The Tortured Poets Department: A love letter to readers everywhere

Upon listening to Taylor Swift’s newest album, ‘The Tortured Poets Department’, what appealed to me is not only its beautiful lyricism and intricate storytelling, but the plethora of literary references. In Swift’s most honest album yet, reading like pages from her diary, she leans on many literary references to make metaphorical allusions to her own personal experiences. 

It is safe to say that this album is a love letter to book lovers everywhere. From my perspective for example, the song ‘I hate It Here’ is one which perfectly encapsulates the pursuit of escapism through reading literature. Every ‘precocious child’, who has grown up feeling the weight of academic pressure implicated by expectations of parents, teachers and all those around you, is aware of how this fosters a desire to escape into another world, such as the world that can be found in books. Swift’s statement that ‘I hate it here so I will go to secret gardens in my mind’ captures the wonder and relief that is found in the ability to escape inside our own minds, getting lost in a world of fiction as an escape from the harsh nature of reality, which for many is the purpose of reading literature. This line could also be interpreted as a direct reference to The Secret Garden, a classic novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, in which a young girl discovers a hidden garden, which only she is privy to, and which provides her with an escape from her new home in which she feels trapped and unhappy. This, therefore, is a fitting metaphor for the need to hide away when life becomes too overwhelming.

Taylor Swift references another children’s classic, Peter and Wendy, in her song ‘Peter’. This song is written from the perspective of Wendy Darling, an intelligent young girl on the brink of adulthood. When Wendy meets the free-spirited Peter Pan, who is representative of youthful innocence, she comes to care for him. However, Peter ultimately loses Wendy because of his lack of maturity, which many believe Swift uses as a commentary on her own relationship, and recent split, with actor Joe Alwyn. Swift uses this metaphor to convey the idea of fighting for someone who won’t fight for you back, of waiting for someone for years only to realise that they are not willing to grow up enough to uphold a long-lasting relationship. 

As per the album’s title, it is clear that Swift has taken inspiration from poets of the past. In the title track, she says ‘You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith, This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel’. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, one of whose most notable poems is ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’, is known for his tortured and self-destructive nature, which shines through in his poetry. Mentioned alongside Thomas is notable American singer and writer Patti Smith, whose memoir Just Kids received great critical acclaim. By mentioning these moving writers, Swift draws attention to the emotive nature of her poetry, similar to theirs, laying bare one’s tortured soul for the world to see.

Turning back the clock, Swift also draws upon Ancient Greek tradition in the song ‘Cassandra’. Cassandra was a character of both Homer’s The Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid, and her story is a tragic one, as she was cursed, fated to tell truthful prophecies but never to be believed. This focus on themes of betrayal and disbelief is reflective of Swift’s frustration with attempting to speak out against injustices, such as unfair representations of her in the media, and Scooter Braun selling the rights to her music against her will, to no avail. Nevertheless, Swift’s use of this mythological reference is evident of the long-standing influence of Homeric epics.

It could be said that the song ‘Who’s afraid of Little Old Me’ could be a subtle reference to Edward Albee’s play ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’. The latter is focussed on a relationship in turmoil, something Swift is familiar with. This exploration of a failing marriage ties in with the theme, which underlines this album, of thinking someone is the one and ‘talking rings and talking cradles’ with them, as Swift puts it, only to lose them after so many years of fighting to hold on.

Aside from Swift’s own intentions, I couldn’t help but make my own links to some of my favourite texts, when listening to this album, as there are many lyrics that perfectly represent them. ‘I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)’, for example, immediately reminded me of the original delusional romantic, Jane Eyre. Despite the revelation that Rochester had been hiding his ex-wife, Bertha Mason, in his attic for years, Jane still declares ‘Reader, I married him’. She blatantly disregards this abhorrent act, which should surely have been a forewarning. I am sure that all readers of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, would be in agreement that Taylor’s lyric ‘They shake their heads Saying “God help her” when I Tell ‘em he’s my man’ is an accurate representation of our reaction to the tale’s outcome

Closing the album is ‘The Manuscript’. Parallels can be drawn between this song and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In Swift’s song, she states that ‘The professor said to write what you know’, a line which is also directed towards Jo March, who is advised by Professor Bhaer to ‘write what she knows’ in order to improve her writing. She then goes on to publish her successful novel on the lives of her and her sisters. Through this comparison, we are invited to view this album as Taylor’s reflection on her past, as a way of processing old wounds and traumas, in order to gain closure and move on to the next chapter of her life.

While there are so many more literary references I could point you towards, an emblem of Swift’s admirable talent, I will leave you to experience the joy of discovering the rest upon next listen.

Featured image: Pavel Danilyuk via Pixels

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