Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Decembrists & Narration

"The Island" is a track which appears on The Decemberists' fourth album, The Crane Wife. "The Island" is divided into three parts: "Come & See," "The Landlord's Daughter," and "You'll Not Feel the Drowning." I am not interested in reader-response or the author's intention. My criticism is reserved for the poetic form and structure of the lyrics in each section of the song. I will attempt to shed light on the narrator of the following stanzas and the intentions behind his actions by this essay's end.

The first section, "Come & See," is composed of five stanzas. The rhyme scheme of this section follows an unusual pattern: In the first stanza rhythm is AABBA; In the second stanza the rhythm is CCDDE; The third stanza does not rhyme at all; In the fourth stanza the rhythm is FGHHG; and the fifth stanza is identical to the third. Each stanza ends with the words, 'Come and See;' the line is repeated twice at the end of every stanza except for the first, in which it only appears once. For this reason I did not include these lines in the rhyme scheme. This section is the account of a party's arrival on and exploration of an island. In the first stanza, we can assume that the company arrived on this island "hidden in the sound" by ship, hence the lines "Lapping currents lay your boat to ground." We might also assume that this company is armed ("Affix your barb and bayonet") or possessed of hostile intent. The description of the island in the second stanza renders this island void of humanity but not civilization, for the company finds a "harbor lost within the reeds" and "a jetty caught in over-hanging trees" but "no boot mark here nor finger prints." "Among the bones of cormorants," implies that the island was previously discovered by adventurers in the past, but none lived long enough to tell the tale. Finally, we are reminded twice in the third and fifth stanzas that the company of men will not "go home again." Accordingly, the structural transition from traditional and structured schema into an abnormal and chaotic free verse reinforces the idea that this company is departing from everyday reality and entering a chaotic and spontaneous state of mind; Perhaps they visit the ruins of a utopia swallowed by nature that has caused the downfall of many an idle traveler in search for it.

"The Landlord's Daughter" is the second section of the "Island," and only composed of three stanzas. The rhyme scheme follows the pattern ABCBBD in the first stanza, then DEE in the second stanza, and finally BB in the last stanza. In "The Landlord's Daughter," the narration switches from what one would presume to be the account of one company of several adventurers to the words of a single narrator. We are uncertain whether or not the situation described in this section occurs on the same island in the first stanza, or if the narrator is of the company which arrived on the island previously. We are made aware that he or she is armed as the previous adventurers were implied to be ("Produced my pistol, then my saber") and abducts "the landlord's daugter" who is "spied in sable" "down by the water." That the woman is a "landlord's daughter" implies the presence of civilization ("land" and "lord," one would expect him to have subjects to lord over) and given the fact that the island in the first stanza appeared to be barren and void of life discourages cohesive attempts at narration. I am inclined to consider the narrator a pirate, though not in the traditional sense; we can see from the final stanza that the narrator does not intend to use the woman to obtain wealth, but rather they claim, "I'll take those sweet lips, and I'll deliver." The deteriorating structure of the poem suggests that the narrator is departing from the realm of rational thought and is letting himself be guided by his passions; each subsequent stanza is smaller than the last, and for that reason more ambiguous. Where once we were given the narrator's account of his actions in the first stanza, in the last we are left with only his words. Perhaps he has been possessed by the greed and madness of the island, which destroyed the cormorants whose remains were visible in the first stanza. Does he possess a woman at all? Is she merely an illusion? Did the land not seem to lack any inhabitants when the company arrived? And where is the rest of his company? What was once an organized and united enterprise has fallen apart and each member may have become delusional and gone off on his own into oblivion.

Finally, "You'll Not Feel the Drowning" consists of four stanzas. The first stanza follows a ABCBDEDFF rhyme scheme; the second stanza follows a GHIHDEDFF rhyme scheme; the third stanza follows a DEDFF rhyme scheme, and the final stanza does not rhyme at all. This section appears in the form of an ode, for the narrator is clearly addressing another person. We can assume that the narrator intends or is currently in the process of killing the other person with the following evidence: "I will dress your eyelids, With dimes upon your eyes"; "Laying close to water, Green your grave will rise"; "Go to sleep little ugly, Go to sleep you little fool"; and of course, "You'll not feel the drowning." It is possible that the narrator is the raider from the second stanza, and is now in the process of killing his captive, the landlord's daughter. The narrator would appear to resort to the senseless destruction of an innocent with repeated accusations of her naivety; she is often called a "little fool" and reminded to forget everyone else, because "they've forgotten you." Furthermore, the narrator comforts his victim with the promise of a humane and painless death with "You'll not feel the drowning." It is revealed in the last stanza that the narrator himself was once addressed thus by his captain: "Weight upon your eyelids, As dimes laid on your eyes." This is the same address used by the narrator at the beginning of his speech, and suggests that the narrator himself was once put to death at sea, and now he drags an innocent into the deep with him. It therefore stands to reason that all of the remarks directed at the narrator's victim can be directed at the narrator himself as well; in fact, it is he who is forgotten by his lovers and parents. Likewise, he seeks to give his victim the same fate: She will be forever innocent and forgotten; she will belong to the narrator alone and united with him in an ignominous death. The narrator believes he is removing the woman from a world of pain and into a state of perpetual passion and dream, stranded on an "island hidden in the sound": death.

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