Now that we’ve got this whole global trivia management system we call the web, it’s getting a lot harder to make original observations – or at least, to fool oneself into thinking the observation one is about to make is original. Usually a quick search on the google will turn up numerous pre-existing versions of whatever it was you were going to say. However, the connection I’m about to make is so trivial that I may just be the first person to write about it online. Or maybe anywhere.
A long time ago I read a collection of the poems and plays of an obscure mid 20th century Boston writer named V.R. Lang (1924-1956). She was obscure largely I think because she died young. Many of her friends went on to be much less obscure, notably the poets John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, the novelist Alison Lurie, and the singular Edward Gorey, well known for his distinctively illustrated peculiar little volumes of verse and prose.
One of Lang’s poems I found particularly haunting was entitled “From a Fanciful Map in the Children’s Room.” It had lines like:
At the top and marked in shadow, then to where:
What the children always knew is there,
“The End of Nowhere,” except that this map
Would place it further from them than the Park.
It went into some detail describing a map, presumably hanging on the wall of a nursery: “a map of Faeryland/Peopled by all the adult legends/Found to be charming by the Edwardians.” This included figures of myth and folk tale, like Leander struggling to get out of the water, the Snow Queen in a rowboat, and markings like “Here is Shiny Wall,” “Here Cousin Cram Childe weepeth,” and “Here are no soundings.”
The description was deftly woven into a larger web of meaning, circling around the loss of innocence which might also portend the loss of a certain kind of wisdom. So deftly in fact, that it never really occurred to me that the fanciful map might actually exist outside the poem. The figures drawn from the map seemed such a perfect embodiment of its theme, that I assumed the map itself had been invented by the poet as a hook to hang the rest of it on.
So it came as a bit of a surprise when, a few years after reading Lang’s poem, I came across a reproduction of Bernard Sleigh’s “An anciente mappe of Fairyland: newly discovered and set forth.” It is complex and full of detail; more than Lang describes in her poem. But pretty much every element she enumerates is there, phrased and looking exactly as she describes it. I am certain her poem was inspired by and is a commentary on Sleigh’s map.
Bernard Sleigh (1872-1954) was himself an obscure figure, a minor English Pre-Raphaelite muralist and crafter. He is somewhat better known than Lang, judging from the fact that he has a Wikipedia entry and she doesn’t. The map was his best-known work, largely I think because reproductions hung in many well-to-do households of the time. It was published around 1920, four years before Lang was born, so likely would have been hanging in the nursery all through her childhood.
I forget exactly where I first saw the map; probably in a book of imaginary maps at the UBC library. The Library of Congress has since made it available online.
The poem appears not to be available online anywhere, but can be found in “V.R. Lang: Poems & plays”, edited and with a memoir by Alison Lurie, illus. Edward Gorey, published by Random House in 1975.