It has often been said that poetry and lyrics are one and the same: indeed, lyrics are undoubtedly the modern day equivalent of the popular poem of previous centuries; the rock stars are the poets. Whether poem or lyric, they convey human emotions, stories of love and loss, and conjure up imagery for the reader/listener to imagine. The purpose of this essay is to compare and contrast the words and ideas of one poem with its song counterpart. For this, I have chosen Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats and the lyrics to My Very Best by Elbow. Both of the texts discuss unrequited love and the unsuccessful pursuit of a lover.
John Keats was a romantic poet who was famed for his odes; Ode on a Grecian Urn is one of his more famous poems. It tells of a lover who is pursuing his beloved by without any real fruition to his labors. Elbow are a British alternative-rock band who are best known for their melancholy but imagery-laden lyrics. My Very Best tells the story of a man who is in love with a woman but, upon realising she will never feel the same way, relents and stops trying. It is a lament to what might have been. This is an immediate contrast between the two texts: Keat’s protagonist continues to pursue his love eternally: “She cannot fade… forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” (19-20) This idea of ‘forever’ is a suggestion that regardless of time and her disinterest, he could never stop loving her and will consider her to be beautiful forever. However, Elbow’s My Very Best is focused on the protagonist giving up and realizing that his mission will be fruitless: “If it seems that it’s just not enough to love, then love lie down.” (3-4) The image of his love being anthropomorphised into a cat, accepting of its fate and lying down somewhere peaceful to die. The two images directly contrast with one another; arguably, it holds a mirror up to the two times in which they were written: Keats’ undying love, ever the romantic and naïve in the ways of the world, and Elbow’s lyrics laden with realism and written by a cynical hand.
Both texts discuss the idea of anticipation: that feeling of excitement mingled with anxiety and intrigue just before something is likely to happen. Keat’s protagonist seems happy to hold on to that anticipation – it is, after all, the closest thing he has to acquiring her love: “Ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu; and, happy melodist, unwearied.” (21-23) Keats uses the imagery of the changing seasons as a way of indicating, again, that nothing will ever change between the young man and his beloved. The leaves of their love stay in bloom on the trees, rather than tumbling to the ground as in autumn. Elbow’s take on anticipation is slightly more belated and, in fact, it is more the idea of unfulfilled anticipation: “Of the love, we should say this: there were switches never flicked.” (18-19) Their gloomy reflection on the anticipation that there once way, contrasts again with Keats’ upbeat, excitable young protagonist. Their lyrics suggest disappointment: they are several stages ahead of Keats: he is naïve and excited whereas they are already broken hearted.
Towards the end of Ode on a Grecian Urn, the story shifts to another image on the urn: a protest carried out by villagers. This seemingly random shift in focus is actually a clever metaphor for the protagonist’s love: “What little town by river or sea shore, or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, is emptied of this folk, this pious morning?” (35-37) Keats has designed this metaphor to reflect the beauty of his protagonist’s love but its emptiness as there is nothing felt in return. Elbow also use such an image: “Start again it felt like this: fresh and simple as a kiss. I bounce these feelings off the moon; the echoes don’t come back.” The metaphorical image of their fresh, clean love is synonymous with the beauty of the peaceful town in Keats’, and the emptiness of the village is doubled with the lack of returning echo from the moon. This also adds another level of feeling as to how the lack of love is inevitable, as the moon is an object which is unreachable and unattainable by man.
While Keats has constructed his poem around the hope and potential of love, Elbow have reflected the opposite side of that: disappointment. Both texts discuss the idea of unrequited love but, in practice, are two sides of the same coin. Together, they almost tell a story of a man whose abundance of love helped him to hold the belief that no matter what, he and his beloved would be together, but then finally realising that his love is unrequited, he stops and reflects on the mistakes he may have made.
“Elbow – My Very Best.” Metrolyrics.com. Guy Garvey et al, n.d. Web. 2 March 2011.
Keats, John. Ode on a Grecian Urn. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1996. Print.