In case you missed it, Taylor Swift has been very busy during the pandemic. Within the span of five months, she released two studio albums—Folklore and Evermore—bringing her to a grand total of nine studio albums. Now you may be wondering, why is a book blog telling me about Taylor Swift? Well the truth is, whether you love or hate her music, her poetic songwriting ability rivals that of some of the best poets to date. She started by creating stories within 3–4 minute songs and now creates love triangles by connecting individual songs. If you still don’t believe me, let’s look at some of her best lyrical work. There is a multitude of ways to analyze her work, but I will be breaking it down into three different categories: literature references, powerful lines, and storytelling.
Taylor loves her literature references—and so do I. Some of them are very obvious, such as “Love Story,” (which I won’t include for that reason) but a lot of them are more subtle, which just adds to her genius. This list is not exhaustive and doesn’t include every album, but let’s look at a few of my favorites:
- “Wonderland”: Taylor took it up a notch on her fifth album, 1989, by creating an entire song based on a literary reference. The song “Wonderland” is a reference to Alice in Wonderland and the idea of getting so lost in love that you don’t realize you fell down a rabbit hole and now you have to figure out how to escape or spend forever where “life was never worse but never better” (Swift, 2014). Taylor directly references the beloved tale with lines such as “Took a wrong turn and we / Fell down the rabbit hole,” and “Didn’t you call my fears with a Cheshire Cat smile?” (Swift, 2014), meaning the subject of the song wrote off her fears with a wide grin, causing her to feel falsely assured. This song is a prime example of the strengthening of Taylor’s literary references.
- “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”: All of Taylor’s albums are an era in their own right, but Reputation took that to the next level. A number of the songs on this album allude to various classics, from A Tale of Two Cities to Slaughterhouse Five, but I am just going to talk about the most thorough reference on the album, which is “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” This song is basically The Great Gatsby explained in three minutes and 27 seconds. It details a friendship that was extravagant and wild—much like the way Gatsby would party—that ends due to secrets and lies, much like the way friendships and relationships ended in Gatsby’s world. The first verse reveals this idea immediately with the lines, “It was so nice throwing big parties / Jump into the pool from the balcony / Everyone swimming in a champagne sea / And there are no rules when you show up here / Bass beat rattling the chandelier / Feeling so Gatsby for that whole year” (Swift, 2017). If that doesn’t sound like a Gatsby party, I don’t know what does.
- “Invisible String”: I am going to break my “explaining one literary reference per album” streak here, because Folklore is an English major’s dream. “Invisible String” contains a nod to the popular line from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (Hemingway, 1926). In the chorus she sings, “And isn’t it just so pretty to think / All along there was some / Invisible string / Tying you to me?” (Swift, 2020). Personally, I think this is one of her most beautiful songs and I love the way she slipped this reference in there.
- “The Lakes”: Before Taylor started writing in quarantine, she must have been reading, because this song immediately took me back to my English Literature class. In this song, Taylor references what I guessed to be the five Lake Poets from the late 18th to early 19th century. The chorus opens with “Take me to the lakes where all the poets went to die” (Swift, 2020), which, if I remember correctly, were the big five romantic poets. Upon further listen, I noticed an interesting line which I believe is a further nod to them. In the second verse she sings, “I’ve come too far to watch some namedropping sleaze / Tell me what are my words worth” (Swift, 2020). William Wordsworth was one of the five Lake Poets, so I can’t help but to think that the last bit of that verse is meant to continue the allusion to the poet. It could be a coincidence, but most of us know by now that Taylor doesn’t do coincidences.
- “Happiness”: Moving into her most recent album, Evermore, we have the song “Happiness.” When I first heard this song, I nearly died. Not just because it’s one of her saddest songs ever, but because the literary references in it made my nerdy heart swell. Once again, Taylor has alluded to The Great Gatsby, but in an even more poetic way. In the second verse, she sings “I hope she’ll be a beautiful fool” (Swift, 2020), which is an obvious nod to Daisy’s famous line from the novel and I audibly gasped on my first listen. Towards the end, there is also a line that says, “All you want from me now / Is the green light of forgiveness” (Swift, 2020), which I also took to be an allusion to Gatsby. It may just be me, but I am trained to think Gatsby when I hear green light, so I think this is the perfect subtle nudge towards it.
- “Tis the Damn Season”: By now, we’ve probably noticed that Taylor has taken to referencing phrases and lines from famous works and that’s exactly what she does in “Tis the Damn Season.” In the chorus of this song, she makes a direct reference to Robert Frost’s beloved narrative poem, “The Road Not Taken,” with the line, “And the road not taken looks real good now” (Swift, 2020). This poem was engrained in my head as early as middle school, so naturally I was extremely excited about this reference.
Taylor may be the queen of literature references, but some of her best lines have nothing to do with allusions and are simply poetic in their own right. I consider music and songwriting to be a form of poetry, therefore most of her songs themselves read as a poem. Honestly, I could pick a line at random and it would probably be beautifully written, but then we would be here all day. So, in no particular order, I’ll just go through a few of the ones that really strike a cord with me.
- “And you come away / With a great little story / Of a mess of a dreamer / With the nerve to adore you”—”Cold as You” (Swift, 2006). Taylor wrote her first album at 15 and she has grown a lot since then, and as such most of my favorite lines won’t be from her debut album. However, I think it is important to look at her old lyrics to help see how far she has come, and these lines from “Cold as You” still get me even after all these years.
- “So I’ll watch your life in pictures like I used to watch you sleep / And I feel you forget me like I used to feel you breathe”—”Last Kiss” (Swift, 2010). This song, particularly this line, always hits me even now—despite the fact that I was 12 when it was released.
- “You call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest / I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here / ‘Cause I remember it all, all, all too well / Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it / I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it”—”All too Well” (Swift, 2012). Unfortunately, I cannot paste the entirety of “All too Well” but this bridge speaks for itself.
- “Cause you can hear it in the silence / You can feel it on the way home / You can see it with the lights out / You are in love”—”You are in Love” (Swift, 2014). By itself, this doesn’t seem like much, but the song is about saying you’re in love without saying it directly, and I absolutely love the way she chose these lines to depict that.
- “Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere”— “New Years Day“ (Swift, 2017). Even though this is just a one liner, it gets me every time. Taylor has a way of describing scenarios in one line that packs a punch, and this is one of those instances.
- “I don’t wanna keep secrets just to keep you / And I snuck in through the garden gate / Every night that summer just to seal my fate / And I screamed for whatever it’s worth / ‘I love you,’ ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?”—”Cruel Summer” (Swift, 2019). The beginning and end of this verse are my absolute favorite, but I also love Taylor’s allusion to gardens throughout so many of her songs. It gives them such a whimsical feeling. Also, it was a cruel summer so it seems fitting.
- “You drew stars around my scars / But now I’m bleedin”—”Cardigan” (Swift, 2020). “Cardigan” is one of my favorite songs off of Folklore, because there are so many lines like this one that pack a punch but also tell a story, which is something she consistently does beautifully.
- “But I’m a fire and I’ll keep your brittle heart warm / If your cascade ocean wave blues come / All / these people think love’s for show / But I would die for you in secret”—”Peace” (Swift, 2020). This song is another one of my favorites off of Folklore (honestly, I love every song on this album). There is something undeniably poetic about this line in particular, with the metaphoric language and symbolism. I get the chills every time.
- “I don’t like that falling feels like flying ’til the bone crush”—”Gold Rush” (Swift, 2020). This is another one liner, but it does such a good job capturing a feeling that we all probably know in just a few words. Even though it’s short, it’s extremely descriptive and really shows off her talent.
- “While you were out building other worlds, where was I? / Where’s that man who’d throw blankets over my barbed wire? / I made you my temple, my mural, my sky / Now I’m begging for footnotes in the story of your life”—”Tolerate It” (Swift, 2020). I had a hard time picking just one line from this song, to the point that I considered pasting the whole song in. It’s honestly a very underrated addition to Evermore, but from a poetry standpoint is absolutely beautiful. If I read this in a poetry anthology I wouldn’t blink an eye.
- “There’ll be happiness after you / But there was happiness because of you too / Both of these things can be true”—”Happiness“ (Swift, 2020). I’m including this one as a bonus, because I couldn’t not talk about it. Not only is “Happiness” ironically the saddest song ever, but the emotion she captures is astounding. This is one of my favorites from the album because it is so mature and really shows how she’s grown as a person and writer.
Finally, we move into the last category, which is the storytelling she does in some of her songs. Like any good songwriter, Taylor knows how to tell a story. She writes about her experiences, but also creates characters in her songs. These are five of my favorite stories she has told, in no particular order.
- The Betty, Augustine, and James love triangle from Folklore. This Taylor original is one of my favorites because she gives us a presumed cheating scandal, but from the perspective of each person involved. There is no blaming the other woman or anything like that, and we get to see how each person may feel in a situation like this. It is a really interesting story and each song, “Betty,” “August,” and “Cardigan,” is different but equally fantastic.
- The failed marriage proposal in “Champagne Problems.” The phrase “champagne problems” means an issue that in the grand scheme of things may not seem like a big deal, but matters a lot to the person. In this song, Taylor effortlessly tells the story of a person who has turned down a proposal due to their own problems. Each verse adds to the story, hooking you from the beginning. It is heartbreaking and beautiful and I absolutely love it.
- The wedding being crashed in “Speak Now.” This song is great for a number of reasons. It tells the story of a girl who decides to crash her ex’s wedding by choosing to “speak now” rather than “forever hold their peace.” The imagery is so detailed it feels like you are watching the events unfold. Each verse gets closer and closer to the action until it unfolds, and they run away together (presumably). It is a lot more lighthearted than the previously mentioned storylines, but very well done nonetheless.
- The story of a young girl growing up and appreciating her mom in “The Best Day.” This song goes through a young girls life, presumably Taylor’s, and all of the small things that make growing up hard. Throughout it, she reflects on how the one constant was her mom. This song is extremely nostalgic for me. I used to listen to it on family road trips and I would think about how I wasn’t even close to the age she was by the end of the song. It made me appreciate my mom a lot more and how she was there for me through everything.
- Handling the illness of a loved one in “Soon You’ll Get Better.” In this song, Taylor tells the story of someone who has to deal with someone close to them being sick. It goes through all the motions of going to the hospital with them and watching them get worse and better and worse again. I don’t listen to this song often, simply because it is honestly so sad and it makes me think about what I would do if my mom got sick. However, as heartbreaking as it is, its extremely well written and never fails to pull on my heartstrings.
If you’re still here, thank you, and I hope you enjoyed analyzing the inner-workings of Taylor Swift’s music and songwriting abilities with me. Between her literature references, undeniably poetic lyrics, and strong storytelling, I think it’s safe to say she is truly the poet of our generation.