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What Romanticism and Taylor Swift Have in Common

What Romanticism and Taylor Swift Have in Common

Wherever you turn today, you’ll hear about Taylor Swift—her albums, tours, and dating life. For better or for worse, she has a sizeable impact on our culture. It’s no surprise, then, that her most recent album, The Tortured Poets Department, has hit a record number of sales, with 2.61 million debut units as the “best one-week figure for any album in nine years.”

What is surprising, though, is her latest album’s connection to the Romantic poets, such as Byron, Shelley, and Keats. What distinguishes these poets, and what is their connection to Swift?

Contrary to Enlightenment thinkers (who focused on rationality and reason), the Romantic poets emphasized emotion and individualism. They made sense of the world through passion and intuition: eliciting and capturing strong emotion was paramount to their artistic vision.

Because of this, poets like William Blake, Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley explored the impermanence of love in their poetry, illustrating with great sensation the way in which love could be both so fervent in the moment and so perishable over time. Their work ranged from ecstatic declarations of love to soliloquies of slowly languishing despair, occasionally dealing with themes of madness or insanity.

Swift’s The Tortured Poets Department (TTPD) shares this same ethos. It’s deeply emotive, verbose, imagery-laden, and focused on classically romantic topics: the frailty of love, sexuality, self-revelation, and melancholia. Additionally, Swift’s album nods at insanity and mental distress via dark—but not too dark—allusions. TTPD is a reminder that emotion necessarily makes for a chaotic master—a fact that the romantic poets knew all too well.

When emotion and feeling reign, transience results. For instance, the Romantic poets (with some exceptions) are known for their multiple love affairs and radical views on marriage and commitment—their poetry chasing after the passion of first love and pledging forever until, well, forever ends. Similarly, Swift’s songs capture love gone awry, feelings of betrayal, vengeance, and in general bemoan the transience of love once thought to be everlasting.

TTPD wrestles with the brevity of relationships inherent in lives steered by emotion and subjectivity, and—despite possibly being the world’s greatest pop star—Taylor Swift exudes the vindictiveness of a woman drunk on sensations of vengeance and betrayal.

TTPD, then, shows how the Romantic movement was, in many ways, the forebearer of postmodernism and its subjective relativism: Romanticism elevates emotion and subjectivity above reason, commitment, and moral absolutes. The result is destructive, and Taylor knows that:

Wise men once said

‘Wild winds are death to the candle’

A rose by any other name is a scandal

Cautions issued, he stood

Shooting the messengers

They tried to warn him about her

 

Cross your thoughtless heart

Only liquor anoints you

She’s the albatross

She is here to destroy you…

 

So I crossed my thoughtless heart

Spread my wings like a parachute

I’m the albatross

I swept in at the rescue

Despite singing predominantly about love, Swift’s The Tortured Poets Department leaves us far from certain that true, lasting love is possible. Swift’s overemphasis on her emotions and desires suggests a problem not at all new to romance; it suggests that the inconstant nature of Romantic subjectivity is to blame.

In this vein, perhaps the most concise expression of Romantic sentiment is John Keats’ choice of a tombstone inscription: “HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.” While there are several theories as to what Keats meant by this final epitaph, it does—somewhat paradoxically—encapsulate the spirit of the Romantic movement: passionate turbulence and transience.

Ironic, isn’t it, how Romanticism doesn’t actually make for lasting romance? While it can inspire some excellent poetry and catchy songs, it seems we need a much stronger foundation than our own inclinations if we want a “happily ever after.”

Image credit: “Taylor Swift GMA” by Paolo Villanueva on Flickr, CC BY 2.0. Image cropped.

Rebekah Bills
Rebekah Bills
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