Syd Barrett – See Emily Play

26 May

Pink Floyd’s second single, See Emily Play, allegedly told a story of a young aristocrat, known as the psychedelic schoolgirl. Mystical, whimsical and childish, verses of ‘See Emily Play‘ contain a deeper meaning than you’d expect. By reading this post further, you’ll discover the influences that created this beautiful and strange psychedelic gem; from Shakespeare and Romantics to Pre-Raphaelites and Pagan festivals.

pink floyd early posters 1

Recorded on 23 May 1967, and released on 16 June, the song instantly became a hit and struck a chord with the public, preparing the youth for a vivid and mind expanding atmosphere of, what was later known as, the summer of love. It was Pink Floyd’s second single which paved their way to success. Interviews and performances at the Top of the Pops soon followed. At that point Syd had already started struggling with the concept of being a commercial rock musician rather than being an artist.

Still, the lyrics of the song represent the very best of Syd’s writing; witty, childish and whimsical, they are the testimony to the spirit of the 1960s, and yet some of the verses posses a certain mysticism. It is impossible to pinpoint precisely what inspired Syd to write this song for its verses are engulfed in mystery, as is the case in most of Syd’s songs. Syd himself had many versions, one of it was that he feel asleep in the woods after taking LSD and saw an unusual girl.

The main inspiration for the song was, in fact, a fifteen year old girl Emily Young, who skylarked across Holland Park to the London Free School with her friend Anjelica Huston. Emily was nicknamed ‘psychedelic schoolgirl’ at the UFO club. Intellectual curiosity prompted Emily to visit the Free School and educate herself beyond school curriculum. Her private ‘evening classes’ consisted of reading William Blake, existentialists and Romantic poets, dressed at the same time in a noticeable long Victorian style gown ‘that touched the ground’.

Pete Brown said that ‘See Emily Play‘ was based on this schoolgirl.

This English cult of the schoolgirl in fetish uniform has always been around – the more dubious side of English culture, allied with British repression and fetishism. Emily was someone I went out and about with. I was friends with her because Anjelica Huston was at the same school, and hung out with Emily as well. I met them walking down to Portobello Road. I did poetry gigs in schools. I was young, in my twenties. These girls were seventeen or eighteen. I went out with them. English schoolgirls in the sixties were forward-looking, discovering their own sexuality.‘ (Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe by Julian Palacios)

1960s Emily Young - Syd's Muse                      Emily Young in the 1960s

Syd’s young muse blossomed into a notable sculptor whose aim is ‘to tell a truth about the origins of human life and consciousness.‘ In a way her sculptures remind me of Gauguin’s work, at least in approach. Like Gauguin, Emily believes that the truth about life lies in primitive and archaic, and that art is hidden in the forces of nature, not in Western world galleries. I’m delighted to see that despite her progression from a confused 1960s schoolgirl to a prolific artist, she hasn’t lost the open-minded attitude towards life. Her worldview is still psychedelic.

LYRICS:

Emily tries but misunderstands, ah ooh
She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play

Soon after dark Emily cries, ah ooh
Gazing through trees in sorrow hardly a sound till tomorrow
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play

Put on a gown that touches the ground, ah ooh
Float on a river forever and ever, Emily
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play.

1852. Ophelia by John Everett MillaisMillais’ ‘Ophelia’

The story of Emily Young is, however, merely a segment of Syd’s fantastical song. The opening verses of the third stanza can instantly be connected to Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece – Ophelia. It is impossible to believe that the whole century separates these two maidens in long flowing gowns! ‘Put on a gown that touches the ground, ah ooh, Float on a river forever and ever, Emily…’ Emily’s graceful figure full of calmness in a flowing white gown that touched the ground, so brilliantly white against the darkness of the dance hall in All Saints, caught Syd’s eye while he wailed ‘I’m high, Don’t try to spoil the fun‘ into the microphone.

Beautiful and complex, strange as the mists of Avalon, this pop gem is at once intelligible and psychedelic all the way. It simultaneously unites all the elements that Syd’s fantasy world was made of; May Queens and Green Man, psychedelic drugs, tragic heroines, mysterious world of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, children’s stories, Romantic poems along with bright and innocent childish visions. See Emily Play is, at the same time, a hymn to the English woods, willow branches, rivers and pagan festivals, as well as the embodiment of dozens of archetypes of European literature – tragic and innocent maidens such as Ophelia. We know that Barrett was familiar with John William Waterhouse’s rendition of Ophelia who is painted in a long flowing gown, surrounded by the magnificent and mysterious woods and deep sinister water. Flowers, mystery, lost maidens, muses; all amalgamated in the mind of a psychedelic Mad Hatter of rock ‘n’ roll – Syd Barrett.

1894. John William Waterhouse's Ophelia1894. John William Waterhouse – Ophelia

Influence of a great Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, can also be traced in Syd’s writing. Shelley’s poem ‘The Song of Asia‘ was printed in Syd’s copy of ‘The Cambridge Book of Poetry‘. Specific verses evoke both the spirit of the song, and the ones of the Pre-Raphaelites masterpieces.

Whilst all the winds with melody are ringing.
It seems to float ever, for ever,
Upon that many-winding river,
Between mountains, woods, abysses,
A paradise of wildernesses!
Till, like one in slumber bound,
Borne to the ocean, I float down, around,
Into a sea profound, of ever-spreading sound.

1910. Ophelia - John William Waterhouse1910. Ophelia – John William Waterhouse

Final stanza of ‘See Emily Play‘ offers the listener a feeling of isolation; floating forever on a river, in loneliness and sorrow. Tragic destiny awaits Emily, as it awaited other innocent heroines before her; Ophelia, Lady of Shallot, Lavinia… At the same time, these verses may suggest a more personal subject, the one that never stopped occupying Syd’s mind; the end of childhood, days of innocence and playfulness are gone forever. Still, the usage of the same subject, by artists centuries apart, from Shakespeare, Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites to Syd Barrett, shows us that themes in art are eternal, whether it’s a poem, a painting or a rock song.

And what did Emily had to say about the song? ‘Floating forever on a river is a perfect dream image of the soul moving through time and space, through eternity. Of the world at peace in its place in the cosmos. Individual and universe flowing in perfect order with nature at one.

syd 118

I decided to write about this song because it’s beautiful and lyrical, thematically rooted in nature, folklore and other artworks that I love, and most importantly – it is a song I can identify with. In fact, it is the only song I can identify with, especially with the verse ‘She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow’. Then the ‘free games for May’ and I was born in May. For an unknown reason, I’ve felt like a ‘psychedelic schoolgirl’ for a long time. One cannot be sad when one is immersed in psychedelia.

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9 Responses to “Syd Barrett – See Emily Play”

  1. Geoffrey Basil Smith 27th August 2015 at 7:15 pm #

    Have you seen Carol Morley’s film The Falling ?
    There are so many harmonic resonances with your piece on Syd and Emily.
    Dr G 33,97,8-3

    Like

    • Byron's Muse 1st September 2015 at 4:59 pm #

      I haven’t seen that film. Is it good? Thanks for reading my post.

      Like

      • Geoffrey Basil Smith 2nd September 2015 at 11:44 am #

        The film, directed by Carol Morley, is set in the late sixties and highlights naughty schoolgirls a la the truants at the London Free School in Notting Hill (Pink Floyd did their first gigs for the school at All Saint’s Hall), ley lines according to John Michell (who lived at the school in Powys Terrace), a psych-folk musical score, and even ends with a homage to Millais’ Ophelia ! Could you want more ?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Byron's Muse 2nd September 2015 at 1:08 pm #

          Sounds very interesting. I’ll definitely watch it!

          Like

  2. Antonio 17th December 2015 at 8:00 pm #

    Thanks for this wonderful article B´s Muse, I love this song more tan any other one and I learned a lot from your writing. I think it´s the most strange and misterious song and there´s a Deep meaning under the words and the music I just can´t understant. It´s mystical, magical, the power of the myth lies bellow… It´s so powerful and moving. Thank you!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 17th December 2015 at 9:12 pm #

      I’m glad that you liked my post, and I totally agree with you. The song is indeed mystical and magical, just like psychedelia in general. I hope that you’ve listened to the whole album ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ by Pink Floyd because it’s filled with beautiful music and lyrics. Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mike 19th June 2016 at 9:01 am #

    She later married Simon Jeffes of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra and sung on their first album and did all their album art

    Liked by 1 person

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Ode to British Psychedelia or ‘What it means to me’ | Byron's muse - 6th January 2016

    […] Syd defined nature and energy as one. Sculptor Emily Young, and the inspiration for the song See Emily Play, called Syd ‘a little wild Puck figure coming out of the […]

    Like

  2. Interview with Byron’s Muse – 1810 Photography - 10th January 2017

    […] Byron’s Muse: Without a doubt – ‘See Emily Play’ by Pink Floyd. It’s a psychedelic gem with a rich cultural background. It tells a story of a psychedelic schoolgirl, but combines influences from Albion’s pagan past, May Queens, Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites. I can identify with the song on so many levels, especially with the lyric ‘She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow’. I actually wrote a post about the inspiration behind the song and why I love it here. […]

    Like

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