BtP (January 2014)
I have long loved poetry of the written word and also song. My BA was in Theater and English in 1974. My MEd was in Counselling Psychology in 1982. I then worked in the field of mental health for a number of years. In my youth I had been a dancer (ballet, Flamenco, Hindu), as well as an actor and singer. When illnesses beset me at age 22, and I was forced to stop dancing. But I did, actually, envision this song as a ballet in my mind, going back to when I first heard it at age 14. I am originally from Logan, Utah. A beautiful place in all four seasons!! When my mother retired in 1999, I came to live with her here in Phoenix, Arizona. A bit too hot and bright for a girl of "the western edge of the greater Rocky Mountains". But I am happy to be here now.
I see most of this haunting ghost story being based in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. [See here for a nice summation of the stories. It is useful to know something of them.] There are many characters, and they are travelling together on a pilgrimage. At different places at various stops, some of the characters tell a ‘tale’. The ‘Miller's tale’ is a primary story. Though his tale is meant to be comic, there is the tinge of realism, and sadness of being bound to one who is not loved.
A Whiter Shade of Pale, however, is an imaginative combination of many of these stories, with a wonderful descriptive sense of the places where the tales were told (places to eat, drink, laugh, make merry, feel sad, listen to others’ lives, learn). The lyricist transposed the same elements on to a ship (seems like an old sailing ship to me).
In the song AWSoP the songwriter, Keith Reid, seems to have taken several ideas from many of the stories, not solely the Miller's. In doing so, he also contributed his own tale for the song. The original Canterbury Tales was written in a time of staunch Christianity, yet there are references to the Greek and Roman myths (stories) as well (various texts compiled between 1400–1478 AD). Yet all the tales told contain a great variety of virtues and morality, or none at all. Deception and trickery is also a theme, and is often used as humour. Importantly, however, not always.
One tale is that of the Prioress; another that of The Second Nun. The ‘vestal virgins’ reference is to the pantheistic Roman worshipers of the goddess of the hearth, Vesta. This group's practices are often seen as something of a precursor to the (Catholic) Christian convent. The stories that deal with nuns, virtuous women, and virgins are important to this song's reference to ‘sixteen vestal virgins’ who were leaving for the coast. In Chaucer's tales, virginity and virtue are of utmost value.
One important tale to reference for AWSoP, in my opinion, is told by the Physician, Titus Livius. He tells us that this is not just a fable, but that it is a true story. A knight has a daughter who is beautiful and virtuous. A corrupt judge falls for her, and using another man of the town, tries to steal her from the father by falsely accusing the knight. All in the town know the lie and the evil of the two men: yet none come to their aid in time. The girl is ordered to be taken by the judge. It is the intention of both men to take and rape her. The father tells his daughter that she could live in shame, or die in virtue. He kills his daughter to ‘save’ her.
Of the fables told upon this journey, we can pick and choose which of all the characters in the stories might be the ghostly girl on that ship in the song AWSoP. The singer sees her as a beauty, perhaps teasing the men, ‘You must be the mermaid who took Neptune for a ride.’ But she seems lost and ‘virtuous’, ‘. . . And she smiled at me so sweetly / That my anger straightway died / And so it was that later … / That her face, at first just ghostly / Turned a whiter shade of pale.’
Shakespeare wrote, ‘If music be the food of love, play on,’ in his play Twelfth Night Act 1, scene 1, 1–3. Looking to ‘laughter is its queen’, we can find even more implications of the setting by addressing the Greek goddess Aphrodite. She is one of the great Olympian divinities, and the goddess of love and beauty. She is also taught in classical mythology, as the ‘Queen of Laughter’. Some traditions stated that she had sprung from the foam (aphros) of the sea (hence, another reference to the setting of the song’s being in a ship on the sea). Our next line, then, is taken straight from our most famous playwright, 'If music be the food of love' / Then laughter is its queen …’
The addition of the next line, ‘And likewise if behind is in front, / Then dirt in truth is clean’ is not so mysterious in that context. A reading of various opinions of this line would show that it is not understood. Many people have viewed these words as ‘drug induced nonsense’. It seems more likely that this is a poetic phrasing of the dichotomous nature of what is valued in women. Men cannot resist the beautiful, sexual, physically desirous women like Aphrodite. Yet there is a compelling allure in those women who remain pure and virtuous. This value, as lived by the Vestal Virgins, and taught in strict Christianity of the fifteenth century, is praised in the past of Greeks, Romans, and Chaucer, but also in the present to a great extent. Aphrodite is the embodiment of sexual, physical love. She is one goddess of many on Olympus. Christian teachings were those of the belief of only one God, and they were sexually strict where women were concerned. Yet, Chaucer's Tales included many of both kinds of women: those who liked many men in their lives, right along side the virginal beauties.
We see the dichotomies in Chaucer. We see them in AWSoP as well. We have a ship full of people carousing, with an intimation that there are likely women in the group. The storyteller sees a young woman looking sweet and innocent, but he ‘would not let her be one of sixteen vestal virgins’. In other words, he is drawn to her virtue, but does not want her to be that. She must be ‘a mermaid’, ie a siren creature who lured men to their deaths. But she is not. When he sees the truth of her, it is too late. His mouth dries up (‘My mouth by then like cardboard / Seemed to slip straight through my head ... ’), and he can no longer speak to us. He does let us know that they sank to the bottom of the ocean. We ask the question what the ending means. Is it a bitter end … or perhaps an eternal end for our narrator and the ghostly ‘vestal virgin’?
This, then, is the way I would tell the story of the song A Whiter Shade of Pale. I envision a wonderful ballet of this ‘ghost story’. The loud music (probably fiddled), card playing, drinking, laughing and fighting, in a mess-hall room on an old sailing ship, being tossed about upon the sea. Then someone begins to tell a story …a story of a young woman. The room becomes hushed so as to hear him. This ‘miller’ told a story that was not the comic version of Chaucer. Perhaps he told a tale that combined many of those told by many of the travellers, centuries before. As he speaks, the young woman comes from around a corner, just enough for our songwriter to see her. She looks real, and in shadow … but as she listens, she hears what happened to herself, and turns ‘a whiter shade of pale’.
She listened and said, ‘ ... there is no reason [for what he is saying] / and the truth is plain to see [I'm standing right here ... I'm not dead!]’. The narrator continues, ‘But I just kept on playing cards, even though the others wouldn't leave her alone. I could see there was something different inside, yet I just turned away, refusing to look.
‘Then she began to tell me her own story. But no girl on a ship full of men at sea could be so innocent. So I grabbed her in front of the hanging mirror to force her to see reality. I said that the girls on board this boat were here for only one reason ... to ride the men that ride the sea. But her sweet, sad smile went straight to my heart, and then I just fell flat.
‘Maybe music is the food of love, but smiles and laughter are its queen. Suddenly, while I looked at her, everything seemed back to front. What I had thought before, I now knew was not true of her. It had all seemed so dark and dingy, but now she brought a little light. I seemed to see through to the other wall, and my mind and mouth stopped cold. All at once the sea swell twisted, and dropped us down, and down. Almost as we hit the ocean floor, I turned once more to gaze … and her face that once was ghostly, glowed a whiter shade of pale.’
That is how I see it. A beautiful, haunting ballet, that tells an enchanting ghost-story. Gleaned from literature and imagination. No drugs. No need. Just my interpretation of this famous, well-loved song.
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