Blending Our Binaries Since 1809

Essay by Danna D’Esopo
Dr. Leuner
28 May 2018

There is repetition throughout human history of categorizing ideologies into binaries. Socially, we have been using binaries for as long as we have existed by categorizing ourselves into the genders of either “male” or “female”. Politically, this is seen in the history of America’s development through the shaping of the two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. Yet, we are starting to see change in the notion of binaries through the categories previously designated as binaries. Recently, gender identities have expanded beyond “male” and “female”; gender labels now include non-binary, genderfluid, transgender, demigender, and agender. In terms of political parties, many people associate themselves with the label of “independent”, or other small political parties, because they agree with some aspects of one party’s stance and other aspects of the other’s stance. As these labels continue to develop and gain popularity, there is an increase in evidence to show that subjects we previously conceived as binaries are actually not black and white. These binaries are turning into spectrums, allowing people to identify with a specific side, somewhere in between, or not within either of the categories. However, the idea of thinking of binaries as spectrums, rather than two different molds that someone must fall into, is one that was explored long before the start of the twentieth century. Alicia Lefanu, an Irish poet who wrote towards the end of the long eighteenth century, discusses the idea that binary categories can fuse and affect each other through her literary writing. Published in 1809, Lefanu’s work, The Flowers, or the Sylphid Queen, reflects the journey of a royal maid, Almeria, who falls in love for the first time on her eighteenth birthday only to lose the love within the same night. Almeria becomes distressed and falls into a depressed mental state. Through the help of sylphs, Almeria is able to mentally move along from her failed attempts at love—she experiences multiple throughout the tale—and eventually finds someone to spend the rest of her life with (Lefanu). Lefanu’s The Flowers, or the Sylphid Queen is able to show the fusion of two seemingly binary qualities, the physical realm and intangible realm, through the construction of the title of the text, the relationship of the text as an object within our world, and the choice of diction, including word placement, throughout the entirety of the piece.

Starting with the juxtaposition of the title and subtitle of Lefanu’s work, there is a strong tie to the ideology that both tangible and abstract forces affect the world in which we live. The main title, “The Flowers” refers to the natural elements that are found on earth which can be grown both domestically and within the wild. However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “sylphid” refers to a young sylph; sylph is further defined as “One of a race of beings or spirits supposed to inhabit the air (orig. in the system of Paracelsus)” (sylph, n.). In order to fully understand what this term means, one must dive deeper into the roots from which it is derived from. Within the article “Toward a Medicine of the Imagination” published in the New Literary History journal in 2006, Kirmayer discusses the idea of imagination as medicine and reflects upon historical ideologies that incorporate this idea. One person Kirmayer discusses to support his claim that imagination is central to early Renaissance thinking is Paracelsus, who believed “imagination is a ‘celestial’ (supernatural) force that acts directly on the material world to refashion it in its image” (Kirmayer 584-585). Kirmayer continues to claim that “this view of imagination is rooted in a dualistic ontology in which human beings have two bodies, one visible and the other invisible” (Kirmayer 585). This idea is strongly grounded throughout human history through its connection to the concept of religion. Through religion, humans have shown an understanding of forces that surpass the physical realm through our belief in larger spirits or gods, thus showing a binary between the human world and world of the gods. On an individualized scale, the concept of the tangible and intangible is shown through the secular notion that all humans have physical health, health dealing with problems regarding our body, and mental health, health dealing with emotion and thoughts. On the surface, the binary of material and immaterial seem to be two separate parts. In Lefanu’s case, the title, “The Flowers”, and the subtitle, “The Sylphid Queen” are structurally separated. Yet, Lefanu’s decision to incorporate these two phrases of opposite elemental meanings, one grounded in earth and one tied to the sky, actually creates a fusion that represents both ideas as necessary for the piece as a whole. To further both of their importance, the inclusion of both the earthly element and airy element within the overall title elevates both the physical and tangible elements to the same level of importance for the entire piece. By dissecting only the title of the work, “The Flowers, or the Sylphid Queen”, one can easily see that Lefanu is attempting to blend the physical world with one that contains supernatural elements, which strongly correlates with the ideology of Paracelsus.

Lefanu’s The Flowers, or the Sylphid Queen is also connected to this ideology because the survival of the text is impacted by its documentation within the Stainforth Library of Women’s Writing, tying it to the physical realm, due to its existence as a recorded material object, and to the intangible realm, since the text has been subject to a force beyond its control, an individual person. By looking at the text as a material item, it is important to recognize that it is part of two spheres.  The first is the text’s own sphere, because the text is a physical object that encompasses a world with characters inside. The second is the human sphere. We know the text was created during the eighteenth century because it has been documented in one of our largest records of female authorship from the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Stainforth Library of Women’s Writing, thus serving as proof that it exists within our realm. Since we are able to interact with the text by holding it, reading it, and researching it, the human realm acts as a force that is beyond the text’s control. The amount of time and energy humans spend interacting with a text impacts the lifespan of that text. For instance, Francis Stainforth, who created this library during the eighteenth century, kept a written record of all of the texts he owned and hoped to add to his library. This catalogue houses many unknown titles from the eighteenth century, including Lefanu’s The Flowers, or the Sylphid Queen. However, when documenting the title, Stainforth used the term “sylphic” instead of “sylphid” (Stainforth). Although they are seemingly interchangeable, each term actually has a slightly different meaning which affects how a person may perceive the text. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, sylphic is a derivative of the term “sylph” (as discussed above), and is equitable to the definition of “sylph-like” which is defined as “relating to, resembling, of the nature of, or characteristic of a sylph” (sylph, n.). This definition suggests a tone of lightness and power since it resembles a race of beings with supernatural abilities that can fly. Variously, “sylphid”, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A little or young sylph” (sylphid, n.). This terminology presents a whimsical and less mature tone since it combines the airy light tone from sylph with childlike qualities. Stainforth’s mistake in writing the correct title is one that affects the longevity of the text’s survival. If the text is unable to be preserved correctly, people will be unable to find it if they go searching for it. This makes the probability that the text will survive over the course of generations decrease, which means a force—Stainforth—outside of the text’s control is affecting its’ lifespan. Therefore, the way individual people interact with a text represents the collision of the two spheres the text exists within and ultimately affects the longevity of the text.

Looking at the text as a material object also blends the binary categories of its own realm and the human realm because the lifespan of the text, a physical object, is also dependant on the way in which the whole society, a population of people whom the text is unable to control, reacts to it. In the article “Children’s susceptible minds: Alicia Lefanu and the “reasoned imagination” in Georgian children’s literature” by Anne Jamison, the author explores the ways in which Alicia Lefanu took a unique approach in addressing the popular ideologies during this time. According to Jamison, Lefanu’s publishing agency, Harris and the Godwins’ Juvenile Library,  was known “as one of the most ambitious advocates of a new type of children’s book in the early nineteenth century, one that catered to the workings of a child’s imagination and rescued the fairy tale genre from the crudely styled chapbooks with which it had been associated since the early eighteenth century” (Jamison). Through this evidence, it is easy to see that Lefanu wrote this particular text with the goal of sharing it with an audience of children. So, her use of the term “sylphid”, connected by definition to children and youth, makes sense as an attempt from both herself and her publishing company to make the book relatable to a younger audience. The connotations of the word “sylphid” would also allow older readers to view the book with a magical and whimsical tone. Yet, the fact that Lefanu designated a sensical word to the subtitle in order to relay a tone and appeal to a specific audience does not change the fact that the text was subject to the ideology of the culture during the time. In fact, this poem did not gain as much popularity as was hoped for. One reason this poem may not have been well received during the long eighteenth century was due to the fact that the poem contains subject matter that was not popular during the long eighteenth century. After Jamison explains the push for logical thinking promoted by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau during the eighteenth century, Jamison claims “The adoption of these ideas into mainstream children’s literature led to the heavily didactic and child-centered texts now so closely associated with the early history of children’s books in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as well as the disfavoring of fairy tales and fantasy as suitable reading matter for children” (Jamison). By dissecting only the title of the work as done above, one can easily see that this piece of work contains magic and supernatural elements which are considered the opposite of logical. Since these elements in literature were not advocated for in public or by readers due to the inherently conflicting ideologies it had with the societal norms, it makes sense that this work would not be as well-received as other children’s works. Thus, another outside force from the eighteenth century—the population’s reaction to the text’s themes—affected the survival of the text. Overall, Lefanu’s text as a material object represents how the tangible and celestial realms coincide to affect an object’s longevity as seen in how the population’s reaction to the text during the eighteenth century decreased its chances of survival over time.

Lefanu also depicts the fusion between the tangible and intangible through juxtapositions within the word placement and diction within the poem. One example of this is at the beginning of the text when Almeria has spiraled into a depressive phase over the loss of Orlando, the man she loved, and begins obsessively visiting the flower gardens. The line “Each time the haunted flowers she leaves” specifically refers to the description of Almeria when she leaves the gardens every night (Lefanu 17). The term “flowers” is mentioned frequently throughout the text as well as within the head title of this poem. Flowers are also very grounded within the physical world; we often find flowers naturally withinin the wild and humans also grow them domestically within their households or gardens. Interestingly, right before the term “flowers” is the word “haunted”. This term is one often associated with spirits, ghosts, and other beings that are connected to a spiritual, and thus intangible, world. This is blatantly a term that, unlike “flowers”, is associated with intangible spaces and worlds that ours cannot control. For Lefanu to place the term “haunted” directly next to “flowers” fuses them to describe one image within the text, making the physical and celestial a part of one whole being.

Lastly, Lefanu demonstrates the concept of spectrums rather than binaries through the diction she chose when constructing her rhyming lines throughout the poem. One area within the text where a stark contrast in the rhyming terms is apparent is when the queen watches her daughter, Almeria, undergoing depression and distress over her lost love, “The queen beholds her daughter’s bloom/ Fast fading to an early tomb” (Lefanu 18). Upon inspection, it is easy to see that each line carries a different tone. These two lines are structured so that the last word in each of them are rhyming; since the poem relies on these words heavily in order to continue the flow of the rhythm, the rhyming words must be chosen carefully by the creator. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “bloom” as “The blossom or flower of a plant.  ” (bloom, n.1.). This definition fits well within the context of the poem since the queen is observing the princess’s beauty. The term “bloom” is associated with livelihood and beauty; it is strongly tied to flowers because flowers bloom. Again, flowers are grounded to the earth through their strong tie to nature. Most people see nature as a force that exists within our physical realm. Although humans are often unable to control it, it is one of the defining forces that exists within what we consider to be the real world. With this knowledge, the line seems to carry a tone full of life. This contrasts the next line greatly, which uses the word “tomb” as the pairing to “bloom” in the rhyme. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, tomb is defined as, “A place of burial; an excavation, chamber, vault, or other space used for the interment of the dead; a grave” (tomb, n.). Tombs are largely associated with the ground, and thus the earth, due to its association with burials and cemeteries. However, it is also heavily connected to the celestial realm because it is associated with death and the afterlife. The usage of term within this rhyming pair is complex because it is correlated both with the ground of the earth, and thus the physical realm, and with the unknown of the afterlife, and thus the intangible realm. Within the meaning behind the lines themselves the reader is able to see how an intangible force can affect the physical space. The lines translate to say that the daughter’s beauty is being drained because of the negativity of her mental state. This negativity is one that is intangible, yet it is affecting and decreasing her life force. Although this is very prominent in the section when Almeria is experiencing mental distress, Lefanu continues to lace words with opposite associations next to each other and in paired rhyme sequences throughout the entire text. Thus she laces throughout the text the idea that two worlds fused together can create a whole.

Through the juxtaposition of physical and celestial forces within the title and the text of the piece, as well as the text’s interactions with our world as a material object, Lefanu represents the ideology that there are both physical and intangible forces that affect a person or object’s life through her text The Flowers, or the Sylphid Queen. Seeing as this text was directed towards the audience of children, she may have shown the fluidity of this binary in order help youth during the time come to terms with the fact that life is uncertain and there are parts of the world we will not be able to control. Whether or not this is the case, Lefanu’s decisions in the creation of this text, as well as the text’s continued existence, distinguish her as one of the leaders in the initiative to eliminate the separation of societally constructed ideologies and understand them as parts of our world that coexist and often affect each other. Lefanu’s ability to bring this point to light in a society much more conservative than the one we currently live in is incredible since it is a concept that people still struggle to comprehend today.


Works Cited

“bloom, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018. Accessed 16 May 2018.

Jamison, Anne. “Children’s susceptible minds: Alicia Lefanu and the ‘reasoned imagination’ in Georgian children’s literature.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 52, no. 4, 2013, p. 585+. Literature Resource Center. Accessed 30 Apr. 2018.

Kirmayer, Laurence J. “Toward a Medicine of the Imagination.” New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation, vol. 37, no. 3, 2006, pp. 583-605. MLA International Bibliography. Accessed 16 May 2018.

Lefanu, Alicia. “The Flowers, or the Sylphid Queen.” J. Harris, 31 Dec 1809.

Stainforth, Francis. Catalogue of the Library of Female authors of the Rev J. F. Stainforth. Eds. Kirstyn Leuner and Deborah Hollis, Accessed 20 August 2018.

“sylph, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018. Accessed 30 April 2018.

“sylphid, n. (and adj.).” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018. Accessed 16 May 2018.

“tomb, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018. Accessed 16 May 2018.


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