Desire, Disaster and Delay: the poetics behind the mythic figure of the siren in Tim Buckley’s ballad ‘Song to the Siren’.
The siren is a well-known and well-referenced figure of mythology, a symbol of danger at sea and of monstrous enchantment. Descending from Greek myth, the siren was originally depicted as part-woman part-bird. Rather than a lone creature, she appeared in groups – varying in folklore from two to five.
Appearing as “winged maidens”, sirens would lure mariners with their mesmeric song (and often instruments) and then destroy them, devour them, or simply cause them to crash against the rocks.
In Homer’s epic The Odyssey, the sirens are one of the many obstacles that Odysseus must contend with on his ten-year journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. As he sets sail from his latest adventure, he is warned by the sea-witch Circe (the ‘obstacle’ with whom he has spent a luxurious year feasting and lovemaking…) of the trouble ahead.
“Your next encounter will be with the sirens, who bewitch everybody that approaches them. There is no home-coming for the man who draws near them unawares and hears the Sirens’ voices”
To combat this threat, Odysseus ties himself to his ship’s mast so that he is physically unable to respond to the sirens’ call. He stuffs his shipmates’ ears with beeswax, but leaves his own free so he can fully experience the beauty of their “liquid song”.
“The lovely voices came to me across the water, and my heart was filled with such a longing to listen that with nod and frown I signed to my men to set me free. But they swung forward”
He successfully steers past, but there are more adventures to come. Odysseus will change direction to fight a sea serpent, and once again adrift, find himself entrapped with Calypso, a beautiful nymph who holds him on her idyllic island (by singing to him, no less) as an ‘immortal’ husband for seven years.
Throughout these years in paradise, Odysseus continues to yearn for home, “sitting on the rocks or sands . . . with tears and groans and heartache, and looking out with streaming eyes across the watery wilderness” (trans. E.V Rieu).
Although he evades the sirens’ seduction then, Odysseus dwells in the space of longing that they represent – most often the space of the sea – for the longest time, both textually (most of the story) and narratively (ten years). Home – and love (the themes are interchangeable: Odysseus’s journey home is to reunite with Penelope) – are much wished for, yet long-deferred.
This is because The Odyssey is not about reaching home, but the longing for it.
SONG TO THE SIREN
1960’s folk singer Tim Buckley’s mournful ballad, ‘Song to the Siren’ uses the mythic figure of the siren as a poetic motif of lonely love.
The track has had a few lives. The lyrics of Song to the Siren were written by Tim Buckley’s writing partner Larry Beckett, with Buckley composing its melody in what Beckett phrased as an “uncanny connection” with the impetus behind his lyrics.
The song was first performed by Buckley on the final episode of TV show The Monkees in 1968. Played as a folk song on 12 string guitar, this version emphasises the melancholic lyrics via a focus on the finger picking and chord changes alongside Buckley’s deep, sparse singing. To watch and listen to this – my favourite version for the guitar playing, the singing and the corduroy trousers, see below.
The album was widely panned and the song all but forgotten. In 1983, This Mortal Coil thrust it back in to the limelight with an acclaimed cover, saving the song from obscurity. It has since been covered by numerous artists, including Robert Plant, Bryan Ferry, George Michael, The Czars and Sinead O’Connor.
This post will analyse the song in its original but ‘official’ form, that is to say, the Monkees debut alongside the recorded version on Buckley’s album Starsailor, with the following lyrics:
Long afloat on shipless oceans
I did all my best to smile
’til your singing eyes and fingers
Drew me loving to your isle
And you sang
Sail to me, Sail to me
Let me enfold you
Here I am, Here I am
Waiting to hold you
Did I dream you dreamed about me?
Were you hare when I was fox?
Now my foolish boat is leaning
Broken lovelorn on your rocks,
For you sing
Touch me not, Touch me not,
Come back tomorrow.
O my heart, O my heart
Shies from the sorrow
I am puzzled as the new-born child
I am riddled as the tide.
Should I stand amid the breakers?
Should I lie with death my bride?
Hear me sing
Swim to me, Swim to me
Let me enfold you
Here I am, Here I am
Waiting to hold you
The song uses the siren aesthetic as its core theme: the sailor has pursued the siren’s call only to meet his destruction, shipwrecked and stranded between death and salvation. In doing so, he has become a siren himself, calling back to the siren he seeks.
In this way, the song is also an Odyssean narrative of – and metaphor for – desire. It is a love story in which love is either unrequited or unattainable (and it is not clear which). It is a song that sings of love as a longing, and song itself as an expression of that longing (the siren and the sailor sing as a way to reach each other).
This, then, is the “uncanny connection”, between Beckett and Buckley, words and melody. Longing is conveyed melodically and lyrically through repetition and juxtaposition: words (“Here I am, Here I am”, “Sail to me, sail to me”) are sung without tonal variation, creating the effect of an echo (itself a symbol of loneliness). Meanwhile, Buckley’s guitar chords lift up as he sings down. In the studio album version, he holds onto a note for so long it becomes a low moan.
Lyrically, the song juxtaposes a language of intimacy: “eyes” “fingers”, “enfold” “hold” with that of the loneliness of “shipless oceans”, the absence and abstract of “dream” “lovelorn”, and “tomorrow”.
This juxtaposition reveals that the mechanism of desire lies in the act of delay. It is suggestion without security, a promise given but unfulfilled. A touch that will come “tomorrow”.
The symbiosis between desire and delay is inherent even in the etymology. Psychology Today explains:
“Desire derives from the Latin desiderare, ‘to long or wish for’, which itself derives from de sidere, ‘from the stars’, suggesting that the original sense of the Latin is ‘to await what the stars will bring”
Such an explanation offers an apt connection to a song that begins and ends with a dual state of wishing and waiting, via the same closing lines (“Here I am, Waiting to hold you”).
The symmetry emphasises the irony of the siren/sailor story. Having risked his “foolish boat”, only to wonder in confusion if it was all imagined, or a trick (“Did I dream you dreamed about me?”) the sailor has become a siren figure himself. His call back, as the song title illustrates, is a song to the siren, a returning call that takes the same form and structure (of melody and lyric) as her own song: “Hear me sing / Swim to me, Swim to me / Let me enfold you”.
The symmetry and circularity of the verses underlines another element in the mechanism of desire. Let’s look again at Odysseus’s words upon hearing the sirens:
“The lovely voices came to me across the water, and my heart was filled with such a longing to listen”
The siren’s song is a language of longing that induces longing, and it is this sentiment that the symmetry in Song to the Siren illustrates. Once desire is sparked into being, it begins to self-perpetuate. It is a call and an echo of that call.
If Odysseus were able to heed this call and pursue the desire it stirs in his heart, he would not reach home. In this way, the siren is emblematic not just of all Odysseus’s adventures (as they all prevent his reaching home) but his non-chronological storytelling style.
The regalement of his homecoming is frustrated by other tales that begin, are dropped, and finally returned to chapters later, once Odysseus has drifted into several other tales in between, having promised, interestingly, to finish the tale “tomorrow”.
What drives the delay? Why defer?
When Odysseus hears the sirens and his heart is filled with longing, their music is representative not of the destruction itself, but the destruction that is about to be. In Buckley’s song, the sailor adopts a similar position. Waiting on the rocks, his heart “shies from the sorrow” – conveying not the certainty of heartbreak, but the coming of it. A disaster that, as with everything else in the song, is not ‘held’, but rather held away. To ‘shy’ according to the dictionary, is to “draw back” in fear, to “recoil”.
This is an interesting word to use, as it portrays an opposite (again, juxtapositional) action to that of the siren’s song, which is to entice and bring in. It makes the property of delay in desire – of waiting – as one linked to fear.
In a song where the siren and the sailor both “sing” a call to the other, there is a textual ambiguity over who is speaking and when. In The Odyssey, ‘tomorrow’ is a tactic used by Odysseus himself. With this in mind, could it be that the siren is singing these last lines? Speechmarks below to illustrate:
For you sing:
“Touch me not, touch me not come back tomorrow.
O my heart, O my heart
Shies from the sorrow”
In this interpretation, the sailor is stranded at the place of longing, “broken lovelorn on your rocks”, but so too, is the siren. The “puzzled”, “riddled” state of the sailor therefore arises from his journey towards a heart that calls for him, and then shies away.
From this perspective, in the same way that Odysseus’s ship – and his story – shies from the very home it seeks, so does the ‘siren’ of this song fear, or draw back from – the very love she sings for.
Such a reading adds weight to the “uncanny” “perfect match of melody and lyrics” that Beckett believed Buckley to have shown in his composure of the song, for just as The Odyssey routinely steers away from a successful homecoming, and Beckett/Buckley’s siren shies from love, Tim Buckley shied from success.
To Lee Underwood (Buckley’s lead guitarist), Buckley had “a deep-seated fear of success…he wanted people to love him but, as they did, he pushed them away.” And to Beckett, Song to the Siren is a particular example of this trait:
“Tim believed the song was flawed and could never be performed, even though he agreed it was the best song he ever wrote. But then Tim always self-sabotaged his career”
(REF The Guardian)
Delaying the homecoming is to delay the crisis of wish-fulfilment, of success. The ability to look at this song from two different perspectives reveals that the crisis of success is – or could be – as much about what the siren perceives, as it is the sailor (especially considering the sailor’s role as a siren at the end).
Furthermore, the ambiguity over who is singing allows for yet another way to interpret this song, which invites a happier ending. This linguistics blog suggests that the call and returning call of the siren and the sailor could be viewed as meeting together in the final verse. The sailor sings “Swim to me”, but it is the siren who sings “Here I am”.
Even in this interpretation however, calling and waiting is still the point of finish for the song. Can the sailor and the siren see each other? Hear each other? Are their own songs of longing obscuring that which they long for? And is this, perhaps, what the siren is most emblematic of?
After all, in any interpretation, the result is the same. Whatever/whoever is calling is sought but cannot be found. The textual ambiguity of the call and response structure allows for varying degrees of hope, with the greatest degree clearly evident in this last analysis, where the sailor and the siren can be seen as just at the moment of meeting, the end of waiting, the point before ‘holding’/being ‘held’.
But of course, the whole song is about the point before holding, the point before being held. And it is this status – ironically – of being ‘held’ as in suspended at the very moment before success that gives the song its poignancy. In the Odyssean “wide space of the open sea”, Tim Buckley’s never-quite-completed song hovers painfully between heartache and hope.
 In some recordings before the album, Buckley repeats the phrase of the middle refrain and merges it with the first: “O my heart, O my heart, is waiting to hold you”. In later versions, and various covers, the final refrain returns to “Here I am”.
 “From the flowing waters of the River of Ocean my ship passed into the wide space of the open sea” (The Odyssey translation E.V Rieu).