While I was choosing another song for this playlist, I turned to Shakespeare — people just love referencing his works for some reason. I recalled a time in high school when my AP Literature teacher, who was obsessed with this “man” (whether he actually existed or not is an entirely separate debate), forced us to buy a $30 hardcover bible of his complete works. My teacher showed us the Shakespeare references that modern alternative band, Mumford and Sons, makes throughout their songs.
While I found this interesting, I also found myself remembering a time when, in the same class, I made my own literary connection to another modern artist, Florence + The Machine.
Artist Florence Welch often weaves literary references into her songs, and one of my favorites is in her eerie piece, “What the Water Gave Me,” from her album The Ceremonials. After doing a little bit of digging, I found that the title is named after a famous painting by Frida Kahlo, Lo que el agua me dio, which literally translates to, “What the Water Gave Me” (it’s also sometimes referred to as What I Saw in the Water). In this painting, there are a pair of toes peeping out from the edges of the water in a bathtub, while visions of sex, violence, and various creatures play out atop the bath water, implying that the water gave the artist some sort of foreshadowing of what was to come.
Musically, this song includes overwhelming crashes of cymbals, contrasted with an airiness of harps and a back-up choir that helps to create a chaotic yet soothing wave of emotion. It all comes together to create the effect as if one was listening to the song from underneath the surface of water.
This is most likely what Florence was going for when she wrote the song. She spoke about this in an interview, when she expressed her interest in the idea of drowning, claiming that, “I am obsessed with drowning. It’s about succumbing and being completely overwhelmed by something that’s bigger than everything.”
“What The Water Gave Me”
“Time it took us
To where the water was
That’s what the water gave me
And time goes quicker
Between the two of us
Oh, my love, don’t forsake me
Take what the water gave me”
This first “stanza” is used to establish the situation. The setting is actually the River Ouse (which I will explain later), and the singer is talking about the power that water has — that it can both take away and give life. By mentioning the time quickening between the two people, Florence is implying that her life is coming to an end. She wants her lover to learn from the life that the water gave her so that what she is about to do will mean something.
“Lay me down
Let the only sound
Be the overflow
Pockets full of stones
Lay me down
Let the only sound
Be the overflow”
I love this haunting chorus. Not only is it beautifully composed and sung, but the lyrics are bone chilling. Here, Florence sings about the act of drowning. She claims that she is alluding to the famous death of English author Virginia Woolf, who committed suicide by stuffing her coat pockets with heavy stones and walking into the river — the River Ouse, that is.
This is what Florence means when she sings, “pockets full of stones.” “The only sound is the overflow,” which would be the overwhelming amount of water slowly dragging the victim closer to her death. She is also trying to tell her loved ones not to cry, but rather to listen to the peaceful sounds of the water that have just consumed her as she sacrifices herself.
“And oh, poor Atlas
The world’s a beast of a burden
You’ve been holding up a long time
And all this longing
And the ships are left to rust
That’s what the water gave us”
The first three lines here are cool. She alludes to the Greek God Titan, who is well known for carrying the earth on his shoulders. Here, she compares herself to him by referencing the heavy burden that she has been carrying by herself for all her life. The fourth, fifth, and sixth lines turn to the darker aspect of water — it can rust boats and take lives, and she claims the water also brings her death.
“‘Cause they took your loved ones
But returned them in exchange for you
But would you have it any other way?
Would you have it any other way?
You couldn’t have it any other way”
Florence has explained the first two lines in an interview. She talks about how, often, children may be drowning in the ocean — while at the beach or from a shipwreck — and parents will swim out to try and save them. But the children are often too heavy, and parents consequently drown as they tire, and this often leaves the much lighter children to be carried safely back to shore by the tides.
This makes sense because the loved ones mentioned in the first line, the children, are returned in exchange for the lives of the adults mentioned in the second line. Here, Florence talks about how she must sacrifice herself so that the ocean is fed and so that her loved ones might live.
The last few lines beg the question of whether the parents or her loved ones would have it any other way. Of course, the parents would want their children to live on instead of them, and of course Florence’s loved ones deep down still wish to live instead of her. That is why, in the final line, she states that there is no other way but this one.
“‘Cause she’s a cruel mistress
And a bargain must be made
But oh, my love, don’t forget me
When I let the water take me”
The cruel mistress here is the water, or sometimes life itself, and there must be a bargain or compromise made so that someone can be happy. Florence beautifully symbolizes the sacrifices that loved ones make for each other in the name of family, friendship, marriage, and simply love itself.
Unfortunately, in her and Virginia Woolf’s case, the ultimate sacrifice is death. Apparently, in Woolf’s suicide letter, she admitted that she must die because her disease (more specifically, her bipolar disorder) would eventually consume both her and her husband, and she wanted her husband to be successful in his work, thus her bargain to save the one she loved.
In summary, this is a hauntingly beautiful song that encompasses life, death, love, and various allusions. So it basically is a Shakespeare play in itself.
— Haley Renison, Poetry Editor