Lyric analysis by Annika Hausen
“The Poet and the Pendulum” is a song of the 2007 album “Dark Passion Play” by the Finnish band Nightwish, founded in 1996 and on-going opus of the musical genius that is Tuomas Holopainen. Tuomas Holopainen is the main composer and songwriter for the band and also of the song we are setting out to have a look at.
Before we begin, a few things are to be said. First, Tuomas Holopainen’s lyrics will often reflect on his own life and experiences. While with some writers we can separate the narrator, or lyrical subject, from its origin, we will find this hard with Nightwish. The lyrics will be much better understood should we keep Holopainen in the back of our minds. Secondly, there is a special place reserved in all of Nightwish’s works for the Ocean. Holopainen has lyrically described himself as an “Ocean Soul” over the years. The Ocean is a place for emotion, for peace, a deeper almost supernatural source of his creativity. It is where his heart and soul lie. We will see this reflected as well in the following song. And a final note must be made to “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe (1842). The inspiration will not only come from the name of this short story, but we will find lyrical similarities between the experience of the narrator in Poe’s short story and the lyrical subject in the song. Poe is incidentally in the list of favourite authors of Holopainen, and has a place among J.R.R Tolkien, Shakespeare and Whitman in the list of Nightwish’s literature references.
1. White Lands of Empathica
The Song begins with a sound that can only be described as ethereal together with a ticking cadence, that lead into the words:
The Songwriter’s dead
The Blade fell upon him
Taking him to the white lands
Funny a song should begin with the words “The End”, especially if that song is also placed first on the entire album; thus making the entire album beginning with “The End”. Why is made clear in the second phrase that alludes to the songwriters death. The songwriter is no other than Tuomas Holopainen, as we have made clear in our introduction. The “Blade” describes the reason for his death, conjuring the image of a beheading. And he is taken to the “White Lands of Emapthica”. These lands are part of “End-World” taken from Stephen King’s book “The Dark Tower”. “End-World” as a term itself can also be seen as another allusion to death. In addition, in death we will find innocence. Not just because of the line “of innocence” but also through the presence of the colour white, standing for something angelic and pure. It may seem like a last word, a last wish for the dead to reach the other world of innocence. We also hear a ticking noise, that would indicate time running out and a soaring, high and soft feminine vocal, like an angels call. It’s eerily peaceful. However, this innocence is not given to him, as we will find out musically in the next movement.
This part is introduced with heavy 4/4 beats and accompanying guitar and full blazing orchestra and choir. There is no rest described in the music and ultimately, no peace in this death we were introduced to in the previous part. We start the lyrics with:
“The dreamer and the wine
Poet without a rhyme
A widowed writer torn apart by chains of hell”
Right here we have a first description of our lyrical I: the dreamer, the poet. These are the words Tuomas Holopainen often uses in his songs to describe the lyrical I, or himself in effect. However, he is not a “widowed writer”. It actually introduces the next person we will to take into account in these lyrics, and is the inspiration behind the title: Edgar Allan Poe. There is a comparison created between the two in these first lines that will continue throughout the song. Poe also has taken his own life and feelings into his writings, something both he and Holopainen have in common. Edgar Allan Poe was widowed and the year that “The Pit and the Pendulum” was written (1842) coincides with his wife’s diagnosis of tuberculosis and in a way her “death sentence”. And this impending terror of death, is centre to “The Pit and the Pendulum”, and could going further could be the chains of hell Holopainen writes about here. In the end both are torn people, suffering the terror of death. Holopainen’s death however seems to come because he is “Without a rhyme”, so maybe it’s more of lyrical death.
“One last perfect verse
Is still the same old song
Oh Christ how I hate what I have become
Take me Home”
The second part of the first verse continues to indicate a lyrical End – the last perfect verse. But it is joined by a sense of despise, of disappointment in the lyrical life. The lyrical I desires to be taken Home, typically a safe place, a place of comfort. We could also interpret this Home to be related to the before mentioned “white lands of Empathica and Innocence”. In the end just being a home away from impending terror and death, where you can lie in innocence.
Musically the sense of desperation, death and even pain is heightened above of all. Most parts are sung softly, while the words “torn” “hate” and the final phrase “Take me Home” are sung with more energy, soaring, even close to yelling. The first verse depicts a man who has no poem, no songs left to write which equal to his death. He despises that he has come to this point, feels pain about his situation and desires to be taken home to a safe space, free from the pain and death.
With this in mind we come now to the main chorus of the song:
“Getaway, runaway, fly away
Lead me astray to dreamer’s hideaway
I cannot cry ’cause the shoulder cries more
I cannot die, I, a whore for the cold world
I have but two faces
One for the world
One for God
I cannot cry ’cause the shoulder cries more
I cannot die, I, a whore for the cold world”
There is a lot that reveals itself in this chore, but we will start with the desire of “getting away, flying away” in the song. It refers directly to the desire to be home, to flee from the lyrical I’s current situation. The mentioned “Dreamer’s hideaway” could also reference that home he is longing for. During these first 3 minutes of the song we have already seen 3 names for this desired place of the writer: The Lands of Empathica and Innocence, Home and the Dreamer’s hideaway. They all represent the same aspect – being free from pain and terror, a place where he is innocent and at peace. And most likely he will only get there through Death. However, we see then that he cannot get there.
Firstly, he “cannot cry ’cause the shoulder cries more”. The “shoulder crying” can be understood as people who use him as a shoulder to cry on. Taking this back to Holopainen’s life, this can refer to his fans. Nightwish has many fans and people generally use music as their escape and their own safe haven, which can support this theory. The people, the fans, that cry on his shoulder and look to him for support do not allow him to search for support himself. He follows up by saying “He cannot die”. He cannot leave to find his peace, because the people on his shoulder need him. That again makes him feel like “a whore for the cold world”. The simile to being a whore lets us see that he feels used, serving other people’s pleasures, but possibly not his own. The world is being described as cold, maybe even cruel, for he does have a wish to find peace, to die, but he may not because of the people that need him, letting him feel simply used.
In the second part of the chorus we dive deeper into this sentiment. The lyrical I describes himself as having two faces. One he shows the world and another for God. This statement is followed up by the words “Save me”. There truly is a face he shows the world, his fans, that is strong and holding them up, while only God knows he himself is not strong and desires to be saved and reach peace in death.
We press on with the second verse:
“My home was there ‘n then
Those meadows of heaven
One with every smiling face”
This is a look to the past; back then Home were the “adventure-filled days” we can interpret as the band’s career in touring and seeing the world. Back then he felt “one with every smiling face”, the smiling faces another reference to the fans, to which he felt differently before. Now he feels a whore to them and home has become a longing for peace.
“Please, no more words
Thoughts from a severed head
No more praise
Tell me once my heart goes right”
The sentiment of desiring peace and being away from his fans, gets a new depth. “No more praise” seems to show a certain self-doubt or even disgust. The lyrical I no longer wants to hear what he did well, adding a sense of own shame and guilt to the mix from which he would desire peace. The severed head might stem again from Poe’s poem, where the Pendulum is just about to behead the lyrical I in the story. What we can get from this second part of the second verse is above all that new sensation; guilt. We can now understand that he desires for peace and a return to innocence in death, he has negative feelings towards his career, which was previously a positive experience. Now it is no longer the right way to him. And bearing praise, even though he has turned on a wrong path, is a great source of pain and above all guilt. There is a new dimension to this desire and struggle for the lyrical death; an escape from pain and from guilt.
Part II ends with the chorus, repeated just as before. At the very end the phrase “Whore for a cold world” is repeated 3 times. Musically this phrase ends on a descending yell, like a drop into desperation, a drop into pain. Curiously, whenever Holopainen’s lyrics focus on death and the search of peace, the vocal melody rises, like an uplifting thought, whereas when he mentions the inability to die, the vocals drop. On the 3-time repetition, the melody stays stagnantly up and drastically down – indicating a change and introducing the next part of the song.
3. The Pacific
Musically this part is toned down, slow and deep. It is introduced by a Cello and Oboe in a mourning, languishing melody. The vocal melody soars above this simple orchestration. The lyrics are as follows:
“Sparkle my scenery
With turquoise waterfall
With beauty underneath
The Ever Free”
The poet returns to the water, a common element in Nightwish’ lyrics. One of it’s usual meanings is depicted in this song as well; “Ever Free”. Water here means freedom and beauty, finally the peace he is searching for. The Ocean in particular can give this to him, the “Ocean Soul”. It’s a nice touch that the Water that seems to give him the peace and freedom he longs for is called the “Pacific”, which also means peaceful.
“Tuck me in beneath the blue
Beneath the pain, beneath the rain
Goodnight kiss for a child in time
Swaying blade my lullaby”
Here we confirm that the Ocean is a place of peace – he asks to be tucked in, put to sleep under the blue waters – and beneath the pain. A free and peaceful situation for most people. We also a return to the innocence so desired before by being “tucked in”; usually only children are tucked in. Adding this up, the Ocean is another name for the safe place, the home, the peace he longs for. And somewhere finally it is his Death; the swaying blade of Poe’s Pendulum that will behead him and bring him underneath the waves to his home and land of innocence.
“On the shore we sat and hoped
Under the same pale moon
Whose guiding light chose you
Chose you all”
These lyrics, and final sung part of The Pacific movement, can be interpreted as a last thought, a last half-conscious dream, like when we fall into deep sleep. On the shore, in the alive and real world, where he is a whore for the cold world, “we sat and hoped”. This could refer to him and all those involved in Nightwish. Those, with whom he had previously felt “one”, as seen before. The moon for its part acts as an entity, almost a deity. If we add into that, that the moon creates the tidal forces on Earth, it surely becomes an entity that governs over the Ocean, the lyrical I’s home and the others that have joined. It’s almost a thank you or appreciation of those that have been with him in this life.
However musically we shall see what this deity will actually do with him. Tension builds by brass winds playing over the previously calm melody. The sound is more distorted and deeper. It seems we are drowning into the Ocean. And we are introduced with a fearful whispering child’s voice:
“I’m afraid, I’m so afraid
Being raped again, and again, and again
I know I will die alone
You live long enough to hear the sound of guns
long enough to find yourself screaming every night
long enough to see your friends betray you
For years I’ve been strapped unto this altar
Now I only have three minutes and counting
I just wish the tide would catch me first
and give me a death I always longed for.”
We find ourselves 7 minutes into the song, when we get this clearer notion of the lyrical I’s actual thoughts. The fear of being raped, in other words “being a whore for the cold world” pushes him to this death wish. He believes he will die alone – but loved by the many fans and people he has been a shoulder to cry on for. And we also get a closer indicator for what torments the lyrical I to bring him to this desire for death – “screaming every night, long enough to see your friends betray you”. It seems like things in his life have gone awry, with betrayal mixed into nightmares, joining with what we previously have seen of pain and guilt. It is definitely a very complex and also evolving emotional journey the song takes us through, giving birth to these different depths and parts in the song. although currently we are still underneath the Pacific Ocean, finding peace in death, drowning under the waves. Here of course, he is innocent, so most of the pain comes from the betrayal he has lived. But can he really free from guilt? As an answer and end to the third part, we hear a whooshing and slashing of a large blade, a Pendulum falling, indicating death and the the final step towards peace, safety and innocence. But remember, that musically, it is all but a peaceful moment. Death in the end, as in Poe, is full of terror.
4. Dark Passion Play
Part number four starts musically very heavy, dynamic and fast paced. With the full force of guitars, bass, drums and orchestration the next lyrics are not sung by the female vocalist, but the raw scream of bassist Marco Hietala.
“2nd robber to the right of Christ
Cut in half – infanticide
The world will rejoice today
As the crows feast on the rotting poet”
Let’s start picking the first line apart. The “second robber to the right of Christ” refers to Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus Christ, who in Da Vinci’s Last Supper is sat second to the right of Christ. The second line refers to the legend of Solomon, who, when two mothers fought over a child, recommended they share and cut it in half, knowing that the real mother would never allow this. These legends from the Bible refer to two deaths, that are meant to explain his guilt and sadness. While there is discrepancy, most agree that Judas hung himself in guilt, representing the guilt. He feels cut in half, like that child, but without a mother to protect him and prevent this death. It is a lonely death that he goes through. There is no shoulder for him to cry on and no one to protect him.. In the last line we return to the Poe-simile with the crows, birds of death that devour the Poet.
“Everyone must bury their own
No pack to bury the heart of stone
Now he’s home in hell, serves him well
Slain by the bell, tolling for his farewell”
Here we find another reference to loneliness, there is no “pack”, no family to bury this dead poet. Instead of in the white lands of Empathica, he finds himself in Hell. We can sense a certain self-deprecation, giving the torture he goes through more depth, when he describes his situation as “serves him well”. He believes he deserves Hell. We also continue with Christian symbology in this part, with the bell tolling for him. Church bells toll when a person has died – and so they do for him. But they have also slain him, their tolling being the ultimate confirmation of death; of this hellish death. After this trip to hell, the female voice returns, delivered by Anette Olson.
“The morning dawned upon his altar
Remains of the dark passion play
Performed by his friends without shame
Spitting on his grave as they came”
It is now the day after, the Poet has died and is in hell. And in the land of the living, they are not missing him, but “spitting on his grave”. The “dark passion play” is another Christian reference. The Passion Play is the story of Jesus Christ’ last days, but in this context it is dark and twisted. Instead of like Jesus dying for humanity’s sin, here the Poet dies in guilt, shame, and alone, very much unlike Christ.
We return to the main chorus of the song:
“Getaway, runaway, fly away
Lead me astray to dreamer’s hideaway
I cannot cry ’cause the shoulder cries more
I cannot die, I, a whore for the cold world”
Deep down in hell, the lyrical I is still alive and we confirm again, even in hell, no, he cannot die. The guilt is still there and the people that need him are still there. He is still a whore being called back, unable to die. He cannot reach his home of innocence. This last remnant of life is followed by the following spoken word:
“Today, in the year of our Lord 2005
Tuomas was called from the cares of the world
He stopped crying at the end of each beautiful day
The music he wrote had too long been without silence
He was found naked and dead,
With a smile in his face, a pen and
1000 pages of erased text”
This text has the function of a Eulogy. It cites the year of death, 2005, as well as a reflection on the life of the deceased. The death is presented as “deserved” in a way, by saying the “music […] had too long been without silence.”. He has been to loud without taking a step back. But he does wear a smile on his face – we do know that there is a desire for death in the lyrical I. Then again we have spent the entire last minutes in a living hell, musically very heavy and describing the torture of the sinner. While his smiled when dying – death itself did not give the relief he was looking for. If not by the lyrics, you can definitely notice the lack of peace in the music. It’s heavy, dramatic, and has several strong beats of the entire band, choir and orchestra playing underneath the voice reading the Eulogy. There tortured sensation grows, as the Eulogy ends and the song turns more into distressed noises with blade-swinging noises and sounds of thunder. The fourth part ends with one last swing of the Pendulum and the only words that anyone could think when desiring peace and freedom from guilt so desperately but receives only Hell:
V. Mother and Father
This is not the End. There are a few seconds of silence, in which we could doubt if that end in Hell was to be the destiny of our lyrical I, with whom we have travelled through the last 10 minutes. The silence is broken by the soft sound of an Oboe solo, a symbol for mourning, a nostalgic sort of pain. It is mixed in to similar orchestration of the third part “Pacific”, where we had a glimpse of the peace that was desired. Now with the Oboe on top, we are might be presented with a way to gain peace. The pain is never gone, but finding peace within it, the acceptance of what has happened can lead us to a mourning, nostalgic peace. It is not the innocent, protected peace that was desired, but it is peace after being in hell. The next lines are sung very softly.
“Be still, my son
Oh when did you become so cold?
The blade will keep on descending
All you need is to feel my love”
As the title of this last part indicates, the lyrics come from the parents addressing the lyrical I. We do for a fact know, that this is a more or less direct quote of Tuomas Holopainen’s mother. The most important phrase here is her telling him “You’re home”. Throughout the entire song we have the word “Home” prevalent. A desire for that nostalgic, protected, innocent and peaceful place. While he did not find it in Death – maybe he can find it with those that love him. “All [he] need[s] is to feel […] love”. The mother figure also acknowledges that the pain will not end, guilt will not end, as the music has already shown us. But there is a way to heal from it, accept and move on from it. It is comparable to the often quoted 5 steps of grief. We can go from depression (a death wish) through absolute Hell to reach acceptance. And Time and Love will heal the wounds of the pendulum.
“Search for beauty, find your shore
Try to save them all, bleed no more
You have such oceans within
In the end
I will always love you”
In this last verse, there another reference to the previous part, “the Pacific”. Instead of being at the shore previously shared with Nightwish and all the fans, the Mother calls the lyrical I to find its own shore, its own world if you will. By finding new shores, and beauty he can distance himself from the past pain and regain new sense. And she reminds him of his capability, of his creative capabilities by saying that there is not just the one Ocean in him, the one he was currently drowning in. It is a call to a fresh and new start. That what has died, is dead. But with Time and Love there are new shores to be found, new hopes to feel. And to gather the courage to embark on this new journey, to accept and heal one’s pain, we hear the line many of us wish to hear and need. “In the end, I will always love you.” Knowing that there is a loving, unconditional support out there for you, a home, a peace, a place free from guilt and of shame – that is key to find healing and happiness. It is not in Death.
Finally, the last words of the song that ring in the End of the songs are spoken:
It’s curious to have the last words be of a song be “the beginning”, but I think it is clear why. It’s the Phoenix reborn from the ashes, it’s the quest for new shores that begins with the first step. And the rest of the Album begins here. Curiously, Nightwish did find a new sound and a new singer for this record. The Album Dark Passion Play stands out for many people in the discography of the band due to a change in style and female vocalist. While heavily critiqued by long-time fans, it seems clear that this was a change needed by Tuomas Holopainen and opened the band up to new fans, new shores.
The song “The Poet and the Pendulum” is a 13 Minute journey through the mind and turmoil of Tuomas Holopainen after the year 2005. It was in that year the band parted with their long-time singer Tarja Turunen and had a personal falling out with her. The pain of the separation was big on both sides, and shown in this song. There is guilt for what happened, there is the responsibility that the band and Holopainen had to show towards the fans,. It was the End of an Era for them, and reason for Holopainen being lost as described in these lyrics. We can only of course to a certain degree suppose how much of this are truly Holopainen’s feelings, wishes and pains – but we do know that the lyrics of Nightwish have been up to then very personal. Other songs on the album also digest this separation and falling out of the members with Turunen.
However personal and “real” these thoughts are, I feel like this song definitely takes us not only on a journey with Holopainen but also into ourselves. The music underlines the emotional gravity of the song extremely well. And I believe a lot of people can actually relate to a sense of guilt and being overwhelmed that all they desired for is the safety of home and innocence. While being personal, the song can still ring true to it’s listener. That is a quality Nighwish possesses in many, many more songs. The emotional journey is one we can all share and very few bands know how to put that journey into song and especially into sound as well as Nightwish does.
The band remains through all it’s shores and Oceans, one of my main favourites and I hold special place for the band in my musical heart. I hope you have enjoyed reading my analysis and share some of my thoughts. If you do have any comments, please feel free to let me know. And remember the beauty of interpretation is that it is subjective; we can all see and feel different things in the same song and continue to love it endlessly.