Wednesday, June 22, 2016
June 22, 2016: SummerStudying: Irony and “Summertime Sadness”
[To kick off the summer of 2016, a series AmericanStudying some famous summer texts and contexts. Add your responses to these posts or other SummerStudying nominations for a crowd-sourced post that’ll go down like a glass of iced lemonade!]
On the artistic and human roles and significance of irony.
As no less an authority than Alanis Morrissette has conclusively demonstrated, and as I’ve encountered time and again in trying to include it in classroom conversations, irony can be very hard to define. The line between coincidence, contradiction, and genuine irony is at best a fuzzy one, and I won’t pretend that I’m not likely to get it wrong myself in the course of this post. (Which would be ironic, I think, after I opened by poking fun at Alanis—but these are the risks we AmericanStudiers take.) But wade into the fray I must, because, as foundational New Critic and literary scholar par excellence (and longtime professional partner of Robert Penn Warren) Cleanth Brooks argued in his ground-breaking essay “Irony as a Principle of Structure” (1949), many of the great works of art are composed and achieve their effects through ironic juxtapositions and reversals, strikingly shifting readers’ expectations for and undestandings of seemingly familiar images or concepts.
Two of the most famous American poems open with precisely such ironic shifts. Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death” (not the actual title, since she didn’t give her poems titles) follows that first line with the striking “He kindly stopped for me –,” with that “kindly” immediately offering a jarring recognition that the poem will portray death in quite unexpected ways. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land begins with an even more surprising ironic reversal: “April is the cruelest month,” a line that, along with the extended descriptions that follow it, turns virtually every prior poetic image of spring and flowers and rebirth on its head. I wouldn’t put contemporary singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey on the same artistic level as Dickinson and Eliot yet (not because songwriters can’t get there, but because she’s far too early in her career at this juncture), but her song “Summertime Sadness” (originally released on her 2012 debut album but best known through the popular 2013 remix by Cedric Gervais) makes similarly interesting and evocative use of literary irony, and provides a good case study for how such ironic images can affect audiences in meaningful ways.
Del Rey’s song portrays a powerful but potentially doomed summer love (the last verse, not included in the radio version of the remix, opens, “Think I’ll miss you forever/Like the stars miss the sun in the morning sky”), and so her speaker’s summertime sadness could be read as a parallel to the nostalgia in Henley’s “Boys of Summer.” But that reading would miss an important difference: Del Rey’s song uses the present tense for every verse prior to the future tense of that last one, and is thus set very overtly and centrally in the emotions and environment of that idealized summertime moment (“Got my red dress on tonight [and] I’m feeling alive”; “I feel it in the air”; “I’m feelin’ electric tonight”; and so on). Yet despite that powerful present—or rather as a part of that present—, her speaker still imagines the loss, feels and dwells in the summertime sadness. And a result, Del Rey’s song and its central irony can help us understand the way in which pleasure is always complemented by inevitable loss, forces us to engage with the crucial fact that nostalgia for a moment in our lives is often (if not always) produced while we’re in and enjoying that moment. That’s a tough but important idea to consider, and one that this exemplary use of literary irony can help us wrap our heads around.
Next SummerStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other summer texts or contexts you’d highlight?