2023 marks one hundred years since the publication of Flower Fairies of the Spring, the enchanted yet botanically accurate creations of artist and poet Cecily Mary Barker (1895-1973). As a young girl, I loved the Flower Fairies’ petal-dresses, their dreamy little faces, and their realistic gauzy wings. I loved the sense of scale conveyed by the outsized bunches of blooms and leaves they either held aloft or perched among. (The parts of each plant, I know now, were carefully drawn from life; if Barker could not find the flower she needed to study locally, she would visit Kew Gardens to make drawings there.) And I loved the clever poems that accompanied each fairy, memorably describing the appearance, habits and habitat of each flower.
Rereading the book now, I am still delighted by the unashamed magic of the illustrations. Barker never claimed to believe in fairies, but by her attention to detail and the perfect match of each fairy to each flower, she suggests a sort of poetic truth to their existence. And I am particularly struck by what I took for granted as a young reader: the lively skill of the poems. They take many different forms; Barker moves between two, three and four beat lines, between couplets, quatrains, six-line stanzas, and idiosyncratic patterns. The extracts below exhibit some of her variety – and how consistently flawless were her rhythm and rhyme. Her imagery is also consistently beautiful. In ‘The Song of the Crocus Fairies’, she breaks off from the four-beat pattern to sharpen our focus on this shining description:
Like a cup of light
In ‘The Song of the Windflower Fairy’ (noted as another name for Wood Anemone), the pleasure of encountering these star-like flowers – some of the first to bloom in spring, with their petals outstretched, like arms, towards the sun – is joyfully summoned:
The Winter’s long sleeping,
Like night-time, is done;
But day-stars are leaping
To welcome the sun.
Barker moves between first and third person, writing to capture the unique essence of each flower. The Dandelion Fairy is bold and mocking:
Sillies, what are you about
With your spades and hoes of iron?
You can never drive me out –
Me, the dauntless Dandelion!
The Daffodil Fairy’s voice is jubilant and playful, captured through skipping internal rhymes which also tell us some of the folk names of the flower:
…I, the Lent Lily, the Daffy-down-dilly…
While the small, humble Wood Sorrel Fairy relates to her child-reader:
Bracken stalks are shooting high,
Far and far above us;
We are little, you and I,
But the fairies love us.
As above, the flowers’ habitats are deftly described. The Windflower Fairy tells us that her petals “sprinkle / The wildwood with light”. (Today, the Woodland Trust notes, wood anemones are often a sign of ancient woodland, the old ‘wildwood’.) The Stitchwort Fairy tells us “I am brittle-stemmed and slender, / But the grass is my defender”. And in ‘The Song of the Lady’s-Smock Fairy’, we learn:
Where the grass is damp and green,
Where the shallow streams are flowing,
Where the cowslip buds are showing,
I am seen.
And always, the implicit or explicit message is that wildflowers are precious and miraculous. As the Speedwell Fairy pronounces, in a poem which intertwines sky, earth, human eyes and flower petals:
“See, here is a prize
Of wonderful worth:
A weed of the earth,
As blue as the skies!”
I would encourage any nature lover to revisit the Flower Fairies and sprinkle some petals of light over their day.
The Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool is holding an exhibition of Barker’s illustrations in spring 2023, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Flower Fairies of the Spring.
Rachel Piercey is a poet and children’s writer. She is the editor of Tyger Tyger Magazine, an online journal of new poems for children, and regularly visits schools to perform and run workshops. Her search-and-find poetry-and-picture book, If You Go Down to the Woods Today (Magic Cat, 2021, illustrated by Freya Hartas), has been translated into twenty-seven languages.