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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Tour Through The Magical and Mysterious Subtext of John Lennon’s Lyrics For Lucy in The Sky With Diamonds

 This is a long post (nearly 3,600 words), and is only tangentially about Jane Austen, but most everyone loves the Beatles, and so I hope you will nonetheless find reading this post a magical tour you won’t regret taking, and will stay with me till we’ve reached the end.

The inspiration for this post arose in my mind yesterday afternoon as my wife Jackie and I were driving to see (what turned out to be an extraordinary film, Sarah Polley’s envelope-edge-pushing documentary) Stories We Tell, and we were listening to our local classic rock radio station.

The Beatles’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds came on, and although I must have listened to that song two hundred times (or more) during the past 47 years, my attention was caught this time around by a lyric  which reminded me strongly of…..(who else?) Jane Austen’s writing!
The lyric was:

Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers,

What I consciously recognized for the first time at that instant was that John Lennon, as a lyricist, had done something with the words “so incredibly high”, which I have caught Jane Austen doing hundreds of times in her writing—which I call “literary ventriloquism”.

To wit: ostensibly and literally, in those lyrics, Lennon was describing flowers growing so incredibly high (meaning, tall, in a physical vertical sense). However, metaphorically, he was also speaking directly to the listener, bypassing the flowers, and saying, in effect, “I am describing in these lyrics what it is like to be so incredibly high on LSD”, in an intangible, psychological sense.

In short, Lennon, skilled wordsmith that he was, was having it both ways at once, being both direct and indirect in his meanings.  He was describing flowers, but also describing his own mind which conceived of these fantastical flowers under the influence of LSD.

How does this relate to Jane Austen’s writing? I could write 50 pages on that topic, because there are so many examples that I have detected (and continue to find more even after a decade of searching), but today one example will have to suffice, and so I will use the very first post in this blog, which I wrote more than six years ago…

…where I suggested that Jane Austen had done the identical sort of ventriloquism with the following speech by Mrs. Elton in Emma:

"That's quite unnecessary; I see Jane every day: -- but as you like. It is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing.”

Ostensibly, Mrs. Elton is telling Knightley about the parameters she has in mind for the outing to Donwell Abbey which is being planned. But ventriloquistically, this is also Jane Austen telling her observant readers about one of the Shakespeare plays which she has been covertly channeling throughout her entire novel:

“…but AS YOU LIKE. IT is to be a morning scheme…”

Among many parallels….

….Emma is an intensely pastoral novel, and As You Like It is an intensely pastoral play, so it was most apt of JA to choose that moment of discussion of a rustic picnic to turn Mrs. Elton into a puppet to unknowingly mouth the title of Shakespeare’s Ardenesque play.

And those are the last words that will pertain to Jane Austen till the very end of this post, as I will now return to my tour of John Lennon’s intensely pastoral song which I interrupted to take this short Austenian tangent.

Most people don’t think of rock music as aesthetically complex, but the musically savvy know that Lucy in The Sky is subtly sophisticated in a musicological sense…

….and so it should not be surprising that it is also subtly sophisticated lyrically.

Starting with the obvious, in my opinion only a diehard literalist skeptic would believe John Lennon when he famously and disingenuously claimed that his title was not an intentional allusion to LSD. While I don’t doubt that his young son’s drawing was part of his inspiration for writing the song, it is quite clear from even a skeptical reading of the lyrics that psychedelics were never far from Lennon’s thoughts as he composed them:

Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
Cellophane flowers of yellow and green,
Towering over your head.
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes,
And she's gone.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds  [CHORUS]
Lucy in the sky with diamonds
Lucy in the sky with diamonds Ahh...
Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain
Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies,
Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers,
That grow so incredibly high.
Newspaper taxis appear on the shore,
Waiting to take you away.
Climb in the back with your head in the clouds,
And you're gone.
Picture yourself on a train in a station,
With plasticene porters with looking glass ties,
Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile,
The girl with the kaleidoscope eyes.

What occurred to me listening to the song yesterday was that Lennon’s “so incredibly high” was a quintessential example of literary ventriloquism, i.e., a coded message concealed beneath the “story” of a trip to the visually potent fantasy world conjured up by the words “picture yourself”.

And this momentary ventriloquism (Lennon and many of his listeners being high on LSD) is emphasized on the recording by a lush, echoing crescendo on the word “high”, and also by knowing that LSD induces perceptual distortions in the size of visual objects, such as the flowers in the song.

That is all prelude to what I found today, with a little help from my friend “Google”, that will blow your mind (in a car, or not, as you like it).  ;)

First, I only learned today that Lennon must’ve had a famous poem by Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson) firmly in his mind as he wrote his Lucy lyrics:

It’s so obvious, once you read Carroll’s poem:

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July --
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,

Pleased a simple tale to hear --
Long had paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die.
Autumn frosts have slain July.
Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,

Lovingly shall nestle near.
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream --
Lingering in the golden gleam--
Life, what is it but a dream?

If the slyness of the “LOOKING GLASS ties” worn by Lennon’s porters don’t convince you, then how about this—did you notice my breaking Carroll’s poem into asymmetric stanzas of 5, 9 and 7 words? I did that, to accentuate a famous aspect of Carroll’s poem:  it is a perfect acrostic on the name of the girl who inspired the character of Alice—Alice Pleasance Liddell!

What’s my point?  That, acrostic-like, the first letter of the three nouns in Lennon’s song title (and chorus), in order,  spell the word LSD— as Dodgson, a mathematician, would have written, QED!

And directly relevant to that veiled allusion by Lennon to Carroll is the question that has often been posed about Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass—we know that Lennon was flying high on LSD during the Sergeant Pepper era, but was Carroll also on mind altering drugs when he conceived his greatest works?

Here is a link to a thorough BBC article….

….which runs through the arguments over whether Carroll used drugs in order to create the visual distortions depicted in his timeless classics. I personally am suspicious of Carroll’s unsettling focus on young girls (which Lennon’s lyrics avoid), but putting that aside, I think it’s clear that Carroll took some sort of drug that altered visual perception, or he knew someone who did. And surely Lennon recognized that drugginess in Carroll’s classics, and that is why he chose to covertly allude to Carroll in his most psychedelic song lyrics—as, of course, did Grace Slick, but overtly, in her 1967 White Rabbit—was she aware of Lennon’s trickery? I suspect she was!

Now…if that were all I found today, that would be enough. But it’s only one third of it, and it’s hard for me to say which is the most amazing part. So please, don’t turn back, and stay with me on this boatride a while longer, we’ve got two-thirds of our journey still to traverse….  ;)

Next….the following is text I’ve taken from an 1889 book. Before I tell you its title, please just read the two short passages I’ve quoted, and pay particular attention to the words in CAPS. At the end, I’ll explain:

P. 134:  “The CLOUD is to the mountain what MOTION IS TO THE SEA; it gives it an infinite variety of expression — gives it a life — gives it joy and sufferance, alternate calm, and terror, and anger. Without the cloud, the mountain would still be sublime, but monotonous; it would have but a picture-like existence. How thoroughly they understand and sympathize with each other — these glorious playmates, these immortal brethren!...As you approach the mountains, it seems that the clouds begin already to arrange themselves in bolder and MORE FANTASTIC SHAPES. They have a fellowship here. They build their mountains upon mountains …I am never weary of watching the play of THESE GIANT CHILDREN of the earth. ….How magnificent then is that bright eminence seen above the cloud! How it seems rising upwards — how it seems borne aloft by those innumerable wings — by those enormous pinions which I see stretching from the cloudy mass! What an ascension have we here ! — what a transfiguration! O Raphael! I will not disparage thy name nor thy art, but thy angels bearing on their wings the brightening saint to Heaven — what are they to the picture here?
Look! there — FAIRLY IN THE SKY — where we should see but the pure ether — above the clouds which themselves are SAILING HIGH high in serenest air —yes, there, in the blue and giddy expanse, stands the solid mountain, GLITTERING LIKE A DIAMOND. O God! the bewildered reason, pent up in cities, toils much to prove and penetrate thy being and thy nature — toils much in vain. Here, I reason not — I see. The Great King lives — lo, there is his throne. . . .
I have seen hills on which lay the clear unclouded sky, making them blue as itself. I have gazed on those beautiful far-receding valleys — as the valley of the Rhone — when they have appeared to collect and retain the azure ether. They were full of Heaven. …I have observed that the twilight, so grateful to the plain, is mortal to the mountain. It craves light — it lifts up its great chalice for light — THIS GREAT FLOWER is the first to close, to fade, at the withdrawal of the sun. It stretches up to heaven seeking light; it cannot have too much — under the strongest beam it never droops — its brow is never dazzled.
…How like a ruined Heaven is this earth! Nay, is it not more beautiful for being a ruin? . . . I lie ROCKING IN A BOAT midway between Vevay and Lausanne. On the opposite coast are the LOW PURPLE HILLS crouching beside the lake. But there, to the left, what an ethereal structure of cloud and snowy mountain is revealed to me! What a creation of that spirit of beauty which works its marvels in the unconscious earth! The Alps here, while they retain all the aerial effect gathered from distance, yet seem to arise from the very margin of the lake. The whole scene is so ethereal, yon fear to look aside, lest when you look again IT MAY HAVE VANISHED like a vision of the clouds.
And why should THESE LITTLE BOATS, with their tall triangular sails, which GLIDE SO GRACEFULLY OVER THE WATER, be forgotten? The sail, though an artifice of man, is almost always in harmony with nature.. . . .

P. 303:  [Letter] To Miss Mary Wrench. Zermatt, June 18, 1862.
This is the place of places! No mountain that I ever saw equals the Matterhorn in his hold over one's mind. Read about him, I beg, in Murray. How he rears himself up — how when the CLOUDS come round him it takes your breath away every time that he emerges to find that HIS HEAD CAN INDEED BE THERE SO INCREDIBLY HIGH! . . . On our way here, at Visp, I heard as I believed pouring rain all night, but did not like to get up and verify, fearing to disturb William. At five we were up. It was the river, not the rain, I had heard; CLOUDS were rising; guides promised fine weather. We were in our saddles at seven. How you would have enjoyed it! I soon lost all sense of nervousness, and indeed there is nothing to be the least nervous about. I love precipices, and to stretch out my arms over a gorge with a torrent at the bottom. The nine hours' ride was one ECSTASY of enjoyment; the day perfect, the horse an angel the saddle an arm-chair. Murray gives one no idea of the grandeur of the scenery the whole way to Zermatt. What with perpendicular and RICHLY COLORED rocks, hills WOODED sometimes to their tops, and overlooked by one white summit after another, the river roaring far below, the FLOWERS BY THE WAYSIDE, the butterflies that crossed one's path; what with the grandeur and the beauty, and all of it " REFLECTED FROM THE EYES that one loves," I may say life culminated that day. And yet the next was I think better, for William was in my room at five, wild with spirits, feeling the air gives him new life, and wanting instantly to be off on another expedition. Accordingly off we set to the Schwarzsee (read about it) and oh, the glory of Monte Rosa, cloudless to the summit, and THE FAIRY BEAUTY OF THE FLOWERS! Coming down, we got WRAPPED IN CLOUDS. I liked to see them rising like smoke, so rapidly out of the valley, veiling the mountains, then ALL MELTING AWAY SUDDENLY. I would not have been without them, though it was very cold. I have got to like the feeling of going up-stairs on horseback. We had one of the sweet fellows who brought us over the day before, and a lovely youth of eighteen as guide. Fuchs (such was the dear horse's name) wriggled so delightfully up great slabs of rock! There was no one in the great hotel but an American Congregational minister and his wife and child — he a remarkably handsome young man in delicate health, she healthy and kindly looking, WITH LOVING EYES, and a quite caressing smile. What walks we had Saturday and Sunday, what snow mountains we saw — the Twins and the Lyskamm (ALMOST AS HIGH as Monte Rosa), towering above the beautiful Gorner Glacier, and a fringe of fir-trees for foreground, and SUCH A SKY! And then think what it is to see William wild with health and mirth, and full of THE MOST BEWITCHING CONCEPTIONS. We have walked every day in spite of the weather, which broke up on Monday. Tuesday we went to see the river Visp break out of its icy cradle, so weird and grand and desolate, with the mist of rain hanging round….” END QUOTE

Did you notice in particular “HIS HEAD CAN INDEED BE THERE SO INCREDIBLY HIGH!”, which is the passage that Google directed me to, after which I collected all the other densely clustered  verbal parallels  with Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. The parallelism is just amazing, both in the bulls-eyes and the breadth!

It may amaze you further to know the title of the book whence these passages were taken:

The Story of William and LUCY Smith! And the letter shown on page 303 was written by… LUCY Smith!  That only adds to the improbability of these many textual parallels being one huge coincidence, because clearly Lucy Smith was, as she toured the Alps, “in the sky”!

I infer from the above that somehow, John Lennon, in his compositional process, found these passages from this 1889 book, and wove them into his emulation of Carroll’s poem.  But why might Lennon, in 1966, have chosen a lyrical 19th  century description of the Alps, and particularly the Matterhorn, that included references to the sky, clouds and diamonds, as a source for Lucy in the Sky?

The answer to that question brings me to the third and final leg of this magical mystery tour of the imaginative mind of John Lennon, and it will be at high elevation, so to speak, so put on your imaginative hiking boots!  ;)

For starters, we have the following précis of one part of the plot of the movie Help!, which was filmed only a year earlier.

“The band flees to the Austrian Alps for refuge but both thugs and Foot follow in pursuit….[later] Clang skis down a slope that Ahme told him was the way to get to further pursue the Beatles, but turns out to be the take-off ramp for a Ski jumping contest.” And of course, the “McGuffin”of the film is the ring which Ringo cannot get off his finger, which contains an enormous JEWEL!

And also here are the circumstances under which John wrote the song “Norwegian Wood” for the Beatles 1965 album Rubber Soul:

Norwegian Wood…was apparently inspired by Lennon’s extramarital flings. Ironically, he wrote  it while he was on a holiday with his wife,  Cynthia, at St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps. They were joined by The Beatles’ producer George Martin…[who] recalled: “It was during this time  that John was writing songs for Rubber Soul…..a very bitter  little story.”

And  it was also the case that “…Lago di Braies…[in] The Dolomites [part of the Alpine chain, in Italy] “…hosted meditation sessions under the guidance of…Maharishi Mahesh, guru to…the Beatles.”

So from all of the above, we know that John Lennon was no stranger to the Alps when he was writing Lucy in the Sky, and we also know that a jewel was part of that imaginative stew.

But now we reach the final stage of our journey, which begins with the following:

Wikipedia: “In January 1970, [George] Harrison purchased the 120-room Friar Park, set on 33 acres of land, just west of Henley-on-Thames…The house was built in the 1890s on the site of a thirteenth-century monastery, by Sir Frank Crisp, a successful City of London solicitor, microscopist and horticulturalist well known for his eccentricities. Harrison described Crisp as a cross between LEWIS CARROLL and Walt Disney. The 10 acres of Crisp's formal gardens were…overrun with weeds…Among the garden features was a series of TIERED LAKES connected by tunnels, to the south-east of the house, and an Alpine rock garden topped by a 100-foot replica of the MATTERHORN, to the north-west.”

Believe it or not, this last item will bring together Lewis Carroll, fantasy, the Matterhorn, and the Beatles!

First, watch this 5 minute 49 second video from start to finish:     (click on the second video on the right, entitled “Friar Park by Ravi Shankar”, whose music is the score for the slide show which comprises this video)

In particular:

At 3:08-17 into the video, you can see the pointed white “head” of Frankie Crisp’s faux Matterhorn aptly poking up into the blanket of clouds which fill the sky.

And at 2:15-24 into the video, you tell me if this snapshot does not fit with the description “picture yourself in a boat on a river”!

What does this all mean? What I suspect (but cannot yet verify) is that even though Beatle George Harrison did not buy Friar Park until January 1970, John must’ve been aware of Friar Park, with its 19C mock-Alp, waterways, and lush foliage, prior to his writing of the lyrics of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in 1966; and then he connected the dots between Friar Park and the Alpine ecstasies of William and Lucy Smith, and wove them all together into the immortal lyrics of Lucy in the Sky….and chose to keep all of that subtext secret from the countless millions who know the words to his song by heart.

And I hope you’ll agree that I could not have invented a more fitting conclusion to this little tour through the subtext of one of John Lennon’s most magical and mysterious musical poems.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: By the way, I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theories that suggest that Lucy in the Sky is a coded reference to Lucifer—I don’t see enough evidence that Lennon was having a joke at the expense of those who thought drugs like LSD were the weapons of the devil. And…so, coming full circle back to Jane Austen, I am disappointed to have to say that I am unable to find any evidence that John Lennon had Jane Austen’s Lucy Steele aka Lucy Ferrars aka Lucifer….

…on his mind as he chose the name Lucy.

Can’t win ‘em all!

P.P.S.: [Added two hours later]
 According to John Lennon (1940-1980), both Beatles' songs "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" (1967) and "I am the Walrus" (1967) were inspired by the Alice books. John Lennon once admitted “I always wanted to write Alice in Wonderland—I was determined to be Lewis Carroll with a hint of Ronald Searle” (The  Beatles Anthology).  

P.P.P.S:  (Added 8  hours later) 

See my followup post  re one key aspect of the above post:

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