The influence of Keats on The Smiths’ ‘This Charming Man’

The Smiths – This Charming Man

Punctured bicycle
on a hillside desolate
will Nature make a man of me yet?

When in this charming car
this charming man

Why pamper life’s complexities
when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?

I would go out tonight
but I haven’t got a stitch to wear
this man said “It’s gruesome
that someone so handsome should care”

A jumped-up pantry boy
who never knew his place
he said “return the rings”
he knows so much about these things
he knows so much about these things

I would go out tonight
but I haven’t got a stitch to wear
this man said “It’s gruesome
that someone so handsome should care”

This charming man
this charming man

A jumped-up pantry boy
who never knew his place
he said “return the ring”
he knows so much about these things
he knows so much about these things
he knows so much about these things

John Keats – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

The Morrissey – Keats relationship goes beyond the name-check in ‘Cemetry Gates’. The Smiths’ most famous single, ‘This Charming Man’ is structurally and conceptually influenced by Keats’ classic ballad ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, as the former’s ‘hillside desolate’ harmonises with Keats’ ‘cold hill-side’

Arthur Hughes - La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Arthur Hughes – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

I hasten to add at this juncture that this piece is in no way concerned with what Morrissey’s place is, if any, in the canon of English writers, or indeed whether song lyrics can truly be considered as poetry. Those are debates which have been discussed in greater depth elsewhere. I am focused on giving a close analysis on one of the finest pop songs this country has ever produced, and elaborating upon it with the assistance of a poem which is suggestive of being inspirational to Morrissey, but which has not been picked up in any articles I have read.

What happens when you search for the archaic words in This Charming Man in Google's Ngram viewer.

What happens when you search for the archaic words in This Charming Man in Google’s Ngram viewer.

Although the narrative of the lyrics is of a young man (possibly) being picked up in a car, Morrissey deliberately employs archaic language, which helps ground the song in the lexis of 19th century literature. The language is not just generically ‘old-fashioned’ but associated with a particular period of English social history, as Google’s Ngram viewer demonstrates. My inspiration for writing this was the connotations of the deeply poetic phrase ‘hillside desolate’, and as well as this, the phrase ‘pantry boy’ (borrowed from the play Sleuth) which portray the narrator as an indentured servant within a Victorian household. Moreover the adjectives – charming, handsome, gruesome – in turn portray the titular figure as a graceful aristocrat whom the narrator feels he exists in an inferior station to. Keats’ knight-at-arms is by definition aristocratic, but the dream sequence still places him as inferior to another group, in this case the spectre of ‘kings’ and ‘princes’. Moreover, the questing subtext of the poem, which I will discuss in more detail later, means that the knight still needs to prove himself.

Google’s statistical information shows Morrissey using language to form a kinship with Keats’ period, but it is further complicated by the fact that Keats’ own poem is a throwback, a poem with a deliberately blurred sense of place and time where the ‘knight-at-arms’ is suggestive of medieval literature and the quest. The most famous quest of all was the quest for the Holy Grail, which was originally narrated by a number of English and French writers such as Chretien and Malory, before achieving a 19th century renaissance, culminating in Tennyson’s epic Idylls of the King. Quests often lead to trouble at home: the Arthurian court was eventually undercut by Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot. Sexuality and women provide the digression which upsets its linearity and masculine bonhomie. Hence the importance of the question of whether ‘nature’ will ‘make a man’ of the narrator: the narrator is situated on the desolate hillside, poised between carrying on up a hill symbolic of his development to a particular goal (cf. The Pilgrim’s Progress), or coming back down along a different path via the mysterious invitation of a stranger, to become derailed from that initial goal. Should the man’s appearance be considered a threat, or perceived as a fortuitous piece of providence? Morrissey wonderfully leaves it ambiguous as to whether the definition of becoming a man, and thus realising the quest, is achieved through the former or the latter. Likewise, the Floralia of the music video leaves it unclear as to whether it signifies a blossoming or a deflowering, whereas the knight-at-arms ‘withereth’ like a dying flower, deflated from the early promise of the ‘meads’

Credit: Rhino Entertainment

Credit: Rhino Entertainment

The composer Richard Wagner was obsessed with mythic themes and epic narratives; not just composing operas based upon the Grail quest, but also interpreting old materials into his own mythos for the Ring cycle. Morrissey’s use of the rings as a symbol is thus a clever and self-conscious evocation of artistic precedent. It has been astutely commented that the line may be a reference to The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the tempter Lord Henry convinces Dorian to break off his engagement, but they are also a symbol of deeply mythic power, as the charming man further persuades the narrator to abandon his questing of those ‘rings’ in favour of relinquishing himself to the allure of forbidden sexuality. The fifth stanza of Keats’ poem is comparable because the imagery of the quest has been transplanted to the ‘belle dame’, as the ‘garland’, ‘zone’ (here synonymous with ‘girdle’) and ‘bracelet’ are ironically evocative of unity and completion, because the implied quest is abandoned and the knight is left in an incomplete state at the end of the poem. It’s also present in the poem’s structure, as the last line of each stanza is much shorter than the rest.

Wotan holds the ring in a production of Wagner's Ring Cycle

Wotan holds the ring in a production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle

As well as dwelling in the realms of symbol, Morrissey alludes to the powerful trappings inherent in aristocratic militarism – the punctured bicycle becomes both a detumescent weapon and a parallel with a knight losing his horse, and the excuse not having a ‘stitch to wear’ is an appeal to the protection of a suit of armour. The narrator wants to be prepared and outfitted for his quest, but the charming man’s appeals penetrate through. It is assumed that Keats’ solitary knight has long since lost his ‘pacing steed’, which substantiates the reading of the horse as emblematic of male sexuality given in the innuendo ‘set her on my pacing steed’ and ‘sidelong would she bend’, before it is drained by the ‘belle dame’.

To provide a succinct comparison, Morrissey narrates a landscape redolent of the north of England, but also of Keats’ eerie medieval/fantastical world. Both present men who are confronted with a threat to the loss of their sexual agency, but while Keats’ poem is a post-mortem, presenting a figure lost in purgatory having lost his sexual autonomy, Morrissey’s narrator’s situation is unresolved by the end of the song, though the influence of the original poem does mean that a similar ending is implied. The best example of this is the second verse of the song: the first line creates the expectation of a verb to provide the sentence with semantic sense, but none is provided. Agency has been shed from language, and placed entirely in the hands of the charming man.


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