I thought I might try my hand at a little Led Zeppelin this week. Anyone who has ever turned on a radio, watched a movie with guitars in it or paid attention in some way to popular culture around them has heard this little ditty.
Stairway To Heaven has been called one of the greatest rock songs of all time. It was written by vocalist for Zeppelin Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page. Spending time at Bron-Yr-Aur in Wales after a concert tour through the United States, most of the music came to Page all at once. The rest developed over a long period and the lyrics reflected Plant’s reading at the time.
It is important to note that Plant was reading Lewis Spence’s Magic Arts in Celtic Britain and has cited several times over the years that this was the source of many of the lyrics. It is this information which allows the meaning of the lyrics to be understood.
It is also important to note that Plant was quoted in Total Guitar as saying Stairway To Heaven “was some cynical aside about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration.” I believe this little quote speaks only of the first verse. You are free to decide for yourself.
So off we go, let’s break this thing down, one verse at a time:
There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold [I think we can all agree that believing all that glitters is gold is a metaphor for being fooled into taking things at face value, being fooled into believing that because it looks good, looks valuable, that it must be in fact valuable.]
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven. [Heaven in this sense is the ultimate goal, the place of eternal happiness and contentment or pleasure, for Christians this is heaven, for some it is nirvana, for some enlightenment, and on and on, you get the idea. This woman is of the belief that she can buy her way in to this place or in another way of looking at it, she believes material possessions will bring her the happiness we all seek]
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed [If things don’t go her way, she has enough money to make them go her way]
With a word she can get what she came for. [Again, because she has money or power, she can get whatever she wants]
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven. [I believe Robert Plant summed up this entire verse with the statement about a woman who gets everything she wants without giving back any thought or consideration.]
There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure [She has been told this is the way to happiness, to heaven. The writing is on the wall, however, telling her it is not the way as death is near]
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.[She is starting to doubt herself, material possessions have not brought happiness and it seems the end is near]
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings, [In Celtic mythology, there is a mother goddess who takes the form of various avatars. She is the goddess of all, the matres or matronae and in this instance, she is represented by the songbird who is sitting in the tree of life. The brook is also representative of life in its ever flowing, consistently moving forward nature.]
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven. [The mother goddess, a.k.a. in this case a songbird, is telling the woman she is wrong in her view that material possessions and power will lead to happiness, or heaven.]
Ooh, it makes me wonder, [Ooh, it makes me think about things]
Ooh it makes me wonder. [Ooh, yeah, still thinking about things]
There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west, [In this line there are two meanings, the first is the idea of looking west referring to America, where Zeppelin had just ended their tour, it is universally considered to be the west. The second meaning is that of the west is the direction of the setting sun, it indicates that life is coming to an end. A death is occurring]
And my spirit is crying for leaving. [Again, the first meaning is that he is sad to have left the USA. The second is that the body is dying and thus the spirit is leaving. Plant was reading of the Celts when he wrote this and for Celts, the afterlife was as real as the mortal world. It was a belief that after death, the soul continued to live and was continually reincarnated until reaching the ‘highest state’ or enlightenment, known to Celts as ‘the source.’]
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees, [Back to Celtic mythology, as found in the Lewis Spence book Plant was reading, upon the death of a person, rush torches were kept burning throughout the days and nights until the body was taken for cremation or burial. So in his thoughts he is contemplating his own death and of course the torches that would be burned creating rings of smoke that would rise through the trees.]
And the voices of those who stand looking. [Family and friends gathered]
Ooh, I makes me wonder, [Ooh, I’m still contemplating]
Ooh, it really makes me wonder. [Ooh, seriously I’m still thinking]
And it whispered that soon if we all call the tune [In Celt tradition, when a sudden death occurred, a priest would come and whisper the information of how a soul would travel to its final destination and find eternal peace in the otherworld to the deceased]
Then the piper will lead us to reason. [See next line explanation]
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long [These two versus refer to The Piper at the Gates of
Dawn, the debut album by Pink Floyd released in 1967. It was groundbreaking music at the time and influenced people’ thinking on life and the soul and reality]
And the forests will echo with laughter. [Traditional Celts considered funerals a celebration of the deceased’s life. So the forest is echoing with laughter as those gathered celebrate the life of the deceased]
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now, [Hedgerows were a sign of prosperity, kind of like a manicured lawn in the US. So if you start to feel some doubt in your wealth and material possessions and their ability to make you happy, don’t be scared.]
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen. [The May Queen is a mythical symbol of purity, youth and springtime, or re-birth – in this case perhaps reincarnation of the spirit]
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run [Celt belief was the spirit was continually reincarnated until it reached ‘the source’ after which the process of reincarnation ended and the soul would be eternally rested]
There’s still time to change the road you’re on [Obviously, you have plenty of time to figure it all out and change the course of your life, your views, etc.]
And it makes me wonder. [And it makes him think]
Your head is humming and it won’t go , in case you don’t know [You’re starting to have doubts that won’t go away]
The piper’s calling you to join him, [The lure of change toward a better way of living is strong]
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind. [See previous reference to the correct path being whispered to the deceased]
And as we wind down the road [As we live our lives]
Our shadows taller than our soul. [Our facades our bigger than who we really are]
There walks a lady we all know [reference to the mother goddess]
Who shines white light and wants to show [mother goddess illuminating us]
How everything still turns to gold [All things can be good, can mean something and bring eternal happiness]
And if you listen very hard [focus, man, focus. Meditate if you have to]
The tune will come to you at last [You will figure it out]
When all is one and one is all [When your soul reaches ‘the source’]
To be a rock and not to roll [and your soul is no longer in the cycle, it will be eternally at rest]
And she's buying a stairway to heaven.
So there it is, clear as mud. Plant was apparently really into the early Celts and their mythology and
apparently a bit of a Pink Floyd fan. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle. So rock on people.