For a group whose meshing of rock and folk is so accessible, Mumford & Sons have a surprisingly intricate grasp of the literary classics. Their incorporation of these influences into their music will appear subtle to most listeners who enjoy their radio hits like “I Will Wait” and “Little Lion Man,” but those more invested in Mumford & Sons’ whole albums will likely catch literary hints embedded in the work. “Honestly, [literary references] appear everywhere,” frontman Marcus Mumford told BBC Radio 4 last year. “But I don’t think that’s a unique thing for us as a band. You just have to listen to Bob Dylan to realize that’s what people do when they write songs.” Well, it’s not as if every songwriter is able to inject these references so naturally. It makes sense that writers of songs are inspired by writers of various mediums, but it’s surprising how such a commercially receptive group like Mumford & Sons is able to incorporate literary themes into their music without dragging down the accessible aspects of their sound.
For Mumford & Sons, most of their literary connections come through lyrical content. But sometimes it’s as prevalent as an album title. The title of the English quartet’s debut, Sigh No More, was taken from a line in Shakespeare’s comedic play Much Ado About Nothing. For Shakespeare buffs and AP English graduates, they could tell Mumford & Sons were Shakespeare admirers just by glancing at the album title. When listening to Sigh No More, the lyrics show even more reverence for a number of Shakespeare’s works. The self-titled track includes lines like “Serve God love me and mend, For man is a giddy thing,” and “One foot in sea and one on shore.” It’s not exactly easy to incorporate lines like that into a song, but Marcus Mumford still doesn’t find anything particularly special about his band’s ability to do so. “A lot of the time writers are just sponges…for what’s around them, and so books are helpful for focusing your mind and literally putting it into words,” Mumford explains. “We don’t consider ourselves more of a literary band than any other band, you know. Every band reads.”
In terms of inspiration, the group also notes that the legality of being influenced by Shakespeare has a lot less stigma than borrowing from, say, Kurt Vonnegut or Tom Clancy. Unlike those authors, Shakespeare’s works are in the public domain, so extracting his lyrics word-for-word does not raise any legal red flags. Shakespeare isn’t the only legendary author the group is inspired by, though. Another one of their popular tracks, “The Cave”, borrows some details of Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, in addition to the title’s resemblance to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which touches on the perception of reality from someone whose perceptive conscious arrives only through shaped shadows in a cave, until they emerge and dissect life without any prior bias. Its influence is echoed in lines like “So tie me to a post and block my ears I can see widows and orphans through my tears / I know my call despite my faults and despite my growing fears.”
Flourishes of literary influences can be found throughout Mumford & Sons’ songs, from the obvious infusion of Plato’s philosophy in “The Cave” and the name of their debut, Sigh No More, to more subtle touches, like the resemblance in “Little Lion Man” to a dramatic monologue from Chretien de Troyes’ Yvain, the Knight of the Lion. In addition, “Timshel” and “Dust Bowl Dance” are influenced by John Steinbeck novels East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. Mumford has mentioned in interviews that he enjoys Steinbeck’s conception of a journey in literature, and as they continue to construct their own successful journey in the music industry, Mumford & Sons’ love for literary classics doesn’t look like it will be abandoned any time soon.