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Ian Anderson's lyrics for Jethro Tull's 'A Passion Play

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Mark Ridley, Derek Small, Max Quad, Ben Rossington, John Tetrad

Literary Interpretations

One of the major reasons for this project was my frequent frustration with the pre-existing attempts; on the whole, web-published interpretations of The Play have been wildly over-literary. I feel this does a disservice to the piece, suggesting pretensions simply not present in The Play.

I suppose it's only natural to dream that one's heroes are extraordinary people: for some fans it's not enough that Ian is an immensely creative lyricist and musician; he has to be a genius, and he has to be not only intelligent but extraordinarily well-read.

Many influences, from many erudite sources, have been ascribed to Ian over the years. Even whilst writing this, for example, I was told that: "That he had read Voltaire is evidenced by [Thick As A Brick]"
Evidenced, eh? So what is that evidence? Specifically.

I'm often accused of dismissing Ian's literary influences, but that's untrue: I don't dogmatically reject all such suggestions, and I am open to persuasion. However, my starting point is a sceptical 'why would he have such knowledge?', rather than a wishful 'why not?'. I'm unlikely to be convinced by vague hand-waving; presume nothing is "self-evident" (the usual, unexplained argument), and that I need proof.

That, of course, is itself unlikely to be available for specific details, but some facts are available, alongside logic and balance of probability. Occam's Razor is handy, too: avoiding assumptions as far as possible, which situation is most likely to be true, in the absence of hard evidence?

So what do we have?

Ian's Education

In the case of 'A Passion Play', the usual assertion is that Ian was "obviously" basing his writing on that of Dante Alighieri and John Milton, with deep and comprehensive understanding of those texts.

Taking one correspondent virtually at random: Greg suggests in TalkTull that:

"Anderson almost certainly had to be influenced by Bunyan (Pilgrim's Progress), Milton (Paradise Lost; Paradise Regained), as well as Dante (Inferno; Divine Comedy). It would be logical that he had read the first three as required reading given his schooling."

Another commentator asserts that "IA is, quite demonstrably, the happy recipient of a classical education".
I'm afraid not. That is, quite demonstrably, absurd. That's not speculation, or my own interpretation: Ian's formal education is a matter of factual record; even the content of the exam paper he sat in 1964.

That's the key flaw with this line of reasoning: Ian is not likely to have read Milton or Dante in any depth at school*. Ian attended the local grammar school in Blackpool, then Art College - not Eton and university! While his education was in no way inferior, Ian simply does not have a significantly academic background.

The works of Dante and Milton are mind-numbingly difficult to follow. The erudite Andy Jackson recalls the struggle of reading 'Paradise Lost' at University; few realise that it runs to twelve books and over 10,000 lines. As Andy says: "not exactly bedtime reading", and more significantly, not part of the standard school curriculum. Andy discovered that a fragment of Milton was on the 'O' level syllabus ('O' level: 'ordinary' level UK school-leaving exams, sat at age 16) in 1963, but as mentioned above, Ian sat the 1964 paper, and the piece was nothing as complicated as 'Paradise Lost'.

Andy: "So you would have to assume that Ian read both of these in his spare time, at some point after finishing school, just for the hell of it. This is a guy who says he doesn't like poetry as well... I just don't see it." Nor me. Remember that Ian is not a scholar of mediæval literature, but a busy musician. Is it really credible that he'd read such books, for fun, at possibly the most hectic point in his career: on the road for at least half of each year 1968-73, punctuated by recording iconic albums?

Though I do have a moderately academic background, I haven't directly encountered Milton or Dante, either. Hence, I'd be very interested to hear from anyone who has read them in any depth (I'm guessing that's a tiny minority of those reading this!) and who can possibly settle the question, by pointing to something specific in Ian's work that proves intimate knowledge of those texts; knowledge that could only have come from the text itself, rather than second-hand.

Primary vs. secondhand awareness

It is quite conceivable that Ian was aware of these works without having actually read them himself or, more significantly, aware of fragments of the classical myths that in part inspired Dante and Milton – any schoolboy would recognise Cerberus, for example (not that I think Cerberus appears in The Play).
A further, personal, example of learning from popular culture (social osmosis) without the need for literary study: I'm relatively familiar with the basic story of the siege of Troy and subsequent mythical voyage of Odysseus, but wouldn't remotely claim to have read Homer's Iliad and Odyssey themselves - most of my knowledge arises from a TV series, seen at the age of ~10!


"My guess - Ian has never read a word of Dante in his life. The poetics of Milton are as much an accepted part of the culture as Shakespeare, i.e. you can know the phrases and images without necessarily knowing their source. So while these references may strike a chord with folk who happen to be (perhaps only slightly) familiar with these works, I've never seen them as being of any real use in approaching the Play itself."

It is, of course, quite possible for an educated listener to fit The Play into his or her knowledge of certain works of literature - indeed, in the 1970s, a 50-page Master's thesis was submitted, comparing APP with 'Paradise Lost'. However, I would strongly suggest that such efforts say more about the observer and his/her preconceptions than about Ian's likely intended meanings. It's only natural to ascribe extraordinary intelligence to one's 'heroes', without rigorously questioning whether that's sensible.


There is another slight problem with the 'Dante' references, even if, for the sake of argument, one considered that Ian was a literary scholar: the interpretations people suggest aren't relevant; they just don't make sense within the overall narrative.

  • There's no reason to think the angel in A.1,s.2 is Beatrice, beyond a wish to shoehorn-in such a reference. Simply on balance of probability, it isn't Beatrice.
  • The 'icy wastes' in A.2,s.1 do indeed sound like Dante's description of the circles of Hell, but the APP story doesn't get there until Act 4; if there's a Dante reference, it's no more than generic atmosphere, and I see no reason to think Ian was consciously aware of it specifically coming from Dante. Maybe he was, maybe not; balance of probability: not.
  • In isolation, the suggestion that the dog later in the same scene is Cerberus is more compelling, but it doesn't quite fit the context, and it's not as if Dante invented the beast. Even if Ian had Cerberus in mind, why would it have to have been via Dante?

And that's it. Let's be clear: the suggestion that Dante is at the heart of APP is based on only three alleged specific references, all tenuous and out of the narrative sequence. There's also the overarching story of a trip through the afterlife, but Dante had no monopoly on that concept.

Ultimately, I'm not, as has been alleged, dismissing the Dante references solely because I don't think Ian was aware of the intricacies of Dante's writing (though I don't). It's simply because the 'references' don't make sense.

*: In the UK, 'school' means formal education to the age of 16 or 18; beyond that it's 'college' or 'university'. Ian did not go to university.
Ian Anderson
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