8

All the rowboats in the paintings
They keep trying to row away
And the captains' worried faces
Stay contorted and staring at the waves
They'll keep hanging in their gold frames
For forever, forever and a day
All the rowboats in the oil paintings
They keep trying to row away, row away

Hear them whispering French and German
Dutch, Italian, and Latin
When no one's looking I catch a sculpture marble,
Cold, and soft as satin

But the most special are the most lonely
God, I pity the violins
In glass coffins they keep coughing
They've forgotten, forgotten how to sing, how to sing.

First there's lights out, then there's lock up
Masterpieces serving maximum sentences
It's their own fault for being timeless
There's a price you pay and a consequence
All the galleries, the museums
Here's your ticket, welcome to the tombs
They're just public mausoleums
Here's your ticket, welcome to the tombs
They're just public mausoleums
The living dead fill every room

But the most special are the most lonely
God, I pity the violins
In glass coffins they keep coughing
They've forgotten, forgotten how to sing

-- Regina Spektor, All the Rowboats

Why does she say the works of art are serving maximum sentences?

What are the glass coffins?

What does there's lights out, then there's lock up mean?

What is OR Who are the living dead?

21

The songwriter is mixing mausoleum and prison metaphors.

The "glass coffins" are the cases in which the (presumably) priceless violins are stored and (presumably) never played. The "living dead" are the instruments which should be played, but instead are kept on display, never making music.

Combined that with the prison image of "lights out" (time for the museum to close) and "lock up" (the violins are locked away like prisoners). "Maximum sentences" implies the violins are to be locked away forever.

As for whether she is really talking about encased instruments, or whether it's a more complicated metaphor -- I leave that to your interpretation.

  • 2
    Are the living dead just that instruments? I wonder if they can also be those imprisoned and captive people in the paintings. – AmirhoseinRiazi Oct 29 '18 at 12:51
  • @AmirhoseinRiazi there's a certain degree of ambiguity to almost any music or poetry, but in this case while Spektor mentions the other works of art in the museum, she mostly focuses on the glass-cased musical instruments. I expect this is because they are meant to be a metaphor for something. – Andrew Oct 29 '18 at 14:38
6

Simplistic interpretation here.

It’s a museum and the violins are kept in display cases, forever (or until they’re taken off of display).

Museums have opening hours, so there are "lights out" and "lock up" times (like a prison) when the museum is closed to the public.

Display cases are usually glass. Everyone can see the objects. The objects cannot be touched, only looked at. This is very hard on objects like the violins whose primary purpose is not to be seen, but to be used to make music. Here they remain untouched but unplayed. If they were played, they may be damaged, but in a glass case they will last a long time ("maximum sentence").

The phrase "living dead" applies to the instruments in display cases. They are still playable and a musician could "bring them to life" but not while they’re trapped in display cases.

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