[Be sure to read this post to the very end, I've added a couple of significant points since I first posted this]
I’ve long suspected Lennon & McCartney of being sneakily serious readers of English literature, and that John Lennon in particular loved pretending that his most cryptic lyrics were mere jokes. Even as he tweaked the beards of those who looked for his hidden meanings, he actually took great delight in being very slyly erudite, and I think he wanted to make the search for hidden meaning more fun and more challenging, by denying that it was there.
For example, Lennon claimed with a straight face, that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, with its iconic psychedelic imagery, was not at all about LSD. Yeah, right. How he must have laughed on the inside, when most of the wider world, including many hardcore Beatles fans who shoulda known better, swallowed that obvious whopper.
Anyway, as a result of my suspicions, I’m always on the alert for insight into literary allusions in the Beatles canon, and over the past decade, I’ve been rewarded with insights into 3 Beatles songs that I see as having a surprising, hidden, English literary pedigree, as I’ve blogged at the linked posts:
“Shakespeare’s holy hilltop fool Henry VI was McCartney’s Fool on the Hill!”
“The View from Ford’s: The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour of PeRRy Lane & Strawberry Fields for Emma”
“ ‘Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see’---The Song of Emma Woodhouse”
Those 3 songs, The Fool on the Hill (Sept. 1967), Penny Lane (Jan. 1967), and Strawberry Fields Forever (Dec. 1966), were all recorded within 9 months of each other, and all 3 appear on the same Beatles album – Magical Mystery Tour. Not a coincidence, in my view.
And yet, you may ask, what about the other Beatles song on Magical Mystery Tour that has raised more speculation about its cryptic lyrics and hidden meanings than any of the others? Of course, I refer to the one in my Subject Line, I Am The Walrus (Sept. 1967).
Well, funny you should ask, because literary lightning struck again the other day for me. While listening to the Beatles Channel on Sirius Radio, my attention was caught by the commentary about Walrus of Kevin Howlett on one of his “Magical History Tour” segments.
Specifically, Howlett repeated what I had heard a few times before, but had never paused to consider more curiously – that the spoken word dialog that pops out through the writhing rhythms of Lennon’s grotesque imagery late in that song, is actually taken from a live performance of a very specific source – two speeches in Act 4, Scene 6 of King Lear.
Howlett essentially repeated the following conventional understanding of how Shakespeare happened to wander into Lennon’s nightmarish tableau: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/11/i-am-the-walrus-50-years-later/546698/
“To further tantalize literary types, at the end of the song listeners hear a scene from King Lear in the background, with Oswald’s final words, “O, untimely death!” standing out. (That line ended up as grist for the “Paul is dead” conspiracy mill, of course.)
As it turns out, the performance of Lear just happened to be on a radio that was tuned to the BBC while they were mixing the song. The studio engineer Geoff Emerick said it was Lennon’s idea to get some “random radio noise” from “twiddling the dial,” an injection of John Cage–style found audio. Talking about the song with the New York radio DJ Dennis Elsas, Lennon claimed he “never knew it was King Lear until years later” when someone told him…”
However, with all my prior suspicions of Lennon’s literary slyness about L.S.D, and those 3 other Beatles songs that I claim draw upon Shakespeare and Austen, I read Lennon’s disclaimer the same way I read the following famous comments by that very same Jane Austen, whom was capable of infinite sly misdirection and faux modesty (and who inspired the name of my blog 12 years ago), as epitomized in this famous bon mot about Pride and Prejudice:
“There are a few Typical errors–& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear–but ‘I do not write for such dull Elves as have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.'”
If you actually believe that Austen sincerely thought that her pronomial ambiguities in Pride & Prejudice were “typical errors”, rather than intentional acts of genius on her part, well, this post is not for you – but for the rest of you, please read on!
Back to I am the Walrus --I knew instinctively that Lennon was thinking of the sharp elves in his audience, and was up to something ambitiously literary with that Lear insertion, but what? Well, it took me less than an hour to gather the following passages from the text of King Lear, in addition to the brief snippets of dialogue in 4.6 that we actually hear on Walrus. To figure out his meaning, I had to first assemble all the relevant textual evidence.
And one quick and necessary caveat- of course I am already aware that numerous explanations have been presented over the past 54 years as to sources for many of Lennon’s word choices in his lyrics for Walrus, including, most notably, The Walrus and the Carpenter. But this in no proves or even suggests that Lennon could not have also had Shakespeare on the brain as he wrote the song.
So, please meet me on the other side of these quotations, and I will then progress to my speculations as to what this King Lear subtext meant to John Lennon.
“I am the Egg-Man”: King Lear 1.4, 4.6
FOOL …………….Give me an EGG, nuncle, and I'll give thee two crowns.
KING LEAR What two crowns shall they be?
FOOL Why, after I have cut the EGG i' the middle, and eat up the meat, the two crowns of the EGG. When thou clovest thy crown i' the middle, and gavest away both parts, thou borest thy ass on thy back o'er the dirt: thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown, when thou gavest thy golden one away. If I speak
like myself in this, let him be whipped that first finds it so.
“Cuckoo-ka-choo” King Lear 1.4
For, you trow, nuncle,
The hedge-sparrow fed the CUCKOO so long,
That it's had it head bit off by it young.
So, out went the candle, and we were left darkling.
So we have two speeches in the same scene, in which the Fool speaks words which Lennon seemed to echo in Walrus – might we also say, then, that Lennon was channeling Lear’s witty Fool, with his penchant for acidic riddling directed at King Lear, in this line?:
“Don't you think the JOKER LAUGHS AT YOU (ho ho ho, hee hee hee, hah hah hah)”
“See how they SMILE like PIGS in a sty, see how they snide”
“Dripping from a DEAD DOG's eye”: King Lear 2.2
When Kent lights into Oswald, the toadying courtier of Goneril and Ragan, he is thinking of pigs in a sty who snidely smile:
That such a slave as this should wear a sword,
Who wears no honesty. Such SMILING rogues as these,
Like rats, oft bite the holy cords a-twain
Which are too intrinse t' unloose; smooth every passion
That in the natures of their lords rebel;
Bring oil to fire, snow to their colder moods;
Renege, affirm, and turn their halcyon beaks
With every gale and vary of their masters,
Knowing nought, like DOGS, but following.
A plague upon your epileptic visage!
SMILE you my speeches, as I were a fool?
Goose, if I had you upon Sarum plain,
I'ld drive ye cackling home to Camelot.
“Man you've been a NAUGHTY boy”
“Boy, you've been a NAUGHTY girl, you let your knickers down”: King Lear 3.7
And when Regan torments Gloucester before savagely blinding him, and then takes up with Edmund, does she not fit Lennon’s description of a naughty girl?
REGAN plucks his beard
By the kind gods, 'tis most ignobly done
To pluck me by the beard.
REGAN So white, and such a traitor!
These hairs, which thou dost ravish from my chin,
Will quicken, and accuse thee…
“I'm CRYING, I'm CRYING
I'm CRYING, I'm CRYING”: King Lear 4.6.
And so Lennon’s repeated weeping wails remind us of Lear’s, in that very same Act 4, Scene 6 from which Lennon “accidentally” chose to record from the BBC, and then insert in his song:
EDGAR O, matter and impertinency mix'd! Reason in madness!
If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes.
I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloucester:
Thou must be patient; we came CRYING hither:
Thou know'st, the first time that we smell the air,
We wawl and CRY. I will preach to thee: mark.
GLOUCESTER Alack, alack the day!
When we are born, we CRY that we are come
To this great stage of fools…
“Sitting on a corn FLAKE”
“Dripping from a DEAD DOG's eye”
“See how they SMILE like PIGS in a sty, see how they snide”: King Lear 4.7
Had you not been their father, these white FLAKES
Had challenged pity of them. Was this a face
To be opposed against the warring winds?
To stand against the deep dread-bolted thunder?
In the most terrible and nimble stroke
Of quick, cross lightning? to watch--poor perdu!--
With this thin helm? Mine enemy's DOG,
Though he had bit me, should have stood that night
Against my fire; and wast thou fain, poor father,
To hovel thee with SWINE, and rogues forlorn,
In short and musty straw? Alack, alack!
Cordelia has returned, and Lennon “tags” that return with the “cornflake” he sits upon, like little miss muffet.
And that brings us to what I see as the emotional center of Lennon’s veiled allusion to King Lear:
“Dripping from a DEAD DOG's eye”: King Lear 5.3
And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!
Why should a DOG, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
In other words, Lear bemoans that there is no “dead dog”, but there is a “dead Cordelia”!
After collecting those passages from King Lear with this very distinctive imagery that seems to be obliquely echoed in Walrus, I stepped back a pace and considered these parallels in a more global way. It’s safe to say that Shakespeare was never more sour, pessimistic, cynical, and sexually grotesque than in King Lear, and the same can also be said about John Lennon and Walrus – don’t you think the latter would work really well as a soundtrack for a modernized film version of Lear?
What also leapt off the page at me about that final quotation, when Lear wails in extreme grief at the death of his beloved Cordelia, we cannot help but be reminded of what has been pointed out by some clever Beatles elves who haven’t connected it to King Lear – that Brian Epstein, the “glue” that had held the Beatles together since their rise to fame, had suddenly and shockingly died, right before Lennon wrote Walrus.
But also, we can look at the first lines of Walrus as obliquely pointing to King Lear himself:
“I am he as you are he as you are me
And we are all together”
In his very first speech in the play, Lear repeatedly speaks in the royal “we”. And yet, by the final scene of the play, Lear speaks repeatedly and only in the personal “I” – not a royal “we” in sight. So we may well say that Lennon has, in brilliantly absurdist poetry, captured that metamorphosis from king to father.
And so, that was where I stood after applying my usual methods to parsing texts for allusions. But I just could not believe that I was the first to reach this sort of insight into Walrus – and here’s the spooky part – after further diligent search, I still could not find any written commentary on this topic that got this far – it seemed that Lennon’s claims of “accidental” inclusion of Lear had not been challenged for nearly 54 years.
However, what I did find was a recording of the My Favourite Beatles Song podcast that aired only a week ago, on August 31, 2021:
In it, host Tim Tucker interviewed musician and music analyst Scott Rowley, and their topic was I am the Walrus. As their fascinating discussion progressed, I held my breath, as they described it as both playful and nightmarish, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, with a dark vision, as if Lennon sought the sharpest possible contrast to the psychedelic sermon on the mount that is All You Need is Love.
Things then got really exciting when Rowley noted that “I’m crying” seemed to be an expression of grief for Brian Epstein, a really bad trip that Lennon had been hurled into in his grief.
And then, beginning at 24:00 running time, and then continuing for about 4 minutes, Rowley took that same giant imaginative leap that I had, and realized that Act 4, Scene 6 was exactly where Lennon wanted his sharpest elf listeners to go in their imaginations!
So all kudos to Rowley (and to Tucker for providing the perfect catalytic environment for Rowley to make his leap) for connecting those dots several days before I did – but I do believe that the echoes of imagery and verbiage that I retrieved and outlined, above, seal the deal – it all can’t be one humongous coincidence, or even unconscious echoing by Lennon – no, this was all entirely intentional on his part, a tribute to his own (apparent) secret love of Shakespeare, and of grief for the loss of Brian Epstein.
And there’s one final textual goodie, that Rowley caught, but I had missed, in that crucial Act 4, Scene 6, when Edgar is confronted by Oswald, right before Edgar courageously takes out that “serviceable villain”:
EDGAR Good gentleman, go your gait, and let poor volk pass. An chud ha' bin zwaggered out of my life, 'twould not ha' bin zo long as 'tis by a vortnight. Nay, come not near th' old man; keep out, che vor
ye, or ise try whether your COSTARD or my ballow be the harder: ch'ill be plain with you.
OSWALD Out, dunghill!
Of course that is indeed the “Yellow matter CUSTARD” that drips from the “dead dog’s eye”, immediately after Lennon’s four Learian repetitions of “I’m crying”!
I close by observing that this was a prophetic moment for Lennon, in which he played the Fool (in the highest sense of the word) as he foretold that the kingdom that was the Beatles was about to fracture apart into several pieces, just like Lear’s kingdom, now that the human “glue” that had held it together, Brian Epstein, had died.
And also, perhaps, Lennon was, paradoxically, also celebrating his own liberation as an artist.
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
ADDED 09/07/21 AT 11 AM PST
John Lennon in a 1970 Interview:
„When I was about twelve, I used to think I must be a genius, but nobody's noticed. Either I'm a genius or I'm mad, which is it? "No," I said, "I can't be mad because nobody's put me away; therefore I'm a genius."“
ADDED 09/11/21 AT 1 PM PST
This extraordinary article by Richard Gerber is the missing link in the chain of Lennon’s literary subtexts in I am the Walrus – Lennon read Joyce reading Lear & Carroll, in turn reading Shakespeare’s King Lear:
Last but not least, perhaps John Lennon somehow heard about the following sometime between 1961 and 1967, perhaps by reading this:
11/17/1961 Life Magazine 51/20 p198
“A Deep Freeze Lear in Eskimo Land”
The old king strode into his court dressed in Eskimo furs. He wore a weird crown of WALRUS tusks. He held a harpoonlike spear. A strange get-up for Shakespeare's frosty hero, King Lear, but he was appearing in a new production of the bleak tragedy, set and costumed in Eskimo style.
....This deep freeze King Lear was put on by Toronto’s talented Canadian Players and is now on a tour of 22 American cities.