where all the poets went to die

Taylor Swift's "The Lakes" Gets Romantic (Poetry, That Is)

PopPoetry is poetry and pop culture Substack written by Caitlin Cowan. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox weekly, subscribe below so you won’t miss a post! Thanks for reading and sharing.

If you’d told me five years ago that I’d be blogging about Taylor Swift’s reference to Romantic Poetry, I would have slapped your cardigan out of your hands. Poetry in pop (or anti-pop) music: you love to see it.

“The Lakes” is a plaintive, pretty ballad on Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album, Folklore (2020). Originally released as a bonus track on physical copies of the album (remember those?) the song was made available on streaming platforms soon after.

The album has been a resounding success, and “The Lakes” has been lauded as deep, poetic, and romantic with a lowercase “r.” But the song also points toward the Romantic era with an uppercase “R” in more ways than one.

Some Background

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) whose work ushered in the Romantic era of English-language poetry, once famously wrote that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” He also maintained that poetry is born “from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

And so, according to the grandfather of Romanticism, one must honor the spur-of-the-moment arrival of her feelings in order to write poetry, but one must also have some peace in which to recollect those emotions. Live loudly, write quietly, you might say.

This seems to mirror not only the speaker’s purpose in “The Lakes,” but also Swift’s own writing process and life. Something of an Anglophile, thanks in part to her relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn, Swift has spent time in England on numerous occasions. In 2019, she spent time away from the spotlight near Windermere, the jewel of the Lake District in Cumbria and the largest lake in England.

The Lake District itself was once home to a spate of writers known as the Lake Poets. That moniker itself is a tricky business, as it was used to identify and put down the writers it described (a bunch of “whining” babies, as one critic called them). Usually, the term refers to a trio of poets: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. The trio was made a quarto by Dorothy Wordsworth, William’s sister. The region is ripe for those seeking inspiration.

In addition to her time in the idylls of the Lake District, Swift penned Folklore in relative isolation in the United States, trading digital files with producers Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner remotely (a quintessentially 21st-century collaboration process). In other words, she had plenty of time to recollect in tranquility on both sides of the Atlantic. Wordsworth would approve.

Swift has also spoken of Folklore in explicitly literary terms herself, citing the “character arcs and recurring themes” that she nestled into its tracks. The thought of her legions of adoring fans of all ages Googling “Wordsworth” and coming into contact with Romantic Poetry makes me smile. Though poetry readership is on the rise, it can’t compete with Swift’s 44 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

Lyrics Deep-Dive

“The Lakes” is invested in poetry from its very first line: “Is it romantic how all my elegies eulogize me?” An elegy is a poem that laments someone who has died. They can be composed at any point in time, whereas a eulogy is a speech, recollection, or story traditionally delivered during the funeral proceedings for the departed. And I suppose it is Romantic to write songs that reflect on your own death while alive—Romantic with a capital “R,” that is, as Romanticism privileged emotion and individualism.

“I’m not cut out for all these cynical clones / These hunters with cell phones,” she continues, preparing us for the departure from our contemporary, plugged-in world in favor of the rural beauty of England’s countryside.

The next section, the chorus, references poets directly:

Take me to the lakes where all the poets went to die
I don’t belong, and my beloved, neither do you
Those Windermere peaks look like a perfect place to cry
I’m setting off, but not without my muse

We know which lakes she’s referencing now, but I’m fascinated by the end of the first line of the chorus:

If anything, it seems to me that the poets went to the lake to live.

The Lake Poets spent their days roaming the countryside, writing, and just generally burrowing into one another’s psyches. They shared a life, but not necessarily an aesthetic. Coleridge often had his work rebuffed by Wordsworth, who, history suggests, was in turn cribbing lines and ideas from brilliant Dorothy’s journal. In addition to poetry, Southey—married to Colerige’’s wife’s sister and the least mercurial of the bunch—wrote histories, biographies, and essays from his home in Keswick, which he shared with the Coleridges. This Brady Bunch of Romantics lived next door to the Wordsworths.

The history of the Lake Poets’ various living arrangements and activities is complex and interesting. Dorothy and William’s sibling relationship was much richer and darker than one would expect. Coleridge sunk deeper into his laudanum addiction, fought with William, and suffered financial setbacks. Southey kept on writing to bolster the blended family financially after Coleridge left them all to sojourn in Malta to attempt to cure his addiction. As is the case for most human beings, times were good and they were bad, and in between they made some beautiful things. This, friends, is life.

As for death: Southey died in London but is buried in Cumbria at Crosthwaite Parish Church. Wordsworth died at his Rydal Mount home in the Lake District and is buried at St. Oswald’s Church in Grasmere. Coleridge died near London and rests in St. Michael’s Parish Church. Except for Wordsworth, the Lake Poets, then, died elsewhere. They came to the Lake District to be alive, and I suspect that Swift did the same.

In the next verse of “The Lakes,” Swift describes emotion in a way that Romantic-era poets could surely dig:

What should be over burrowed under my skin
In heart-stopping waves of hurt
I've come too far to watch some namedropping sleaze
Tell me what are my words worth

And yes, that is indeed a sweet little pun on “Wordsworth” at the end of this verse.

The final verse is verbose in a way that seems quite different for Swift (when was the last time you heard the word “calamitous” in a song?)

I want auroras and sad prose
I want to watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet
’Cause I haven’t moved in years
And I want you right here
A red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground
With no one around to tweet it
While I bathe in cliffside pools
With my calamitous love and insurmountable grief

Though the speaker says she wants sad “prose,” which refers to writing that unfolds in sentences rather than in lines, she’s written a kind of sad poem that still contains enough narrative to satisfy anyone looking for prose. Hounded by the media since her teens, Swift paints a lush picture of a utopian creative space, wedded to nature and ready to reflect even the most ardent of feelings back at their owner in a way that will allow for their transformation.

Though the nods to Romantic Poetry in “The Lakes” are lovely, it’s also powerful to watch Swift’s creative processes, practices, and impulses play out so publicly. Unyoked from the bridle of the patriarchy and sunk into the embrace of nature, women thrive as artists.

There is certainly a line to be drawn, if delicately, from women like Dorothy Wordsworth to Swift, whose struggle to attain ownership over her master recordings has been well-documented. Dorothy’s own writing was firmly attached to her brother, and when he married and relegated her to the attic, her creativity fizzled.

Take some time to find your own idyll in nature this week, if you can: touch some tree bark, or smell a blade of grass. Remember Dorothy and read some of her verses. And the next time you stream Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” make sure you press play on Taylor’s version instead.

P.S. I enjoy the Long Pond Studio Sessions stripped-down version of the song, too, whose quietude and sparkling guitar feel very much suited to the pastoral landscapes Swift paints in the song. Sound off in the comments if you’ve got more feelings about this woman with big feelings, and subscribe if you like what you read! PopPoetry will be delivered to your inbox weekly.