Sunday, 9 September 2012

Thoughts on “The Poet and the Pendulum”


Amounting to a wonderful thirteen minutes and fifty five seconds, the Poet and the Pendulum is the first song I ever heard from Nightwish, a band I know listen to regularly and have found a great love for. There are many distinctively striking elements to this particular song, one of which is the change in musical styles which effectively seems to divide it into a series of separate, mini-songs, each of which interlink to form the overall whole. However, I am no musician, so my commentary on this song will be based upon its lyrics, for words are the medium with which I feel most comfortable. So, without further a do, here is my commentary on The Poet and the Pendulum.

The first line of this song, “The End” immediately acts to counter the listener’s expectations, for the opening line is something you would more commonly expect to be placed at the end. This is followed by “The Songwriter’s dead” thus making the introductory message of the song that of a completion, of an ending, further empowering the contradiction introduced by the opening line. The placement of the concept of death at the opening of the work introduces a morbid tinge to the work, as well as serving to counter the preconception of death being the end of everything. Despite the Songwriter’s death, the song has barely begun and, considering its length, there is still much more to come. Thus, in spite of the event of his death, the story is to continue, therefore the concept of death as an ending is somewhat countered due its placement at the opening of the piece.

The manner of the Songwriter’s death is not clearly presented within the song, for several manners of death are depicted within the lyrics, though each of them seem to relate to a central character or persona. It is possible that the writer is simply projecting the death of a single character in multiple ways, that he is presenting the deaths of several different characters, each of which are representative of some part of a greater whole, or that the song is telling several different stories, which may or may not be related to one another. The first death is directly related to the Songwriter, for the line “The blade fell upon him” directly links the identity of the Songwriter to the concept of the blade. From the following line, we can deduce that the blade resulted in “taking him” to lands of “innocence”, which furthers the idea of death with the addition of an image of moving on or crossing over into another place. That the place is described as innocence perhaps serves to plan the seed of outrage within the listener, for death is often viewed as a terrible fate, one which should not befall good people, although often enough it does. That someone who is related to a place of innocence could have died from a blade-wound seems terribly unjust, which acts to create feelings of unease and discomfort in the listener. The link between the Songwriter and innocence is made more potent because his place of rest after death is considered a place of innocence. However, it is conversely possible that, considering the link between the character and innocence is only revealed post-mortem, that the character himself attains innocence through death and that he did not possess it in life, this would then serve to perhaps go towards justifying his untimely demise. It is also highly possible that the blade is entirely metaphorical and simply represents another form of death.

Following this, we have a change of musical style, with the pace beginning to quicken. Hence, we are drawn into the second “phase” of the song, the opening line of which is “The dreamer and the wine”. We could take the dreamer to be the introduction of a new character, though it is possible the it is the same individual hitherto we knew to be the Songwriter. The mention of the wine is a direct and clear link to alcohol, a substance known for its ability to intoxicate those who consume it in certain quantities, hence, the placement of the wine alongside the introduction of this character (or this incarnation of the same character) is likely used to enhance the dream-like uncertainty which surrounds him. The following line “a widowed writer torn apart by chains of hell”. The word widowed is in the passive, thus making this character female, for males cannot become widows. This, when placed together with the references to the Songwriter as “him” is clear evidence that we now have either two separate characters, two separate identities and presences within the song. However, the dreamer could either be the Songwriter or the Widow and it is possible that it refers to a union of both identities. The most likely interpretation of the references to the chains of hell is that they are representations of the widow’s pain at the loss of her other half, and the torn apart is most likely a metaphorical representation of her grief as opposed to a literal rending of her body. The aforementioned wine could possibly be referenced as a temperance to this pain, suggesting that the widow could be drinking to relieve the pain of loss. If this is so, then the dreamer likely refers to the widow, though it could still refer to her deceased partner.

The "”poet without a rhyme” likely refers to the deceased Songwriter, which then likely ties to the line “one last perfect verse” which in turn is a link to the Songwriter’s death. The description of perfect could be taken to mean that his death was suitably poetic in its nature, though it could simply refer to the perfect completeness of death, the journey from which no traveller returns. However, the inferred grandeur gained from the use of the word perfect is somewhat sapped away by the following line “is still the same old song” which counters the sentiment of the preceding line. We could take the metaphor of a song as being representative of the Songwriter’s life. No matter how poetic the death, no matter how good the end, the other parts of the song remain unimproved. On another level, we could say that this hints at the suggestion that the Songwriter’s death has not cleared him of some form of past transgression (or, indeed, transgressions), though this is perhaps a step too far in terms of interpretation.

This phase of the song seems to focus on the concept of home, for indeed the demand “take me home” is made, perhaps to emphasise the alien nature of the situation. He inability to cope with the nature of her reality is emphasised in the later line “I cannot cry 'cause the shoulder cries more” which, I believe, is meant to mean that she is unable to find comfort, for that from which she would usually find comfort is in more pain than she. Perhaps this is a reference to the Songwriter and his state of death, or perhaps it is a signpost towards a more distant concept of figure. Continuing on from this, the repeated line “get away, run away, fly away” uses the triple repetition of the concept of leaving, each with a slightly different verb to encourage the message of desperately desired escape. It is made more than evident how much the character of the widow dislikes her current state of being, how deeply she wishes to get away from it and escape, even if this means escaping into a dream world, as is highlighted by the phrased “dreamer’s hideaway”. The line “I cannot die, I, a whore for the cold world” further brings death to the foreground. It is possible that the widow is expressing a desire for her and her lover to be reunited in death, but is unable to join him, perhaps because she has not the courage to take her own life to attain this goal. The use of the word whore may be a literal use, though it is more likely used to highlight the widow’s feelings of uncleanness or some form of moral corruption. In turn, that the world is cold is likely another reference to her hatred of a life in which she is without her lover. 

The next few lines then focus on the concept of identity. First, the widow begs for forgiveness, something she feels she needs because she has “but two faces/One for the world /One for God”. The introduction of God is likely to emphasise the concept of morality, thought it could also serve to inject a certain degree of religious undertone to the song. However, the following line, “save me” is a direct plea for salvation. This could be taken as a religious plea for salvation, or it could simply be a further emphasis on the widow’s need to be liberated from her current environment. That she has one face for God and one for the world is evident of a confliction between those two things, for the existence of two separate faces is an indicator of a degree of incompatibility. She is then, perhaps, conflicted between the spiritual or moral and the earthly.

She then goes on to reflect upon the past, upon a better reality. She realises, “My home was there and then/Those meadows of heaven” and the “Smiling Face” only continues to comfort her within the boundaries of her own memory. After this reflection, she repeats the entire verse in which she expresses both her desires to leave and her apparent identity crisis, which ends phase two of the song.

Thus we enter into phase three, in which everything takes a much softer tone. The song becomes slower, less intense and more melodious. This phase is perhaps to be interpreted like a dream sequence, in which the widow is escaping from the world of reality into this fantastic dreamscape. It is equally possible that this phase is a series of interlocked memories, all of which are centred on her lover. Either way, the phase of the song is representative of escape from the harsh nature of the real. The opening line “sparkle my scenery” is akin to her commanding her reality to be become beautiful, further expression of the desire to be freed from the world. “The Ever Free” is more evidence to this desire. “Tuck me in beneath the blue” expresses links to sleep, to the entering of unreality, as does the line “Goodnight kiss for a child in time”. The following line, “Swaying blade my lullaby” serves to directly link the pendulum of the song’s title into the substance of the song itself. This line expresses how the desire to sleep is spawned from the death of her lover, how his untimely demise has become the thing which makes her desire sleep and unreality.

On the shore we sat and hoped”, this line draws the image of the pair into our minds, reminding us that there was a time when they were together and not separated by death. The following lines “Under the same pale moon/Whose guiding light chose you” at first seems comforting, but it makes sense that this light is a reference to death. Many individuals who have experienced near death experiences have described seeing a bright light which seeks to envelop them. Therefore, we can think of this light as death and, if we do so, the next line “chose you all” would therefore mean that there are more deaths yet to be revealed to us.

We then move on to the centre of a scene in which the character of the widow is speaking directly to the listener in the present tense. We are moved into the centre of the action, in which the widow expresses her fear at her immediate circumstances, however, the listener has yet to learn what her condition is. “I know I will die alone/But loved.” These lines serve to instil a sense of dread within the listener as well as instilling us with the knowledge of her certainty. Alone refers to her separation from her lover, as does the word loved, for she is certain that her partner still loves her, even though he is dead. “For years I've been strapped unto this altar/Now I only have 3 minutes and counting” these lines are juxtaposed together for the first describes a large amount of time, whilst the second describes a short amount of time. The latter line gives us the sense of urgency and sense of oncoming threat, enough to create a feeling of unease. We end phase three with the line “I just wish the tide would catch me first and give me a death I always longed for” which confirms that the widow desires her ending in death.

So begins phase four, in which the singing voice becomes male and far more aggressive and dark. From the opening line of this phase “Second robber to the right of Christ” we have the foregrounding of religion once again, giving the impression of sin or transgression against God. “infanticide” introduces more death, though we cannot be sure to whom this particular death pertains. The Songwriter and the Widow seem to both be adult characters, whereas infanticide is the murder of a child or an infant. Hence, it is unlikely another reference to the death of the Songwriter. Due to the accusatory nature of the preceding line, it is highly possible that the Songwriter, or indeed the Widow herself, is being accused of committing infanticide. Again, there may be a more obscure metaphor in the usage of this word, such as the death of innocence. “The world will rejoice today” is used to highlight the inhospitable nature of the world and to show that the people of this reality are not allied with the Songwriter and the Widow. They desired his death and perhaps it was they who carried it out.

“Everyone must bury their own/No pack to bury the heart of stone” these lines together are used to hammer home the lack of support both the Widow and the Songwriter can receive from the outside world. The are isolated and trapped with only one another for company. However, since the Songwriter is dead, the Widow is further isolated within the world of the living, lacking the courage to take her own life and escape life to be reunited with her lover in death. Instead, she was forced to opt for the dreaming and unreality found in sleep and wine. “Now he's home in hell” contradicts the lines in the first phase which describe the Songwriter as being taken to a place of innocence. However, this part of the story is not being told by the widow, so it might simply be different views of thought concerning his passing, with the Widow believing he has been saved and this other voice believing he has been damned.

The widow’s voice returns with the next lines “The morning dawned upon his altar” being the first. This line brings religion back to the surface, instilling the listener with the idea that the Songwriter or the Widow’s death (perhaps both) served some kind of dark religious significance. An altar is a table used in religious rites and rituals and in some religions, most of which were prevalent in ancient cultures, used these tables as places for sacrifices. It is possible that the character of the Songwriter or that of the Widow has experienced the same kind of treatment.

Betrayal is introduced with the line “Performed by his friends without shame”, which adds more evidence to the view that the Songwriter was not liked by others in the world and that those he would have trusted as his friends have completely betrayed him, leading to his death (which is possibly a sacrifice). We then have a repetition of the verse in which the Widow expresses her desire to escape reality and her two-faced nature. The placement of this directly after the preceding lines could be an indication that the widow herself was somehow involved in the betrayal of her lover, that she was amongst his friends who performed the sacrifice. This is one possible interpretation, but it is only one of several possibilities.

The next verse is not sung but spoken and ties the song to the real world. It directly makes reference to the year “2005” and to “Tuomas” who happens to be the individual who wrote the song. In a sense, he is the Songwriter, but perhaps not the same Songwriter who has been referenced throughout the rest of the song. It describes his death as well as using the line “The music he wrote had too long been without silence” which could be taken as a reference to a desire for death akin to the desire highlighted by the voice of the widow.

Now we enter into the fifth phase, the final part of the song. In the first line of this phase, we have the use of the word “son” which indicates either the introduction of a new voice or a non-literal use of the word, provided that the son is in fact that Songwriter. “You’re home” is an indication that the Songwriter is now in a familiar and safe place, if taken literally, this place is with his parents or some form of parental figure. The message during this part of the song is one of comfort and reassurance, eventually ending with “I will always love you” as a final word of peace to send off the dying Songwriter.

For me, The Poet and the Pendulum is essentially about the struggles we all go through in life. Often, we feel alienated and out of synch with our environment and find it hard to gel with that which is going on around us. We feel like we need to escape from something, even if we are not quite sure what this thing actually is. This song reflects the emotional dilemmas so many people experience, as well as highlighting how there is always somewhere in the world where we can feel safe and protected. The song ends with the words “The Beginning” as a reminder that no matter how bad things get, there is always the promise of something better to come.

Just a few thoughts.

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