TS Eliot: The pop star's poet

As Johnny Flynn a releases a new track, After Eliot, Chris Mugan traces the Modernist's longstanding influence on popular music

Nu-folk troubadour Johnny Flynn is back this month with a new album, Country Mile, and he is previewing its release by streaming the wistful track “After Eliot”. The singer-songwriter has explained that the piece is inspired by none other than the modernist poet T S Eliot – something that will come as little surprise to students of literate songwriting.

Judging by the number of references and name-checks over the years, Eliot remains the number one poet for musicians seeking to deliver something more original or meaningful than just another girl-meets-boy scenario. It is an accolade that you can trace all the way back to the artist who has done more than anyone to ensure we take rock and pop seriously, Bob Dylan. It was not long after the poet's death in 1965 that Dylan wrote him into his epic “Desolation Row”: “Ezra Pound and T S Eliot / Fighting in the captain's tower.”

The manner in which the closing track to Highway 61 Revisited mixes historical figures and fictional characters in a surreal montage owes a debt to the beat movement's favoured stream of consciousness, but you cannot help but be reminded of Eliot's own variety of allusions.

Writers post-Dylan have referred more directly to these than the man himself. Genesis's “The Cinema Show”, from 1973's Selling England by the Pound, adapts a scene from The Waste Land's “The Fire Sermon” segment, with only slight changes to some lines. Most artists, though, go for straightforward name-checks, as when Manic Street Preachers' James Dean Bradfield sings “Alfred J Prufrock would be proud of me” on “My Guernica”.

Another favourite from Eliot's canon is “The Hollow Men”, its doom-laden imagery especially popular with more goth-orientated rockers: see, for example, the Cult's “Hollow Man”, from their 1985 hit album Love.

Allusions to Eliot continue today, with Arcade Fire's Win Butler, turned on to him by an inspirational teacher, inserting the line “Like a patient on a table” in “We Used To Wait”, paraphrasing one from “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”. The Old Etonian Frank Turner, meanwhile, is a serial Eliot line-dropper. Not only has he described our civil liberty-eroding government as “hollow men” on “Sons of Liberty”, but he has referenced the master's poems in two song titles, “Journey of the Magi” and “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous”. The former at least looks beyond Eliot's most iconic works to a poem he wrote about the New Testament's three wise men, having converted to Christianity and begun to dismiss The Waste Land.

A mainstay of the curriculum, Eliot's popularity relies in part upon sympathetic English tutors. His poems may not be easy to understand fully at first, with their abstract nature and oblique details, but he does make an immediate impact with those deathless lines: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” Such words full of import could have been designed to pique the interest of adolescents struggling to make sense of life.

Then there is Eliot's use of different voices in his work, and of demotic phrases then unfamiliar to poetry's hallowed portals – even going so far as to include gobbets of nursery rhymes and so forth, as an early form of sampling. By tearing up the style rule book when Modernism was railing against classical forms, he set an example that still resonates today. A fine recent example is PJ Harvey's album Let England Shake, a powerful work that references the First World War and throws together a variety of viewpoints in a manner familiar to readers of The Waste Land. In interviews, she admitted to reading Eliot as part of her research.

Eliot's work also benefits from being read aloud, so it is little wonder that he gets respect from the more intellectual rappers. Thus, the Public Enemy founder Chuck D has referenced Prufrock on “Niggativaty … Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?” from his solo album The Autobiography of Mistachuck. And the more underground Doomtree collective have the line “It goes thanks, T S, but the world ends like this / Not a bang, not a whimper, but a sibilant hiss”, on their track “No Homeowners”.

Flynn, meanwhile, seems to be doing something slightly different on “After Eliot”. Rather than referencing a particularpoem, the solo artist aims to capture a particular sense of disquiet, similar to Eliot's unease at progress in the early 20th century. Specifically, Flynn tells of an awkward encounter; a connection missed. Perhaps something that ends with a whimper? It is certainly a long way from girl-meets-boy.

Rhyming rockers: Pop inspired by verse

Fionn Regan: “Lord Help My Poor Soul” (inspired by Edgar Allan Poe)

“Lord help my poor soul

I'm down like Edgar Poe

Lord help my poor soul

I'm bound for Damascus“

Arctic Monkeys: “I Wanna Be Yours” (John Cooper Clarke)

“I wanna be your vacuum cleaner

Breathing in your dust

I wanna be your Ford Cortina

I will never rust“

Crash Test Dummies: “Afternoons and Coffeespoons” (TS Eliot)

“Afternoons will be measured out

Measured out, measured with

Coffee spoons and TS Eliot“

The Smiths: “Cemetry Gates” (John Keats and WB Yeats)

“A dreaded sunny day

So I meet you at the cemetery gates

Keats and Yeats are on your side

A dreaded sunny day“

Joni Mitchell: “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (WB Yeats)

“Turning and turning

Within the widening gyre

The falcom cannot hear

the falconer

Things fall apart

The centre cannot hold

And a blood dimmed tide

Is loosed upon the world“

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent