Hey, this Internet thing works after all. Someone out there in the inky void of cyberspace stumbled across my Decemberists Glossary and posted a comment asking my opinion—me!—on a lyrical detail from the Portland band’s new single, “Down by the Water.” It’s posted over on my “Contact” page, but I thought I’d re-post it here because a) my newspaper training tells me that recycling comments is one cheap way to goose your page views and b) it brought up some interesting stuff stretching all the way back literary archetypes established by the Ancient Greeks.
Samantha Prince says:
February 2, 2011 at 8:42 pm
I am very eager to hear what you make of the reference to Leda in the song Down by the River. I think it is the Leda from the myth that Yeats also writes about…some kind of an encounter that might mirror the scene I am envisioning. Descriptors: prohibited, landmark, a type of transfer of knowledge and power. I was an English major so of course I love their lyrics and your glossary. Please don’t make me get my Norton out. Yes, I can rock out while reading the old Norton.
A few reference points for those of you that likewise don’t feel like getting out your Nortons (and, please, if you do feel like pulling out your Norton, do it in the privacy of your own home). The Greek myth of Leda describes how Zeus totally wanted this hot chick, so he turned himself into a swan (obviously) and impregnated her. Leda gave birth to two sets of twins, fathered by both the shape-shifting god and her actual husband, and the kids went on to play key roles in the Trojan War.
The swan seduction has proven to be a popular motif in art and literature ever since. Irish poet William Butler Yeats used it as the basis for one of the most important poems of the 20th century, “Leda and the Swan.” The sonnet begins with shocking and realistic descriptions of swan rape, but it settles into that strange mysticism that Yeats did so well. The poem’s jarring invocation of Agamemnon—a hero of the Trojan War whom one of Leda’s daughters would eventually kill—seems to indicate some sort of transfer of knowledge or power at the moment of penetration.
The Decemberists’ song, meanwhile, finds the narrator strolling through a seaport town and making passing reference to a young girl named Leda:
All dolled up in gabardine
The lash-flashing Leda of pier nineteen
Queen of the water and queen of the old main drag
Here is my response to Samantha:
February 3, 2011 at 1:33 am
By golly, I think you’ve got it figured out better than anything I could add. It’s definitely “Leda,” according to the official lyrics at decemberists.com, and [Colin] Meloy would be well aware of the significance of that name and wouldn’t drop it in the song without meaning to conjure up all the themes of Yeats’ poem. So, yeah, my take is that it’s alluding to those teenage encounters down by the waterfront and whether there was any mystic recognition of what the future held in those moments. I’m just kind of spitballing here.
I hadn’t thought about any of this before you brought it up, by the way–so thanks for stopping by!
That’s one of the reasons I love Meloy’s songwriting. He knows enough about literature and myth to drop one little loaded word into a song and it opens up a whole range of interpretation and wild speculation.
Maybe it’s only me and English majors that get excited about this stuff. I’ll be over here, rocking with my Norton out.