Our main purpose in looking at this song is to better judge “Eleanor Rigby,” which to some commenters’ chagrin, I criticized in the last Songbook entry. The first contrast is that it is a song that doesn’t grab you at first—in my experience, it takes about five or so inattentive listens, and then its beauty begins to take hold. It is slowly catching, and in a good way. Do give it a chance.
There are two ways of considering its lyrics. First, just as they are, albeit put in relation to the rest of the Odessey and Oracle album, and second, put mainly in relation to the William Faulkner short story the song was apparently named after. I will be using the first method.
Here’s why. In the Faulkner story(spoiler alert) the Emily character, out of a perversion of the Southern aristocracy’s pride, out of resentment of the old-maid status that threatens her, and out of despair over a lover’s spurning, utterly isolates herself and does foul, over-the-top Southern Gothic, deeds. It is not impossible to interpret the song as giving us a picture of Faulkner’s Emily prior to her murdering a man, and then keeping his corpse in her bed, but none of its lyrics make this necessary, and to do so runs against the entire feel of the song. Rather, I hold that by alluding to the story title, songwriter Rod Argent meant to indicate that a devotion to the Romantic cult of couple-love, particularly when it fails a person, can turn morbid and psychotic. The Rose and what it symbolizes, might be replaced by the Corpse and what it does. For those who catch it, the allusion means to call to mind this allegorical indication of how twisted love, and the failure of love, can make our souls.
So let’s consider the song on its own terms. We begin in a summer here at last but one whose skies are overcast, because no one brings a rose for Emily. Her situation revolves metaphorically around roses:
She watches her flowers grow
while lovers come and go,
to give each other roses from her tree,
but not a rose for Emily.
A chorus follows, and then another verse indicates the passage of time:
Her roses are fading now,
she keeps her pride somehow.
That’s all she has protecting her
What do the roses represent? Obviously, they partly represent her beauty, her charms, and there is no indication that the Emily of younger and full womanhood has not some store of these. But we are also asked to regard them as separate from her, as flowers she watches and, as they are on her tree and later said to be in her garden, as flowers which she has herself cultivated. Lovers take these roses for their own romantic affairs. How could this be? Well, it works if they are simply roses, of course, and even in that case we could say that Emily has carefully cultivated things that are understood to symbolize love. Could they also represent poems, songs, or artworks? Is she like a Jane Austen who writes novels culminating in happy marriages, but who never marries herself? This seems to be pushing it a bit, and demeaning of Austen’s greatness, but what we can say is that Emily has been at some level, and perhaps rather privately, an artistic cultivator of the Romantic ennobling of couple-love, but one who will herself not get to enjoy such love.
Why not? What keeps suitors from her? Is something wrong with her? Is there some oppressive family situation? Some Victorian taboo, coupled with bad luck on love’s lottery wheel? We are not told. Perhaps, as in Faulkner’s story, her pride is a factor, although we must note that song-wise, this is one of her more attractive features.
As shown in the second Songbook post on Odessey and Oracle, the album considered as a whole is an examination of love and nostalgia, both an evocation of the elevating character of these and at times a demonstration of the ways in which they can deceive or fail. “A Rose for Emily” is one of those latter moments: here is a woman who has believed in love, and it has failed her; moreover, the failure is complete. The final verse indicates that she will likely die alone with no-one to place a rose upon her grave, and the chorus underlines her unwilling estrangement from the album’s love-theme:
Emily, can’t you see,
there’s nothing you can do.
There’s loving everywhere,
but none for you.
Ouch. But now, let’s compare this Emily with the Beatles’ Eleanor. Surely her situation is as starkly horrible, complete with the likelihood of an unattended funeral. Surely she also counts as one of those lonely people who don’t belong anywhere. Here are two songs forcing us to face how harrowing loneliness can be.
But everything is different somehow, beginning with the musical feel, and extending to the lyrics. The Beatles’ narrator has pitying discernment enough to notice poor Eleanor amid the lonely masses and to guess what her story is, but he retains a modish critical edge, analyzing her hoped-for self-presentation as a face that she keeps in a jar by the door. She is lost in inauthenticity, and yet her artificiality doesn’t even do for her the elementary thing of gaining some notice: Who is it for? How differently the Zombies’ narrator speaks of Emily’s shortcomings! He suggests it might help her to admit that “there’s nothing she can do,” and the song as a whole might counsel giving up her devotion to the Romantic, but he speaks of her coping mechanism without contempt: her effort to protect herself from pain, to keep her pride somehow is understandable, even admirable. Her effort to save face is not dismissed as putting on a formaldehyde-preserved standard-issue “face in a jar” mask. It is not described in the language of ironic and sociology-informed modern poetry, but in the language of traditional poetry. She is recognizably human, and the song honors her tragedy, itself becoming, in all its beauty, a Rose for Her.
“Eleanor Rigby,” by contrast, shapes its characters into reductive caricatures, ones that stand as evidence that humans are at bottom trash, forgotten corpses in death and little but convention-programmed automatons in life. That is, it suggests that modernity can really reduce many humans to such a state.
“Rose” thus stands in a long tradition of tragic songs, in which a sadness, often about love, has been made beautiful. The likes of Augustine and Plato rightly warn us against occupying ourselves with tragic beauty, but it has been employed here in a modest way that ennobles this Emily while still alluding to the more modern and degrading way of understanding her loneliness. I do not mean the allusion to Faulkner, but the one to the Beatles song.
For here is something I noticed well after I began comparing these two songs: “Rose for Emily” is the second song on Odessey and Oracle, the one Zombies album the group had full artistic control over, just as just as “Eleanor Rigby” is the second song on Revolver, which was, British-wise, the “album of albums” at the time. When you add to that fact the similar classical somberness of tone, the very similar lyrical theme, even extending to the detail of an unattended funeral, it becomes very likely that it was a deliberate response.