Mona Eagle writes to BtP: 'My interpretation of the meaning of the lyrics, A Whiter Shade of Pale
The song is about forbidden love, love lost, sadness, and longing, about remembering a very physical (as well as emotional and spiritual) encounter that, unfortunately, was not meant to be.
The first stanza sets the scene at a party or in a bar on board a ship. 'Skipping the light fandango,' refers to dancing, as does 'turning cartwheels 'cross the floor.' Everyone is drinking, dancing, playing cards, telling bawdy tales (The Miller's Tale), and having a good time. The reference to Chaucer's 'Miller's Tale' indicates that they are all together on some sort of 'pilgrimage' or spiritual journey, whereas the many naval references indicate that it is a journey by sea, but the journey, I believe, is a symbolic one.
The man and woman are together and later verses reveal that they feel a special attraction or connection, even though they are in the crowd. I believe they have some profound conversations about 'truth' and 'life,' as often happens in the drunken company of those with whom we share a particular affinity. 'Feeling kinda seasick,' as well as the 'humming, (spinning?) room' and the 'ceiling blowing away' indicate not only the effects of alcohol, but of 'being carried away.' Think of 'being drunk on love.' Drunkenness becomes a metaphor.
The woman is not literally a virgin (as in 'vestal virgin,' but has some prior commitment or 'vow' or 'obligation to make some kind of sacrifice' which prevents her from staying. To be a vestal virgin is a thirty-year commitment; there is something similar about this woman's prior commitment. But the narrator 'would not let her be;' he persuades her to stay an extra night, rather than leave with her group 'for the coast.' The implication of 'leaving for the coast' is that he will never see her again.
Chaucer's The Miller's Tale refers to a husband who is deceived and sexually betrayed – this seems to indicate that what they are doing is technically wrong, because of some prior commitment the woman has. There is some sadness or fear about it and perhaps that is why she is so pale. Or perhaps she becomes pale when she realizes she will have to give up this love forever.
The man is angry because he doesn't want it to end. They discuss this (she says, 'there is no reason; the truth is plain to see,' etc.) It's an argument. He disputes some of the arguments she gives, saying she thinks she is on shore leave but 'in truth we are at sea.' Being 'on shore leave' would indicate that one is on a temporary vacation from one's usual responsibilities, further evidence of the impermanence of this relationship. Being 'at sea' would seem to indicate some confusion, a feeling of being lost. When the narrator says, 'although my eyes were open, they might just as well've been closed,' there is further evidence that there is something he doesn't want to see, admit, and accept.
He tries to show her 'the looking glass;' (a reflection of how things actually are); he talks about things being backwards ('if behind is in front'); he tries to assuage her guilt ('dirt is clean'); he accuses her of taking him 'for a ride' (toying with him) – all arguments to try to get her to stay. But when he sees how sad she is about her decision, he accepts the inevitability of fate ('But she smiled at me so sadly that my anger straightway died.') He realizes it can only be for one night.
In the last stanza, the narrator's 'mouth by then like cardboard seemed to slip right through my head,' is another reference to excessive drinking (a dry mouth), but also means that words and arguments fail him. They finish talking and the physical senses take over. At the end, when they 'dive into and attack the ocean bed,' it is not the literal ocean floor – it is a bed, as in a bed in a ship upon the ocean. This refers to passionate, exuberant, vigorous physical love.
The last stanza, which begins with a quotation from Shakespeare 'if music be the food of love, then laughter is its queen,' brings us back to the idea of the party and good times at the beginning of the poem, indicating that the narrator has decided to give up arguing and make the best of things. 'Crash' diving also symbolizes coming down from the euphoria of drunkenness and facing reality. The last two lines almost make one think they are bent on joint suicide, but they are there to further emphasize the idea of an 'ending.'
The nautical allusions throughout the poem are great but do not necessarily mean that they are literally onboard a ship. The ship is a metaphor for the situation and, as such, symbolizes that they are both on a symbolic journey and feeling 'lost at sea.' The narrator remembers this poignant encounter, which was not destined to last, and, though I think they were drawn to each other emotionally as well as spiritually, the physical lovemaking of the encounter leaves a profound memory which he obviously cherishes.
We have to interpret not only the words, but the slow, sad mood of the song, as well. Therefore the song is about the bittersweet memory of this star-crossed encounter. The song evokes powerful emotions of sadness in the listener because the rather obscure symbolisms affect us on a psychological level and we subconsciously sense or feel the hidden meanings behind the words. This would not be the case if the song were merely about a drug trip and a one-night-stand.
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