A Fairy Tale, as the title of Amy Lowell’s work invokes, is something that nearly everyone can relate to. A typical fairy tale — at least as they’re understood today — is a curious mix of tragedy and trouble, usually followed by a reasonably happy ending. “The kind-hearted girl gets the prince” is practically a cliché at this point. Children enjoy fairy tales; they are stories that they can understand and try to relate to. Eventually, however, the children become teenagers who become adults, and those tastes change. Amy Lowell’s A Fairy Tale uses this process as a powerful engine for one of Lowell’s most interesting experiments in free verse poetry, adopting the two different sides to fairy tales as a metaphor for a complicated and difficult life.
A Fairy Tale Analysis
Lowell’s work consists of two verses, each one over twenty lines long and not adhering to a predictable pattern of rhyme or syllable — a staple of Lowell’s work at the time.
On winter nights beside the nursery fire
We read the fairy tale, while glowing coals
Builded its pictures. There before our eyes
We saw the vaulted hall of traceried stone
Uprear itself, the distant ceiling hung
With pendent stalactites like frozen vines;
And all along the walls at intervals,
Curled upwards into pillars, roses climbed,
And ramped and were confined, and clustered leaves
Divided where there peered a laughing face.
These first lines set up the image of a child being read fairy tales, presumably by a parent. The contrast in the first line between winter nights and the nursery fire are designed to create a cozy kind of atmosphere, by emphasizing the warmth of fire against a winter night. In this reading, the fire becomes part of the story, and the child imagines the characters and events of the story being enacted by the flames. The use of the word “builded” is an interesting one — the correct past tense form of “build” is “built,” but “builded” is the kind of basic word piecing that a young child might to, suggesting that the speaker is very young… which makes sense, in the context of being read fairy tales in a nursery.
The speaker of A Fairy Tale is entranced by the fairy tale; they imagine the pillars, the stone halls, stalactites, and roses filling the walls of the nursery. The level of detail given to describing these images — “pendent stalactites,” “traceried stone,” “like frozen vines” transcend the languages used to describe typical children’s fairy tales. The speaker is using their own imagination to embellish and bring to life the events of the story that enthralls them so.
When the speaker describes these images, they say that “before our eyes / We saw,” which speaks to their connection with the other person in the room, presumably reading the fairy tale for or with the narrator. The imageries and languages that surround this observation speak to the idea of a small, but close family, and happy childhood.
The foliage seemed to rustle in the wind,
A silent murmur, carved in still, gray stone.
High pointed windows pierced the southern wall
Whence proud escutcheons flung prismatic fires
To stain the tessellated marble floor
With pools of red, and quivering green, and blue;
And in the shade beyond the further door,
Its sober squares of black and white were hid
Beneath a restless, shuffling, wide-eyed mob
Of lackeys and retainers come to view
Continuing their journey into the fairy tale, there is a notable transition from the walls of the nursery to the speaker’s total immersion in the tale being told. This is an important aspect of Lowell’s free verse style; there is no line break or any indication of a changing narrative, but rather a simple flow that brings the reader into the fairy tale as it exists in the imagination of the speaker. This section of A Fairy Tale is heavily reliant on powerful imagery. The regal stone building described in this verse is focused heavily through its colors — red, green, blue, black, and white are all mentioned close to each other. The language used continues to be formal and educated — “whence proud escutcheons flung prismatic fires” being a particular example of this (an escutcheon is a shield bearing a coat of arms, so “prismatic fires” likely refers to the reflection of those symbols on the walls and floor).
Importantly, characters from the fairy tale are introduced in this section of the verse; there is a mob present, but it is a crowd of servants and they are in this impressive building to watch a Christening. That “The Christening” is its own line, notably shorter than its surrounding lines, brings attention to itself. This is because this line aids the reader in determining which fairy tale is being read — Sleeping Beauty, in all likelihood, a fairy tale told about a wicked being who, insulted over not being invited to a newborn princess’s Christening, curses her to die at the age of fifteen.
A sudden blare of trumpets, and the throng
About the entrance parted as the guests
Filed singly in with rare and precious gifts.
Our eager fancies noted all they brought,
The glorious, unattainable delights!
But always there was one unbidden guest
Who cursed the child and left it bitterness.
The first verse concludes with the mounting excitement from the fairy tale story. The sudden blare of trumpets is sudden in the context of the verse, and the note of the guests parting to make way for guests, distinguished from the lackeys and retainers. In the story, important guests arrive for the Christening, bringing gifts of glory, of “unattainable delight.” The triumph of the story is the triumph of the narrator, bringing its excitement into the poem. The fanfare and excitement are embodied in the language of the poem; “precious,” “eager,” “fancies,” “glorious,” “delights,” and the list could continue. The first verse ends with triumph until the final two lines introduce the villain of the tale, an uninvited guest bringing a tinge of bitterness into the glorious story.
The choice to conclude the lengthy verse on a negative tone is a hint of foreshadowing. Those familiar with Sleeping Beauty will recognize this turning point for the story, implying a turning point for A Fairy Tale as well. The joyous atmosphere of the first verse is taken away abruptly; it’s a jarring conclusion that fails to divide the verses neatly. But then, this isn’t a neat poem; Sleeping Beauty isn’t a neat story, and the implication here is that this isn’t a neat story either.
The fire falls asunder, all is changed,
I am no more a child, and what I see
Is not a fairy tale, but life, my life.
The gifts are there, the many pleasant things:
Health, wealth, long-settled friendships, with a name
Which honors all who bear it, and the power
Of making words obedient. This is much;
But overshadowing all is still the curse,
That never shall I be fulfilled by love!
A Fairy Tale continues along its distinctly non-neat path. From the first line, the fire falling asunder indicates a poor change of events — “falling” is the operative word. From here, it is clear that the first verse is told as a memory because in the present day, the speaker is not a child, but they still compare their life to a fairy tale. The primary difference is that their life has aged to include the curse mentioned at the end of the last verse. Sleeping Beauty has come to embody the life of the speaker; they see the gifts from the important guests lined up before them. Instead of gifts, they see their accomplishments in life, and their positive attributes. Notably, they are healthy, wealthy, have a number of longstanding friendships, a reputable name, and literary skill, in particular, the power of writing.
Despite all of the lines describing the positive aspects of the speaker’s life, they do not neglect to mention the curse that follows the gifts. In the example of the narrator’s life, the curse is not death, but rather that they are unable to find or be fulfilled by love. Although the first verse describes a loving family from childhood, the speaker still seems to view themself as unloveable. This likely refers to a loving relationship outside of the family — which is not mentioned in the list of gifts, interestingly enough — but to another person for the purpose of fulfillment.
Along the parching highroad of the world
No other soul shall bear mine company.
Always shall I be teased with semblances,
With cruel impostures, which I trust awhile
Then dash to pieces, as a careless boy
Flings a kaleidoscope, which shattering
Strews all the ground about with coloured sherds.
The aforementioned curse takes on a particular form in the middle section of the second verse. The “parching highroad” — suggesting a difficult path through life — is one to be walked alone for the speaker. They accept, possibly at a young age, that their life will be one of being teased and pained by others. The use of the word “bear” in the second line of this section suggests that the speaker considers their company to be a burden, keeping in line with the idea of a curse. The description of “cruel impostures” brings to mind schoolchildren bullying — a “careless boy” who feigns interest in the speaker and then “flings a kaleidoscope” to break it. The kaleidoscope metaphor — and even more so the broken kaleidoscope metaphor — is a useful way of conveying the “cursed” worldview held by the narrator, looking at the world through a broken, jaded lens that can’t see beyond its own curse.
The influence an upbringing of bullies has on the speaker is clear in the way their worldview is warped around the same fairy tale that captured their imagination as a child. The shards of glass covering the ground at the end of this section, in all different colors and sizes is a strong representation of the speaker’s state of mind. To go through life feeling that they will be alone always seems to take up more of their imagination, through metaphors and experiences, than the gifts, the many pleasant things from earlier in the verse, and this speaks to the power of the curse they feel has been inflicted upon them — likely since their childhood, when they could comprehend the meaning of the fairy tale they loved.
So I behold my visions on the ground
No longer radiant, an ignoble heap
Of broken, dusty glass. And so, unlit,
Even by hope or faith, my dragging steps
Force me forever through the passing days.
The conclusion of the second verse, and of A Fairy Tale, sees the speaker examining the remains of the metaphoric kaleidoscope on the ground before them. Broken, the device is nothing more than a pile of colored glass, no longer interesting or beautiful in any way. No matter how optimistic or hopeful they try to be about the gifts they’ve been given, the broken kaleidoscope remains the focus of their worldview. The literary talents, the health, the money, the friendships, all pale in comparison to the warmth of a soulmate, something the speaker feels they will be unable to find no matter how long they search for one. “Dragging feet” is the metaphor that closes the poem, an unwilling, forcible movement that brings them closer and closer to a lonely end.
For Amy Lowell, life was a curious mix of gifts and curses. Throughout her life, she was recognized for talents in poetry — imagist and free verse in particular — and in literature. By all accounts, she was intelligent and very well-read. At the same time, she viewed herself as an ugly child and had a medical issue that resulted in her being overweight for nearly her entire life. Rumors from her lifetime suggested that she was also a lesbian; whether or not that is true is a subject of debate. Regardless, she never married during her life, and is not known to have had any children either. She never attended college; her family did not feel it was proper for a woman to attain post-secondary education, so she was denied the opportunity.
As mentioned previously, there is an element of child-like fantasy utilized throughout A Fairy Tale — recall the word “builded,” for example — and a notable theme of disillusionment. It is possible that the poem follows the course of Lowell’s own thinking as a child, as she realizes her talents but simultaneously comes to believe that her physicality, and possibly her sexual orientation, will prevent her from finding love in life. The transition from “fairy tale” to reality and comparisons therein further supports this idea. The strong focus on the “cruel impostures” and the “careless boy” in particular suggests a bleak perspective from the young Lowell — not to mention the generally negative atmosphere held throughout the work. Hopefully, she would discover in life that the talents and charms that persisted would be a source of sustenance throughout her lifetime, despite the harsh perspective adopted by her poem.