“Ivy” is the product of one of the most successful women to have ever graced the music industry. Track 10 on her 9th studio album evermore, Taylor Swift achieved some of the most beautiful lyricism of her career in this masterpiece. The subject of the poem is highly debated, many fans believing it narrates the love life of acclaimed writer Emily Dickinson, but the basic premise becomes clear as you listen: a married woman is in love with someone who is not her husband, and she grapples with the complex feelings associated with her adultery. Who it is about and Swift’s relationship with this experience is unknown, but one thing is astonishingly clear: the beautiful passion and depth of poetry is epitomized in the words. The poem coalesces many meanings in simple phrases, condensing great emotion into so few words. It uses extended metaphors, clever rhyming and scheme and beautiful imagery to convey a deeply emotional and heartbreaking experience.
The song opens establishing the setting, where the subject meets the lover she is addressing:
How’s one to know?
I’d meet you where the spirit
meets the bones
In a faith-forgotten land
In from the snow
Your touch brought forth an
Tarnished, but so grand
Like true poetry, so much meaning is condensed so closely in the first 13 words of the song. The line “where the spirit meets the bones” has many layers. As referenced later in the song, this line is about the physical place where they meet, a graveyard. The meaning is emotional as well, spirit and bone meet in the body, she met her lover with her whole body, her whole heart, her whole mind. The words “faith-forgotten” establish the circumstances under which they meet, the love is clearly adultery as the narrator’s husband is mentioned later in the song. “Incandescent” as an adjective has two definitions: 1. emitting light as a result of being heated and 2. full of strong emotion; passionate. Both definitions are used in these lines. As the narrator comes “in from the snow” she is met by the heat and light of her lover’s touch. A touch which is also full of strong emotion. Coming to her lover “from the snow” implies that her previous love was absent of incandescent glow. Or absent of the passion and warmth she finds with this new love. The final line of the first stanza characterizes the “glow” mentioned in the previous line. Tarnished elicits a feeling of age, a shine that has dulled from years of disuse, an odd word to describe so much passion. Swift follows tarnished with “but so grand”, though the love is “dulled” it is still great and beautiful. All of this emotion, meaning and experience is encompassed in so few words, just the first verse of a four and a half minute masterpiece.
The pre-chorus re-introduces the graveyard, adding more to our understanding of the budding romance:
And the old widow goes to the stone everyday
But I don’t I just stay here and wait
Grieving for the living
In describing a widow and the stone she visits, Swift brings back the graveyard setting. A woman who mourns the loss of her husband by visiting his gravestone. The narrator, however, does not have a gravestone to mourn a past lover, she stays in the graveyard “grieving for the living”. She is missing someone who is not dead, but somehow lost from her regardless. The most obvious interpretation that can be made from this is the loss of love, trust, faith or contact within the narrator’s marriage. She is grieving what she has lost in the marriage, at the same time, waiting in that graveyard for her new spark, confirmed in the first verse. She waits for new love in the death of her old one, Swift masterfully asserts through the physical and emotional location described in the song.
From here, the chorus is introduced:
My pain fits in the palm of your freezing hand
Taking mine, but it’s been promised to another
Oh, I can’t
Stop you putting roots in my dreamland
My house of stone, your ivy grows
And now I’m covered in you
Swift is implying the narrator’s pain is cradled easily in the lover’s hand, that the lover understands and nurses that pain so easily. The description “freezing hand” connects back to the first verse, where the lover’s touch is described as incandescent. The extended metaphor and contradiction here is difficult to understand at first, how can one both provide warmth and passion, but still themselves be frozen? The lover can not be made warm because they give love so intensely. Perhaps the lover remains so cold because the narrator can not provide the support they give in return, because of the “house of stone” mentioned later in the poem. Connecting one deeply moving metaphor to another, Swift brings us to the line that named the song: “My house of stone, your ivy grows / And now I’m covered in you”. Stone is timeless, strong, cold and unyielding and though it is tested by horrible storms and great tribulations, it stands. This can be wonderful to liken your heart to, because it means it can bear great hardship and still go on. It also means the narrator’s heart has endured quite a lot and therefore will not weaken to love. Except, of course, to this love, who weakens stone through ivy. Ivy is not violent, it doesn’t bring the stone down, it simply grows and flourishes on it and in it’s gentle expression of life, loosens the stone. The narrator’s cold, tested “house of stone” is now covered in the lover’s understanding and life-filled “ivy”.
The song continues into two more verses, three more choruses and a beautiful bridge that counters the expressions of love with those of anger, bringing emotional complexity to the song. In verse three Swift writes:
Clover blooms in the field
Spring breaks loose, the time is near
What would he do if he found us out?
Crescent moon, coast is clear
Spring breaks loose, but so does fear
He’s gonna burn this house to the ground
In one short rhyme scheme Swift utilizes multiple poetic devices. Metaphor is used to liken the new love to life of springtime bursting out into the world. It characterizes the nature of the relationship, inciting hope. The repetition of the second and fifth lines, induces a sense of anxiety in the listener. The reader experiences the narrator’s fear of being discovered. The repeated lines end in rhyme with each other, implying the connection between the joy of love and the fear of unfaithfulness are intertwined, emphasizing again the anxiety the repetition created. She concludes this portion of the song with a conclusion about her husband’s actions. That he would “burn this house to the ground”. Therefore extending another metaphor many verses into the song. The house the narrator and her lover have built, one of stone covered in ivy, will be destroyed and therefore the unique trust and love it represents. This line also characterizes the violence of the husband, that he would burn and destroy until there was nothing left. No shelter from the cold that is so often referenced in the song.
I would need a novel to explain all the poetry and deeper meanings written into this song, so I encourage anyone reading this to listen for themselves and feel the emotion Swift further demonstrates with musicality. This is a poem that needs to be heard to be understood. It is a masterpiece only Swift could conjure up.