March 17, 2019: For some reason, I found myself compelled to play Hozier’s song “Would That I,” from his new album Wasteland, Baby! on repeat. I anticipated his concert here in Charlotte, NC that very evening. The album had only been released for a week or so by then, so the songs were still new to me–unfamiliar and haunting. I didn’t know the lyrics to the song, but something about it captivated me.
We awaited the start of the show in the theater, my husband and I, sipping our drinks and enjoying casual banter. The opener, Jade Bird, played her set, and there was a brief intermission while the stage hands prepped for Hozier’s entrance. The first notes played were deep resounding drum beats, interspersed with light cymbal taps, and Hozier manipulated the strings of his guitar before gently crooning, “True that I saw her hair like the branch of a tree / Willow dancing on air before covering me / Under cotton and calicoes / Over canopy dappled long ago.”
I tend to get a little obsessed with artists when I feel a deep connection to the work they produce. I recently worried over this psychical symptom of mine, wondering if it is a mark of something defunct in my personality. I realized, while reading The Sublime Object of Ideology and analyzing myself, that I engage in a sort of transferential exchange with these musical artists, and I couldn’t communicate why it was happening. I recently posted a series of blogs wherein I apply Lacanian theory to my own life and self-analyze the trauma of my past. Feeling insecure about the validity of this process, I posed a question to Peter Rollins during a live seminar, and I queried whether a person could experience a complete analytical breakthrough without the help of a professional analyst. I am grateful for his response. In answer to this question, he explained:
“One doesn’t need analysis, but one needs the mechanism of transference, and you need that with someone who isn’t going to abuse it. And so I suppose you can do transference to a good singer-songwriter[s] who express the fragility of life–great poets who do it–there’s loads of ways that you can engage in transference in healthy ways.”Peter Rollins via Live Video Seminar
This helped me to realize that I have had a transferential relationship with Hozier by considering him to be “the one who knows.” The beautiful result is that I, through a close reading of his lyrics, can understand a little more about myself and this life. On top of that, I found that I have had the transcendent experience of recognizing this transference, which is another element of the analytic process. The subject under analysis (myself) must discover the transference and this discovery breaks the illusion, which enables depth of awareness and something like liberation. Peter Rollins broke the transference between Hozier and myself when he answered my question. This helped me to see first, that I don’t have to obsess over the person of Hozier because he is a broken human, just as I am. Second, I can see how his music may be useful to me in my own journey of self-discovery.
With that said, I would like to apply a psychoanalytic perspective to his ethereal song, “Would That I.” There are two primary symbols presented in the song through an extended metaphor, a willow tree and a fire, and I believe these two symbols represent the internal antagonism of the voice recounting the journey. In my opinion, this is a song about traversing the trauma of the Real in order to transcend and find enjoyment in the life–the relationship–of the present. The lover of the voice is compared to a willow tree, which embodies the symbolism of flexibility and strength, and the language “covering me” invokes the feeling of comfort. This is how the first verse ends:
“True that love in withdrawal was the weepin’ of me / That the sound of the saw must be known by the tree / Must be felled for to fight the cold / Fretted fire but that was long ago.”Andrew Hozier-Byrne, “Would That I”
If the lover’s hair is “like the branch of a tree,” then the love, itself–the relationship between the voice and the woman–is the Willow, and the tree “must be felled for to fight the cold.” Every relationship has a honeymoon phase, and once the infatuation is broken, the relationship is at risk. A sacrifice must be made, but what form will it take? Should the couple walk away from the relationship, or submit to the fire in unison? The voice “Fretted fire,” and I believe this means he walked away because of the discomfort of moving through the antagonism that is inevitable in any relationship.
The chorus contrasts this past experience with the present. The voice is no longer afraid of the fire–the danger and the risk posed to an individual upon fully committing to a relationship. “It’s not tonight / Where I’m set alight / And I blink in sight / Of your blinding light.” He is engulfed by the flames now, and no longer resisting their force.
In Verse 2, the voice proclaims “I fell in love with the fire long ago.” He is no longer afraid of the deconstruction of love. Deconstruction must occur in order to produce something that endures. “My heart rose to its feet / Like the ashes of ash, I saw rise in the heat / Settled soft and as pure as snow.” The fire is no longer a threat. There is a shift in this verse, a reflection of the past, when the voice commands, “With each love I cut loose, I was never the same / Watching still living roots be consumed by the flame,” He cut the tree–severed the relationship–but the flames engulfed the remnant, regardless. “I was fixed on your hand of gold / Layin’ waste to my lovin’ long ago.” This line brims with meaning. “Hand of gold” is an allusion to Midas, who fantasized about the golden touch, but when his wish was fulfilled, it destroyed everything in his life. Who is the “you” in this line? Is it his present love? It seems this way; however, I cannot help but feel it better represents some kind of ideal or fantasy that can never be realized. There is no perfect person, no perfect love, no perfect relationship. I surmise, whether Hozier is aware of this or not, this allusion to the “hand of gold” that lays “waste” to his “lovin'” is symbolic of the elusive vision of something that can never actually be. Fixed on this fantasy, he can never appreciate or enjoy the Real.
I feel this tension resolves in Verse 3, when he explains, “So in awe, there I stood as you licked off the grain / Though I’ve handled the wood, I still worship the flame / As long as amber of ember glows / All the ‘would’ that I’d loved is long ago.” This imagery transcends. The woman–his present love–has become the flame licking, or passing gently, over the wood grain. Recall that the tree is the relationship. This is a refining fire–a dangerous, threatening experience, the relationship is cleansing itself. The woman is actively engaged in shaping this love into something inimitable. In the final line of the verse, the voice dispels regret for abandoning the relationships of the past because he has finally submitted to the painfully poignant experience of surrender. He has surrendered to the flames. Relationships are painful, but when two people commit and choose unconditional love, choose mercy and compassion, empathy and humility, they will survive the raging consumption. The ashes of ash will fall to the ground “soft and as pure as snow.” Something is reborn.
To conclude, this analysis of “Would That I,” has enabled me to see the truth of my personal experience with my Forever Love. My husband and I have just celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary. Marriage is hard. Commitment is hard. Raising kids is hella hard! Nevertheless, we are companions on this journey, and we have submitted to the threatening discomfort of the flames. Because when you do this, when you submit to the flames, you must allow parts of yourself to melt away to fuse with your partner and shape something eternal. We must submit our past pains, our trauma, our triggers, and allow those to burn away, and the fire rages, and it is painful, but something divine remains. Surrender the false–the illusion–to the flames, and the Real remains, in all its amber glory.