an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 7, September-October 2010, ISSN 1552-5112
Introduction: The Romantic Quest
The Romantic poets of the late 18th century faced a difficult quest. As exemplified by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in such sensitive poems as his “Frost at Midnight,” they wished to unify the self with the outside environment, and this could only be achieved by using their imagination (and their pens) to transform the world of Nature into more easily apprehensible symbols. If Nature could be so transcribed, intellectual man would reconcile with wild Nature, his successful use of symbols having “fuse[d] head and heart”—an act that carried particular importance in a society where the threat of industrial mechanization and scientific positivism made people feel removed from Nature.
This problem of the Romantics was more than just the academic solipsism of a few poets. The question of “how to—?” gathered force and continued to plague art and literature across the centuries. Starting with the poet Charles Baudelaire in the late 19th century, the Symbolist Movement pushed writers to express their beliefs through intricate symbols and subtle suggestions rather than direct or empirical statements. During the same period, artists belonging to the Aesthetic Movement, who were grounded in Kant’s theories, believed that the purpose of Art was beauty alone which could not be measured by any utilitarian, moral, or realistic standard. The Symbolist and Aesthetic movements are extreme positions that are not interested in representing the human or the real but are “content to specialize in either philosophical, sentimental, or sensory aspects of experience in their poetry.” Thus, critic Vlasopolos argues, such poetry is not as powerful as that of their Romantic fathers because it cannot show the union of emotion and intellect, or how the imagination can make understandable an inhospitable, external world.
Coleridge’s theory of the imagination-as-unifying symbol was reworked by Baudelaire, reworked again by 20th century Irish poet William Butler Yeats in his study of Irish folklore and universal archetypes, and finally, I would argue, reinvented with an ultra-modern twist by the Irish rock band U2. As with Yeats, who is the favorite poet of U2’s lead singer Bono, we hear in U2’s songs about feminine symbols who represent the imagination, and how memory broods upon idealized images and thus blocks out the sun or “lemon” of the real world. Yeats did not wish his symbolism to depend entirely upon the written word, and thus incorporated his heavy ideas into mythical images published alongside his poems, a tactic duplicated in U2’s symbol-ridden music videos, concert performances, and (especially in later years) album art. This essay will illustrate how the themes and conflicts of a reworked Romantic Quest are richly explicated in Yeats and U2, particularly in U2’s song “Lemon,” and how U2 borrows strongly from the symbolism and theories of their great Irish poet predecessor.
The Last Romantics: Yeats and U2
Irish poet William Butler Years, writing in the early 20th century, was often called the “Last Romantic,” even though his writing experimented with the formal concerns of the Modernists. Yeats thought the imagination’s pursuit of ideal beauty can be dangerous since it may plunge you into an over-idealized, self-absorbed world that isolates you from humanity,  a mistake that he saw the Romantic Poets Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the rest of the “Tragic Generation” as making.
Instead, Yeats believed in a universal humanity: a perfect
world which could only be reached if poets accessed the same set of symbols
already stored in everyone’s unconscious collective memory. He spent much of
his life developing his own set of symbols to use consistently in his poems,
such as the
Not only does passion validate the poet, it also serves as the emotional medium through which one’s imagination connects with the outside world. This is because the unconscious universal memory finds roots in our dreams, which in turn are based upon our repressed desires and passions. Yeats seems to believe this when he says “the passions, when we know that they cannot find fulfillment, become vision; and a vision, whether we wake or sleep, prolongs its power by rhythm and pattern....” In order to avoid Romantic self-absorption and make sure that the passion in his poems and ballads was communal, and thus more easily understood and felt by the Irish people, Yeats began to study the heavily mythological folklore of his home country. Like U2’s ability to preach about humanitarian issues without (usually) sounding elitist or pedantic, Yeats’s passion, “allows him a subjectivity without solipsism because [he can be] without self-consciousness” especially since “passionate genres like folk art… validate the poet’s vision by giving it the resonance of ancient myth and simplicity of language…. Yeats’s search for Unity of Culture, because of its dependence upon a system outside the psyche to sustain it, represents his greatest departure from the humanism of the Romantics.” Eventually Yeats became so absorbed in the Irish culture that he began to see himself as a messiah-like poet who would lead the Irish into a new beautiful culture. (Sound like anybody else?) After the Easter 1916 Irish Revolution or “Sunday Bloody Sunday” he theorized that the agitated middle class, because of their chasteness and repressed sexuality, had cultivated hatred and forgotten their inner creative power; all they could imagine was hate, and their repressed sexuality or sexual abstinence expressed itself as violence. This instance must have reconfirmed his belief in passion as something which is creative and not destructive, and thus the perfect way to unify your intellect with your emotions, which often lead him to incorporate his political beliefs about the deep strife and troubles in Ireland, though sometimes, as in his poem “Leda and the Swan,” the aesthetic impulse took over and he dropped the more overt political message (as U2 did in songs like “Red Hill Mining Town”).
I would argue that none of U2’s songs are ever taken over by
their political messages (an issue that Bono must have sought to remedy by
reminding his concert audiences of his songs’ political content during every
free moment) though, like Yeats, U2 also had a
difficult time uniting the angry, socially conscious world of the head with the
romantic, yearning world of the heart. Their first few albums exploded
with passionate songs that battled issues of social injustice in
The Passionate Reach of “The Tower”
I would like now to examine the beginning of Yeats’ poem “The Tower.” You will hear how the first part of the poem is a lament of old age.
What shall I do with this absurdity--
O heart, O troubled heart--this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?
Never had I more
Excited, passionate, fantastical
Imagination, nor an ear and eye
That more expected the impossible
No, not in boyhood when with rod and fly,
Or with the humbler worm, I climbed Ben Bulben’s back
And had the livelong summer day to spend.
It seems that I must bid the Muse go pack,
Choose Plato and Plotinus for a friend
Until imagination, ear and eye
Can be content with argument and deal
In abstract things; or be derided by
A sort of battered kettle at the heel.
The second line’s “O heart, O troubled heart” neatly shows both the physical frailty of the heart, and the narrator’s desire to have more heart, or more passion, but this is difficult in old age. But he tries, and in the next stanza remembers his boyhood sports of fly-fishing and mountain-climbing, the wisdom of his old age gives the narrator a more energetic imagination than he possessed in boyhood.
Still, the relentlessness of time makes the narrator feel the undeniable pull of reality, of “argument” and “abstract things,” and he feels he must bid the Muse of imagination goodbye. Looking at this section in total then, the question becomes “What wisdom can satisfy the passionate heart?” The poem’s dive into youthful nostalgia yet embrace of wisdom set up the conflicts of the Romantic Quest mentioned earlier, the desire for both an intellectual understanding of the world and an emotional introspection. For now, however, the narrator seems resigned to remain in the former, intellectual state, to live in abstractions, removed from Nature.
Illustration for the top of a tower.
I pace upon the battlements and stare
On the foundations of a house, or where
Tree, like a sooty finger, starts from the earth;
And send imagination forth
Under the day’s declining beam, and call
Images and memories
From ruin or from ancient trees,
For I would ask a question of them all.
The narrator paces as if in command and notes the ruin about him. He calls upon images and memories from the ruined landscape for questioning, as if these ruins are himself and he is trying to spark his imagination once more:
Some few remembered still when I was young
A peasant girl commended by a song,
Who’s lived somewhere upon that rocky place,
And praised the colour of her face,
And had the greater joy in praising her,
Remembering that, if walked she there,
Farmers jostled at the fair
So great a glory did the song confer.
And certain men, being maddened by those rhymes,
Or else by toasting her a score of times,
Rose from the table and declared it right
To test their fancy by their sight;
But they mistook the brightness of the moon
For the prosaic light of day--
Music had driven their wits astray--
And one was drowned in the great bog of Cloone.
Strange, but the man who made the song was blind,
Yet, now I have considered it, I find
That nothing strange; the tragedy began
With Homer that was a blind man,
And Helen has all living hearts betrayed.
O may the moon and sunlight seem
One inextricable beam,
For if I triumph I must make men mad.
The farmers have a glorious song about a girl who used to walk in the rocky ridge. The delightful music of this song maddens them, and kills one. They have mistaken “the brightness of the moon/ For the prosaic light of day.” “Prosaic” is the opposite of poetry, it is something lacking in imagination, and so we can read this as the farmers are lacking in imagination, or at least in control of imagination, since, as critic Sarah Youngblood says, “The sun, as that which makes the real world evident, is a metaphor for objective visible reality; it is opposed to the moon, which has its traditional connotations as the softening, idealizing light.” And of course, throughout literature and history the moon has been the most common symbol of the imagination and romantic yearning. So the farmers have mistaken something imaginative for reality, and so a real death occurs. This scene encapsulates Yeats’s fears of the Tragic Generation and their pursuit of the ideal beauty, much like young Coleridge’s death from opium, which he used as a creative outlet. The later line “The tragedy began” has a triple significance: first, it means that the form of tragedy started with Homer, but it also seems to mean the great tragedy of human suffering began then too. Why would human suffering begin with the first great poet? Because poetry is also a tragedy in that it inspires our imagination and deceives us from the true reality. So of course this song maker has to be blind to be as important as Homer. Finally the narrator concludes by saying that he wants the moon and the sunlight to be inextricable so that he can make men mad, and succeed at his goal.
So he needs this sun/moon confusion, this mistaking of the imaginary for the real, in order to make people mad. Perhaps he is not saying that in order to triumph he must make people mad, but rather that if he does triumph, one effect will be that people will go mad—this is not clear.
How to Make Your Reader Go Mad: Just Invent an Insane Persona
How does the narrator triumph? By being a literary creator, as we see in the following two lines. “And I myself created Hanrahan / And drove him drunk or sober through the dawn…” Hanrahan was an old character that Yeats used in his poems. So Yeats as narrator is saying that in order to triumph as a poet, he must make his readers mad, and this must be a madness of passion because by making the link between moonlight and sunlight inextricable you achieve the perfect unity, the Romantic tying of intellect to emotions.
Old lecher with a love on every wind
Bring up out of that deep considering mind
All that you have discovered in the grave,
For it is certain that you have
Reckoned up every unforeknown, unseeing
Plunge, lured by a softening eye,
Or by a touch or a sigh,
Into the labyrinth of another’s being;
Does the imagination dwell the most
Upon an woman won or woman lost?
If on the lost, admit you turned aside
From a great labyrinth out of pride,
Cowardice, some silly over-subtle thought
Or anything called conscience once;
And that if memory recur, the sun’s
Under eclipse and the day blotted out.
The old lecher here is Hanrahan, who has had many loves, and whom, being dead, Yeats wants to reflect now on his various attractions to woman. “Does the imagination dwell the most/ Upon a woman won or woman lost?” If lost, it must be since you (as Hanrahan) proudly turned aside out of some silly sexual repression, or conscience. The very phrasing of the question involves abstract reflection, and the narrator and Hanrahan, “move as symbols of the uncertainty, confusion, and ultimate frustration of those who cannot be content with argument or abstract things, but follow after the imaginary and are left with the ‘horrible splendor of desire’.” The loss of the woman is also a sexual frustration and obstacle to one’s creativity, leading to the need to chase after one’s imagination. No modernization of the gender wars here; we are back to the tales of chivalric love, or even Tristanic love where distance equals passion, and only absence of the beloved (her “memory recur[red]”) can spur passion’s return. Youngblood comments on the woman figure by explaining how the “loss of a desired woman is related to the activity of the imagination and memory. There the image of the sun is again introduced, for imagination and memory dwelling upon almost ideal image blot out the “sun” of the real image and block out the “prosaic light” of the present.” Recall how the narrator stated that he wants the moon and the sunlight to be inextricable so that he can make men mad, and succeed at his goal. So he needs this sun/moon confusion, this mistaking of the imaginary for the real. In other words, despite his concern that poetry removes people from the real, he depends upon people being mislead by poetry, he depends on people being moved, inspired, charmed, even brainwashed by it, in order to connect with them, in order to feel his common humanity.
This playing with a poetic persona calls to mind Bono’s getup as Mephisto (or Mr. MacPhisto) in the ZooTV tour and related videos, where Bono is a devil who has taken the role of rock star in order to teach the world about truth and religion through rock and roll lyrics (or about intellectual matters through the emotions), and Bono-Mephisto’s tongue-in-cheek matter suggests the foolishness and artificiality of the entire enterprise. It is also by playing with personas that Bono can get his audience to leave their own personified selves and connect with the outside world’s ideas.
Bono in his costumed, eye-linered get-up as Macphisto.
These last few lines of the second part of “The Tower” bring us to the core of Yeats’s theory of imagination. Yeats writes that if the memory recurs, the “day,” which is synonymous to the “prosaic light of day” mentioned in an earlier stanza, is blotted out and eclipsed. What eclipses a sun? The moon, of course. So the prosaic sun is eclipsed by the imaginative light of the moon, which blots out reality. Put another way, the over-active imagination, symbolized by the moon, is taking up all of your thoughts and interfering with your perception of reality. As Youngblood writes, the memory “retains the ideal image never measured by reality, and it assumes in the proportion of the imagination a brilliance which makes the known reality unimportant: the day is ‘blotted out’.” This is what leads to the expression, sometimes given by one’s friends after asking them how their romantic vacation was, that the “memory was better than the event.”
Moon eclipsing the sun (solar eclipse)
The elder Yeats.
Lemon: Sun and Moon
I would like to look now at the opening lyrics for U2’s song “Lemon”:
See through in the sunlight
She wore lemon
Never in the daylight
She’s gonna make you cry
She’s gonna make you whisper and moan
But when you’re dry
She draws the water from a stone
I feel like I’m slowly, slowly, slowly slipping under
I feel like I’m holding onto nothing
This woman who is wearing the color lemon is going to hurt the “you” that the poem is addressing, which seems to be a general you. But I believe this you is specific; it is anyone who is reading the poem, and it is also the singer/narrator, who is personalizing his own experience. The image of a “lemon” is that of a bright yellow fruit, and it is presented as a metaphor for the sun. As such, in the Yeatsian sense it would symbolize the prosaic light of reality. The woman is going to hurt the reader and the writer because even when you’re “dry,” or seemingly empty of imaginative power, comfortable with reality, she will continue to suck imaginative power from you—both in a beautiful, Muse-like way, and also in a vampiric way, which reiterates the need for and yet the danger of the imagination; even when you’re “dry” you’ll feel compelled to keep imagining. “Slipping under” is a phrase used to describe someone drowning, and so the narrator says he feels like he is drowning, and does not have a hold on anything. You drown in water of course, and water here, because she draws it from the dry stone of you, is symbolizing imagination and creative power. So the narrator is drowning in his own sense of imagination that is not giving him enough of a hold on the real—again, the classic problem of the Tragic Generation.
She wore lemon
To color in the cold grey night
She had heaven
And she held on so tight
This stanza finally clues us in as to who this woman is. She is not the prosaic light of day, because she is not actually the lemon; the song says only that she wears lemon. This short description has all the clues we need. Recall that she wore lemon “Never in the daylight” and to “color in the cold grey night.” The only thing that would make the night grey would be moonlight, so she is wearing it at night, and coloring in the moonlight. This is a strange description, but if we break it down we come to the question “What colors in the moonlight?” or “What lights up the moon?” The sun, of course. So this woman, who is wearing the sun, is carrying it into the moonlight to achieve a sort of unity—to make sun and moonlight one “inextricable” beam. This woman, then, represents the power of the poet—the woman is his poetic imagination, dancing about, wearing reality like a loose dress so he can see the romantic “moonlight” better. Additionally, the lines “She had heaven/ And she held on so tight,” characterize the woman, our imagination, as desperately, selfishly holding onto the ideal, unwilling to share it with us. But there’s nothing to share!
The Imagination Keeps Us From the Real (Ideal)
Once we make the imaginative leap, we realize that there is nothing real present, that we are “holding onto nothing.” This interpretation is immediately reinforced by the next stanza:
A man takes a picture
A moving picture
Through light projected
He can see himself up close
A man captures color
A man likes to stare
He turns his money into light
To look for her
Here we have a literal description of a film projector. “A man” or people in general, make pictures, or ideals, the reason being that he can see himself in these ideals. “Money” here has to represent desire, because money is the unit that allows you to get things, and by turning it into light to look for “her,” he is looking for his imagination, which has tied together both moonlight and sunlight and can feed these inextricable beams into this mythical camera of ideals. The male gaze upon this traditional symbol of woman is operating again, transforming woman into whatever will give man inspiration (desire, money).
WOMAN ON TV (Here's lookin' at you viewer)
Midnight: Moon Highest
This should be getting easier. If he’s swimming out to her, he’s swimming out to imagination, right? But the water he’s swimming in is imagination:
And I feel like I’m drifting, drifting, drifting from the shore
And I feel like I’m swimming out to her
Midnight is where the day begins
Midnight is where the day begins
Midnight is where the day begins
Perhaps it is her dress, the lemon, that he is swimming towards; perhaps this is a sunset image, and he is swimming towards what he sees as reality (the lemon dress) but in actuality is still only her, the imagination. So here we have the same mistake of the farmers, the mistaking of reality for imagination. She’s not the real, prosaic sun. And in the meantime by swimming in his imagination, the narrator is drifting further and further away from the real reality—the shore. The next lines are the only lines that are immediately repeated in the whole poem, signifying their importance. “Midnight is where the day begins.” What is midnight? It is the dividing line where the next day begins. It is also the highest point of night, the middle of the night. It is when the moon, representing the fantastic and at its highest, that Bono feels the act of imagining can most perfectly begin. The actual day is beginning, but the daylight is not, not yet—perhaps the poet can deceive himself into thinking that he, through his imagination, is the one who is creating the real landscape that the day will eventually reveal, but right now is being hidden by the absence of daylight or reality. It is in this world of weakest reality that the poet, dangerously, feels his power to be greatest.
See through in the sunlight
A man builds a city
With banks and cathedrals
A man melts the sand so he can
See the world outside (You’re gonna’ meet her there)
A man makes a car (She’s your destination)
And builds a road to run them on (You gotta’ get to her)
A man dreams of leaving (She’s imagination)
But he always stays behind
Here is man in his reality, with his banks and cathedrals. But what is the driving point behind all of this reality? These banks are merely to exchange his money into light, to activate his desire and imagination so that he can get things. Cathedrals are so that he has something to believe in. “A man melts the sand so he can/ See the world outside.” Now we are getting images of technology and industrialization, including a literal image of a glass window being made; even in his city, man wants windows. Why? So he can see the world outside, the things he does not have—and to let the sun (reality) in! But the moonlight will come in, too. Man desires objects from the external world, and he makes other objects to move these desires--the car, the road to run it on. The simultaneous stanza here shows that the goal of all this is her, or the imagination, which, as quest unifier, will unify your intellect with your emotions (and make for one happy fellow).
This sounds remarkably like a stanza from the final part of “The Tower.”
And memories of love,
Memories of the words of women,
All those things whereof
Man makes a superhuman,
Youngblood writes that “the mirror is double: it mirrors life because the ideal or “dream” must take its images from reality; and it mirrors the self, as art is for the creator a means of identity... but the dream of art is mirror-resembling and superhuman, and this is an important qualification, as the moon and sunlight can only seem an “inextricable beam” .” Man dreams, and man builds his cities and reality, because he wants objects external to him, and to execute your desires, you have to imagine them. Youngblood mentions that this art is a means of identity for the creator. U2 was very much aware of this. “I used to find it uncomfortable to be around a lot of things,” says Bono. “Then I found these goggles. I put them on and found that I could go anywhere.” These goggles or sunglasses were part of Bono’s costume as “the Fly” which was another devilish persona he adapted for the concert tour of Zooropa, so that he could play with the meaning of a perceived identity.
The Sound of a Lemon
Listening carefully to the instrumentation in “Lemon” enhances the overall creation theme, since the song is surrounded by a bionic synthesizer sound that becomes a leitmotif for the imagination’s appearance. The synthesizer’s reverberation gives you a sense of moving, or of the actual creative act, happening continuously. It is also interesting to note Bono’s use of his falsetto. Whenever he talks about the woman wearing lemon, his voice is falsetto and it casts a sort of self-mocking tone on what he is saying, as if he is aware that the imagination has this grip on him, and that he is following it “by the balls,” and it’s funny. But it’s also serious, and Bono’s voice cries when he describes himself slipping and drifting, the “ah”s becoming beautiful and sad laments of the agony the imagination has driven him to.
And the Packaging of One
Finally, the lyrics aren’t simply typed down plainly, but are presented over an elaborate color picture of a lemon. The budding lemon suggests the female breast, which further ties the lemon to the woman in the song. Of course, the woman isn’t the lemon, she just wears lemon. But, if we see woman as imagination, and she wears the prosaic sun of reality, the lemon, there is one thing about woman which men stereotypically notice the most and yet imaginatively blow out of proportion. Her breasts! (And in case any listeners missed the connection, they could merely look at the adjoining page in the album, a full page spread of a man looking at a woman’s breasts.) Packaging images alongside their text is another shared technique U2 and Yeats use in their art to convey their theory of the imagination.
So we have here man building his dream, represented by film, pictures, cities or even the very isolated tower of wisdom that Yeats sets up. The dream is that imagination can unify the intellect to the emotions, and the outer world to the inner self. It is a desire for unification with the world and its people. Additionally, passionate relationships are characterized as sexual relationships. This is why imagination is being represented by a woman, as a mysterious “she” in “Lemon” and as the peasant girl and the women of Hanrahan in “The Tower”—the straight, or at least mainstream male artist, in seeking relation to the world, epitomizes this relation through women. The very name of the band U2 implies this strive for connection; not only are they a spy plane, soaring high on the wings of their own passionate music (observing the world and translating it, like the Romantics, through their high-tech poetic paraphernalia), but in their being, and their music, there is you, too.
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 7, September-October 2010, ISSN 1552-5112
 Anca Vlasopolos, The Symbolic Method of Coleridge, Baudelaire, and Yeats (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1983), 16-17.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 16-17.
 Ibid., 23.
 Ibid., 23.
 Ibid., 151.
 Yeats, Mythologies (New York: Touchstone, 1998), 341.
 Vlasopolos, 23-24.
 Thompson, William Irwin. The Imagination of an Insurrection (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 130-55.
 Ibid., 148.
 U2, Pop, 1997,
 So I’ll only mention one: “In dreams begin/ Responsibility.” This line is from “Acrobat” on Achtung Baby and a direct quote from Yeats. For a comprehensive survey of many of Bono’s allusions to Yeats, see Angela Pancella, “W.B. Yeats: U2 Connections,” @U2, http://www.atu2.com/news/connections/yeats/.
 Yeats, William
Butler. The Tower (
 Sarah Youngblood,
 Yeats, The Tower.
 Yeats, The Tower.
 Katherine Raine brings up the interesting point that the depiction of Hanrahan relates him to that of LE MAT or “the Fool”, one of the zero cards in a Tarot deck, so a tie can also be made to Hanrahan as the stereotypical fool that falls in love, where the foolishness seems to involve an epic lack of imagination triggering the falling. Katherine Raine, Yeats the Initiate (London: George Allen, 1986).
 Klug, M.A. “Pursuit of Confusion in ‘The Tower’,” College Literature 13:1, (1986): 29-35.
 Youngblood, 79.
 U2, “Lemon,”
 It was suggested to me the importance that man is working with physical things of his creation and trying to find the imagination-unification through them; that is, that somehow a tie is being made between man’s created things and his more “natural” imagination. For now I see this merely as a way to show that through man’s physical creation (as through the poet’s verbal creation) the imaginative act can be engaged.
 Yeats, The Tower.
 Youngblood, 80.
 Anne Powers, “The Future Sound of U2,” Spin, March 1997, 50.
 A further possible significance of this bionic sound was pointed out to me. I had mentioned that the sound was reminiscent of the sound heard in the Six Million Dollar Man television series whenever the protagonist would use the special abilities of his bionic arm. The very fact that Bono says “Man builds a city” is of course using man as an Everyman, but quite literally it would be impossible for one man to build a city—but not for a bionic man. Man has only to use his imagination to gain super-human powers.
 Or as
Bono said on stage at the 360 Tour in