Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Cure, "The Drowning Man" and Gormenghast

Going to end my literary inspired pop with one of the best bands to use literature in their lyrics: The Cure.  

While The Cure are well- known for quoting Camus in their “Killing an Arab”... Robert Smith's lyrics are often literarily inspired: "Adonais," "Charlotte Sometimes," "Bird Mad Girl," "Bananafishbones," "How Beautiful You Are," "Looking Glass Girl"… and so much more (I could do a blog post JUST on his literary inspirations... )

But the subject of today’s post is the haunting song, "The Drowning Man," from the 1981 LP Faith (a personal favorite) and is inspired by the death of Fuchsia of Gormenghast

The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake take place in the remote kingdom of Gormenghast and focus on the intrigues that unfold within the huge, isolated Castle Gormenghast and its environs.  The three novels--Titus Groan (1949), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone (1959)--follow the main character, Titus Groan, from birth to manhood and chronicle his role as the reluctant ruler of Gormenghast.  Titus's closest relative is his half-sister, Fuchsia, who has an erratic nature and is given to melancholy since the death of their father. But she's warm and lovely character who, sadly, never realizes her full potential in life.

In Gormenghast, Fuchsia learns that the man she loves--the villainous Steerpike--is not what he claims to be, and is in fact a villainous social climber who killed her father. Contemplating the disillusionments of life, Fuchsia stands at a window casement above rising floodwaters and muses upon life and death. She thinks about suicide and what it may (and may not) solve. At that moment, a knock is heard at the door, and, startled, she loses her footing and falls. In her fall, she strikes her head and hits the waters below unconscious, thereby drowning. Titus, who loves his sister deeply and is his only remaining family, is shattered by her death.

She stands twelve feet above the flood
She stares
Across the water
The loneliness grows and slowly
Fills her frozen body
Sliding downwards

One by one her senses die
The memories fade
And leave her eyes
Still seeing worlds that never were
And one by one the bright birds leave her ...

Starting at the violent sound
She tries to turn
But final
Slips and strikes her soft dark head
The water bows
Receives her
And drowns her at its ease
Drowns her at its ease

I would have left the world all bleeding
Could I only help you love
The fleeting shapes
So many years ago
So young and beautiful and brave

Everything was true
It couldn't be a story

I wish it was all true
I wish it couldn't be a story
The words all left me
Breathing like the drowning man

Oh Fuschia
You leave me
Breathing like the drowning man
Breathing like the drowning man

Much of the lyrics here are taken directly from the novel… as Robert Smith has a beautiful way of finding the poetry in the prose. Here is the excerpt with the corresponding lines highlighted:

"She walked unsteadily on the window. Her thought had taken her into a realm of possibility so vast, awe-inspiring, final and noiseless that her knee felt weak and she glanced over her shoulder although she knew herself to be alone in her room with the door locked against the world.

When she reached the window she stared out across the water, but nothing that she saw affected her thought or made any kind of visual impression on her.

All she knew was that she felt weak, that she was not reading about all this in a tragic book but that it was true. It was true that she was standing at a window and that she had thought of killing herself. She clutched her hands togheter over her heart and fleeting memory of how a young man had suddenly appeared at another window many years ago and had left a rose behind him on her table, passed through her mind and was gone.

It was all true. It wasn't any story. But she could still pretend. She would pretend that she was the sort of person who would not only think of killing herself so that the pain in her heart should be gone for ever, but be the kind of person who would know how to do it, and be brave enough. And as she pondered, she slid moment by moment even deeper into a world of make-believe, as though she were once more the imaginative girl of many years ago, aloft in her secret life. She had become somebody else. She was someone who was young and beautiful and brave as a lioness. What would such a person do? Why, such a person would stand upon the window sill above this water. And…she…would…and as the child in her was playing the oldest game in the world, her body, following the course of her imagination, had climbed to the sill of the window where it stood with its back to the room.

For how long she would have stood there had she not been jerked back into a sudden consciousness of the world - by the sound of someone knocking upon the door of her room, it is impossible to know, but starting at the sound and finding herself dangerously balanced upon a narrow sill above the deep water, she trembled uncontrollably, and in trying to turn without sufficient thought or care, she slipped and clutching at the face of the wall at her side found nothing to grasp, so that she fell, striking her dark head on the sill as she passed, and was already unconscious before the water received her, and drowned her at its ease."


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you very much for your explanation. So many years I have wondered about this and could hardly find anything back in the day when I was a very big Curefan (late 1990's).
    I knew Robert used some excerpts of literary pieces for his songs, but I did wonder which one it was for The Drowning Man which happens to be one of my favorite songs.
    You have been very helpful. :D

  3. This song must be from the point of view of Dr. Prunesquallor! The lines "I would have left the world all bleeding / Could I only help you love" are also from the book. Shortly before Fuchsia's death, the narrator says that Prunesquallor would have left the world all bleeding if he knew that Fuchsia needed him.

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  5. I have been familiar with this song for about 25 years, but until tonight, thanks to someone posting the lyrics on a youtube video, I did not know he said the name "Fuchsia" - which led me to your excellent and informative blog post here. Thank you!

  6. Corrections...Steerpike did not kill Fuchsia's father, Sepulchrave the 76th Earl of Groan, though his burning of the library did lead to the Earl's mental breakdown. And Titus was not the only remaining family at Fuchsia's death, her mother Countess Gertrude was still alive.

  7. This is not literature relevant but I'm sure you guys are aware of The Drowning Man (Bright Birds Mix) the song was remixed by Robert Smith hisself for the Cure's reissue of the 'Mixed Up' album. I like it, sounds like it's melting.