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Thom Yorke of Radiohead is known for his erudite lyrics, many of which contain poetic references from Robert Frost, William Blake and Alfred Lord Tennyson

Radiohead, and specifically Thom Yorke are known for their erudite lyrics, many of which contain poetic references. In Thom York’s recent album ‘Anima’ there are references to Robert Frost’s ‘Two Paths Diverge in a Wood’ in the song ‘(Ladies & Gentlemen, Thank You for Coming)’ when he sings:

‘A fork comes in the road
A fork comes in the road
You are on your phone
You are on your phone
A mist comes through the trees
Beckoning you and me
I think I'm asleep
I must be asleep’

Or references to William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ in ‘OK Computer’. The Tennyson references are there amongst the other writers that he references. Particularly ‘The Lotos Eaters’ in the ‘Radiohead Song’ ‘Lotus Flowers’.

‘Slowly we unfurl
As lotus flowers
'Cause all I want is the moon upon a stick
Just to see what if
Just to see what is
I can't kick your habit
Just to fill your fast ballooning head
Listen to your heart
We will shrink and we'll be quiet as mice
And while the cat is away
Do what we want
Do what we want
There's an empty space inside my heart
Where the weeds take root
So now…’

Sings Thom Yorke, and it is easy to draw connections to the poem, beyond the obvious affinity contained in the symbol of the ‘Lotus Flower’. Each of these poems are concerned with want and desires at the expense of being able to live real life.

‘Eating the Lotos day by day,
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
And tender curving lines of creamy spray;
To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;’

In many Tennyson poems he describes a figure lying under the earth, who can feel the motion of daily life as it goes on above them, an image used most famously in ‘Maud: A Monodrama’. 

‘My heart would hear her and beat,
      Were it earth in an earthy bed;
My dust would hear her and beat,
      Had I lain for a century dead,
Would start and tremble under her feet,
      And blossom in purple and red.’

 ‘And my heart is a handful of dust,
And the wheels go over my head,
And my bones are shaken with pain,
For into a shallow grave they are thrust,
Only a yard beneath the street,
And the hoofs of the horses beat, beat,
The hoofs of the horses beat,
Beat into my scalp and my brain,
With never an end to the stream of passing feet’

In his solo album ‘Amok’ the song ‘Default’ Thom Yorke uses imagery not only reminiscent in its subject matter but also in its meter, the plosive use of the ‘p’ sound echoing that of the ‘b’ from ‘beat’ in ‘Maud’. 

‘I've made my bed
And I'm lying in it
But it's eating me up
But it's eating me up

It's eating me up (If I could feel all the snakes on my heads)
It's eating me up (If I could feel all my snails on my heads)
It's eating me up (If I could feel all my snares on my head)’

Perhaps unconsciously the song ‘Weird Fishes’ from the album ‘In Rainbows’ also is reminiscent of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’:

‘Turn me on to phantoms
I follow to the edge of the earth
And fall off
Everybody leaves
If they get the chance
And this is my chance
I get eaten by the worms
Weird fishes

Get towed by the worms
Weird fishes
Weird fishes
Weird fishes
I'll hit the bottom
Hit the bottom and escape
Escape’

They are each characters seeking a kind of oceanic escape, an equivalent to death that is liberating, showing an end rather than a beginning. 

‘There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
[…]
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
[…]
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’

These references, or perhaps even unconscious relationships between the poems and the songs, are more than simply coincidences or idle allusions, they show what the songs are trying to be, which is more than something quickly consumable.

Thom Yorke sets himself up alongside a literary as well as a musical canon, connecting with the deeper questions and subject matter that Tennyson repeatedly attempts to grapple with: amongst other things, madness, mortality and choices.

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