and more faint and insubstantial, until she mournfully paddles herself toward oblivion and death.
The story, first published in Graham’s in 1841, begins as an essay, but really is another short story. If you read this tale, stick with it; the first couple of pages are dry, incomprehensible mysticism crap. But the prose evolves into some of the most beautifully poetic language Poe ever put to pen.
The image comes from an uncertain origin. It appeared in Graham’s Magazine in 1841, and was intended to accompany Poe’s story. The caption to the engraving read ‘Engraved for Graham’s Magazine from an Original by Martin’, but it seems the painting is actually dated to 1819. So perhaps Poe wrote the tale based on the painting….