The Divine Comedy: “Lucy” (Liberation, 1993)
For years, I had my own interpretation of this song that was so far from the actual truth of its meaning as to be comical. For reasons explained further down, it was years before I registered that the lyrics were a setting of three poems by William Wordsworth, who died in 1850. It’s three of his five “Lucy” poems, specifically the third, “I Traveled Among Unknown Men,” followed by the second, “She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways,” and finally the fifth, “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.” You can read all five in order here.
The poems work as a cycle to begin with, so treating them as one work isn’t much of a stretch, but changing the order and leaving out two of them has the effect of changing the story and leaving it open to different interpretations. Such as my own, which until I bought a copy of Liberation and noticed the Wordsworth credit in the booklet, was formed through a decidedly modern lens.
See, the first thing the name Lucy brings to my mind is anthropology. Specifically the 3.2 million-year-old skeleton of a female Australopithecus discovered in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia’s Afar Depression in 1974. Clearly not something Wordsworth would have been aware of. But listening to this song, which I first heard on the bonus disc that came with American pressings of Casanova (where there is no credit to Wordsworth), I figured it was simply a modern song written in intentional and skillfully wielded archaic language.
And I also figured it was about Lucy, the Australopithecus. This is a stretch, I’m aware. Clearly, she’s living in England in this song, not Ethiopia. But to me, it seemed like an attempt to imagine her life through a familiar lens, that being the landscapes of the British Isles. I thought it was an interesting way to try to connect with the spirit of this long-dead, ancient creature who also happens to be a distant relative.
Of course, the song is none of that. No one knows who Lucy is, because Wordsworth never told us. It’s quite likely that Lucy is no one. She’s a construct Wordsworth used to project certain emotions, pastoral sentiments and thoughts about death. Which is fine but a bit disappointing if you were hoping the lyrics were an unusual take on anthropology.
I still like to listen to this song as though my own convoluted interpretation were true. I like to sing along to it as well, in the car at least. Neil Hannon does a great job of turning Wordsworth’s poetry into melodic, impassioned chamber pop. That much I know for sure.