I’m glad you’ve found the site and hope you find at least some things in it worthwhile. Please do comment. There’s a post on each song from New Morning, and I’ve begun to add posts on other albums.

I should say that the overall aim of the site is to present literary interpretations of Dylan’s lyrics. Close, literary analysis is something which doesn’t appear much on the internet or in books on Dylan, yet I can’t imagine I’m alone in regretting this. I can think of just a handful of sites and books I’ve found at all useful. This, then, is an attempt to at least begin to plug what I see as a gaping hole. The focus is on meaning rather than style but I’m not claiming special insight into ‘the meaning’ of the songs. I’m sure there will be other, often better, interpretations. And of course meaning will often be personal for each listener, or perhaps arise from a transcendent beauty, or subtlety, created by the writing, making hopeless any attempt to pin it down.

Nevertheless I think it’s important to get away from those interpretations which assume each song is only about some trivial aspect of Dylan’s life – drugs or meeting Elvis, say. The topics are of much greater import. I’ve tried to show that in many songs the speaker is not Dylan himself, and indeed may be somebody he wouldn’t want to be. These narrators are not to be taken at face value. Like the speakers in most so-called dramatic monologues, they are duplicitous but in a way that the careful listener can see straight through.

An example from outside Dylan’s work which may serve as a model is the narrator in Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘Up At A Villa, Down In The City’. Here the narrator, in attempting to show his appreciation for the beauties of nature, unintentionally informs us that his primary concern is with monetary value:

‘The wild tulip, at the end of its tube, blows out its great red bell
Like a thin clear bubble of blood, for the children to pick and sell’

What a shame he included the final clause! In a similar way Dylan often gets his narrators to give things away about themselves. In ‘The Wicked Messenger’, for example, the narrator is clearly untrustworthy when he characterises the messenger as wicked. The narrator comes across as someone with a contemptuous attitude towards the messenger, and fearful of him. How do we know? Because Dylan tells us the messenger came from Eli (God). It’s very unlikely that God’s representative would make a meal out of insignificant things (‘the smallest matter’), or ‘flatter’ his hosts. Far more likely the narrator is trying to turn us against the messenger so that he can continue in his own disreputable ways.

I started with the songs from New Morning, an album of quite amazing lyrical complexity. Ever since I bought it forty-five years ago, I’ve suffered under the illusion that it’s thin both musically and lyrically. Going back to it, I’ve realised how wrong I’ve been. Some of the lyrics seem now to be masterpieces of precision, the thematic richness being disguised by a sometimes extreme simplicity of language. I hope I’ve managed to get across something of Dylan’s skill here.

It’s worth pointing out that the New Morning album – like a number of Dylan’s albums – works as a unified whole (thus exemplifying one of its themes). The same themes are treated in different songs, and very often the exact same words will be used again and again from song to song. Nevertheless the treatment, and the contexts, are so different that it’s quite possible to overlook the thematic connections. I think these connections would be worth a study in their own right. Unfortunately, constraints of time have necessitated my ignoring such inter-connectedness here and instead treating each song as an individual work.

I should say in passing that I hope I don’t come across as some sort of apologist for Christianity, let alone as a religious nutter!  I’m certainly not trying to impose religious interpretations on the songs, and it was surprising to me when some seemed open to such interpretation – especially where an album precedes Dylan’s ‘born again’ period. If anything I’ve said seems way off, please do say!

David Weir


Lonesome Day Blues


The narrator is sitting alone, letting things pass through his mind.1 Memories alluded to in the past tense let us know what his situation is, while the remainder make us privy to his mental processes as they occur. These processes enable us to acquire insight into his character. A feature of the song is its use of phrases drawn from other works, phrases which take on different meanings in their new context. By attending to these differences in meaning, we’re able to gain further insight into the narrator’s character.

The song concerns the narrator’s relationship with two women. One is the narrator’s main interest, a woman he’s left, and who in consequence is upset. The other is Samantha Brown, a woman with whom he has a short-term relationship which comes to nothing. To that extent this relationship is the counterpart of the one between the woman the narrator left and her ‘lover-man’. And just as the narrator finishes with Samantha Brown ‘after four or five months’, so the woman he left finishes with the ‘lover-man’, something we can infer from the final verse’s telling us that she’s ‘all by herself’.

By the end of the song we find that the narrator has decided to return to her. Along the way he, often unintentionally, alerts us to the thoughts and feelings which motivated this decision. It’s necessary to read between the lines because, although the song is a monologue, there are implications he seems unaware of in what he says.

The Woman as the Defeated

It’s only in the final verse that we learn that the narrator, having previously left his lover, now intends to return to her. His attitude towards her is filled out in the immediately preceding verse. Here he says he’s going to:

‘… spare the defeated …’,

‘… teach peace to the conquered’


‘… tame the proud’.

In the context of the song, the verse only makes sense if it’s seen as applying to the woman. The narrator would be seeing her as ‘defeated’ in having to accept him as the only alternative to not having a lover at all. To that extent she’d have been ‘conquered’ by him. That he might see her as ‘proud’ is quite likely from his description of her as ‘standing in the door’ as if she was refusing to be cowed by his departure. His intention, then, is to revive the relationship while somewhat misogynistically getting her to unquestioningly accept his will and a subordinate role in the relationship.

In addition to misogyny one might criticise the narrator for cruelty, a trait brought out by his choice of language. The phrases just quoted  are militaristic – militaristic metaphors adapted from descriptions used in a literal way by Virgil.2 The metaphors suggest he sees his relationship with the woman as a battle. Since he’s well aware of the consequences of warfare, having already told us that his ‘brother got killed in the war’, he must realise that his ‘defeat’ of the woman is tantamount to her death, albeit in a non-literal sense. This makes his intention to ‘spare the defeated’ disingenuous. If you know someone is dead, even metaphorically, your intention to ‘spare’ them cannot be as magnanimous as it sounds.

Further Bellicosity

That the narrator is cruel in his attitude to the woman is further supported by his earlier use of militaristic ideas in the verse about ‘my captain’. The captain, despite his training and having been ‘decorated’, is callous:

‘He’s not sentimental – don’t bother him at all
How many of his pals have been killed’.

The use of ‘my’ before ‘captain’ – which doesn’t appear in the Junichi Saga account on which these lines are based – suggests that the captain represents the attitudes of the narrator.3 The latter admires the captain for his valour, seeing him as the antithesis of the woman’s ‘lover-man’ whom he dismisses as ‘a coward’.

And that the narrator is to be seen as cruel is further reinforced by the fact that he dismisses concern about comrades’ deaths in battle as sentimentality. Consistency would demand he be equally unemotional even about his own brother’s death, as well as the metaphorical death of the woman. And while he criticises the woman’s ‘lover-man as ungentlemanly, rotten and cowardly, at least it’s a ‘barren field’ he associates with the ‘lover-man’ and not a battlefield.4 The ‘lover-man’ is not as cruel as his critic.

The narrator can perhaps also be criticised for adopting a gung-ho attitude towards the woman. The second line of verse ten adds the word ‘boys’ to the first-line equivalent as if the narrator is imagining he’s making a rousing speech:

‘I’m gonna spare the defeated, boys, I’m going to speak to the crowd’

Whereas the first line, without ‘boys’, seemed to be a statement of intention, the second-line version makes him seem to be boasting to his troops about anticipated success in the aftermath of battle. Literally, however, the boast is about something which, one would have thought, should be a private matter between him and the woman.5

Attitude to Death

The narrator’s inappropriate sympathy with the captain’s response to death in battle would seem to be a result of his confusing different senses of words. He fails to notice a subtle distinction in the meaning of ‘got’ in:

‘… my brother got killed in the war’

compared with its meaning in:

‘My sister, she ran off and got married’.

When you get killed, it’s something which just happens to you. But when you get married, you do it intentionally. In not making the distinction between active and passive behaviour here, the narrator makes getting killed in battle a reprehensible act on a par (in his eyes) with running off and getting married. Absurdly he seems to be as condemnatory of his brother as of his sister.

Just as he fails to distinguish between two senses of ‘got’, he also seems to confuse different senses of the word ‘left’ in:

‘… I left my long-time darlin’’


‘My pa he died and left me’.

His father didn’t leave him in the way he left the woman. While the narrator chose to leave the woman, his father’s leaving him was the accidental accompaniment to dying. Again, the narrator seems unable able to distinguish between meanings associated with activity and passivity. As a result he fails to treat dying as a misfortune and is able to condemn as sentimental a natural and appropriate response to death, including the metaphorical death of the woman.


With respect to Samantha Brown, the person who briefly lodges with him, the narrator says that he:

‘… never slept with her even once’.

While he might seem to be seeking admiration for his self-control, the announcement might also suggest that he’s really only interested in the woman he left.

However the narrator may not be being as selfless as he’s making out. The word ‘even’ in ‘even once’ doesn’t appear in Confessions of a Yakuza, the origin of the quotation, and it makes all the difference.6 The addition of ‘even’ suggests that the narrator would have slept with Samantha Brown if he could, and not just once either. If that’s the case, we might wonder why he didn’t.

The answer may be that the narrator is inordinately inactive to the extent that he may not even have made an effort to get to know her. That inactivity might be the cause of the narrator’s failure to sleep with his lodger is suggested by the word ‘never’ in ‘never slept with her’. It reminds us of two other occasions where ‘never’ appears. On each occasion it suggests hopelessness, as if the narrator sees improving his lot as beyond his control.

First, about his sister, he says that following her marriage she:

Never was heard of any more’.

While the narrator might want us to think that the sister failed to re-establish contact, we’re entitled to wonder if the remissness wasn’t on his part. Why did he just wait to hear from her instead of attempting to get in touch? It would seem he’s waiting for things to happen instead of pro-actively making them happen.

The line just quoted is based on one from Huckleberry Finn:

 ‘… my sister Mary Ann run off and got married and never was heard of no more, and Bill went to hunt them and he warn’t heard of no more’7

However, the song’s use of the phrase ‘never was heard of no more’ achieves something different to the novel’s. In the song, the phrase has the effect of highlighting something reprehensible about the narrator which the novel’s doesn’t about Huck. Unlike with the narrator, we know the latter is not blasé about the disappearance of the sister since he points out that an attempt was made to find her. The narrator doesn’t even begin to think that looking for his sister might be worthwhile.

The second occasion when the word ‘never’ occurs in a context which suggests lethargy is when, on hearing the wind seeming to be whispering to him, the narrator laments:

‘I tell myself something’s comin’
But it never does’.

It seems likely that the reason nothing arrives is because of the narrator’s inaction. Things don’t happen just because you wait for them to happen. Again the narrator is just assuming that it’s not worth acting.
Further Inactivity

The narrator’s inaction in ‘never’ sleeping with Samantha Brown, not contacting his sister, and not making things happen are complemented by the fact that even when he does do anything, what he does involves hardly any physical activity.

In verse six he’s driving, an activity involving more sitting. It’s true that when he’s driving he’s making some progress. He’s:

‘… forty miles from the mill’.

Even the limited activity involved in driving is reducing the metaphorical distance separating him from a solution to his problem. It’s getting reduced  by forty miles from the original million miles  – if we see ‘mill’ as being short for ‘million’.

However, forty, compared to a million, is not much. It’s clear that the narrator needs to do something more drastic.

He gets as far as setting radio stations – but even the word ‘settin’’ reminds us of his sedentariness in being uncomfortably similar to ‘sitting’. He changes gear, but this only involves ‘droppin’ the car into overdrive, ‘dropping’ doubtless being appealing because it involves no exertion. And while he wishes his mother were still alive, wishing is hardly strenuous and about as likely to be effective.

The failure of the narrator to physically act is further apparent when he says of the weather that it’s:

‘… not fit for man or beast’

– this suggesting he’d rather sit inside than venture out of doors. That he’s making a petty excuse is emphasised by his subsequently referring to his rival as ‘your lover-man’. If the weather is fit for the lover-man’ it should be fit for any ‘man or beast’ to go out in, including the narrator.

Others’ Activity

All this contrasts with the activity of others. The dancers in verse two are:

‘… doing the double shuffle, throwin’ sand on the floor’

 – their ‘double shuffle’ contrasting with the narrator’s not sleeping with Samantha Brown ‘even once’.

His sister is active in that she:

‘… ran off and got married’.

And the narrator’s rival is actively:

 ‘… comin’ across the barren field’.8

It’s notable that while he is ‘just sittin’ here thinking’, the woman is remembered as:

‘… standing in the door’.

While standing isn’t particularly active, it does suggest that the woman, unlike the narrator, is at least ready for action and accordingly is unlikely to let pass the opportunity for a new relationship.

Errors of Judgement

Before he changes tack and becomes active, the narrator’s approach to life is lacking in other ways. He claims that it’s:

‘Funny how the things you have the hardest time parting with
Are the things you need the least’.

That is obviously not the case. It seems to be an attempt to brainwash himself into believing he’d be better off without the woman. But he isn’t. That he needs her is suggested by the references to loneliness without her which appear in the title and the opening lines of the song.

Since he’s lonely without her, she doesn’t count among ‘the things you need the least’.  And that he’s having a hard time is clear from his failure to have a close relationship with Samantha Brown.

Not only does he admit to having ‘never slept’ with Samantha Brown, but he seems unintentionally to use other phrases which, albeit in different contexts, have sexual connotations – the lover man’s ‘comin’ and the narrator’s trying to ‘make out’ what the wind was whispering. The terms suggest that deep down it’s the lack of a sexual relationship which makes him both need the woman and have a hard time without her.

That he is wrong in holding that ‘the things you have the hardest time parting with / are the things you need the least’ is further established by his decision to go back to the woman.

It’s not only in his own case that the claim just quoted proves to be wrong, however. Her standing in the doorway when he left suggests she had a hard time parting from him. And that she too has an unsatisfactory relationship with someone else – the ‘lover-man’ – suggests that she needs him. Furthermore, just as he needs her for the sex he didn’t get with Samantha Brown, so (as he sees it) she needs him for sex. As he puts it, in the rather patronising way which ought in fact to apply to them both:

‘You can’t make love all by yourself’.

In neither his own case, then, nor hers is he at all reliable when he says that what you have the hardest time parting with is what you need the least.

Subconscious Knowledge

The narrator seems feckless when he responds to the wind’s whispering by saying:

‘I tell myself something’s comin’
But it never does’.

The fact that he needs to tell himself something’s coming suggests that, deep down, he knows that something isn’t coming.9 However, this is not his final response since the wind seems to represent his subconscious mind urging him to resolve his problems by acting. It’s after he hears the wind that he takes the decision to return to the woman. Having taken the decision, the wind no longer seems to be whispering, suggesting that his subconscious is now at peace. He still hears the effect of the wind:

‘… the leaves are rustlin’ in the wood …’,

but it’s no longer needed to urge him to action.

The source of the lines concerning the wind’s whispering and the leaves rustling is Huckleberry Finn, but again Dylan uses them to different effect. In the novel they occur as part of a single sentence and concern the same time.10 Dylan reverses the order and separates them in time, the whispering occurring ‘last night’ whereas the leaves ‘are’ rustling. The intervening period has allowed him time to take the decision to act.

There is a further effect of the wind in that:

‘… things are fallin’ off of the shelf’.

Again the narrator’s subconscious seems involved for at face value the observation seems too inconsequential to seem worth making. However, it perhaps shows that the narrator sees himself as saving the woman from being, in wording consistent with his earlier misogyny, ‘on the shelf’.


The song provides an insight into human nature. It does so by focusing on the thoughts of the narrator up to his decision to return to the woman he’s left. We’re thus able to discern his motivations which include the prospect of a sexual relationship and a desire to end his loneliness.

It’s his faults that dominate the song, however. We discover him to be cruel, misogynistic, condemnatory of others, fantasising, self-centred, patronising and prone to making errors of judgement. He’s also unduly lethargic, and that he eventually decides to act is a result of subconscious unease rather than any conscious thought on his part.




  1. The title, opening lines and theme of returning to an unhappy former lover are apparently inspired by In the McTell song, Lonesome Day Blues (co-written by McTell and Ruby Glaze). In this both the narrator and the woman predict that the latter will return after he, and perhaps the woman, become lonely. In Dylan’s song the narrator is already lonely. The implication in both songs seems to be that it’s selfishness rather than love which motivates the narrator’s return. Dylan, however, provides a much broader account of his narrator’s thoughts and of the subtleties of his character.
  1. Virgil, Aeneid, Bk 6, tr. Mandelbaum, 1971
  1. Junichi Saga, Confessions of a Yakuza, p.243. Saga has ‘There was nothing sentimental about him – it didn’t bother him at all that some of his pals had been killed. he said that he’d been given any number of decorations …’
  1. The poet Langston Hughes uses the line ‘Life is a barren field’ in his short poem Dreams. Dylan’s narrator might be thinking that life without the woman is pointless.
  1. In Summer Days the narrator has a similarly immature attitude to driving fast, and imagines himself showing off his car’s abilities in a speech in which he addresses his hearers as ‘boys’.
  1. Junichi Saga, Confessions of a Yakuza, p.208. Saga has ‘I don’t know how it looked to other people, but I never even slept with her – not once’. Dylan has removed ‘even’ from before ‘slept’, placing it immediately before ‘once’. Whereas Saga’s character is belittling sleeping with someone, Dylan’s is regretting that it didn’t happen.
  1. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ch.1
  1. That it’s sand which is being thrown on the floor suggests that, unlike the narrator, the dancers are putting their time – represented by sand – to good use. The narrator wastes time when he has a hard time parting with things he doesn’t need.
  1. The final line of verse six, ‘I wish my mother was still alive’ is sometimes replaced by:‘I’m tellin’ myself that I’m still alive’ I’m still alive’.Again the fact that the narrator sees it necessary to tell himself something, suggests that deep down he realises that it’s not really the case. His inactivity has the consequence that he’s not really alive in any meaningful sense.
  2. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ch.1, has: ‘The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me.



Bye And Bye


Far from being the sweet, romantic song the tune suggests, the song is about a man on the verge of murdering his family.

There are a number of similarities with Summer Days suggesting that the songs share the same narrator. Like that song Bye and Bye concerns the narrator’s unsuccessful relationship, and the theme of repeating the past. We again have his memories of different stages of the relationship – here beginning with his initial interest in the woman before going on to recount his disillusionment, jealousy and eventual madness. As time moves on, we see the narrator has become increasingly unhappy.  His initial romantic intoxication, characterised by the exuberant energy of ‘paintin’ the town’ and freely ‘swingin’ my partner around’, gives way to a constrained ‘scufflin’’ and  shufflin’’ and the pain implied by ‘walkin’ on briars’. Eventually movement all but ceases – he’s ‘rollin’ slow’, and his destination is death.

Something goes wrong in the relationship. The precise extent to which each person is responsible is unclear, but it transpires that the narrator is unfaithful and that, in his eyes, the woman is too.

Along the way it’s implied that he and the woman get married and have a child. The extra detail of the child, not present in Summer Days, makes the decision to kill all the more horrifying.

The Title

A number of things are significant about the title and its recurrence in the first and fourth lines of the song.

First, the expression is normally spelt ‘by and by’, and it’s used in connection with something expected to happen at some vague point in the future. The ‘e’ on the end of ‘bye’, as it’s spelt here, reminds us of ‘’bye’, the abbreviation of goodbye, and accordingly it’s pertinent in a dark way to the narrator’s intentions. He’s planning a goodbye to his wife and child, and perhaps his own goodbye to the world.

The phrase is additionally relevant in its normal sense, though. The song looks back on the past and forward to the future from the narrator’s standpoint in the present. The phrase’s occurrence at the beginning of the first and fourth lines shows the narrator not only remembering the past, but having gone back in memory to a time preceding the events he’s recalling – a time from which his earlier self can anticipate those things which (from the standpoint of the present) have already happened.

It might seem at first as if the narrator is presenting the memories in reverse order:

‘Bye and bye, I’m breathin’ a lover’s sigh’


‘Bye and bye, on you I’m casting my eye’

The reason is that one would expect the hopeless infatuation represented by the lover’s sigh to occur after the narrator’s first casting his eye on the woman. However, the majority of the song is presented in chronological order, and so one might expect the same to be true of these two lines. If so, that would tell us something about the narrator. It would suggest that the lover’s sigh is false. The sigh is perhaps no more than an indication of wishful thinking as the romantically inclined narrator imagines a situation which at best will exist at some undefined time – ‘by and by’. If so, this would make his position even more ludicrous than that of a medieval courtly lover who would at least have had a particular woman in mind. Such a lack of realism might help explain the failure of the subsequent relationship.

The Future

Just as he looks back beyond the past events he’s focusing on, the narrator also propels himself into the future, and then even further to a standpoint from which he can look back on that future:

‘… the future for me is already a thing of the past’.

One thing he means is that there’s no chance of his having the future he’d once envisaged with the woman. But the language he uses to say this seems to make him unduly pessimistic in having him commit himself to a pre-determined future. By confusing the future with the past, so that both are treated as settled, he denies himself any chance of future success.

Not only is it absurd that the narrator is capable of imagining a future where there isn’t one while treating the real future as non-existent – ‘a thing of the past’, but his outlook is inconsistent. This is because in the final verse he goes on to consider what he’s in fact going to do in the future. Planning the murder his family requires him to be treating the future as in his control.


The narrator becomes desperate. It’s a desperate optimism which causes him to say in verse four:

‘I’m tellin’ myself I found true happiness
That I’ve still got a dream that hasn’t been repossessed’.

This too might be inconsistent in that the optimism clashes with the pessimism which is about to drive him to seeing the future as ‘a thing of the past’.

That the optimism is desperate is shown by the lines being full of uncertainty. The phrase ‘I’m tellin’ myself’ suggests that at the time he has in mind he has no belief in what he’s saying. Why otherwise would he need to ‘tell himself’? Furthermore, saying ‘‘I found’ true happiness, rather than ‘I have found’, makes it clear that the narrator considers, even at the time he’s recalling, any happiness to have gone. And even though the ‘I’ve’ of ‘I’ve got a dream’ suggests he was still clinging on to hope, he’s implicitly admitting that what he had was nothing more than a dream.

Where The Wild Roses Grow

The narrator’s announcement that he’s going ‘where the wild roses grow’ is sinister. The expression appears in the Nick Cave song of that title, itself based on a traditional song. It concerns a narrator who murders his sweetheart.

The present case is worse. Not only does it seem that the narrator has married the woman, but that they have had a child. This is implied when the narrator seems to present his behaviour from the child’s point of view:

‘Papa gone mad, mamma, she’s feeling sad’

We have the child’s view that its father has ‘gone mad’, the use of ‘Papa’ and ‘mamma’ making it unlikely that the narrator’s is referring to his own parents.

This madness, it seems, gives rise to the narrator’s stated intention to ‘baptise you in fire’. Whereas in Summer Days it was unclear what the place was which the narrator intended to set on fire, from the present song it would seem it was the woman’s own place – and presumably with both her and the child in it. Whereas in Summer Days we couldn’t be certain that the narrator really intended to carry out his threat, here his madness suggests that he does. The intention seems even worse however, since along with the woman, the child too will be burnt to death. That that’s the case is reinforced by the use of the word ‘baptise’ in ‘baptise you in fire’ – baptism normally being a ceremony involving children.1

The narrator claims that his murderous action will amount to his establishing his rule through civil war. But since civil war involves a state turning on itself, it seems he recognises that his asserting his control will be at the expense of himself. He’ll have destroyed the family of which he himself is a part. His claim that ‘the future for me is already a thing of the past’ suggests that he intends all three of them to burn to death. But even if he doesn’t intend to die as well, and even if he gets away with the crime, he’ll nevertheless have ruined his own future.


Whether or not the narrator anticipates his own death, he perversely sees his act of murder as demonstrating how:

‘… loyal and true …’

he is. Why he should think this is unclear. He may have in mind the woman’s adulterousness and be contrasting it with what he takes to be his own loyalty to her. That he considers her to have been unfaithful can be divined from the final verse in which the narrator announces he’s taking measures to ensure she ‘can sin no more’. That her ‘sin’ is adultery is apparent in that, ironically given the narrator’s intention, the phrase is one used by Christ to an adulteress after he’d rescued her from a murderous mob (John 8.1-11).

If the narrator is implying he has been ‘loyal and true’, he’s being disingenuous. This is apparent for two reasons. First his choice of the expression ‘swingin’ my partner around’ hints at extra-marital sexual activity. And then, independently of that, there’s the relationship between the line in which this phrase appears:

‘I’m paintin’ the town – swinging my partner around’

and the last line of the same verse:

‘I’m paintin’ the town – making my last go-round’

One might have thought that the partner is the woman who becomes his wife. But since painting the town involves both the partner and his ‘last go-round’ – a last sexual liaison – it would seem that it would have to be someone else. He’s having what he intends to be a last fling before settling down.

Much of what else he says can be interpreted in the light of this. He’s anxious not to be discovered being unfaithful so is:

‘… watchin’ the roads’.

And fearing that someone might tell the woman about his disloyalty, he comforts himself with the thought:

‘ I know who I can depend on, I know who to trust’

He may even be uncertain about whether or not he should give up his current philandering lifestyle:

‘I’m not even acquainted with my own desires’

The wording implies an implicit contrast with Rosalind in As You Like It who does ‘have acquaintance with my own desires’. Rosalind is loyal.2

There’s a further reason for thinking the narrator to be disloyal. While the reference to a last go-round might suggest he recognises that his past lifestyle has come to an end, that this is so is both supported and contradicted by his subsequent assertion that:

‘… the future for me is already a thing of the past’.

On the one hand, it seems to be saying that the past is over and done with – not therefore to be repeated. On the other it seems to be saying that in unifying future and past his future now is a repetition of his past. In other words he’s gone back to being unfaithful.

Positive Characteristics

Although the intended murder is terrible, the narrator is not to be condemned outright. First, we have reason to believe it’s planned at a time when the narrator isn’t in his right mind. He does it when, in the wording of the child, he’s ‘gone mad’.

In fact the narrator is presented as a realistic, rounded character with virtues to counteract his vices. He seems, for example, aware that his original outlook at the beginning of the relationship is unrealistic, the use of the derogatory phrase ‘sugar-coated rhyme’ implying a critical attitude towards his earlier self. He‘s come to realise he was being overly romantic and therefore unrealistic in his expectations.

In addition, despite not knowing what he wants once the relationship becomes rocky, he attempts to save it. If we take him at his word, he does everything he can – ‘all I know’ – to make a success of it. While in practice this doesn’t seem to amount to much, he at least tries to convince himself he’s ‘found true happiness’ – that the woman hasn’t ‘repossessed’ it.

And that he feels responsible for what’s happened to the relationship is apparent from the way he describes his mental state in verse one:

‘I’m sittin’ on my watch so I can be on time’

The phrase ‘sittin’ on my watch’, in addition to representing the narrator’s concern with timekeeping (in a somewhat bizarre way), comes across as an admission of carelessness in allowing something to happen which shouldn’t have. He was, as the phrase has it, asleep on his watch. What it was he allowed to happen we’re not told, but it may be he sees himself as having paid insufficient regard to the possibility of a rival.

This admission of fault itself gives rise to an attempt to be more careful in future. Although the line:

‘I know who I can depend on, I know who to trust’.

can be  an expression of overconfidence, it might also be taken as a declaration that he has taken steps to curb that overconfidence. Either way being over trusting gives way to an apparently necessary suspicion:

‘I’m watchin’ the roads, I’m studying the dust’

He’s now more wary. On the present interpretation, which runs parallel to the one given above concerning his unfaithfulness, sitting on his watch has given way to watching the roads for a rival.


The narrator here is the same as the narrator of Summer Days and the song is similar in that it comprises his memories about an unsuccessful relationship. There’s a shadowy recurrence of the main theme of the earlier song, about whether the past is repeatable, in the ambivalence shown by the narrator regarding the future. He’s shown early on to focus on an imaginary, idealised future which he fails to make come about. When, inevitably, his hopes are dashed, instead of reacting positively he decides to put an end to the future itself – his, the woman’s and his child’s. In doing so he prevents any hope of past happiness, imagined or otherwise, being repeated.

In terms of plot, as with Summer Days the song is inconclusive in that, while the murders seem intended, we don’t get to find out whether they are carried out. What we do get is a deeper insight into the mind of the narrator – what it is about him which results in his terrible decision. There’s more evidence here of why the relationship broke down, the narrator’s disloyalty, deviousness and lack of commitment to the relationship all becoming apparent.  While there’s no further evidence of, for example, the narrator’s extroversion, rudeness or reticence about his past, we’re able to see why he’s unable to cope. Just as he had earlier represented the future to himself in idealised form, we again find him unable to accept reality when he desperately tries to convince himself that that things aren’t as bad as they seem. He swings from absurd optimism to absurd pessimism. In the end his torment causes him to lose his mind – to give up the fight and recklessly impose cruel suffering.

Behind the horror of his decision, we can find a positive side to his character. Due to the song’s comprising the narrator’s memories of different stages of the relationship, we’re able to see how his outlook has developed. He becomes more wary and has learnt to be critical of his earlier idealistic feelings. And although he seems disloyal, the reference to his ‘last go-round’ shows at least that he intends to reform (albeit, like St Augustine, ‘not yet’). Furthermore, rightly or wrongly, he believes he’s doing what he can to save the relationship.



  1. According to Luke 3.16 ‘Christ will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ and so the narrator is perhaps attempting to justify his intention by seeing himself in some sense as Christ (as he does when he uses the expression ‘sin no more’). Here ‘fire’ seems to refer to Christ’s suffering. Christ is saying that he will baptise people in the sense that he’ll make up for their sins past and future by suffering on the cross. Dylan’s narrator likewise intends to do away with what he perceives as the woman’s adultery – by killing his family.

It may also be relevant that prior to the crucifixion Christ also said ‘I have come to bring  fire to the earth and how I wish it was blazing already. There is a baptism I must still receive and how great is my distress till it is over’ (Luke 12.49-53). Here it is his executioners who are baptising him in the metaphorical sense that they’re causing him to suffer and so, indirectly, they’re doing away with sin. Again Dylan’s narrator would be putting an end to any chance of the woman or their children repeating her ‘sin’ by killing them.

  1. It would seem he’s also not true in another sense. Given his philandering it seems unlikely he’s speaking the truth when he says:

‘You were my first love and you will be my last’

Summer Days


The song comprises the loosely connected memories of the narrator. Through them we’re able to re-construct a part of his life and aspects of his character which he unintentionally gives away. Due to the order in which events are presented, it is not always certain precisely who is involved or when an event occurs. The effect is to license conflicting, albeit complementary, interpretations, and  it will be in the light of these interpretations that the significance of  the central theme – whether the past can be repeated – will become apparent.

The theme is inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. One way of seeing the narrator is as a version of Fitzgerald’s hero. Gatsby is in love with a woman who, since their enforced parting, has married someone else. Despite the husband’s unfaithfulness, Gatsby fails to revive the former relationship. This failure is in part due to the snobbery of a social class to which he aspires but cannot belong, and in part to a hopeless belief that a happier past can be repeated. Dylan’s narrator has a number of Gatsby’s traits. Like Gatsby he is ostentatious, acquisitive, deceitful, and a social failure. And – crucially – like Gatsby he’s undone by his determination to repeat the past by reviving a former relationship. His pursuit of a now married woman who rejects him brings out the worst in his character.

That’s one way of seeing the narrator. But there is another which enables the theme of repeating the past to be explored in a way that goes beyond Fitzgerald’s. As so often with Dylan, the song is a masterpiece of economy and a feature of this is the application of a single description of a wedding to two separate weddings. This facilitates an alternative interpretation according to which the narrator does succeed in marrying after all, and in so doing does repeat the past.  What transpires, though, is that the resulting repetition is sterile, and at best part of an endless cycle of similarly sterile repetitions.

The analysis is in four main parts. The first three deal respectively with the underlying narrative, evidence for there being two weddings, and the theme of repeating the past. The fourth, and longest, part deals with the narrator’s character.

Part 1

The Underlying Narrative

We need, then, to see how the song explores the theme of repeating the past in a way which goes beyond Fitzgerald’s approach. In order to do this, it will be best to begin by clarifying the narrative underlying the sometimes randomly ordered memories which comprise the song.

On one level of interpretation, and on the assumption that the plot begins by following Fitzgerald’s, the narrator wants to marry a woman he has previously known. The woman, who is already married, says it’s impossible but the narrator refuses to believe her:

‘She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean you can’t? Of course you can.”

The song details the narrator’s attempts to impress but ends with his disillusionment and desire for revenge. He hasn’t been able to repeat the past and marry the woman.

However, some doubt is cast on this straightforward interpretation by references to a wedding (v6), a wedding reception (v3), a businessman (v5) and a politician (v12). These references would suggest an alternative course of events. Whereas the novel begins with the woman already married, the song is taking us back to the celebrations accompanying that wedding. The groom is the businessman derided by the narrator in verse five, and the narrator is seen as a somewhat drunken guest at the reception. Sometime later, after the narrator has prised the woman away from the groom, he marries her. And sometime after that, a politician prises the woman away from the narrator who ends up disillusioned and vowing to get his revenge.

Part 2

Evidence for Two Weddings

The Timing of the Reception

We might think that both the wedding alluded to in verse six and the reception described in verse three are part of one and the same celebration. But this isn’t necessarily the case. There’s no reason to assume that the reception of verse three is in any direct way connected with the wedding of verse six. In fact, if we assume that the narrator is recounting events in the order they occurred, the reception will have to be associated with an earlier wedding. It will have to have taken place before, not after, the events of verse three. In consequence, the wedding described in verse six will be a different, later wedding.

This account does depend on the narrator’s recalling events in the order in which they occurred. Quite often, however, he seems to jump from one incident to another and then back again. If that’s what’s happening here, the order of the accounts no longer gives us reason to think there are two weddings. In that case, in order to establish that there are two weddings, we need independent evidence. This can be provided as follows.

The Toast

It can be shown that the reception of verse three is connected with a wedding which is not the narrator’s. This is worth doing because, even though it isn’t in itself enough to show there there are two weddings, it will do so if it is combined with reasons for thinking the wedding of verse six is the narrator’s.

That the groom at the reception is not the narrator is clear because otherwise the narrator who is proposing a toast, presumably to the groom, would be toasting himself.1 We know the person being toasted is the groom because he’s described as ‘the King’ and this makes him related to the bride who, as we’ve been given some reason to believe, has ‘royal Indian blood’.

That this royal relationship is not itself a blood relationship, but one by marriage, is clearly implied by there being no further mention of blood. And since there’s no indication that the recipient of the toast is any other sort of blood relation, there can be little doubt that the marriage being celebrated is his and not the narrator’s.

Verse Six

As noted above, the matter of there being two weddings will now be settled if it can be shown that the wedding which is the subject of verse six is the narrator’s. One reason for taking it to be narrator’s, is the third line:

‘What looks good in the day, at night is another thing’

While on one level the narrator seems to be making a crude, general observation about sex,  he might be seen as acknowledging that the marriage – his marriage – is a failure. He’d be lamenting that at night, when he and the woman are together alone, it’s disastrous and that it only ‘appears’ to be good at other times. In the language of the title, the ‘summer nights’ are already gone and the ‘summer days’ only appear not to have.


A second reason for taking verse six to concern the narrator’s marriage is that in verse two he can be taken to be telling us that he, as distinct from the groom, has

‘Got a long-haired woman …’

It would be an odd thing to say if he weren’t married to her, particularly since it’s said in the context of domestic matters:

‘I got a house on a hill, I got hogs all out in the mud’


Finally, verse twelve concerning the politician can be interpreted in a way which at least corroborates the view that the wedding of verse six is the narrator’s. The politician, we’re told has been:

‘… suckin’ the blood out of the genius of generosity’

The politician, we can surmise, is attempting to supplant the narrator in the woman’s affections, so depriving him of her. On this account the ‘blood’ is either metaphorical and the narrator’s, or else refers synecdochally to the woman, whom we’ve been told has ‘royal Indian blood’. The blood might also represent a financial bribe, one going beyond what the narrator has willingly offered in the hope of seeing off the politician. Thus ‘the genius of generosity’ would be being self-referentially applied by the narrator to himself on the basis of the price he’d willingly offered. That the narrator is prepared to pay financially in the cause of love is backed up by his boast in a different context:

‘My pockets are loaded and I’m spending every dime’

In the light of this the politician is best seen a rival threatening the narrator’s marriage by playing the same predatory role the narrator played when the woman was married to the businessman. To that extent, even if it provides insufficient evidence on its own, it at least corroborates the view that verse six refers to the narrator’s marriage.


All things considered there is, I suggest, adequate evidence for their being two weddings to the woman, the earlier one the businessman’s and the later one the narrator’s.

Part 3:

Theme of Repeating the Past

Importance of
There Being Two Weddings

One significance of there being two weddings is that it enables a contrast to be brought out between the woman and the narrator with respect to the past being repeated. By marrying for a second time, the woman is not merely repeating the past but instead embarking on something new – a new relationship with a new person, the narrator. And when that relationship ends and she marries the politician, she will again be embarking on something new and so again not merely be repeating the past.

A parallel point can be made in connection with the politician. There being two weddings is significant in that it allows both the narrator’s destruction of the first wedding and its repetition in the politician’s destruction of the narrator’s wedding. This repetition might lead us to think that the politician’s wedding is also likely to be doomed. But again there’s a difference. What for the narrator is a matter of trying to repeat the past in reviving an old relationship, for the politician is a matter of  embarking on something new. Since the narrator ultimately fails with the woman, and the politician succeeds, it’s reasonable to blame the outcome on the narrator’s desire to repeat the past.

That the politician has a more effective attitude to the past than the narrator is also apparent in his being described as having:

‘… no time to lose’

The phrase ‘no time to lose’ implies that for the politician once time is lost, it’s lost forever. Its further significance is in drawing attention to the narrator’s attitude to the past when he also refers to time:

‘How can you say you love someone else when you know it’s me all the time?’

Whereas the politician is not concerned about repeating the past but with making the most of the present, the narrator’s ‘all the time’ implies that the woman can only love someone in the present if the relationship is a repeat of an earlier relationship with that person.

The main importance of there being two weddings, however, is that it enables the song to represent a modification of the view illustrated in The Great Gatsby that the past cannot be repeated. In the song the narrator does repeat the past – by reviving a defunct relationship with the woman. However the woman’s claim that the past can’t be repeated has no more been refuted in effect than the narrator’s claim has been upheld. What the song does is clarify the sense in which the past cannot be repeated by showing that there’s no meaningful sense in which it can. The narrator has achieved nothing by reviving the relationship because it is doomed to failure.

The Opening and Closing Verses

Particularly important for demonstrating the meaninglessness of the narrator’s repetition of the past by marrying the woman is the relationship between the song’s first and last verses. The verses are each of three lines and in each we find the following pair of statements:

‘Summer days, summer nights are gone’


‘I know a place where there’s still somethin’ going on’

It’s not clear that the final verse’s repetition of the pair indicates that the past is being repeated, however. It doesn’t have to. It could be that the two verses are presenting the same pair of thoughts which were had just the once. Accordingly, the summer days and nights referred to in each verse would be identical, as would the place referred to and whatever it is that’s ‘going on’. Only if there were two separate pairs of thoughts, one in the first verse and one in the final verse, might the events referred to be different. If the events of the final verse are different events to those of the first verse, then – given their similarity – the later events can be said to repeat the earlier events.

The matter can be settled by noting that the middle line of each verse is subtly different. Whereas the first verse has:

‘Summer days and the summer nights have gone’,

as its middle line, the final verse simply has:

‘Summer days, summer nights are gone’.

The addition of the phrase ‘and the‘ in the first verse suggests that we’re being given two distinct, albeit very similar, thoughts in the two middle lines. And that allows the possibility that the events alluded to in the final verse are different to the events alluded to in the first verse. In that case the past would have been repeated. What is happening is that at the end of another summer the narrator again bemoans its passing, but welcomes the thought that not everything is over.

Importantly, there’s nothing to suggest that this repetition is a one-off. The fact that the events of one year are repeated the following year suggests that there’ll be a similar repetition at the end of every autumn. The narrator will regret summer’s passing, but find solace in whatever hasn’t yet ended. He’ll be repeating the past over and over again, but only in the sense that each year will be a carbon copy of the previous one. What’s significant is that he’ll have failed to repeat the past in any meaningful way. The creativity and originality which characterise doing something for the first time can’t be repeated, and therefore the life of continuous repetition to which the narrator has condemned himself will be pointless.

Part 4

The Narrator’s Character

In addition to exploring the theme of the repeatability of the past, the song provides a detailed and subtle representation of the narrator’s character. Considered below are three ways in which he can be seen to be flawed as a character. There’s also an examination of possible causes of his state of mind. Along the way the significance of lines yet to be considered will become apparent.

Showing Off

The narrator is a show-off. But he’s unsuccessful at it. At the reception he, perhaps drunkenly, makes himself the centre of attention by standing on the table, but doesn’t get the response he‘s hoping for. This is made apparent by way of a slight change in the repeated line:

‘Everybody get ready – lift up your glasses and sing’

which becomes:

‘Everybody get ready to lift up your glasses and sing’

The difference is subtle but it changes the meaning considerably. The first line includes the order ‘lift up your glasses and sing’- suggesting the narrator has confidence that he’ll be obeyed. The second removes that order, replacing it with an order merely to prepare to do so. It seems like the climb down of someone less at ease socially than he’d like to think as he realises that his original request is being ignored.

The narrator is also drawing attention to himself by showing off his possessions. He fails again because, by their descriptions, these aren’t up to much. There’s a ‘house on a hill’ but it seems not to have anything about it to make it worth describing further. Despite the boast, we imagine a rather plain house on a rather plain hill. Equally curiously he goes on to mention his hogs.2 It seems that these possessions are in conflict with the sort of image he’s trying to project. It may be significant that he changes the description of the hogs from ‘out in the mud’ to ‘out lying in the mud’. Given some dubious claims he makes, which are mentioned below, one wonders whether he’s unconsciously chosen a word which should warn us to be on our guard for signs of mendacity.

Another thing of which he’s proud – and seems to treat as a possession in lumping her in with the house and the hogs – is the long-haired woman with her royal Indian blood. While at this point we can assume he has become ‘the King’ in being related by marriage to her, the pride he has in his possessions might show that he’s seeing himself as a different sort of King. The possessions coupled with the title suggest he sees himself as some sort of Elvis, Elvis being ‘King of pop’. This might explain the Cadillac, an expensive type of car of which Elvis owned several. The boast of eight carburettors seem unbelievable, however, and alas, the whole consequence of showing off comes crashing down when this ‘worn out star’ suffers the indignity of running out of petrol.

Given the ‘eight carburettors’ claim and that he’s ‘short on gas’, one wonders whether the impression he wants to impart of being ‘loaded’ and ‘spending every dime’ represents the truth. Either way it’s clear he thinks the woman can be won by the prospect of wealth. It doesn’t work. He gets his comeuppance when, despite his efforts, she responds that she loves someone else.3


The narrator’s showing off suggests an immaturity which is further apparent in his petulance and downright rudeness. In verse five he insensitively dismisses the man the woman says she loves as ‘some old businessman’. And he begins the sentence in which he does this with the contemptuous ‘What good are you anyway. …?’ It’s extraordinary that he thinks such an approach suitable for convincing the woman to marry him.

When told in verse seven that he can’t repeat the past, he replies:

‘”What do you mean you can’t? Of course you can”’.

This is tellingly different from Gatsby’s response to the same observation:

‘”Can’t repeat the past,” he cried incredulously. “Why, of course you can.”‘

Whereas Gatsby is just incredulous, the narrator ‘s ‘What do you mean you can’t?’, and the absence of the softening ‘Why’ before ‘Of course you can’, turn the response into a personal criticism, implying that the woman is stupid.4

There’s more petulance in verse eight. The woman has apparently asked, presumably on first getting to know the narrator, about his background. This elicits the unexpectedly curt reply:

‘Sorry that’s nothin’ you would need to know’

Clearly the narrator has something to hide – perhaps a criminal past, like Gatsby. Alternatively he may be embarrassed about his origins, also like Gatsby. Either way the response is rude.

There’s a further curt reply, presumably to the same question, although we hear it in verse eleven:

‘If it’s information you want, you can go get it from the police’

The coldness of the response is added to by the unnecessarily dismissive addition of ‘go’ before ‘get it’. The reply is defensive and particularly inappropriate because the woman is unlikely to be asking for ‘information’ in a sense which implies she’s spying on him. If he wants her to marry him, it’s reasonable for her to expect some transparency.

The narrator’s immaturity is again shown in verse eleven when he says:

‘You got something to say, speak or hold your peace
Well, you got something to say, speak now or hold your peace’

These lines are amusingly presented as a parody of those in a marriage ceremony where the celebrant asks if anyone knows any reason why the couple shouldn’t marry. As it happens the woman has already spoken, and the ceremonial wedding language in which the narrator is made to couch his demand makes it clear he recognises the significance of what she’d said. What she’d said is why their marriage can’t take place, namely that she loves someone else and that ‘you can’t repeat the past’.5

Immaturity is once again apparent at the end of the song. Verse thirteen ends:

‘I’m counting on you, love, to give me a break.

Apparently, and understandably, the woman doesn’t think she owes him ‘a break’. We can assume she expects him to sort his own problems out. His immediate response is one of self-pity:

‘Well, I’m leaving in the morning as soon as the dark clouds lift

This, however, immediately gives way to another petulant outburst:

‘Gonna break the roof in – set fire to the place as a parting gift’

At first it sounds sinister. Unable to get her to give him a break, he says he’ll provide a different type of break; he’ll break the roof in. The adolescent nature of his stated intention is made all the more obvious by his implication that he can leave only once the clouds have lifted. Even if ‘dark clouds’ is a metaphor representing his state of mind, it’s unclear why waiting for them to lift is necessary. One is inclined to conclude that he doesn’t intend to leave at all. This would make the wanton vandalism no more than an empty threat, a rather pathetic attempt at emotional blackmail.

Inability to Face or Recognise the Truth

Another aspect of the narrator’s character is his tendency to believe only what he wants to believe. He knows full well there’s a threat to his marriage (‘… there must be someone around’) yet in what is apparently a response to the woman’s reaction when he confronts her about the politician, he says:

‘You been rolling your eyes – you been teasing me’

It would appear that the narrator cannot accept that her body language is confirming his suspicion. He deceives himself into passing off the relationship with the politician as mere ‘teasing’. It’s a temporary respite.

A further, perhaps less deliberate, case of his avoiding the truth occurs in verse seven in his response to the woman’s comment about not being able to repeat the past. The verse begins:

‘She’s looking into my eyes …’

The description suggests sincerity, tenderness and depth on her part.  The sincerity and tenderness are reinforced by the rest of the line:

‘… she’s holding my hand’.

Depth is indicated through the word ‘into’. Perversely, however, the narrator sees the woman’s demeanour as an indication of commitment when it’s in fact the opposite. He fails to see that when she tells him ‘you can’t repeat the past’ she’s not making a comment about people generally, as his response implies, but means that he can’t resurrect the relationship he once had with her. She understands where he in particular is going wrong. Looking into his eyes, she can see into his soul, as it were. She can see that his behaviour towards her is a vain attempt to resurrect the past, and her comment is to warn him that it can’t be done.

Causes of the Narrator’s State of Mind

It’s clear that the underlying causes of the narrator’s problems are to be found in his refusal to act and, when he does act, a refusal to accept responsibility for failure. Instead, he presents himself as powerless to bring about his aim. In verse five, he describes his situation metaphorically, with:

‘The fog is so thick you can’t even spy the land’

He is, as it were, all at sea, not knowing which way to turn to improve his prospects of winning the woman. Or so he convinces himself.

By verse fourteen, the fog has transmuted into ‘dark clouds’ which he assumes will lift. But if the dark clouds represent what he perceives as going wrong in his life, then it’s unlikely they’re going to lift – at least of their own accord.

Instead of acting, though, he puts the blame on the woman, implying in verse five that she’s useless in not standing up to her husband – whom he derides as ‘some old businessman’.

He also complains, in verse eight, that his back has long been to the wall, again suggesting he doesn’t know which way to turn. And in the same verse he again implies, bitterly, that the fault is the woman’s. The woman has broken his heart before, and she’d do it again just to spite him – ‘for good luck’.

In verse ten he admits a lack of success. He claims to have his ‘hammer ringin …’:

‘… but the nails ain’t goin’ down’

Since ‘ringin’’ takes up a previous reference to wedding bells, we can assume he means that although he’s working on making her his wife, he’s meeting with no success. Admittedly he doesn’t blame the woman here, but  it’s notable that he doesn’t blame himself either.

When towards the end he says:

‘Standing by God’s river, my soul is beginnin’ to shake’

we can assume his dread is a result of his not feeling in control.


The song deals with two main issues – whether it’s possible to repeat the past (Parts 1-3) and the narrator’s character (Part 4).

The narrator, whose character is seen through a series of random and temporally dislocated memories, is a development of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. While sharing some of Gatsby’s characteristics, he comes across as weaker than Fitzgerald’s protagonist. They both have an inordinate love of their possessions, and a desire for a married woman. They both fail, too, and in part for the same reason – their rejecting the same good advice. But among differences between them is the narrator’s habitual petulance and rudeness, his inability to cope, his failure to accept what’s happening, his inappropriate extrovert behaviour, and his too easily giving in to circumstances. He’s also different in that he seems interested in the woman primarily for what she represents in terms of social standing, sex, and her ability to give him ‘a break’. There’s little, if any, evidence of genuine, emotional attachment.

The main theme of the song is whether or not the past is repeatable. Although it’s borrowed from The Great Gatsby, it leads to a broader conclusion. It’s in part on the back of the different interpretations allowed by the disordered presentation of the narrator’s memories– notably of the verses concerning a wedding and a reception – that the broader conclusion regarding the repeatability of the past is reached. While the song too shows how the past cannot be repeated, it simultaneously allows us to see what the consequence of such repetition would be. It would be to achieve nothing beyond further pointless repetition – at least where the original repetition is so exact as to allow no advance to have been made. Nevertheless, some repetitions are presented in a more positive light. These are where they’re inexact, thus allowing the new situation to be an advance on the old. Interestingly, the song itself in the way it’s structured provides several examples of repetitions of this second sort. Lines, though repeated are often not repeated exactly, so that they acquire a different meaning. And the final verse, in repeating the first verse inexactly, likewise acquires a different meaning – albeit one that reinforces the view that exact repetitions of the past lead to stagnation.




  1. Once he has himself married the woman, he does of course become the King.
  2. That the house is ‘on a hill’ may be significant. The hill, being three-dimensional, contrasts with the two-dimensional flats in ‘… I’m drivin’ in the flats in a Cadillac car’. The suggestion would be that there’s more to ordinary, humdrum married life with house and pigs  than to the superficially more attractive, but showy life of the bachelor. (Note added 5.8.2019)
  3. From the remaining verses in which we see the narrator vowing to leave after wreaking revenge, it would seem that this willingness to use money to achieve his end fails just as it did earlier when he’d been ‘spending every dime’.
  4. For those who see Dylan as simply plagiarising when he lifts lines from other works, the use here of the Fitzgerald conversation about repeating the past provides a very obvious instance of its not being the case.
  5. The word ‘something’ in ‘You got something to say …’ is significant here. It can be taken as referring back its use in the first verse – ‘I know a place where there’s still somethin’ going on’ – and so suggests that the narrator is guilty of blindly assuming that what’s going on is favourable to him. A similar point can be made about the word ‘going’ in ‘the nails ain’t goin’ down’. He just assumes that what’s going on is to his benefit, yet the use of the phrase ‘goin’ down’ in connection with the recalcitrant nails suggests that he’s miscalculated.














The song rests on an irony. The narrator has been having an affair in Mississippi only to get back and find that the woman he is more committed to has apparently also been having an affair. The irony is in that her affair would be a direct result of his. He realises that if he’d behaved more responsibly and returned even a day earlier, the woman wouldn’t have given up on him and embarked on another relationship. Throughout the song we find the narrator berating himself for not having returned in time.

Essentially the song lays bare the character of the narrator by presenting his thoughts and fragments of his conversations, imagined or actual. He comes across as lacking both self-esteem and a confidence in his ability to put things right.  Even he doesn’t seem to realise how he’s fooling himself, never seeming to depart far from the truth but rarely being totally honest either. Towards the end of the song there are signs of an increasing acceptance of responsibility for what has happened. The religious imagery which permeates the song suggests that the woman whose behaviour he despises could well be his salvation.1

The Woman

It is not certain that the woman the narrator has returned to is having an affair; we have only the narrator’s suspicions to go on.2 That he thinks she has can be gleaned from the fifth verse phrase:

‘… mule’s in the stall’.3

That he thinks she’s having an affair is also apparent from the frustrated outburst in the next line:

‘Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all’

– this sounding like an impatient response to the woman’s excuses, or protestations of innocence.

The narrator’s belief that the unnamed woman is in fact in a relationship would explain various other things he says. These include his regret at having not arrived back a day earlier, and the line:

‘I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too’.

It would also explain his claim that it’s both of them whose ‘days are numbered’. The suggestion is that both have done wrong and have only a limited amount of time to make up for it.

As will become apparent, the line:

‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’

is open to a number of interpretations. If we see it as being addressed to the woman, that too would indicate that he sees her as having betrayed him. The effect, he’s saying, is that because of her their relationship can never be the same again.


The narrator’s outburst is immediately followed by:

‘I was thinkin’ ‘bout the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleepin’ in Rosie’s bed’

Who, one wonders, is Rosie? And what is her relevance to the outburst? It must be that Rosie is a woman he knew in Mississippi, and the cause of his delayed return.

We can assume that this Rosie couplet comprises a thought which occurs in the present, some time after the outburst. The narrator is reminding himself that while the woman was speaking he – amazingly – was consoling himself by thinking about Rosie. The narrator does not trouble to say whether the memory is accompanied by a sense of guilt.


While it’s easy to see the narrator as someone who blames both circumstances and the woman for his own failings, there are indications that he accepts some responsibility for the break up. This is most apparent when in the penultimate verse he refers to:

‘… the corner that I painted myself in

There’s no attempt at this late stage to blame anyone but himself.

To a lesser extent the refrain too implies acceptance of responsibility:

‘Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long’

Here he admits fault, but apparently not moral fault. He accepts that he made a mistake, but there is no hint that he’s accepting responsibility for anything more serious than that. Furthermore it’s made to seem a very minor mistake; he stayed an extra day, but what’s one day in the scheme of things?

Well, quite a lot. He’s already admitted that both his and the woman’s:

 ‘… days are numbered’.4

If one’s remaining time is measured in days, then the loss of even one should not be taken lightly. He wasn’t with her when he could have been. And he’s not open about what he was doing instead. The truth about that has to be divined from the otherwise gnomic comment:

‘City’s just a jungle; more games to play’.

For him the city is somewhere where the law of the jungle applies. ‘Games’ can be taken as referring to sexual licentiousness. He’s not only taken advantage of the city’s lax ethical standards, but given himself extra time to do so.

The jungle image is implicitly taken up again in the line:

‘Walkin’ through the leaves, falling from the trees’

Falling leaves might represent the spiritual death of those whose ethical standards are low. The narrator sees himself as walking among the spiritually dead, by which he would mean the woman and her new lover. Since he’s walking, by implication he’s not including himself as spiritually dead.

However, this is the second time walking has figured. The first, at the beginning of the song, was:

‘… we walk the line’.

– the ‘line’ perhaps being one separating success from failure, or good from evil. What’s significant is that since both the narrator and the woman are walking the line, and the narrator is walking among the spiritually dead, so must the woman too be walking among the spiritually dead. In that case, since there is no one else, the spiritually dead must include the narrator and his lover. Although the narrator doesn’t admit it openly, his language suggests he is every bit as morally impoverished as he takes her to be.

The narrator is honest to an extent when, in reference to the city, he claims to be:

‘Trapped in the heart of it, tryin’ to get away’

– thereby implying the city’s no place to be. But that’s not saying much. He clearly wasn’t so trapped that he didn’t manage to get away a day later.

Furthermore use of the word ‘heart’ may have been deliberately chosen to give a wrong impression. It suggests that the city is something good, so that the narrator had no need to escape from it. ‘Heart’ has connotations of kindness and consideration for others, so there’d have been no problem if those were the things that had trapped him. His choice of language is disingenuous. What he’s actually trapped by is the prospect of having his desires satisfied. If the city represents such selfishness and neglect of the needs of others, it ought not to be associated with the heart.

There’s a further significance to the use of ‘heart’ here since it foreshadows it’s later use in:

‘My heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free’

At first the claim might sound positive. However,  when one remembers that the narrator has used ‘heart’ to represent a tendency to immorality, it’s hardly good that the narrator’s is light and free. One might conclude he’s allowed it to be a bit too free. Again he comes across as untrustworthy, and again it’s by way of his using ‘heart’ to give a wrong impression.

There’s another example of the narrator’s using language dishonestly in his claim:

‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’.

Taking the ‘you’ this time as referring to himself, it seems to be an attempt to justify not giving up his way of life in the city altogether. But the supposed justification seems to depend on ‘you’ being taken differently – that is, to mean ‘one’, or to refer to people generally. He appears to be saying that since nobody can ever come back all the way, it’s hardly surprising that he can’t. This too is disingenuous. He’s supplied no reason to suppose that people generally can’t completely give up a way of life, so it’s inappropriate to use this to support his own failure to do so.

Refusal to Change

In addition to his lack of honesty, the narrator suffers from an inability to make progress. This is made apparent in what might seem a rather bland comment:

‘Everybody movin’, if they ain’t already there
Everybody got to move somewhere’.

In fact the lines get to the core of the narrator’s predicament. Staying still, both metaphorically and literally, achieves nothing. It’s ironic, then, that while he recognises part of his problem to be not having moved (he stayed too long in Mississippi), and he realises the necessity of his moving when he says that everybody has got to move’, he still doesn’t. He reacts to the necessity with:

‘Stick with me baby …’

Not only is he implying that he’s staying put, but in a sense he’s encouraging the woman to do likewise.

A similar attitude is present when he claims to know:

‘… that fortune is waitin’ to be kind’.

He just assumes that things will turn out well without his having to do anything. To say that ‘fortune is waiting’ is just a roundabout way of saying that he’s waiting for fortune.

And when he announces that:

‘Things should start to get interesting right about now’

he’s putting his faith in things becoming interesting of their own accord rather than through his doing anything to make them interesting:

His refusal to accept the need for change is again present where he expresses regret that:

‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’.

As suggested above, while ‘you’, here, might refer to him, it can also be taken to refer to the woman. If it’s her he’s addressing, then he’s presenting himself as fixed. He expects her to come to him to make up for their mutual wrongdoing, rather than the other way round. He seems to have no intention of making up the remaining distance by meeting her halfway – that is, by admitting his own guilt. That would require moving, which he won’t bring himself to do.

Love Or Sex

It might sound romantic when he all but ends his appeal for sympathy with a further appeal in verse eleven:

‘So give me your hand and say you’ll be mine’.

But the line is full of irony. The listener can’t help noticing that this appeal for the woman to ‘give’ comes after the admission:

‘Got nothin’ for you, I had nothin’ before’.

The narrator expects the woman to give her hand (presumably in marriage) without his having given anything to her. Furthermore, the appeal may just be a change of tactic. It follows an episode of bitterness on his part in which he can be seen as criticising her for not previously having given him her hand:

‘Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t
Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t’

The second line makes it clear that it was sex which he had previously offered and which she refused. It’s that which accounts for the bitter tone. The narrator would be bitter that, while the woman has acceded to his rival’s desires, she has rejected his. Since an appeal for sex didn’t work, he’s now appealing to her sense of romance.

Tendency To Give Up

One reason for the narrator’s failing to find a way out of his predicament is that he gives up too easily. It’s remarkable how often negatives, including the word ‘never’, figure in what he says:

‘All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme’.

He’s not just saying that he doesn’t have the ability to put his admiration for her into words, but that he could never do so. ‘Could never …’ – he’s given up even before the first hurdle.5

And ‘thoughts so sublime’! Perhaps these thoughts could have been a bit more sublime if they hadn’t focused on what Rosie’d said, and on sleeping with her. They’d then have stood some chance of doing the woman justice.

It’s clear, then, that in the above couplet the narrator is just making an excuse. This is further suggested by the fact that the couplet is immediately followed by the refrain. It’s as if his sub-conscious is telling him the real reason he hasn’t done the woman justice is that he’s been gallivanting in Mississippi.

The tendency to give up is present again when alludes to:

‘So many things that we never will undo’

Again, he’s given up before he’s even started. It’s hardly surprising he sees himself as ‘a stranger nobody sees’.


The negative outlook continues in the ninth verse:

‘Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinkin’ fast
I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past’

The sinking ship metaphor makes it sound as if events are beyond his control, since obviously one passenger can’t stop a ship from sinking. Thus he’s finding an excuse for not taking responsibility for his predicament. But when we realise that the ship represents his life, it’s far from clear that he’s as powerless to prevent disaster as he likes to imagine.

The metaphor is extended with the idea of drowning in poison. One’s ship sinking doesn’t necessarily have drowning as its consequence. And it definitely doesn’t mean one is being poisoned. Again, the drowning and poison references seem designed to imply helplessness, yet he’s given us no reason to think that he is helpless. On the contrary:

‘My clothes are wet, tight on my skin’

Somehow being shipwrecked has become a matter of being no more than uncomfortably damp on dry land. So much for drowning in poison. Yet he still presents his condition as a disaster.


The narrator’s inadequacy comes across in the emptiness of his life. As he says himself in an apparent reference to life without the woman:

‘The emptiness is endless …’

That the fault for that is his becomes apparent when we see how other expressions associated with ‘emptiness’ figure throughout the song – in particular ‘nothing’:

‘Got nothin’ for you, I had nothin’ before’

He’s hardly making himself seem attractive. Not only has he nothing to give (presumably as a present) after his absence, but he seems to be making his having previously  given nothing an excuse for his giving nothing now. The feeble impression he’s creating is then cemented by his saying:

‘Don’t even have anything for myself anymore’

The inclusion of the word ‘even’ compounds the pathetic absurdity of this call for sympathy. It gives the impression that not having anything for oneself is worse than not having anything for someone else. Such self-centredness is hardly going to impress.

The verse ends with what seems to be a telling giveaway:

Nothing you can sell me …’

While this third ‘nothing’ reinforces the effect of the previous two occurrences, and the admission of not having anything for himself, the verse seems to be ending with a startling Freudian implication. ‘Nothing you can sell me …’ seems to imply the woman’s a prostitute. Since there’s no indication that this is in fact the case, the likely explanation is that so much of his time in Mississippi has been spent buying sexual favours that he forgets he’s not doing just that when he’s addressing the woman he wants to marry.

The negatives continue to abound. In the ninth there’s a fourth use of ‘nothing’:

‘I’ve nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me’

While this is intended to emphasise a positive emotional outlook, it would be true to form for him to think that affection is all he has got. It’s noticeable that he doesn’t take the opportunity to mention his affection for the woman. If he’s going to stand a chance of reviving the relationship, he ought to at least lavish that on her.

It might come as a relief to find him using the word ‘something’ as opposed to ‘nothing’ but, when he does, even this implies a lack:

‘I need somethin’ strong to distract my mind’

It’s pathetic that he needs to be distracted (presumably from thoughts of other women) rather than being able to exercise self-control. And while his reply that he’s going to ‘look at’ the woman he’s addressing might seem positive, even this serves to reinforce his negative self-image. In presenting the woman as strong he seems to be casting himself as weak.


There is hope for the narrator despite all his negative qualities. The eighth verse suggests that by following the woman’s example the narrator can destroy the blemishes on his character. The suggestion is made by way of religious imagery:

‘Well I got here followin’ the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are’

The first line associates the narrator with the Maji who honoured Christ by following a star, and hence associates him with the Christian values of love and selflessness. Additionally, since biblically the star leads to Christ, the language here implies that the woman at the end of his journey is in a sense Christ. In other words she can be seen as having a Christ-like role.

This has obvious moral significance for them both. We can speculate that the woman’s Christ-like role involves dispensing forgiveness. While the narrator seems unforgiving of the woman’s putative transgression when he says:

‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’,

it would be Christ-like for her to forgive him his actual transgression. His ‘following the southern star’ would then amount to his approaching her position of being forgiving. (A beginning would be for him to pay attention to her rather than saying ‘I have heard it all’.)

The second line of the above couplet associates the narrator himself with Christ by way of the word ‘crossed’. It suggests that in making the journey across the river for the sake of the woman, he has undergone the sort of sacrifice his spiritual renewal requires. Furthermore, what the narrator characterises as drowning in the river might otherwise be seen as baptism – spiritual renewal resulting from his effort to be with the woman again. Taken figuratively, his journey to the woman requires the discomfort represented by drowning in poison. The discomfort, in moral terms, is that of admitting his guilt and of a willingness to forgive what he sees as her guilt. While he’s understandably hostile to drowning in poison, his success with the woman requires he undergo that discomfort which at the same time would amount to his spiritual renewal.

Other Religious Imagery

It is apparent, then, that although the narrator gives the impression that there’s no hope for him, religious imagery makes it clear that this is not the case. This section will be primarily concerned with images not mentioned so far, either in the main text or the footnotes.6

Positive imagery:

In the seventh verse there’s a further way in which it’s possible to see the woman as representing Christ. In being strong enough to make the narrator go blind, she is like the bright light which resulted in Paul’s conversion. As such she can again be seen as a conduit to the narrator’s own spiritual renewal.

Just as the narrator misinterprets the task ahead of him as ‘drownin’ in the poison’, so he misinterprets his life when he complains he’s ‘got no future, got no past’. A state of having no future and no past is one of timelessness or Eternity. The narrator’s comment amounts, then, to dramatic irony. Although he doesn’t realise it, under the Christ-like guidance of the woman he has the opportunity of achieving what in Christian terms is called Eternal Life.

Negative imagery:

While a number of religious images are used to represent hope for the narrator, others represent the opposite. The most obvious religious image drawing attention to the negative side of the narrator’s character is:

‘… the devil’s in the alley …’,

By identifying himself with the devil, if that’s what he’s doing, the narrator is unconsciously recognising his moral limitations.

Similarly the word ‘raised’ in the line:

‘I was raised in the country, I been working in the town’

suggests that a selfish, uncaring attitude associated with the city has replaced a more selfless one. This is because ‘raised’, with its religious connotations of new spiritual life, is being associated with somewhere other than the city where the narrator has been. That urban living and new spiritual life do not go together is made clear by the association, through rhyme, of ‘town’ with ‘down’ in the line which follows:

‘I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

 –  ‘down’ being the opposite of ‘raised’.

The reference to fire in:

‘Sky full of fire …’

also suggests that the narrator’s behaviour is contravening the will of God. Various biblical references treat fire as a heavenly punishment for the wicked (e.g. 2 Kings I, Luke 9.54 and Revelation 8.5)

While overall the religious imagery reflects the narrator’s character by reflecting his many faults, the positive images suggest that there is hope for him. The overall effect, however, is to suggest that the narrator is on a knife edge – ‘walking the line’ between moral success and failure.7


Since the song was apparently originally intended for Time Out of Mind, it’s not surprising that the narrator comes across as hopelessly inadequate and lacking in self-esteem. For most of the song he’s not really admitting responsibility for the loss of the woman, and he seems to assume getting her back is a lost cause. While we’re given no reason to suppose he’s not right in this, beyond a tactical move involving a proposition of marriage he’s made little effort to win her back. Instead he resorts to exaggerating the effect his loss has had on him while assuming that it falls to the woman to demean herself by admitting a guilt which is every bit as much his.

There is some hope for him, however. He does accept some responsibility for his loss in recognising that it wouldn’t have happened if he’d returned to the woman earlier. And towards the end of the song, when he speaks of having painted himself into a corner, he seems to be accepting full responsibility. Some of the religious imagery also implies that there is hope for him. Nevertheless the final verse leaves us with his unjustified assumptions that he can be unforgiving towards the woman, and that things can never be the same again.



1. Some phrases in the song echo those of T.S.Eliot’s The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock. Like Prufrock the narrator is not doing what he knows he should do to further a relationship which, in the narrator’s case, it seems he has already betrayed. I’m not suggesting that the similarities are generally more than coincidence; it may just be that Dylan had Eliot’s words at the forefront of his mind as he wrote the song. I can’t see that recognising them helps elucidate the song’s meaning beyond perhaps showing that they have themes in common. It might be the case, for example, that Dylan’s narrator should be concerned to ‘spit out the butt ends of [his] days and ways’. The Eliot phrases are extra-indented below:

‘Time is pilin’ up’ (Verse 1):
‘And indeed there will be time’

‘I have heard it all’ (Verse 5):
‘For I have known them all already, known them all’

‘I’m gonna look at you ‘til my eyes go blind’ (Verse 7):
‘The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase’

‘I’m drowin’ in the poison …’ (Verse 9):
‘Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’

‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’ (Verse 12):
‘To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—’

‘ways’, ‘days’ and ‘hand’ passim:
‘Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?’

           ‘There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands’

2. See the Religious Imagery section for suggestions about how the woman can be taken to represent both God and Christ.

3. Muddy Waters uses the phrase ‘another mule kicking in your stall’ in Long Distance Call. Apparently it means that a woman has another man.

4. The expression ‘days are numbered’ is biblical and is followed by ‘there is hope for a tree, when it is cut down, that it will grow again’ (Job 14:5-7). The implication for the narrator is that whatever he has done to destroy his prospects can be undone. In part the song concerns the limited extent to which he achieves this undoing.

5. Although he seems to be addressing the woman, it’s more likely he’s just imagining a conversation with her. Had he actually said what he seems to be saying, he would have gone some way towards doing the very thing he claims he could never do.

6. From the start the narrator’s life is presented as a moral journey using the Christian concept of ‘the way’. Thus the song begins:

‘Every step of the way …’

and the last words before the final refrain are:

‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way

In the second verse the narrator, supposedly stuck in the city, is:

‘… trying to get away

The effect of these ‘way’ references is to draw attention to the spiritual progress the narrator is either attempting to make and has already made.

7. There’s a reminder of the garden of Eden in:

‘Walkin’ through the leaves, fallin’ from the trees
Feelin’ like a stranger nobody sees’

The narrator’s ambiguous moral position is represented by the association with Adam and Eve in the garden on the one hand, and God feeling ignored while walking in the garden on the other (cf. Genesis 3.8).

Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum


The song deals with doctrine, both Judeo-Christian and Buddhist, while also being in debt to traditional nursery rhyme. The themes are love and theft, as one might expect from the album title, as well as desire, suffering, and redemption.

Stylised characters and third person narrative initially lull the listener into imagining a comfortable distance between him and the song’s fictional world of bitterness and betrayal.  We perhaps don’t even notice the descriptions which place the protagonists as much in our world as in that of the bible. But when unexpectedly in the seventh verse the third person gives way to the first and second, the relevance of the fictional pair to the lives and fate of the listener becomes obvious.

Adam and Eve

It’s from the Judeo-Christian perspective that the song begins. The two warring nursery rhyme characters represent humanity throughout time, first appearing as Adam and Eve disobeying God, and then as their offspring, the brothers Cain and Abel.1 Such can be gleaned from their living ‘in the Land of Nod’ to which Cain was banished after his act of fratricide.

As the former pair, they’re blessed in Eden with everything they need – ‘All that and more and then some’. Yet they repay God’s generosity by:

‘… throwing knives into the tree’,

the wrongness of the act being emphasised when the trees in Eden are subsequently referred to as ‘stately’. As punishment they are made to suffer expulsion and, as Cain and Abel, impoverishment, there being a ‘lot of things they’d like they never would buy’.

On one interpretation the tree is the Tree of Life. Accordingly the crime resulting in their expulsion from Eden will be the destruction of their own spiritual lives, and – as will become apparent – those of their descendants. But one can also assume that the tree is the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil whose forbidden fruit they ate, and which enabled them to:

‘… know the secrets of the breeze’

–  God’s secrets. However it’s interpreted, the song explores the consequences for humanity of this attempt at God-like status. One is that their offspring inherit their guilt. Thus spiritually the pair are dead – ‘two big bags of dead man’s bones’

Tweedle Dum

Tweedle Dum is by far the more dominant of the nursery rhyme characters. He is capable of co-operating with Tweedle Dee. And when they work together,

‘… their noses to the grindstones’,

they end up owning a brick and tile company, and:

‘… making hay’.

But only, as the proverb has it, while the sun shines. As soon as things stop going well, Tweedle Dum ceases to co-operate. He rejects his counterpart, demonstrating a concern only for himself:

‘Your presence is obnoxious to me’

and later,

‘I’ve had too much of your company’.

While this can be taken to mean he’d rather Tweedle Dee wasn’t with him, equally it can be taken to be referring to the company they jointly run. Not only, then, is he rejecting his partner, but by saying ‘your company’ instead of ‘our company’, he’s landing Tweedle Dee with his, Tweedle Dum’s, share of the responsibility for their financial state.

His behaviour is equally reprehensible when things are going well. Where the context is the voyage to the sun, which he sees perhaps as financial success rather than redemption, he announces:

‘His Master’s voice is calling me’

The use of Master in the context of calling, together with its capitalisation, suggest it’s God he has in mind. He’s claiming for himself alone the credit for the pair’s success. The announcement can be taken to mean ‘God sees fit to reward me and me alone’.

The discreditable behaviour continues when he reduces Tweedle Dee to begging on his hands and knees. To the latter’s plea:

‘Throw me somethin’ mister, please’

he responds with:

‘What’s good for you is good for me’,

apparently to justify keeping all the food for himself. Ironically what he says is true in another way which serves to show him up. The consequences of living morally would also be as good for him as for Tweedle Dee.

The expression ‘His Master’s voice’ is fitting for two reasons. First, Tweedle Dee, in begging on his hands and his knees, has become like the dog in the painting by Francis Barraud, used as the HMV logo, sadly dependant on its dead master. The difference is that Tweedle Dum is spiritually rather than physically dead.

Secondly, ‘Master’ and ‘mister’ are variations of the same word. So, while on one level ‘Master’ in ‘His Master’s voice’ can refer to God, on another it refers to the person Tweedle Dee is addressing – namely Tweedle Dum. In keeping him subjugated, Tweedle Dum has become Tweedle Dee’s master. The voice calling him is just a representation of his own self importance.

By the end of the song Tweedle Dum has not developed morally. Rather than making up for the sin committed in Eden, he’s presented as compounding it. In Eden they were throwing knives at a tree. Now, in the land of Nod, Tweedle Dee’s innocent use of ‘throw’ in ‘Throw me something …’, reminds us of this.  This seems to imply that Tweedle Dum is likely to knife Tweedle Dee. But not just him. He’s also a threat to the listener – you and me:

‘He’ll stab you where you stand’

Tweedle Dee

Tweedle Dee is Abel to Tweedle Dum’s Cain. Put upon, he nevertheless comes across as pathetic, demeaning himself by begging for scraps like a dog. In response to all four of Tweedle Dum’s self-regarding announcements he says nothing. It’s as if he isn’t there. By the end of the song he’s just:

‘… a sorry old man’

– sorry in the sense of ‘pathetic’.

Nevertheless a number of things suggest there’s hope for him. These are the absence of Tweedle Dum’s vices in his character, his apparently having initiated the honest brick and tile business (disparaged by his counterpart as ‘your company’), and his ending up as a ‘sorry’ old man, if ‘sorry’ is taken to mean apologetic.

And the fact that he’s reduced to being on ‘his hands and his knees’ when he’s begging at least hints at hope – ‘hands’ reminding us of an earlier reference to trusting ‘the hands of God’. Whereas Tweedle Dum’s pride caused him to associate himself with God, it is the narrator’s choice of expression rather than any self-centredness about Tweedle Dee, which causes us to make the connection between the latter and God.

A Voyage to the Sun

The fate of the two is represented as a journey:

‘… a voyage to the sun’

If ‘sun’ is to be read ‘Sun’, what they’re undertaking is a return journey, a journey back to God. It’s an Odyssean journey full of temptations and pitfalls.2 Later we’re told:

‘They seem determined to go all the way’

but if this means all the way to the Sun,  by the end of the song it’s still unclear whether the journey will be completed successfully.3

Since Cain and Abel, and humanity generally, have inherited the guilt of original sin from Adam and Eve, the ‘voyage to the Sun’ is not only their progress towards redemption, but humanity’s. The song therefore concerns every single one of us. It is the progress of each of us through life.


It would seem that the pair can be seen as aspects of a single person. This is indicated by a range of otherwise unlikely similarities. Not only do their names suggest a degree of identity, but much of the time they’re presented as indistinguishable. They both, throw knives, they’ve both ‘got their noses to the grindstone’, they both live in the Land of Nod, they’re both ‘trustin’ their fate to the hands of God’, they both ‘pass by so silently’ … and so on. It’s consistent with this, then, that when they’re described as ‘two big bags of dead man’s bones’ that it’s ‘dead man’s’, in the singular, and not ‘dead men’s’ which is used to describe them.

A reason for seeing the pair as a single person may be that unity is necessary for their moral redemption. Seen as two separate individuals, each requires the other – the company (whether interpreted as their business venture or their companionship) will only work if one doesn’t drop out.  Yet Tweedle Dum ends up not wanting to have anything to do with either Tweedle Dee or the business. This amounts to saying that Tweedle Dum would be incapable of completing the journey to the Sun on his own.  However, as part of a joint whole comprising both his and Tweedle Dee’s characteristics, ‘he’ – that is, the person of which they are both a part – can be redeemed. Although in such a case the person comprising both aspects will be the one who’ll ‘stab you where you stand’, equally it’s that whole person who’ll be the ‘sorry’ – that is repentant – old man.

Seen in this way, the song represents the moral battle that each of us fights. It’s not a fight against an external enemy, but a fight against our own internal imbalance; a fight to prevent  the supremacy of one or other parts of our character. The victory of good over evil will thus be our successful  integration of the warring parts of our characters into a ‘happy harmony’.


There are hints, however, that the person the pair represents is having difficulty in going ‘all the way’ to the Sun. Their passing by ‘so silently’, is sinister. Why do they need to be silent? Thieves need to be silent, and there are numerous suggestions that, in line with the album’s title, the pair survive through theft.  Accordingly, when we’re told:

‘Lots of things they’d like they never would buy’,

this can be taken in two ways. First it suggests that they’re being abstemious, ensuring they’ll have enough money to retire by resisting the temptation to spend unnecessarily. But equally it implies they simply steal what they want. The line quoted above is preceded by an example of what they ‘never would buy’ – a pecan pie. The pie is in front of them ‘in the window’. They need only reach in through the window and grab it.

They also have a financial motive for theft.

‘They’re one day older and a dollar short
They’ve got a parade permit and a police escort’

On one level the police escort suggests they’re doing well. They’re sufficiently celebrated to require police protection Yet being ‘a dollar short’ suggests the need for money, and therefore the need to steal. The ‘police escort’ now takes on a different significance; it’s what follows their arrest.

There’s also a reference to their ‘lying low’. Lying low is not something honest people need to do.

That there are alternative interpretations of ‘Lots of things they’d like, they never would buy’ and ‘police escort’ will be considered further below.

Suffering and Desire

The pair suffer. The cause of this suffering is their original sin in Eden, their giving in to desire. That desire afflicts them in the Land of Nod too is made explicit when we’re told they’re taking:

‘… a streetcar named Desire’

The phrase is the title of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play in which the heroine Blanche’s suffering is attributed to sexual desire. Such desire causes her decline into madness and her removal to an asylum. This decline is foreshadowed by a journey she takes on two streetcars, or trams, called Desire and Cemeteries.  The latter brings her to a street called Elysian Fields, named after the abode of the dead.  The point is that desire ends in spiritual death.

In the song a desire for knowledge similarly leads to the pair’s expulsion from Eden and the loss of eternal life. Further suffering results in the form of work, poverty, arrest, and Tweedle Dum’s dominance over Tweedle Dee. The last of these reflects God’s prediction that Eve’s desire will end in marital conflict:

‘Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’ (Gen 3.17)

Under Tweedle Dum’s rule, Tweedle Dee has to beg for scraps.4

A Noble Truth

That desire is the root of their suffering is further made clear by the narrator’s announcement that:

‘… a childish dream is a deathless need
And a noble truth is a sacred dream’

The childish dream is a dream for the fulfilment of sensual and materialistic desire. This dream, though ‘deathless’ in the sense that it permanently afflicts humanity, is nevertheless the cause of spiritual death. Its effects, however, can be cancelled by a different dream, a sacred one. The sacred dream, far from being childish, is ‘a noble truth’ (which, as will become clear, involves desire). Alas, the pair are like children – ‘babies sitting on a woman’s knee’ – and so are in thrall to the childish dream, not the sacred one. Yet it requires commitment to the sacred one if they’re to end their suffering.

The expression ‘noble truth’ suggests that the sacred dream is for the fulfilment of one of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths. The second of these gives desire as the cause of suffering because desire can never be fulfilled. The fourth suggests how suffering can be overcome – essentially by not giving in to desire.5

Acting in accordance with the Four Noble Truths by not giving in to desire is an option the pair has. This is made apparent by the line:

‘Lots of things they’d like they never would buy’,

and the phrase:

‘… police escort’

Each, as mentioned above, is open to a dual interpretation. On one interpretation, the pair are frugal and successful. On another, they’re thieves who fall foul of the law. These different interpretations can be taken as representing alternative choices which they have. They can give in to desire, or resist it. And depending on which they choose, they will either suffer or avoid suffering.

My Pretty Baby

Tweedle Dum’s and Tweedle Dee’s happiness will depend, then, on their ability to avoid giving in to desire. That their choice is that of humanity generally is once more made clear in lines which themselves suggest desire, but which concern the modern-day narrator and his wife or girlfriend:

‘My pretty baby, she’s lookin’ around
She’s wearin’ a multi thousand dollar gown’

The implication is not only that the woman desires sex outside her relationship, but that she’s also trying to satisfy a desire for luxury. That she’ll be unsuccessful is apparent from her similarity with Blanche in ‘Streetcar’, who is not only suffering as a result of her sexual appetite but, like this woman, is accused of having invested ‘thousands of dollars’ in clothes.6

The expression ‘My pretty baby’ associates the narrator’s girlfriend with Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, in that they too are babies:

‘… babies sitting on a woman’s knee’.

As Cain and Abel they have inherited guilt from Adam and Eve, and as Adam and Eve they are directly responsible for that inheritance. The woman’s identification with them, then, identifies her, as a representative of humanity now, with both the originators and the first inheritors of original sin.7


The only explicit reference to love in the song  occurs in the sixth verse where the narrator    again abandons the third person perspective and enters the song as a character:

‘Well, the rain beating down on my window pain
I got love for you and it’s all in vain’

Who he’s addressing is not immediately clear. It could be his wife or girlfriend, or the listener, or even Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dum outside the window. Since there’s no way of deciding, it can be taken as a general expression of love, and of disappointment that the love has not been acted upon. This puts the narrator in the position of God regretting either Adam and Eve’s treachery or the failure of humanity to seek redemption. Having said that, the lines which then follow link the narrator’s disappointment to the woman. He loves her, but she repays it by indulging her adulterous and materialistic desires.8

If the narrator does represent a kind but disappointed God, then God’s in for another disappointment. One imagines Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee in the pouring rain pathetically looking in through the window – and seeing the pecan pie there for the grabbing.

The verse continues:

‘Brains in the pot, they’re beginning to boil
They’re dripping with garlic and olive oil’

The meal is wholesome and delicious (perhaps), but not lavish. It suggests that while the narrator and his woman might represent the opposite qualities of Godliness and excess respectively,  together they achieve moderation. And while singly, one is loving and the other cruel, taken together they represent the harmonious existence of the sort that Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee need to maintain in order to achieve happiness.


Although theft plays a more obvious part, the song is primarily about love. This is in part God’s love for mankind, rejected in Eden by Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve’s mistake was to assume that the acquisition of knowledge and physical immortality would render them at one with, God. They failed to realise that to really become like God, they needed to demonstrate love through obedience. The same mistake is made by mankind generally, as represented by the nursery rhyme characters. Tweedle Dum destroys Tweedle Dee, but fails to realise that in so doing he is destroying himself, the two of them effectively being aspects of one person’s character. Further, the whole person is seen to lack love by its propensity for thieving.

We find the same lack of love demonstrated by the narrator’s wife or girlfriend. In her case it’s expressed through adulterous sexual desire as well as desire for material wealth. Through her, the pair cease just to represent a single individual but can be seen as representing all of us. Just as Tweedle Dum’s and Tweedle Dee’s lack of love was self-destructive, so is hers and ours. The solution mooted by the song is to adopt the Buddhist proscription against giving in to desire. The repudiation of desire, both adulterous and material, will not only promote happiness but will amount to redemption.



  1. Coincidentally or not, the metamorphosing of characters gives the song a Joycean feel.
  2. Thanks to Kees de Graaf for an unintentional prompt.
  3. The expression ‘the way’ suggests how they might get to the sun – by adopting a Christian outlook. Compare ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ John 14.6.
  4. ‘He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever’ Genesis 3. According to, BibleRef.com ‘Apparently, the fruit of the Tree of Life would provide physical immortality to Adam and Eve. For their own good and the good of all, God would not allow this. To be spiritually dead while remaining physically alive forever could only bring endless suffering’.
  5. More specifically desire, and hence suffering, are to be eliminated by following the Eightfold Path which ‘consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (‘meditative absorption or union’)’ (Wikipedia: Noble Eightfold Path).
  6. A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 2.
  7. The woman is further identified with the pair in that Tweedle Dee:
    ‘… is on his hands and his knees’.
    His being on ‘a woman’s knee’ and at the same time, on his own knees, suggests an identity between him and her. We’re not told directly that she will suffer through her giving in to desire, but the identification with him implies it.
  8. That the narrator is in some ways to be identified with God, is suggested by the song’s events seemingly being presented from an eternal standpoint. There’s no clear chronological order to them. Their pair’s retirement is impending in verse three, yet they’re still in the Garden of Eden in verse five. Other verses that I’ve assumed allude to events in the land of Nod might equally have occurred in Eden. One effect might be to seem to imply that there’s no time at which redemption or damnation can be taken to apply or not apply.


Buckets Of Rain


An amusing and touching little love song? No. It’s better seen as an unintentionally, and for the most part damning, indictment of the narrator out of his own mouth. Despite what he says, there’s not any real love in it. Instead the narrator merely attempts to convince the woman, and perhaps himself, that he’s acting to further their relationship, while coming across as deeply flawed and untrustworthy. In this way the song provides a realistic portrayal of human psychology. What saves him from total condemnation, perhaps, is our recognition that in condemning him, we’d be condemning ourselves.


One positive characteristic is the narrator’s humour which he uses both to express and make light of the misery the relationship is causing him. The first verse begins with  hyperbolic, and therefore ludicrous, exaggeration:

‘Buckets of rain
Buckets of tears’.

The ‘rain’ of the first line will be a representation of the narrator’s feelings, given what he tells us in the rest of the song. What’s absurd is the turning of this to ‘buckets of tears’. Nobody weeps that much however sorry they’re feeling for themselves. Immediately even this absurdity is outdone by the even more ludicrous:

‘Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears’.

It should, of course, by eyes that they’re coming out of. The idea is presumably that he’s full to the brim with tears which keep overflowing. But do they overflow into buckets, or are the buckets themselves emerging from his ears?

Up till now at least the watery content of the buckets hasn’t stretched the imagination. No longer! The fourth line requires us to imagine not only buckets in an impossible place, but buckets with an impossible content:

‘Buckets of moonbeams in my hand’.

The moonbeams are presumably to be taken as an overly romantic reference to the narrator’s feelings. As he more prosaically puts it:

‘I got all the love…
you can stand’.1

The effect of reusing the buckets metaphor is to associate the depth of his feelings – ‘all the love’ – with his misery, represented by the tears.

So far we might sympathise with the narrator, at least to the extent that he’s putting a brave face on things. If the first verse seems to be setting the tone for the rest of the song, though, we’re quickly disillusioned. If we laugh at all in the later verses, we laugh at the narrator’s expense.



The narrator is thoroughly self-centred. Even his love for the woman is declared in a way which egotistically focuses on himself:

I got all the love…’

And when he at last mentions her, it’s to compare her unfavourably with himself. He’s got so much love for her, she wouldn’t be able to ‘stand’ any more.

Love for him isn’t so much an attitude towards someone. It’s reified. It’s a thing, a thing you can have a lot of. It’s a thing which, represented by moonbeams, can be carried in a bucket. The same applies when he describes her negative effect on him. Rather than her making him miserable, he says:

‘Everything about you is bringing me

Misery is a thing which is brought. In the final verse, life too is reified. It’s dismissed as ‘a bust’.

The self-centredness is apparent again in the third and fourth verses. Three lines in the third begin with ‘I like’ (or its abbreviation ‘Like’), and in the fourth a further two lines contain ‘I like’.  There’s no hint of consideration for what the woman might like. And what does the narrator like? He likes:

‘… the cool way you look at me’.

He’s still the centre of his own attention.2

The verse ends with what might sound like an expression of commitment to the woman, but in context probably betrays a concealed desperation:

‘I’m taking you with me, honey baby
When I go’.

This is the hard side of his character, alluded to in the second verse. It’s probably not that he intends to forcefully take her with him, but that it comes naturally to him to assume he should be in control.

Pretence of Affection

The structure of the song serves to emphasise the self-centredness and bitterness of the narrator. The penultimate line of each of the first two and final two verses ends with ‘honey baby’, a term of apparent endearment for the woman. The middle verse does not.  Instead it ends:

‘Everything about you is bringing me

If the term representing endearment, ‘honey baby’, can be omitted, one wonders how seriously it is intended on the four occasions it is used. Furthermore, its absence in the middle verse draws attention to the coldness and bitterness of the words which replace it. Not only does the narrator criticise the woman, which is enough anyway to make us doubt that he has ‘all the love’ she can stand, but he’s criticising everything about her.

Occurring in the central verse, the omission of ‘honey baby’ is pivotal. It indicates just how central the narrator’s self-interest is to him. And conversely, the presence of the phrase in just the outer verses indicates how peripheral to him the woman is.

Meek and Hard

 The narrator has a confused idea about what’s going to make him seem attractive. He claims to have been:

‘… meek
And hard like an oak’,

as if the two might be compatible. But the whole point about being meek is that you recognise that it’s better than being hard. Being meek is inconsistent with being hard, not its complement. In mentioning them in the same breath, the narrator seems to be treating both as positive attributes.

There’s little evidence of meekness in the song. But if ‘hard’ means domineering, he’s certainly that now, not just in the past as he implies. He lets it be known what he expects of the woman, and when she’s met his expectations:

‘You do what you must do and ya do it well

That this hardness is likely to be part of his problem is apparent when in verse two he says :

‘I seen pretty people disappear like smoke
Friends will arrive, friends will disappear’.3

The repetition of ‘disappear’ in connection with friends suggests that the first reference likewise is about friends, former friends, perhaps former girlfriends. If the latter, the future tense – ‘will arrive’/‘will disappear’ – betrays his expectation that the present woman is going to leave him. In other words, he has no expectation that this present relationship will last. One suspects that he’s right.

The admission about having been both meek and hard has an air of desperation about it. He’s really telling us that having tried both to no avail, he doesn’t know what else he can do.


If it is desperation which caused him to try being both ‘meek’ and ‘hard’, he tries to hide it. The second verse ends with the narrator attempting to build himself up in the woman’s eyes by contrasting himself favourably with those who’ve disappeared. He assures her that he’s not about to disappear from her:

‘If you want me, honey baby
I’ll be here’

The attempt to contrast himself with those who’ve left doesn’t work. By saying ‘I’ll be here’, he puts the onus on the woman to do something to further the relationship while he remains static. He’s leaving all the work to her, while not being prepared to lift a finger himself.

This is not the only example of the narrator’s inactivity. He never tells us what he does, presumably because there is nothing to tell.  Instead, in order to impress he has to rely on dubious claims about what he’s already done – ‘been meek’ and ‘hard like an oak’ (if those count as doing) – and on vague promises about what he’s going to do in the future – ‘I’ll be here’, ‘I’ll do it for you’.

By contrast, the woman comes across as continuously active – she moves, looks, loves, does what she must. Even the references to her smile and fingertips in the middle verse suggest she’s ongoingly active in pleasing him.


Another negative character trait becomes apparent in the final verse – pessimism:

‘Life is sad
Life is a bust’4

It’s a generalisation for which the narrator provides no justification. What he has in mind by ‘life’, presumably, is not life generally, but his own life. Nevertheless, by generalising he convinces himself that all life is bad. His motive, one imagines, is to prevent his own deficiencies making him seem more of a failure than the rest of us.

This pessimistic attitude he has to his life, is further reflected in a refusal to actively try to make it better:

 ‘All you can do …’

 he assumes,

‘… is do what you must’.

But why is it? His wording here is tellingly reminiscent of that of the narrator in Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. Lily, we’re told, ‘did whatever she had to do’. But there’s a difference. The emphasis there is on Lily’s sense of responsibility. Here, this narrator emphasises what he takes to be the impossibility of going beyond his responsibilities:

All you can do …’.

– ‘you’ seeming to be a reference to himself. In the next line, where the reference of ‘you’ subtly changes to the woman, it’s noticeable that the ‘all’ is missing:

‘You do what you must do and ya do it well’.

Not only does the woman do what’s required, but there’s no implication that she limits her activity to this. As with Lily, the emphasis here is on the woman’s going beyond her responsibilities.

The song ends with the narrator again covering up his deficiencies. He makes a promise:

‘I’ll do it for you …’,

doubtless hoping this will make him look active. But the giveaway is the pronoun ‘it’. ‘It’ can only refer back to what he must do anyway. If so, he’s pessimistically assuming that anything more than what he must do can’t be done.


The most enigmatic lines of the song are in the fourth verse:

‘Little red wagon
Little red bike
I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like
I like the way you love me strong and slow’

All four lines are closely interrelated. The third line looks forwards to the fourth which, as we’ll see, is an attempt to meet criticism. It also looks backwards to the previous two lines, which establish what the narrator means by ‘monkey’. It could well be that it’s because the narrator expects to be criticised for being a ‘monkey’, that in the third line he explicitly denies it.

The ‘little red wagon’ and ‘little red bike’ of the first two lines explain the monkey reference of the third line in that these are toys that a literal monkey would play with. In the present context of a relationship they stand for women – sexual playthings the narrator feels he can play with despite his denial that he’s a monkey. That these toys are ‘red’ suggests either that the women are prostitutes, or that he sees himself as having no more commitment to them than to a prostitute. Since both toys are described as little and red, the reason he chooses the one he does must be down to the only significant difference between them –  and that’s the difference between a vehicle to passively ride in, and one to actively ride on. From what he says about ‘the way you love me’, we can assume that he sees the present woman as represented by the former.

The fourth line:

‘I like the way you love me strong and slow’

confirms that by ‘monkey’ he means someone taking a frivolous or purely sexual approach to a relationship. In denying he’s a monkey, he denies that he’s motivated just by sex. But why does he need to deny it? Obviously the woman’s either accused him of it, or he’s expecting such an accusation. She might be getting the impression he’s just motivated by sex , he says, but really she’s being misled by his liking for the ‘strong and slow’ way she loves him.

This is unconvincing, and for two reasons. First, the context (‘strong and slow’) makes it clear he’s using ‘the way you love me’ as no more than a euphemism for ‘the way you accede to my sexual desires’. In so doing he’s actually admitting the truth of her criticism while disingenuously making it seem as if his interest is ‘love’. Secondly, this euphemistic use just helps confirm what we’ve already divined from the wagon and bike metaphors.


While the narrator is somebody with whom we could warm to on account of his bizarre sense of humour, and perhaps even have some sympathy with on account of his failings, it’s those failings which dominate the song. Among these are his egotism, pessimism, inaction, and failure to understand what a relationship requires of him. Throughout, there’s a pretence of affection but, in the middle verse, the mask briefly slips and a cruel, underlying bitterness emerges. The penultimate verse contains a hopeless attempt to disguise his true motivation, and by the end of the song he’s resorting to vague, unconvincing promises of commitment and generosity.


1.     Sometimes these lines appear as:

‘You got all the love, honey baby
I can stand’.

The other version seems better, though, being more consistent with the narrator’s character in the rest of the song. It has him bragging, whereas this version has him presenting himself as weak.

2.    He also likes the way she moves her lips, suggesting perhaps that he’s more
interested in superficial appearances than listening to what she’s saying. In another
version of the song ‘lips’ is replaced with ‘hips’, but ‘lips’ seems preferable. While the
line with ‘hips’ equally suggests a superficial interest, it doesn’t get across the
narrator’s lack of interest in what she’s got to say to him.

3.   That they ‘disappear like smoke’ perhaps implies he’d made enemies of them, the
phrase seeming to be an unconscious reference to Psalm 37.20 ‘… and the enemies of
the Lord …  into smoke shall they vanish away’.

4.   The phrase ironically suggests part of the narrator’s true interest in the relationship.


Shelter From The Storm


The narrator is clearly Christ, and therefore God, or at least an aspect of him. But so too is the woman. At the same time each is human, with good points as well as imperfections.  The narrator suffers a desire to give in to temptation, and so not fulfil his divinely appointed role. The woman, on the other hand, represents the comfortable way of life the narrator is tempted to pursue. While she extols the virtue of generosity, this is tempered by her apparent commitment to a life of comparative luxury. Between them they represent to different extents two competing elements in Christ’s character, the desire for worldly comfort and a selfless acceptance of duty.

The narration seems to take place after the resurrection, but prior to the ascension since, while there are references to the crucifixion, at the end of the song the narrator is still living in what to him is a ‘foreign country’ – earth as opposed to heaven.

Arguably the song, in focusing on Christ’s human side, presents him as a more plausible redeemer than the Christ of the gospels, while simultaneously allowing for his divinity when viewed from an eternal perspective.

In support of this view I’ll give reasons for seeing both the narrator and the woman as a partially divine, partially human Christ.  While the woman is imperfect, the fallible human side will appear more dominant in the narrator and will remain so throughout the song. While he never consciously appreciates his own divine potential, he implicitly recognises it when he wants to return to a perfect past. What he fails to appreciate is that his sacrifice has already helped bring about this perfect state. Whereas he is unable to appreciate this from his earthly perspective, from an eternal one he, the woman and God already form a united whole.

The Narrator As God And Man

The narrator is God or, at least, God-like. That this is so is suggested in his language. When recounting his suffering in verse two, he says:

‘I was burned out from exhaustion …
Poisoned in the bushes …’

The use of  ‘burned’ and ‘bushes’ associates the narrator with God since it reminds us of God’s appearance to Moses in the form of a burning bush (Exodus 3). He also says he was ‘blown out’, thereby representing himself as a light – a traditional symbolic representation of God.

However, it’s as a man with a man’s fallibilities that the narrator is mostly presented in the song. His status as man is emphasised by his comment about:

‘… men who are fighting to be warm’.

This is because his initially positive reaction to the woman’s offer of shelter suggests that he too is fighting to be warm.

Another line which seems to allude to his human nature is the question:

‘Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn?’

In the absence of any other male addressee, it would seem that the ‘man’ the narrator apostrophises is himself.

The Narrator As Christ

In addition to being both God and man, the narrator is Christ. The first indication that it’s Christ who is speaking is apparent from the declaration:

‘I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form’

The allusion is to Christ’s forty days in the desert where he’s tempted to abjure his divinely appointed role and give in to worldly ambition. It’s implied that he ‘came in’ from the wilderness in response to the woman’s offer of shelter, safety and warmth:

‘”Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”’.

Another indication that the narrator is Christ is his use of the phrase ‘I got my signals crossed’. In addition to its primary meaning it hints at the narrator’s coming death by crucifixion. And a further indication is in the observation:

‘… the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount’,

assuming that this is self-referential. The deputy is likely to be Christ, God’s deputy, and especially so if the nails are those driven through his feet to attach him to the cross. The preacher too could be Christ and is even more likely to be, given the ‘mount’ reference. The mount can be taken both as Calvary, the fill on which Christ died, and as the ass on which he entered Jerusalem just prior to his arrest and execution.1

Yet this isn’t quite the Christ of the gospels. The negativity implicit in the phrases ‘blackness was a virtue’ and ‘a creature void of form’ suggests he could equally be seen as the devil coming in from the wilderness. This, then, is an imperfect Christ – Christ the man – a thoroughly human Christ who is far from sure he wants to turn his back on worldly comfort.

Further Imperfection

That the narrator’s is imperfect again becomes apparent in the sixth verse after he decides to forgo the offer of hospitality:

‘Now there’s a wall between us, something there’s been lost …’

By the phrase ‘something there’ the narrator probably means the woman. This is indicated by a previous use of the word ‘there’ in:

‘… she was standing there’,

However, the expression ‘something there’ is vague, as if the narrator has only a dim idea about what it is he’s lost. What’s actually missing for him now is the positive aspect of Christ’s character, the generosity of spirit, which the woman represents.


Imperfection is present again in that he never seems fully to have embraced his divine role. This is particularly apparent in the penultimate verse where the ‘lethal dose’ seems to have taken him by surprise. At that point he was still hoping to live, announcing that he’d:

‘… bargained for salvation …’.

Since the salvation he has in mind seems to have been his own survival, rather than the saving of mankind, this too looks like human weakness.


That he’s imperfect the narrator as good as admits when he says that he got his ‘signals crossed’. While he seems to be acknowledging a mistake in having opted for ‘a place that’s always safe and warm’, the phrase could equally refer to his failure to anticipate his crucifixion as well as to his failure to see its importance:

‘But nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts’.

This is the last thing one might expect Christ to say. In fact plenty should matter, not least the task of redeeming mankind.


The narrator’s human imperfection is also apparent in his concern to avoid danger. The woman’s invitation attracted him because:

‘… there was little risk involved’,

– and even though it meant his divine mission being left ‘unresolved’.


And imperfection is apparent again in that his reference to a ‘futile horn’ makes it seem he has no notion of his own ‘second coming’, his return at the end of the world which is to be announced by Gabriel’s horn:

‘And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn’.

He treats the horn blast as if it’s a mere proclamation of death. Furthermore, while he considers the possibility that he might return, he makes clear it’s no more than a possibility:

‘And if I pass this way again, you can rest assured
I’ll always do my best for her, on that I give my word’.

According to traditional Christianity Christ’s second coming is a certainty – not merely an ‘if’. It’s also when he’ll reward the virtuous with eternal life – not just ‘do his best’ for them.

All these imperfections make it clear that the Christ represented by the narrator is a fallible human.

The Woman As God And Christ

Like the narrator, the woman, too, can be seen as embodying aspects of both God and Christ.2

In the final verse the narrator implicitly identifies her with God:

‘If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born’.

If she were just a woman, it’s unlikely that her birth would have been contemporaneous with God’s.

And like the narrator she can be identified with Christ (which in itself would make her one with God). First, we’re constantly reminded of the woman’s generosity which makes her Christ-like:

‘”Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”’

Secondly, in taking the narrator’s burdens, represented by his crown of thorns, onto herself, she literally becomes Christ in that she’s taking on his role.

It’s significant that we’re told that she ‘took‘ his crown of thorns, thus making apparent a contrast between her and the imperfect  narrator who previously ‘took too much for granted’.  In that she acts selflessly, in contrast to the narrator who is more concerned about safety and warmth, and avoiding risk, she is Christ-like in a way that he isn’t

The Woman As Imperfect

Despite her generosity the woman, like the narrator, is not perfect. Just as he suffers from human imperfection, so does she. This is apparent from her wearing:

‘… silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair’.

While the flowers represent her natural side, that the bracelets are silver suggests she’s attracted by luxury. These are perhaps the equivalent of the expensive, seamless garment which Christ was stripped of immediately prior to the crucifixion, and which is alluded to in the penultimate verse:

‘… they gambled for my clothes’.

Also her assumption that it’s acceptable to pursue a quiet life becomes a temptation to the narrator. One set of temptations, by the devil in the wilderness, seems to have been replaced by another temptation from her.


The ideal for both the narrator and the woman might be seen as to become wholly, instead of partially, Christ-like. At present they’re each a duality comprising virtue and imperfection, including virtues and imperfections which the other lacks. Only if they unite will they form a perfect being – the divine Christ – for only then will the narrator’s sacrifice be as consciously chosen as the woman’s, and her attitude be as unmaterialistic as his eventually becomes.

These dualities are reflected in a further duality – God and man.  And this duality is itself reflected in the picture of Christ we get from the narrator’s somewhat cryptic announcement:

‘… the deputy walks on hard nails, the preacher rides a mount’.

‘Hard nails’ represents the side of self-sacrifice associated with the narrator’s crucifixion and the woman’s generosity, whereas riding a mount represents a form of transport associated with the narrator’s desire for comfort and perhaps the woman’s for luxury.

The Wall And The Word

As the narrator looks back, unity between the two aspects of Christ represented by himself and the woman still seems yet to occur. Instead, according to the narrator, a wall separates the one from the other. That the unity is yet to come about may not be the whole truth, however.

Previously, in welcoming the offer of ‘shelter from the storm’, the narrator had been in danger of giving in to his own desire for an easy life. This is reflected in his comment:

‘Not a word was spoke between us …’

There had been, as it were, nothing between them – not even a need for speech – prior to the wall. They’d simply shared the same natural, human, materialistic outlook.

Once the narrator changes tack, however, something does separate their attitudes. The wall which replaces the absence of ‘a word between us’ turns out to be a word. So, where there had been no word, there is now a word:

‘I’ll always do my best for her, on that I give my word’.

On the surface this means that he commits himself to acting generously towards her. However he also seems, unconsciously, to be alluding to the biblical claim,

‘The word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us’ (John 1.14)

in which ‘word’ (Greek ‘logos’) can be taken to mean both God and, in flesh-form, Christ. Thus when ‘give my word’ replaces ‘not a word’, it’s an indication that the narrator- speaking as God – has ceased to be self-centred and – as Christ – has become something given by God to the world.

Although the narrator doesn’t realise it, once he has given himself there is no wall separating him from the woman. His act of generosity coupled with hers amounts to the beginnings of a new unity.2

The Foreign Country And Crossing The Line

The final verse enables us to see what’s been going on both from the narrator’s earthly perspective, and from a heavenly one.

The narrator, Christ, apparently speaking after his resurrection is still:

‘… livin’ in a foreign country’,3

that is, on earth. He’s still a man, and there’s even a hint of human acquisitiveness (reminiscent of his counterpart’s liking for silver bracelets) when he says about beauty (or Beauty):

‘… someday I’ll make it mine’.4

Even so, with the crucifixion over, he’s anticipating ‘crossing the line’ – which might be interpreted as returning to heaven. Meanwhile, he’s dissatisfied. Not only does he have a desire to make beauty his’ – perhaps to possess the woman – but he wants:

‘…to turn back the clock to when God and her were born’.

There are two interesting things about this desire. First, in wanting to return to an ideal past he seems unaware of the significance of his crucifixion. Secondly, his acknowledgement that God and the woman were born together implies that in the distant past they were identical.

The time ‘God and her were born’ would have been either the time of Christ’s birth – the ‘long forgotten morn’ of verse six – or the beginning of time, depending on whether the frame of reference is earth or heaven.  Either way he seems to be treating the woman as having been Christ and therefore as fully identical with God. By turning back the clock, he wants to recreate that identity. And in addition, his desire to make beauty his, can be seen as his wanting to share in that identity.


The narrator seems to acknowledge the desirability of this identity or unity when he says:

‘Beauty walks a razor’s edge …’

The idea seems to be that Beauty – the true, undivided Christ who exists timelessly in heaven – is being split down the middle to become the two aspects of Christ apparent throughout the song. His aim is to restore the unity of Christ, and the unity of Christ with God.

That it is indeed the complete Christ walking the razor’s edge is perhaps corroborated by the use of ‘walks’ in the ‘phrase ‘Beauty walks a razor’s edge. The word ‘walks’ had previously been used in conjunction with both the woman and (arguably) the narrator:

‘She walked up to me so gracefully …’


‘… the deputy walks on hard nails …’


Had he been aware of the significance of the crucifixion, he’d have known that his wish to restore the unity of Christ, and the unity of Christ with God, is unnecessary. There is no need to ‘turn back the clock’ and to make Beauty his. From an eternal perspective his crucifixion and the woman’s generosity have already put an end to their division, thus forming a unified Christ who is identical with God. The clock, as it were, has already been put back, and the line already crossed. The crucifixion has ensured that beauty (the woman), or Beauty (God), is already his.5


The song is doubtless open to other interpretations than the one given here. But even to the extent that this one is justified, it’s still a matter of opinion what it can be said to show. What follows, then, is only a suggestion.

The narrator and the woman are each presented as fallible human beings. To that extent they represent humanity generally – us. The song, I suggest, shows how human beings are to make moral progress or, in religious terms, to achieve redemption. This is achievable without any intervention from a divine Christ. The Christ here is manifestly not divine, at least from an earthly, temporal standpoint. Rather, redemption is achieved by an imperfect man and an imperfect woman who, as a result of the pooling of their moral strengths, and the consequent elimination of their moral weaknesses, become the divine Christ. This is made possible by the narrator and the woman each having strengths and weaknesses which the other lacks.

By the end of the song the narrator and the woman have achieved what their counterpart in the gospels has achieved. Eternally they constitute the divine Christ, while in earthly terms they remain man and woman.



An excellent article by Jochen Markhorst on the Untold Dylan blog yesterday (1.11.18) includes this ‘extra verse’ which seems to have been excluded from the final song:

‘Now the bonds are broken, but they can be retied
By one more journey to the woods, the holes where spirits hide.
It’s a never-ending battle for a peace that’s always torn.
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm’.

My immediate thoughts are as follows. The first line:

‘Now the bonds are broken, but they can be retied’

immediately seems to fit the interpretation I’ve given. ‘Bonds’ is a word used in religious contexts for the covenant. In the song, then, the breaking of the covenant amounts to the need for Christ’s new covenant. And this new covenant is represented by the future bonds being retied.

A second meaning it might have  is that the bonds between the two aspects of Christ, represented by the narrator and the woman, or between Christ-as-man and God, will be retied after the second coming (‘one more journey’). That reunification is hinted at in the final verse, as I’ve discussed above. If the reunification doesn’t occur until the second coming, then it doesn’t occur until the end of time. That is it occurs from an eternal, but not a temporal perspective.

The ‘never-ending battle’ is presumably the battle between good and evil. It’s never ending in temporal terms, but from an eternal standpoint it’s been won. In a similar way the separation between the two aspects of Christ, and between Christ (as man) and God, is never ending in temporal terms, whereas from an eternal standpoint there’s unity. That unity results from the sacrificial action of the narrator (again, as discussed above).

That the ‘peace is always torn’ seems to imply there’ll never be peace, but again this will be just from a temporal perspective (‘never’ being a temporal word). Accordingly, just as the separation of Christ into partially imperfect parts cannot be ended in time, so neither can peace be restored in time. However it can be, and is, restored eternally by the narrator’s sacrifice.

A hint that even though the battle can’t be won, and peace restored, except outside of time, comes with the word ‘torn’. This is because it reminds us of the tearing of the veil in the temple at the time of the crucifixion. This was a symbol of the reunification of man with God achieved by the crucifixion. It was therefore a symbol of the eternal end to the unending battle between good and evil.

Appendix updated 3.11.19



  1. There are numerous other biblical references. An example would be ‘newborn babies wailin’’ which brings to mind Herod’s massacre of the innocents.
  2. Something else which the narrator and the woman have in common is that they’re both presented as hippies – the woman with ‘flowers in her hair’ and the narrator in using ‘man’ to address someone.
  3. Compare ‘… a better country–a heavenly one’ (Hebrews 11.16). Also, the phrase ‘foreign country’ might be a reference to the opening of The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. What seems to be significant here is that earthly, temporal existence is a foreign country compared to eternal (i.e. non-temporal) heavenly existence. What still has to be done in the former is eternal in the latter. Hartley uses the present tense (‘do things’) to suggest that the past is still going on, eternally, despite having gone from a temporal perspective.
  4. Similarly the phrase ‘I’m bound to cross the line’ reminds us of the narrator’s fallibility by implying that he’ll be going too far – giving in to temptation.
  5. That there is no need to turn the clock back is made clear in another way. The ambiguity about whether the phrase ‘when God and her were born’ refers to the beginning of time or merely to the incarnation suggests that there’s no distinction to be made between these apparently distantly separate times. If there’s no distinction between the times, there’s no point in turning the clock back.





If You See Her, Say Hello


All five verses have the narrator wistfully recounting his thoughts about the woman who has left him. Three have him asking someone to act as an intermediary between him and the woman, while the remaining two represent his private thoughts.

A problem about the song concerns the extent to which the narrator wants to revive the relationship. At times he gives the impression of being far less committed than he makes out. The ambivalence may be due to the flaws in his character which precipitated the break up, and which now prevent him knowing how best to proceed.  As will become apparent, he has a skewed idea about what a relationship requires to be successful and is too ready to find excuses and to cast blame. At times his outlook is made to seem quite laughable.

Ambivalent Attitude

It seems at first as if the narrator is pining for his lost lover. He tries to make contact with her, sends her a kiss, says he respects her, and that he suffers both when he hears her name and when he recalls details of the break up. He also emphasises the distance which now exists between them when he says:

‘… she might be in Tangier’.

The effect of ‘Tangier’ is to make her sound inaccessible. Furthermore the very next line:

‘She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, I hear’

reinforces that distance by its use of the words ‘here’ (and the homophone ‘hear’) applying to his vicinity, and ‘there’ applying to hers.

It becomes apparent, though, that he may be less concerned about renewing the relationship than some of these things suggest. It’s particularly significant, for example, that he doesn’t seek out the woman himself, but is happy to contact her – and send a kiss – via an intermediary.

More importantly, perhaps, this lack of concern is supported by his saying to the intermediary:

‘She might think that I’ve forgotten her, don’t tell her it isn’t so’.

That would be an odd message to send someone you were hoping to restart a relationship with. The word ‘don’t’ makes it clear that he wants her to think his attitude has changed. Either he’s putting on a show of indifference, or else he really is indifferent.

That the narrator lacks desire for any personal contact with the woman is corroborated by the matter of fact way he says:

‘And I hear her name here and there as I go from town to town’.

‘Here and there’ is an imprecise expression. It implies a lack of interest in things associated with her.

The apparent lack of concern continues in the final verse:

‘If she’s passin’ back this way, I’m not too hard to find
Tell her she can look me up if she’s got the time’.

There’s no appearance of enthusiasm. That he thinks she might be ‘passin’ back’ shows that the distance between them is not an obstacle to their meeting in person, yet he makes no effort to make the journey himself. He seems happy enough to see her, but no more than that.

That he’s unconcerned about reviving the relationship might seem to conflict with his obvious suffering. The manner of her leaving, we’re told in verse two:

‘… still brings me a chill’,

and, also in verse two:

‘… our separation, it pierced me to the heart’.

Nevertheless, although the feelings may be genuine, the latter phrase tells us just that he was distraught at the time, not that he is now. And the former alludes to no more than a present reaction to the memory of what was at the time an unwelcome event.

Overall, and strangely for what at first appears to be a love song, it would seem that the narrator is prepared to put little effort into reviving the relationship. The question, then, is why?


One answer is that the narrator is exercising cunning. By showing an absence of concern about reviving the relationship, he’s manipulating the intermediary. This is evident when he instructs the latter to:

‘Say for me that I’m alright’.

Why just ‘alright’?  One suspects it’s part of a device to get the woman to feel sorry for him. He puts on the semblance of a brave face, in order for the intermediary to see through it. The aim is to dupe the intermediary into passing on that he’s more unhappy than he seems. The narrator will go up in her estimations because, by not being open about his unhappiness, he’ll appear to be being strong in adversity.


A second explanation for the narrator’s reticence is that it’s not love that’s uppermost in his mind, but resentment.

This resentment comes across in his bitterness. He even uses the word ‘bitter’:

‘Though the bitter taste still lingers on …’

In so doing, his intention is to criticise the woman and this alone suggests he’s not as enamoured by her as he’d like us to believe.

And his claim that the way she left ‘still brings me a chill’ also suggests that it’s not a loving emotion which subsumes him.

Although he attempts to balance these feelings with the claims that:

‘She still lives inside of  me …’

and that he and the woman have:

‘… never been apart’,

these claims come across as too mushily sentimental to be taken as genuine. If she still ‘lives inside’ him at all, it’s in the unintended sense that she rankles him.

One suspects that the real reason for his saying she lives inside of him is to make him seem beyond reproach. He’s attempting to put the blame for his misery fairly and squarely on her.


The absurdity of the narrator’s approach becomes doubly apparent when we notice that the words ‘lives inside of me’ echo those of St Paul:

‘… it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2.20).

First, the narrator seem to be using the woman’s supposed living in him to justify not living his own life, as if she can live his life for him. Secondly, and relatedly, the idea that there is a comparison to be drawn between his love relationship and the relationship with Christ which St Paul is advocating is ludicrous. St Paul is advocating allowing Christian ideals to replace one’s own more selfish outlook. There’s no way that this has a counterpart in a romantic relationship. By using Paul’s language out of context, the narrator makes himself ridiculous.

The ludicrousness of the narrator’s approach is compounded when he goes onto say in verse four:

‘And I hear her name here and there as I go from town to town’

It’s significant that this line echoes the earlier line from verse one:

‘She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, I hear

The lines each contain ‘here’, ‘there’ and the homophone ‘hear’, but whereas the focus in verse one was on the geographical distance between ‘here’ and ‘there’ – their respective vicinities – now, with her supposedly ‘inside of him’, neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’ matters.

The absurdity of this change of focus becomes apparent when we realise that the narrator seems to be unconsciously travestying a further biblical text:

‘Neither shall they say, See here! or, see there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 17.21).

While Luke wants us to believe that ‘here’ and ‘there’ don’t matter if God is within you, the narrator is saying they don’t matter if the woman is within you!

Once more the allusion seems heavily ironic to the point of ridiculous. It doesn’t even make sense for the ex-lover to be primarily within (‘inside of’) the narrator in the way Luke thinks the kingdom of God is. Luke is using metaphorical language to make a point about moral living which simply has no counterpart in a romantic relationship.

Narrator’s and Woman’s Contrasting Attitudes to Life

 While the narrator’s echoing of Paul and Luke seem intended, ridiculously, to imply that he has discovered a superior way of living, it becomes clear that the opposite is the case. For example, in the final verse we encounter the phrase:

‘Sundown, yellow moon …’.

Although presumably chosen for its romantic connotations, this image of nightfall has the unintended effect of associating the narrator with death. And, ironically given the allusions to Paul and Luke, ‘sundown’ (Son-down) suggests spiritual death – death without resurrection.

That the narrator’s approach is tantamount to giving up on life is reinforced by the very next phrase:

‘… I replay the past’.

Instead of looking ahead to a new life, he looks back on the one that’s gone.1

By contrast, the woman looks ahead:

‘She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, I hear’

Spring represents the new life for which she left the narrator. And the reference to ‘living’ in the second half of the line makes it clear that she, unlike the narrator, is going to make the effort to live.

Further Religious Imagery

There’s further irony in what is presumably another (presumably unconscious) biblical reference. The narrator claims that the woman’s departure:

‘… pierced me to the heart’.

This presents her as one of those who tormented Christ, and has him putting himself in the position of Christ. (‘But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water’ (John 19.34). Again it’s hard to see how the implicit glorification of himself, together this time with the denigration of the woman, can be justified.

In fact a further implicit biblical reference suggests the opposite. His offering her a kiss, albeit by proxy, makes her Christ and him a Judas-like tormentor (Mark 14.44).2

Narrator’s Character

That the narrator’s implicit comparisons with himself and Christ are ironic becomes even more apparent from the insights into his character we’re afforded from reading between the lines of what he says. Even things which suggest he’s well intentioned, genuinely bereft, and perhaps deserving of our sympathy, can also be interpreted as highlighting  flaws in his character.


He unintentionally betrays how domineering he can be when he declares:

‘Oh whatever makes her happy, I won’t stand in the way’.

While his intention is the opposite – to let it be known that he won’t be restrictive – the mere fact he raises the subject causes suspicion. Why does he need to offer the assurance, unless to allay fears that he would in fact stand in the way? Furthermore, to the extent that the narrator is out to revive the relationship, and the woman isn’t, it would be difficult to see him as not standing in her way.

It’s also rather odd that he’s offering that assurance to the person he’s addressing. This may be because he’s hoping he’ll pass it on, but it might also be because he expects this person too to see him as obstructive.


A second reason for seeing the narrator as domineering is his reference to:

‘… the night I tried to make her stay’

The expression ‘make her stay’ could be taken as implying compulsion – that he was requiring her to stay whether she wanted to or not.


Thirdly, his approach in the song is itself a sign of an over-dominant character. It comes across as a series of instructions to the addressee – ‘say hello’, ‘say for me’, don’t tell her’,kiss her’, and  ‘Tell her she can look me up …’

Furthermore, in this last case it’s not just the intermediary who is being bossed about. It’s the woman too in that a way of getting in contact is being set out for her. His addition of

‘… if she’s got the time’

seems no more than an insincere attempt to be conciliatory. It’s clear from the end of the immediately preceding line:

‘I’m not that hard to find’,

that he wouldn’t accept lack of time as an excuse for her failing to look him up.


 Further evidence of his domineering character is contained in the line:

‘Always have respected her in doing what she did in gettin’ free’

We might want to applaud the generosity implicit here if we didn’t wonder what precisely the woman can have done to merit his respect. It can’t simply be that she left him, because he’s still bitter about that. The key words would seem to be ‘in gettin’ free’. If so, it must be that he respects her for having escaped, and this can only be because he’d been effectively imprisoning her.


Finally, that he’s domineering comes across from his not shying away from appearing self-critical:

‘Either I’m too sensitive or else I’m getting’ soft’

On the surface this appears as an honest admittance of a fault. However it’s more than that. Not only does it seem to be said in the hope of hearing it denied, so that it’s a covert appeal for sympathy, but – in the absence of any evidence that he’s either too sensitive or soft – it appears calculated to remove any idea that the narrator is dominating. Softness, in particular, suggests the opposite.

False Self-Praise

There’s another type of falsity apparent in the lines leading up to the one about being too sensitive:

‘And I hear her name here and there as I go from town to town
And I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off’

The narrator claims his response to the discomfort of hearing the woman’s name has been ‘to turn it off’. But by his own admission he’s only heard her name ‘here and there’, and presumably over quite a long time since it’s been as a result of traveling to different towns. What, then, has he learned to turn off’? There doesn’t seem to have been very much. Again, rather than actually suffering from constantly hearing the woman’s name (assuming that that’s what ‘it’ refers to), the narrator must be trying to elicit sympathy. It’s not that he’s over-sensitive, so much as that he wants to others to believe that he’s over-sensitive.

There’s further irony here in that despite there being nothing appreciable to turn off, the narrator’s complaining would suggest that he’s not turned anything off anyway.


The narrator Is hard to please. On the one hand he complains that things are getting ‘kind of slow’. On the other he complains that the past ‘all went by so fast’. Both these things might be true. Nevertheless, if he dislikes life slowing down, it’s somewhat odd that he complains when things move quickly. Alternatively, if he prefers things to move quickly, it’s odd that he complains when they slow down.

This suggests that he’s not being wholly honest. Rather than giving an accurate account of his feelings, he may once again be seizing on opportunities to elicit sympathy. For example, if we take the claim that everything went by ‘so fast’ at face value, that in itself might suggest the time he and the woman were together was not as good as he’s making out. The greater the number of happy occasions there were, the more time they would have taken. As it is, there were sufficiently few such occasions for him to know ‘every scene by heart’.

Unduly Romantic

The narrator’s understanding of love seems shallow. One feels that he gets pleasure out of presenting himself as a forsaken lover.

Again he makes himself laughable by taking on the role of the fictitious medieval courtly lover – not just by pining for the woman, but by using an intermediary to intercede for him.3

That he sees himself in a traditional romantic role is apparent when he says:

‘We had a falling out, like lovers often will’

In itself the second clause is redundant.  It’s irrelevant that other lovers are often in the same boat. However, by showing his situation to be typical of theirs the narrator is able to distract from his own responsibility for the break up.

This presenting himself as a romantic occurs again in the final verse:

‘Sundown, yellow moon …’

By using the language of love songs to describe real life, he’s showing he has a rather skewed idea of what a relationship needs to be. And in the light of this it’s hardly surprising that the woman has left him.


This is an unusual love song. The narrator, while apparently pining for his departed lover, seem unenthusiastic about making contact again. Numerous biblical allusions seem to mock his outlook and emphasise the contrast between the woman’s forward-looking, life-affirming approach and his own orientation towards the past.

As the song progresses we become aware of numerous flaws in the narrator’s character which might have contributed to the break up and to the dishonesty of his response to it. He’s bitter, domineering, false, inconsistent and has an over romanticised view of what a loving relationship entails. He seems more concerned with justifying himself and getting his own back than in reviving the relationship.



1. Like Orpheus, and the consequence is the same – failure to bring the woman back.

2. Another biblical reference has him comparing the two of them to man in his ‘fallen’ state:

‘We had a fallin’ out …’

It is this fallen state from which the woman recovers when she begins a new life, but from which he doesn’t when he focuses on his previous life.

He may also be being presented as making a further implicit comparison of himself with Christ – this time Christ’s second coming in the phrase ‘as I make the rounds’.

3. The narrator is thus a counterpart of Chaucer’s Absolon in The Miller’s Tale.






Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts


A number of things suggest that this is not the straightforward tale of love and tragedy it at first seems to be. Instead the song is replete with inconsistencies and ambiguities in which spatio/temporal distinctions and distinctions between one character and another break down.  Who, we wonder, is the mysterious ‘he’ of the first verse who is merely like the Jack of Hearts? Why is it pointed out that he’s standing in the doorway’? Why does Lily bury her dress? And how does one explain the ‘brand new coat of paint’ and the reference to Lily’s father?

There are many other questions one could ask, and there will be other interpretations to the one offered here. Nevertheless by considering just some of the issues, and demonstrating their interrelatedness, it will be possible to show how the song is essentially a moral and psychological study of one person in particular – Lily.

The Narrator

This is the only song on Blood On The Tracks which is narrated entirely from a third person perspective. The narrator here is different by not being the main focus of attention. But, just as with the narrators on the other songs, we should be wary of trusting him. On occasions he is clearly relying on hearsay, presumably due to a lack of first-hand knowledge:

‘… it’s said they got off with quite a haul’,

It was known all around that Lily had Jim’s ring’


‘… they say that it happened pretty quick’.

This should lead the listener to be cautious about accepting other things he says – his judgments, and his accounts of events. We should question whether Big Jim is really to be dismissed as no more than a clever wastrel, whether the narrator’s chummy reference to the robbers as ‘the boys’ isn’t out of order, and whether the events which make up the song really occur at the times and places described.

The Story

On a surface interpretation the song seems to involve four main characters – Lily, Rosemary, the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim. Lily and Rosemary are in a relationship with Big Jim, although it’s left unclear which – if either – is his wife. At the same time both are attracted to a mysterious character called the Jack of Hearts who seems to be associated with a gang of bank robbers. Rosemary murders Big Jim and for this she is hanged at the instigation of a corrupt judge.1

Virtue v Corruption

There is more going on than such a surface interpretation allows, however. In particular there are reasons for seeing the Jack of Hearts as a representation, perhaps an idealisation, in Lily’s eyes of Big Jim. And there are reasons for seeing Rosemary as representing the darker side of Lily. As a result Lily becomes a more complex and more central character than a surface interpretation would suggest.

Lily can be taken as representing virtue. Corruption is rife in the song. Robbers are stealing from a bank. Big Jim is two-timing. Someone, probably Big Jim, is wining and dining the hanging judge. The judge is already a ‘hanging judge’ before any crime has become apparent. He and Rosemary each irresponsibly get drunk. It’s against this background that Lily has to decide how to deal with the problem of her relationship.

The Jack of Hearts

At first the Jack of Hearts could not seem more different from Big Jim. Big Jim comes across as vain and attention seeking –  ‘so dandy and so fine’/’every hair in place’. Despite this he seems wrapped up in himself. We’re given his thoughts, but he doesn’t speak even when spoken to.

The Jack of Hearts is much more appealing. There’s no description of his appearance, from which we can assume it’s unostentatious. He’s affable, engaging others both by initiating conversation and by way of his facial expression:

‘… he asked him with a grin’.

He speaks politely:

‘”Could you kindly tell me …?”’,

even going so far as addressing a stranger as ‘friend’.

Whereas Big Jim is grasping, taking ‘whatever he wanted to’, the Jack of Hearts appears to be generous:

‘”Set it up for everyone” he said’.

Just from his manner it’s easy to see how he represents someone who’d be far more attractive to Lily than Big Jim.

Identity of Big Jim/Jack of Hearts

Despite these differences, there are a number of indications that the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim are to be taken as one and the same person. On this view the Jack of Hearts is Big Jim’s alter ego. The former might be taken as representing respectively a romantic idealisation of the character, and the latter the person as he currently seems to be. I shall begin by noting similarities, or a lack of differentiating characteristics, before going on to consider how the characters’ identity is supported by other considerations.

1. Similarities

There are four ways in which the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim are made to seem similar, suggesting that they are two sides of the same person.

The first similarity is that morally they are both scoundrels – one a bank robber, the other a grasping wastrel. Bias on the part of the narrator makes him downplay this aspect of the Jack of Hearts when he’s treated as just one of ‘the boys’.


A second indication is that in both the first and thirteenth verses a similar description is applied to each. Verse one has:

‘He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts’

while verse thirteen tells us that when the dressing-room door burst open:

‘… Big Jim was standin’ there, you couldn’t say surprised’.

Since both descriptions involve standing and a doorway, the temptation is to see both as involving the same person and the two separate events as having fused into one.2 Such a conclusion would have the advantage of explaining why the ‘he’ of the first verse is described as being only ‘like the Jack of Hearts’. Being like the Jack of Hearts would allow for the figure’s being Big Jim.


Thirdly, there’s an absence of differentiating characteristics in verse twelve, omitted from the recording. The expression ‘the man’ is used for both Big Jim and the Jack of Hearts:

‘the man she dearly loved to touch’


‘the man she couldn’t stand who hounded her so much’.

While the woman appears to be Lily, we’re given no way of telling which ‘man’ is which. It could be that Big Jim is the one she loves, especially since she ‘has his ring’. But equally it could be that the Jack of Hearts is, since her saying ‘I’ve missed you so’ seems more likely to have been said to someone she sees a good deal less of than Big Jim. There’s a similar ambiguity about the ‘man she couldn’t stand who hounded her’. We can’t say who’s being referred to since it’s not obvious that she’d see either Big Jim or the Jack of Hearts as hounding her. The ambiguity is resolved if ‘the man’ in each line really does refer to either.


Fourthly, where Big Jim is said to look ‘like a saint’, the Jack of Hearts appears as a monk. Whether the descriptions should be taken ironically or not, the applicability of positive religious terms to each provides another reason for taking them as one and the same person.

Since we so often can’t differentiate between them, there’s a sense in which there’s no distinction to be made. We have reason for taking the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim as the same person.

2. The Missing Jack of Hearts

The view that the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim are in some sense identical, is corroborated by the apparently inexplicable absence of the Jack of Hearts on three occasions.

First, since the murder takes place around the end of verse thirteen, we can see the identity of Big Jim and the Jack of Hearts would also explain the absence of the Jack of Hearts from the riverbed meeting place in the following verse. The robbers waited there:

‘For one more member who had business back in town’.

It would seem that the robbers are surprised by their associate’s absence. And ‘business back in town’ sounds vague, as if they are being forced to find a way of rationalising his absence. That unexpected absence is explained if, when Rosemary kills Big Jim, she is in that very process killing the Jack of Hearts.

Secondly, after Rosemary’s death we’re told:

‘The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts’

We’re not told why he’s missing, or for that matter why it’s even worth pointing out. But if they’re the same person, he cannot be present since Big Jim is lying dead elsewhere.

Other explanations of these absences will be considered later on.

3. Omission Of Big Jim

A further indication that the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim can be taken as aspects of the same person comes not from what we’re told, but from what we’re not told.

There’s a significant omission in the final verse where we’re told Lily is thinking about four things – her father, Rosemary, the law, and the Jack of Hearts. One would have expected her at least to be giving some thought to Big Jim, if – as we’ve been led to believe – he was her lover or husband.

But she would indeed be thinking of Big Jim, if the Jack of Hearts she’s thinking about is Big Jim.

4. Staring into Space

Fourthly, Big Jim’s behaviour in verses five and six is more consistent with his sharing an identity with the Jack of Hearts than it is with the latter being a separate person. We’re told that Big Jim:

‘… was starin’ into space over at the Jack of Hearts’

When someone stares into space, they’re not seeing anything. And to be staring ‘over at’ someone, is not the same as to be staring at them.

Accordingly Big Jim can’t actually have been seeing a real face when he says:

‘I know I’ve seen that face before’

If it wasn’t someone else he was seeing, the possibility is opened up that the face represents a different – perhaps more favourable – representation of himself. He only thinks he’s seeing the Jack of Hearts.

It turns out that he’s in fact staring in the direction of Lily, but presumably without seeing her:

‘… there was only Jim and him
Starin’ at the butterfly who just drew the Jack of Hearts’

This provides a fifth reason for seeing the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim as identical. Not only are the two of them doing exactly the same thing, but the phrase ‘was only’ implies there’s just one person.

Identity of Lily/Rosemary

Just as the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim, while separate on the surface level, can be seen as identical, so can Lily and Rosemary. Rosemary is Lily’s alter ego. There are a number of obvious similarities between them which bring this out.

Consider again the line:

‘The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts’

This implies Lily was there, yet she isn’t mentioned. Other than the missing Jack of Hearts, the only people mentioned in the penultimate verse are Big Jim, Rosemary and the hanging judge. If Lily isn’t missing, the implication is that Lily is one of those people. And that would be so if she’s Rosemary.

Secondly, Rosemary is in ‘the role of Big Jim’s wife’, while Lily has ‘Jim’s ring’. Both descriptions suggest the person described could be in a unique relationship with Big Jim.3

Thirdly, Lily is referred to as a ‘butterfly’ which seems to associate her with Rosemary who ‘fluttered’ her eyelashes.

Fourthly, both are attracted to the Jack of Hearts.

Finally, they are both associated to an unusual extent with death.


This last way of seeing Lily and Rosemary as two aspects of the same person needs further attention. The characters can each be seen as sacrificing their lives.

1. Rosemary’s Sacrifice

Rosemary, we’re told, was:

‘… lookin’ to do just one good deed before she died’

The intended good deed would seem to be the killing of Big Jim. The woman who has:

‘… done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide’

may now be attempting to change course as a result of seeing what she takes to be her better self reflected in the knife.

There are two reasons why something as immoral as murder might seem good to Rosemary. It might seem good to her if it has good consequences. And it might also seem good if she sees it as inevitably leading to her own self-sacrifice.

A good consequence might be that, by stabbing Big Jim, she will be saving the Jack of Hearts from being shot by him.4

And it would seem she does see the murder as leading inevitably to her own self-sacrifice. She shows no sign of being surprised by her fate on the gallows:

‘… she didn’t even blink’.

That this fate is to be seen in terms of self-sacrifice is suggested by the imagery used in describing the scene of her death:

‘… the sky was overcast and black’.

This relates Rosemary’s death to the crucifixion when, ‘darkness came over the whole land’ (Matt 27.45). Accordingly, Rosemary’s death is associated with Christ’s dying for others.

Given that it stemmed from a murder, the association must in part be ironic.

2. Lily’s Sacrifice

Just as Rosemary can be seen as sacrificing herself, so can Lily. The difference is that as a result of Lily’s action Big Jim lives rather than dies. And whereas Rosemary’s death is literal, Lily’s is metaphorical. She is just sacrificing a more selfish part of herself.

We’re told that after the show:

‘Lily washed her face, took her dress off and buried it away’.

What we have is clearly the language of ritual. One does not normally bury one’s clothes. And the washing, in the context of ‘buried’, reminds us of the preparation of a corpse for burial. Lily, it seems, is making preparations for her own death.

Lily’s death, although it’s the counterpart of Rosemary’s, does not involve murder. On the contrary, she can be seen as abandoning her original murderous outlook as represented by Rosemary. She comes to abjure it by announcing to Big Jim:

‘I’m glad to see you’re still alive …’

The sense in which she dies is that by not killing Big Jim, she is sacrificing herself to him. True to form she ‘did whatever she had to do’ and, on this view, what she had to do did not involve murder.

While Rosemary’s self-sacrifice is explicitly associated with Christ’s, Lily’s is the more Christ-like in that her sacrifice is for his good. With respect to Lily there’s no irony involved.

Further Temporal Distortions

It becomes apparent that Big Jim both does and does not die, depending on whether he’s at the mercy of Rosemary or Lily.

In that he does die, it’s because Rosemary has knifed him. In that he doesn’t, it’s because Lily has abandoned the Rosemary-side of her character and put her trust in his better side. There’s no issue about whether he does or doesn’t die – the song represents both as being the case.

That he does not die is supported by three temporal distortions. These are over and above the spatio/temporal one we’ve already encountered concerning an appearance in a doorway in verses one and thirteen.

First Distortion

The first temporal distortion which allows Big Jim to be still alive at the end of the song is required by something Lily says after washing and changing her clothes in verse ten:

‘I’m glad to see you’re still alive …’

At face value this is meaningless, whoever it’s addressed to. There’s no reason at this stage for believing the life of Big Jim or the Jack of Hearts as being under threat.6

However, the statement ceases to be meaningless provided that it’s spoken only after the time of the attack on Big Jim, and it’s addressed to Big Jim. If that’s the case, it becomes pertinent that the addressee is not only alive, but  still alive at that much later time.

It’s pertinent because it directly contradicts the information that Big Jim has been killed.

Second Distortion

That time is distorted in this way, so that the conversation occurs much later than it seems to have done, is corroborated by a further temporal distortion. This involves Lily’s warning:

‘Be careful not to touch the wall, there’s a brand new coat of paint’.

If she’s speaking only at a time prior to the attack on Big Jim, there’s no obvious reason why there might need to be a warning involving a freshly painted wall.

However, if the warning is given after the attack, the reason becomes clear. Since no other wall has been mentioned, the wall in question has to be the one forming a barrier between ‘the boys’ and the bank. It makes sense for this wall to have been freshly painted, but only after it has been repaired following the damage inflicted by the bank robbers. And for this to be the case requires Lily to have been speaking not only after the time of the attack on Big Jim, but after the redecoration of the cabaret which is still only underway in the final verse.

Third Distortion

A third temporal distortion provides further corroboration of the previous two. It involves a reference to Lily’s hair:

‘Lily had already taken all the dye out of her hair’.

Although this occurs in the final verse, it’s part of the process referred to in verse ten which involved washing her face and taking her dress off. This too suggests that the conversation in verse ten is to be seen as occurring much later than the supposed attack on Big Jim.

Time, it seems, is distorted on no less than three occasions to allow that, despite it’s being clear that Big Jim is murdered, it’s also the case that he isn’t.

A Spatial Distortion

The distortion just considered may be purely temporal. Nevertheless it is accompanied by a spatial one. This, again, involves the wall.

On the one hand, Lily seems to be referring to a wall in the cabaret when she warns that the paint’s wet  – and maybe even to the wall of her dressing room.

On the other, the robbers can’t be drilling from inside the cabaret, since their activity is taking place ‘two doors down’. And it would be even more absurd to suppose they’re drilling from inside Lily’s dressing room.

Just as time is having to be distorted to accommodate Big Jim’s survival, so it seems  is space. The wall is in two places at once.

Lily’s father

While these temporal and spatial distortions allow it to be the case that Big Jim survives, Lily’s motivation for bringing this about becomes more apparent in the final verse. Here we’re informed that Lily:

‘… thought about her father, who she very rarely saw’.

The fact that she rarely saw her father is not necessarily surprising, particularly since we’d previously been informed that ‘she’d come away from a broken home’. Nevertheless the relevance is not immediately obvious.

It becomes clearer, however, when we consider how various characters are described.

Most of the characters are represented by playing cards. Rosemary looks like ‘a queen without a crown’. Big Jim is ‘the king’. And the missing member of the band of bank robbers is the Jack of Hearts. Curiously Lily herself, while described using a royal metaphor, is not represented by a card. She’s ‘a princess’.

‘Princess’, as used here, has a significance which goes beyond the usual connotations of the term when used of a girl. A princess is the child – the daughter – of a king and queen. And such a relationship is alluded to when Lily’s described both as ‘princess’ and ‘precious as a child’. Since Big Jim is the ‘king’, he is in some sense her father – the father she very rarely saw.

In what sense? Obviously he’s not literally her father. But the king/princess relationship does suggest he has a responsibility towards her.

And the description:

‘… precious as a child’

might seem to indicate that he doesn’t fulfil that ‘paternal’ responsibility. Rather he commits himself to something else that’s precious – precious stones. He runs a diamond mine. For him, a woman’s role is just to wear his ring and to act the part of wife. He has no sense of responsibility for someone ‘precious as a child’. Instead, the ‘everything’ which he ‘laid to waste’ would have included her. She (as Rosemary) has even been driven to the brink of suicide.

Equally, though, it might be that Big Jim does accept that responsibility. Lily’s favourable attitude towards him – ‘I’m glad to see you’re still alive’ – might be the result of this. For all we know,  she might really be precious to him.7

In thinking about her father, then, Lily is thinking about Big Jim – not as a lover, but as someone who may or may not have treated her just as her natural father has done. Either way, the perceived relationship would in itself justify her act of self-sacrifice for him.8

Murder or Suicide

In addition to the Jack of Hearts/Big Jim and Rosemary/Lily identities, there’s a third identity pair. Big Jim and Rosemary also share characteristics which, in a sense, and on one level, make them the same person.

The similarities between Big Jim and Rosemary which suggest their identity include their both having visions – ‘staring into space’ and ‘seeing her reflection in the knife’ respectively. They also involve falsity. Big Jim’s involves his being a dandy and having:

‘… every hair in place’.

And while Rosemary merely:

‘… combed her hair …’ –

her falsity too is characterised by the use of the word ‘false’:

‘She  fluttered her false eyelashes …’

If Rosemary and Big Jim are seen as one and the same person, Rosemary’s murder of Big Jim comes across as even more reckless. She’ll not only be killing herself indirectly by bringing about her hanging, but directly. This would amount to her second attempt at suicide, because we’ve already been told that she:

‘… once tried suicide’.

Further, the identity of Big Jim and Rosemary would explain why her previous attempted suicide counts as one of the  ‘bad things’ she’s done.  It would suggest that she has previously made an attempt on Big Jim’s life.

Difference Between Lily And Rosemary

Although Lily is in a sense identical with Rosemary, a further reference to hair brings out the crucial difference between the sides of the characters they represent. Lily, we’re told, had:

‘… taken all of the dye out of her hair’.

By having her reject the sort of falsity which characterises both her alter ego and Big Jim, Lily is being presented as natural and honest. It’s this honesty which prevents her going down the criminal route represented by Rosemary. Rather than kill Big Jim, she makes an appeal to his better side, represented in her mind by the Jack of Hearts.

The Jack Of Hearts II

We now see that there are two reasons for the Jack of Hearts’ absence at the end of the song. The first, already mentioned, is that in murdering Big Jim Rosemary is killing his alter ego.

But even on the view that Big Jim is not killed, and the Jack of Hearts therefore is still alive, the Jack of Hearts still fails to meet his comrades at the riverbed.

This may be explained by the fact that the Jack of Hearts is the side of Big Jim that Lily is trying to reform. Her success in reforming Big Jim will be reflected in a comparable change in his alter ego. This will amount to that alter ego’s giving up of his criminality and dissociating himself from the gang of robbers.

The Jack of Hearts’ absence is a sign of Lily’s success with Big Jim. On the one hand he dies as does Big Jim. On the other he’s spiritually saved as much as is Big Jim.


The central character of the song is Lily, a rather fragile girl who’d rather not be with her present lover or husband, Big Jim. On one view she has a darker side, represented by Rosemary. If this darker side is allowed to reign, she’ll end up murdering Big Jim. If it isn’t, Big Jim lives on.

There is no straightforward answer to whether or not Big Jim lives or dies. Neither is there a straightforward answer to whether Lily and Rosemary, or the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim, are one and the same person. While the song is full of ambiguity and inconsistency, rather than making it incoherent, these features enable it to present alternative responses to the moral dilemma with which Lily is faced, and to assess the moral and practical consequences of each.

Despite the mutual inconsistency of the alternatives, the song presents them both as having occurred. By rejecting her Rosemary-side, Lily is turning her back on murder and what would effectively be suicide. By giving in to her Rosemary side, Lily brings about not just Big Jim’s death but her own. She can either destroy him physically or save him spiritually. Each possibility acts as a foil for the other.


Appendix: Other Religious Imagery

That Rosemary’s death, and therefore Lily’s, is to be associated with the crucifixion is supported by other religious imagery. The opening line mentions that:

‘… the boys were all plannin’ for a fall’

While there’s no explicit indication as to what ‘fall’ refers to, it may be that the word ‘fall’ can be taken as referring to the ‘fall of man’ which Christ’s crucifixion is seen as annulling.5

In this case the robbers, ‘planning for a fall’ would effectively be planning their own spiritual demise as a result of their criminal activity. Now the robbers, including the Jack of Hearts, have the chance to be beneficiaries of Lily’s redemptive act. In the light of this Lily’s otherwise cryptic comment to Big Jim:

‘… you’re looking like a saint’,

seems more pertinent. In committing herself to Big Jim, she allows him the opportunity to redeem himself.

That Big Jim is open to redemption is suggested by his being referred to as:

‘… no-one’s fool …’.

He is thus distanced from the biblical fool by being open to renouncing his corrupt practices. (cf. ‘The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good’ Psalm 14.1).

The benign influence that Lily has on Big Jim is perhaps also indicated by the ‘gentle breeze’ which is pervading the cabaret. The breeze can be taken as a manifestation of the Holy Ghost. (cf. ‘Finally, there was a gentle breeze, and when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat’ Kings 19.12-13).



  1. The hanging judge represents corruption in two ways. First, he seems to be accepting favours from another corrupt customer, probably Big Jim. Secondly, his being known as the ‘hanging judge’ seems to imply he’s made up his mind about the extent of people’s guilt in advance of hearing any evidence or the jury’s verdict.
  2. The Jack of Hearts’ appearance in the doorway in verse one can, be taken as Big Jim’s later appearance in a doorway in verse thirteen. Accordingly there is no unique fact about the time of the appearance. Similarly there’s no unique fact about whether the appearance takes place in the doorway to the mirrored room, as it seems to be in verse one, or the doorway to Lily’s dressing room, as it seems to be in verse thirteen. Despite seeming at first to have separate locations, the two doorways are not clearly spatially distinct.
  3. Even descriptions which imply there are two people are consistent with their being just one. That Lily is favoured by Big Jim over Rosemary is apparent from her ‘having Jim’s ring’, whereas Rosemary is ‘like a queen without a crown’. On a deeper level this could indicate that Lily is anxious for more than she’s already got. This would seem to be supported by her wanting a third queen to match those she already has in the card game. The third would be herself. She wants to supplant Rosemary as Big Jim’s wife.
  4. Rosemary’s self-sacrifice might also be seen as freeing Lily to marry, or marry again elsewhere.
  5. On this view, it would make sense to see the festival mentioned in the opening line as a Passover celebration since that was the time at which the crucifixion occurred. The biblical celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem was a time of political tension, the Roman authorities anxious to prevent insurgents and others exploiting the chaos for revolutionary ends. The curfew in the song might also be seen as an attempt to maintain the status quo made by those benefiting from corruption in the town.
  6. It can’t be the Jack of Hearts who’s addressed unless we’re prepared to invent at least three reasons to support the view. We’d need a reason to explain Lily’s thinking the Jack of Hearts might not have been still alive, a reason for its being necessary to inform us of this, and a reason for its being necessary to inform us of Lily’s attitude towards it.
  7. Rosemary as queen (and considered as a separate person from Lily) may be different. If her one good deed is to benefit Lily, she cannot easily be accused of abrogating her responsibility.
  8. ‘Father’ is also the term used by Christ in referring to God. Lily’s thinking about her father again associates her with Christ.










Meet Me In The Morning


A curious characteristic of some Dylan songs is that they can initially seem unimpressively simple while turning out to be anything but. Meet Me In The Morning is such a song. The lines are short; it’s full of simple expressions found in other songs; some versions omit a verse; and the blues style means that there are as many repeated lines as verses. All this is misleading, however, since a closely attentive reading of the full song will throw up a mine of intricacies and subtleties indiscernible to the casual listener.

Throughout, the narrator is addressing a lover with whom he has fallen out. The monologue form here enables the numerous faults of an essentially flawed narrator to be presented through his own words.1 And by way of a masterpiece of succinct writing (it takes only five words), we’re able to compare the narrator with the woman he desires but maligns. Unwittingly he informs us that she, like him, is attempting to mend the relationship. We find that his own efforts, by contrast, are blighted by bouts of pessimism and recrimination.


A subtle feature of the song lies in the way it uses imagery. The narrator repeatedly refers to travel, bad weather, light as opposed to dark, and religion. However, a distinction needs to be drawn between what the narrator might be using an image to show, and what it actually does show. Further, while some images are the narrator’s, others can be attributed primarily to the fictional writer in the sense that it’s unlikely the narrator would himself have used them.2 Examples of the former include his comments on darkness in verse two, and on the rooster in verse three. One can believe that the narrator really might have quoted the aphorism about the darkest hour, and that actually hearing a rooster might well have prompted his subsequent comparison of the rooster with himself. Conversely, the first verse’s references to a road intersection and a journey to Kansas would seem to serve symbolic ends – and therefore the writer’s rather than the narrator’s. That particular meeting point and journey have no significance beyond the literal for the narrator, but they enable the writer to represent symbolically the state of the relationship, and the narrator’s plan for improving it.


It’s in part through images involving travel that the writer presents the narrator’s plans, obstacles he encounters, and his final pessimism about his chances of success. There are three references to travel in the song, in verses one, four and six respectively. In the first, the narrator proposes that he and the woman meet up to undertake a journey. In the fourth he explains why it can’t be undertaken immediately, and in the last verse the journey is implicitly compared by the writer to a sea voyage.

We’re not told why the narrator chooses the particular place he does to meet the woman:

”Meet me in the morning, 56th and Wabasha’

or what the attraction is of Kansas as a destination. But there’s no need. The real function within the song of both the meeting and the journey is symbolic. The writer is  representing the narrator’s attempt to rekindle the relationship. The two roads represent the differences between the couple because, like them in their present state, the roads are going in different directions. And since the meeting point is at the intersection of the roads, it can be seen as representing the initial meeting of minds required for harmonising the relationship. Their subsequent work on the relationship is represented by their journeying in one and the same direction towards Kansas.

We’re also not told why the morning is the time chosen for the meeting. However, it becomes apparent that the process of reconciliation cannot get going before then. In terms of the travel image it’s as if:

‘… the station doors are closed’.

The literal reason for the delay will become apparent from a consideration of imagery involving weather and light, which will be discussed below.

In the final verse the narrator anticipates that his attempt to renew the relationship will come to nothing:

‘Look at the sun sinkin’ like a ship
Ain’t that just like my heart, babe’

The setting sun reminds him of a sinking ship and that in turn reminds him of his own sinking feelings. While the full significance of these lines will also be considered below, it’s worth noting that the narrator’s efforts are again being associated with a journey. This time it’s as a sea voyage which ends prematurely with the foundering of the ship.

It’s unnecessary to attribute the travel imagery to the narrator. It seems unlikely he intends the Kansas and station references to be taken other than literally. Rather, it’s the fictional writer who should be seen as imbuing them with a significance for symbolically representing both the narrator’s outlook and his emotional state.


As with travel, there are three references to weather in the song – in verses one, four and five respectively. When at the outset the narrator says:

‘… we could be in Kansas
By [the] time the snow begins to thaw’,

he expects this to be interpreted literally. However, for the song’s purposes the ‘thaw’ is the thawing of the couple’s relationship. The writer is indicating that the healing process won’t be quick.

In the third verse, weather again has a figurative role:

‘The birds are flying low babe, honey I feel so exposed’

 Low-flying birds are a sign of an imminent storm. On a literal level the narrator is providing a plausible excuse for postponing the journey till morning. Figuratively, however, it may represent a setback – a violent, further downturn in the relationship. The narrator is fearing the worst but, tellingly, more for himself at this time than for the relationship:

 ‘I feel so exposed’.

The third weather reference has the narrator remind the woman of past suffering resulting from the state of their relationship:

‘… I … felt the hail fall from above’

This apparently trivial claim is presumably the result of the writer’s recasting in meteorological terms what the narrator actually said. This is because it symbolises the narrator’s supposed suffering in a way that, interpreted literally, would be inconsistent with his desire to win the woman’s sympathy:

‘… I’ve earned your love’

By substituting the weather image, the writer is able to confine the listener’s attention to the self-indulgent manner of the narrator’s attempt to curry favour, when it might otherwise have become distracted by unimportant details.


Imagery involving light is extensive. It figures in verses one, two, four and six, appearing  as ‘morning’, ‘dawn’,’ matches’ and’ the sun’ respectively. As well as its conscious use by the narrator to stand for his happiness, it represents the pre-conditions for any successful renewal of the relationship.

The song comprises the narrator’s words, or thoughts, on the evening before the proposed journey. In verse four we’re informed that the metaphorical journey towards reconciliation can’t begin straightaway because of a further deterioration in the relationship, represented by an impending storm. His declaration in the same verse:

‘… I ain’t got any matches’

indicates that he has no resources of his own he can use to lighten the mood. Instead he needs to wait for a more propitious time. Unable to force the process artificially, he must wait for the natural light of morning.  He must wait, that is, until things have settled down before beginning the process of reconciliation. At the moment, metaphorically:

‘… the station doors are closed’

In the second verse the narrator refers to both light and the absence of light in a hopeless attempt to convince himself that despite the relationship’s having reached rock bottom, it’s about to improve:

‘They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn’

It’s hopeless because the word ‘darkest’ serves only to remind him of his misery – or what he calls the:

‘… darkness since you’ve been gone’

By the final verse the narrator no longer sees the sun as representing hope. As the evening sun sets, he’s overcome by pessimism. He compares it, and implicitly his hopes, to a sinking ship. And a ship, once sunk, will be sunk forever.

The Rooster

By the third verse we’re able to appreciate how deep-seated the narrator’s pessimism is. He hears a rooster crowing and jumps to put a negative interpretation on it:

‘… there must be something on his mind
Well, I feel just like that rooster’

Since roosters traditionally crow at dawn, one would have expected the narrator to interpret the crowing here as auspicious. That would be behaviour consistent with his previous willingness to see even the ‘darkest hour’ in a favourable light. Instead he decides to exploit it as a way of providing bogus support for the complaint which follows:

‘Honey, ya treat me so unkind’

Support for his complaint derives from a piece of specious and ultimately circular reasoning which, though not explicitly given, can be reconstructed as follows. First, he assumes that because he is unhappy, so must the rooster be. Secondly, he assumes that the cause of the rooster’s unhappiness must have been unkind treatment. Thirdly he assumes that if the rooster has been treated unkindly, then so must he have been. Having so ‘proved’ that he has been treated unkindly, he sets out to use this as ammunition against his lover.

The rooster episode, then, not only reinforces in the listener’s mind how unhappy the narrator is, but shows up weaknesses in the narrator’s character – weaknesses of which he seems unaware.


The narrator’s wilful misinterpretation of the crowing is not its only significance. A rooster’s crowing inevitably invites one to think of Peter’s three-fold betrayal of Christ.3 It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that there’s another allusion to betrayal – this time Judas’ – in the final verse:

‘… you kissed my lips’4

The lover seems to be being compared with both Peter and Judas and, if justified, that comparison would put the narrator in the position of Christ. However, if the narrator does indeed have the Judas kiss in mind, it’s significant that he doesn’t take into account a crucial difference between it and his lover’s. Whereas Judas’ kiss was a formal greeting, the woman kissed the narrator on the lips. From this we can assume that not only is she not guilty of betrayal but, on the contrary, she is attempting lovingly to restore the relationship.

It’s because he misinterprets the kiss as one of betrayal that at the end of the song the narrator is left in despair.

The Sun

It’s particularly ironic that the narrator should twice mistakenly have portrayed himself as Christ, for there is in the final verse a wholly appropriate reference to Christ which goes unnoticed by the narrator.

The allusion becomes apparent in the final verse when the narrator says:

‘Look at the sun …’

It’s natural to associate ‘sun’ with Son’, yet the narrator himself doesn’t make the connection. Instead, and more bizarrely, he associates the sun with a sinking ship. As a result he’s too ready to accept that his happiness, which the sun represents, is not only gone, but gone forever.  Had he made the connection with ‘Son’, he’d have been more sanguine. In other words, if the sun had reminded him of the Son rather than a ship, he’d have had no reason to suppose its sinking, and therefore the demise of his hopes, to be anything other than temporary.

There is an interesting structural comparison to be made between the narrator’s use of simile in this verse and his use of it in verse three. Just as in verse three he’d made a false comparison between the rooster’s feelings and his own feelings, on the basis of a false attribution of mental turmoil to the rooster, so here he makes a false comparison between the sun and his heart, on the basis of a false attribution to the sun of a ship-like quality. Just as in verse three the narrator displays a propensity to indulge in specious reasoning, so does he here, and in the same way. But whereas in verse three it was the woman who suffered as a result, here it’s the narrator who suffers.


Only on the surface is this a traditional love song. It’s much more a study of a complex character. Nevertheless, it is about love too. This becomes particularly apparent in

verse five where the narrator attempts both to impress and blackmail his lover. After listing a number of trials he claims to have gone though, he ends with:

‘Honey, you know I’ve earned your love’

That he has earned her love is in fact unlikely to be true for two reasons. First, love, real love, is not earnt but given freely. And secondly, the things he claims to have done are unlikely in any case to have impressed her as having earned her love. The things he’s claiming to have done – in particular ‘struggled through barbed wire’ and ‘outrun the hound dogs’ – aren’t the sorts of things one might do for someone else. When one escapes and makes an effort to avoid recapture, one is primarily acting in one’s own interests, not someone else’s. One can assume from this that the narrator has done nothing to deserve the woman’s love, and that – desperate to show otherwise – he resorts to citing things he knows to be irrelevant.

That the woman has a much clearer understanding of love than the narrator is evident from her kiss. She doesn’t need him to have earned her love. Nevertheless, even if the kiss is the result of genuine love, there still may be some credit due to the narrator. Though we don’t know why he’s ‘struggled through barbed wire’,’ and ‘outrun the hound dogs’, these at least suggests he’s not inactive and is prepared to take risks. He may not have earned the woman’s love, but by this activity he might at least have triggered it.


The song is primarily a character study showing the gradual development of the narrator’s psychology. In particular it shows the part played by a range of personal qualities, positive and negative, in his battle to resolve an emotional predicament.  Sadly his positive qualities – optimism, energy, empathy, and inventiveness – are either misdirected, rendered impotent, or simply outweighed by the negative. Too inclined towards  pessimism, resentfulness, egotism and deviousness, the narrator seems increasingly incapable of resolving his predicament. By the end, despite bouts of forlorn hope, he seems resigned to failure.

But the song is about love too, and the role of love in reviving the relationship. It’s about the narrator’s own deficient understanding of love versus the woman’s. The narrator thinks love is consistent with complaining, criticism, pleading, and even blackmail. But the woman’s love is different –  a simple love, manifested by a kiss. And despite the narrator’s machinations and depth of emotion taking up most of song, it’s her love represented in a single line which both literally and metaphorically has the last word. If the relationship is to be saved, it’ll be through her love rather than his.


  1. As will become apparent, it’s not necessarily the case that we have the narrator’s own words so much as an abstract representation of them.
  2. The fictional writer and the actual writer may coincide. The concept of fictional writer can be useful though if one wants to attribute a view to the writer (as distinct from the narrator), but without necessarily attributing it to the actual, real-life writer.
  3. “I assure you,” Jesus said to him, “tonight-before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times!” (Matt 26.34)
  4. So he went right up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed Him. (Matt 26.47-8)