I head once that this song was based on an 18th Century nursery rhyme. I could not find any corroboration for this suggestion, and Simon takes credit for it in the album's liner notes. But it does seem to have many of those elements-- a simple structure and rhyme scheme, a bit of education in that it names the months, and a general innocence in the tone. [Note: The origin of the poem and how it became a song was filled in by astute readers in the comments below.]
And there is nothing wrong with lamenting a love that, or a lover who, has died. But how much of a love is this? The girl in the song arrives in April, and starts having doubts in June. Only for the month of May does she "stay."
Then, for another month, she wanders around, unsure of what she wants. But it's not like she just avoids the speaker. She "prowls the night," as if she were skulking or even hunting. She then decides she at least doesn't want our man, here, and so runs away, with no farewell. We have to start doubting her mental stability at this point.
By August, only four months after she appeared on the scene, she is dead. The song indicates that she "must" die. Why? Because such troubled women always die in such stories. They give the speaker a brief glimpse of deep love, only to drift inexplicably away... away... like an escaping sigh... leaving doubts, bewilderment, heartbreak, and grief in their wake.
And we idolize them for it.
But the speaker takes until September to realize his love has "grown old." Really? She starting having second thoughts back in June, wandering around the city all night. Then by July she was gone. By August, she has died. So the idea that the love has "grown old" in September is a bit disingenuous. It didn't live long enough to get "old," and it was over months ago as it was.
The song has a lovely melody, and is sung very prettily by Garfunkel. So many probably take it as a love song.
But upon reading Simon's lyrics, we see that it works best as a warning to those young poets who get caught up with winsome, but ultimately worrisome, women. For another take on this, read the classic Onion article headlined "Totally Hot Chick Also Way Psycho." (www.theonion.com/content/news/totally_hot_chick_also_way_psycho)
Too often, we see troubled people-- especially girls and women-- turned into objects of adoration in literature and film. The idea of an actually unwell person being psychically gifted or granted "other sight" is ancient. People with deep psychological problems or neurochemical imbalances used to be seen as prophets, their incoherent babbling taken for communication channelled from another plane.
These days, they are put on pedestals as "the only ones who truly see the world the way it is," etc. in films like The Hours, Mad Love and Benny and Joon. When what they need is medication and therapy. (The Brad Pitt character in the film 12 Monkeys is an excellent case study in this "raving madman/ prophetic genius" dichotomy.)
When an askew personality resides in the form of a lithe woman, the combination can be almost overwhelmingly attractive, especially to misfit young men. I once saw a T-shirt that put it more bluntly, stating: "Let's face it, crazy chicks are hot."
Which may be true, but it's much too easy a way to get burned.
(Compare this ephemeral relationship to "Kathy's Song," also about missing a lover, to see the difference between an immature and mature love. And for another of Simon's hurt, angry songs clothed-- make that disguised-- in beauty, we will soon discuss "Scarborough Fair."
Next Song: We Got a Groovey Thing Goin'