The Poetic Predisposition of Princess Elsa
This year, there was a strange occurrence in the pop cultural world: a song by a Disney princess got 258.6 million views on Youtube. To put things in perspective, that’s 35.5 million views more than Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, 5.7 million more views than One Direction’s ‘Best Song Ever’ and 35 million more views than Beyonce’s ‘Run The World’. ‘Let It Go’, Princess Elsa of Frozen’s swan song of self-discovery, has even overtaken Queen B in the popularity stakes.
As a Frozen fan-girl and ‘Let It Go’ devotee, I don’t find this surprising. Not only is the song ridiculously catchy, deliberately designed by Disney’s writers to lurk in the consciousness until any combination of the words ‘let’ ‘it’ or ‘go’ provoke a spontaneous outburst of raucous singing, the message the song contains is of universal significance. It is Elsa’s, and any young person’s bildungsroman in verse, detailing the awkward process of growing up where we must recognise that part of getting older is accepting what makes us different, and finding the confidence to ignore the judgement of our peers. ‘Let It Go’ is about the difficulty of finding adequate ways to deal with overwhelming experiences and live in the moment, which is something anyone of any age can relate to. When such pearls of wisdom are spoken by a beautiful princess who lives in an ice palace and rocks a dress made entirely out of sparkles, it’s going to be a winning combination.
However, for the unenlightened, the popularity of ‘Let It Go’ must be ascribed to the increasingly debased cultural tastes of our society, where it is a sad thing that tinnitus-inducing princess pop is able to masquerade as meaningful music. Haterz will deny that there is anything noteworthy underlying the lyrics of ‘Let It Go’; the song’s status as a Disney ballad makes it fair game for disparagement and eye-rolling. If ‘Let It Go’ was a poem then, would we take it seriously? 65 years ago, William Empson, one of the most renowned and idiosyncratic critics of the twentieth century, wrote a short poem by the same title.
If Elsa was a poet, this is what she would have written. Empson might turn in his grave to hear me say it, but in his short, melancholy poem, he touches upon the same fears of retribution and awareness of human fragility as Elsa does in ‘Let It Go’; the fundamental difference is that Elsa’s emotional torment is ‘Disneyfied’, while Empson’s consciousness of his own inadequacy enjoys no such cushioning. While it is pure coincidence that Empson’s poem and the most played Disney song in the world share the same title, we can’t ignore that the writers of both texts would have chosen the words for similar reasons, namely, its implicit suggestion of release from emotional strain. Written at a time when Empson was considering giving up writing poetry altogether, his poem abounds with the kind of psychological turmoil Elsa confronts when she sings about trying to run from something that is inextricably linked with her sense of identity – in this case, not poetry, but her bitchin’ ice powers.
When Empson writes that “the contradictions cover such a range”, he is referring to the surface confusion of life in which the tumult of emotion we feel on a daily basis cannot be neatly processed, which is something Elsa, as a princess who must appear confident and in command of her people, while secretly harbouring a ‘swirling storm inside’ would totally identify with. Both Empson and Elsa know what it’s like for life to be overwhelming, and how trying to understand an overload of sensory experience without any help can lead to madness and repression, or what Empson calls ‘deep blankness’. Here, Empson describes a numbing effect that embodies his inability to confront the infinite number of contradictions life throws up, just like Elsa is unable to confront her deep-seated fear of be- ing different. Elsa’s famous refrain – ‘conceal don’t feel’ – is evocative of her own numbing process, which prevents her from losing con- trol of her powers and turning her loved ones into icicles, but results in the stifling of who she really is. So Elsa is every bit the tortured poet; the line “my soul is spiralling in frozen fractals all around” indicates that the extreme pressures of being a princess with a difference has led to a fragmentation of the self in much the same way Empson’s doubt of his own poetic faculties results in an uncertain sense of his own identity.
Not only do Elsa and Empson both have problems with confronting the tumult of their soul, they’re afraid that if they expose their vulnerability they will be stigmatised by their peers. At the beginning of Frozen’s Let It Go, Elsa would rather remain in her “kingdom of isolation” than ever reveal what she sees as her fatal flaw. “Don’t let them in, don’t let them see” becomes Elsa’s repressive mantra; the idea of letting her ice powers have free rein is too dangerous; there’s the chance it would result in the kind of ‘mad- house’ Empson describes as he imagines what would happen if he stopped trying to gain a hold on the inconstancy of his own life. What Elsa and Empson ultimately fear is what would happen if they “can’t hold it back any more”: for Empson, “the talk would talk and go so far aslant”, which suggests both judgement from an implied audience and a resultant landslide of meaningless discourse if the poet tried to locate meaning in his own psychological chaos. Like Elsa hiding out in her ice palace, he shies away from the vague threat of ‘the whole thing there’. And like Elsa, he’d rather not ‘let them know’. For Empson, and Elsa before she realises having ice powers is really quite fun, repression is preferable to the constant strain of trying to know oneself.
Empson titled his poem ‘Let It Go’ because he was acutely aware that trying to make sense of all accumulated experience damages the development of a stable construction of the self. While Elsa’s catharsis is diluted by the jangly coyness of Disney, she is able to “test the limits and break through”, finding in herself the power to embrace the heterogeneity of human existence in a way Empson’s poem cannot. In this way, Empson’s ‘Let It Go’ is the erratic older sister to Elsa’s tour de force. His poem has been described as a kind of ‘muttered song’; but where the poet whispers, Elsa screams. Empson desires what eventually comes naturally to Elsa, the ability to “crystallize” his thoughts and let the storm rage on, regardless of the consequences.
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