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Advent Day 12: Alas I cannot Swim

Laura Marling Alas I Cannot Swim - Lyrics and Analysis

There's a house across the river but alas I cannot swim And a garden of such beauty that the flowers seem to grin There's a house across the river but alas I cannot swim I'll live my life regretting that I never jumped in

Alas I cannot Swim (My Only Doll Dora), Laura Marling


Looking at the words of this song, you’d imagine a far more melancholic tune, but as is often the case with Laura Marling, the bleak lyrics are juxtaposed with uplifting music. ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ is beautifully poetic, and yet the repetitive rhyming, old-fashioned language, and idyllic imagery also give it the feel of a nursery rhyme. Marling somehow conveys an unfettered, childlike joy through the sweet simplicity of this song, even whilst she sings about the disillusioning experience of adulthood. The dramatic tension further communicates a sense of bitter regret, as it reminds us of all that has been lost.

Marling’s lyrics talk of the barriers that hold us back from fulfilling our dreams and desires, and the fearfulness that can prevent us from taking a leap of faith. Perhaps all of us, at one time or another, have said to ourselves or to others, ‘Alas I cannot swim’. I mean that in the metaphorical sense; we easily disqualify ourselves, make excuses, or feel too overwhelmed by the fear of failure to act upon our ideas, beliefs, or dreams.

One of the encouraging truths that we can take from the Christmas story is that no one is disqualified in the eyes of God. Both shepherds and wise men are invited and welcomed to the scene of Jesus’ birth. In one of his Christmas sermons, Rowan Williams talks about the shepherds and the wise men as representing those with a simple faith versus those whose journeys are more complex. Excuse the long quote…

“In the straw of the stable, the humble and the complicated are able to kneel together. If God is there in the simplicity of the baby in the straw…that means he is there in naked simplicity for the sophisticated and troubled… those who have had long and tortuous journeys, cold comings, to the stable. Yes, we are told to become like children, faced with the invitation to believe and trust in the God of Bethlehem. But that is not the same as saying, as we all too often do, ‘Christmas is a time for the children’ – meaning that it has nothing to say to grown-ups, who indulge the pretty fantasy for a short while, but stay firmly outside the stable door… The childlike response of longing and delight can come even from a heart that has grown old and tired; and when such a response arises, let no one think that they are too compromised, too entangled to be welcome.”

(Choose Life)

It is a relief to know that however complex, cynical, or fearful we may be, there is still room for us in the stable. There is always space for us to come to Jesus and to ask him to break us free from the fears and doubts that hold us back. The Christmas story speaks to us of the possibility of ‘life across the river’ and reveals to us that no one is too far from it, however inadequate our (metaphorical) swimming may be! The hope that Jesus brings is not just for the special few but for all of us. For those of us who are feeling the weight of regret or disillusionment this Christmas, I wonder whether, like the ‘sages’, we need to hear these words:

Sages, leave your contemplation Brighter visions beam afar Seek the great desire of nations Ye have seen His natal star

(Angels from the Realms of Glory)


This is part of my LittlePonderings series: "Unseasonal Songs: An Alternative Advent in Song Lyrics". You can find out more here.

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