William Blake, “The Head of the Ghost of a Flea,” c. 1819
Marianne Moore, repeating, in a centenary note in The Dial, in 1927, the seemingly rather apocryphal story of Blake’s witnessing a fairy’s funeral:
The Sun’s Light when he unfolds it“Thousands of people can talk,” Ruskin says, “for one who can think; but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion all in one.” A special kind of seeing, “mental strife,” “rapture and labor,” are characteristic of few persons indeed, and of no one perhaps to the degree in which they are characteristic of Blake. The incontrovertible actuality of seen impossibilities as he portrayed or told of them, we need scarcely be reminded of—as when in conversation he thus revisualized a fairy’s funeral: “I heard a low and pleasant sound and knew not whence it came. At last I saw the broad leaf of a flower move and underneath I saw a procession of creatures of the size and color of green and grey grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a roseleaf, which they buried with songs, and then disappeared. It was a fairy’s funeral.”
Depends on the Organ that beholds it.
Contrariwise, “the spiritual apparition of a Flea” is fearsomely circumstantial—though in connection with John Varley’s “test of the truth of these visions" as recorded in A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy* it is interesting to read that “the neatness, elasticity, and tenseness of the Flea are significant of the elegant dancing and fencing sign, Gemini.”Fairy splendor. In Moore’s “Apparition of Splendour” one reads of a “‘train supported by porcupines— / a fairy’s eleven yards long’”—with the note: “Oliver Goldsmith in one of his essays refers to a ‘blue fairy with a train eleven yards long, supported by porcupines.’” In the continuation (“Letter XLIX”) of Goldsmith’s “Letter XLVIII” (“From Lien Chi Altangi, to , Merchant in Amsterdam”), a piece sub-titled “The absurdity of persons in high station pursuing employments beneath them, exemplified in a fairy tale,” one reads (with something between horror and wonder at Moore’s readerly reach and perseverance):
As for labor, “the hard wiry line of rectitude and certainty in the actions and intentions”** of Blake teaches one to dispel hope—and fear — that great art is “the fruit of facility.” In a letter, the property of Mr. W. A. White, written to James Linnell on August*** 25th, 1827, he says, “I am too much attached to Dante to think much of anything else. I have proved the six plates and reduced the Fighting devils ready for the copper. I count myself sufficiently paid if I live as I now do and only fear that I may be unlucky to my friends and especially that I may be so to you.” He could “see,” and could work—his home being not the age nor the house in which he lived, but his mind. The placing of a stone near the site of his grave in Bunhill Fields, and of a tablet to his memory in St Paul’s, is rightly commemorative, as are reproductions and exhibitions of his works. In being urged to prepare for the Blake centenary, however, we are a little at a loss. If we are not already prepared, it is difficult to know how we are to become so.
The old fairy was a good deal mortified at her husband’s want of gallantry, though she was reluctantly obliged to comply; the day was therefore spent in the most polite amusement, the gentlemen talked, the ladies laughed, and were angry. At last the happy night drew near; the blue cat still stuck by the side of its master, and even followed him to the bridal apartment. Barbacela entered the chamber, wearing a train fifteen yards long, supported by porcupines, and all over beset with jewels, which served to render her more detestable. She was just stepping into bed to the prince, forgetting her promise, when he insisted on seeing her in the shape of a mouse. She had promised, and no fairy can break her word; wherefore, assuming the figure of the most beautiful mouse in the world, she skipped and played about with an infinity of amusement.