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The Tortured Poets Department

All the literary references on Taylor's new album

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • April 30, 2024

Taylor Swift's new album, The Tortured Poets Department, came out April 19. Considering her penchant for literary references, we expected this to be her most bookish album yet. Back in February when she announced the track list, we made some predictions about which titles, authors, and characters might show up in her lyrics and we're excited to see how we did!

Hours after she dropped the album with sixteen new songs, she announced that it was actually a double album and released fifteen previously unannounced tracks—an exciting surprise for Swifties! In her post, she wrote:

I'd written so much tortured poetry in the past 2 years and wanted to share it all with you.

From William Wordsworth to Lewis Carroll to Charlotte Brontë, Swift has a long history of recalling great literature with her lyrics. The new album is no exception. Here are all the literary references we found in The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology.

1. "You're not Dylan Thomas. I'm not Patti Smith. This ain't the Chelsea Hotel. We're modern idiots."

Song: The Tortured Poets Department

In the chorus of her title track on the new album, Taylor names the late great Dylan Thomas, whose works include the poem "Do not go gentle into that good night." In the same track, Swift sings to her muse, "I scratch your head, you fall asleep like a tattooed Golden Retriever." We had to wonder if this was a reference to the title of the Welsh poet's memoir, Dylan Thomas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.

In response to being named alongside Thomas, legendary singer, songwriter, poet, painter, and author Patti Smith mentioned TS's shoutout on Instagram in a poem of gratitude:

This is / saying I was / moved to be / mentioned in / the company / of the great / Welsh poet / Dylan Thomas. / Thank you Taylor.

Smith's gorgeous, lyrical memoir Just Kids about her days living in NYC's Chelsea Hotel gets an additional nod in the track entitled "loml" (love of my life) with this lyric, "We embroidered the memories of the time I was away / Stitching, 'We were just kids, babe.'"

2. "Oh, here we go again. The voices in his head / Called the rain to end our days of wild"

Song: My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys

Swift has previously paid homage to the works of poet Emily Dickinson in the title of her album, evermore, as well as lyrics on that album. This line brings to mind Dickinson's poem "Wild nights — Wild nights!" which can be found in this collection. Another lyric that reinforces this reference is "Me and my wild boy and all of this wild joy" found in the song "But Daddy I Love Him."

3. "I saw, in my mind, ferry lights through the mist / I kept calm and carried the weight of the rift"

Song: So Long London

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is another text that Swift has previously referenced in several songs. These lines from "So Long London" recall the many mentions of the green light on Daisy's dock that are often observed by Gatsby and Nick from across the water. This light represents Gatsby's tortured desire for Daisy just as this song represents Taylor's sadness at the end of her love affair with London-based actor Joe Alwyn.

The track also contains a callout to Shakespeare's Macbeth in the line, "So how much sad did you think I had / Did you think I had in me? / Oh the tragedy . . . " This lyric echoes Lady Macbeth saying "Who would have thought  the old man to have had so much blood in him?" There is a symmetry between the wording of the two lines and the reference to a tragedy clinches the link.

4. Florida!!!

Song: Florida!!!

This reference isn't obvious in the lyrics of the song, a collaboration with Florence + The Machine, but British singer Florence Welch posted the following: "When Taylor Swift asked me to feature on Florida!!! I immediately thought of one of my favourite short story collections by Lauren Groff. Full of ghosts and swamps and storms."

5. Who's Afraid of Little Old Me?

Song: Who's Afraid of Little Old Me?

This is another example of a titular reference that doesn't necessarily show up in the song lyrics. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a Tony Award-winning play by Edward Albee about a failing marriage.

6. "She's the albatross / She is here to destroy you"

Song: The Albatross

This song's meaning has been the topic of much scrutiny by Swifties. The title and lyrics draw from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in which a sailor shoots an albatross after the bird appears and leads his ship out of danger. Later when their luck sours, his crew forces him to wear the bird around his neck as a symbol of his mistake. Some fans think the song is a critique aimed at both her critics and her exes, as well as a warning to all comers. Best to stay on T-Swizzle's good side.

Also included in this track is the lyric, "A rose by any other name is a scandal," which recalls a line from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (another of TS's favorites), in which Juliet says, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose / by any other name would smell as sweet." 

7. "The brink of a wrinkle in time / Bittersweet sixteen suddenly"

Song: So High School

This lyric echoes the title of Madeleine L'Engle's YA time-travel novel, A Wrinkle in Time. The song tells the story of a new relationship that's making the narrator feel all the thrills of young love. She sings, "I feel so high school every time I look at you." Awww, so sweet!

8. "I hate it here so I will go to / Secret gardens in my mind / People need a key to get to / The only one is mine"

Song: I Hate It Here

This is one of the most straightforward literary mentions on the album, referencing, of course, The Secret Garden, a beloved children's classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The song, like the book itself, evokes nostalgia and yearning for a more innocent time.

9. "So they killed Cassandra first 'cause she feared the worst / And tried to tell the town"

Song: Cassandra

This song tells the story of the Trojan Princess Cassandra, a character in The Iliad by Homer. Cassandra warned her people about the dangers of the impending attack on Troy and the death of her brother, Hector. But she was not believed and was punished for her claims. 

10. "You said you were gonna grow up / Then you were gonna come find me"

Song: Peter

"Lost to the 'Lost Boys' chapter of your life," is a subsequent lyric from this mournful tune referencing the cherished children's classic, Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie, another one that TS has sung about before. Here the message seems to be, I've had to grow up while you clung to childhood. Who is Taylor's Peter?  

11. "Then she runs like it's a race / Behind her back, her best mates laughed / And they nicknamed her 'The Bolter'"

Song: The Bolter

Swift likes to write songs about real-life women from history who behaved in ways that society didn't sanction. This one is likely about Lady Myra Idina Sackville, an English aristocrat who scandalized the upper class society in the early 1900s with her wild ways and many marriages. She was also the inspiration for the character nicknamed "The Bolter" in Nancy Mitford's novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.

12. "The professor said to write what you know"

Song: The Manuscript

This song is about the singer's relationship with an older man and references Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. It echoes the scene in which Jo March's older man, Professor Bhaer, tells her to "write what she knows."

In conclusion, here's an excerpt from the note TS posted with the release of the album:

This writer is of the firm belief that our tears become holy in the form of ink on a page. Once we have spoken our saddest story, we can be free of it.
And then all that’s left behind is the tortured poetry.

We've had so much fun taking this deep dive into the literary references on Tay Tay's new album. Let us know if you notice anything we've missed.

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Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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