Saturday, 9 January 2016

Echoes of Eliot and Tolkien, but when
is ‘Stairway to Heaven’ appropriate?

Stairway to Heaven? … at the Ferrycarrig Hotel in Wexford, at the weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Coming out of the Ferrycarrig Hotel in Wexford in the rain last night [8 January 2016], I was pleased the car was near the front door and that we avoided climbing the steps in front of us leading up to the main car park.

But as I looked at those stairs, lit in the winter light, the song ‘Stairway to Heaven’ came to mind, and I listened to its lyrics once again.

‘Stairway to Heaven’ was recorded by the English rock band Led Zeppelin and was released in 1971. It was composed by guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant for the band’s untitled fourth studio album, and is often regarded as one of the greatest rock songs of all time.

The song has three sections, each one progressively increasing in tempo and volume. The song begins in a slow tempo with acoustic instruments (guitar and recorders) before introducing electric instruments. The final section is an up tempo hard rock arrangement highlighted by Page’s intricate guitar solo accompanying Plant’s vocals that end with the plaintive a cappella line:

And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

I always thought this song was about materialism and a woman who lives her life believing everything can be bought, including her own comfortable place in heaven when she dies. The last part of the song seems to be urging her to seek the spiritual path.

I find echoes in the lyrics of the poetry of TS Eliot’s poetry, including ‘Ash Wednesday’ and ‘Little Gidding,’ of Robert Plant’s poetry, and themes from Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings.’ The song is often requested at funerals, especially for younger people. But is it appropriate?



Stairway to Heaven

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
’Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.

Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it makes me wonder.

There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,
And the voices of those who stand looking.

Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it really makes me wonder.

And it’s whispered that soon, if we all call the tune,
Then the piper will lead us to reason.
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long,
And the forests will echo with laughter.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.

And it makes me wonder.

Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,
The piper’s calling you to join him,
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.

And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

Asking some questions

Has “the lady who’s sure” based her life on the material things? When she is on her way to heaven, she does not believe the signs that say she cannot get in once she reaches the gates because her life lacks a spiritual base.

Perhaps this is why her stairway is unstable and has been built on a foundation of “whispering wind.”

Throughout the song, her experience is paralleled to the band’s reflection on what they have done in life and wondering if one day they shall end up on a similar stairway:

There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.


The band fear they have left their spiritual path to travel down a road of materialism. At first, they believe they can simply change their fate and walk down the right path when they need to. But as their shadows grow longer, they realise they may have been too late.

The lady in question also stands in contrast to the Lady figure in TS Eliot’s ‘Ash Wednesday’. In ‘Ash Wednesday,’ Eliot reworks the main images again and again throughout the poem, including: wings, the garden with its fountains and springs, the desert with its gourds and bones, the dominant, recurring archetype of the “Lady” or Mary/Beatrice figure, the stones she turns blue, the white light of transfiguration, the Word and the word, and the yew-tree.

In the first verse of ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ the lady represents the naïve soul of a person believing that everything will work out, believing that she can simply ask for something and receive it, and in the end she will reach heaven for being good.

In the second verse, we hear “there’s a sign on the wall.” Could this represent a religious authority that gives answers? However, the woman looks deeper because there may be more than one simple meaning.

“In a tree by the brook,” a songbird hints that our entire perception about the world around us may be wrong. Perhaps the songbird represents the wondering of our mind. We are told now that the real heaven is warning us of our misconceptions of the heavens.

It begins to get a little dark in the third verse:

There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.


Something is pulling at the soul to look for something else and leave behind what is known behind.

In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,
and the voices of those who stand looking.


The trees may represent the forest of the mind, and rings of smoke are inside the mind trying to communicate something. The voices are the writer’s thoughts in response to the rings of smoke:

Ooh, it makes me wonder.

In the fourth verse, he says:

And it’s whispered that soon if we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason.
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.


If we all call the tune and follow the whisperings of our mind, “the Piper” will lead us to see things differently. We will then leave behind the way we knew to live in a new way of splendour and freedom.

The drums start, as does this new vision of existence.

In the fifth verse, the writer says:

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now.
It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.


A hedgerow is a bush, this is imagery depicting a bush shaking from the inside, but refers to wary feelings in the mind. The May Queen may be compared with the Mary/Beatrice figure in TS Eliot’s ‘Ash Wednesday,’ who is essentially unapproachable.

In ‘Ash Wednesday,’ Eliot quotes the ‘And after this our exile’ in a on-line stanza from the prayer Salve Regina (‘Hail Holy Queen’), customarily said by Anglo-Catholics at the end of the Rosary:

Turn then, most gracious Advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us,
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Amen.


The song then alludes to Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road not Taken’:

Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
And it makes me wonder.


It is not too late. You still can go down either path if you want, but the path of choice should be the better one.

In the sixth verse, we hear:

Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,
The Piper's calling you to join him.


The Piper who is calling recalls the Pied Piper, but is he calling us away never to return, is his call a distraction? Who calls the tune for you? And at what price?

But if the piper is God, then God will help you through another day.

Dear Lady can you hear the wind blow, and did you know,
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind.


The Lady is the pure soul. He asks, do not you hear the whisperings of your mind, and do you know that the way to your paradise is through following those deepest thoughts and wants?

Then we hear a sudden strange and abrupt change in music. The solo seems to communicate its own particular message without words. This transition seems to represent the crossing over from innocence and falling into the rich, mournful truth.

Then we hear:

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.

And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.


In a Jungian synthesis, we are told that as we wind on down the road, our shadows are taller than our soul, our desires can overcome our potential for goodness. Each of us is familiar with the intimacy of our souls, and we can decide to shine a bright light and want to show it.

Things can turn to gold, as opposed to the naïve optimism earlier of believing that that all glitters is gold. If we listen carefully, the truth will come at last, “When all is one and one is all.”

In this conclusion, I find echoes of TS Eliot again, and his closing words in ‘Little Gidding’:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.


Of course, there are many people who find the song disturbing, and even hear hints of Satanism in the lyrics. Is it true that demonic lyrics were placed in the song and that they could be hears by rewinding?

Others find themes from the Lord of the Rings in the song. The first line of the song is very similar to a part of a poem of Aragorn’s in the book, and the line that says “When all are one and one is all, To be a rock and not to roll” is very similar to Gandalf saying “I’m a rock destined to roll.” It was long before Bob Dylan used the term “rock and roll.”

These critics say the Lady is symbolic of the elven woman Galadriel, and she is trying to bring light to middle earth. Is the verse that mentions “looking to the west, and my spirit is crying for leaving,” referring to Frodo before his trip into Mordor, looking west towards the Shire one last time before the trials ahead?

There are other Tolkein allusions in the song, but Jimmy Page has vehemently denied that any of the song is inspired by Tolkein’s work.

The song is about the nature of life and our journey through it. It talks about the futility of our attempt to physically understand spiritual truths. Throughout the song the physical realities and their spiritual undertones are in constant harmony and yet in the end the lady pursues a physical path to heaven. There is no “Stairway to Heaven” that we can buy.

Others say it is about a woman buying drugs to get high on, just like a stairway gets you higher in the air and heaven is the supposed ultimate height. This woman just sees pretty things and thinks they are the best. She only sees things superficially and judges their value by the pleasure they give her.

Being rich on earth can get you what you want here but is not going to get you into heaven when the time comes.

The song is about the pursuit of happiness. The “stairway to heaven” is like a personal way or personal path to happiness. The song begins by mentioning how many of us have a false vision of happiness which is wealth and artificial possessions. Many of us believe that all that glitters is gold.

There is still time to change the road you are on. The two paths before you are artificial happiness and true happiness, and although we may have taken the wrong path at some point in our lives, we can still make the right decision.

We cannot buy our way to heaven. You can change the road you are on.

Perhaps this is a spiritual song that tells us to care about others and not just ourselves, to follow the right piper. Perhaps it is a reminder that there is still time to change the path or way we are on and to do the right thing.

But is it appropriate for a funeral?

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