Morrissey's lyrics are up there with Wilde and Larkin, claims academic

HIS mournful voice and articulate, though often miserable lyrics, have made him a cult figure for legions of music fans.

But now Morrissey has been elevated to the status of "greatest lyricist in the history of British popular music", by a research fellow at St Andrews University.

In the first academic book to analyse literary influences on the singer and his former band, The Smiths, Dr Gavin Hopps compares Morrissey to literary luminaries Oscar Wilde, Philip Larkin and John Betjeman.

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Published today, the singer's 50th birthday, Morrissey: The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart deconstructs the singer's lyrics, bookish persona and eccentric performance style, and parallels with the great British poets.

A founding trustee of the Scottish Byron Society, Dr Hopps, 41, said: "I am not trying to say that Morrissey is a poet – there are all kinds of things he does as a performer and singer which point to how he learned from Wilde, such as the sense of art and play. Morrissey himself said The Decay of Lying is his favourite Wilde text, a brilliant critical dialogue about the nature of art."

Like Larkin's verse, argues Dr Hopps, Morrissey's lyrics show a love of ordinary, mundane detail transformed by a poetic sensibility. "I lost my bag in Newport Pagnell – who else would write about a service station?" asked Dr Hopps, who works in St Andrews' Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts. "Just like Larkin's verse, Morrissey loves bringing in strong words and phrases like 'frisbee', 'leather elbows' or 'phlegm lapels'."

Both Morrissey and Betjeman share a love of provincial life and a light touch when sketching characters, according to Dr Hopps: "The thing they have in common is a sort of gaucheness; some of Morrissey's most overlooked songs are those with characters in them like the window cleaner in Roy's Keen, or Vicar in a Tutu – little vignettes that linger. His lighter songs go unappreciated."

Dr Hopps admits he is a fan of Morrissey's work, but says his academic discipline acts as a prism which filters his enthusiasm. "I try not to work through the gaze of a fan," he said.

Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library, said: "Modern lyrics are inseparable from music. If the words are viewed, detached, on the page, they lose their resonance.

"Poems stand alone, unadorned. It is not a valid comparison to look at song lyrics in terms of wonderfully memorable poems by Larkin and others, though they may have written in simple language."

Dr Sean Campbell, senior lecturer in English and Media at Anglia Ruskin University, who organised a symposium on The Smiths, said: "Literary scholars have been making these sorts of studies for years. I differ significantly from Dr Hopps in making grand claims for pop lyrics as poetry."

Experience comes before teen angst

NINE years ago, in his debut novel The Wrong Boy, playwright Willy Russell created a depressed northern English teenage anti-hero called Raymond Marks, who told his entire story of his life in the form of extended letters to his great hero Morrissey, writes David Robinson.

It worked, because if there ever was going to be a lyricist who could get inside the mind of an angst-ridden teenager, a would-be free spirit boringly hemmed in by the crushing deadweight of ordinary life, it would be that patron saint of bedsit miserabilism from just a few miles further along the M62 than Ray Marks's depressingly boring town of Failsworth.

But for the vast bulk of the great British population whose teenage acne has long since cleared up and who worry about mortgage interest rates more than existential alienation: for all these millions, just how seriously should we take claims that Morrissey should now be ranked as "the greatest lyricist in the history of British popular music"?

What? Better than John Lennon's great anthems of hope or Paul McCartney's Blackbird? Better than Jarvis Cocker's Common People, the Elvis Costello of Shipbuilding, or the Neil Tennant of Being Boring? Better than Madness, Ian Dury, PJ Harvey and Mike Skinner? Strip away the deliberate ambiguities of Morrissey's image, dump the eccentricity and the mysteriousness, forget the walking-on-wasteland-with flowers-in-the-jeans and put his lyrics to the acid test: just look on them as words on paper. How well do they stack up?

As the chronicler of solipsistic despair and rejected romanticism, he may well be beyond compare, but to be the nation's pop lyric laureate, surely there needs to be more than that? On his 50th birthday, isn't it time for Morrissey to forget about his pure rejected heart and write a few songs of experience too?

• David Robinson is The Scotsman's Books Editor