Summer: the smell of pine, sunscreen, and wood smoke, the feeling of the hot sun on your skin and wet grass on your bare feet, the sight of green leaves everywhere. For me, this is the time of greatest freedom and beauty: the season when you can turn on your favorite playlist in the car with the windows down; swim in cool water until your hands and toes are pruny; star-gaze in the warm nights; pick blueberries and bake them into cobbler. I taste sehnsucht when I see blue mist over the sea or hear the weird, chuckling cry of a loon.
This week’s Summer of Faerie post is a fascinating one by Emma Fox. Emma introduced me to the French composer Claude Debussy, a lover of mythology and friend to many Symbolist poets and artists. Her poem was inspired by an image of Debussy and his beloved daughter Emma in a forest south of Paris, taken shortly before their deaths near the end of WWI (see the picture below). Debussy is famous for his orchestral work, “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” This poem asks, what if he really did see a faun there in the woods?
Debussy was fascinated the concept of Gesampkunstwerk or “total work of art,” or unifying text, visual art, music, and even movement into one work. In honor of that concept, I recommend listening to “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” as you read this poem (and, perhaps, finding some woods to sit in as you do) – let them take you into this time, this moment, this vision.
Debussy’s Afternoon of the Faun: A Prelude
by Emma Fox
There really was a faun—
I know, because I glimpsed him in the southern forest.
The war had dragged on, at the Somme and at Verdun,
Verdant no longer, but choked
With ragged brambles of barbed wire
The tongues of dragon fire and poisoned fumes
Driving from the woods both deer and dove.
Paris had become a cage for us.
The shuttered shops of the Champs-Elysees
Sagged pale and weary, windows boarded up,
Unable to bear the Arc de Triomphe
Stranded in the star, cut off at the hip
Like the legs of a broken Colossus.
We fled to the forest, my daughter and I.
We galloped on an iron horse to a far kingdom
Where castles rose like broken dreams
From the shrouded groves of memory.
We found a spot between the trees
To spread our blanket and eat apples,
And listen to the language of the birds.
That’s where we saw the faun.
Just his curled horns at first, sticking out from behind a tree—
He slept, unaware of our presence,
His naked chest rising and falling with each breath
And his furred legs nestled in the grass like foxes,
While his bright hooves twitched to a silent tune.
A warm wind stirred the leaves above our heads.
He slept on—dreaming perhaps of virgin groves
And naiads bathing in the stream,
And the music of flutes beneath the stars
In ancient times, long before Caesar
Stormed in with the legions, striking down trees
And strangling rivers with aqueducts.
The faun never woke. We tiptoed away—
Folded our blanket, and walked through the wood
To the station. We were silent the whole journey home,
But in my daughter’s eyes I saw summer leaves and starlight.
And on the iron platform, her buttoned leather shoes
Twinkled, waltzing to some silent melody.
And I knew this afternoon would be the prelude to her song.
Emma Fox first met a faun at age seven, when wandering through the Narnian woods. She fell in love with Claude Debussy’s music in high school, eventually leading to degrees in music and art history and a lifelong interest in the intersection of music, art and literature. She now lives in the “Magic City” of Birmingham, Alabama, along with her husband, three book-loving children, and a loyal border collie. Her debut fantasy novel The Arrow and the Crown has received multiple awards, including the Warren S. Katz Award for Juvenile Fiction and 1st Place in Young Adult Fiction from the SCBWI Southern Breeze division. Explore more of her fantasy world and work at http://emmafoxauthor.com/.
This poem felt like a gift when I read it today—a welcome reminder that beauty and art and grace grant reprieves in dark times. We all need glimpses of fauns this year.
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I agree! The poem gave me that deep, ponderous, quiet sense of rest that we all need, this year especially. 🙂
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