Fata Morgana by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Poetry is an art form that tends to be dominated by abstract ideas and concepts — metaphors, similes, symbolism, menageries, and the list goes on. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in particular often used abstract ideas to convey complicated emotion-based ideas of his own to the wide readership of his poems. The idea of a Fata Morgana — a complex kind of mirage — is therefore an intriguing idea for the basis of one of his poems. In Fata Morgana, Longfellow explores the concept in a uniquely abstracted manner, allowing the reader to make their own interpretations and insights into the meaning of the piece.

 

Fata Morgana Analysis

O sweet illusions of song

That tempt me everywhere,

In the lonely fields, and the throng

Of the crowded thoroughfare!

I approach and ye vanish away,

I grasp you, and ye are gone;

But ever by night and by day,

The melody soundeth on.

Straight away, the Fata Morgana metaphor is evident as a driving idea behind this poem. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sets up his work with nostalgic, atmospheric language that provides the reader not with a setting, but rather with an idea, that can act as the engine for his work. That the word “illusions” appears in the first line of the piece titled Fata Morgana is certainly no coincidence, though the idea it precedes is an unusual one: an illusion of song. While by definition, an illusion can be a trick to any of the five senses, the most common connotation defines illusion as a visual hallucination or trick; an aural illusion is almost oxymoronic in concept. This, of course, is almost certainly Longfellow’s exact intention; he isn’t writing about a specific thing that has happened to him, or a story in which a specific thing happens to a specific character. We can think of an illusion of song to be like an imagined melody, or like remembering a small fragment of a song that has never been heard in full. It is something that captures the imagination, and, as the first verse suggests, tempts the attention of the listener, at any time and in any place.

Comparing Longfellow’s Fata Morgana to having a song stuck inside one’s head might feel a bit simplistic, but so far, this is essentially what he is doing with his work. The second verse details the narrator’s hopeless attempts at understanding the elusive (and illusive!) melody. Longfellow shifts between describing the song as a “you” and a “ye” in the first two lines of verse two, a nod to the fantastical nature of the idea, and, more importantly, to its abstraction. This idea is timeless, and impossible to properly describe. All Longfellow has done so far in Fata Morgana is describe a narrator who hears “sweet illusions of song” that can be heard anywhere, at any time, and shows no signs of leaving. The language he uses is familiar and relatable, even if the idea has not yet been explored to its fullest potential.

As the weary traveller sees

In desert or prairie vast,

Blue lakes, overhung with trees

That a pleasant shadow cast;

Fair towns with turrets high,

And shining roofs of gold,

That vanish as he draws nigh,

Like mists together rolled —

The third and fourth verses of Fata Morgana introduce the titular concept in a very literal way, by defining the idea and using it as a metaphor to parallel the idea of the illusive song. A Fata Morgana is a complex kind of mirage that appears along the horizon or, in some cases, above it, and can be comprised of several images overlapping one another in unusual ways. As a superior mirage, Fata Morgana are uncommon, but are also less easy to distinguish as mirages to the weary traveller, because they tend to be more stable than their more common counterparts. The mirage that Longfellow is describing in these verses is, in a literal sense, a mirage, but also takes the form of false sanctuary. He describes golden rooftops, shining turrets, and desert oases — all things that a weary traveller, so-described in the opening line to the third verse, would be extremely grateful to encounter, and therefore devastated to discover were merely tricks of heat and light.

The idea of false sanctuary is an important one, because it brings the illusive song metaphor into a different kind of light than was initially described. The narrator in this story is haunted, in a sense, by a song or melody that is constantly present, but impossible to fully understand or realize. The first line of the poem describes the concept as “sweet,” but what sweetness can be found in an unreachable goal, or an impossible-to-understand concept? Longfellow’s use of Fata Morgana to describe the phenomenon succeeds in describing it, but also helps the reader to understand that it is not necessarily a positive addition to the character’s life.

So I wander and wander along,

And forever before me gleams

The shining city of song,

In the beautiful land of dreams.

But when I would enter the gate

Of that golden atmosphere,

It is gone, and I wonder and wait

For the vision to reappear.

The idea of false sanctuary consumes the final two verses of the poem, as the speaker describes their song as being like the mirage of a shining city and beautiful land. It is always there for them, however the moment they attempt to enter — to turn away from their chosen path and walk towards the city — it vanishes, and with it the happiness associated with the song, the “golden atmosphere” of the illusion. When the city does vanish — when the narrator focuses their attention on this incomplete song that haunts them — they spend the rest of their days thinking about it, and waiting for the illusion to return.

Throughout Fata Morgana, Longfellow describes this idea of the mirage-like song in great detail without ever really moving away from the metaphor itself. The story of the poem is written in extremely general terms, and the idea of an illusive song is something of an oxymoron already. This suggests that the idea of the song that is not a song is itself a metaphor for something else, but the true driving force of the poem is never actually explained within it — it is left general, for the audience to interpret as individuals. Still, the prevailing, general idea — of something that disappears as soon as a person tries to obtain it — is not a difficult one to relate to, and suggests a life lesson that most people experience at some point. The “what-ifs” and “maybes” of life never quite go away, but trying to move towards an imagined reality is impossible, and a waste of time besides, like trying to enter a city of mirage.

The really fascinating aspect of Fata Morgana, however, is that there are dozens of similar interpretations that could reasonably be associated with this work — and ironically unlike a mirage, are all up to the the eye of the reader.

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