A literary analysis of Taylor Swift’s iconic ‘ivy’


Leah Johnson, Staff Writer

Taylor Swift has completely mastered the art of novelistic songwriting. It is often said of her music that it feels diaristic, like a thoughtful recounting of events. She has, above all else, a fantastic eye for the moments in life that, when relayed, represent how she’s feeling. For example, in her beloved “All Too Well”, Swift sings, “There we are again on that little town street. You almost ran the red ‘cause you were looking over at me.” This is a specific detail in a series of events, but it simultaneously symbolizes the very internal, emotional experience of fleeting intensity. In an essay written for Elle magazine, Swift discusses her approach to writing, saying, “The writing I love the most places you into that story, that room, that rain soaked kiss. You can smell the air, hear the sounds, and feel your heart race as the character’s does…to describe a scene so gorgeously interwoven with rich emotional revelations, that you yourself have escaped from your own life for a moment.”

I say all this to make it clear what I believe distinguishes Swift’s writing, so that you will see what I mean when I argue that “ivy” is the golden standard of it. Ultimately, no song in her catalog better models the skill of relating a story, complete with specific anecdotes and imagery, while at the same time, relating the emotional arc of said story.

“ivy” is a fi ctional song about a woman in a loveless marriage having an aff air. In “ivy”, Swift tells a very straightforward story, but there is not a lyric that goes by that doesn’t serve the dual purpose of developing the plot and brilliantly describing emotional sensations, creating an immersive listening experience, like reading a page-turning book. Now, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to go verse by verse and show you exactly what I mean.

Verse 1:

How’s one to know?
I’d meet you where the spirit meets the bones
In a faith-forgotten land
In from the snow
Your touch brought forth an incandescent glow
Tarnished but so grand

Swift describes the narrator having a secret rendezvous with her lover in a cemetery, but a cemetery is not a cemetery – it is “where the spirit meets the bones in a faith-forgotten land”. Instantly, as she’s relating a memory, she relates how it feels. The idea of a new love forming in a cemetery is rich with symbolism, especially considering the narrator feeling as though her marriage has died. At this point in the song, it has not been stated explicitly that this relationship is an aff air, but the sense of danger, rebirth, and secrecy so characteristic of such a relationship is communicated within the first line, which, simultaneously, relates the beginning of a series of events.

“In from the snow” furthers the sense that this relationship is coming out of an otherwise dark, lifeless landscape. Winter in general is constantly used in literature to symbolize death, emptiness, and desolation. Here, Swift gives us another detail in the narrative; simply, it was snowing. At the same time, she gives us another sensation to vicariously experience; a sense of revitalization coming from this romance. “Your touch brought forth an incandescent glow” confirms the sense that her lover is actively transforming her cold internal landscape.


And the old widow goes to the stone every day
But I don’t, I just sit here and wait
Grieving for the living

This is an absolutely wonderful way to develop the plot with the explicit revelation that the narrator is married to someone else while still laying on thick the emotional significance. Swift continues to use imagery of a cemetery (“the old widow goes to the stone every day”) to characterize the narrator’s relationship with her husband as something lifeless. The whole passage evokes the place of pain and stagnancy that the narrator speaks from while also familiarizing us with the very real situation at hand – that this is an extramarital affair.


Oh, goddamn!
My pain fits in the palm of your freezing hand
Taking mine, but it’s been promised to another
Oh, I can’t
Stop you putting roots in my dreamland
My house of stone, your ivy grows
And now I’m covered in you

This chorus is absolutely infectious. Sonically, it flutters with excitement and fear (I think this is generally one of the best examples she has of musical composition that mirrors the emotional flavor of a song). Lyrically, it walks the Swiftian line between explicit revelation and poetic language. Hearing the definitive “goddamn” is like a splash of cold water after such a riddle of a verse, and its general presence throughout the song gives it some much-needed grounding. It’s like the use of the ecphonesis “O!” in Shakespeare’s plays – an undiluted emotional expression. Swift punches us in the gut with the terrifying joy that comes with this relationship by simply exclaiming “goddamn!” Beyond that, the chorus is one of the more explicit parts of the song, in the sense that it lays out the plot very plainly. If Swift had continued to speak in tongues, nobody would understand the song and therefore, no matter how much sensationalism she imbues it with, it would fall on deaf ears. This is the tragedy of her song “hoax”, and another reason why “ivy” is a perfect Taylor Swift song.

Finally, the final three lines are a thing of literary beauty. After spending the first verse familiarizing us with the arctic hellscape that is her love life, she characterizes this romance as a plant growing. “I can’t stop you putting roots in my dreamland” ties beautifully together the narrator’s internal and external landscapes. What is happening plot-wise is she is falling in love with someone, while what is happening internally is they are transforming her emotional state, bringing it from winter to spring, introducing new life. “My house of stone” further represents this sense of coldness that she has grown so accustomed to, and the image of this love growing over the stone like ivy epitomizes the transformative quality of the relationship. I also love the line “now I’m covered in you” because it sounds both lamenting, like she spilled something on her shirt, and enthralling, like she’s completely immersed in this new love.

Verse 2:

I wish to know 

The fatal flaw that makes you long to be magnificently cursed

He’s in the room

Your opal eyes are all I wish to see

He wants what’s only yours

The latter half of the verse returns to Swift’s roots as a narrative builder – it is a straightforward recounting of events with acute specificity. However, even here, the sense of longing is inseparable from the storytelling. 

The use of the phrase “fatal flaw” also continues the motif that this affair feels dangerous, a matter of life or death. We’re already aware of the sense that this is a rebirth, but there’s also the threat of returning to the dead of winter that we found our narrator in. “Magnificently cursed” further develops the general paradox of the song – a beautiful connection in awful circumstance. Generally, Swift continues to tell her tale here with all the anxiety and melodrama it requires. 


Clover blooms in the field

Spring breaks loose, the time is near

What would he do if he found us out?

Crescent moon, coast is clear

Spring breaks loose, but so does fear

He’s gonna burn this house to the ground.

More literary, symbolic excellence. Again, Swift is simply relating the events as they occurred, giving beautiful details to illuminate the visual world of the story; clovers blooming, springtime, crescent moons, etc., but every detail she gives is symbolic of her emotional perception of the event. 

It is now canonically spring in the world of “ivy”, which ties back to the first verse’s establishment of winter with “in from the snow”. Spring represents new life, joy, and celebration, and is often juxtaposed with winter in a symbolic sense. This verse communicates an internal landscape that has now been completely transformed from winter to spring by this rejuvenating love. Everything about this bridge evokes something dynamic, alive, perhaps fleeting. I especially like “Spring breaks loose”, because it further carries the connotation of danger that the whole song has, and a sense of being uncontrollable. “Crescent moon” also has the same fleeting, uncertain energy. It could either be the moon filling up with light or running out, waxing or waning. 

Finally, this extremely poetic bridge is interspersed with two, sharp, blunt kickers, “What would he do if he found us out?” and “He’s gonna burn this house to the ground”. Again, Swift manages to walk the line between poetry and nonsensical rambling by grounding her symbolism with unmistakable clarity. Specifically here, she makes the danger of the situation abundantly clear. 

Verse 3:

How’s one to know?

I’d live and die for moments that we stole

On begged and borrowed time

So tell me to run

Or dare to sit and watch what we’ll become

And drink my husband’s wine

This final verse is one that, to me, feels the most directly communicative. While the entire song has been written addressing the lover, this moment is a tonal shift. There’s less world building, less description, and more vindication, as if the narrator is sealing her fate. With “So tell me to run, or dare to sit and watch what we’ll become”, she continues to acknowledge the volatility and danger of the affair, while assigning the choice, and therefore the responsibility, to the lover. To further communicate the importance and urgency of the relationship, Swift uses the words “live and die”, “begged”, and “run”. Finally, she ties it up with a bow, characterizing the continuance of such a torrid affair with the simple detail of drinking her husband’s wine, as if to emphasize how simple the love feels on its own, contrasted with the complications of circumstance. 


So yeah, it’s a fire

It’s a goddamn blaze in the dark and you started it

You started it

So yeah, it’s a war

It’s the goddamn fight of my life

And you started it

You started it

After sealing the deal in verse 3, the narrator seems to embrace the high drama of this situation with the outro, which Swift delivers with a half-yelled, belted vocal performance that occasionally hops into a playful, light upper register. It’s a fire, and a war, but is she, like, mad about it? It doesn’t seem so. 

The narrative of the song concludes with unmistakable clarity, complete with another use of that wonderfully grounding “goddamn”. By now, her world has been brought from winter to spring, and she has made it clear how involuntary this transformation has felt. For better or worse, she resigns to continue fighting the war, and feeding the flame, to remain “covered in you”.

“ivy” manages to combine the best aspects of all of Taylor’s most beloved works. It has the clear storytelling of songs like “All Too Well” or “Holy Ground”, the emotional complexity of “Dear John”, the whimsy and fantasy of “Enchanted” or even “Love Story”, the infectious, palpable excitement of “august”, and the raw writing skill of, well, basically all of the “folklore” album. These are all elements that Swift would not be herself without, that she has used to create her distinct image. All the songs mentioned previously are heralded because they channel such a specific, Swift-brand energy, but “ivy” does it all at once. 

Swift is obviously a master at telling her own stories, but “ivy” is a shining example of the wonders fictional writing can do for her. Because Swift is able to create the world of the story, each and every element can be symbolic. Beyond that, the song grips the listener and takes them on this adventure, brilliantly unveiling exactly how each moment felt, and holding this engagement with a delicious melody, full of plucking strings and dreamy, atmospheric effects. The intoxicating quality of this song is completely missing from any of her other tracks – I could never play this song as background music, or half-heartedly sing the lyrics under my breath. Every part of the story is important, and each line brings a new scalding emotional revelation. The entire song is a build, it starts from an already exhilarating place. With “ivy”, Swift proves the merits of songwriting as a distinctive storytelling medium. The song washes over the listener, each moment more magical than the last; the journey is truly just as good as the destination.