Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dark Side of the Wordsworth: The Anxiety of Influence, Revisited




It struck me recently that in his (clearly miserable, as anyone who's ever wailed along with "Another Brick in the Wall" would know) experience as an English schoolboy, Pink Floyd's Roger Waters probably had to read William Wordsworth's work repeatedly. Perhaps not the bigger stuff like the Prelude, but I doubt many school kids could have escaped without learning his "Ode" or "Tintern Abbey."

I started thinking about this while driving home one afternoon when "Comfortably Numb" came on the radio. Where I normally just let the melancholy awful trippiness of the song ("my hands felt like two balloons" is maybe the best line ever about being a kid with the flu) wash over me, this time, I realized that certain lines reminded me of something I'd read before. Specifically, these lines:

When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse/
Out of the corner of my eye/
I turned to look but it was gone/
I cannot put my finger on it now/
The child is grown, the dream is gone

gave me a flashback to studying in the UK and reading Wordsworth that was so strong I could almost smell the halal shop that used to be on our corner. When I went and looked it up, I found the poem it had clanged on: Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," one of those poems you could not escape reading as a lit major and which would have been canonical in the English schools of Waters' childhood. There are several parts of the Wordsworth poem (which is, truly, a stunningly beautiful and profound work, but Wordsworth was nothing if not verbose) that contain this idea. Here's one:

The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

I was interested by this, but probably wouldn't have bothered to blog about it had I not today been listening to one of the Poetry Foundation's recent Poetry Off the Shelf podcasts on Robert Duncan. This one spent a fair amount of time on Duncan's well-known "My Mother Would Be a Falconress," published in his 1968 collection Bending the Bow. Probably because I've been on a Floyd binge lately, the similarity to Waters' late seventies' terror "Mother" seemed unmissable.

To be clear, I think it's highly unlikely Waters knew this poem; most likely he was simply channeling Oedipus, both the figure and the complex. There are a few verbal similarities (the bird metaphor appears in the Floyd song, but Waters' avian clearly leans toward the songbird rather than the raptorous: "She won't let you fly, but she might let you sing.") But the similar overall tone and horror, the constrictive-verging-on-cannibalistic mother-son relationship depicted in the pieces is what really struck me. If you put the poem and the song side by side, I won't wager which would win the creepy award, but I think there'd be one definite effect: You won't want to call Mom for a while.

Anyone noticed other Waters' song/poem correlations? One more might make it a worthy subject for a fumbling undergraduate essay, or at least a decent new tangent of discussion for the generations of stoners who try to sync Dark Side of the Moon to The Wizard of Oz.

2 comments:

Barry Napier said...

Great post. I always wondered about Mr. Waters and his literary influences, too. I think you nailed the Comfortably Numb line. But I also have to offer the following, from "Time"

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Also, long time reader, first time poster...

M. C. Allan said...

hey Barry! thanks for the comment -- great point about "Time." I bet there are others if we went back through the Floyd collection. I feel like he could not have avoided Wordsworth as a kid but it would be interesting to see if it was ever conscious and if he was specifically drawn to the Romantics.