Romanticism Now: “Take me to the Lakes where all the poets went to die”: Romantic Escapades in Taylor Swift’s Folklore

It is my absolute pleasure to launch a new series on the BARS Blog. Romanticism Now will host discussions of the resonance of Romanticism and the Romantic era in contemporary pop culture. Please approach us with your takes on film and television, music, theatre, video games, memes, or any other aspects of pop culture which reflect a Romantic sensibility. If you would like to submit a piece for the Romanticism Now series, or any of the other BARS Blog series’ please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, Jack Orchard, here

We are launching this new series with a fascinating close reading of the Romantic echoes in Taylor Swift’s Folklore (2020) by Zoë van Cauwenberg. Zoë is a PhD candidate in literary history at KU Leuven and Ghent University. Her project, funded by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), “History as ‘Fairy-ground’: Scottish and Irish Female Voice and the Gothic Imagination (1780-1830)” navigates the boundaries between literary production and the writing of history in the Romantic period. She examines how female authors use the Gothic to blend imagination with self-expression and to conflate folk belief with national spirit. Zoë’s broader research interests include British Romantic culture, intellectual history, gender studies, and renaissance alchemy. 

“Take me to the Lakes where all the poets went to die”: Romantic Escapades in Taylor Swift’s Folklore

In her eighth album, Folklore (2020), Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter, Taylor Swift treads in the footsteps of the Lake Poets. The final track, “the lakes,” depicts a lyrical I—most likely Swift herself—who seeks refuge amongst the Windermere peaks, “a perfect place to cry” as she sings, and imaginatively travels to the sublime scenery of the Lake District.[1] Discussing the creation of the song in the Disney+ documentary Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, Swift makes the connection to “poets like William Wordsworth and John Keats” who retreated to those parts “hundreds of years ago.”[2] Isolation in 2020 was not so much a choice as a necessity to keep the COVID-pandemic at bay, and Swift’s Folklore captures the need to escape, as she observes in the documentary: “I may not be able to go to the Lakes right now, or to go anywhere but I’m going there in my head.”[3] Hailed as “the quintessential lockdown album [original emphasis],” I’d like to consider what Swift’s Folklore might tell us about the resonance of Romanticism in our modern world.[4]

Swift’s Instagram Post announcing the release of Folklore on 23 July 2020

Announced only a mere seventeen hours before its release on July 24, 2020, Swift surprised her fanbase with Folklore, “a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness […] my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory.”[5] A creative collaboration with indie artists Aaron Dessner from The National, Jack Antonoff (singer-songwriter and album producer, who has previously worked with Swift as well as other artists such as Lorde, Lana Del Rey, The Chicks and Carly Rae Jepsen), Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, and William Bowery (pseudonym for Joe Alwyn, British actor and Swift’s partner), the album was written, recorded, and produced during the pandemic. According to Swift, Folklore lyrically ventures in “a total direction of escapism and romanticism” to narrate the escapades and heartbreak of real and imaginary characters.[6]

While the escapist theme oozes from the songs, Romanticism is less easy to locate except for the overt evocations in “the lakes.” In this song, she alludes to William Wordsworth— “tell me what are my Wordsworth”—and to “the Lakes where all the poets went to die.”[7] While Wordsworth did die in the Lake District, at the ripe age of eighty, the other Lake Poets, S.T. Coleridge, and Robert Southey, died near London. Keats, the other Romantic poet mentioned by Swift in the documentary, perished in Italy, a long way from the Lakes. Maybe Swift is taking some poetic licence with history to entrain the compelling idea that poets die near lakes. Such an association lives in the popular imagination, attested by the grouping of the Lake Poets, as well as Mary and P.B. Shelley and Lord Byron’s 1816 summer in Lake Geneva, whose friendly competition for writing ghost-stories brought us Frankenstein (1818). Alternatively, Swift might be alluding to poetic retirement and living out a quiet life in “a cottage overgrown with wisteria,” which is Swift’s exit plan.[8] Merging historical reality with fantasy, the song conjures up Romanticism as associated with the Lake District and its natural surroundings as a perfect place for emotional expression.

Swift’s Romanticism does not end there. In the opening lines of “the lakes,” she wonders: “is it romantic how all my elegies eulogize me?”[9] Lamentation and celebration are seemingly intertwined: the lyric suggests a particular form of self-expression that combines melancholy with praise, as though sadness ought to be celebrated. If we take these elegising eulogies as central to Swift’s idea of Romanticism, we might understand it as a structure of feeling to express elevated emotional states in natural scenery through the mouthpiece of a lyrical I. In “the lakes” this melancholy takes the following shape:

I want auroras and sad prose
I want to watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet
‘Cause I haven’t moved in years
And I want you right here
A red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground
With no one around to tweet it
While I bathe in cliffside pools
With my calamitous love and insurmountable grief

Swift, ‘the Lakes’, Folklore, (Republic, 2020)

These elegiac eulogies resemble the “pleasurable aesthetic” of melancholy that pervades Romantic-era women’s writing.[10] As Susan Wolfson’s gendered reading suggests, melancholy can speak beyond a “solitary song,” namely “in a chorus of women’s social alienation and restlessness.”[11] Swift’s position in the world is very different from the situation of her Romantic female counterparts, though in lockdown—however comfortable it might have been—alienation and restlessness prevailed.

Partaking in the elegiac sentiments of Charlotte Smith’s “To Melancholy” (1785), Swift adds to the chorus of melancholy musings of women poets. Where Swift dreams up auroras and sad prose against the backdrop of the Lake District, Smith wanders around the banks of the Arun (in the South Downs, West Sussex) in late autumn’s “evening veil,” (l.1) when “the shadowy phantom pale / oft seems to flee before the poet’s eyes” (ll. 5-6). As she walks, Smith hears “mournful melodies” (l. 7) and reflects on melancholy’s “magical power / that to the soul these dreams are often sweet / and soothe the pensive visionary mind!” (ll. 12-14). Just as Swift seeks to escape her predicament, Smith conjures up melancholy to soften a contemplative mood through reverie. Melancholy—or “spleen”—might be a dominant mood for women’s isolation and alienation, perhaps even for our pandemic predicament.

The absorption in mental reverie to give expression to sentiments experienced in lockdown, moreover, testifies to the continuing potency of Romantic habits of thought.  Terry Castle discussed this notion of Romantic reverie in relation to Emily St. Aubert, the protagonist of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794).[12] Isolated, persecuted, and haunted, Emily reverts to happier memories of her childhood and her travels with her father and her lover across the Pyrenees, finding consolation and fortitude in bringing their images to mind. Perhaps in lockdown, we all became Emily St. Aubert, exhibiting “the fantastic, nostalgic, and deeply alienating absorption in phantasmatic objects dramatized in Radcliffe’s novel.”[13]

Introspectiveness and reverie permeate Swift’s seventh track, aptly entitled “seven.” The song combines two storylines, that of a lyrical “I” in a natural environment, interspersed with impressions of a childhood friendship, “sweet tea in the summer / cross your heart won’t tell no other / and though I can’t recall your face / I still got love for you.” Interestingly, the lyrical I’s presence in natural scenery is almost wistful and bittersweet:

Please picture me
in the trees
I hit my peak at seven
Feet
in the swing
over the creek
I was too scared to jump in
but I, I was high
in the sky
with Pennsylvania under meare there still beautiful things?

Swift, ‘seven’, Folklore (Republic, 2020)

The closing line intimates a sense of loss, as though the childhood innocence and bliss might be gone forever. A similar sensation is found in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. After her father’s death, Emily bids goodbye to her home in Gascogne:

From her window she gazed upon the garden below, shown faintly by the moon, rising over the tops of the palm-trees, and, at length, the calm beauty of the night increased a desire of indulging the mournful sweetness of bidding farewell to the beloved shades of her childhood, till she was tempted to descend […] Sweet hours of my childhood—I am now to leave even your last memorials! No objects, that would revive your impressions, will remain for me!

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) 113-4.

Irrecoverable loss and bittersweet sadness characterise the reminiscence of childhood, indulging in a “mournful sweetness” for that which has passed away. We may not know whether she read Radcliffe or Smith during lockdown, but “Swift might feel some affinity for those earlier poetic sisters.”[14]

While playing on the popular imagery of the Lakes and the sentimentality of Romanticism, Swift’s eulogising elegies also demonstrate the continuing escapist potential of Romantic reverie. Folklore portrays the solace and comfort we can find in wallowing in our sadness, and, like “the red rose that grew up out of ice-frozen ground” in Swift’s imaginative retreat in “the lakes,” Romanticism persists in the strangest of places. 


[1] The lyrics are taken from the sleeve of Taylor Swift’s Folklore LP (2020).

[2] Taylor Swift, Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Session, (Disney+, 2020).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Will Richards, “’Folklore: The Long Pond Sessions’ review: secrets, songs and self-isolation with Taylor Swift,” NME, 27 November 2020

[5] Taylor Swift, Instagram caption, 24 July 2020.

[6] Patrick Doyle, “Musicians on Musicians: Taylor Swift & Paul McCartney,” Rolling Stone, 13 November 2020,

[7] While Folklore’s song titles are uncapitalised, the Lakes is capitalised in the lyric on the LP’s sleeve.

[8] Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Session.

[9] The lyrics are taken from the sleeve of Taylor Swift’s Folklore LP (2020).

[10] Stephen Bending, “Melancholy Amusements: Women, Gardens, and the Depression of Spirits,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 44, no. 2 (2011): 42.

[11] Susan J. Wolfson, “Romanticism & Gender & Melancholy,” Studies in Romanticism 53, no. 3 (2014): 437.

[12] Terry Castle, “The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho,” in The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and Invention of the Uncanny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 120–39.

[13] Castle, 137.

[14] Deborah Kennedy, Poetic Sisters: Early Eighteenth-Century Women Poets, (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2012) 225.

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