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Time, Curious Time: How Taylor Swift Draws on Writing From the Past
Literary references from Emily Dickinson to Charlotte Brontë in Taylor Swift’s evermore and Midnights
Our concluding piece on the literary references in Taylor Swift’s album catalog from Debut to Midnights wraps up this series. Part One covered Pablo Neruda’s poetry to Alice in Wonderland from Debut to 1989, Part Two dug into the influence of The Great Gatsby and more on reputation, and Part Three took us to the lakes where all the poets went to die. In Part Four, we examine the literary references from evermore to Midnights.
Part 4: evermore and Beyond
Echoes of Gatsby in “happiness”
The song “happiness” alludes to once again to Taylor’s seemingly favorite text, author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Taylor’s lyrics brim with symbols of longing, reminiscent of Jay Gatsby’s unrelenting yearning for his love interest, Daisy. The song captures the unraveling of a relationship and the consequent pursuit of healing. Taylor’s lyrics “I hope she’ll be a beautiful fool” borrows directly from Daisy’s dialogue in Gatsby.
Taylor’s use of this quote mirrors her own longing for a simpler time, perhaps before her relationship disintegrated. It suggests an acknowledgment of the flawed reality, yet also a wishful thinking that things could've been less complicated, less painful. In this way, and also in “the lakes,” Taylor aligns herself with Daisy Buchanan, both yearning for a form of innocence and naiveté to shield from the harsh realities they’ve faced.
Furthermore, the lyric “All you want from me now is the green light of forgiveness” harkens back to the green light 🟢 at the end of Daisy's dock in Fitzgerald’s novel, which becomes a symbol of Gatsby’s hopes and dreams for the future, particularly his longing for Daisy. Similarly, the “green light of forgiveness” in “happiness” represents the desire for absolution and reconciliation following the end of a relationship, an echo of Gatsby's own yearning.
In these ways, Taylor skillfully invokes the spirit of Fitzgerald’s narrative in her own storytelling. “Happiness,” like The Great Gatsby, is a poignant exploration of human emotions, hopes, and the painful process of healing after heartbreak. Taylor’s thoughtful allusions to Fitzgerald’s work further underscore her literary sensibility and showcase the depth and intricacy of her songwriting.
“ivy”'s affection for Emily Dickinson
In “ivy,” Taylor Swift delves into the tumultuous realm of secret love affairs. The lyrics, saturated with floral ❧ imagery and evocative metaphors, echo the passion and anguish of an illicit romance. The song is rife with thematic overlaps with the life of Emily Dickinson, an American poet known for her emotionally intense poems and her speculated romantic relationship with her close friend, Sue Gilbert.
The protagonist of “ivy” is a married woman grappling with an unexpected, yet intense attraction to someone else. This situation mirrors Dickinson’s own life, wherein her close friendship with Gilbert–who was also her brother’s wife–was purported to have developed into a romantic affair. Taylor’s careful omission of the gender of the protagonist’s lover has led to speculation about a possible Sapphic undertone in the song, reminiscent of Dickinson’s rumored relationship with Gilbert. This speculation is further substantiated by the song’s inclusion in the Apple TV+ series Dickinson, which explores the poet’s life and relationships.
“Ivy” is a testament to Taylor’s ability to incorporate elements of literary and historical narratives into her music, breathing new life into them. Taylor adopts the emotional intensity and layered symbolism characteristic of Dickinson’s poetry, infusing these elements into her own narrative about illicit love. Taylor’s lyrics encapsulate the complexity of the protagonist's feelings, capturing the exhilaration, guilt, and despair that accompany a clandestine love affair.
In her choice to leave the gender of the protagonist’s lover ambiguous, Taylor deftly addresses the heteronormative assumptions that often dominate mainstream narratives. This ambiguous portrayal also pays homage to Dickinson, who was often oblique in her own depictions of love and desire in her poetry.
The connection between “ivy” and Emily Dickinson’s life further solidifies Taylor’s place as a literary songstress. She subtly intertwines her musical narratives with references to literary figures and texts, broadening the depth and breadth of her storytelling. Through her work, Taylor invites her listeners to explore the multifaceted nature of human emotion and experience, echoing the rich complexity of the literary works that inspire her.
Nostalgia and introspection in “evermore”
The title track “evermore” from Taylor Swift’s album is steeped in literary reference and thematic complexity. This melancholic anthem about love ❤️ and loss, 💔 despair and recovery, resonates with the emotional depth and intellectual rigor characteristic of the works of Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Brontë, two literary figures known for their exploration of the human condition.
Dickinson’s poetic oeuvre often grapples with the theme of loss - whether it be the loss of innocence, love, or life. Similarly, in “evermore,” Taylor addresses the experience of loss and the subsequent longing for what once was. Her lyric, “This pain wouldn't be forevermore,” is a testament to the human capacity to endure and overcome, a theme Dickinson frequently revisits in her poems. Taylor’s exploration of these profound emotions brings to life the raw and often unspoken sentiments associated with loss, much like Dickinson’s poetry.
Meanwhile, Taylor’s lyric, “Writing letters addressed to the fire,” draws a poignant parallel to Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre. In one of the novel’s pivotal moments, Jane writes a letter 🖋 to her beloved, Mr. Rochester, only to burn it in the fireplace, 🔥 symbolizing her rejection of societal expectations and her resolve to maintain her autonomy. Taylor’s lyric echoes this act of defiance and resilience. Her decision to metaphorically address her letters to the fire might be seen as an act of catharsis, a way of letting go of past pain and moving towards a future where the pain wouldn't be “forevermore.”
This literary interweaving in Taylor’s work further highlights her skills as a nuanced storyteller. Not only does she draw upon her own experiences to craft her narratives, but she also taps into the rich heritage of literary tradition. By subtly referencing Dickinson and Brontë, Taylor underscores the universal and timeless nature of human emotions, attesting to the enduring power of stories to express, reflect, and understand our shared human experience. “Evermore” thus stands as a testament to Taylor’s unique ability to resonate with her audience by tapping into the wellspring of universal human emotion.
In “You're on Your Own, Kid,” Taylor invokes The Great Gatsby once again when she seems to allude to Gatsby who fervently endeavors to secure Daisy’s affection. In the novel, Gatsby aspires to elevate his social standing to match Daisy’s only to realize it isn’t merely about financial wealth. 💵
The lyrics hint at the consequence of carelessness and entitlement, represented in the quote, “...smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Like “happiness,” in reflecting on Daisy’s wish for her daughter to be a “fool,” Taylor has been vocal about her own insecurities and her ongoing battles in a ruthlessly competitive industry. She’s openly discussed the toll this journey has taken on her physical and mental well-being. Asserting oneself while facing criticism, and accepting that some people will never reciprocate our love are empowering realizations. Unlike Gatsby’s inability to comprehend this with Daisy, Taylor seems to manifest this understanding in these reflective lyrics:
From sprinkler splashes to fireplace ashes
I waited ages to see you there
I search the party of better bodies
Just to learn that you never cared
I hosted parties and starved my body
Like I’d be saved by a perfect kiss.
The jokes weren't funny, I took the money
My friends from home don’t know what to say
Subverting Expectations with “Dear Reader”
In “Dear Reader,” Taylor Swift borrows the intimate conversational tone of Brontë's iconic “Reader, I married him” line, but instead of announcing a pivotal decision as Jane does, Taylor opens up a dialogue, extending an invitation into her world. This re-contextualization of Brontë’s line reflects a distinct shift in perspective. While Jane asserts her independence and decision-making power in a society that often denies women such agency, Taylor is already navigating a world 🌎 where such self-determination is a given. Therefore, her focus is not on asserting autonomy, but on articulating her understanding of the world.
Taylor’s sage advice in the lyrics of “Dear Reader” are deeply personal, focusing on resilience and introspection. The phrase “Bend when you can, snap when you have to” offers a lesson in flexibility and the importance of standing one’s ground when necessary. Her lyrics, “Dear reader, you don’t have to answer, just ‘cause they asked you,” encapsulate her ethos of self-determination and personal boundaries, emphasizing that one is not obligated to share their personal life just because there is demand for it.
Her metaphor of personal secrets as the “greatest of luxuries” foregrounds the value she places on maintaining a private self amidst the unrelenting scrutiny of public life. It’s a sentiment that echoes the experience of many celebrities, providing a sobering counterpoint to the allure of fame.
The admonition “When you aim at the devil make sure you don’t miss” is a testament to Taylor’s audacity and resolve. It serves as an empowering reminder to be resolute when confronting adversity, signaling that she is unafraid to take risks or stand up for herself.
Finally, the advice to “Never take advice from someone who’s falling apart” encapsulates Taylor’s philosophy of discernment. It highlights the importance of seeking guidance from reliable sources, suggesting a maturity and wisdom that she has gained through her experiences in the spotlight.
Ultimately, through “Dear Reader,” Taylor is not just paying homage to Brontë’s Jane Eyre, but also engaging with it in a dynamic way, transforming the line “Reader, I married him” from a personal declaration into an invitation for dialogue. In doing so, Taylor showcases her unique ability to reinterpret classic literature, 📚 injecting it with a modern sensibility and her own personal insights, once again reinforcing her status as a compelling storyteller for our generation. Brontë’s reader has become our generation’s writer, indeed the writer of our generation.
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