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Meaning of the song ‘Cemetry Gates’ by ‘The Smiths’

Released: 1986

The Smiths’ “Cemetery Gates” is a lyrical journey that delves into the themes of death, originality in art, and the timeless nature of human emotions. It’s a masterful blend of melancholy and wit, set against the backdrop of a seemingly incongruous sunny day at the cemetery. Morrissey’s lyrics invite us into a debate on literary theft versus inspiration, all while exploring the eternal resting places of the departed.

The opening verses set the scene with a “dreaded sunny day”, an oxymoron that captures the juxtaposition of life and death, light and darkness. Meeting at the cemetery gates, the narrator introduces us to a literary battle of wits between the giants of poetry and prose—Keats, Yeats, and Wilde. These names aren’t just thrown around for their gravitas; they represent different aesthetic philosophies and approaches to life and art. Keats and Yeats symbolize a romantic, perhaps more traditional view, while Wilde embodies wit, rebellion, and the critique of societal norms. This sets the stage for the song’s exploration of authenticity and artistic integrity.

The heart of the song deals with an argument between the narrator and a friend over originality in poetry and prose. The friend quotes a line—“Ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn”—claiming it as their own, only for the narrator to call out the bluff, suggesting that the words we choose in our creations should be our own, not “plagiaries or taken on loan”. This critique isn’t just about the act of borrowing lines; it’s a deeper commentary on the essence of creativity and the value of genuine expression. Morrissey wittily warns of the “big nose, who knows”, a metaphor for the ever-watchful critics and the public ready to expose and ridicule any lack of authenticity.

As the song progresses, there’s a shift back to the cemetery scene, weaving the personal argument with the broader narrative. The repeated invitations to the cemetery—“So let’s go where we’re happy” and “So let’s go where we’re wanted”—underscore a longing for acceptance and belonging, whether in life or in death, among the dead poets or the living critics. The assertion that “weird lover Wilde is on mine” serves as a declaration of allegiance to a more unconventional path, celebrating the importance of originality and self-expression.

In essence, “Cemetery Gates” is a poetic rumination on life, death, and the artistic endeavor. It champions the individual voice against the backdrop of those who have come before, urging us to find our own path even as we walk among the tombstones of the past. Morrissey and The Smiths weave a complex narrative that challenges us to consider the value of authenticity, the temporal nature of existence, and the eternal pursuit of meaning within the confines of our mortal coil. Sugar, in this context, might just be the bittersweet acknowledgement of life’s dualities—beautiful yet fleeting, original yet eternally influenced by what has come before.

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