Taylor Swift Takes Us to the Lakes: Folklore's Romantic Poetry and Novel Influences
An exploration of the literary references in folklore album
Classic literary 📚 references appear all over Taylor Swift’s catalog. Make sure to check out Part One of this series, where we explored her work from Debut to 1989. Part Two covered reputation. Now, we dive into folklore.
Part 3: Pandemic Era, folklore
A prolific reader prior to the release of her pandemic era music, Taylor’s folklore album is well known as a treasure trove of literary allusions, from J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy to William Wordsworth’s Romantic poetry.
“illicit affairs” and echoes of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”
In “illicit affairs” from the album folklore, Taylor Swift explores the complications and emotional journey of an extramarital affair. The lyrics, “What started in beautiful rooms, ends with meetings in parking lots” indicate the decline of an initially passionate relationship into something secretive and hollow.
This progression mirrors the themes in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” The poem is famous for its depiction of the speaker standing at a fork in the road, symbolizing the choices we face in life. Taylor’s song can be interpreted as an allusion to the road not usually taken-the one that is tempting but full of unknown consequences.
The duality of Frost’s poem is reflected in Taylor’s song as well, which can also be interpreted in the traditional sense, as a nod to taking a path with limitless possibilities. However, as the song progresses, it becomes clear that this path, though initially enticing, leads to a loss of innocence and an entanglement the protagonist didn’t expect. It’s worth mentioning that “illicit affairs” is also part of the love triangle narrative in the folklore album, making it multi-dimensional in its depth and adding another layer to its connection with “The Road Not Taken” and the loss of innocence.
Peter Pan and Lost Innocence in “Cardigan”
A centerpiece of the teenage love triangle trilogy of songs, as authored by Taylor Swift on this album, is “cardigan.” Much like the characters in J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, the characters in “cardigan” experience a profound transformation that comes with the loss of innocence and the passage from childhood to adulthood.
The reference to Peter losing Wendy is a masterful move by Taylor. In Barrie’s novel, Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, loses Wendy when she chooses to return to London, embracing adulthood and leaving Neverland–and her childhood love for Peter–behind. Similarly, Betty, in “cardigan,” experiences a loss of innocence as she navigates the complexities of her relationship with James, who betrays her, leading her to feel older and more mature. This is evident in the lines, “I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired/And you’d be standin’ in my front porch light/And I knew you’d come back to me.”
Taylor sings, “When you are young, they assume you know nothing.” This line captures the dismissal of young people’s experiences and feelings, paralleling how Wendy and her brothers’ adventure in Neverland is often dismissed as a dream. Similarly, Taylor’s protagonist, Betty, feels dismissed in her love for James. The adults around her consider her feelings as typical teenage emotions, failing to understand the depth and the complexity of her love.
The cardigan in Taylor's song is a symbolic object, much like Wendy’s thimble in Barrie’s novel. Just as Wendy’s thimble represents her affection for Peter, Betty’s cardigan symbolizes her relationship with James. When Betty sings, “And when I felt like I was an old cardigan/Under someone’s bed/You put me on and said I was your favorite,” the sense of being cherished and then forgotten mirrors Wendy’s experience with Peter, who cherishes her but eventually forgets her when she grows up.
Literary Inspirations: Rebecca and “tolerate it”
Taylor’s song “tolerate it”, from her evermore album, showcases her literary affinities. The song draws inspiration from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca, and the Hitchcock film classic of the same name. The novel and movie portray the plight of a young woman married to the distant and haunted Maxim de Winter. Taylor’s lyrics mirror this dynamic, capturing the raw essence of unrequited affection and emotional endurance.
In “tolerate it,” Taylor Swift takes on the complex role of the second Mrs. de Winter, exploring the intricacies of the protagonist’s struggle for self-definition. The second Mrs. de Winter’s identity is consistently overshadowed by her predecessor, Rebecca. Taylor manages to capture this struggle for self-affirmation in her lyrics, exhibiting an understanding of the novel’s thematic underpinnings.
The lyrics of the song detail a narrative of someone trying to gain the acknowledgment of their significant other, a reflection of the second Mrs. de Winter’s perpetual quest to be seen and recognized by her husband Maxim. Through the lyrics, “I sit and watch you reading with your head low/I wake and watch you breathing with your eyes closed/I sit and watch you, I notice everything you do or don’t do/You’re so much older and wiser and I,” Taylor paints a portrait of the protagonist’s internal turmoil as she grapples with her sense of self amidst her husband’s disinterest and indifference.
In this song, Taylor mirrors the uncertainty and discomfort that the protagonist in Rebecca experiences in her new life, using the novel’s themes to navigate her exploration of power dynamics within relationships and the longing for recognition. The recurring line, “I wait by the door like I'm just a kid” further emphasizes the protagonist’s yearning for attention and validation.
Just as the second Mrs. de Winter fights to assert her individuality in Rebecca, so does Taylor in her musical career, asserting her autonomy amidst a music industry that often diminishes and overlooks the identities of female artists. “tolerate it” comes to signify not only a narrative of a struggling woman but also a statement on Taylor’s personal evolution. As she writes, “I’m no longer the tearful girl in the dress heading home,” she boldly rejects the passive identity imposed on her, much like the second Mrs. de Winter strives to do in the novel.
Strings of fate in “invisible string”
“invisible string” encapsulates the intertwining fates of two individuals, symbolized by an invisible string. This notion is reminiscent of the profound connection described by Mr. Rochester to Jane in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. When he confesses, “I have a strange feeling with regard to you. As if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you,” it underscores an inseparable bond, a destiny that ties two hearts together inextricably. Taylor’s use of the string metaphor captures this deep, almost mystical sense of connection.
Furthermore, the echo of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in the song’s chorus underlines the delicate boundary separating dreams from reality. In Hemingway’s novel, the protagonist Jake’s wistful dialogue encapsulates the tragic impossibility of his love for Brett. This heart-rending reality, contrasted against their idealistic dreams, forms a poignant echo in the chorus of “invisible string.” Taylor’s lyrics carry the sentiment of longing and the fragile beauty of ephemeral moments, resonating with the quiet despair and unfulfilled dreams in Hemingway’s narrative.
Fury in “mad woman”
In “mad woman,” Taylor Swift explores a woman’s fury that is, at its core, a reaction against an oppressive societal framework, echoing both George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. The intersection of these two contrasting narratives, one of medieval fantasy and the other rooted in 19th-century realism, enriches the layers of meaning in Taylor’s lyrics and further illuminates her understanding of the social dynamics at play.
The mention of Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre–a woman deemed “mad” and confined to an attic by her husband, Rochester–draws stark parallels with the scorned women in Taylor’s song. Bertha, misunderstood and dismissed, is the embodiment of a “mad woman” in society’s eyes, reinforcing the double standards and gender biases that permeate Brontë’s time, and sadly, persist today. Rochester’s readiness to marry Jane, disregarding his marital obligations to Bertha, underscores the deeply entrenched patriarchal norms where women's emotions are often trivialized or pathologized.
In the same vein, Taylor’s song suggests that women who defy societal expectations, like Bertha, are easily vilified or reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes– “mad,” “dramatic,” or “man-eater.” Taylor’s critique is both timeless and timely, addressing the constant pressure on women to conform to societal expectations and the backlash they face when they don't. Taylor’s “mad woman” thus becomes an anthem of defiance, a critique of the patriarchy that continues to box women into restrictive stereotypes. It’s an exploration of the societal “madness” that unjustly labels women as “mad.” Through this song, Taylor gives voice to all “mad” women, providing a powerful commentary on the double standards and gender biases that persist in our society, whether it’s in the world of Westeros, the confines of Thornfield Hall, or the music industry. Taylor’s lyricism, laced with literary and pop culture references, underlines her commitment to shedding light on these universal themes.
Sylvia Plath’s shadows in “mirrorball”
In her poem “Lady Lazarus,” Sylvia Plath portrays the rebirth of the protagonist, an event enacted again and again to the astonishment of the audience, an exploitative and voyeuristic crowd. In her lyric “It's the theatrical/Comeback in broad day/To the same place, the same face, the same brute/Amused shout:/ ‘A miracle!’/That knocks me out,” Plath encapsulates the drama and spectacle of survival in a society that often expects or even romanticizes self-destruction.
Plath’s powerful depiction of resilience and rebirth finds a contemporary echo in Taylor’s “mirrorball,” a familiar well for the phoenix songstress (see also her most recent “You’re Losing Me”). Mirror itself paints a picture of Taylor as a performer under constant scrutiny, a mirrorball reflecting the desires and expectations of the audience. Her lyrics, “I'm a mirrorball/I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight,” speak to the performative requirements of being under the public gaze, much like Lady Lazarus.
Moreover, Taylor goes a step further with “they found me on the floor/they burned the disco down,” conveying a sense of destruction and loss, yet also indicating a resilient return. Like Lady Lazarus, who “rises” from the ashes every time, Taylor, too, comes back from every downfall. The “burning” of the disco signifies an end, but also a purification and rebirth, similar to how Plath’s protagonist asserts herself after each resurrection.
Both Taylor and Plath articulate the tension of existing within a society that is quick to judge and define, a society that often seems eager to watch them fall. Yet, despite these obstacles, both artists project a defiant and empowering narrative of resilience, where they continually rise and recreate themselves in the face of adversity.
A romantic journey to “the lakes”
The folklore album seems to serve as a contemporary resurgence of Romanticism, a notion Taylor herself hints at in her song, “the lakes.” English literature and Romanticism expert, Professor Sir Jonathan Bate, identifies William Wordsworth as “the first poet to write elegies that eulogized himself.” Taylor, striking a parallel, sings “Is it romantic how all my elegies eulogize me?” to open the song. Further along in the song, Taylor longs for “auroras and sad prose,” while expressing her angst against the backdrop of the lakes and the Windermere peaks.
Wordsworth, in a letter dated 1791, made a similar reference, describing such a venture as an Aurora Borealis illuminating the prolonged melancholy night. The Lake District, where this scene unfolds, is renowned as the home to the Lake Poets, a group of writers that included William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey, later joined by William’s sister, Dorothy Wordsworth. Despite the term being initially used disparagingly to describe these writers, the Lake District has proven to be a fertile ground for creative inspiration.
Taylor's chorus in “the lakes” is a direct homage to these poets: “Take me to the lakes where all the poets went to die/I don’t belong, and my beloved, neither do you/Those Windermere peaks look like a perfect place to cry/I’m setting off, but not without my muse.”
Taylor’s reference to the lakes where the poets sought solace not only enriches her lyrics but also sparks curiosity. It seems as if these poets found the Lake District not just a place to die but also a place to truly live. Taylor’s following verse in “the lakes,” captures emotions that echo the sensibilities of the Romantic-era poets:
“What should be over burrowed under my skin/In heart-stopping waves of hurt/I’ve come too far to watch some name dropping sleaze/Tell me what are my words worth.” (Wordsworth 😉.)
Ever coding her influences, she indeed went there with that last line. The Romantic poets, much like Taylor, had a unique way of expressing their deepest emotions and fears. They found solace in nature and, similarly, Taylor seeks inspiration from the same setting for her creative exploration. The Lakes is a place where Taylor can be her true authentic self, which is not something she finds often, and a theme she revisits is that of missing out and wanting to have more in her own life.
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