Was Marc Bolan inspired by Keats?
Article by Stephanie Jerome
If you have no idea who Marc Bolan is, let alone Keats, then you are very unusual…
Here’s a brief outline of the story of the great man:
Marc Bolan was born as Marc Feld, and he changed his surname to Bolan for his debut single "The Wizard" in 1966. Some people think this name came from Bob Dylan, but there isn’t much evidence of that. He found a guy called Steve Took (who Bolan renamed Steve Peregrine Took after some dude in Lord Of The Rings (see the literary connections already?)) and formed the duo Tyrannosaurus Rex in 1968. The pair split partnership in 1970 and Bolan switched to electric guitar andT.Rex as a rock band. "Ride a White Swan" became a No.2 record in late 1970 and Marc became a rock idol. T.Rex went on to become one of the best known groups of the 70's enjoying many hit singles until Bolan’s tragic death in 1977.
So now you know a bit more about Bolan, we can start looking at the
similarities between the two men.
Ok, you might think the links I come up with are weak and irrelevant- just an excuse to go on about my idol and show you great pictures of him… well maybe it is
I think that Bolan did get a lot of his poetical ideas from Keats. He was serious in his pursuits as a musician and a poet, drawing inspirations from literary greats such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Byron and Keats, and French romanticist Arthur Rimbaud. In 1969 Bolan even went so far as to produce his own book of poetry, The Warlock of Love. From its pages:
The breeze from the hill journeyed through his
snowy hair like an omen.
His cloak of caution, threadbare and patterned, fell
to the moorland mire like a lamented autumn leaf.
He dribbled his thoughts like a mastiff.
"If only," he muttered, uttering words of poetry in
magical wordways, causing violent upheavals in the
animal homesteads within earshot of his daggered lips.
Notice how delicate descriptions such as ‘lamented autumn leaf’ are reminiscent of Keatsian imagery. The obvious example is ‘Ode to Autumn’
In this poem, there are references to grief and mourning:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
Both samples of poetry display a similarity in use of alliteration, soft words, and dreamy imagery. ‘Cloak of caution’ and ‘barred clouds bloom’ are phrases that are pretty tricky to say out loud. Try it out…
I think its fair to say that the lyrics Bolan wrote during the Tyrannosaurus Rex era were the most Keatsian and poetical. Of course, he carried the Romantic poets’ influence throughout his life, but they feature most strongly before 1970.
Her silver car a silver cloud cloaked the air in a shroud
Her pearly author's teeth tore
The seasoned cedar coloured pheasant
Hills that spread around your chamber
Blooms that twine around your ears
Blossoms of the royalest texture
Angel of the years
Gazelle girl striding through your palace
Precious jewels nestle in your hair
-from the album My People Were Fair by Marc Bolan
Young once youthful still now
Muse to the willow and ploughed
Fields arched with orchards
Blooms of the stars.
-from the album Prophets Seers And Sages by Marc Bolan
These delicates he heap'd with glowing hand
On golden dishes and in baskets bright
Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand
In the retired quiet of the night,
Filling the chilly room with perfume light
As down she knelt for heaven's grace and boon;
Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,
And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint:
She seem'd a splendid angel, newly drest
-from ‘The Eve of Saint Agnes’ by John Keats
Colour and richness are the general themes in these extracts from Bolan and Keats, with incredibly rich imagery of jewels, blooms and a general atmosphere of vibrant life and freshness– but in the Eve of St Agnes, this vibrancy is hidden while outside, all is dark and quiet. In Bolan’s lyrics, the effervescent liveliness is never hidden. This could possibly be related to the fact he was such a sparkling and vibrant presence on stage. Keats on the other hand was a brooding, nervous and withdrawn personality. But inside, he had an amazing imagination and ability to express himself through his poetry, as Bolan did when he was alone.
While some dismissed The Warlock of Love volume as self-indulgence, it sold 40,000 copies and became one of Britain’s best-selling books of poetry.
If being a published poet established Bolan’s place as his generation’s brooding mystic, the album Electric Warrior solidified his status as a pop star. His lyrics flexed from nuanced metaphor to catchy refrain, always backed up by the foursome’s trademark grooves.
I could have loved you girl
Like a planet
I could have chained your heart to a star
But it doesn’t really matter at all
No, it really doesn’t matter at all
Life’s a gas
Hope it’s gonna last
-"Life’s A Gas"
For the sake of argument, because I know how idealistic I am about the connection between Bolan and Keats, here's a piece of writing by Terry Kelly, showing how he believes poetry and rock lyrics to be completely seperate:
“Rock music and poetry traditionally make for extremely awkward, if not disastrous, bedfellows. Just think of the acres of tosh committed to paper by Jim Morrison and Marc Bolan. Most of my critical instincts tell me that rock lyrics - even the finest of the genre - are one thing, and serious poetry quite another. It follows that the tiresome, but oft-repeated debate pitting Bob Dylan against John Keats isn't really a debate at all. Yes, rock lyrics can aspire to "poetic" qualities and evoke similar complex emotional and intellectual responses in us, but ultimately, they require the human voice and music to complete the aesthetic cocktail.”
Well, all you need to know is that he’s wrong...
Marc Bolan died on the 16th of September 1977 when his purple Mini hit a tree whilst being driven by his girlfriend, American singer Gloria Jones.
The last link between the 2 great men is probably purely coincidental but yet is strange and so fitting:
His marker is located in the Keats Rose Bed, in Golder's Green Crematorium, Golder's Green, London.
On a side note, here’s some fairly recent bands I know Bolan would have liked:
Babylon Zoo– All that glam rocky chrome guitar/sitar stuff ;)
Muse– For all those dreamy lyrics
Placebo– Molko’s awesome voice
Marilyn Manson– coz he’s cool
The Darkness– obvious glam rock elements
Keats Rocks! And Bolan is King….