Tuesday Poem – Fly Amanita – and the importance of fungi in literature

It always delights me to come across a fresh toadstool, as below, stunning in its bright red and white. Unfortunately they never last long here…too much wild life, so  I snapped it quickly and here it is, a poem in itself.

toadstool Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly amanita,

toadstool
Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly amanita,

And then, being fungally inspired I got thinking about the place of toadstools in literature and was excited to find all sorts of information on the topic, including whole books, treatises and  poems.

One writer here, says of the toadstool genus above, that “it was one which would become the immediately recognisable symbol for fairyland: the unmistakable red-and-white fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), which remains the classic ‘fairy fungus to this day in modern survivals of the Victorian fairy cult such as garden gnomes. The fly agaric is the most spectacular of the generally spectacular agaric family….”

Academic and expert on fungi. Frank M Dugan traces their history in folklore and fairy tales back to the middle ages and further in a fascinating treatise called Fungi, Folkways and Fairytales: Mushroom & Mildews in Stories,Remedies & Rituals, from Oberon to the Internet. This is well worth a read and is available here.

I think the poem below provides some of the reason why toadstools have always been a centre of literary attraction. Toadstools are magical…they appear and disappear.  This poem was written by Madison Cawein who was known as the Keats of Kentucky and is believed to have influenced T.S. Eliot.

The Toadstool

I.

Once when it had rained all night
And all day, the next day, why,
In our yard, a lot of white,
Dumpy toadstools grew close by
Our old peach tree: some were high,
Peak’d, like half-shut parasols;
Others round and low, like balls,
Little hollow balls; and I
Called my father to the tree:
And he said, “I tell you what:
Fairies have been here, you see.
This is just the kind of spot
Fairies love to live in. Those
Are their houses, I suppose.

II.

“Yes, those surely are their huts!
Built of moon and mist and rain,
Such dim stuff as Elfland puts
In her buildings. Come again,
And, like castles built in Spain,
They are nowhere. But to-night,
Sliding down the moon’s slim light,
Or snail-straddled, in a train
You may see the elves, perhaps,
Clad in gossamer garments, come;
Some in morning-glory caps,
And in tulip bonnets some.
If you watch, I have no doubt,
You will see them all come out.

III.

“Long of leg as grasshoppers,
Or as katydids, oh, ho!
Here they’ll sit; the bachelors
By the spinsters, row on row,
Kissing when the moon is low:
You may hear their kisses sound
Faint as raindrops on the ground,
Dropped by flow’rs that overflow,
Flow’rs whose heads the rain weighs down.
Or, perhaps, to twinkling tunes,
Tiny as their tiny town,
See them dance wild rigadoons
Creaked by crickets; singing, too,
Serenades as thin as dew.

IV.

“Or hobgoblins here may rise,
Snail-faced, spider-legged, you see;
Eyed with glowworm-glowing eyes,
Lidless slits of flame. . Maybe,
Gnarled of back and knobbed of knee,
Tadpole-paunched, you’ll see the gnomes
Waddle from their toadstool homes;
While the frogs industriously
Twang their big bass-violins,
And the screech-owl’s bagpipes shriek:
While their eyes, like points of pins,
Glitter, great-nosed beak to beak,
Here you’ll see them squat and blink
Till it’d freeze your blood, I think.” …. .

V.

Won’t have any goblins here!
With their eyes like upright slits,
Parrot-nosed and flopped of ear,
And a grin that cracks and splits
Wide their faces, never quits,
Faces all one wart or wen!
So I got a stick and then
Knocked those toadstools into bits.
And my father said, “Well! well!
Now you’ve spoiled your only chance
It will never do to tell!
To behold the fairies dance,
And those grinning goblins, too.
Wonder what got into you!”

And here’s one for the children by Oliver Herford (1863–1935). Oliver was an American writer, humourist and illustrator who has been called “The American Oscar Wilde, ( quote from Wikipedia).

THE ELF AND THE DORMOUSE

Under a toad stool
Crept a wee Elf,
Out of the rain
To shelter himself.

Under the toad stool
Sound asleep,
Sat a big Dormouse
All in a heap.

Trembled the wee Elf
Frightened, and yet
Fearing to fly away
Lest he get wet.

To the next shelter–
Maybe a mile!
Sudden the wee Elf
Smiled a wee smile;

Tugged till the toad stool
Toppled in two;
Holding it over him,
Gayly he flew.

Soon he was safe home,
Dry as could be.
Soon woke the Dormouse–
“Good gracious me!

“Where is my toad stool?”
Loud he lamented.
And that’s how umbrellas
First were invented.

Please return to Tuesday Poem and check out the offerings of other Tuesday Poets. This week’s Tuesday Poem editor is Belinda Hollyer, a New Zealand writer and anthologist living in London.

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