December 14, 2012
FRIDAY SOMETHING-OR-OTHER-TO-DO-WITH-BOOKS MUSIC VIDEO: The Smiths
by Christopher King
Long held as the patron saint of sensitive bookish types everywhere, Morrissey is well known for the wealth of literary allusions in his lyrics. From the opening verse of “How Soon Is Now?” (adapted from George Eliot’s Middlemarch) to the closing refrain of “Hand in Glove” (taken from Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey), many of his most famous lines are in fact lifted from other writers. But in “Cemetry Gates,” one of the best-loved songs from the Smiths’ third album The Queen Is Dead, he defends himself against critics who accused him of literary plagiarism.
In an imaginary dialogue in the song’s second verse, one of these big-nosed critics catches Morrissey stealing a line from Shakespeare’s Richard III (originally “The early village-cock / Hath twice done salutation to the morn”) and delivers a lecture: “If you must write prose and poems, the words you use should be your own / Don’t plagiarize or take on loan.”
All the while, Morrissey is thumbing his nose, as moments earlier, he’s covertly taken nearly the entire text of the first verse (beginning “All those people, all those lives, where are they now?”) from the film “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Famously pitting John Keats and William Butler Yeats against Oscar Wilde, who was himself accused of plagiarism, Morrissey in the end sides with Wilde and declares himself the winner.
And just to underscore the point, Morrissey had Wilde’s classic line “Talent borrows, genius steals” etched into the vinyl of the album’s first single, “Bigmouth Strikes Again.”
Below, check out a live performance of “Cemetry Gates” by the Smiths from 1986.
Christopher King is the Art Director of Melville House.