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Shall I Compare Thee to a Superstar: Astrothesia in Taylor Swift


The Basics

Taylor Swift opens with a tale of forbidden love: “This is wrong, but I can’t help but feel like / there ain’t nothing more right, babe.” At the end of the stanza we learn that Swift’s love is not for a person she actually knows, but a performer. “You smile that beautiful smile / And all the girls in the front row scream your name.” Yikes! Swift proceeds to describe how she longs for night when she can fantasize about her superstar in her bedroom.


Literary Device: Astrothesia

Astrothesia is a vivid description of a star. William Wordsworth provides a flowery example:


“The stars are mansions built by nature’s hand

And, haply, there the spirits of the blest

Dwell, clothed in radiance, their immortal vest.”


In contrast, Taylor Swift brings an elegant simplicity to the genre.

“Superstar.

You played in bars, you play guitar

I’m invisible and everyone knows who you are.”


Swift’s approach to astrothesia, personifying a person as a star, mirrors that of the genre’s master, Sir Philip Sidney. Sidney wrote an entire cycle of poems about a woman named Stella (star) from the perspective of a man named Astrophil (star-lover) who loved her from afar. Throughout the poem, Astrophil often longs for night so that he can see his star.


“Unto my mind, is Stella's image, wrought

By Love's own self, but with so curious draught,

That she, methinks, not only shines but sings.

I start, look, hark, but what in closed -up sense

Was held, in opened sense it flies away,

Leaving me nought but wailing eloquence:

I, seeing better sights in sight's decay,

Called it anew, and wooed sleep again


Analysis

Superstar is about seeing and being seen. Eye imagery is pervasive and a “wide-eyed” Swift reflects on her own invisibility. She states “I’m invisible and everyone knows who you are,” “You’ll never see,” and fantasizes about him telling her “Tell me things like I can’t keep my eyes off of you.”


Swift’s main concern, however, is seeing him. She tells us: “I knew when I saw your face / I’d be counting down the ways to see you.” Count them down she does, listing and eliminating different methods by which she could behold her love. In the chorus, she writes off using a spotlight: “dim that spotlight,” confusingly requesting for the view of her love to become more obscure. In the verses, she similarly repeatedly writes off daylight. In the first verse, “Misty morning comes again and I can’t / help but wish I could see your face.” The light of the morning brings mist rather than clear sight! In the second verse “Morning loneliness comes around / When I’m not dreaming about you.” Like Astrophil, Swift longs for the darkness when she can paradoxically see her love better. The only method of sight that Swift does not immediately shoot down is that of a picture she can view in the privacy of her room: “Give me a photograph, to hang on my wall.”


It is unclear if her beloved is actually that special. All we know about him is “You played in bars. You play guitar,” and bars seem more like the realm of an aspiring musician rather than a “superstar.” In the tradition of great sonneteers like Sidney, Swift poetically indulges in her yearning for an unattainable love interest she has put on a pedestal. Swift’s poem centers her fantasy about her beloved rather than him as an actualized person. Swift subtly plays with this quirk of sonneteers by explicitly acknowledging that she would rather engage with an imagined version of her beloved rather than his actual presence by spotlight or daylight. Similarly, she also prefers representations of her beloved to the real thing: “You sing me to sleep / every night from the radio.” The radio and the photograph on her wall are edited, two-dimensional representations rather than a real person, yet Swift longs for night when she can spend time with these renditions.

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