Morbid Tomes, Volume 1: Raging with the Romantics
Hello, and welcome to the first edition of an occasional series on the intersections between metal and literature. My name is Jason; I sing in a Chicago-based crust band called Nequient and hold a doctorate in English literature. I decided it might be fun to combine these two interests, analyzing metal songs that pay tribute to literary works, exploring references to metal in books and comics, and talking with metal musicians about their favorite literature. This first installment looks at how metal bands have drawn ideas from my favorite literary period: British Romanticism
Scholars differ on what dates to assign to the British Romantic Period and whether it should even really be considered a movement or period at all. However, it is generally placed roughly between the years 1789-1832, a tumultuous time in English history that saw war with France in the wake of the French Revolution, a Regency instituted due to the mental illness of King George III, and incidents of protest and civil violence that eventually led to political reforms. Since the early twentieth century, six poets have dominated literary criticism of the period: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Keats. What these poets and other romantic artists have in common are interests in intense emotional experiences and the relationship between humans and nature, reacting against the cold rationalism they saw taking hold of culture in the wake of industrialization. Their fascination with the majesty of the natural world, freedom of thought and action, Gothic imagery, and the fall of civilizations make their work ample fodder for heavy music.
In this post I will look at how the works of some of these poets inspired songs and albums by heavy metal and hard rock artists. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of every such reference; rather I am trying to point out some interesting ways that the poetry and personality of the British Romantics influenced the lyrical and musical contents (so, for example, I do not discuss the fact that there is a band called the Human Abstract – named after a Blake poem – since I do not see any major Blakean elements in their actual work). Hopefully this will give you an enjoyable new angle to consider when you revisit these records and encourage you to check out some of the source material as well. If you can think of some other instances I missed, that would be great as well.
William Blake (1757-1827) was a poet, painter, printer, and self-proclaimed prophet best remembered for his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Like all his works, he illustrated and printed every copy of this collection of poems himself, coloring them by hand in collaboration with his wife, Catherine (apparently not the subject of the My Dying Bride song, “Catherine Blake,” according to Aaron Stainthorpe). His major project was a series of prophetic works developing his own mythology loosely based in Christianity but dismissing its restrictive morality. Instead, Blake celebrated the power of the individual imagination and the liberation of the senses and sexuality. In his longest work, Jerusalem, he declared, “I must Create a System. or be enslav’d by another Mans/I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create” (10.21-2). You can read scans of the illuminated books he printed himself at the Blake Archive.
Ulver – Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Ulver contributed to the 2012 book Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness, edited by Tom Howells, by writing:
Black metal is romantic idealism. Kids believe love lasts forever and hate is eternal. We have lost the faith of our childhood, but we still believe in the human heart and nature. Man is the animal, with all its weaknesses. We do not scream out our aggression and paint our faces for war. We tread softly through the twilight, old and grey and white in the coat. Black Metal is dead. But the world wants to be deceived. So let it be deceived. White wolves evolve. (170)
Of course, the band had made such a statement in musical form long before by paying tribute to the most eccentric and esoteric of British Romantic poets. In 1998, the Norwegians abandoned their roots in folk-inflected black metal with the release of a double album entitled Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Ulver had never been comfortable with black metal’s customary presentation in costumes of leather, face-paint and spikes, but at this time they definitively broke from the scene. Their earlier records’ mingling of raw, aggressive metal and acoustic passages largely gives way to the electronic, ambient, progressive rock, and trip-hop influences that have since defined the band’s sound. They chose for their source material a text exploring the infernal side of Christian imagery and mocking restrictive theology, fitting for their previous project as a black metal band. The double album leads listeners through every word of Blake’s prophetic work, vocalist Krystoffer Rygg, aka Garm, aka Trickster G joined by female vocalist Stine Grytøyr and on the closing “Song of Liberty” by fellow Norwegian black metal luminaries, Ihsahn, Samoth, and Fenriz. Ulver’s generic leaps over the course of the two discs map onto the prophetic book’s own shifting nature. As a Menippean satire, the Marriage imitates the forms of the texts it mocks, mainly the theology of Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. But the book is also an affirmation of Blake’s peculiar breed of Gnostic Christianity and a celebration of the power of art to bridge dialectical divides. It is thus a particularly appropriate choice for a band ready to declare an end to their past persona and seize an iconoclastic new one.
Bruce Dickinson – Chemical Wedding
Iron Maiden have never shied away from historical and literary subject matter as inspiration for their songs (see the entry on “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” below). When their once and future lead singer released The Chemical Wedding in 1998 his own interests in those topics were front and center. The cover features Blake’s miniature painting of a monstrous vision, The Ghost of a Flea. Direct references to works by Blake appear throughout the album. “Book of Thel” takes its title from an allegorical poem concerning a young girl moving from a state of innocence into experience, though the lyrics also tie in other Blakean figures and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “Gates of Urizen” describes an encounter with Blake’s embodiment of restrictive, malignant reason and law that limits the imagination, often associated with the demiurge of Gnosticism (the evil being responsible for the material construction of the universe who attempts to supplant the true Creator). “Jerusalem” borrows lyrics from the poem that first appeared in Blake’s preface to Milton and declares the author’s determination to carry on “Mental Fight” (2.41) against the forces that destroy the best parts of human experience.
Carcass – “Granulating Dark Satanic Mills”
The aforementioned prefatory hymn from Milton was set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 and became a popular patriotic song in England during World War I under the title “Jerusalem.” Hence it is not surprising that its lyrics inspired other British musicians, as in this song from Carcass’s 2013 reunion album, Surgical Steel. Vocalist/bassist Jeff Walker turns the poem’s criticism of industrialization, represented by “clouded hills” (2.34) and “dark Satanic Mills” (2.36) upon those who continue to exploit the working class. I have no idea what the succession of numbers Walker growls mean, but that seems appropriate for a lyric that draws upon the work of a highly unique artist who cared little for explaining himself.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was a poet, critic, philosopher, and leading intellectual who struggled through much of his life with opium addiction and other personal problems. After his plans to found a radical community in the wilderness of Pennsylvania with the future Poet Laureate Robert Southey fell apart in 1795, he grew close with fellow poet William Wordsworth. The two anonymously published Lyrical Ballads in 1798 in order to fund a trip to Germany. The opening poem was Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a Gothic account of an ill-fated sea voyage, and the volume’s publication is often considered the beginning of the Romantic Movement in England.
Iron Maiden – “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
In the classic clip above from Live After Death, Bruce Dickinson introduces the epic-length “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” off Powerslave with some deeply questionable history: Coleridge’s drug of choice was opium, not marijuana, and there is no indication any drug played a direct role in writing the Rime except that it is rather “trippy”; Queen Victoria did not ascend to the throne until nearly forty years after the poem was published and about three years after Coleridge died. The song’s lyrics by Steve Harris nonetheless faithfully summarize and at times quote the original poem, including the frame story of the ghastly Mariner approaching a wedding guest and the use of Gothic, supernatural imagery to reflect on man’s relationship with nature. Harris’s music similarly shifts from a driving rhythm appropriate to a ship setting out on a voyage north to an eerie interlude as the Mariner watches his shipmates slaughtered.
Rush – “Xanadu”
According to Coleridge, he wrote “Kubla Khan” in the summer of 1797 under the inspiration of an opium dream before being interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock” and finding himself unable to complete it. For his part, Neil Peart’s immediate impetus for the lyrics to this eleven-minute track from 1977’s A Farewell to Kings was the quotation from the poem in the opening of Citizen Kane. Rush conjure up a dreamlike atmosphere appropriate to the mythic pleasure dome with a lengthy intro featuring their most experimental instrumentation to date, including synthesizers, chimes, and a glockenspiel. Peart borrows liberally from Coleridge’s words while putting his own imprint upon them, rearranging lines and recasting the narrator as an immortal bemoaning his lonely state.
Born George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) was second perhaps only to Napoleon as one of the most famous men in Europe during his lifetime. He was celebrated as much, if not more, for his striking looks, decadent lifestyle, numerous love affairs (most notoriously including – allegedly – his half-sister), and refusal to conform to social norms as his poetry. His fame arrived in 1812, following the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a long poem recounting his foreign travels. After a brief, exceedingly dysfunctional marriage to Annabella Millbanke (with whom he fathered computing pioneer Ada Lovelace), he departed England forever in 1816 under a cloud of scandal. He settled in Italy for a time, living as lover to a married countess and continuing to write, before leaving to fight for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1823. He suffered an illness in early 1824 and died before seeing combat.
Apollyon – Diaboli Gratia
Outside of demos, Danish black metal band Apollyon put out only a single, odd EP in 1998. Diaboli Gratia features a pair of raw black metal tunes with melodic sensibilities and mid-tempo grooves. However, they are outnumbered by sedate keyboard pieces interspersed with sound effects and pained groans. The first of the black metal tunes, “When Coldness Wraps This Suffering Clay,” borrows its title and lyrics from a reflection on death Byron published in 1815 as part of Hebrew Melodies, alongside the more famous “She Walks in Beauty.” The following track, “Darkness,” features only keyboard and a spoken word performance reciting lines from perhaps the single most metal poem of all time: “The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars/Did wander darkling in the eternal space” (lines 2-3). Drummer Sorgh explained that the band chose to use Byron’s words because, “His symbolism is indeed the way we feel about this filthy planet and its maggot men.” Fair enough.
Cradle of Filth – “The Byronic Man”
Cradle of Filth’s combination of symphonic black metal and Goth pomp has always been a little too goofy for my tastes, but in many ways their aesthetic is more appropriate for a tribute to Lord Byron than the straight-faced misanthropy of a band like Apollyon. Byron rarely took himself as seriously as many of his most devoted fans did, and some of his best work is to be found in the meandering, often silly satire of Don Juan. Dani Filth’s punning title to this track from 2006’s Thornography refers to the Byronic hero, the influential character type that served as protagonist in much of Byron’s work. He is a morally ambiguous figure with dark secrets, often physically marked in some way (Byron himself was embarrassed by his deformed foot and compensated by becoming an exceptional swimmer and boxer), and seeking to escape his past sins. The lyrics, some sung by the self-cultivated Byronic figure of HIM’s Ville Valo, embrace the most decadent possible image of Byron. They include mentions of his world travels, hard partying, and questionable treatment of women, while the chorus draws gloatingly on the famous description of Byron by his one-time lover, Lady Caroline Lamb: “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
Abigail Williams – “Radiance”
For the second track on their 2013 album, Becoming, Abigail Williams vocalist/guitarist Ken Sorceron looked to Byron for inspiration, incorporating every word of the short lyric, “So We’ll Go No More A Roving.” The poem was written in 1817 at the end of Carnival in Venice, regretfully noting the inevitable end of all such pleasures and love affairs. When reworked as raw, atmospheric black metal and placed in the context of Sorceron’s own lyrics, those bittersweet regrets that “the day returns too soon” (line 10) take on a far more apocalyptic aspect.
Eldest son of an aristocratic family, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) just kept embarrassing his father with his open atheism, radical political ideas, and insistence on writing about his beliefs in poetry and prose leading to his expulsion from Oxford. Soon after leaving school in 1811, he eloped with Harriet Westbrook to Scotland and later made a fruitless attempt at organizing a political movement in Ireland. In 1814, he abandoned his pregnant wife in favor of Mary Godwin, the daughter of his mentor, the political philosopher William Godwin, and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Accompanied by Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, the couple met up with Byron in Geneva in 1816. This period led to some of Shelley’s best poetry, Mary writing Frankenstein, and Byron fathering an ill-fated daughter with Claire. Shelley and Mary were wed at the end of 1816, shortly after Harriet, pregnant by another man, drowned herself. Only one of Shelley’s children by Mary survived his father, who himself died in a sailing accident just shy of his thirtieth birthday.
Behemoth – “Prometherion”
Nergal acknowledges his debt to Shelley’s 1820 lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound in the liner notes to The Apostasy. It is clear why the work, which depicts the Titan who stole fire from the gods escaping from his eternal torment and the tyrannical Jupiter being cast from his throne, would appeal to the avowed Satanist. Nergal explains, “It’s shocking how much human beings can be subjected to yet still find release from the chains ov taboos, dogmas and paradigms to see the light in complete darkness.” That said, his song’s concluding imperatives to “Eat the weak!/Fuck the flesh!/Slit the throat!/Consume the dead!” are a far cry from Shelley’s ethical vision. Prometheus Unbound rather warns that hatred and violence are self-perpetuating cycles and suggests that true revolutionary change is only possible when we have the “Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom and Endurance” (iv.561):
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than Death or Night;
To defy Power which seems Omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope, till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change nor falter nor repent. (iv.570-5)
Soilwork – “Long Live the Misanthrope”
Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” similarly suggests the possibility of bringing about revolution by replacing destructive, old ways of thinking. In a moment of Christlike suffering, the poet bemoans, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” (line 54) But he soon realizes his power to “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe/Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!” (63-64) and becomes hopeful for future progress. Björn “Speed” Strid quotes a snatch from the poem when he sings, “I know I cursed you/I know I had no doubt/That all of you were the thorns of life.” His narrator, accustomed to the “role of the misanthrope,” needs to realign his own thinking if he is to move on, instead of remaining preoccupied with his past losses and failures and merely deluding himself that his hatred gives him power.
Nick Vasallo – “Ozymandias”
This instrumental piece sets out to capture the feeling of Shelley’s most famous lyric poem, an 1818 sonnet reflecting on the temporary nature of empires and all other human endeavors, except some of the art we leave behind. Composed by Oblivion vocalist/songwriter Nick Vasallo and performed by The Living Earth Show and Friction Quartet, the piece combines dissonant contemporary classical music with occasional outbursts of metallic aggression. Vasallo attempts to sum up through the often disconcerting ebb and flow the poem’s depiction of a desolate desert, the fearsomely sneering “shattered visage” of the statue of Ramses II, the ironic arrogance of the words upon its base (“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”), and their ultimate futility in the face of time’s passing.