There are many literary references throughout Taylor Swifts large discography
There are many literary references throughout Taylor Swift’s large discography
Sophie Haque

A Mastermind: Taylor Swift’s Literary Leanings


Taylor Swift’s new album, The Tortured Poets Department, is being released on April 19th. As displayed in its title, this album is themed around writing, featuring a bonus song titled, “The Manuscript” and merch including bookmarks. However, this is not the first time writing and literature has been referenced in Taylor Swift’s vast discography. Swift has a habit of using literary allusion as metaphors in her works to better bring across her ideas. Following are some notable examples.

Taylor Swift

In her self-titled debut album, Taylor Swift, the notable literary reference is in the song “The Outside.” Swift states that she “tried to take the road less traveled by,” a reference to the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken. The poem has a similar line to Swift’s lyric: “I took the [road] less traveled by.” The poem speaks of how one should not go the easy and common way, but follow the road “less traveled by.” This correlates to the song’s theme which is about feeling alone and “on the outside.”


Swift’s sophomore album, Fearless, contains plenty of literature references. The main example of this is the song “Love Story” which is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. This forbidden romance is shown through lyrics such as, “we keep quiet / ‘cause we’re dead if they knew” and “this love is difficult / but it’s real.” It also alludes to a scene in which Romeo throws a pebble at Juliet’s window, “you were Romeo / you were throwin’ pebbles.” This scene is also referenced in two other songs in this album, “Hey Stephen” and “The Other Side of the Door.” The use of this famous love story helps to solidify this album as one centered around romance.

Speak Now

In the album Speak Now, there are no clear references to a certain piece of literature; however, there are many mentions of writing and books in general. This is best displayed in the song “The Story of Us” which is about a romance ending, aided by the visualization of the said romance being a book. This is shown through the lines “lately I don’t even know what page you’re on,” “the story of us looks a lot like a tragedy now,” “next chapter,” and “the end.” The lyric “this was the very first page / not where the storyline ends” in “Enchanted” is another example of a romance being displayed as a book in Speak Now. The inclusion of writing themed lyrics in this album paint Swift as a serious writer, which makes sense with this album as all the songs in it were written solely by her.


The only direct reference to literature in Taylor Swift’s fourth album, Red, is in the line “you’re my Achilles heel,” in the song “State of Grace.” The phrase “Achilles heel” means a grand weakness. It comes from The Iliad by Homer in which the character Achilles is invincible in all areas except for his heel. He fights in the Trojan War and ends up dying when an arrow pierces his vulnerable heel. Therefore, this lyric states that the person Swift is singing about is her biggest weakness. This is a great descriptor of this album as many of the songs are themed around a failed romance and about pining for that person, making them a huge weakness for the narrator.


Swift’s first pop album, 1989, features the song “Wonderland” which derives its title from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This novel by Lewis Carroll is also referenced in its lyrics such as “we fell down a rabbit hole” and “didn’t you calm my fears with a Cheshire Cat smile?” This song greatly captures the anxiety and confusion found in Wonderland to describe a love falling apart. While this is the most obvious allusion to literature in this album, it is not the only one. Another notable reference is to the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne through a lyric from “New Romantics,” “we show off our different scarlet letters.” These two references do a great job of showing two big themes of this album and part of Swift’s life. Anxiety during a relationship is heavily covered on this album, besides “Wonderland” centering around it, the theme also is shown in the song “Out of the Woods.” The part of Swift’s life that is covered by The Scarlet Letter during this time period, is having multiple boyfriends/lovers, something covered on the song “‘Sl*t!’” This theme greatly aligns with the adultery present, and the shaming due to it, in The Scarlet Letter.


The album reputation has only one obvious literature reference which is found in the song “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” The mention of Gatsby in the lyric “feelin’ so Gatsby for that whole year” is a direct reference to the book The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This book was published in 1925 and heavily includes the roaring twenties as part of its setting, making the reference to this book in “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” fit in nicely with the song and album’s aesthetic.


Both clear literary references featured in the album Lover are of children’s rhymes. The first is in the song “The Archer” in which the line “all the king’s horses / all the king’s men / couldn’t put me together again” references the rhyme Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. It matches a section from the rhyme almost word for word, “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” The other reference in this album is to the children’s rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” The allusion is in the song “You Need To Calm Down” with the line “snakes and stones never broke my bones.” Swift changing a word or two to fit a commonly known rhyme into her songs and their themes, shows great songwriting prowess. Although only a few words were changed, the original meanings of the rhymes are drastically changed. With the first rhyme, the pronoun being changed to “me” changes the more sorrowful rhyme to be about the narrator. The second rhyme having changed sticks to snakes references Swift being called a snake during the #TaylorSwiftisoverparty and the change of may to never shows that the narrator is not being bothered by said “snakes and stones.”


There are quite a few literary references in Swift’s album folklore, the most straightforward one being found in “cardigan.” A lyric in this song is “tried to change the ending / Peter losing Wendy.” This mention of Peter Pan speaks of how Wendy decides to grow up and leave Neverland, leaving Peter Pan behind. This is an amazing incorporation of literature into a song as the narrator in the song claims that “when you are young / they assume you know nothing / but I knew you,” showing their maturity. In contrast, their love interest states in the song “betty” that “I’m only seventeen / I don’t know anything.” James, the love interest, ends up losing Betty, the narrator of “cardigan” due to her maturity compared to his lack of it. This is a direct parallel to “Peter losing Wendy” in Peter Pan. The song “the lakes” has multiple references to poetry and writing. It references an area in England in which many poets in the Georgian Period went to retire. Swift include mentions of poetry and poetic aspects in this song, including “all my elegies eulogize me” and “not without my muse.”


evermore has the most literary references of all of Swift’s albums so far. The biggest is the song “tolerate it” itself. Swift stated in an interview that this song was inspired by the book Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. The song has many allusions to the book including “I sit and watch you reading with your head low” and “you’re so much older and wiser.” These lines reference how the main character often watches her love interest reading the newspaper “with [his] head low” and how there is a large age gap between them. In another evermore song, “happiness,” a lyric is incredibly similar to a line from the book. The lyric in question is “dappled with the flickers of light” which is very similar to the quote “flickering patches of warm light would come in… to dapple the drive with gold” from Rebecca. Allusions to this book are not the only literary references in this album. In the song, “champagne problems” the lyric “your Midas touch” references the myth of King Midas, whose touch would turn things golden. Another reference is from the song “long story short” to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll through the lyric “I fell from the pedestal / right down the rabbit hole.” These references show how Swift is well-read and manages to use popular literary works as a metaphor in her lyrics.


The notable literary reference in Swift’s most recent album, Midnights, is found in the song “Bigger Than The Whole Sky” which contains the lyric “every single thing I touch becomes sick with sadness.” While this isn’t an obvious reference, it parallels the myth of King Midas where everything he touches turns into gold. This is a fitting statement for this depressing song which covers losing someone or something. Besides this allusion to literature, multiple songs in Midnights reference writing. One of these is “You’re On Your Own, Kid” which has a lyric that states “writing in my room.” Another song with a mention of writing is “Sweet Nothing” which contains the lyric “I wrote a poem.” These lyrics are unique because they reference writing a song in song lyrics.


While no Taylor Swift album before The Tortured Poets Department is themed around writing and literature, Swift is no stranger to including references to both in her lyrics. In every album of hers, there is at least one literary reference to be gleaned from listening. Her incredible storytelling skills make it easy for her to weave allusions to books, myths, and poems into her songs. As her new album will soon be released, there will likely be more literary references to be discovered and added to the lengthy list of her allusions.

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