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17 Historic and Literary References in Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ That Only Grownups Will Get

Here’s a guide to the highbrow allusions in the massive hit album


spinner image Taylor Swift onstage during an Eras Tour concert
Taylor Swift performing during her recent "The Eras Tour."
Ashok Kumar/TAS24/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management

The 31 songs on the expanded version of Taylor Swift’s new The Tortured Poets Department album rehash breakups, nurse grudges and revel in fresh romance. America’s favorite prom queen doesn’t stray far from her signature confessional pop tunes littered with guess-who clues about ex-boyfriends.

But she’s also showing off her increasingly scholarly report card. The 34-year-old megastar has alluded to highbrow writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Robert Frost in earlier songs, but the heartbreak-heavy Tortured is particularly fat with literary and grownup cultural references that may fly over the heads of the younger Swifties.

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Tortured, Swift’s ninth album in five years (including four rerecorded Taylor’s Version releases), sold 1.4 million copies its first day and racked up 490 million streams in three days, according to Billboard. Media and fans are buzzing about the album’s transparent allusions to such discarded partners as actor Joe Alwyn and British musician Matty Healy, as well as current flame Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.

Tortured is steeped in the romantic melodrama that unfolded during her “Eras” tour. Less obvious and more unexpected are the nods to earlier periods.

spinner image A woman with her arms spread wide in a British trade ad from 1921 for One a Fortnight
A British trade ad from 1921 of Mack Sennett Comedies' "One a Fortnight."
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Old English

The album kicks off with a synth pop downer about marital misery called “Fortnight.” A good portion of Swift’s fans are likely more familiar with the postapocalyptic zombie video game Fortnite, played by 650 million users, than this antiquated British term for two weeks (literally fēowertīene niht, or 14 nights), which was popular from around 400 AD until the 1920s.

spinner image The exterior of the Chelsea Hotel
The exterior of the Chelsea Hotel in New York City in 1987.
Elliott Erwitt/Magnum

The Chelsea Hotel

“This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel,” Swift sings in the album’s title track. The storied New York City hotel, built in the mid-1800s, was a creativity crossroads frequented by writers, poets, musicians and artists. It’s where Bob Dylan crafted Blonde on Blonde, Andy Warhol filmed portions of Chelsea Girls, Arthur Miller wrote After the Fall, William S. Burroughs penned Naked Lunch and Leonard Cohen bedded Janis Joplin, then wrote the tune “Chelsea Hotel #2.” Among its regulars and residents were Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, O. Henry, Eugene O’Neill and Allen Ginsberg.

spinner image Welsh poet Dylan Thomas
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas (from whom Bob took his stage name) also stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. In “The Tortured Poets Department,” Swift takes a swipe at Healy, comparing him unfavorably to the hugely popular Welsh poet, whose most familiar work is 1931’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Thomas died of alcoholism; Healy has been open about his recovery from heroin addiction. She sings, “I laughed in your face and said, ‘You’re not Dylan Thomas.’ ”

spinner image Patti Smith crawling onstage with the audience watching
Patti Smith onstage during a performance.
Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Patti Smith

In the same song, Swift admits, “I’m not Patti Smith / This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel / We’re modern idiots.” Despite Swift’s massive success, few will argue that point. Smith, 77, has long been revered for her punk music, poetry and bestselling memoirs. Oh, and she lived for a time in the Chelsea’s smallest room with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, another name that many Swifties might have to google.

spinner image A portrait of Cassandra
Cassandra
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Cassandra

Swift addresses media glare and the perils of public life in “Cassandra,” a clear reference to the daughter of the king of Troy in Greek mythology. Apollo gave Cassandra the power of prophecy, but when she rejected him, he cursed her so nobody would believe her omens. The song’s chorus: “So they killed Cassandra first ’cause she feared the worst / And tried to tell the town / So they filled my cell with snakes, I regret to say / Do you believe me now?”

spinner image A portrait of a statue of Aristotle
Aristotle
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Aristotle

Ancient Greece resurfaces in “So High School,” a tune that examines the public’s perceptions of Swift and Kelce. “You know how to ball, I know Aristotle,” she sings. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher whose studies paved the way for modern science, died in 322 B.C.

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Adam and Eve
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The Bible

In “The Prophecy,” Swift turns to the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis in the first verse with “I got cursed like Eve got bitten.” And she takes “Guilty as Sin?” to church, but not in the conventional gospel sense. Citing the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, she sings, “What if I roll the stone away? They’re gonna crucify me anyway / What if the way you hold me is actually what’s holy?”

spinner image Clara Bow lying her head on her hands
Clara Bow
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Clara Bow

The song “Clara Bow” is named after the silent film star and Roaring Twenties sex symbol known globally as the It Girl (and the inspiration for Margot Robbie’s character in the 2022 film Babylon). She was overworked, heavily scrutinized and suffered psychiatric problems, voluntarily entering a sanatorium at 25. Swift, who says the song reflects her observations of the entertainment industry, sings, “Beauty is a beast that roars / Down on all fours / Demanding, ‘More.’ ”

spinner image Singer Stevie Nicks in 1978
Stevie Nicks
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Stevie Nicks

Swift also name-drops Stevie Nicks in “Clara Bow,” explaining in an Amazon Music commentary that the 75-year-old Fleetwood Mac singer is “an icon and an incredible example for anyone who wants to write songs and make music.” For the song, Swift says she “picked women who have done great things in the past and have been these archetypes of greatness in the entertainment industry.”

spinner image British author Nancy Mitford
Nancy Mitford
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1940s Fiction

“The Bolter” finds Swift recounting a tumultuous relationship and her habit of fleeing love affairs. It’s likely drawn from British author Nancy Mitford’s 1945 comic novel The Pursuit of Love, featuring a serial monogamist dubbed the Bolter. Key lyrics: “Splendidly selfish, charmingly helpless. / Excellent fun ’til you get to know her. / Then she runs like it’s a race. / Behind her back, her best mates laughed / And they nicknamed her The Bolter”

spinner image Jack Nicholson in a scene from the film The Shining
Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."
Warner Brothers/Getty Images

Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick

On “Guilty as Sin,” aimed at Healy, Swift sings, “I’m slipping, falling back into the hedge maze / Oh, what a way to die,” presumably pointing to the giant maze where Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) freezes to death in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film of Stephen King’s horror novel The Shining, with a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist Diane Johnson.

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Romeo and Juliet meeting on a balcony during a production in 1910.
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William Shakespeare

“The Albatross” serves up an obvious Romeo and Juliet reference in the lyric “A rose by any other name is a scandal.” In the Bard’s play, which gave us this expression, Juliet actually says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet means that Romeo’s name is irrelevant; it’s his sweetness that counts, and she wishes his last name weren’t Montague, her family’s enemy, which makes their union scandalous. (Also, she’s not asking where Romeo is physically in “Wherefore art thou Romeo”; “wherefore” here means “why,” so she’s questioning “Why do you have to be named Romeo Montague?”)

spinner image Actress Betty Bronson as Peter Pan
Actress Betty Bronson as Peter Pan in 1924.
Famous Players-Lasky Corporation/Film Favorites/Getty Images

Peter Pan

With mentions of lost boys and a reluctance to grow up, the song “Peter” carries the spirit of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan from start to finish. Swift sings, “You said you were gonna grow up / Then you were gonna come find me.”

spinner image Madeleine L’Engle as a young child and A Wrinkle in Time book cover
Madeleine L’Engle as a young child (left) and the book cover for "A Wrinkle in Time."
Courtesy: L’Engle family; Alamy

A Wrinkle in Time

“So High School” peeks into Madeleine L’Engle’s award-winning 1962 A Wrinkle in Time, a young adult science fantasy novel inspired by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and Max Planck’s quantum theory. Initially rejected by 26 publishers, the story has since been adapted for TV, film, opera, theater and a graphic novel. Swift’s tribute lyric: “The brink of a wrinkle in time. Bittersweet 16 suddenly.”

spinner image Robert Redford and Mia Farrow lying on the grass in a scene from The Great Gatsby
(Left to right) Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in "The Great Gatsby."
Everett Collection

The Great Gatsby

The breakup song “So Long London” borrows a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in “I saw, in my mind, ferry lights through the mist / I kept calm and carried the weight of the rift.” The novel’s Nick sees “ferry lights through the mist” as Jay Gatsby shows him the green light across the water, a symbol of his futile yearning for Daisy and the unreachable American dream.

spinner image The Secret Garden book cover
The book cover of "The Secret Garden."
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The Secret Garden

There’s little doubt about this source. In “I Hate It Here,” Swift seeks escape and leans into one of the most beloved children’s books in history, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, first published in 1911. The telling lyric: “I hate it here so I will go to secret gardens in my mind / People need a key to get to, the only one is mine / I read about it in a book when I was a precocious child.” The book remains immensely popular and has been so widely adapted that few Swifties will be stumped by this homage.

spinner image Frances Dee, Joan Bennett, Katharine Hepburn and Jean Parker in the film Little Women
Frances Dee, Joan Bennett, Katharine Hepburn and Jean Parker in "Little Women."
Everett Collection

Little Women

On the album’s final track, “The Manuscript,” Swift sings, “The professor said to write what you know.” In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, German professor Friedrich Bhaer tells Jo March to write what she knows.

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