Tag: lyrics

Shoring Up[1] London Bridge

Shoring Up[1] London Bridge

Photo: London Bridge by Robert Dimov


Mrs Thatcher once infamously said, “There is no such thing as society”. She was wrong and one of the reasons she was wrong was literature. Much of literature, like religion, tells us how to behave[2], especially in extreme circumstances. Works like Beowulf and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are essentially conduct books[3]. In this sense literature is propaganda from the past for the future. However, unlike[4] religion, literature is flexible and naturally inclusive.

In his Nobel acceptance speech this week Bob Dylan mused[5], “I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school[6]. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar-school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by[7]. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics[8]. And the themes from those books worked their way into[9] many of my songs, either knowingly[10] or unintentionally.”

A similar process occurred when the band Oasis took the name of the greatest British play of the 1950s, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) and transformed it in the title and refrain for their song Don’t Look Back in Anger (1995). Over the last fortnight[11] that refrain[12] has been used by Mancunians[13] both to console and to define their reaction of “love conquers hate” in the wake of[14] the terrorist attack in Manchester.

Many would baulk against[15] the idea that a mere pop song could be considered literature. More would be affronted[16] by the idea that literature – let alone[17] pop lyrics7 – could compete with religion. But the greatest British poet of the 20th Century, T.S. Eliot, described literature as “Fragments… shored[18] against my ruins”. In other words bits of legends, stories, plays and poems are what we use to console ourselves in times of need – be they Cervantes, Charles Dickens or John Osborne.

That famous quote comes from Eliot’s cento[19] at the end of his greatest poem, The Wasteland (‘What the Thunder[20] Said’, ll. 426-31) [1922], which ends:

Shall I at least set my lands in order[21]?

London Bridge is falling down[22] falling down falling down[23]

Poi s’acose nel foco che gli affina[24]

Quando fiam uti chelidon[25]O swallow[26] swallow[27]

Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie[28]

These fragments I have shored18 against my ruins.

Why then Ile fit you[29]. Hieronymo’s mad againe.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.[30]

Shantih[31] Shanith Shantih.

London Bridge is not falling down22, thanks to the robust mix of multicultural voices and the literature we have shored18 against our ruins.

[1] to shore up – reinforce, fortify, strengthen

[2] to behave – act, conduct oneself

[3] conduct bookguide to social norms

[4] unlike – in contrast to

[5] to muse – (in this case) write thoughtfully

[6] grammar school – (US English) elementary school

[7] to measure things by – to evaluate experience

[8] lyrics – the words to a song

[9] worked their way into – be inserted in a subtle way

[10] knowingly – intentionally

[11] fortnight – two weeks

[12] refrainline that is frequently repeated in a song

[13] Mancunian – sb. from Manchester

[14] in the wake offollowing, after

[15] to baulk against – resist, not accept

[16] to affront – offend, insult

[17] let alone – much less

[18] shored – accumulated, a. up to support a building, b. (of a catch of fish) brought ashore

[19] centoliterary text created from lines/fragments by other authors

[20] thunderloud noise generated by a storm (= tempest)

[21] shall I set my lands in order – will I reorganize my kingdom appropriately?

[22] to fall down (fall-fell-fallen) – collapse

[23] a line from a famous nursery rhyme (= traditional children’s song) that probably has its origin in the ritual of human sacrifice in blessing new buildings

[24] “(remember later on my pain). He hid himself in the fire which refines them” from Dante’s Inferno

[25] from The Virgil of Venus (anonymous) “When shall I be like the swallow?” (i.e. able to sing and fly away/escape). The refrain of the poem promises love to all.

[26] swallow – (Hirundinidae) very fast migratory insectivorous songbird

[27] “O swallow swallow” comes either from The Princess by Tennyson or Itylus (= Philomel) by Swinburne

[28] “The Prince of Aquitaine in the ruined tower” from The Disinherited (El Desdichado) (1865) by Gérard de Nerval (1808-55)

[29] Why then Ile (= I’ll) fit you – I’ll give you exactly that. The line is from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy: Hieronymo’s Mad Againe (c.1589). Hieronymo is asked to produce a court play. Superficially, he says he will do it, but he is really saying that he will use theatre to trap the murderers of his son.

[30] Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata – give, show compassion, and control yourself; from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a sacred Indian (Hindu and Buddhist) text

[31] Shantih – (the Sanskrit conclusion to an Upanishad) peace, amen, shalom, As-Salaam-Alaikum



Having survived half a century it would be nice to say that I’ve acquired some deep wisdom[1] that I can pass on[2] to people. But the truth is that having spent 17 years writing articles whose remit[3] was that they had to be interesting enough for people to want to read them in a foreign language, I feel rather[4] emptied of knowledge. I understood the world, albeit[5] naïvely[6], better at 20 than I do at 50. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; if it weren’t so, there would be no room[7] for awe[8] or laughter[9].

Yesterday I counted the books I’ve read over the last 14 years for my literature classes: 182. Sure[10], many of them are not that[11] long but it’s still an awful lot of information that has gone in (and mostly come out) of my brain. This all leads[12] me to a verse from James’ song Five-O[13]:

I’ve been looking for truth at the cost of living,
I’ve been afraid of what’s before mine eyes.
Every answer found begs[14] another question;
The further you go, the less you know
The less I know.

So much for the introspection; there’s no point in writing a blog to satisfy your own whimsy[15] because nobody will read it. So, I offer you a bit of Japanese wisdom1. The diagram should be pretty[16] self-explanatory. May you find your Ikigai – I’m still looking.

[1] wisdomknowledge derived from experience, sagacity, insight

[2] to pass on – convey, transmit

[3] remitspecified purpose

[4] rathersomewhat, surprisingly

[5] albeiteven though

[6] naïvely – ingenuously, innocently

[7] room – (in this case) possibility

[8] awewonder, astonishment

[9] laughterlaughing, hilarity, humour

[10] sure – (in this case) admittedly

[11] that – (in this case) so, very

[12] to lead (lead-led-led) – take, guide

[13] Five-O – 50

[14] to beg – (in this case) provoke, elicit

[15] whimsy – whim, caprice

[16] prettyreasonably

The Nobel Prize for Lyrics

The Nobel Prize for Lyrics

With Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature it is now apparently OK to consider adult-oriented music as poetry. In any case some lyrics[1] do touch us all however sophisticated we may claim to be[2]. The best lyrics – and dare I say[3] the best poems – are sufficiently ambiguous and suggestive for us to project our own feelings and experiences – in this case for me a sense of wasted opportunities in life despite one’s best efforts – onto them. Here’s one of my favourite songs: R.E.M’s ‘Country Feedback’, an appropriate song for a cold, wet evening like today’s.

Photo credit: Dr.Conati Roberto De Martino

Country Feedback

It’s the poison[4] that in measures[5] brings illuminating vision;
It’s the knowing[6] with a wink[7] that we expect in Southern women;
It’s the wolf that knows which root[8] to dig[9] to save itself;
It’s the octopus[10] that crawled back[11] to the sea.
Instinct. Gut feeling[12]… feelings.[13]

This flower is scorched[14], this film is on
On a maddening[15] loop[16], these clothes
These clothes don’t fit us right[17]
And I’m to blame[18].
It’s all the same[19],
It’s all the same.

You come to me with a bone[20] in your hand,
You come to me with your hair curled tight[21],
You come to me with positions[22].

You come to me with excuses,
Ducked out in a row[23].
You wear me out[24],
You wear me out.

We’ve been through fake-a-breakdown[25]
Self-hurt[26], plastics, collections
Self-help, self-pain
EST[27], psychics[28], fuck all[29].

I was central, I had control,
I lost my head.
I need this, I need this.

A paperweight[30], junk garage[31],
Winter rain[32], a honey pot[33].
Crazy[34], all the lovers have been tagged[35].

A hotline[36], a wanted ad[37],
It’s crazy what you could’ve had[38].

It’s crazy what you could’ve had,
It’s crazy what you could’ve had.
I need this, I need this.


[1] lyrics – the words of a song

[2] may claim to be – might think we are

[3] dare I say – is it too audacious to suggest also that…?

[4] poisonvenom, toxin

[5] in measures – in reduced quantities

[6] knowing – understanding, intuition

[7] winkact of closing momentarily one eye as a gesture of complicity

[8] root – the part of a plant that is normally underground

[9] to dig (dig-dug-dug) – excavate, expose

[10] octopusbig intelligent marine cephalopod mollusc that has eight legs

[11] to crawl back – return

[12] gut feeling – intuition

[13] these spoken lines in fact come from the R.E.M. song Chorus and the Ring (2001) but were added to the live version of Country Feedback

[14] scorched – superficially burned

[15] maddening – infuriating, very frustrating

[16] to be on a loop – be programmed to repeat itself again and again

[17] don’t fit us right – are not the correct size for us

[18] to blame – responsible, culpable

[19] it’s all the same – it makes no difference

[20] boneelement of skeletal/osseous material; perhaps a concession to keep sb. occupied (i.e. like a bone for a dog)

[21] curled tightheld firmly in place, in ringlets

[22] positionspostures, opinions, (possibly) sexual postures

[23] ducked out in a roworganized in a line/sequences like toy ducks at a shooting range (but with connotations of “to duck out” = evade responsibility)

[24] to wear sb. out (wear-wore-worn) – exhaust sb.

[25] to have been through fake-a-breakdown – have simulated a nervous breakdown (= mental collapse)

[26] self-hurt – self-harm, intentionally causing lesions to oneself (typically as a way to elicit compassion)

[27] ESTErhard Seminars Training, a system of self-improvement

[28] psychicmedium, clairvoyant, sb. who can supposedly contact the spirit world

[29] fuck all – (emphatic) absolutely nothing, there was no improvement

[30] paperweightheavy object used to stop pieces of paper from being dispersed; (metaphorically) sth. that focuses ideas and keeps you rational

[31] junk garage – garage used for storing possessions that you don’t use rather than for housing your car; (metaphorically) an accumulation of useless things

[32] winter rain – (pathetic fallacy) compounded problems. This is often misheard and reinterpeted as “a wedding ring”!

[33] honeypot – container for honey (= sweet substance produced by bees); (metaphorically) sth. that attracts avaricious people

[34] crazy – (in this case) it’s nonsensical and profoundly frustrating

[35] have been tagged – are under surveillance, (in this case) are under suspicion

[36] hotline – emergency telephone service such as the Samaritans

[37] wanted adsmall classified advertisement in a newspaper

[38] it’s crazy what you could have had – it’s devastating to think what might have been (= what you could have got from life)