Structural Analysis: Six Categories

The Mermaid

I noted in the first part of 5: Theme that you don’t want to just summarize or paraphrase what a writer is saying about a certain theme. Instead, you should analyze the way the writer uses specific literary strategies to make the point about the theme. I also noted that there’s one situation in which you can focus specifically on explaining the theme: when it's perplexing, obscure, or difficult to decipher — which is the case with Procol Harum’s 1967 lyric "A Whiter Shade of Pale."

In the following essay (which is still in progress), I make an argument about what the lyric is about. My argument is fairly involved, and incorporates a variety of topics, especially biographical criticism, authorial intention, existentialism, and the collapse of the grand narrative.

The Mermaid & the Existential Deep

in Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”

Introduction - Argument - Variants - Stanza 1-4 - Chorus - Authorial Intention - A Whiter Shade - Stanza 2-3


On a first listen, the lyrics of the "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (written by Keith Reid) are difficult to interpret. This difficulty becomes incrementally greater as one goes from the famous two-stanza version (here) to the three-stanza version (here) to the four stanza-version (here). The famous two-stanza version (which was the big single of 1967, and has sold over 10 million copies) starts off relatively clear, yet becomes murky in the second stanza. In the first stanza the protagonist is partying in a bar or dance-hall of some sort, and in the second stanza he has a vague romantic encounter with a woman, who I will call the woman, the antagonist, and the heroine. The listener can't be sure what the protagonist means when he says that he wouldn't let the woman be "one of sixteen vestal virgins / who were leaving for the coast." The chorus (which is the same in all versions) is even more obscure, since it refers to an unknown miller whose unknown tale makes the woman's face, "once just ghostly," turn "a whiter shade of pale." The two longer versions add more puzzling elements, yet also create a stronger narrative line. In the third stanza the woman says, "I'm at home on shore-leave," after which the protagonist tells her that she "must be the mermaid / who took Neptune for a ride." The final stanza completes the romantic narrative when together they crash-dive "to the ocean bed," yet adds puzzling elements when the protagonist tells us that laughter is the queen of love and "if behind is in front / then dirt in truth is clean."

The inability to arrive at a singular meaning for the lyric isn't a problem at all. A clear interpretation may even be counter-productive in a lyric that's powerful precisely because it evokes rather than defines. The lyric itself resembles the phrase ‘a whiter shade of pale,’ which Reid comments on in an interview with Huffpost (here):

It struck me as a very useful phrase, a whiter shade of pale. I mean people now use it all the time. I was just reading an article in the New York Times and they were talking about a drink called absinthe and they called the absinthe a lighter shade of green. It went into the Oxford Book of Quotations as a phrase, so it reverberates. I think the reason is really because it’s kind of something which is impressionistic, so people never really get to the bottom of it. So it has some kind of mystery to it like a painting, you can always find new levels of meaning. So in answer to your question why can something inscrutable be so popular, you can just kind of sit back and look at it endlessly.

The lyric isn’t a straightforward narrative based on lines of coherent plot or logical association. Rather, it suggests ideas based on a setting, a relationship, a few clear references, various images, numerous vague and resonant statements, and a number of obscure allusions. Nevertheless, there are enough elements in the lyric that connect with each other to create plausible interpretations. In a Songfacts interview (here) Reid says,

It's sort of a film, really, trying to conjure up mood and tell a story. It's about a relationship. There's characters and there's a location, and there's a journey. You get the sound of the room and the feel of the room and the smell of the room. But certainly there's a journey going on, it's not a collection of lines just stuck together. It's got a thread running through it.

The setting, the relationship, and the journey are three key elements around which other elements swirl and sometimes take far-off trajectories. For instance, the second stanza mentions vestal virgins leaving for the coast, an allusion that connects to the relationship but also brings up a Classical link to Netpune in the third stanza. The two Classical references together suggest a sea journey and perhaps an epic context. How a reader connects this supposed epic context to the relationship remains a matter of speculation and interpretation.

Triumph of Neptune standing on a chariot pulled by two sea horses. Mosaïque d'Hadrumète (Sousse) the mid-third century AD. Musée archéologique de Sousse. Originally from  fr.wikipedia ; description page is/was  here .

Triumph of Neptune standing on a chariot pulled by two sea horses. Mosaïque d'Hadrumète (Sousse) the mid-third century AD. Musée archéologique de Sousse. Originally from fr.wikipedia; description page is/was here.

Because the lyric has numerous obscure elements, the approach I favour is to allow the text’s allusions and metaphors to breath in the speculative spaces the lyric creates overall. I see the ambiguities as watery currents that mingle and shift, yet nevertheless take the listener in a certain direction. Following this approach in general, I’ll combine a close reading with a reader-response reading that allows a wide degree of latitude. As a result, I’ll construct an interpretive structure that appears larger than the lyric itself. For instance, I see the woman in the lyric as an epic heroine and the theme as an existential journey. Others see a vague encounter in a bar, muddled with vague allusions that appear to make a simple scenario look profound. I’ll counter-argue that the bar-room scenario does have several profound possibilities — namely, that it skirts, skims, and dives into an existential predicament, and that it also evokes a nostalgia for meaning itself.

I should add that I don’t see a contradiction between these two very different takes on the lyric. I’ll argue that an ambiguous lyric is many things: it’s what it is, with all possible interpretations held at bay; it’s what the author thinks it is; it’s what someone in a car listening to the radio thinks it is; it’s what one careful reader argues it to be; and it’s what a different careful reader argues it to be. A critical interpretation in this context is an offering of a point of view, as well as a path into a wordscape of discovery and appreciation. The important thing as I see it is to make the point of view start from the text and not contradict what’s in the text. The critic is then free to illuminate the text, and to give readers more than they may already have in mind.


I’ll argue that the two-stanza version of the song telescopes what I see as its existential paradox, while the third stanza deepens it in terms of romance and narrative continuity. The fourth stanza goes even further in these directions, splintering and then unifying the narrative, while at the same time losing some of the aesthetic charm and open-endedness of the three-stanza version. 

I’ll argue that the woman in the song might be seen as the antagonist, for she stands in contrast to the protagonist, who is enamoured by her yet doesn't understand her need to return to the depths and dangers of the sea. While the protagonist uses the sea to suggest a romantic encounter, she’s more interested in the types of things that interest epic heroes such as Odysseus or Aeneas. She wants to get off any pedestal others construct for her — as they did for the vestal virgins in Ancient Rome. She wants to ‘leave for the coast,’ presumably to set sail for the open sea, new vistas, and foreign lands. She sees a sedentary life as a momentary “shore-leave,” as if whatever is important to her lies elsewhere — in the lure of the sea, in the unknown, in the enormous, mysterious, dangerous depths of the ocean. Yet she isn’t egotistical or naive about this. She doesn’t assume that she can tame the forces of Nature that await her: she sadly downplays the suggestion that she’s “the mermaid / Who took Neptune for a ride.”

Hanuman and Mermaid Suvannamaccha. Photocopy of a mural painting in Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok (Wikimedia Commons)

Hanuman and Mermaid Suvannamaccha. Photocopy of a mural painting in Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok (Wikimedia Commons)

Mermaid , by Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann (died 1881), from art exhibition in Kvindemuseet i Danmark, Aarhus (Wikimedia Commons)

Mermaid, by Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann (died 1881), from art exhibition in Kvindemuseet i Danmark, Aarhus (Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, she convinces the poet to dive with her to the depths of the sea: together they’ll ‘attack the ocean bed.’ This final action could mean a number of things, including 1. she’ll go to bed with the protagonist, 2. she’ll attack her nautical fate with gusto, and 3. she’ll take her sea-travels to their furthest point, even to the point of ship-wreck and death.

The lyric’s heroine embodies, and subtly articulates, the following paradox: our existential predicament — being caught between the hedonistic pleasures of the bar and the harrowing depth of the deep blue sea — is rendered more intense the more we sound the depths of the intoxication the bar provides. Or, to put it in terms of carpe diem and existentialism, the more we seize the day, the more we dive into Camus’ absurdity. The heroine helps us see that life's absurdity — telling ourselves stories about vestal virgins, mermaids, and romance, all the while ignoring the abysm of the deep — becomes greater as the stories become deeper and more seductive, more full of life, love, and humour.

The heroine indirectly tells us two things that we find hard to accept, and it’s perhaps for this reason that she tells us these things so obliquely, subtly, humbly, bravely, and sadly: 1. our inability to control our fate or happiness — or to create our own meaning — is suggested by her clear, disillusioned perception of the overwhelming power of Nature, represented by Neptune; 2. our inability to understand a higher or ultimate truth — about the universe or about ourselves — is suggested by her more-than-ghostly reaction to the miller's tale, which I will argue represents love, comedy, and disillusionment, as well as a liberating yet tragic escape from any Grand Meaning or Grand Narrative.

Variants: Text & Song

My analysis will include all four stanzas, which begin with the following lines:

stanza variants.png

Here is the four-stanza version, which you can play within this page:

The reason for the textual variants is that in creating the hit single in 1967 the band shortened Reid’s four stanzas to two stanzas — and then also did renditions of the three and four stanza versions. Shortening the lyric to two stanzas made sense given the radio preference for shorter songs, and given the absence of an equally mesmerizing musical strategy to accompany a longer version. The three-stanza version retains the elusive aestheticism of the famous two-stanza version, and it creates a stronger romantic narrative, yet it doesn’t add any powerful musical variation, and therefore risks becoming musically repetitive. The four-stanza version is valuable for those who want a conclusion to the narrative, and to those who want to extend the sort of moody trance the song evokes. Yet this long version is more musically repetitive than the three-stanza version, and therefore risks tiring listeners who aren’t spellbound by the haunting mood or by the possibilities of the romantic narrative.

While the famous version is brilliant as a song, there are two reasons why it's not as successful — as a lyric — as the longer versions. First, it contains elements that aren't clear enough, or fully explored enough, to be fully appreciated within an aesthetic whole. In the song, this isn’t a problem, since the haunting nostalgia of the music takes over and the listener doesn’t think so much about the unfinished ideas. Second, the two-stanza version contains elements that are rendered more clear and more rich — and yet equally complex and poetically ambiguous — in the two longer versions. These longer versions take the ambiguities and obscurities of the famous version and make enough sense of them to allow the listener to appreciate a more extended and coherent treatment of both narrative and theme.

In brief, the famous two-stanza version works best as a song, the four-stanza version works best as a lyric with a unified narrative, and the three-stanza version works best as a lyric that combines narrative continuity with a subtle, open-ended aesthetic.

Stanza 1-4: Nautical Links

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The first stanza is generally easy to follow, although the mention of “feeling kinda seasick” might be a subtle foreshadowing of existential nausea. This can only be noted on a second listening, however, and linking it to anything as specific as Sartre's Nausea (1938) is perhaps a stretch. For instance, one might just as well link it to the “seventh seasick day” in Reid’s “A Salty Dog,” the sea-sickness in this case leading directly to an afterlife salvation. I'll leave this aside for now, and return to it once the existential context has been more broadly established.

The opening stanza is quite easy to follow (which is helpful in a lyric that later becomes more obscure), yet its reference to seasickness subtly links it to the paradoxical conceit that dominates the final three stanzas: the promise of drunken bliss becomes the lure of the sea, while the penance of nausea becomes the unsettling depths of the sea.

The protagonist’s seasickness connects incrementally to the later stanzas. Structurally, it’s the only thing that links the first stanza to the nautical reference in the second stanza — the vestal virgins leaving for the coast. It has stronger links to the nautical references in the third stanza: she's on shore leave, they're at sea, and he suggests that she took Neptune for a ride. It has even stronger links to the fourth stanza, which is the only version of the lyric to complete the frame story and knit the poem together as a whole. The first stanza's drunken delirium (the room "humming harder / as the ceiling flew away") crops up at the end of the lyric, when his mouth feels "like cardboard" and seems to "slip straight through [his] head." The nautical references, which accumulate in the second and third stanzas, reach a climax or conclusion when he and the woman "crash-dived straightway quickly / and attacked the ocean bed." Here we have the type of drinking where one hyperbolically hurtles through the air and crashes to the floor. From a more poetic, philosophical angle, this may also be a type of mystical drunkenness, shared by poets such as Omar Khayyam or Li Po. This type of drunkenness suggests a Grand Purpose in life, and then annihilates both the self and any Grand Purpose the self entertains. 

Illustration (before 1933) by Edmund J. Sullivan to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Wikimedia Commons, clipped and coloured by RYC)

Illustration (before 1933) by Edmund J. Sullivan to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Wikimedia Commons, clipped and coloured by RYC)

On one level the lyric recounts a riotous night of drinking and romance — where the protagonist ends up diving into bed with the woman — and on another level it suggests a sort of lover's leap into the Deep, a sort of annihilation that lies beyond anything. A later lyric by Reid, "In God's Shadow," suggests something similar, albeit without the possibility of romance, and with the possibility of God: "Wild conversation / And the hours go by so fast. / And you find a lot of wisdom there / At the bottom of the glass. // And when the lights go down / And the laughter fades away / Somewhere between the moon and the stars / All of life's certainties … they all just slip away. / And you lie down in God's shadow / At the end … / The end of the day." While "A Whiter Shade of Pale" suggests the possibility of a similar drunken obliterating wisdom, it no where mentions the possibility of God, or even a shadow of God. Instead, it’s a deeply sad and haunting lyric — matched perfectly by the nostalgic, mournful music — about the disillusionment of drinking the cup of wine to the dregs, of living life to the lees, and then finding the cup empty. Or, as Bryan Ferry puts it in “Just Like You,” “In knowledge lies wisdom, / That’s all.”

“Illustration for  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner . The Mariner up on the mast in a storm.” By Gustave Doré, c. 1876 (Wikimedia Commons; coloured by RYC)

“Illustration for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Mariner up on the mast in a storm.” By Gustave Doré, c. 1876 (Wikimedia Commons; coloured by RYC)

When at the end of the lyric the pair decide to attack the ocean bed, we can see that they still have the spirit of resistance. They still have a courageous engagement with the world — à la Sartre’s create your own meaning, à la Camus’ roll the boulder up the hill, à la Tennyson’s Ulysses who sets off for the open sea, despite old age, despite disillusionment, despite everything. Yet there’s no sense that they’ll find any meaning down there at the ocean bed. More likely, they’ll hit rock bottom. For the ocean is Neptune’s realm, and the epic heroine, who is also a mermaid, knows better than anyone that no one can take Neptune for a ride.

The first stanza has links to meanings that are developed later, yet overall it appears straightforward in comparison to the later stanzas, at least on the surface. This straightforwardness is underscored by the final line: the protagonist and his companions call for more drinks, which might suggest the possibility of more dancing, humming, and flying, yet the stanza ends with the very down-to-earth line, "the waiter brought a tray." The strategy here may be to bring down to earth a lyric that will in the next stanza threaten to fly away from listeners altogether. On one hand, a poetic alternative, such as “When we called out for another dream / The waves were wrought with spray,” would have prepared the reader for the strange images to come, where vestal virgins head out to sea, the poet admits they’re already at sea, and they crash-dive to the ocean bed. On the other hand, the image of a waiter bringing more drinks does two things at once: it brings the lyric down to earth and also suggests more alcohol, and hence more strange and drunken perceptions to come. 

From the National Archeological Museum, Athens; photos by RYC

From the National Archeological Museum, Athens; photos by RYC

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Another reason why the final line makes sense is that it points to whatever wisdom lies in living for the moment — that is, in following (at least momentarily) Horace’s old Latin phrase carpe diem, which means seize (or pluck) the day. That “the crowd called out for more” is echoed by “we called out for another drink,” suggesting a communal urge to prolong the enjoyment of the moment, an urge the protagonist shares despite his “feeling kind of seasick.” The communion of a bar in unison, expressing and fulfilling desire simultaneously, might be seen as a common form of worship, which in relation to orthodox religion is post-literal and post-liturgical. Or, one could add pre-literal and pre-liturgical if one sees it in terms of polytheistic worship, whether Dionysian or Tantric. The Bacchic prayer is answered so efficiently that the cause of desire instantly becomes the effect: it’s When they call out for another drink that the waiter brings the tray. Literal or realistic accuracy is also replaced with subjective experience when the room hums and the ceiling flies away.

This scenario of social integration and ecstasy may no longer constitute a recognizable form of religion, yet it does serve as an antidote to alienation, existential or otherwise. This type of experience can, at least momentarily transcend the particular character of individuals or the particular habits of culture, language, etc. Drinking may even be one of the roots of religious ritual, from the wine of the Dionysian mysteries to the wine of the Eucharist; perhaps it’s as much a cause of the ritual as it is an expression of its effect. We see the role of alcohol in the first great work of world literature, the epic of Gilgamesh: along with Enkidu’s sex with the temple harlot, Enkidu’s consumption of seven jugs of alcohol lead him to abandon the wilds and join the human race; later, the ale-wife Siduri gives Gilgamesh accurate advice about the afterlife and about living for the moment. Even before Gilgamesh reaches the one man who survived the Flood (Utnapishtim, later Noah), the ale-wife tells him the following:

You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man. (trans. N.K. Sandars, Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces)

Alcohol’s destructiveness is well-documented, yet what Leonard Cohen calls “Johhny Walker wisdom” also has its positive sides: it breaks down the barriers between people of different habits and classes, between one sexual being and the next, and between the person we feel we’re supposed to be and the person we want to be.

In this sense, calling for more drinks takes on a phenomenological or experiential meaning that escapes puritan society or religion, creating a shortcut to unity and illumination. It can destroy the border between the ego and the id, and between the trapped personality and the fluid experiences waiting beyond. This is of course a decadent and poetic take on drinking, according to which it’s considered a good thing that rooms hum and ceilings fly away.

From the British Museum (from the Buddhist temple of Amaravati); photos by RYC

From the British Museum (from the Buddhist temple of Amaravati); photos by RYC

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Chorus: The Miller on the High Seas


The explicit carpe diem meaning of the first stanza disappears in the chorus, which is short yet contains two very big, deeply coded themes: 1. the historical break with religion — suggested by the miller’s tale, and 2. the mortifying effects of the loss of essentialist meaning — suggested by the woman’s pallid face. These themes are evoked by layers of association, and by key terms that resonate with centuries of culture, literature, and philosophy.

The opening line of the musical version prepares us for these highly charged and resonant themes. “And so it was that later,” may seem innocuous in terms of its surface meaning, yet the line has tremendous emotional and contextual clout. It’s one of the most characteristic and haunting parts of the song — even more so because of it being repeated numerous times. The word so serves as a general link to whatever follows from the stanzas which precede it. The word later creates an indeterminate temporal gap, which seems short but could be years. It allows the reader to ask, How long does it take for complete disillusionment to take hold? The deeper the disillusion, the more heroic the will to carry on. The woman is now (that is after some time has passed) in the process of sounding an even deeper truth that is raw and unnerving, turning her ghostly face an even whiter shade of pale. In an existential or absurdist context, her will to carry on in the face of Sartre’s bleak meaninglessness or Camus’ frustrating absurdity can be seen in her will to create her own momentary meaning: she ends her shore leave and sets sail for the deep. “And so it was that later” seems innocuous enough, yet it links to the heavily-laden scenarios in the stanzas that come before and after it, and it also leads directly into the puzzling heart of the chorus.

The next line, "As the miller told his tale," may seem exceptionally vague to those who aren’t familiar with English literature, yet to those who are it’s one of the most powerful allusions in the entire song. Seeing the lyric’s miller as the miller from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales makes sense in its immediate context and also makes sense in the larger philosophic direction the lyric takes. Just as the poet refers to Neptune in order to represent the forces of nature, so he alludes to Chaucer’s miller in order to represent the profound and paradoxical freedom to question everything. The paradox in this case is that the freedom to question everything brings with it the angst and absurdity of never getting a final answer.

There are several reasons why seeing the miller in light of Chaucer makes sense.

The line "As the miller told his tale" is very easily connected to Chaucer’s miller, but not easily connected to anyone else. The most obvious literary equation of tale + miller = The Miller's Tale. What else might tale + miller suggest? The use of the definite article the also suggests a particular miller who is already known. Of course the only miller who is generally known, and the only miller who is generally known for telling a tale, is Chaucer’s miller. The provenance and identity of Reid’s miller is otherwise completely mysterious.

“Miniature illustration of Robin, the Miller, with a 16th century note ‘Robin with the Bagpype’ from folio 34v of the Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer's  Canterbury Tales . 15th century artist. Photographic facsimile by the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery” (Wikimedia Commons,  source here )

“Miniature illustration of Robin, the Miller, with a 16th century note ‘Robin with the Bagpype’ from folio 34v of the Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. 15th century artist. Photographic facsimile by the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery” (Wikimedia Commons, source here)

The poem is very literary in its nautical allusions and in its specific reference to Shakespeare, and therefore linking it to Chaucer isn’t a stretch. Reid refers in the fourth stanza to Shakespeare's line "If music be the food of love," which is from the opening of Twelfth Night. Shakespeare and Chaucer are arguably the two greatest writers in the language, and therefore references to both great writers is not in any way incongruent or surprising. Canterbury Tales is one of the most famous collections of poetic narrative in the language, and “The Miller’s Prologue” and “The Miller’s Tale” are two of the most famous texts in the collection.

Both “The Miller’s Prologue” and Reid’s lyric highlight the effects of alcohol. Chaucer’s miller admits that he’s drunk when he proposes his tale. Likewise, Reid’s protagonist is drunk in a bar. Although we don’t know exactly where Reid’s miller is, it seems he’s either in the bar or talking to the woman who the protagonist meets in the bar.

My final point is somewhat more complicated, as it involves the larger sweep of intellectual history, from Medieval religious belief to Modern skepticism, agnosticism, atheism, and existentialism. “The Miller’s Prologue” and “The Miller’s Tale” are milestones in the history of free expression, especially as pertaining to the expression of marginal, vulgar, common, or anti-religious views. Along with Milton's Areopagitica and Mill's On Liberty, Chaucer's “Prologue” is a key referent in the history of free speech and freedom of the press. Through his drunken miller, Chaucer also makes his anti-censorship point in a way that leads historically toward secularism and skepticism: in "The Miller's Prologue" he argues that people should be free to read whatever they want, however counter to religion or morality it may be; in "The Miller's Tale" he suggests that it's foolish to believe literally in biblical stories, as his carpenter John does when he builds an ark to protect himself from what he imagines to be the coming wrath of God. The full import of Chaucer’s miller can be seen in the lyric, on the condition that one reads it in terms of big sweeps of time, big meanings embedded in the epic and the Bible, and the big collapse of these meanings — a paradoxical, liberating destruction that free enquiry and free expression bring in their wake.

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Authorial Intention: The Miller and the Mariner

There’s also a good reason to doubt that Reid is alluding to Chaucer’ miller — although this reason relies on a prescriptive view of authorial intention to which I don’t subscribe. In an interview with Songfacts (here) Reid says, "I'd never read The Miller's Tale in my life. Maybe that's something that I knew subconsciously, but it certainly wasn't a conscious idea for me to quote from Chaucer, no way." In an interview with Karen Dalton-Beninato for Huffpost (here), Reid also distances himself from Chaucer:

As the Miller Told his Tale - is that line inspired by Chaucer? Not at all. Really? That was my ringer question. No way. I had never read the Miller’s Tale. I knew who Chaucer was but can’t say I read him. It’s not a quote in any way whatsoever. People said, ‘You’re very into the Miller’s Tale by Chaucer,’ but I can’t say I was that bookish. That’s going to shock the hell out of fellow English lit majors. I used my imagination.

While it’s clear that Reid didn’t consciously refer to, or draw on Chaucer, there are several reasons why Chaucer could still be deeply relevant to the meaning of the lyric.

Reid says that he didn’t consciously refer to Chaucer’s miller. In the Songfacts interview he seems to imply that he may have put him in subconsciously, although his statements in Huffpost seem to work agains that possibility. Whatever his view on subconscious creativity, it isn’t hard to believe that he might have subconsciously drawn on Chaucer, since his miller is, like his Wife of Bath, an iconic fictional figure who represents an important historical development — proto-feminism in the Wife of Bath; democratic and irreverent expression in the miller. One could, for instance, subconsciously write something that alludes to Odysseus or Penelope without having read the Odyssey. One could subconsciously write something that alludes to a psychological quality in Sherlock Holmes, Captain Ahab, Raskolnikov, or Iago without having read Doyle, Melville, Dostoevsky, or Shakespeare. The same could be said, more recently, of Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, Portnoy, or Lolita. Famous characters become archetypal, and one doesn’t have to believe in Jung to see that writers can evoke these archetypes without consciously realizing that they’re doing so.

A work of art is what it is, what the artist says it is, and also what the audience and critics say it is. If Michelangelo had meant to depict a secular Virgin Mary in his Mona Lisa, we would still wonder what kind of woman she is. If Reid had subconsciously written “the mariner” instead of “the miller,” and then said he’d never read Coleridge, we’d still be looking for an albatross.

“Engraving by Gustave Doré for an 1876 edition of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge. Labeled ‘The Albatross,’ it depicts 17 sailors on the deck of a wooden ship facing an albatross. Icicles hang from the rigging” (Wikimedia Commons; coloured by RYC)

“Engraving by Gustave Doré for an 1876 edition of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge. Labeled ‘The Albatross,’ it depicts 17 sailors on the deck of a wooden ship facing an albatross. Icicles hang from the rigging” (Wikimedia Commons; coloured by RYC)

Coleridge’s mariner fits the context so well that it’s hard to imagine Reid didn’t have it somewhere in his imagination. Yet “as the miller told his tale” runs more smoothly than “as the mariner told his tale.” While I realize that I’m doing alot of unauthorized diving into the poet’s subconsciouness imagination here, I wonder if he rejected “mariner” because it was too obviously connected to Coleridge — to the unnerving skinny hand of the mariner, his demented gaze which mesmerizes the wedding guest, who returns home after hearing his harrowing story in which the mariner’s “soul hath been / Alone on a wide wide sea: / So lonely 'twas, that God himself / Scarce seeméd there to be.” There’s also a temporal connection between the poem and the lyric, a lag in time which emphasizes the sobering effect:

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone : and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn :
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

Just as the guest wakes up a later a “sadder and a wiser man,” so “later” the woman’s face turns “a whiter shade of pale,” and so later in the third stanza she smiles “so sadly / That [the protagonist’s] anger straightway died.”

Coleridge’s mariner would be easier to integrate into the poem’s nautical motifs, yet the iconic mariner would perhaps take over the poem. Perhaps Reid wanted to keep his references general and elusive, rather than particular and allusive. This would also explain his reluctance to tie the miller in his lyric to the miller in Chaucer.

Allusion — as opposed to explicit reference — can work in ways that poets aren’t conscious of. For instance, Chris Cornell stated (here and here) that there “was no real idea to get across” in his 1994 hit song “Black Hole Sun.” He says, "lyrically it's probably the closest to me just playing with words for words' sake, of anything I've written." And yet the song’s allusive symbolism — to the snake, his disgrace, Heaven sending Hell away, etc. — can easily be seen as depicting a chaotic, guilt-ridden journey into sin and despair. Generally poets understand that the vague ideas they have swirling melodiously in their minds may not be the ideas that others take from their words. Authorial intention is of course very important to take into account, yet the more allusive the writing, the less conscious intention defines or restricts reader response.

Chaucer’s miller fits into the song better than any other known miller in terms of setting, action, narrative, and theme. What other miller makes nearly as much contextual sense? Some miller that we don't know anything about, one dropped into the song without any context? Chaucer's miller, on the other hand, has an abundant and coherent context. He’s also extremely well-known, especially in the realm of literature, which Reid refers to with his Shakespeare quote, and alludes to with his many nautical references, which are central to the epic. While Reid says in his Huffpost interview that he “wasn’t that bookish,” elsewhere he says that the lyric "was influenced by books, not drugs" (Songfacts). Chaucer's miller not only fits with the lyric’s bar-room environment (Chaucer’s miller professes to be drunk, pre-emptively blaming his ungodly tale on the ale of Southwark) but also with what the lyric’s existential theme (“The Miller’s Tale” engenders skepticism about the old religious stories — especially Noah’s Ark — that people have used for centuries to give their lives meaning).

Reid says that he wasn't thinking of Chaucer's miller but simply used his imagination. What do we do with this, given that referring to an unspecified miller doesn't add any clear or deep meaning to the lyric? We have to speculate far more widely to see meaning in an unspecified miller than to see it in Chaucer's miller. For instance, a miller grinds grain, which is used in making things like bread. But speculations in this direction have little value: they lead us to things like working conditions and sociology (millers traditionally being wealthier than peasants or workers) or to products like bread, which can be connected to basic survival à la Les Misérables, or to spiritual symbolism like the eucharist. These speculations may in themselves be full of meaning, yet they're difficult to sustain within the context of the lyric itself. Unlike in "Homburg," there's no emphasis on class, and unlike in "Salty Dog," there's no emphasis on survival and religion. By contrast, Chaucer's miller fits very well with Reid’s use of the definite article (it's the miller, not a miller), the use of high literary figures (Shakespeare's "If music be the food of love"), and with the presence of alcohol and drunkenness (which dominates the first stanza bar-scene, which is the setting for the entire lyric). Chaucer's miller also brings with him the context of free expression, free inquiry, and the freedom to play with and question sacred tales such as the biblical Flood. All of these freedoms are fundamental to the sad paradox of existential freedom, which dominates the lyric and can be heard in the mournful keyboard, the ponderous and hypnotic rhythm, and the tone of voice which is world-weary, doleful, and nostalgic.

What to do, therefore, when lyricists say that a plausible and enriching explanation doesn’t fit with what they intended, and yet they don’t offer satisfying alternatives? We can conclude that listeners are wrong and that no explanations, or less meaningful alternatives, will have to do. Or, we can decide on the merits of the words and music before us, reasoning that obscure lyrics aren’t necessarily an invitation for lyricists to decide what they mean and what they don’t mean. By the time we listen to songs, the work of the lyricists is already done; if they haven’t made themselves clear in the finished product — a fusion of verb and note — then off-stage voices can hardly be added to the track. Rather, obscure lyrics are an invitation for listeners to speculate about what they might mean. In this case, strict correlations or logical conclusions are pipe dreams; what’s required is an insightful and contextual reading. And in this the logic of intentional fallacy applies: the most coherent readings are those that make most sense of the text, regardless of what the author intends. 

It’s important to respect the views writers have of their own works. Yet one can also respectfully disagree with them. In this case, I’m not so much disagreeing with Reid as I’m asserting that while he had no intention of alluding to Chaucer’s miller, he ended up invoking him anyway.

While it may seem perverse to some, I would argue that because people understandably see Chaucer’s miller in the lyric, and because Reid has to keep denying that it’s Chaucer’s miller, it seems likely that Reid was using an archetypal figure without intending to (I mean archetypal here in a psychological and historical sense, not in a mystical sense). And because this archetype fits so well with the context and meanings of the song it seems fair in this case to allow the school of reader-response to have at least as much weight as the school of authorial intention.

I realize the limits of my argument here, yet I will conclude with my own reader-response credo: the value of a poem is what the reader can get out of it, as well as what a poet believes they put into it.

A Whiter Shade

"As the miller told his tale" is an ingenious line: it intimates the course of history toward secularism and existentialism, and it suggests that the effect of this alienation from meaning is, as Sartre points out, less liberating than horrifying. It’s as the woman hears the miller’s tale that her face goes from “ghostly” to “a whiter shade of pale.” I would argue that the reason for the degrees of horror — from “ghostly” to “pale” — is that she’s beginning to take the miller’s tale to its logical and ultimate conclusion: despite some of the consoling things that Sartre or Camus say about meaning, there’s no consolation in existentialism. Once we question fundamental notions of essence, whether these be in The Bhagavad-Gita or the Bible, there’s a very slippery slope, leading over hundreds of years, back to the original Mesopotamian (and later Greek) Chaos. An interchange of couplets across centuries illustrates this succinctly: in the 18th Century Pope writes, "Nature and Nature's Law lay hid in Night. / God said, Let Newton be! and all was Light," to which in the 20th century Sir John Squire responds, "It did not last; the Devil howling, Ho! / Let Einstein be! restored the status quo."

In Nausea, Antoine says,

Ma pensée, c'est moi : voilà pourquoi je ne peux pas m'arrêter. J'existe par ce que je pense. .. et je ne peux pas m'empêcher de penser. En ce moment même — c'est affreux — si j'existe, c'est parce que j'ai horreur d'exister. C'est moi, c'est moi qui me tire du néant auquel j'aspire […] My thought, that’s me: that's why I can't stop myself. I exist because I think… and I can't stop myself from thinking. At this very moment — and this is hideous — if I exist, it’s because I’m horrified to exist. It’s me, it’s me who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire […]

In No Exit (1944), Estelle says,

Mon image dans les glaces était apprivoisée. Je la connaissais si bien...Je vais sourire: mon sourire ira au fond de vos prunelles et Dieu sait ce qu'il va devenir. / My reflection in the mirror was tamed. I knew it so well... I'm going to smile: my smile will sink to the bottom of your pupils and God knows what it will become.

In the first stanza, the protagonist uses an elaborate metaphor to keep the woman close — he wants to stop her from joining the vestal virgins (who were captive yet deified in Roman times) from going out to sea — yet he realizes that his words have no effect on her: his eyes “might just as well’ve been closed.” In the third stanza he tries to get her to look into the mirror to admit that she’s a sort of sexy sea-nymph who could tame Neptune, yet he sees from her sad smile that this seductive scenario isn’t the case. In the chorus between these two stanzas, he sees there’s one thing that deeply disturbs her: the miller’s tale. The text is explicit here: it’s as the miller tells his tale that her face, "at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale." Chaucer’s tale is itself quite humorous, yet the prologue and the tale together, from the point of view of intellectual history, tell a different tale: one of free enquiry, free expression, and the paradoxical freedom of escaping the great capitalized Meanings, be these of religion or anything else.

Sartre says that “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give life meaning.” The sad problem here, of course, is that meaning isn’t an easy thing to give oneself. The heroine of the lyric is perhaps like another of Sartre’s women, of whom he says, “She believed in nothing. Only her scepticism kept her from being an atheist.” If one accepts the complete freedom of existentialism, as well as the meaninglessness and absurdity that comes with this freedom, it doesn’t follow that one can then create one’s own meaning. Sartre may be a great exponent of existentialism, yet existentialism is bigger than his formulation of it. The lyric’s heroine seems to understand that with great philosophical freedom comes not just the chance to create your own personal meaning, but also great peril, two linked metaphors for which are the open sea and the ocean bed.

There may be no Zeus or Hades, no God or Devil. There may be no personal or political meaning that can substitute for the loss of these traditional poles of cosmic and moral meaning. But there’s still Neptune, who represents the capricious and powerful forces of nature and circumstance. Where or when he will capsize the boat of our lives is an open question, mysterious as Fate. Neptune may be a god of the forgotten late-19the century Naturalists, yet we are all a function of Nature.

“Illustration for  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner . The Mariner up on the mast in a storm.” By Gustave Doré, c. 1876 (Wikimedia Commons; coloured by RYC)

“Illustration for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Mariner up on the mast in a storm.” By Gustave Doré, c. 1876 (Wikimedia Commons; coloured by RYC)

Stanzas 2 and 3

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Reid skillfully takes us from the whitened face of the woman in the chorus (who we assume is the same woman as in the rest of the song) to her existential statement in the opening lines of the second stanza: "There is no reason / the truth is plain to see." Her existential point — that our lives are absurd because we exist yet there's no reason or purpose to give meaning to our existence — is made so succinctly that many listeners may run past it, assuming that it must apply to something else. Yet the next line doesn't have any subject or object to which it applies. The protagonist may take her words to mean that there's no reason for her to be interested in him. He also may not like (or may not believe) in her existential statement. Whatever bothers him most, he tries to distract her from her point by "wandering through [his] playing cards," which could be the cards he'll play to seduce her, as well as the arguments he'll make to deflect her existential statement, and perhaps the notion that she's some sort of existential hero. 

One of the protagonist's cards may be to treat her like a seductress instead of an adventurous philosopher, yet she outplays him and brings him back to her serious point. When he says that he "would not let her be / one of sixteen vestal virgins / who were leaving for the coast," this may mean that he doesn't accept her rejection of sex or her desire to leave him for the open sea, that is, for the other fish (or men) in the sea, many of which are probably swimming about the bar as they speak. On one level he urges her to admit her sexual nature, and to stay with him. Yet on another he's denying her the status of a modern Odysseus, of a woman who's willing to face the open sea. He alters this strategy in the second stanza, where he admits that she's sexually experienced yet suggests that she was only at sea for sexual reasons: he gets her to look in a mirror and tries to force her to see that she's "the mermaid / who took Neptune for a ride." Yet in both stanzas his arguments aren't convincing, not even to himself. In stanza one he says that he wasn't seeing what was right before his eyes: while his "eyes were open / they might have just as well've been closed." In stanza two he admits that the label of seductress misses the mark: she "smiled at [him] so sadly that [his] anger straightway died." Both stanzas operate on two levels: on one he’s being gently outmanoeuvered in romantic strategy, and on the other he's being forced to see that her vision isn't a merely romantic one. Rather, it contains a philosophical challenge that will turn both of their faces pale and will end with them being obliterated at the bottom of the sea. The brilliance of the lyric is that it suggests both possibilities simultaneously: they could fall in love as well as dive into the ocean bed. In this case she isn't some witchy siren who steals his soul. Rather, she's a heroine who challenges him to face the existential world with a sense of adventure. She doesn't hide her sadness, but she doesn't let her white face stop her from crash-diving into the waters.

Stanza 4

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— work in progress —


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Structural Analysis: Preface - 1: Space2: Time3: Character4: Relationship5: Theme & Theme Take 2 6: Style & Style Exercises

English 1114: Introduction - Contents - Outline

Schedule: Week 1-7 - Week 8-14