By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Fantasy is at once a relatively recent and extremely ancient genre. Although it only became recognised as a distinct genre in the twentieth century thanks to writers like J. R. R. Tolkien and his followers, there’s a case for calling some of the oldest literature in the world – from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Homer’s Odyssey to the fairy tales we first encounter in early childhood – ‘fantasy literature’, because of their incorporation of supernatural elements, their emphasis on quests, and (in some cases) their delineation of the fight between good and evil.
In poetry, too, poets have often used ‘fantasy’ elements to explore themes from gender to religion to politics, as the following selection of the best fantastical poems is designed to demonstrate. Each of them is ‘fantastic’ in more than one sense – and every one of them incorporates fantasy beings, landscapes, or motifs.
1. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene.
High above all a cloth of State was spred,
And a rich throne, as bright as sunny day,
On which there sate most brave embellished
With royall robes and gorgeous array,
A mayden Queene, that shone as Titans ray,
In glistring gold, and peerelesse pretious stone:
Yet her bright blazing beautie did assay
To dim the brightnesse of her glorious throne,
As envying her selfe, that too exceeding shone …
This is not just a poem but a vast epic poem: without doubt, it’s Edmund Spenser’s crowning achievement, even though he finished little more than half of the projected twelve-book epic before his death in 1599. As it stands, the poem is over 1,000 pages. We’ll stop short of suggesting this poem is ‘the Game of Thrones of its day’, but it’s similarly chock-full of knights, quests, battles, sorceresses, sinister forces, and other staples of the modern fantasy genre.
Written in the 1590s, The Faerie Queene is a Christian allegory (in which Catholicism is the enemy and the Church of England in need of protecting) featuring a cast of knights, maidens, villains, monsters (the Blatant Beast – whence we get our word ‘blatant’ – is but one example), wizards, and princes.
2. William Shakespeare, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire!
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon’s sphere;
And I serve the Fairy Queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green;
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours;
In those freckles live their savours;
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
These words are spoken (or sung) by one of the fairies in what is probably Shakespeare’s most fantastical play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck asks a fairy where he has been, and the fairy weaves this enchanting song in response.
3. Percy Shelley, The Witch of Atlas.
’Tis said, she first was changed into a vapour,
And then into a cloud, such clouds as flit,
Like splendour-wingèd moths about a taper,
Round the red west when the sun dies in it:
And then into a meteor, such as caper
On hill-tops when the moon is in a fit:
Then, into one of those mysterious stars
Which hide themselves between the Earth and Mars …
This long narrative poem, one of Shelley’s most important works, was written in 1820 but not published until two years after his death, in 1824. It details the adventures of the titular Witch who lives in a cave by a secret fountain.
The Witch creates a hermaphrodite creature out of fire and snow. Together, they cast spells over kings, priests, and other authority figures, causing mischief and shaking things up – in a work that symbolises Shelley’s own desire to change the world. Again, this is a long poem full of fantastical symbols.
4. John Keats, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan …
‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ (‘the beautiful lady without mercy’) is one of John Keats’s best-loved and most widely anthologised poems; after his odes, it may well be his most famous.
But is this poem with its French title a mere piece of pseudo-medieval escapism, summoning the world of chivalrous knights and beautiful but bewitching women, or does it have a deeper meaning? We have analysed the poem here; its title character is a ‘faery’s child’ and its male protagonist is a knight, so it’s suitably ‘fantastical’ for inclusion on this list.
5. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Lady of Shalott’.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Tennyson’s classic poem exists in two versions: a 20-stanza poem published in 1832, and the revised version of 19 stanzas – which is the one readers are most familiar with – which was published in 1842.
The poem, partly inspired by Arthurian legend, partly by Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and partly by Tennyson’s reading of Keats, has been read as an allegory about the world of fancy and the world of reality, with the idyllic world of magic and legend which Tennyson depicts being threatened by the arrival of new forces (the Industrial Revolution?). Undoubtedly one of Tennyson’s greatest poetic achievements, and one of his best fantastical poems.
6. Robert Browning, ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’.
Glad was I when I reach’d the other bank.
Now for a better country. Vain presage!
Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage
Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank
Soil to a plash? Toads in a poison’d tank,
Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage …
Browning’s universe was darker than Tennyson’s, as this long dramatic monologue – a Gothic take on the quest narrative – makes clear. It’s fitting that the poem inspired Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, since Browning’s poem, like King’s novels about Roland the Gunslinger, is a curious blend of fantasy and Gothic horror.
7. Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market.
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
‘Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy …’
Well, this poem has goblins in it, so that already makes it pretty fantastical – and fantastic!
It’s probably the most famous poem Rossetti wrote, a long narrative poem about two sisters, Lizzie and Laura. Laura succumbs to temptation and tastes the fruit sold by the goblins of the poem’s title. The poem is about a number of things, not least the Victorian ‘marriage market’ and the way women were treated in Victorian society (i.e., you had to be the ‘good wife’ or ‘angel in the house’ or face stern censure and judgment).
8. Mary Coleridge, ‘The Witch’.
I have walked a great while over the snow,
And I am not tall nor strong.
My clothes are wet, and my teeth are set,
And the way was hard and long.
I have wandered over the fruitful earth,
But I never came here before.
Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!
So begins this Victorian poem which offers us an ambiguous ‘witch’ as its (initial) speaker: she appears to be some sort of outcast, making a journey to visit a man, perhaps her beloved. Is she a depiction of the much-shunned Victorian ‘fallen woman’? She has the power to make the fire die in the grate, so she seems to possess some otherworldly power or aura. Coleridge was the great-grand-niece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
9. Saint-John Perse, Anabasis.
Translated into English by T. S. Eliot in 1930, this long French prose poem of 1924 is a poem about a spiritual and geographical journey, including a march through the desert and references to the ‘depths of the desert-like gulfs’. The full text is available at the link above but you can also buy your own version of this work that resist easy categorisation: Anabasis.
10. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.
This modernist poem from 1922, one of the most influential poems of the twentieth century, contains elements of epic poetry (Virgil’s Aeneid, as the critic Hugh Kenner showed, was one of Eliot’s early models for the poem), but also incorporates truly fantastical landscapes and states, not least in the final section where we encounter ‘bats with baby faces’ and the hallucinatory ‘hooded hordes’ that are swarming over the desert terrain.
Eliot’s poem becomes, if you will, a phantasmagoria summoning up the directionless hell of modern living, without purpose or belief.