“Fire and Rain”: how to say the unbearable thing without really saying it

My partner warned me against following up my first post with one about James Taylor, for fear that I would pigeonhole myself into frumpiness.  I would probably take her advice if my post were analyzing the lyrical intricacies of a song like “Shower” (What else would you shower the people you love with?  Don’t answer that).  But there’s nothing much more gut-wrenching than a song about a recently passed companion, and “Fire and Rain” is undoubtedly among the best in this category (see also: “You Never Know” by Immortal Technique).

There are a few nice moments in the verses that I appreciate: the grim reliance on faith in the second verse, for instance, stirs a note of pity even in the heart of this lifelong atheist. But really, it’s all about the chorus. Specifically, the last line. Let’s go to the transcript:

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again

Before I knew what this song was about, I used to listen to these lines, finding them sweet and somber but not knowing quite why they had such hurt wrapped up in them. Sure, he surveys the hard stretches along the path he’s walked, but it’s implied that because he’s endured them, the good at least somewhat balances out the bad. Then I noticed: the construction of the last line is a bit awkward, at least in terms of rhetorical convention. If he begins by declaring, ‘I’ve seen this, that and the other’ and then halts us with a ‘but’, what follows should properly be in the negative. Which is to say:

“But I never thought that I’d never see you again.”

Which is a far more awful thing to state. To me, it doesn’t seem like much of the song’s sadness comes from the ‘lonely times’ at all, but from the fact that the speaker had been counting on seeing his friend again, probably countless times again for years to come, and this hope had given him strength through all his trials. Not only will he never take comfort in that again, but chances are he’s been in the red for some time, and the rug has been pulled out.

Whether the construction was conscious or not, I suspect that James Taylor found it unbearable to admit this fact outright, but our understanding of syntactical expectancies fixes it for us in the same way that our brains fix the upside-down view of the world captured by our eyes. We’re aware of his loss the same way he’s aware of the sun: ever-present, incontrovertible, impossible to face directly.

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