England is all atwitter over the news that students were asked to compare Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem “As You Came from the Holy Land” to the lyrics of “Love is a Losing Game” by Amy Winehouse in a final exam at Cambridge University last week. Reaction so far ranges from snooty disdain to prolix vitriol. But has anyone yet mustered the blogging gusto to actually attempt this controversial lit crit stunt? As the girl who once interpreted the line in Rubén Darío’s “Yo persigo una forma” about the “impossible embrace of Venus de Milo” (a figurative statement about the impossibility of achieving true beauty) as a hilarious wisecrack about the armless nature of the statue, I feel more than qualified to be the first to perform this task.
The exact details vary from one British periodical to the next, but the Times of London tells it this way:
The verses from Love is a Losing Game may not quite make it as a sonnet, but the track, from Winehouse’s Back to Black album, was deemed good enough for discussion on lyric poetry. The extract included verses such as: “Though I’m rather blind/ Love is a fate resigned/ Memories mar my mind/ Love is a fate resigned” and “Over futile odds/ And laughed at by the gods/ And now the final frame/ Love is a losing game.”
Students expressed a mixture of surprise, irritation and no little admiration for their exam setters. “It was really bizarre,” said one student, speaking on condition of anonymity while his paper was with the markers. “I sat there looking at the paper in shock. I wouldn’t consider a controversial pop singer a literary figure.”
The examiners posed the following question: “The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘lyric’ as ‘Of or pertaining to the lyre; adapted to the lyre, meant to be sung’. It also quotes Ruskin’s maxim ‘lyric poetry is the expression by the poet of his own feelings’.
“Compare poem (a) on the separate sheet [a lyric by Sir Walter Raleigh, written in 1592] with one or two of the song lyrics (b)(d), with reference to these diverse senses of ‘lyric’.”
“Lyric (d)”, Love is a Losing Game, written by Winehouse and Mark Ronson and winner of an Ivor Novello award last week for being the Best Musical and Lyrical Song, was up against stiff competition.
The Raleigh text was As You Came from The Holy Land…
In case you’ve been stuck in the cave that even the Cambridge elders managed to escape, here’s “Love is a Losing Game”:
The most obvious structural difference between the two is that Raleigh’s poem is a conversation between two characters, or voices, while “Love is a Losing Game,” like most modern pop songs, is simply a one-perspective affair with no conversational aspect. But other than that, the two works are remarkably similar; both are more or less fatalist ruminations on the fleeting nature of love.
For Raleigh, the inevitability is love’s aversion to age:
“I have loved her all my youth,/But now old, as you see,/Love likes not the falling fruit/From the withered tree.”
Winehouse doesn’t even give love a shot out of the gate:
“Though I’ve battled blind/Love is a fate resigned/Memories mar my mind/Love is a fate resigned.”
Both also share the standard quatrain form, though Raleigh primarily uses the slightly more complicated ABCB rhyme scheme, while Winehouse sticks to AAAA and AABB because she’s a decent pop star and smart enough to keep things essentially simple.
The most important point, however, is the difference of the final stanzas of each work. Raleigh’s poem is a conversation between a man who’s been left by his “true love” and a traveler who’s returned from a trip to the Holy Land. The lovelorn character asks the traveler if he saw his trifling ex-girlfriend out on the pilgrimage route and the traveler says yeah, he saw her and she was totally hot. Then they get into a mopefest about how love is hard, and love is also reckless, and people fall out of love with each other as they get older, and bitches be crazy, etc. The traveler is a bit of an instigator in the situation, encouraging the man to talk more about his heartache and, as another great poet might put it, generally giving love a bad name:
“Know that Love is a careless child,/And forgets promise past,/He is blind, he is deaf when he list,/ And in faith never fast.”
But in the last stanza of “As You Came from the Holy Land” the spurned lover declares “But true love is a durable fire,/In the mind ever burning,/Never sick, never old, never dead,/From itself never turning.” The two-voice structure provides for the situation to be talked out and brought to a certain conclusion. While the man is initially bitter and sad, he eventually rises to answer the pessimism of the traveler, concluding that true love is essentially worthy despite its petty trappings.
In the last verse of “Love is a Losing Game,” however, there is no such optimism:
“Over futile odds/And laughed at by the gods/And now the final frame/Love is a losing game.”
Winehouse hasn’t gone anywhere in the course of the song; she’s right back where she started from three minutes before, losing at love. There’s nothing to work against in “Love is a Losing Game”; it’s just Winehouse and her sorrow, and as the song also lacks a narrative element there’s yet even less forward motion.
Sir Walter Raleigh says “true love is a durable fire,” while Amy Winehouse “was a flame.” If lyrics are by definition “meant to be sung,” then “As You Came from the Holy Land” is an essentially hopeful duet, while “Love is a Losing Game” is a past-tense ode to misery which is in every way “the expression by the poet of [her] own feelings.”
Amy Winehouse gets into Cambridge [Times of London]