Not "Only Sleeping": The Beatles and a Neo-Romantic Aesthetic of Indolence

By McCombe, John P. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2011 | Go to article overview
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Not "Only Sleeping": The Beatles and a Neo-Romantic Aesthetic of Indolence


McCombe, John P., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


"Laziness is the one divine fragment of a godlike existence left to man from paradise."

--Friedrich Schlegel, Lucinda (1799)

In the winter of 2008, I offered a new undergraduate English course: "The Beatles in Literature and Film." Like many of my special topics courses, it was an unabashed attempt to expand my own education--often into disciplines adjacent to literary studies, but nevertheless somewhat removed from the focus of my own undergraduate and graduate work in literature. Beatles films, Beatles songs, and Beatles-related writings--primarily academic prose, with a bit of poetry--offered a site for exploring why the Beatles remain of interest to intellectuals and academics across a wide range of disciplines. Among the topics covered were the numerous social and economic forces that coalesced during, and help to explain, the initial wave of American Beatlemania in February 1964, the representation of gender and sexuality in selected Lennon/ McCartney songs, and the impact of the Beatles on the dissemination of non-Western philosophy and religion during the late 1960s. Each week a new set of Beatles texts came into play, and a new disciplinary lens was adopted to make sense of them and, frequently, to dismantle certain widely held myths about the band. One of the reasons that I adopted the role of an academic magpie when assembling "The Beatles in Literature and Film"--shamelessly stealing course materials from Philosophy, Religious Studies, and Sociology--is that I simply could not construct an interesting course using materials drawn solely from literary studies. Initially, when my syllabus began to take shape, I imagined that I could devote several weeks to close readings of song lyrics, and similar kinds of analysis to A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), but this proved to be more difficult than expected. In fact, I made use of only a handful of essays by literary scholars, many of which focused on a very specific topic: the Beatles as exemplars of a postmodern aesthetic (a topic that, admittedly, crosses numerous disciplinary boundaries). (1) Unlike Bob Dylan, for example--a musician who has inspired decades of literary critical approaches to his song writing, culminating in massive books such as Michael Gray's Song and Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan and Christopher Ricks's Dylan's Visions of Sin--the notion of the Beatles as literary "authors" has emerged more deliberately, primarily via a handful of essays in anthologies such as The Beatles, Popular Music and Society and Reading the Beatles: Cultural Studies, Literary Criticism, and the Fab Four. (2)

In spite of the diminished role of literary approaches to the Beatles in my course, on a number of occasions our discussions did suggest a fertile connection between Lennon/McCartney compositions and elements of a Romantic ideology, one that Harold Bloom, Jerome McGann, and M.H. Abrams (among others) have articulated. (3) Unable to locate any sustained and satisfying exploration of a Beatles-Romantic poetry link, I began the present essay as a foray into a topic that only grew more expansive the deeper I burrowed. In the pages that follow, my goal will be to focus on a particular dimension of Romantic aesthetics: the tension between indolence and creativity at play in several well-known examples of first- and second-generation British Romantic poetry, a relationship central to several Lennon/McCartney lyrics, including "I'm Only Sleeping" (1966), "Tomorrow Never Knows" (1966), "Strawberry Fields Forever" (1967), and "The Fool on the Hill" (1968). In addition, the essay will explore a few more general affinities between these mid-period Beatles songs and their Romantic precursors, and then offer some preliminary thoughts on why the Beatles' specific neo-Romantic leanings emerged when they did. As a result, the essay will shed light on how poetry and popular music provide valuable insight into two centuries of shifting attitudes toward the potential benefits and dangers of indolence.

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