In every heart is rooted a desire to belong. There exists an elusive yet inexplicably magnetic desire to have a place of one’s own.
“Home” has been defined in a myriad of ways and the stability and beauty of committed relationships is one avenue through which we experience a ‘homeland.’ The funny thing is, though I’ve reflected on home as a place that is formed through the love of human relationships, I hadn’t thought of having a ‘homeland’ in the context of human interaction until I encountered two sources that seem, at first glance, entirely unrelated: Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” and Taylor Swift’s song “Exile.”
One of my suitemates and I have the delightful and often humorous habit of stalking each other on Spotify. One day, after listening to a song I saw she’d listened to from Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” album, my eyes landed on another song, “Exile,” that was also on the album. I was quickly struck by the subtle yet piercing lyrics, the ethereal and haunting melody, and Bon Iver’s smooth baritone voice. The words felt so raw and real, like they were written by someone who understood what they were saying— and felt every word of it.
I clearly remember sitting in the library the next afternoon staring out the window, listening to and pondering the song — especially the chorus: “I think I’ve seen this film before/And I didn’t like the ending/You’re not my homeland anymore/So what am I defending now?/You were my town/Now I’m in exile seeing you out/I think I’ve seen this film before.”
Though I wasn’t sad, I felt strangely attached to the song. It speaks to the human desire for acceptance and love, and the subsequent pain of rejection and fractured relationships. “Exile” was basically on repeat during Thanksgiving break and beyond. Somewhere along the way, I was hit by a sudden realization: “Paradise Lost” and “Exile” both spoke to the concept of a “homeland.”
The more I listened, the more I realized Swift’s lyrics were somehow bound up in the same pursuit as Milton’s epic. Of course, their purposes were different, and Milton’s main argument was not about the loss or gain of a homeland. But there was a thread that connected a 17th century masterpiece to a 21st century pop song— and it astonished me.
But perhaps it shouldn’t have.
As I was researching for my final paper in my Renaissance literature course earlier last semester, I came to appreciate through my research that Adam is Eve’s “homeland.” In book 12, she calls him her “all places,” and there is a deep divide between the solace of fellowship that Adam and Eve experience in comparison to the maddening isolation to which Satan is eternally subject. Even in their fallen state, God gives them a temporal resting place that reflects their ultimate homeland in paradise. Relationships can be havens of comfort and home in a bitter and lonely world.
Little did I realize then that Taylor Swift has a say in it, too. When I first heard “Exile,” weeks after doing my research for “Paradise Lost,” I didn’t see the connection. Then, one day, it hit me.
While everyone desires the stability of a homeland, we must simultaneously acknowledge that the theme of being an exile is not new in literature or verse. Since the Fall, mankind has struggled with feeling isolated and in need of connection. From the Old Testament, to a renowned author of a theological argument, to a modern musical icon, humans have asserted directly and unwittingly that we all are seeking a place of belonging. The wrestling heart of the exile is one of the themes of humanity that we can never fully answer or lose.
Music and literature are both lenses through which humans can begin to process the beauty and pain of living in a world that cannot escape the Fall. While it may seem like there is little room for the divine in such a difficult and distorted act of communication, that fact itself points to the importance of heavenly love and the healing that arises from a well-ordered love.
To the Christian, works such as “Paradise Lost” and “Exile” are dim but piercing reminders that our only homeland is found in eternity. Ultimately, they both demonstrate — and perhaps even proclaim — how the human soul cannot be satisfied in human terms. The sin and brokenness of the world provides no solace to the wandering soul. But despite the sometimes frustrating truth that no human can be a perfect homeland to another, human love can act as a dim reflection of Divine love and point our eyes heavenward.
Did I ever think I would speak the names of Swift and Milton in one breath? Never. But perhaps that’s part of why I find this so beautiful. The poignant reminder I have been gifted with through this strange yet sweet connection is that we are sojourners here, tasked with stewarding our lives and delighting in the homelands that God provides to us here, all the while remembering that there is only one Homeland that can truly satisfy. I hope you will join me in seeing your earthly homelands as a tiny but priceless reminder that the best is yet to come.