Saturday, 1 March 2014

Coleridge, Pixies' Parlour, and invented tradition

facing p59, The Story of a Devonshire House, 1905

The Western Morning News just had an interesting illustrated feature - Celebrating a cave’s link to Ottery St Mary's most famous son - Samuel Taylor Coleridge - referring to "Pixies' Parlour", a sandstone cave in the river cliffs of the Otter, a little south of Ottery St Mary.

The backstory in brief: Coleridge visited the cave with some young ladies when he was 21, and it inspired his 1793 poem Songs of the Pixies, introduced thus:
The Pixies, in the superstition of Devonshire, are a race of beings invisibly small, and harmless or friendly to man. At a small distance from a village in that county, half-way up a wood-covered hill, is an excavation called the Pixies’ Parlour. The roots of old trees form its ceiling; and on its sides are innumerable cyphers, among which the author discovered his own cypher and those of his brothers, cut by the hand of their childhood. At the foot of the hill flows the river Otter. To this place the Author, during the summer months of the year 1793, conducted a party of young ladies; one of whom, of stature elegantly small, and of complexion colourless yet clear, was proclaimed the Faery Queen. On which occasion the following Irregular Ode was written.
- Songs of the Pixies, ST Coleridge, Wikisource.
In mid-Victorian times, Coleridge's initials were still extant, as described in the nice account of the cave in Lewis Gidley's 1864 Morven: Devonshire Legends, and Other Poems:
About half a mile below the town of Ottery St. Mary, on the left bank of the river Otter, is a curious cavern in the perpendicular side of a sand-rock eminence, which is one end of an elevated field. This cavern is called “ Pixies’ Parlour.” It is about twenty feet long, between three and four feet high, and contains several lateral recesses, of which the two deepest are about six or seven feet in length. It varies very much in width, on account of the recesses. Its width from the end of the one deepest recess to that of the other, which is nearly opposite to it, is about eighteen feet. This remarkable little cavern was probably called Pixies’ (Devonshire fairies’) Parlour, from the difficulty of accounting for its excavation by natural causes. There is no appearance of its having been formed by the action of water, as its floor slopes inwards, and it is very much elevated above any neighbouring stream; and, from its lowness and peculiar shape, it seems that it was not the result of human operation. It was, therefore, probably a natural formation in the sand-rock; or it may have been scooped out, at an early period, by wild animals; which, as the rock in some places is soft and crumbles readily, is not improbable. The side of the rock, which is surmounted by roots of trees, holly, ivy, and grass, is carved all over with initials of names, among which the S T C of the poet Coleridge are easily discerned. From the present use made of the precincts of the cavern during the summer, it might with almost as much propriety be called “ Picnic ” as “ Pixies’ ” parlour.
-page 159, Morven: Devonshire Legends, and Other Poems (Lewis Gidley, pub. Griffith and Farran, 1864)
(Gidley follows with his own poem, Pixies' Parlour - see page 160 of the same book).

One or two later accounts mention the initials, and the photo above comes from one such:
The exquisite "Songs of the Pixies" are inspired by the genius of the place, and it may be interesting to know that "Pixies Parlour" still exists, and that in the sandstone wall outside the cavern the stranger still may read the initials S. T. C. cut by the poet in 1789 alluded to in the introduction of the poem.
- page 160, The Story of a Devonshire House (Bernard Coleridge Baron Coleridge, pub. T. Fisher Unwin, 1905 - Internet Archive ID cu31924027932262).
They have, however, been long since effaced by weathering and/or the abundant more recent scratched graffiti. But the location still looks very interesting. The Coleridge Memorial Project website has an associated page Ottery St Mary – The Coleridge Link, with a downloadable flyer (here) for associated walks and the literary background.

There is, in connection, an annual town pageant in Ottery St Mary, Pixie Day, which is woven around a legend of pixies being banished to the cave in 1454 (see The Pixie Legend). This looks to be a fairly classic example of 'invented tradition', as there's no sign of such a legend prior to a 1954 pamphlet The pixies' revenge; or, the threat to the bells of St. Mary's Church, Ottery, written by RF Delderfield.

The date shows the publication, printed by EJ Manley of Ottery St. Mary, was cooked up to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the bells' installation (ref: Coleridge: a collection of critical essays, ed. Kathleen Coburn, Prentice-Hall, 1967). I strongly suspect Delderfield got the idea in part from another most likely non-traditional story featuring pixies and bells, The Belfry Rock; or, The Pixies' Revenge, another piece of whimsy in A peep at the pixies: or, Legends of the West (Mrs Bray, ill. by Hablot K Brown aka 'Phiz', pub, Grant and Griffith, 1854).

Unfortunately, the unproven claim that Pixie Day and its legend is of some antiquity appears on many websites and news stories about Ottery St Mary. For instance, the East Devon Guide page calls it an "age-old legend" and treats its 1954 origin date as a "revival". It has even crept into the occasional serious reference book. The Oxford Handbook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge has a section listing among Coleridge's early influences ...
... the church bells pealing 'all the hot Fair-day' in June—'Pixie Day', when the Pixies were banished from the town to the Pixies' Parlour, a tiny sandstone cave in a hillside overlooking the river ('Frost at Midnight' and 'Songs of the Pixies') ...
- p13, The Oxford Handbook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (ed. Frederick Burwick, Oxford University Press, 2009)
But Coleridge's Frost at Midnight makes no identification of Ottery's Fair Day as "Pixie Day" ...
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me 
... nor does the British Library 19th Century Newspaper Archive find any reference to such a festival.

I may of course be wrong. If anyone has any documented evidence of an Ottery Pixie Day, of any such legend being genuinely "age-old", or even of any reference at all pre-dating Delderfield's 1954 pamphlet, do contact me.

- Ray

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