Literary references in the lyrics of Clive James

Based on a talk given at "Pete Atkin and Friends", Milton Keynes,
Saturday 21 October 2000

For as long as I've been a contributor to Midnight Voices, one of the most enduring and hotly contended topics has been Clive's use of literary references or 'borrowings' in the lyrics. Three main questions seem to sum up the nub of the debate: why are they used, how are they used and how well does it work?

This piece attempts to consider all three - and in case that doesn't come off, I've attempted to redeem it by supplying a glossary at the end, showing the lyrics which use literary quotations with the poems which are their probable sources.

Firstly, the question of why they are used. "Lack of inspiration" was a suggestion put forward by at least one MV, back in the early days when the revelation that not all of the attractive turns of phrase were Clive's own was a relatively new one and a source of disappointment to some. You probably won't be surprised that I don't go along with this one. There isn't exactly a lack of evidence that Clive can produce a memorable image of his own when he wants to, and many of them are all the better for being highly visual and specific. You only have to think of Carnations On The Roof, which gave us not only that unforgettable picture, but that of the incandescent hands of the dead machinist at the moment of his cremation - an image of death as both ordinary and universal.

Another reason which has been suggested is that of specific social context. Both MVs and some of the early recordings made available by the MV Library have reminded us that the first of the songs were written for student entertainments in Cambridge - in other words, for a highly literate and culturally aware group of people (or who, like many of us when we were students, liked to think they were.) Anyone who has been involved in writing and performing in student cabarets (sorry Your Honour, I too am guilty on that count) will remember that they are notorious for in-jokes and references. After all, enjoyment of an inclusive frame of reference is one of the ways in which a social group defines itself. If you get the jokes, you feel included. I don't have to point out the way in which this process has worked in the Midnight Voices group, to the extent that even if, like me, you've become one of the regular jokes, it simply increases your feeling of belonging. The downside of this process is that if you don't get the jokes (or references), you feel excluded, and this is the risk which any form of art or entertainment runs when it is released to a wider audience than the one for which it was originally intended.

But, as other MVs argued in Clive's defence when the "lack of inspiration" charge was levelled, literary borrowing has had a very long history. Shakespeare is well known for lifting his plots wholesale from contemporary Italian novels, and several of his plays are close re-writes of dramas which had appeared on the London stage only a few years ago. Measure For Measure, for instance, is a more psychologically subtle version of George Whetstone's Promus and Cassandra, which pre-dated it only by a couple of years.

One of the best known exponents of this process in literary tradition is T.S. Eliot. He made extensive use of references to earlier works in his poetry for two reasons. One was his belief that "a large amount of a poet's 'inspiration' must come from his reading and from his knowledge of history". In other words, inspiration doesn't come from sheer tortured genius. Working within a cultural tradition is what sparks ideas.

The second reason was Eliot's position as an early modern poet, trying to understand and reflect a world which he saw as increasingly complex, fragmented and pluralistic. He thought this meant that "the poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning." In using what is sometimes apparently a chaotic mix of cultural influences, he could be described as an early exponent of Post-modernism, a movement which has since become well known in many areas of literature, music and visual arts.

His idea was that a reader with the same awareness of literary tradition would understand the references he was using, and that therefore they would bring an additional deeper layer of encoded meaning into his works, which the knowing reader would understand.

Well, that was the theory. In practice, what happened was that generations of students bought T.S.Eliot's Collected Poems and dutifully wrote down in the margin all the things that their lecturers said they meant. This led to a thriving industry in publishing Notes To T.S.Eliot's Collected Poems, the first of which he enterprisingly provided himself, and later commented that they proved to be better sellers than the poems. This may well have been because they were thicker, as many of the volumes of interpretative notes tended to be.

It's useful to look at a detailed example of how T.S.Eliot used this technique, because it throws some light on what Clive may be up to when he uses it in his lyrics.

These lines are from the end of The Waste Land (1922)

                        I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon
- O swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine a la tour abolie

                        V. What The Thunder Said

I think that the overall effect that Eliot was after there is the disconnected feeling you get from twiddling the radio tuner and getting voices from different cultures out of the ether. He wanted to evoke the emotional impression which is the theme of the whole poem - the sterility and ultimately the collapse of Western civilisation, which he hoped might nevertheless open up the possibility of spiritual rebirth. So he hoped that each fragment, taken from different eras of literature as well as cultures, would convey enough of its original meaning to the reader to carry this spiritual significance.

The first three lines refer to the Thames, which is at the centre of the poem. The image of the man fishing is a reference to the character of the Fisher King, identified by Jessie Weston in her classic From Ritual To Romance as a key figure in early ritual beliefs which later informed the Legend of the Holy Grail. He is the pre-Christian god-king whose health is identified with that of his land in legends dramatising the re-birth of nature after the apparent 'death' of winter, who must die, preferably by drowning, in order to restore water and fertility to his arid land. Eliot saw him also as a Christ antetype.

"Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live" is a Biblical injunction from the prophet Isiah to King Hezekiah, a sick man. He is forgiven however and given a new lease of life, reflecting Eliot's hope of divine forgiveness and a new start.

The Italian words are spoken by the narrator, Dante, in the Inferno, and mean "Then he dived back into the fire which refines them" - the fire of Purgatory where the lustful suffer and are purified. This too expresses Eliot's awareness of sin, destruction and the hope of forgiveness, for he noted of those in purgatory "they wish to suffer, for in purgation is hope".

The reference to the swallow is from an anonymous Latin poem, in which the poet asks when the Spring will return to give his song a voice, like the swallow. Again, Eliot returns to the longing for rebirth and renewal.

Finally, "Le Prince d'Aquitaine a la tour abolie" is already known to most MVs as a line taken from Gerard de Nerval's poem El Desdichado, in which the poet describes himself as 'the Prince of Aquitaine whose tower has been torn down' in his grief over the death of his beloved Jenny Colon. T.S. Eliot is probably after the sense of loss, the idea of the collapse of a historic edifice, linked with that of London Bridge falling down, but also intends the reader to recall the Tarot card of the Tower and its divinatory meaning: that destruction and loss are necessary in order for new life and growth to follow.

I've gone into detail here because it illustrates the technique, which I feel is helpful to anyone who would like a deeper insight into the way in which literary references can be used. This particular passage also shows up some interesting links with Clive's lyrics. MVs will recognise not only the concept of refining fire and the Prince of Aquitaine, but the riverside setting, and even the proximity to a bridge on the Thames from the song of that name.

Clive's take on T.S. Eliot is, as you might expect, an ambivalent one. He takes the technique - and incidentally bags some of the best quotes too, for future re-use. He also takes the mickey, going on to parody both the poems and the notes: the poem in The Wasted Land in Other Passports. On the references technique and the resultant need for interpretative notes and the question of their provenance, he seems to have hit on the paradox that if you provide them yourself, it looks as if you're boasting about cultural knowledge which you cannot rely on your readers to have acquired. On the other hand, if someone else provides them, you can praise their frame of reference and appear modest.

So it is that Brilliant Creatures, his first novel, comes with a set of critical notes apparently by one Peter S Bartelski of Sidney, Sussex and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (a hop, skip and jump there rather than simply Falling Towards England). Clive describes his erudite commentator thus: “He knows everything. If I have ever read half the books he says I have, I long ago forgot what was in them. It is good to be told that their contents have been incorporated into my innermost being” - an example of having it both ways which even T.S.Eliot with his additional set of royalties from his own critical notes would have envied.

But I digress. I've considered at why they are used, taking in the literary tradition and looking in detail at one of its main exponents. Now for the question of how literary references are used in the lyrics.

The first way in which I think Clive uses his literary borrowings is the one Eliot uses: to evoke the context of the literary work which is being quoted and to import some of its meaning. A good example of this is King at Nightfall, a phrase borrowed from T.S.Eliot's Little Gidding. The lyric works perfectly if you don't know the poem, as a simple narration of a deposed monarch or 'a man who has lost everything.' If you do know the poem, however, you will also bring from it the additional awareness that Eliot was talking about the crucifixion, and with this understanding of 'a king at nightfall' as a Christ-figure stripped of his divinity and fearing abandonment by God, find a more universal significance in the song.

Similarly, in History and Geography, the phrase 'all the daughters of my father's house, and all its brothers too' is self-explanatory, if a bit roundabout. The speaker is an only child. But if you know the context of these words in Twelfth Night, the speaker's desolation is underlined. When Viola, disguised as the boy Cesario, says these words, she is a ship-wrecked exile, but doesn't know she still has a living twin brother who is in the same country. By the end of the play, she will be reunited with him, married to the man she loves and linked by both into a new family. But the line-up of happy new couples which concludes so many Shakespearean comedies only emphasises the isolation of the narrator in the song: the sense of loneliness and permanent exile pervades the entire lyric.

The second key way in which I think the references are used is to evoke a sense of continuity with the past and emphasise that what may seem to be an individual experience is in fact universal. This is especially true of a number of the love songs, such as Sunrise, Hollow and the Fluted Night, and You Can't Expect To Be Remembered, despite its narrator's apparent ironic self-distancing from the wish to immortalise his beloved in song. All of them use quotations from earlier literary works to emphasis that what feels unique and specific to us is not new, and that generations of people have felt this way before. A recent analysis by Q magazine of what makes a great rock lyric concluded that it should tell a story which is intensely personal, but with a wider applicability which gives it universal significance and appeal. The use of references in Clive's lyrics supports this achievement.

The third use of the references is the most straightforward: Clive's apparent urge to display a 'stolen' antique literary gem in a striking modern setting. This is particularly apparent in phrases used only for the titles of songs: A Dream of Fair Women, Care-Charmer Sleep and How Like You This? are prime examples.

I think Clive's description in Tongue-Tied to 'a sentence that glitters and dances' is a willing admission of a magpie tendency to spot and make off with the best bits from a number of literary sources in order to show them to advantage elsewhere. What you notice when you look at the context, though, is that he has a very good eye for what he is after. Time and again, you will find there is one line in that particular poem which makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, and that will be the one he has picked. For example, A Dream of Fair Women is the title of an otherwise very turgid poem in which Tennyson presents an identity parade of bad (i.e. seductive) and good (i.e. self-sacrificing) women in the classic Victorian Lilies-and-Roses style. The title, however, is good enough to have caught Kingsley Amis's eye as well.

Another example is How Like You This?, which comes from a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Most of Wyatt's lyrical output consists of songs for lute accompaniment, which scan beautifully and are extremely mannered, but there are one or two poems which give you that goosepimple factor. It's the effect you get when you see one of those mummy cases in the British Museum which are from a mixed Egyptian/Greek background, so that you're passing a row of elaborately painted sarcophagi - and suddenly, there's a recognisable human face looking back at you. In literature, you're sometimes reading something which is very obviously of its time, and suddenly the same author is speaking to you in a modern voice. With Wyatt's works, that happens in They Flee From Me, which is the source of How Like You This?

So that's the how. Now the final question - how well does it work?

On the negative side, it's indisputable that not all the references have been understood by the target audience. This is one factor in the songs' lack of commercial success, although many of you will know already my views on the role played by the lamentable level of marketing support for the release of the albums, which would be unthinkable to most people in arts marketing today.

The other side of the coin is that many people respond to art on the hermeneutic level. We all enjoy codes and mysteries, and many commercial writers and advertisers are adept at taking advantage of this. We often enjoy things because they present us with a challenge, and lead us into new areas of learning. Arguably, the enjoyment we MVs have gained from discussing and learning more about the lyrics has enhanced our pleasure in the songs, not detracted from it.

And finally, they are songs rather than poems, which means that even when the words are not fully understood, we have another source of information, enjoyment and understanding from the music.

The last word, I suppose, should go to T.S. Eliot, who said: "I know that some of the poetry to which I am most devoted is poetry which I did not understand at first reading."

But since I'm writing this, I'll break with tradition and re-iterate what I've already said about the lyrics. Most of all, they have been loved even though - or perhaps because - we never completely understood them.


A glossary of literary references in the lyrics of Clive James

Quotations from the lyrics are shown in Arial typeface throughout: quotations from literary sources are in Times New Roman. I have included dates for authors where I know them and where I have thought it helpful.

Album by album:

1. Beware of the Beautiful Stranger (1970; re-issued 1973)


How many clever men have called the sun
A fool before today
"O unruly sun" they say
"For stepping in to take my love away"

                      Busy old fool, unruly sun
                      Why dost thou thus
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
                      Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
                      Late school-boys, and sour prentices
           Go tell court-huntsmen that the King will ride,
           Call country ants to harvest offices:
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

                      The Sun Rising, John Donne (1572-1631)

You can't expect to be remembered

The bards of old were bold about their claims upon posterity
Petrarch, Shakespeare and Ronsard were never slow to guarantee
Their loved ones' immortality
They never said farewell, they said so long -
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee
They didn't doubt the power of a rhyme
Or the durability of scribbled pages
And so they wrote immortal lines to time
That gave their love affairs to all the ages

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
           So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
           So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

                      Sonnet 18, William Shakespeare

You'd be there
With all the ladies of the sonnets, dark and fair
If only I could work the trick
Of giving local habitation to the air
But it just doesn't seem to click

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

                      A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 5 Scene 1
                      William Shakespeare

2. Driving Through Mythical America (1971; re-issued 1973)

The Prince of Aquitaine

And to the ruined tower came the Prince of Aquitaine

Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie

                      The Waste Land V: What the Thunder Said
                      T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Je suis le ténébreux, le veuf, - l'inconsolé,
Le prince d'Aquitaine a la tour abolie:
Ma seule étoile est morte, - et mon luth constellé
Porte le soleil noir de la Mélancolie.

                      El Desdichado, Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855)

(Trans.: I am the dark man, the disconsolate widower
The prince of Aquitania whose tower has been torn down:
My sole star is dead, and my constellated lute
Bears the black sun of Melancholia.                       Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Writings)

3. A King at Nightfall (1973)

A King at Nightfall

If I think of a king at nightfall
Of three men, and more, on the scaffold
And a few who died forgotten
In other places, here and abroad
And of one who died blind and quiet
Why should we celebrate
These dead men more than the dying?

                      Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

4. The Road of Silk (1974)

Shadow and the Widower

Je suis le ténébreux, le veuf, - l'inconsolé

                      El Desdichado, Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855)

(Trans.: I am the dark man, the disconsolate widower - Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Writings)

Disappointed there was only this much in it
The perfume and suppliance of a minute?

For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute,
No more.

                      Hamlet Act 1 Scene 3, William Shakespeare

A straight-up scalp-collector I could understand
All those lineaments of gratified desire
But he's handing me that old refining fire

In a wife I would require
What in whores is always found,
The lineaments of Gratified desire.


What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women in men do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

                      The Question Answer'd, William Blake (1757-1827)

The Hollow and the Fluted Night

The hollow and the fluted night that weaves
The cloth combining loves divides their lives
Black velvet hills between the silver knives

Horch, wie die Nacht sich muldet und hohlt.

(Trans: Hark, how the night grows hollow and fluted)

                      Third Duino Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

Care-Charmer Sleep

Care-charmer Sleepe, sonne of the sable night,
Brother to death, in silent darknes borne:
Relieve my languish, and restore the light,
With darke forgetting of my cares returne . .

                      Samuel Daniel (1562-1619)

My Egoist

The garden is alone, my egoist
They've all flown on, the butterflies of day
And nothing now takes flight above this sad display
Except the butterflies of night

Le grand jardin est défleuri, mon égoiste,
Les papillons de jour vers d'autres fleurs ont fuit,
Et seuls dorénavant viendront au jardin triste
Les papillons du nuit.

                      La Cueillette, Apollinaire

5. Secret Drinker (1974)

No literary references, apparently!

And a few others:

How Like You This?

. . . once in speciall,
In thin array, after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small
Therewith all sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, 'Dear heart, how like you this?'

                      They Flee From Me, Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42)

History and Geography

Without a home, without a name, a girl of whom to say this is my sister
For I am all the daughters of my father's house and all the brothers too
I comb the rubble of a shattered world to find the bright face of an angel
And say again and say again that I have written this - this is for you.

Duke: But died thy sister of her love, my boy?
Viola: I am all the daughters of my father's house
          And all the brothers too: and yet I know not.

                      Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene 4, William Shakespeare

You Alone Will Be My Last Adventure

Le premier jour de may, Hélène, je vous jure . . .
. . . .Que seule vous serez ma derniere aventure.

                      Sonnet 1, Premier Livre, Sonnets pour Hélène, Ronsard

Oh women, kneeling by your altar-rails long hence,
When songs I wove for my beloved hide the prayer,
And smoke from this dead heart drifts through the violet air
And covers away the smoke of myrrh and frankincense;
Bend down and pray for all that sin I wove in song,
Till the Attorney for Lost Souls cry her sweet cry,
And call to my beloved and me: "No longer fly
Among the hovering, piteous, penitential throng."

                      The Lover speaks to the Hearers of his Songs in the Coming Days,
                      W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)


I couldn't pretend that gathering these references was all my own work - so many thanks to many fellow Midnight Voices, especially Steve Birkill, Ian Chippett, Richard Moxham, Sylfest Muldal, and of course Clive himself, who has frequently cast his mind back to identify his sources.


William Blake, Poems and Prophecies, Everyman 1975

Samuel Daniel, anthologised in Christmas Crackers, ed. John Julius Norwich, Penguin 1980.

John Donne, The Complete English Poems, Penguin 1971

T.S. Eliot, Selected Poems, Faber 1972, and anthologised in The Penguin Book of English Verse 1977

Gerard de Nerval, Selected Writings, Panther 1968

Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, Carcanet 1989

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Cambridge University Press 1972

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Arden Edition 1975

William Shakespeare, The Sonnets, Cambridge University Press 1976

Thomas Wyatt, anthologised in Silver Poets of the Seventeenth Century, Everyman 1975

W.B. Yeats, Yeats's Poems, Macmillan 1989

Mel Powell   October 2000  updated February 2001

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