Contributed by Joe Knap, Bay High School, Bay Village, OH
In the chapter “Song” of his popular anthology, An Introduction to Poetry, X.J. Kennedy writes, “when music is combined with poetry the results can be more memorable still,” Whether lyrics are the same as poetry may be debated, but the real issue is that lyrics provide a means to study poetic and literary concepts in a way that holds students’ interest, increases retention, and transfers to literary discussions. The study of lyrics may be used to reinforce students’ understanding of poetic devices, to increase students’ awareness of literary themes in today’s culture, and to improve their literary analysis ability.
Specifically, this lesson is designed to help students recognize how lyrics by the rock-poet Jim Morrison connect with themes from diverse and respected traditional works. While William Blake’s influence on Morrison is often noted, this lesson focuses on the connections between two of his songs and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.” Additionally, this lesson provides opportunities for the study of poetic concerns such as meter, form, language, and tone as well as literary interpretations of the lyrics. The lesson may be used as an introduction or follow-up to units on poetry, Sophocles and/or T.S. Eliot.
The student will be able to:
This lesson is designed for high school junior or senior English students, for it seems to demand a certain amount of literary and poetic sophistication on the part of the student.
The full lesson requires one week: about two days per song, plus introductory and follow-up activities. The time may be reduced if only one song is used.
Materials: CD/tape player, lyrics to selected songs and copies of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and/or T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”
“The End” is overtly Oedipal. From the obvious allusions to loving his mother and killing his father to more subtle references to “danger on the edge of town,” the “king’s highway,” and taking a “face from the ancient gallery” students will find a number of connections between the lyrics and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Students may also find connections between the lyrics and Freudian and Jungian psychology as it relates to the Oedipal complex and the racial unconscious ("the ancient lake").
The lyrics also provide an opportunity to identify and discuss metrical patterns. Many of the stanzas use a consistent form of accentual meter, usually four stressed syllables per line. But when the narrator experiences psychological stress, the meter appropriately deviates into a non-metrical pattern.
The music enhances and underlines these metrical shifts. Therefore, musically-knowledgeable students can explain the opening tone and rhythm of the song and then discuss significant changes that occur in other sections of the song. Sound connects to meaning.
The song offer opportunity for literary interpretations of both universal and personal symbolism. The “king’s highway, the “seven-mile snake,” the “ancient lake,” the “summer rain,” the “West,” the “blue bus” and the “gold mine,” provide interpretive challenges founded upon strategies and knowledge from previous literary analysis experience of most high school juniors and seniors.
“The Soft Parade” is an admittedly obscure song lyrically, and “Ash-Wednesday” is a complicated, allusion-filled work. However, when they are compared, some interesting parallels emerge. While a Jim Morrison-T.S. Eliot comparison may seem unlikely, the search for similarities may provide some thought-provoking literary discussions. Consider how Harold Bloom’s introductory comments about T. S. Eliot could also be applied to Morrison*:
“His undoubted achievements as a lyric and elegiac poet in itself would suffice to establish him...”
“[He] employs the language of mysticism...”
“[He] excels in the mode of fictive hallucination and lyric derangement, in the fashioning of nightmare images perfectly expressive of his age.”
“They study him with sympathy and insight, as one of the representative poets of his time, and each of them adds to our increasingly accurate sense of his authentic relation to poetic history.”
excerpted from Harold Bloom Modern Critical Views of T.S. Eliot. Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
For purposes of class discussion, consider the following parallels between “Ash-Wednesday” and “The Soft Parade”:
Eliot’s poem begins with the narrator turning away from spiritual belief, “Because I do not hope to turn again” while Morrison’s speaker, in seminary school, turns away from religion in the first stanza with “You cannot petition the Lord with prayer.”
Having turned away from religion, each person looks for an alternative source of comfort: Eliot “Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something/Upon which to rejoice”; Morrison “Can you give me sanctuary/I must find a place to hide/...Peppermint miniskirts, chocolate candy.”
Both poets incorporate symbolic human and animal figures Eliot’s lady in a white gown and three white leopards, Morrison a “deer woman in a silk dress,” lions, a cobra and a leopard.
After much torment, by the end of the poem/song each speaker desires unity and a spiritual connection. Eliot’s speaker requests, “Suffer me not be separated/And let my cry come unto thee.” Morrison’s narrator says, “Meet me at the crossroads/Just you and I,” just after making his final “turn” with the line, “Calling on the gods.”
Certainly, these brief outlines do not do justice to any of the works of literature or songs involved. Teachers of poetry, Sophocles and Eliot will bring their own knowledge into the lesson. These sketches are provided for the purpose of stimulating ideas--they are considered a starting point.
Introductory procedures will vary depending upon objectives and prior units in the class. The lesson may be used quite successfully as a follow-up to either a poetry unit or a dram unit with Oedipus Rex.
Group 1: Literary Allusions. Locate and explain at least five allusions to Oedipus Rex. Relate the lyrics to Freud’s Oedipal complex.
Group 2: Metrical Patterns. Identify and explain the [iambic] meter of the first stanza, locate and explain examples of accentual meter, and identify and discuss the [lack of] metrical pattern in stanza five. Connect the metrical patterns to the meaning.
Group 3: Literary Interpretations: Provide literary analysis of selected lines of the song, identifying the poetic devices employed and relating these lines to the rest of the song.
Group 4: Musical Analysis. Describe and explain the tone and rhythm at the beginning of the song and identify places where significant changes occur. Discuss how the sound complements the meaning of the lyrics.
“The Soft Parade”
At the end of the unit, the student should be able to convey an understanding of the poetic and literary analysis skills developed by the unit on tests or in written expression. Comparison/contrast or evaluative essays may be assigned. For extensive units, the final evaluation may involve individual students or small-groups presenting a self-selected song to illustrate their ability to recognize similar themes or analyze literary lyrics.
“The End” by The Doors (The Doors, Electra/1967)
“The Soft Parade” by The Doors (The Soft Parade, Electra/1969)
Further information on Jim Morrison, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, may be found in several areas of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. A showcase on the ground level is devoted to material relating to Morrison and the 4th floor film “Rock Is” includes clips of Morrison performing. In addition, two interactive displays “Rock and Roll Music” and “Come See About Me” feature songs by and information about Morrison.