Modern Romantic Missive: A Close Reading of "the lakes"
Updated: Oct 23, 2022
We’re all in love with this ingenious little turn of phrase in “the lakes” by Taylor Swift: “Tell me what are my words worth.” In the lyric video, “Wordsworth” is capitalized, as if the allusion wasn’t clear: Taylor Swift went to the Lakes District, got inspired, and wrote this Romantic song that directly references some of the recent trials of her career as a songwriter.
It’s no wonder. Taylor has always been accused of being a “romantic,” though in a literal--as opposed to literary--sense. The misogynistic picture painted her as someone obsessed with love, boy-crazy, her songs without depth just because they focused on romance. She spoke openly about this, and used her songs as commentary, too: "Shake It Off," arguably her biggest hit, is about this very subject. On the Lover album, she reclaimed and embraced her love of love. She had previously claimed the use of the term "romantic" with the song “New Romantics” on the deluxe album of 1989: “Baby, we’re the New Romantics, we sing it loudly.”
“Romantic” is the third word in the song “the lakes.” Taylor takes the concept of the modern romantics to new heights in this song, asking if songwriters are the poets of our modern times, and whether their role is the same as the Romantic poets of previous eras.
Is it romantic how all of my elegies eulogize me?
I'm not cut out for all these cynical clones
These hunters with cell phones
The first line of the song—“Isn’t it romantic how all of my elegies eulogize me?”—deserves a pause. First because the Romantic poets brought new perspectives to death. Before them, death always had deeply religious connotations for a poet. The Romantics considered that death was open to interpretation, more deeply connected to the imagination and to nature. It could take on new, secular meanings.
Second, because Taylor Swift has written her own eulogies before. What is “Look What You Made Me Do,” if not a eulogy of sorts, a farewell to the “old Taylor”? “my tears ricochet” is another perfect example, describing Taylor’s own wake. This is important as we continue to think about the themes discussed in my other blog post on folklore: “On Authorship & the Creative Process.” “my tears ricochet” is one of the primary songs to deal with Taylor’s ownership of her music, so the immediate reference to “the lakes” implies that the two are related.
Next, “I’m not cut out for all these cynical clones / these hunters with cell phones” — this is a common theme as well in Taylor’s oeuvre. She consistently reminds us that technology is a modern day weapon (“You Need to Calm Down”). References to danger and hunting always for me speak to “I Know Places,” and “the lakes” is an evolved version of the same concept: Taylor has explicitly told us in “invisible string” that she had “lunch down by the lakes” for her three-year dinner. This, of course, was one of those “places we won’t be found.”
Take me to the lakes, where all the poets went to die
I don't belong and, my beloved, neither do you
Those Windermere peaks look like a perfect place to cry
I'm setting off, but not without my muse
The chorus is repeated with exactly the same lines three times in the song. This is not necessarily something we should take for granted on folklore, where many of the lines of the choruses evolve. There is meaning in the chorus, then. We are well aware that “the lakes” is referring to the Lake District in England, where the Romantic poets, specifically Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, wrote much of their poetry. The use of “Windermere” further evokes the Romantic setting and specificity of place.
I love the juxtaposition of “my beloved” and “my muse” in the chorus. At first she addresses “my beloved” and then in the final line of the chorus says, “I’m setting off but not without my muse.” It becomes clear in the final repetition of the chorus that “muse” and “you” are one-in-the-same, though their meanings are quite different. There is balance, each the beloved and the muse to each other.
There are gender implications, as well, and we know well by now that Taylor is interested in overturning gender expectations. She establishes herself as the artist, the one in possession of a muse, rather than the expectation (the expectation, of course, being that the tall, striking, blonde woman is the muse—but of course, she is not. She is the artist).
What should be over burrowed under my skin
In heart-stopping waves of hurt
I've come too far to watch some name-dropping sleaze
Tell me what are my words worth
In the second verse, it becomes clear why she has gone to the lakes, why she has sought refuge somewhere away from technology: she’s hurting. “Heart-stopping waves of hurt.” This is the verse with the line I mentioned at first: “I’ve come too far to watch some name-dropping sleaze tell me what are my words worth.” There is no hint of malice in the tone of the song itself—this line is stated like a fact. Yet, of course, we know that someone did put a price on Taylor’s words, and though it was a high price, that fact didn’t feel any better. Taylor is clear: what she wants is ownership. At any cost.
I want auroras and sad prose
I want to watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet
'Cause I haven't moved in years
And I want you right here
When the song breaks into a short “bridge,” there is little distinction to the rest of the music, also characteristic of the restraint of folklore. Taylor uses the same techniques she has been using throughout the album, which is to focus on imagery. “I want auroras and sad prose / I want to watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet / ‘cause I haven’t moved in years.” Some have suggested that “auroras” could be a reference to Aurora Leigh—I personally like this suggestion.
Aurora Leigh has all the same themes Taylor is examining in folklore: genius, authorship, credit. If we want to talk about the Anxiety of Influence, it’s female poets like Elizabeth Barrett Browning who are the predecessors of our modern poets, songwriters like Taylor herself. Yet it is impossible not to see this parallel and think about what hasn’t changed: women still struggle to claim ownership of their art from men and still have to prove their creations are their own. Case in point, the fact that a name-dropping sleaze can buy your songs out from under you. Or the iconic line in Miss Americana: “Sorry, was I being loud? In my own house, that I bought, from the songs I wrote about my own life?”
A red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground
With no one around to tweet it
While I bathe in cliff-side pools
With my calamitous love and insurmountable grief
In the final verse, Taylor describes, “A red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground / with no one around to tweet it.” It combines Shakespeare’s “a rose by any other name” concept with “gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” a line from “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” which well precedes the Romantics, but influenced them nonetheless. “Carpe Diem” was a major theme of the Romantic poets, and this is a modern take: put down your phone and enjoy it.
We are left to ask, did the rose really grow there, if no one tweeted it? The rose, of course, could be metaphorical, too. It could be “folklore” itself, growing up out of the hurt and anger following the sale of Taylor’s music. A rose that was growing and no one saw until it was released.
The final lines of this verse: “while I bathe in cliffside pools with my calamitous love and insurmountable grief” is in itself poetry, of course. The “pools” also evokes “Paper Rings,” doesn’t it? “In winter in the icy outdoor pool / when you jumped in first I went in too,” she sings. I had always pictured a man-made pool, but now maybe we are getting a clearer picture.
Calamitous love and insurmountable grief are so superlative, as the Romantic poets were—their writing today could be seen as “extra,” so much emotion, so much feeling. Taylor herself, of course, has been accused of this all too often.
I have seen “the lakes” described as “the most Taylor Swift of Taylor Swift songs,” and I agree that it draws on many of her common themes and heightens them. Its blatant reference to the sale of her music, its tongue-in-cheek over-emotionality, and its ideas about hiding away from the world without the hunters and technology are all classic Swift.
But I also think that in light of “the lakes,” we have to see folklore as a whole with a different ending. With “hoax,” we ended on this melancholy note. My friend Kerri suggested that “hoax” is vague enough that it can be interpreted in any of the themes of folklore—whatever you think folklore is about, you can find that meaning in “hoax.” “the lakes,” on the other hand, is crystal clear in its themes about creation and ownership. Clear as a mountain lake.
I am thinking about the role of the Romantic poet in society. In that age, writing was as it is now: revered but not always rewarded. The Romantics sent dispatches from their travels in the form of books and poems, missives from their lives, to tell what they had seen and learned. This is still the role of the artist today.
In her speech at Berklee College of Music in 2010, the songwriter Janis Ian said, “We are dangerous, we artists, because we accept nothing at face value, including our own worth. We question all systems, follow all problems to the source, and never stop searching.” The idea of the poet as dangerous is covered in "peace," the penultimate song on folklore.
Ian continues, “That is what it is to be an artist, in its highest sense. To serve. To live in service to your gift. So that, for the non-artist, there is someone to bring order out of chaos. When the world collides with itself – when their own world collides with itself – when all the balls they’ve been juggling in the air suddenly land on their heads… when life is so hard that they forget they even knew how to dream…we are there. We are there to come forward, hold out our arms, and say 'Here. Here are your dreams. I’ve kept them safe for you.' "
This, to me, is what Taylor Swift does, does best, has always done. She safeguards the dreams of so many. She makes order out of the chaos of emotion, in ways I cannot do for myself. According to Janis Ian, this is the artist’s legacy that far precedes even the Romantics. It goes as far back as the first cavemen to draw on the walls.
Taylor wants us to focus on her music, her missives from the Lake District, rather than the technology and the noise. With "the lakes," she establishes her literary legacy, situating the many literary allusions of the place and culture of folklore.