Led Zeppelin: Musicians, Folklorists, Poets

Led Zeppelin is generally considered to have been one of the most influential rock bands to have existed.  The band came into existence in the late 1960s from Britain, following the lead of several other musical acts which led to the coining of the term “British Invasion.”  But unlike many other bands, Zeppelin was not only interested in making music, but in offering their own takes on classical stories, such as the Trojan war.

Their songs all employed a variety of poetic elements, such as rhyme scheme, metaphors, and allusions, and have connections to a number of true poems..  This can be seen when Led Zeppelin’s songs “Stairway to Heaven” and “Achilles’ Last Stand” are compared to W.H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” and Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot.”

Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” has long been considered one of the band’s most famous contributions to the musical community.  The song has a main storyline about a woman who has spent her life concerned with material matters and never giving thought to the idea that perhaps the treasures she accumulated in life would never truly grant her a place in Heaven.

There is an allusion to the buying of alms.  The practice of buying alms was a common and popular practice in the early days of the Catholic church and involved people paying a certain amount of money to priests to have their sins forgiven, thus leading to the song’s notion that by accumulating wealth, salvation might be attained.

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“Stairway to Heaven” also has a definite rhythm.  The song alternates from having lines that are 6 – 12 syllables long.  The stanzas begin with lines that are either 10 to 12 syllables long and each consecutive line gradually decreases the amount of syllables that are present:

And it’s whispered that soon if we all call the tune   (12 syllables)

Then the piper will lead us to reason.  (10 syllables)

And a new day will dawn for those who stand long  (11 syllables)

And the forests will echo with laughter.  (10 syllables)

Immediately, a pattern in the rhythm can be seen.  The first line is 12 syllables and the following line is reduced by two syllables.  The third line is then one syllable less than the first line and the final line is the same as the second.  Such use of rhythm allows for the song to be more organized when set to music and for the poem to be more melodic when recited, to have a more flowing and surreal tone to it.

The song also involves the use of repetition.  The first stanza incorporates the repetition of the same phrase in lines two and five of the song, “And she’s buying the stairway to heaven/ […] ooh, ooh, and she’s buying the stairway to heaven.”  That repetition is seen in the last couplet of the second verse with the phrase “Ooh, it makes me wonder” and is repeated again in the last line of fourth stanza.

The poem also incorporates a sense of Arthurian legend, such as with the idea of “The Lady of Shallot” by Lord Alfred Tennyson.  Tennyson states that, “Willows whiten, aspens quiver,/ Little breezes dusk and shiver/ thro’ the wave that runs for ever” (10-12).  Led Zeppelin changes the image slightly and states that “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be afraid./ It’s just a spring clean for the May queen./ […] Dear Lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know/ your stairway lies on the whispering wind.”  There is an allusion to everything being alive in both examples.  Both incorporate an environment that is still except for the wind and largely pastoral.

Even more similar is the idea of an idealistic young woman dressed in white.  Led Zeppelin refers to:

There walks a lady we all know

Who shines white light and wants to show

How everything still turns to gold.

And if you listen very hard the tune will come to you at last.

The image is nearly identical to the Lady of Shallot described by Tennyson:

Lying, robed in snowy white

that loosely flew to left and right —

that leaves upon her falling light —

thro’ the noises of the night

[…] They heard her singing her last song.

Both women have a sense of idealism about them that eventually leads to their greater disappointment.  The woman in “Stairway to Heaven” is soon to be disappointed by the fact that her wealth will not bring her into eternal salvation.  The Lady of Shallot is only just beginning to come to terms with the fact that Lancelot does not love her and she has thrown away her life loving someone who will never have the same affection for her.  Both women are approached as being virginal creatures: they wear white, there is a sense of innocence in their believing that everything is as beautiful as gold.

Even more stirring is the idea that the final stanza of “Stairway to Heaven” refers to listeners finally being able to hear her song, while “Our Lady of Shallot” is referred to as singing one final song.  Both end with a sense of finality and tragedy.  The women are lost because of their innocence and their false hope in the world and it is the final notes of their individual songs that their existences in the world are finally realized.

Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles’ Last Stand” immortalizes one of the most famous figures of the Trojan war.  In the song, Achilles speaks of leaving for the war as a means of finding greater glory in his life as a warrior and achieving the last dreams he has within him, whether or not he lives or dies.  W. H. Auden’s poem “The Shield of Achilles” personifies Achilles’ shield and makes her seem to be a maternal figure who knows that Achilles will soon suffer an untimely death at the hands of his enemies but is wholly unable to prevent the death from occurring.

Auden’s poem has a definite rhythmic structure.  The main verses are seven lines each, while the more choral stanzas are eight lines, making the text more melodic when read.  Through the use of repetition, the idea of a song being present in the poem is obvious.

Both “The Shield of Achilles” and “Achilles’ Last Stand” mention a number of mythical references.  “The Shield of Achilles” alludes to the gods Hephaestus and Thetis while “Achilles’ Last Stand” refers to Atlas and Albion.  The poems also refer to the same foreboding figure, a decrepit old man symbolizing Achilles’ death.  “The Shield of Achilles” refers to the man as being “a ragged urchin, aimless and alone” while “Achilles’ Last Stand” refers to the man as “to seek the man whose pointed hand/the giant step unfolds.”

But the tone of the two poems differ greatly.  “Achilles’ Last Stand” is one of glory in battle and despite the fact that the persona is aware that certain death may await him, he is willing to face his fate, regardless of the outcome:

When they told us we should go

As I turn to you

You smiled at me

How could we say no?

With all the fun to have

to live the dreams we always had

Woa the song to sing

When we at last return again (1-8).

The persona wants to be immortalized for his duty in battle, wants to fulfill his goal of being a legendary warrior and spoken of for years after his death.  The use of such positive ideas, such as “when we at last return” refer to a disregard for death.  Even the end of the poem, when the persona finally dies, is positive, “The mighty arms of Atlas/hold the heavens from the earth/ I know the way, know the way, know the way.”  There is never any submission.  The persona faces death gracefully, with the mentality of a warrior.

Auden’s poem is much different in its tone.  There is an idea of the shield lamenting, beginning a premature mourning of her beloved warrior.  The poem even incorporates a scene from the Holocaust’s concentration camps to make the tone of the poem that much more somber, “Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot/ Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)/ And sentries sweated for the day was hot.”  The entire poem is built around the premise of death and dying, and the shield is witness to all that suffering, even though she mourns Achilles the most.

Even the depiction of immortal duties are different.  When “The Final Stand of Achilles” refers to “the mighty arms of Atlas, hold the heaven from the earth”, there is a sense of masculine pride, of a true warrior succeeding in his duties even though he suffers slightly.  “The Shield of Achilles” offers a more human take on such a task.  Atlas’s duty is suddenly doled out to a number of individuals, all of whom are too weak to take on such a responsibility, “The mass and majesty of this world, all/ That carries weight and always weighs the same / Lay in the hands of others; they were small.”

Through the use of repetition, rhythmic patterns, and thematic continuity, Led Zeppelin’s songs are shown to be just as poetic as musical, especially when compared to a number of poems similar in content and structure, and prove that songs are merely poems set to music.
Works Cited

Auden, W.H. “The Shield of Achilles.”

Led Zeppelin.  “Stairway to Heaven”.

Led Zeppelin.  “Achilles’ Last Stand.”

Tennyson, Lord Alfred.  “The Lady of Shallot.”

 

 

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