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The Tortured Poets Department

A Study Guide for Taylor Swift's Upcoming Album

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • February 27, 2024

As Taylor Swift smashed yet another record at the recent Grammy Awards, she announced her new album, which will be released April 19. Along with the album's title, The Tortured Poets Department, and the track list, Swift posted the following note on Instagram:

And so I enter into evidence
My tarnished coat of arms
My muses, acquired like bruises
My talismans and charms
The tick, tick, tick of love bombs
My veins of pitch black ink
All's fair in love and poetry...
The Chairman of the Tortured Poets Department

This cryptic message sent Swifties into a frenzy, with many predicting that the album will document the superstar's breakup with British actor Joe Alwyn. But for bibliophiles like us, the title gives us hope that her new album will pay homage to poetry and all things literary.

From William Shakespeare to Daphne du Maurier to Kurt Vonnegut, Swift has a long history of recalling great literature with her lyrics. Here's hoping that this will be her most bookish album yet! In preparation, we're reviewing a few of her poetical references of the past and making predictions about where the new album will take us.

"Take me to the lakes where all the poets went to die."

In "The Lakes" from her Folklore album, Taylor pays tribute to the poets of the Romantic era, employing a clever play on Wordsworth with this line: "I've come too far to watch some name-dropping sleaze / Tell me what are my words worth." It should come as no surprise that T-Swizzle would be drawn to Romanticism, an 18th-century movement prizing emotional expression over logic and reason. The "Lake Poets," as they were called, also embraced the bliss of solitude, which made sense for this album written and released during the pandemic. To enjoy Romantic poetry, here are some collections we recommend.

"And I know it's long gone and that magic's not here no more / And I might be okay but I'm not fine at all"

In the liner notes for Red, as well as at the beginning of her "All Too Well" short film, Swift included a quote from Pablo Neruda: "Love is so short, forgetting is so long." The line is from the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet's "Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines" included in his collection titled Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Both works ruminate on how the happy memories of lost love can become acutely painful. "It was rare. I was there. I remember it all too well."

"The road not taken looks real good now."

This line from "Tis the Damn Season" on Evermore isn't the first time Taylor referenced Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost. In fact, the songwriter was only twelve years old when she penned her song "The Outside," including the line, "I tried to take the road less traveled by / But nothing seems to work the first few times." From Folklore, a track called "Illicit Affairs" says "Take the road less traveled by / Tell yourself you can always stop." Clearly, she's a fan.

"But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time / Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time."

"Look What You Made Me Do" from Taylor's Reputation era recalls Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus," first published in Ariel, in which Plath writes "Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well." In both works, the artists are mourning a loss of innocence and unveiling a new, tougher identity. The final lines of Plath's poem read, "Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air." Tay expresses a similar sentiment of retribution when she sings, "I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams."

"My pain fits in the palm of your freezing hand / Taking mine, but it's been promised to another"

If Emily Dickinson were alive today, she'd likely be a Swiftie. And it seems clear that the feeling would be mutual. Taylor's Evermore album was released on December 10, Dickinson's birthday, and it is filled with the sentiments of love, heartbreak, and yearning that the late poet was known for.

Many fans have suggested that the song "Ivy" is about a secret romance that Dickinson is thought to have had with Sue Gilbert, her sister-in-law and close friend. Consider these lines from Dickinson's poem "One Sister have I in our house:" "Today is far from Childhood / But up and down the hills / I held her hand the tighter / Which shortened all the miles." The last line of this poem only adds to the intrigue, "Sue—forevermore!"

Check out the The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson to enjoy more of her iconic, heartfelt verses.

Tracing the new tracks for clues 

Poring over the song titles for The Tortured Poets Department, there are a few tracks that offer clues about their inspirations. But in classic Swiftian fashion, these hints seem layered and complex—a veritable parfait of cultural references.

A song called "But Daddy I Love Him" seems to recall Romeo and Juliet, a story Taylor has referenced before. Then again, this is an actual line spoken by Ariel in the Disney film The Little Mermaid. Could it be another shoutout to Plath's Ariel?

The track titled "Who's Afraid of Little Old Me?" is an obvious reference to Edward Albee's classic play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this title, itself, a play on "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf," a song from Disney's Three Little Pigs. Notoriously tortured author Virginia Woolf seems an obvious inspiration here. But it is also reasonable to consider Albee's play, which centers on a bitter and volatile marriage. The fact that tumultuous lovers Liz Taylor and Richard Burton played the leads in the 1966 film adds yet another layer to this tasty treat as Taylor referenced the couple in her song "Ready For It?" with this lyric: "He can be my jailor / Burton to this Taylor / Every love I've known in comparison is a failure." Color us intrigued!

The final track on the album is called, simply, "Clara Bow." The silent film star is known to have had a complex and poignant life story with many personal struggles. One could surmise that Taylor feels a certain sense of camaraderie with Bow who could be considered the OG "it" girl. In any case, we plan on picking up a copy of this excellent biography of the actress: Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn.

A few of our favorite tortured poets

Finally, here's a list of noteworthy collections from some of our favorite tortured poets who we haven't already mentioned. These are versifiers who just might serve as inspiration on Taylor's new album and we want to be ready!

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Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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Literature | Poetry | taylor_swift
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