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

Queen Jane Approximately


This is a love song – of sorts. The narrator clearly wants a relationship with the person he calls Queen Jane but it’s far from certain that his feelings are reciprocated. The song is primarily concerned with the psychologies of each. Both narrator and addressee are complex characters, neither of them fully in control of their own destiny.

The song is in the form of a monologue. Curiously each of the five short verses begins either ‘When’ or ‘Now when’, indicating that none of the events has yet taken place. They’re merely predicted. Furthermore, it becomes apparent that the predicted events referred to are spread over an extensive period of time – perhaps years, starting from the addressee’s childhood. Because of this, and despite the monologue form, the words can’t be part of an actual conversation. They might be better seen as the narrator’s working out a strategy for convincing the addressee that she’d be better off with him.

The narrator

Throughout most of each verse the narrator seems confident in his predictions. By the end of each verse that confidence has gone. Prediction has given way to a heartfelt plea:

‘Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?’

The narrator’s desperation is made further apparent by his repeating the line each time he utters it. And the negative opening ‘Won’t you’ (rather than, say, ‘You must’) makes it apparent he doubts whether she will come and see him.

This lack of confidence is accompanied by another very human trait – a lack of self-knowledge. When the addressee has experienced one disaster after another, the narrator predicts that she’ll be:

‘… sick of all this repetition’

It’s the repetition of failed relationships, as distinct from failure itself, which he knows will upset her. It’s ironic, then, that he should blithely go ahead with repetitions of his own. First there’s the word ‘all’ – ‘all your invitations’, ‘all of your creations’, ‘all of the flower ladies’, ‘all of your children’, ‘all the clowns’, ‘all this repetition’ !!!, ‘all of your advisers’, ‘all the bandits’ and ‘all lay down’. Then there’s his question in the refrain, ‘Won’t you come see me…?’ which gets asked in exactly the same form no less than ten times. Furthermore his attempt to win her can itself be seen as a repetition of the very sort of thing he knows she’s sick of.

There’s more. The words ‘you’, ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ together occur a total of twenty times (not including in the refrain). The effect is to highlight the addressee’s problems or failure to deal with them. Making her the focus of attention like this seems extraordinarily inept, and even more so given that the narrator knows she’s:

‘… tired of herself’

It’s not as if he’s building her up, giving her confidence.

However, while the narrator may be unwittingly clumsy, there might also be some method in his madness. The repetition of ‘all’ would seem to have to be for the purpose of exaggeration  – to make the addressee’s lot seem as bad as possible so as to get her to come flying to him. Such a tactic would seem necessary since he says little to recommend himself. The only self-recommendation he has is that he’d make no demands on her:

‘And you want somebody you don’t have to speak to’

Overall, his ineptness together with his doubts make success seem unlikely.

Family relationships

­The first three verses almost certainly look forward to different times. In the first, which concerns the addressee’s relationship with her family, she seems to be in her teens. In the second she’s probably been married, is perhaps divorced, and has a number of children. While it’s plausible that she had these children while still living at home, the ‘creations’ the father says she’s tired of, this would seem unlikely.

A cause of the addressee’s misery becomes clear in the first verse. It’s her family:

 ‘When your mother sends back all your invitations’

We don’t know the circumstances so we can’t condemn the mother out of hand. Nevertheless, the narrator makes her seem cold and controlling in that the addressee doesn’t seem to be having a say regarding the invitations. Her father, in attempting to put the sister in the picture by ‘explaining’ how things are, comes across as gentle but insensitive:

‘And your father to your sister he explains
That you’re tired of yourself and all of your creations’

Now all the family know that there’s something wrong. How must that make the addressee feel?

We needn’t take the song as an outright condemnation of parental ineptitude, however. The second verse puts things in a different light:

 ‘And all your children start to resent you’

Time, we can assume, has moved on. A generation later, and relationships are markedly similar. It’s no longer the addressee who is fed up, though, but her own children who are fed up with her. It would seem she hasn’t learnt from her own parents’ mistakes. Either that, or parent child relationships are destined never to change.


The second verse begins:

‘When all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you’

Why, one wonders, does the addressee need to borrow from ‘flower ladies’, and indeed why does she need to borrow at all? If its flowers she’s borrowing, while they could be connected with her creativity, it’s more likely they’re for a funeral. Her husband’s? This would explain why there’s no mention of a husband, something one might otherwise have expected given the emphasis on family members, including her father, in the first verse.

Now the flowers have to go back, and:

‘… the smell of their roses does not remain’

The tone is one of resignation. There’s no mention of regret. Like the husband, the smell of the roses simply isn’t there anymore.  It’s as if in dying her husband has simply disappeared, leaving a gap. It’s the word ‘smell’ which creates the impression of distance. It’s noncommittal. One would have expected ‘fragrance’ or ‘scent’ if she’d been in a positive frame of mind.

If this is right, we can now see why she has to borrow. Without a husband, and with children – several, judging by the word ‘all’ in ‘all of your children’ – she is impoverished. We’re not told the reason for her children’s resentment, but it could be connected with her not having sufficient money to bring them up properly. Alternatively, it could be because they miss their father and see his absence as their mother’s fault.


In the third verse time seems to have moved on again for the addressee seems to have been making repeated attempts  to put an end to her widowed and impoverished state.  However, just as the narrator is inept in his attempt to win her over, so is she inept (in the narrator’s view) in her attempts to find another husband.

The narrator refers to:

 ‘… all the clowns you have commissioned’.

While there’s nothing explicit to indicate that these are suitors, the narrator’s plea in the refrain would support this if he’s seen as putting himself forward as a better alternative. This would account for the word ‘clowns’ – he’s dismissing his, apparently many, rivals as incompetents.

It’s noticeable that the narrator’s language has become militaristic. This may be to poke fun at the addressee although it’s unlikely he’s being consciously critical given his desire for a relationship. The clowns have been ‘commissioned’ – implying that the addressee sees those in a relationship with her as a type of conscript, or at least as someone she’s promoted. The militaristic language continues with their having:

‘… died in battle or in vain’

Those who died ‘in battle’ are most likely those dismissed from a relationship with the addressee having been unable to match her expectations. ‘Battle’ tells us what the relationship was like, but without the narrator committing himself to saying who was at fault. Those who died ‘in vain’ were simply unsuccessful even in getting started on a relationship with her.

The addressee might have won the battles – but with each victory, she’s also lost a potential lover. She might get ‘sick’ of this happening over and over again (‘all this repetition’) but the narrator creates the impression that the fault is hers. The militaristic language, and the fact that the ‘all’ in ‘all the clowns’ indicates that there have been a lot  of would-be lovers, makes the addressee seem uncompromising and hard to please. She seems to have inherited the harshness of her own mother.

Queen Jane

Although nothing is made explicit, there are indications in the first verse that the addressee has good qualities to balance this harshness. The reference to ‘all your invitations’ not only makes it clear that she gets invitations, but the ‘all’ makes it seem there are lots of them.  The effect is to make her seem popular.  And even though she’s supposed to be tired of ‘all’ her ‘creations’, this tells us that she’s both creative and highly productive.

The narrator also refers to her Christ-like passivity in ‘turm[ing] the other cheek’, although one can imagine a hint of irony, conscious or otherwise, given the aforementioned battles.


We might wonder why the narrator uses the soubriquet ‘Queen Jane’.  There are various possibilities. On the one hand it demonstrates both affection and recognition that she has good points. On the other, there might be a hint of irony. In calling her ‘Queen Jane’ the narrator could be seen as quietly alluding to an inappropriately high and mighty attitude.

Such a view is perhaps corroborated by the narrator’s use of the term ‘clown’ in a derogatory way for the would-be lovers. ‘Clown’ is a synonym for ‘jester’ or ‘fool’. Since jesters were traditionally employed by monarchs, the use of ‘Queen’ for the addressee and ‘clown’ for the lovers would seem to imply that she too has contempt for them. Approvingly or not, the narrator is implying she belittles them.


The ironic treatment of the addressee as royal continues in the lines:

‘When all of your advisers heave their plastic
At your feet to convince you of your pain’

The expression ‘all of your advisers’ has a formality which is suggestive of royalty. And so is ‘heave their plastic/At your feet’ if it means the advisers struggle to bow down or prostrate themselves in a show of obeisance.

‘Plastic’ with its connotations of mouldable as well as the more everyday cheap and nasty is suggestive of the narrator’s contempt for the advisers. Here one can sympathise. It would be absurd trying to convince someone of their pain. If someone’s in pain, they know it already.

The advisers’ actual aim is probably to make the pain seem to demand a greater response than the addressee is giving it. And that’s corroborated by the next line:

‘Trying to prove that your conclusions should be more drastic’

Again the narrator choice of expression is contemptuous. Actions can be drastic, but conclusions can’t. Absurdly, the ‘more’ before ‘drastic’ would imply that the conclusions are a little bit drastic already but just not quite drastic enough. In this way the narrator presents the advisers as mincing their words in obsequious deference to the ‘queen’. However, it may be that what they really want – which the narrator is not prepared to admit for fear of losing out – is for her to do something decisive to make her life better.

The logical language the narrator opts for– ‘prove’ and ‘conclusions’ – also has the effect of making the advisers seem dishonest. It makes them seem to be trying to give their opinions the weight of logical argument.

If the narrator can be trusted, his ridiculing the advisers seems justified. But because of his vested interest we don’t know that he can be trusted. We don’t know the identities of those he’s calling advisers or that their advice isn’t genuine and what’s needed. If it is, his ridicule is out of place. It even seems hypocritical given that he makes no selfless effort himself to make her life better.


In the final verse the addressee’s adversaries have become ‘bandits’:

Now when all the bandits that you turned your other cheek to
All lay down their bandanas and complain’

Calling them ‘bandits’ sounds mildly ironic as if the narrator, while still taking the addressee’s side, sees her as exaggerating her affliction. She’s treating those in her circle as out to benefit at her expense. What’s described as turning the other cheek, while it could indicate humility, might also imply that she turns away in disdain.

Real bandits are not likely to give up, however, or merely complain just because an adversary ‘turns the other cheek’. Furthermore, bandanas are not guns; they’re hardly the sort of thing even a defeated bandit lays down. Once again, these ‘bandits’ – like the advisers – could well just be people making genuine efforts to get the addressee to be more positive. We don’t know that they don’t have a point. It’s quite plausible that the addressee does need to get a grip, if that’s what they’re advising.


The song gives us a subtle portrayal of two people. Its design is curious in that it’s a monologue, but one that seems to be spread over a number of years. Nothing mentioned at any point has happened. The narrator seems just to be anticipating what might happen at various points in the addressee’s life and rehearsing his reaction.

The narrator is desperate to win the addressee.1 For that reason we need to be wary of taking his accounts of her troubles at face value. These tend to take her side, at least on the surface, and we have to be alive to hints that she may not be as innocent as he makes out. If he’s besotted by her, almost certainly he’ll be making light of her faults. Alternatively his irony, perhaps driven by a vested interest in taking her side, might be a cover for genuine criticism.

While the narrator presents himself as a way for her to end her troubles, he does nothing to bring this about – unlike those he ridicules. Neither does he give her any indication that he’d be a suitable match. Instead he seems to rather tactlessly build his case on the troubles she’s having. The only thing he says to recommend himself is that she wouldn’t have to speak to him. There are also indications that he puts her off. In pursuing a relationship he’s repeating the very sort of thing he knows makes her ‘sick’. It’s possible, given his knowledge of her faults – subconscious or otherwise – that he’ll decide it would be in his interests to forget her. If he doesn’t, one wonders whether she won’t end up seeing him as just one more ‘clown’ to be defeated.

As for the addressee, her life so far has been hard. She’s presented as creative and popular in her youth, but as having a difficult time. Later she’s unsuccessful both as a mother and in love – possibly through her own fault. She comes across as hard on potential lovers, perhaps having inherited this hardness from her own mother together with a failure to earn the affection of her children. Despite this, and encouraged by the narrator, she seems to spurn advice designed to improve her life. The narrator affectionately calls her ‘Queen Jane’ but, beyond mild and possibly unconscious irony, the title doesn’t fit. Given her circumstances she at best only approximates to being a queen.


  1. It’s not really plausible that the whole song, including the refrain, is ironic and that the narrator has nothing but contempt for the addressee. He seems too aware of the vicissitudes in her life for such an attitude to be warranted.


Love Minus Zero/No Limit


On the surface this is a love song. It’s sung that way and the impression is reinforced by the narrator’s repeated references to his lover as ‘My love’. This, and the mention of roses, puts us in mind of another four-verse work – Robert Burns’ poem ‘My Love Is like a Red, Red Rose’. It comes as a shock, then, to find that it’s far from being a traditional love song.

Nevertheless, the song is in part about love. This much is immediately evident from the title which taken one way seems to say love amounts to nothing and, taken another way, that it’s everything. According to Dylan the title is to be read as ‘Love Minus Zero Over No Limit’ where ‘over’ means divided by. If ‘no limit’ is interpreted as infinity, then we have love divided by infinity – the answer to which is nothing. However, if the slash is taken to mean equals rather than over, it can be interpreted as saying that when love has nothing subtracted from it, it will be unlimited. Only the former interpretation seems to fit the narrator. The latter pretty much fits his lover.

In dealing with love, the song presents the psychology and imperfect character of the narrator who turns out to be a vicious thug. Numerous references to the apocalypse make us see his behaviour as part of a wider context of moral collapse and ultimate punishment, perhaps in the afterlife.

The Raven

The song also seems to have Edgar Allan Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’ in mind. In Poe’s poem the narrator, grief-stricken by the death of his lover, hears what sounds like someone ‘gently rapping’ at his door. On discovering there’s no one there, he moves to the window and ‘(i)n there stepped a stately raven’ which then flies up and perches on a bust of Pallas Athena. The raven’s subsequently repeating the word ‘Nevermore’ represents the narrator’s fear that there’s no future existence in which he’ll see his lover again. He decides the bird is a ‘prophet’ and reluctantly puts his trust in it, not seeing that he’s using it as a representation of his own fears.1

Similarities between the song and the poem are a raven’s occurring in both, the way they are both concerned with an afterlife, and the gentle nature of the rapping which is reflected in the lover’s speaking softly.

Love and deception

As the title informs us, the song is about love. It’s not, therefore, just about the narrator’s love for someone. In fact it’s more about his negative attitude to both his lover and to those with a moral outlook which goes beyond his.  Both his attitude and theirs are alluded to in the lines:

‘People carry roses
Make promises by the hours’

The roses are gifts to be presented to lovers and the promises are presumably of fidelity. The phrase ‘by the hours’ literally means continuously, but – since hours are short periods of time – might also be taken to suggest limits attached to the time before the promises are broken. This would imply, therefore, that the gifts are not accompanied by genuine love. As the title implies, genuine love – love with nothing taken away from it – would have no such limits.

One might wonder why the narrator is concerned to say that lovers don’t keep their promises.
That it’s an example of his own behaviour becomes apparent in the third verse where he seems to imply that he too is betraying his lover:

‘The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles’

The dangling cloak and dagger would seem to represent illicit temptation and excitement. That this amounts to sexual betrayal is indicated by the reference to madams. It’s now night and the atmosphere couldn’t be more different from that created earlier with:

‘My love she laughs like the flowers’

It’s become seedy.

Realising, perhaps, that we’re likely to take a dim view of him, he appears to try to justify himself:

 ‘In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge’

Although he’s not explicit that he’s referring to himself, the word ‘must’ is a giveaway. Why must the pawn hold a grudge? We don’t normally think favourably of grudges or sympathise with people who hold them. Such sympathy, together with the willingness to excuse a grudge, suggests bias and that it’s himself that the narrator has in mind. He is the pawn. He sees himself as inferior, just as a pawn is inferior to the knights – the horsemen – in a game of chess. And he resents it – hence the grudge. In the context of brothels, his perceived inferiority may be to those he sees as sexually fulfilled – and that suggests that he might not be. His grudge would therefore be against his lover and he’s using it as an excuse for seeking satisfaction elsewhere.

That the grudge is against his lover seems probable given what he says in the first verse:

‘She doesn’t have to say that she’s faithful
Yet she’s true like ice like fire’

If he’s telling us that she’s faithful, we might wonder why he doesn’t say it straight out. Why are we not immediately told she’s faithful, but instead merely that she doesn’t have to say that she is? There’s something sinister about the pronouncement as if the narrator is telling us she doesn’t need to say it because he knows it already. How does he know? Because there’d be hell to pay if she wasn’t – as will become apparent. His certainty that she’ll remain constant is in evidence again when he announces that:

‘Valentines can’t buy her’.

The phrase ‘she’s true like ice like fire’ initially appears to be more direct. Nevertheless, while seeming to praise the woman for being true to him, the most plausible interpretation is that while on some occasions she’ll be passionate, on others she won’t accede to his sexual demands. This causes him to resent her.

At the end of the third verse there’s a further example of the narrator’s seeming to praise the woman while actually giving vent to his resentment.

‘She winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge’

‘She winks’ makes her seem as if she doesn’t mind about, or is even complicit in, his sexual meanderings – which seems unlikely. It’s more likely to be wishful thinking on his part.

The claim that ‘she knows too much to argue or to judge’ needn’t be taken at face value either. What looks at first like praise is far more sinister since it implies she daren’t argue against him or condemn his behaviour because of what he’ll do if she does.

Likewise the phrase:

‘… she does not bother’

can be taken to mean more than it seems to at first. Rather than simply meaning that the woman isn’t bothered by his behaviour, the precise wording suggests he’s saying she’s lazy. The approving tone would suggest he thinks a lackadaisical attitude towards moral values to be perfectly acceptable.

Narrator’s viciousness

The duplicity of the narrator which comes across in the third verse is present again in the fourth. On the surface it looks as if he’s just being critical of the wealthy – the bankers’ nieces:

 ‘Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring’

One only describes women by reference to their rich uncles if one has contempt for them. And if ‘perfection’ means moral perfection, the idea of those in line for inherited wealth seeking gifts is absurd. And it’s not just gifts they seek but all the gifts. The nieces are the archetype of selfishness.

That the gifts are those of wise men is heavily ironic. It implies they’re the gifts of the three magi for Jesus. And that the wealthy nieces are ‘expecting’ to appropriate them lets us know that it’s not moral perfection which the nieces are pursuing.

Although the narrator’s tone is one of sarcastic, moral disapproval, once again we needn’t take what he says at face value. The disapproval could also be fuelled by resentment. In the absence of any other reason for his concern with ‘bankers’ nieces’ it could be he has in mind one such bankers’ niece – and that this is his lover. In that case, he’s lauding himself as a wise man and the ‘expected’ gifts are what he begrudgingly feels he has to give to her.

That his grudge is caused by, and his resentment focused on, his lover becomes apparent in the final two lines:

‘My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing’

At first this sounds caring, as if the narrator is on the verge of performing an act of kindness towards his lover in her distress. What’s significant, however, is what is not said. Whereas in Poe’s poem the narrator, albeit unintentionally, let’s the raven in out of the rain, there’s no indication in the song that this happens.

Why the broken wing? The descriptions of the fifth and sixth lines make it horribly clear:

‘The wind howls like a hammer
The night blows cold and rainy’

‘Hammer’ and ‘blows’ are both associated with violence. It’s the narrator’s violence which has, in the language of the simile, caused the broken wing. The woman has not reciprocated because, as we’ve been told, she’s:

‘Without ideals or violence

To whatever violent abuse she has been subjected on a literal level, she has – it would seem – turned the other cheek.2

Not only do the cold and the rain symbolise the woman’s distress at the hands of the narrator, but they suggest his motive – revenge. He cannot accept her ever being ‘like ice’. And it’s because of that that he’s beaten her and repaid her frigidity with a coldness of his own symbolised by the violent weather.


The focus early on in the song is on the behaviour of people – ordinary people, the frequenters of ‘dime stores and bus stations’. These people are said to:

‘Read books, repeat quotations’,

suggesting erudition and an awareness of which passages are worthwhile. (Of course, that they repeat quotations might suggest a mindless acceptance of dogma, say, in which case the narrator could well be justified in his criticism.) They are also said to

‘Draw conclusions on the wall’

This is the first of four apocalypse references in the song. The phrase refers to the ‘the writing on the wall’ in Daniel 5 – the prophesy which foretold the death of Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians. As one might expect from someone who beats his lover and goes on to seek sexual satisfaction elsewhere, the narrator would seem to be criticising the people for having moral concerns. What he doesn’t notice is that, spiritually, the prophesy applies as much to him as to Belshazzar.

Similarly, the reference to those who:

 ‘… speak of the future’

may be an allusion to the apocalypse in which the future fate of mankind is revealed, evil destroyed and the good rewarded. Again, that the narrator is criticising the people for being unduly concerned about their fate in the afterlife is indicated by the contrasting attitude he attributes to the woman:

‘My love she speaks softly’

It’s significant that he doesn’t give the content of her response but only the manner in which it is delivered, suggesting that he won’t admit that her view is at variance with his. Once again his praise is a mask for criticism.

Attitudes to the apocalypse continue to be the subject in the third verse. First, there’s the reference to ‘ceremonies of the horsemen’.

Such a description seems appropriate to the archaic atmosphere created by the expression ‘cloak and dagger’ and by the reference to ‘candles’. While for the narrator the horsemen may represent rich people that he’s envious of, they can also be identified as the biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse (in Revelation 6.1-8) and therefore as a warning to the narrator of which he remains oblivious.

The third verse’s concern with the apocalypse continues:

‘Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another’

Biblically statues are often taken to represent false gods. Likewise, in Poe’s poem the bust of the Greek god Pallas seems to stand for the narrator’s pagan outlook which might account for his deep conviction that there is no afterlife.

The song’s statues, which are presumably just in the narrator’s mind, can be taken as representing the upholders of false values.  In that their matchstick composition is perhaps inspired by the lighting of candles by the madams, they can be taken as representing, amongst other things, betrayal. Their crumbling ‘into one another’, going beyond mere disintegration, would seem to represent the ultimate entropic fate of the world and all its false values. Thus – like the presence of the horsemen – the statues’ destruction can be seen as an apocalyptic warning to those like the narrator.

Another apocalypse reference is in the last verse:

 ‘The bridge at midnight trembles’

Trembling, as distinct from shaking, suggests that even the bridge is afraid of the terrible thing that’s about to happen. The bridge can be taken to be the connection between heaven and earth, or the present life and the afterlife. Midnight represents the end of the world and the time of the last judgment. The implication is that the narrator’s time for adopting a more loving attitude is almost up. Meanwhile a picture of rural bliss provides temporary relief:

‘The country doctor rambles’

The rambling doctor seems to represent those who, while doing good, do it in a fairly perfunctory way.

And while the song ends with a final apocalyptic warning, a storm – the cold, the rain and the hammer-like blows of the howling wind – the narrator, as if to defy it, metes out violent revenge on his lover.3


Superficial similarities with Burns’ poem, together with the compliments the narrator heaps on the woman, give the initial impression that this is a love song. To see it just as a love song, though, would be to miss much. One would be taking the compliments at face value. A closer reading demonstrates that the narrator’s attitude towards his lover is at best ambivalent. Even if he does admire her, his expressions of admiration are almost always a mask for his feelings of frustration.

Nevertheless, in giving vent to his frustrations the narrator can’t avoid acknowledging his lover’s virtues – the softness of her voice, her innocent laughter, and her fidelity. She comes across as perfect as it’s reasonable to expect someone to be. Not only is she faithful but, despite his betrayal and ill-treatment of her, she remains constant and, as far as we know, uncomplaining.

The narrator himself, as he admits his lover knows, is a ‘failure’.4 He doesn’t see eye to eye with ordinary people and he has a grudge against those he sees as socially superior – and these may include his lover. With respect to her the narrator’s main problem is that he can’t accept that she has imperfections. As a result he pays only lip service to her virtues, he betrays her, and he becomes violent when she feels unable to meet his demands.

Another fault is his hubris which causes him not only to claim to be wise but in so doing to compare himself to the wise men who attended Christ’s nativity. This is doubly ironic given the several allusions throughout the song to the apocalypse. These have the effect of reminding us of the moral significance of the narrator’s outlook. Whereas in Poe’s poem the narrator becomes convinced there’s no afterlife, in the song the narrator behaves as if there isn’t. In religious terms, if there’s a hell, he’s in danger of damnation.


There are further ways in which the narrator’s critical attitude to the woman comes across. In the second line he announces that she’s ‘without ideals or violence’. This is ironic since his own problem is that he has too idealised a view of her. Even in ‘She laughs like the flowers’ – a beautiful line in itself –  he might be condemning what he sees as silliness in her.

His discontent with her is reflected in the negative way he thinks about her which in turn is reflected in his choice of expression. Descriptions involving negative expressions include  ‘Without ideals or violence’, ‘She doesn’t have to say that she’s faithful’ and ‘Valentines can’t buy her’. Later there’s ‘she does not bother’. Regarding her knowledge, that too is expressed negatively, ‘She knows there’s no success like failure / And that failure’s no success at all’.


  1. This is according to Poe’s own account in ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, an essay in which he describes how he went about writing the The Raven.
  2. She might also be afraid of having her views heard, and so daren’t do other than ‘speak like silence’ or – as here – ‘speak softly’.
  3. The line ‘She knows too much to argue or to judge’ is particularly significant given the apocalyptic context. It serves as a reminder that those with a contempt for judgment, like the narrator, ultimately will be judged.
  4. In fact the lines:

‘She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all’

are probably intended by the narrator to cast the woman as a failure. The narrator’s saying that she knows she’s a failure. There’s dramatic irony here, because what the woman is actually likely to know is that he is a failure.

Murder Most Foul 


On the interpretation given here the narrator is looking back from half a century after the assassination of President Kennedy, apparently attempting to understand how it could happen. (For an alternative interpretation see the appendix.) As the song progresses, so his response develops from one of excessive emotion to a calm acceptance of the universality of suffering and death. The song can be seen as having the qualities of both a stream of consciousness and a dramatic monologue – the former in that it comprises his thoughts throughout, and the latter at least in so far as what he says unintentionally betrays faults in his own character.

The song has a surreal feel. It moves seamlessly between the thoughts of a number of people. These include the narrator’s own about the assassination as well as thoughts he attributes to imagined assassins and to the president, both around the time of his death and, curiously, at his funeral. A feature of the song is how song titles as well as allusions to singers, films and plays all contribute to the meaning. The occurrence of ‘Play’ around forty-three times in the second half introduces a number of these.1

If the narrator is taken as representing society generally, then the song is essentially about the reaction of people generally to evil and their responsibility for it.  A further consideration is the social conditions which lead to evil.

The post continues in nine main sections prior to a conclusion:

  1. The Assassination Imagined
  2. The Narrator’s View of Kennedy
  3. The Narrator’s Development
    a) Animal and sacrifice imagery
    b Attitude towards  death
    c) Hope
    d) Souls
    e) Moonlight Sonata
    f) Kings
  4.  Shared Guilt
  5.  Nothing New under the Sun
  6.  Lady Macbeth
  7. The Narrator’s Flawed Character
  8.  ‘Three’ Imagery
  9.  Underlying Causes of the Assassination
    a) Drug abuse
    b) Poverty
    c) Racial hatred
    d) Sexual licentiousness

1. The Assassination Imagined

The purpose of this section is to show how the narrator’s thoughts about the assassination are the work of his imagination and how he seems to blame the political right. He seems to be assuming that the Warren Commission was wrong to conclude that Oswald was the sole assassin. While there is good reason to think that others were involved, in particular the mafia and some on the political right, this has never been established. Nevertheless the song takes the possibility of a political conspiracy seriously. Commentators have noted, for example, that two possible conspirators – David Ferrie and Guy Banister – seem to be alluded to in:

‘Slide down the banister, go get your coat
Ferry ‘cross the Mersey and go for the throat’

Ferrie and Banister were associates. Ferrie had spoken against Kennedy’s handling of the Bay of Pigs episode and Banister was a right-wing activist.

The narrator not only creates a plurality of assassins but, in role as ‘the man with the telepathic mind’, attributes to them thoughts which in reality he could have no way of knowing they had, and speeches which they’d have been in no position to make. There’s no hard evidence, for example, that the president was killed:

‘… with hatred’

– although the claim reflects the fact that some on the political right did hate him, including some suspected of involvement in the murder. It’s quite plausible that the assassination was motivated by hate.

The line:

‘We’ll mock you and shock you, we’ll grin in your face’

also seems pure invention. The president wasn’t mocked by even the one assassin we can be sure about, and nobody grinned in his face. Nevertheless the narrator needn’t be worried about any factual inaccuracy. His concern can be taken to be how we should react if what he imagines were the case.

Towards the end of the song the same imaginary assassins are made to seem a threat to Kennedy’s brothers – which implies the narrator sees them as being responsible for the later assassination of Robert Kennedy:

‘Tell ‘em we’re waitin’ – keep comin’ – we’ll get ‘em as well’

While much is surmise, there can nevertheless be a strong factual basis to the narrator’s thought – for example when the ‘wise old owl’ replies:

 ‘Shut your mouth’

to the suggestion that Oswald and Ruby know the truth. The response seems based on Jack Ruby’s advice to Deputy Sheriff Maddox, namely that if he wanted to learn what really happened, he should ‘keep his eyes open and his mouth shut’.2

The thought that the political right might have been behind the assassination is reflected in the left/right imagery which occurs at various places. Kennedy is associated with the left, as in:

‘Dealey Plaza, make a left hand turn’

The regretful, or perhaps resigned, tone in which this is sung suggests that the narrator sees Kennedy as having doubts about the wisdom of a political ‘left-hand turn’.

A little later he says:

‘I’m leaning to the left, got my head in her lap’

The assassins, by contrast, are associated with right, as in:

‘‘Twas a matter of timing and the timing was right’,

Right there in front of everyone’s eyes’


‘We’re right down the street from the street where you live’

Much of what follows will be concerned with showing how the narrator’s imaginative account of the assassination forms the basis of an attempt to come to understand it.

2. The Narrator’s View of Kennedy

At the outset the narrator’s initial attitude to the murder is one of horror. There’s no explicit assessment of Kennedy but there seems to be implicit adulation. On another level there’s implicit – and probably unconscious – criticism. Both are apparent in the question Kennedy is imagined asking the assassins:

‘Say wait a minute boys, do you know who I am?’

The narrator is intending the question to imply that the assassins could have made a mistake. However, the way the question is expressed implies two possible opposed judgments of Kennedy. On the one hand the expression ‘I am’ associates him with God who gives his name to Moses as ‘I am’ (Exodus 3).

On the other hand, the question could sound pompous, as if Kennedy is demanding special treatment simply because of who he is. While it’s not clear to what extent the narrator is consciously aware that he’s putting Kennedy in both a good and a bad light, towards the end of the song there are hints that he has become fully aware of the president’s faults. This will be discussed further below.

The early adulation is continued when the narrator, perhaps more consciously, identifies the president with Christ – describing him as:

‘Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb’

Christ is treated as a sacrificial lamb in John 1.29.

The assassins are also imagined taunting Kennedy much as Christ was actually taunted:

‘We’ll mock you and shock you, we’ll grin in your face’

This association of Kennedy with Christ is implicitly reinforced by the narrator when he associates the assassins with the anti-Christ:

‘The age of the anti-Christ has just only begun’

It’s noticeable that the narrator’s predilection for associating Kennedy with God or Christ is a feature only of the first half or so of the song. Later he adopts a more restrained view in keeping with his no longer finding the assassination uniquely horrific.

3. The Narrator’s Development

By the end of the song the narrator’s outlook has changed. In the early stages it’s characterised by religious imagery, as just shown, and also gives rein to violently emotive expressions as a way of conveying his horror at the assassination – ‘blew off his head’, ‘blew out the brains’, ‘mutilated his body’ (the repetition of ‘blew’ suggesting he’s so overcome he’s at a loss for words). By the end of the song he is reconciled to it. His original pessimism has gone.

There are at least six different areas in which the narrator’s development towards a more optimistic outlook can be traced.

a) Animal and sacrifice imagery

The development of the narrator’s thought is exemplified by the way he varies his use of animal and sacrifice imagery. To begin with, he exaggerates the horror of the assassination in the use of excessively emotional language. Kennedy is:

‘Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb’

Almost immediately he has second thoughts, however. Perhaps the lamb comparison seemed over emotive. Or perhaps to compare the murder to a sacrifice – particularly one with Christian overtones – seemed absurd. For whatever reason, the simile changes – the lamb becomes a dog:

‘Shot down like a dog in broad daylight’

This is an improvement in that ‘shot down like a dog’ brings out the callousness of the murder. But the unwanted emotive content seems simply to have been shifted from the type of animal to the time of day. Does the murder’s having occurred in ‘broad daylight’ make it any the worse? Would we have felt more tolerant of the killers if it had happened at night? The phrase ‘in broad daylight’ seems irrelevant and there purely to reinforce the view that the murder was uniquely horrendous. The similarly irrelevant phrase ‘when he was still in the car’, which completes the line beginning ‘Then they blew off his head’, doubtless had a similar purpose.

There’s another problem with the dog comparison. While it’s less pointlessly emotive than the sacrificial lamb image, it still lacks accuracy. This becomes apparent with the reappearance of dog imagery later on in:

‘Play it for the dog that’s got no master’

In a musical context the dog most obviously fitting the description is the one in the HMV painting of a dog staring into a gramophone on its master’s coffin. The allusion to the painting casts doubt on the appropriateness of the original comparison with ‘a dog shot down in broad daylight’ – a comparison which treats dogs as worthless.  The painting of a dog listening to ‘his master’s voice’ implies that dogs are sentient beings capable of grief.

Perhaps for that reason the narrator changes the comparison once again. No longer deemed to be like a sacrificial lamb or a dog, the president is killed:

 ‘… like a human sacrifice’,

one performed:

‘… on the altar of the rising sun’

The cost is the return of the sacrifice analogy. This is still an improvement, though, in that human sacrifices are obviously worse than animal sacrifices, and there are no unwanted Christian overtones. Furthermore, invoking the idea of a particular pagan god has replaced the vacuousness of the phrase ‘in broad daylight’.

b) Attitude towards death

By the end of the song the narrator has become reconciled to the existence of violent death:

 ‘Darkness and death will come when it comes’

The words are supposedly Kennedy’s as he lies in the hearse but they presumably express the narrator’s outlook too.

They are based on those of Julius Caesar – also a victim of assassination:

‘… death, a necessary end,
ill come when it will come’ (Julius Caesar 2.2.36-37).

It’s because Caesar was also assassinated that it’s appropriate for the narrator to attribute Caesar’s outlook to Kennedy. But it’s because it’s the narrator who is attributing it that we can assume he is in sympathy with it. The narrator has developed in that a more philosophical attitude towards death has replaced his original aggressively emotional one. It’s notable too that in the later stages there’s no longer what might be seen as an out-of-place admiration for the assassins’ skill – ‘perfectly executed, skillfully done’.

The request for ‘Only the Good Die Young’ suggests that the narrator initially holds a naively romantic view of premature death such as Kennedy’s.  However, further requests provide overwhelming reason for him to abandon such a view. Mentioned are Patsy Cline (aged 31), Guitar Slim (32), Carl Wilson (51), Art Pepper (56), Charlie Parker (34), Bud Powell (41), Bugsy Siegel (41) and Pretty Boy Floyd (30). All died comparatively young, yet it would be absurd to cast all of them as good, particularly the final two who were criminals. Accordingly, the narrator would be guilty of gross inconsistency were he to hang on to the absurdity of applying moral significance to Kennedy’s premature death.

c) Hope

‘Hope’ is a word with two meanings. Which of them is intended can be indicated by whether or not it has a capital ‘H’. In the everyday sense it means a wish that something will happen, while in a religious context it refers to the expectation that God will keep his promises. The narrator sees the loss of the one as amounting to the loss of the other.

Initially, in the immediate aftermath of the killing, there was hope that the president would survive:

‘Cross the Trinity River, let’s keep hope alive

Parkland Hospital only six more miles’

Since this hope was not fulfilled, the narrator later sees the site of the assassination as:

‘… the place where Faith, Hope and Charity died’

The interpretation is pessimistic but it’s possible to cast doubt on it. The two quotations appear in the opposite order in the song to the (temporally correct) order in which I’ve just presented them. In other words, fifty years after the assassination, the narrator can be seen as replacing a pessimistic thought about Faith, Hope and Charity dying, with a more optimistic thought about keeping ‘hope alive’. The presentation of the thoughts in the order he has them in the song suggests that the narrator has developed his understanding. Whereas initially it seemed that hope had died, it now seems as if there still might be hope.

d) Souls

The narrator’s changing view about hope is reinforced by remarks he makes about souls. By observing three separate occasions on which the narrator uses the word ‘soul’ we’re again able to see how his outlook develops. The first concerns Kennedy’s own soul:

‘But his soul was not there where it was supposed to be at
For the last fifty years they’ve been searching for that’

The reason it’s not been found is because with Kennedy’s death the nation’s soul has been destroyed:

‘I said the soul of a nation been torn away’

The nation’s soul and his own are one and the same. The assassination has destroyed both.

Nevertheless the narrator’s final view is not so pessimistic. He implicitly reverses his negative view about the soul of the nation when he remarks about a radio programme:

‘There’s twelve million souls that are listening in’

Those souls, the souls of the ordinary listeners, have not been destroyed. If there’s hope, it’s with them that it lies.

e) Moonlight Sonata

The whole song, and especially the second half, contains a huge number of references to songs, plays and films which the narrator imagines a fictionalised version of Kennedy, somehow not yet dead in his coffin, asking Wolfman Jack to play.  Some of these choices attributed to Kennedy represent developments in the narrator’s outlook.

One, bizarrely for a pop music show, is for the ‘Moonlight Sonata in F sharp’. Just as bizarrely, the key is wrong. The actual key – the one it was written in – is C sharp minor. There are two points to be made about the narrator’s changing this to F sharp. The first concerns tone. While C sharp minor can be characterised as appropriate for  providing ‘a passionate expression of sorrow and deep grief’, F sharp is more to be associated with overcoming difficulties and with triumph over evil.3

The change would represent an attempt by the narrator to express a new-found optimism.

The second point is that it would probably ruin the piece to play it in F sharp. And that in turn suggests that simply for the narrator to replace the distress he originally felt about the assassination with crude optimism is too simple a solution.4

f) Kings

A further possible development in the narrator’s understanding comes with the mention towards the end of the song of various’ kings’ – ‘King James’, ‘Nat King Cole’, Little Walter ‘the king of the harp’. The effect is to neutralise the hyperbolic reference to Kennedy as ‘king’ in:

 ‘The day that they blew out the brains of the king

If other people now dead can be called ‘king’, then Kennedy is not so special. The inclusion of these other ‘kings’ could represent the narrator’s gradually coming to realise – at least subconsciously – that he’s exaggerated the disastrous nature of the assassination.

4. Shared Guilt

The narrator’s apparent siding with the conspiracy theory over the official single-assassin theory can also be seen as the first stage of a development in his understanding. This move from there being one guilty person to several then gives rise to a further move, this time from several guilty persons to universal guilt.

The two lines from Hamlet from which the song’s title is taken sum up the narrator’s early position:

‘Murder most foul as in the best it is
But this most foul, strange and unnatural’

It seems that the narrator comes to recognise that his earlier view of the assassination:

‘It is what it is and it’s murder most foul’

is too simplistic. By the last line of the song the refrain has changed from saying:

‘… it’s murder most foul’

Instead we have:

‘… play Murder Most Foul’

–  a request to play a song – this song. He rightly no longer sees the assassination as ‘most foul’, for there have been many worse murders.  Playing the song will presumably be to make others aware of how his outlook has developed.


The change seems to represent a move towards a belief in universal guilt. The first evidence of this move is in the sinister warning the narrator imagines being issued by an assassin:

‘We’re right down the street from the street where you live’

In other words, the claim is that the assassins are everywhere. It’s unlikely that the addressee is Kennedy; it would be unnatural to refer to Pennsylvania Avenue in such vague terms. The obvious alternative is that the addressee is the listener. Since listeners are everywhere, and for every listener there will be assassins ‘down the street’, it follows that assassins are everywhere.

The point isn’t that ordinary people are literally assassins but that whatever faults of character motivated the actual assassins are ones likely to be found among the rest of us.

In the light of that we can see the significance of the narrator’s advice:

‘Black face singer –white face clown
Better not show your faces after the sun goes down’

Utterly innocent people who had nothing to do with the assassination are in danger from the Kennedy-supporting mob out for revenge. A similar, and historically true, incident occurs in Julius Caesar after Caesar’s assassination. An utterly innocent poet, Cinna, is set on by mistake because he has the same name as one of the assassins. The mob still kill him even when they’ve been informed of the mistake. In a sense, the mob too are assassins.


 There’s a further example:

‘They mutilated his body and took out his brain’

The ‘They’ who mutilated Kennedy’s body and took out his brain could refer equally to the assassins and to the medical staff in the hospital who literally removed his brain. In a sense, that makes them equally guilty. The assassins are guilty of the actual murder, but ordinary individuals are in some way involved.

It’s ordinary people, too, who just:

‘Stand there and wait for his head to explode’5

– the unnecessarily gruesome final phrase implying their perverse delight – while contradictorily claiming:

‘It happened so quickly – so quick by surprise’.6

5. Nothing New Under the Sun

‘What’s New Pussycat?’ the narrator is asked. According to Ecclesiastes ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. In that case, when the narrator refers to the assassination as the:

‘Greatest magic trick ever under the sun’

the final clause alone – ‘under the sun’ – is enough to suggest that the narrator is wrong in thinking there’s anything exceptional (let alone exceptionally great) about Kennedy’s assassination. There isn’t. There have been unexpected assassinations throughout history – and there are veiled references to a number of these in the song. For example, Kennedy is in a ‘Lincoln limousine’ – the car being named after a previous president who was assassinated. Julius Caesar, another victim of assassination, is quoted. Lady Macbeth, herself an assassin, is mentioned too. Hamlet’s response to his father’s assassination forms the song’s title. There’s also a prediction of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination:

‘Your brothers are comin’ …
Tell ‘em we’re waitin’ – keep comin’ – we’ll get ‘em as well’.

The idea that wherever the sun is there will be murder – a sacrificial killing – is in the line:

‘They killed him on the Altar of the Rising Sun

The overall point is that Kennedy was no more killed like a sacrificial lamb than the many other victims of assassination. This gives the lie to the narrator’s original view that Kennedy’s assassination was a special act of darkness – hinted at in the song’s opening line:

‘It was a dark day in Dallas …’

and in the warning:

‘Better not show your faces after the sun goes down

Murder happens all the time, day and night. There’s nothing new under the sun and Kennedy’s assassination – which actually took place in broad daylight’ – was no exception. The person who declared on the day of the assassination that:

‘The age of the anti-Christ has just only begun’

was wrong. As the above examples demonstrate, the ‘age of the anti-Christ’ has been with us for a long time.


That the murder of Kennedy is to be seen as just one of many murders is supported by copious other references to killing including in the warlike song titles ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, ‘Marchin’ through Georgia’ and ‘Dumbarton’s Drums’. That evil associated with the latter is reinforced by its reminding us of a drum reference on the first appearance of Macbeth:

‘A drum, a drum
Macbeth doth come’ (Macbeth 1.3.140).

There’s a further indication that murder and bloodthirsty revenge are rife in the request to:

‘Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung’

Films and plays seem to make a similar point. Kennedy’s murder was not the only ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’. And, while the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ was a successful ornithologist, he had also been a murderer. In ‘the Merchant of Venice’ Shylock insists on his murderous revenge in the form of a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

The ubiquity of horror is also indicated by the narrator’s intention, a few years after the assassination, to:

‘… go over to Altamont and sit near the stage’

Near the stage was where a Hell’s Angel killed an out of control spectator.

6. Lady Macbeth

As noted above, an example of an assassin which helps demonstrate that assassination is ‘nothing new’ is Lady Macbeth. Just as Kennedy’s assassins conspired to ‘blow out the brains of a king’, so too did Lady Macbeth conspire to murder a ‘king’ – in her case Duncan, the king of Scotland. There is, however, a further significance to her inclusion. It seems to represent the narrator’s willingness to allow that even assassins can be redeemed. While he is scathing about Kennedy’s assassination, and by implication the attitudes he ascribes to the assassins, he nowhere condemns the assassins. That they are open to redemption is indicated in his allusions to Lady Macbeth.

The first allusion to her comes by way of a phrase from a nursery rhyme in the line:

 ‘Rub a dub dub – it’s murder most foul’

‘Rub’ echoes its use in a description of Lady Macbeth a while after Duncan’s murder:

‘Look how she rubs her hands’ (Macbeth 5.1.24)

says a servant on seeing her going through the motions of hand washing in an attempt to get rid of  her guilt. The significance of this only becomes apparent, though, with the explicit reference to her in the line:

‘Play Stella by Starlight for Lady Macbeth’

The line takes up the theme of darkness and light introduced early in Macbeth. Macbeth says:

‘… Stars, hide your fires,
Let not light see my black and deep desires’ (Macbeth 1.4.51-52)

Following the assassination, and overcome by a need to dispel her guilt, Lady Macbeth is desperate to have light by her constantly. Giving her starlight would be a kindness for it implies acceptance that she can be redeemed. And since ‘Stella’ means star, the title ‘Stella by Starlight’ doubles the kindness while symbolically counteracting Macbeth’s guilty desire for the stars to be extinguished.

If Lady Macbeth can be an object of compassion, then so too, presumably, can Kennedy’s assassins. In not condemning them the narrator is making a move against intolerance.

7. The Narrator’s Flawed Character

There are faults in the narrator’s character which he unintentionally gives away.

On more than one occasion we seem not to be getting the truth. This is when the narrator characterises the brief Zapruder film of the assassination as ‘vile’, ‘deceitful’, ‘cruel’, ‘mean’ and as the:

‘Ugliest thing that you ever have seen’

It might seem bizarre that the film, as distinct from the assassination, should be characterised in this way. Furthermore, if this does give the narrator’s view, it’s difficult to see why he should watch it:

‘… thirty-three times, maybe more’

It’s possible that he’s getting a perverse pleasure from it. Either way it seems an overreaction to the assassination.


On another occasion, when he remembers being:

‘… in the red light district like a cop on the beat’,

the question arises why he needs to mention this. While it’s true that the assassination occurred near the Dallas red light district, this alone wouldn’t seem to answer it.

It could be that he is trying to present himself in a favourable light. He’s the good guy – the cop – who is not to be associated with pimps and prostitutes. He has no conception at this early stage about evil being everywhere and therefore that it will necessarily characterise him. In his own mind he associates red with bad – the demise of the country, as a result of the assassination. This is apparent when he replaces ‘my dear’ with ‘ Miss Scarlet’ in ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ so that it becomes:

‘Frankly, Miss Scarlet, I don’t give a damn’

One wonders, though, if in referring to the red light district the narrator isn’t trying to cover something up – perhaps that he was there as a client, or as a pimp.

There’s also a more sinister possibility. In the line:

‘They killed him on the altar of the rising sun’

it’s possible that ‘rising sun’ should remind us of the brothel of that name in ‘The House of the Rising Sun’. If so we should perhaps take it that Kennedy‘s death was associated with vice and that the ‘unpaid debts’ referred to a failed attempt at blackmail. He was killed for refusing to pay up:

‘Business is business’

If this is so, the narrator’s association with vice by way of the red light district suggests an involvement in the assassination. This needn’t be literal involvement which would conflict with his expressed horror at it, but it supports a view that ordinary people, like him, have their share of guilt. How this is so will be discussed in the section ‘Underlying causes of the assassination’ below.

8. ‘Three’

The number of times the narrator watched the Zapruder film, thirty-three, is just one of many allusions in the song to the number three and its multiples.

The next line of the rhyme ‘Rub a dub dub’, already discussed in connection with Lady Macbeth, is ‘Three men in a tub’. This takes up the narrator’s despairing triple cry of:

‘Wolfman, oh wolfman, oh wolfman howl’,7

– three wolfmen – perhaps indicating the involvement of multiple assassins.

And when the narrator’s observes:

‘… three bums comin’ all dressed in rags’8

we’re again likely to be reminded of Macbeth – in this case the three witches who are:

‘So wither’d and so wild in their attire’ (Macbeth 1.3.140).

From the start the witches’ are associated with the number three and its multiple nine by way of a chant:

‘Thrice to thine and thrice to mine
And thrice again, to make up nine’ (Macbeth 1.3.135-138).

Three and its multiples can thereby by association with the witches be taken as representing evil.

There’s a further significance. If, by way of the number three, we associate the ‘three bums’ with the three wolfmen, and the wolfmen are the assassins, then the three bums are the assassins. Their hallmark is poverty – ‘rags’ – and that in turn suggests that in some way the cause of the assassination was poverty. This point too will be discussed further in the next section, ‘Underlying Causes of the Assassination’.

To some extent the association of three with evil continues to be the case. The opening line refers to the year of the assassination as:


A later memory occurs:

‘… thirty-six hours past judgment day’

– judgment day being when crimes are punished. In this case the allusion is to the judgment of society implied by the assassination.

Throughout the song there are other occurrences of three or its multiples which aren’t associated with evil. Thus the prospect of immediate safety is represented by:

‘… the triple underpass’

and hope is to be kept alive by crossing:

‘… the Trinity River …’

the name itself suggesting anything but evil.


‘… Faith, Hope and Charity …’

are a triple with obviously good associations.

Another good association occurs with the three ‘freedoms’ in:

‘Freedom, oh freedom, freedom over me’

– a line from a gospel song about obtaining freedom from slavery and which has its converse in the despairing ‘Wolfman, oh wolfman, oh wolfman howl’.9

Other benign occurrences are the request to Wolfman Jack to:

‘Play number nine, play number six’,

and the claim that:

‘There’s twelve million souls that are listening in’

The number three, then, seems to be associated with both good and evil. It might suggest that, far from the assassination’s being an exceptional evil, the world is made up of both good and evil or that acts cannot be accurately characterised as one or the other. Even Lady Macbeth is in theory open to redemption.

9. Underlying Causes of the Assassination

An implication of the song in its later stages seems increasingly to be that the guilt for the assassination shouldn’t just rest with the assassins. The blame lies with society as a whole – and presumably, therefore, the individuals who make it up. This would be the sense in which the day of the assassination is ‘judgment day’.

a) Drug abuse

One underlying cause of the assassination is the abuse of drugs:

‘Tommy can you hear me, I’m the Acid Queen’

Like the other queen in the song, Lady Macbeth, the Who’s Acid Queen does evil. She represents reliance on drugs. The relevance of this reliance to the assassination is made apparent in the lines:

‘You got me dizzy Miss Lizzy, you filled me with lead
That magic bullet of yours has gone to my head’

The dizziness caused by drugs has had the effect of the so-called ‘magic bullet’ that may have killed Kennedy and wounded Governor Connelly. An association between the assassination and drugs is further indicated when one remembers that the phrase ‘greatest magic trick’ has already been used to describe the assassination. The implication is that drugs – the magic bullet – somehow caused, or contributed to, the assassination.

How? One possibility might be that drug running is the basis of much organised crime. And organised crime often involves murder. It might even have been responsible for the murder of Kennedy.

Apart from the evil caused by drugs alluded to here, the song deals with three other causes of violent crime – poverty, racial hatred and sexual licentiousness.

b) Poverty

One of the causes of crime is poverty and poverty is in evidence on the day of the assassination:

‘There’s three bums comin’ …’

we’re told,

‘… all dressed in rags’

The narrator recalls being:

‘… in the red-light district …’

and, whether or not the narrator is innocent, the area is one in which people are forced into selling sex which is itself associated with organised crime.

Other types of crime too, such as theft, are rife as indicated in the advice:

‘If you’re down on Deep Ellum put your money in your shoe’

The narrator goes on to slightly misquote a line from Kennedy’s inaugural address:

‘Don’t ask what your country can do for you’

which was originally followed by ‘ask what you can do for your country’. By omitting this continuation, the narrator seems to be toying with the idea that the impoverished should simply accept their lot. He ignores the responsibility, which Kennedy saw a need for, to make improvements.

The result, it would seem, is a continuing gulf between rich and poor– those with:

 ‘… money to burn’

and those who are required to make immediate payments:

‘Cash on the barrel head …’

The point is that poverty could have been an indirect, though probably not a direct, cause of the assassination.

The negative effect of poverty is also suggested by the allusion to the song ‘Down in the Boondocks’ which shows its destructive effect on a relationship.

c) Racial hatred

The section of the song on poverty leads into another one on race:

 ‘Shoot ‘em while he runs, boy, shoot ‘em while you can
See if you can shoot the Invisible Man’

The first line is adapted from the Junior Walker song Shotgun about gun violence used by police against black protesters. Invisible Man is a novel by Ralph Ellison about black people going unnoticed. The implication is that with respect to race relations America is in a sad state and needs to change. This is implied by the line:

‘Frankly, Miss Scarlet, I don’t give a damn’

adapted from the famous ending to Gone with the Wind’ where Rhett Butler claims not to care about the disappearance of a way of life. The addition of ‘Miss Scarlet’, as being a possible allusion to vice considered above, can be taken as hinting that colour, i.e. race relations, is an issue which needs attention.

There’s another possible reference to racial hatred in the line:

‘Take me back to Tulsa to the scene of the crime’

The ‘crime’ here could be the appalling 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Since we’re likely to associate the phrase ‘the crime’ with the assassination of Kennedy, its presence here serves to relate the two events.

Finally, there’s the reference in ‘Freedom, oh freedom, freedom over me’ to the song ‘Oh Freedom’ which is about death as an escape from slavery.

The overall effect is to suggest that where there’s racial hatred there’s violent crime.

d) Sexual licentiousness

Various songs mentioned also concern disharmony in relationships including ‘Love Me or Leave Me’, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ and ‘Blue Sky’.

A link between promiscuity and violent crime is also perhaps alluded to in the reference to Marilyn Monroe:

‘… Going Down Slow
Play it for me and Marilyn Monroe’

According to unsubstantiated rumour Monroe may have been murdered by Kennedy’s brother Robert. Both he and Kennedy himself are rumoured to have had an affair with her. Since this puts Monroe and Kennedy in the same category, it would seem to explain why Kennedy is requesting a song for them both. It would be appropriate in that it’s about someone’s impending violent death which may have been in some way their own fault.

Likewise, in the light of such infidelity on Kennedy’s part, ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ is appropriate as a request for Kennedy’s wife. Her not ‘feeling that good’ may be a result of that infidelity as much as because he’s been murdered. The hope not to be misunderstood is ambiguous. It might mean either that Kennedy did want an end to the marriage, or equally that he didn’t.


The song is not about Kennedy, and nor is it primarily about the narrator. What I’ve tried to show is that it’s essentially about two other related things. The first is a propensity we have for being horrified and outraged at a particular incident – in the present case an assassination – while failing to be impressed by the huge number of comparable incidents which have occurred throughout history and are widespread today. That there is such a propensity is reflected in the narrator’s treatment of Kennedy’s assassination as a unique horror. That the horror of the assassination is not unique or especially foul is made apparent through the many singers, films, plays, characters, musicians and other songs which are referred to. A considerable number of these allude to past assassinations or present day violence and early death

The second concern of the song is the underlying causes of violent crime. The narrator himself can be seen as representing society so that his own faults represent society’s faults. While he modifies his early, over-the-top hatred of the assassination, late in the song he’s still focusing on the assassins as if they hold full responsibility. There’s no indication that he is prepared to acknowledge his own faults, take responsibility, or do anything to abolish the ills of society – drug abuse, poverty, racial hatred and sexual betrayal. All of these he shows he’s aware of and, in so doing, implicitly recognises as possible underlying causes of crime. To accept that ‘darkness and death will come when it comes’ may show an admirable philosophical detachment in contrast to his early over-emotional reaction to the assassination, but it does nothing to put matters right.

Despite this all is not lost. His response to the assassination is shown to develop in a number of ways as the song progresses. And whereas he originally lost all hope, he later saw that hope could be ‘kept alive’. His acceptance that this might happen is contained in his implicit suggestion that that even Lady Macbeth is open to redemption. if she is, then so are Kennedy’s assassins. It’s also contained in Kennedy’s final request to play ‘Murder Most Foul’. If the request is heeded, there’s a chance that people generally, whom the narrator represents, will not only come to recognise their own underlying responsibility for violent crime, but will do something about it.

Appendix: An alternative view of the narrator

I have assumed that while the narrator has faults, we’re to take his horror at the assassination at face value. It is possible to question whether the apparent horror is genuine, though.

First, the words he gives to the assassins need not be interpreted as being expressive of contempt for them. One can imagine them being said with delight. On this account:

‘We’ll mock you and shock you, we’ll grin in your face’

would express how the narrator would treat Kennedy given the chance. Also, the ‘hatred’ with which the murder was carried out would meet with his approval.

This view would also help explain how the narrator is able to praise the assassination as:

‘The greatest magic trick under the sun’

– something which seems odd for someone genuinely appalled by it – and why the day was:

‘A good day to be living …’

If the narrator does sympathise with the assassins, this could explain his having seen the Zapruder film at least thirty-three times. He could well be delighting in having seen it over and over again because what’s captured on it meets with his approval. Hitler, by comparison, is reported to have seen Gone with the Wind three times because it so chimed with his racist prejudices.

If the narrator does approve of the assassination, this could also explain why he moves away from comparing Kennedy with a sacrificial lamb to comparing him to a dog. And his subsequent statement that he was:

‘… killed on the altar of the rising sun’

would appropriately present him as in sympathy with primitive, non-Christian views.

In quoting Kennedy’s ‘Don’t ask what your country can do for you’, the narrator could be implying contempt for what he takes to be Kennedy’s betrayal of the poor. That would provide the narrator with a motive for approving of the assassination.

Whereas the words ‘left’ and ‘right’ can be seen as indicating political affiliations, the narrator’s use of ‘right’ in:

‘… the timing was right’,

might suggest he’s in favour of the assassination. Likewise

‘Right there in front of everyone’s eyes

can be taken as expressing the view that what happened in front of everyone’s eyes was right.

Whether or not this alternative view of the narrator can be sustained throughout the song, it is consistent with the view that the assassins are everywhere:

‘… right down the street from the street where you live’

This is so in that in representing people generally, the narrator would be representing a widespread hostility to Kennedy. People generally would, in heart if not in action, be assassins.


  1. The technique is a feature of Whitman’s ‘Song Of Myself’. See, for example section 33.
  2. Ruby suggested to Dallas Deputy Sheriff Al Maddox that it would be wise to keep quiet. Maddox: ‘Ruby shook hands with me and I could feel a piece of paper in his palm… he said it was a conspiracy and he said … if you will keep your eyes open and your mouth shut, you’re gonna learn a lot.’ Irish Mirror 6.1.2017 online.
  3. C# Minor: Despair, Wailing, Weeping. A passionate expression of sorrow and deep grief. Full of penance and self-punishment. An intimate conversation with God about recognition of wrongdoing and atonement. *F# Major: Conquering Difficulties, Sighs of Relief. Triumph over evil, obstacles, hurdles. Surmounting foes and finally finding rest in victory. Brilliant clarity of thought and feeling. (Ledgernote: Musical Key Characteristics & Emotions)
  4. The request for the Moonlight Sonata might be seen as identifying the narrator, and perhaps the view of Kennedy he presents, with the narrator of ‘I Contain Multitudes’.
  5. ‘After having a nightmare in which he saw a sign in Times Square, New York City, with the phrase “See the President’s head explode!”, Zapruder insisted that frame 313 [showing the effect of the bullet striking] be excluded from publication’. (Wikipedia ‘Zapruder film’)
  6. There’s perhaps a further indication that the narrator unconsciously recognises that evil is to be found everywhere in his use of the word ‘down’. It occurs fourteen times in the song in various contexts including the assassins being ‘down the street from the street where you live’ and children sliding down the banister. ‘Down’ might remind us of hell, but either way the use of the word associates the children with the assassins
  7. ‘Wolfman Howl’ is a 1982 song by The Vibrators.
  8. ‘There’s three bums comin’ all dressed in rags’ – three tramps were in fact arrested in the vicinity of the Kennedy assassination.
  9. The song is by Pete Seeger.

Key West (Philosopher Pirate)


Like Murder Most Foul this song concerns the assassination of Kennedy. Here we have the thoughts and memories of the assassin as he looks back on his crime, says how it came about and attempts to come to terms with it. These thoughts range over his birth, his upbringing, his youth and his attempt to achieve notoriety. Some thoughts occur at random, or one memory (for example, about searching for love) will spark off another from a different time (for example, about being in love), so that the later might seem to contradict the earlier. And sometimes his memory is faulty as when he treats Radio Luxembourg as a pirate station. The effect is to show that he’s looking back over many years. There’s no reason to doubt that the narrator is rational – a plausible, albeit flawed, human being with whom the listener can relate and perhaps even sympathise.

While the narrator is never explicit about his having been an assassin, there are numerous indications that this is the case. These range from otherwise inexplicable mentions of other presidents, allusions to Murder Most Foul, and implicit comparisons with another assassin – Lady Macbeth. An interesting feature of the song is the way it makes use of other songs, mostly from the 1950s, to bring out its meaning.

Throughout the song a complex picture is drawn of the narrator’s character. What he describes as a search for love is not what it seems. He’s depressed by the effects on himself of what he’s done but is too ready to lay the blame on others. Nevertheless there are indications that he has a glimmering of what he needs to do to regain his psychological and spiritual health.

The title refers to the narrator’s chosen retreat – an island in the Florida Keys archipelago. The sub-title ‘Philosopher Pirate’ perhaps indicates that the narrator is thinking things out in an attempt to come to terms with his past. It’s his thoughts which make up the entirety of the song. Despite the fact that Key West is associated with legends of pirates, there’s little to associate him with piracy beyond his misremembering being influenced by pirate radio and the fact that the song quotations he uses could be said to have been pirated.


The idea of assassinating Kennedy seems to have come to the narrator when he heard the song White House Blues, concerning the death in 1901 of President McKinley.1 His thoughts begin with the opening one and a half lines of that song:

‘McKinley hollered – McKinley squalled
Doctor said [to] McKinley …’

The narrator was at the time:

‘… searchin’ for love and inspiration’

and White House Blues seems to have supplied the ‘inspiration’, his aim being notoriety – or, as he calls it, immortality:

‘Key West is the place to be
If you’re lookin’ for immortality’

Assassination is not the only sense in which he might be trying to acquire immortality. At the end of the song he associates immortality with ‘paradise divine’ suggesting that his search is for spiritual reconciliation having come to regret his crime.

Mystery Street

The assassination of McKinley not only causes the narrator to remember its stimulus, the song White House Blues, but to notice other associations with Kennedy:

‘Mystery Street off Malory Square
Truman had his White House there’

In  remembering features of Key West which impress him, he comes up with Harry Truman’s ‘Little White House’. It’s as if by noticing something to do with a president, his subconscious is refusing to let him dismiss the assassination of Kennedy from his mind.

There is in fact no Mystery Street on Key West. The reference seems in part to be an allusion to the song Mystery Street (sung by Alma Cogan) which deals with the upsides and downsides of love.2 The lines:

‘You may lose your heart
And then your mind’

suggest that when the narrator says about Key West:

‘If you lost your mind you’ll find it there’,

he has become mentally disturbed as a result of losing his heart – or sense of compassion – and committing the murder. He tries to dismiss his moral qualms about this lack of compassion by putting it down to the natural environment – ‘The fishtail ponds and the orchid trees’ – giving him, as he disparagingly puts it:

‘… the bleedin’ heart disease’.

In the context of the assassination the advice that he ‘ought to try a little tenderness’ seems dreadfully ironic.

The ‘Mystery Street’ reference is not just to the Alma Cogan song. ‘Mystery’ is in the title of one of the songs, Mystery Train, requested by the dying Kennedy in Murder Most Foul and thus reinforces the idea that it is Kennedy’s death which keeps coming back to haunt the narrator3:

‘Play Mystery Train for Mr Mystery
The man who fell down dead, like a rootless tree’

Other Murder Most Foul references

Dizzy Miss Lizzy

There is another oblique reference in the song to Murder Most Foul which adds support to the view that the narrator of Key West is suffering from the psychological consequences of being Kennedy’s assassin. It occurs when he’s again blaming the natural environment rather than himself:

‘The tiny blossoms of a toxic plant
They can make you dizzy – I’d like to help ya but I can’t’

The word ‘dizzy’ seems to look forward to a couplet from Murder Most Foul in which Kennedy, having been shot, is fusing the words of another popular song, Dizzy Miss Lizzy, with his own fate4:

‘You got me dizzy Miss Lizzy – you filled me with lead
That magic bullet of yours has gone to my head’.

The phrase ‘I’d like to help ya but I can’t’ can be interpreted in two ways. If seen as addressed to Kennedy, it’s an indication the narrator now wishes he could undo the harm he’s done. If seen as addressed to himself, the narrator could be seen as giving in to despair as a result of what he’s done. Like Lady Macbeth he feels that, having committed the crime, there’s nothing that can save him from its consequences.


A further reason for seeing the murderer as an assassin is the presence of left/right  imagery of the sort also to be found in Murder Most Foul. There left is associated with the victim, Kennedy, at the point of his assassination:

‘I’m leaning to the left, got my head in her lap’

and right is associatedwith his assassins:

‘We’re right down the street from the street where you live’

A similar left/right distinction is evident In Key West when the narrator puts himself in the position of a Roman emperor deciding that a defeated contestant in the Coliseum should die:

‘Got my right hand high with the thumb down’

Not only does having his ‘thumb down’ make the narrator a killer, but that it’s the thumb on his right hand associates him with the assassins in Murder Most Foul.

The left/right distinction occurs again in verse ten:

‘You stay to the left and then you lean to the right

He’s being presented as the opposite of Kennedy who was ‘leaning to the left’. He seems to be admitting that while he does what is acceptable, he has no qualms about doing what is unacceptable – in other words, killing. Because he’ll be only leaning to the right, what he’s doing won’t be obvious. It’s a subterfuge.

A related tactic is in evidence when he declares:

 ‘I play both sides against the middle’

In other words he associates himself with the left side when it suits him and with the right side when it suits him.

In verse 11 the distinction occurs again:

‘I do what I think is right – what I think is best’

Since what he thinks is right is assassination, doing what he thinks is right is not as morally acceptable as it implies.

Last Request

A final indication that the narrator is being haunted by his assassination of Kennedy is the line:

‘… I heard your last request’

Murder Most Foul contains numerous requests by the dying Kennedy for songs. The ‘last request’ referred to is for Murder Most Foul itself. By recalling the title of Kennedy’s last request, the narrator is subconsciously recognising the assassination, which he seems to have thought right at the time, as foul.


It is apparent, then, that the assassination of Kennedy is plaguing the narrator’s conscience. His reaction is to try to convince himself that it was necessary. Twice he’s explicit about this:

‘I do what I think is right – what I think is best’


‘I’ve never …
… wasted my time with an unworthy cause’

That he feels guilty, though, is apparent at various points in the song. Right at the start he misremembers the third line of White House Blues by quoting it as:

‘Say it to me if you got something to confess’

This is significant because there’s no mention of confession in the original. It’s almost certainly the narrator rather than McKinley who has something to confess. The narrator is simply – perhaps unconsciously – transferring his own need to confess onto McKinley. We can assume that, Like Lady Macbeth, he is now regretting his action – while thinking that ‘what’s done cannot be undone’5. And, like Lady Macbeth, he is losing his mind.

In Macbeth the doctor says about Lady Macbeth, just prior to her suicide:

‘More needs she the divine than the physician’6

– meaning that her suffering is psychological or spiritual rather than physical. The narrator also needs the divine. In fact he holds out hopes that Key West will be:

‘… paradise divine

He presents it as an ideal, a state associated with redemption and spiritual ‘purity’ and ‘immortality’, and so a cure for his current state of spiritual ill health. Once he has reached this ideal state, he will have been restored to sanity. But, despite yearning for it, he – like Lady Macbeth – sees it as unattainable. It’s:

‘… on the horizon line’

However much you approach the horizon, it keeps its distance from you. Because of this he decides, it seems, to stay on the road to perdition.

Hard Done By

At the time he was searching for ‘inspiration’, the narrator was also searching ‘for love’. In his subsequent account of a relationship the narrator is either fooling himself or being intentionally devious:

‘Twelve years old and they put me in a suit
Forced me to marry a prostitute’

It seems likely that this is an exaggeration and, to the extent that it’s true, not the whole story. It seems far more likely that he got a girl pregnant – which would be the reason for his being required to marry her – and that he’s calling her a prostitute is to divert blame due to himself onto her. At the same time the carping tone of ‘they put me’ – when he doesn’t even say who ‘they’ is – suggests he’s content to see the world as against him.

That he wants to be seen as a victim is again apparent when he says:

 ‘I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track’

This may be true. The reference to a ‘convent home’ in verse eleven suggests that he’s an orphan. That he feels disadvantaged by his upbringing is supported by his mentioning about the ‘prostitute’ he was supposedly forced to marry that there were:

‘… gold fringes on her wedding dress’?

He seems to be showing resentment at the disparity between her lot and his – someone ‘from down in the boondocks’. In fact it doesn’t seem that he was hard done at all because his poverty has turned out to be no obstacle to his marrying well.7

However, to drive home the point he comes up with a ludicrous comparison. He’s:

‘Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac
Like Louis and Jimmy and Buddy and all of the rest’

If he’s disadvantaged to the extent of every other writer or singer, then he hasn’t been disadvantaged. At worst he’s average. And even to the extent that those in his example were disadvantaged, they were still able to achieve. They didn’t need to use their upbringing as an excuse.

Since the narrator gives himself good advice prior to becoming an assassin:

 ‘Stay on the road – follow the highway sign’

his impoverished upbringing would seem irrelevant to his becoming a murderer. That he’s capable of directing the course of his life is also shown by his decision not to put aside his old self:

 ‘… I’m stickin’ with you …’8

He should have realised that the narrator of the song I’m Stickin’ With You from which he quotes is utterly naïve.

There is another hint of disingenuousness. And there seems to be an appalling acceptance of a need to kill when after saying ‘Got my right hand high with the thumb down’ he comments:

‘Such is life – such is happiness’

‘Such is life’ is usually said when one resigns oneself to things that have gone wrong, not when you deliberately bring about death.

Sexual exploitation

There are also indications that the narrator is not being honest when giving the account of his marriage. One occurs when he says about the account he’s given:

‘That’s my story …’

Since ‘story’ can be used as a synonym for ‘lie’, the use of the word suggests he’s covering something up.

It’s doubtful that the ‘happy ending’ is to be taken at face value either:

‘She’s still cute and we’re still friends’

The word ‘still’ is significant. It suggests not only that he thought the girl ‘cute’ when he first met her but that it’s only because she’s still cute that he continues to have anything to do with her. We can take ‘still friends’ with a pinch of salt too. Since he was exploiting her before, the implication is that he’s continuing to exploit her now. He is making no attempt to reform and so achieve the psychological and spiritual solace he craves.

That the narrator is being disingenuous is backed up by a line in the next verse which quotes the title of a traditional song Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss. In the Patty Loveless version of the song (called just Pretty Little Miss) the girl is twelve:

‘Mama says he’s not my type
He really loves another
But he’s gonna marry me
When I turn twelve this summer’9

This might appear to suggest that narrator in Key West is transferring the girl’s age to himself so that it’s not the narrator who was twelve, but the girl. This would be consistent. He did something similar when he transferred his own need to confess onto McKinley. Presumably his aim is to gain sympathy which is really due to the girl. If so, it casts doubt on his claim that she’s a prostitute.

A further indication of the narrator’s true attitude to love is given in the line which follows the reference to Pretty Little Miss:

‘I don’t love nobody – gimme a kiss’

This is a heartless approach to relationships consistent with his dismissal of compassion as:

‘… that bleedin’ heart disease’

A similar heartlessness is also indicated in his report of advice he’s been given. The word ‘try’ in:

‘… I oughta try a little tenderness’,

suggests that any tenderness will just be an expedient, a means of achieving some end. If tenderness doesn’t work, he’s implying, he could try something more forceful.

It’s possible too that he’s being devious when he says about hibiscus flowers:

‘If you wear one put it behind your ear’

There’s a tradition for the hibiscus to be worn so by young women as a sign that they are marriageable. One suspects that in encouraging this, the narrator is hoping to provide himself with an excuse for dissolute behaviour. It’s what one might expect of someone who admits to:

‘Walkin’ in the shadows after dark’

Key West as heaven

The narrator remembers Key West from his past and wants to be once again immersed in the positive qualities he remembers. He sees it as representing his salvation. This is the case in two different ways. He thinks it will cure him spiritually (or morally). He also thinks it will cure his psychological problems resulting from his act of murder. It’s to be seen as a spiritual heaven as well as a heaven on earth. It’s not always clear to what extent he distinguishes the two.

That he sees Key West as a cure for his psychological state is stated explicitly:

‘If you lost your mind you’ll find it there’

He’ll become sane again once he has come to terms with his crime.

And while on a surface level it’s presumably psychological healing he has in mind when he refers to:

‘… the healing virtues of the wind’,

the application of the concept of ‘virtue’ suggests that – perhaps at a subconscious level – it’s a more spiritual form of wellbeing he’s convinced he can aspire to.

This would seem to be so when he sees the island as an imparter of spiritual solace:

‘…  the gateway key
To innocence and purity’.

Key West is also:

‘…  the place to be
If you’re looking for immortality’

which, again, suggests that it is spiritually reforming – provided ‘immortality’ is taken in a spiritual sense.

At the end of the song the narrator judges Key West, in language apposite to the Christian heaven, as:

‘… paradise divine’.

Key West as hell

The above shows that the narrator is open to salvation, both mentally and spiritually, in a way that Lady Macbeth was not. But it’s made equally clear that the possibility of redemption goes hand in hand with the possibility of damnation. He recognises that Key West has adverse qualities, two of which are characteristics of hell. It’s:

hot …’


‘… down …’

The latter idea is present at the beginning of the song where we’re told that McKinley, yet to confess, was ‘going down slow’. The word ‘down’ occurs twenty-three times in the song, enough to render ‘paradise divine’ a ludicrous hyperbole.

There are other adverse qualities. While there are beautiful flowers, he’s aware that there are also:

‘The tiny blossoms of a toxic plant
That can make you dizzy’

He characterises the island as:

‘… under the sun
Under the radar – under the gun’

While it’s relatively safe for those on the run like himself, in that it’s ‘under the radar’, it’s being ‘under the gun’ suggests it’s still a place of violence and coercion rather than a respite from such things. It’s a balance of good and bad.

There are also hellish qualities which do not seem apparent to the narrator. He sees Key West as being:

‘… fine and fair’

but the expression with its ‘f’ alliteration will make the listener think of the witches’ announcement in Macbeth that ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’.10 (And the implied need to substitute ‘foul’ for ‘fair’ once again reminds us of the ‘Foul’ in Murder Most Foul, thereby intensifying the need to see the present song as about Kennedy’s assassin.) Key West is less fair, and more foul, than is apparent. Ironically, his own role as a sexual predator is evidence for that. So is what seems to be an attempt to cover up his real nature by playing bogus (‘Gumbo Limbo’) spirituals so as to appear holy (‘blessed’).


The narrator is over optimistic in judging Key West to represent his salvation. His focus is on the place and what it can do whereas what he needs to do, it would seem, is transform himself. To put his faith in the place is absurd. Its being ‘under the sun’ suggests that there’s nothing new there – and hence that it isn’t significantly different from anywhere else. In verses six and seven, however, he seems to realise this. He first calls it ‘the enchanted land’ and then seems to contradict this when he says he’s never been ‘to the land of Oz’. The result, as far as we can tell, is that he gives up the quest for moral salvation and continues his life of dissolute behaviour.


A reason for suspecting the narrator of being Kennedy’s assassin is the otherwise apparent arbitrariness of his references to two other presidents, one of whom was himself assassinated. That he is in fact the assassin is reinforced by numerous references to Murder Most Foul, the final song on the album which concerns the assassination of Kennedy, as well as by allusions to various popular songs and to Macbeth.

An achievement of the song is in showing thought processes – in this case those of someone who is mentally disturbed. That this person is an assassin is important in that it enables the song to show how someone likely to be universally hated can in essence be no different to anyone else. Although the narrator is an assassin, the way he thinks is likely to be the way any one of us thinks, with – for example – a thought about searching for love sparking off another about being in love. Additionally we, like him, viewing our past life from the perspective of the present, will often fail to remember events in anything like their correct chronological order, and sometimes too the memories themselves will be faulty. More importantly, like him, we will not always distinguish between our possible motives for acting. Sometimes, too, we will behave inconsistently, just like the narrator in seeking redemption for one immoral act while continuing to commit others.

Because the song is written almost entirely in the present tense, it’s often not possible to tell which remembered events preceded or succeeded others. The uncertainty can result in a memory’s giving rise to more than one interpretation. Thus the meaning of the remembered advice to himself:

  ‘Stay on the road – follow the highway sign’,

will depend on when it was given. If it was given before the assassination, it might mean ‘Don’t go ahead with it’. If it was given afterwards, it might mean ‘Stay on the same immoral path’. Copious possibilities for similar multiple interpretations exist throughout the song. The narrator cannot be easily pinned down.

Key West, the island, is relevant in that the narrator associates it with various perfections which, perhaps unconsciously, he sees as reflecting the moral innocence he’d like to return to. Despite that, he realises Key West has negative qualities as well. It’s as much representative of hell as of heaven. As such, rather than representing an ideal to be aspired to, it’s where the narrator already is. He needs a more morally appropriate target.



  1. White House Blues was sung in 1926 by Charlie Poole but it’s doubtful whether he wrote it. The actual opening is:

McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled
Doc said to McKinley, “I can’t find that ball”’

  1. Mystery Street by J. Howard, J. Plante, P. Gerard and J. Gleason 1953. The lyrics contain much that applies to Dylan’s narrator.
  2. Mystery Train by J. Parker 1953
  3. Dizzy Miss Lizzy by L. Williams 1958
  4. Macbeth 5.1.63-4.
  5. Macbeth 5.1.74
  6. The narrator’s position is markedly different from that of the narrator of the song ‘Down In The Boondocks’ (by Joe South, 1965) which is being referenced here. There the narrator has a genuine cause for grievance in that on account of his poverty he can’t marry the girl he loves
  7. I’m Stickin’ With You Bowen and Knox 1956
  8. Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss (trad.) Pretty Little Miss Patty Loveless 2001. The printed version of Key West on BobDylan.com gives the title as just Pretty Little Miss. The words ‘Fly around’ precede the title, but are not made to be part of it.
  9. Macbeth 1.1.12

Crossing The Rubicon


On the interpretation I’ll be putting forward, the narrator is guilt ridden. We find out from his own thoughts that he raped a woman. And by way of the workings of his mind, we learn of his despair and need for redemption. We also become aware of numerous imperfections in his character, some of which would make redemption difficult to achieve. The narrator’s moral failings, combined with a desire for forgiveness, make him, as he perceives himself to be, a plausible representative of humanity generally.

One of the many ambiguities of the song concerns the refrain ‘I crossed the Rubicon’. I’ll argue that this can be interpreted as referring to two different events separated in time, yet we don’t have to decide between them because both are central to the song’s meaning.

There are ten sections (the most important being 1-6 and 10):

1. The addressee
2. Blood that flows
3. Redemption
4. Mona
5. Mona as both victim and redeemer
6. Crossing the Rubicon
7. Moral failings (in five sub-sections)
8. The worst time
9. The worst place
10. The narrator’s spiritual development

1. The addressee

It’s not immediately apparent who the narrator is addressing, nor whether it’s the same person throughout the song. When, in verses four and six for example, he makes three accusations or threats:

 ‘I’ll make your wife a widow – you’ll never see old age’, 1

 ‘You defiled the most lovely flower in all of womanhood’


‘I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife and I’ll miss you when you’re gone’

it’s most likely that he’s addressing himself. He is the defiler of ‘the most lovely flower’. This is supported by his admitting to having:

 ‘… kissed the girls’

 (it’s left to us to add ‘and made them cry’) and his urging his hearer to:

 ‘… let me love’.

The phrase ‘I’ll miss you when you’re gone’, makes it unlikely he’d be addressing anyone else. It would seem out of place said to someone he was about to attack with a knife. If he’s addressing himself, however, it would represent self-pity.

That the narrator is threatening himself is also supported by indications that he believes death could be imminent. In verse four he mentions having paid his debts. And a line in verse five begins ‘If I survive’.

He would also seem to be addressing himself in verse seven when he says:

‘You won’t find any happiness here – no happiness or joy’

This is because the pessimism about finding happiness takes up an earlier reference to happiness which is clearly to his own:

‘Put my heart upon the hill where some happiness I’ll find’

Blood that flows

‘Rubicon’ literally means ‘Red River’. We’re told:

‘The Rubicon is the Red River, going gently as she flows
Redder than your ruby lips and the blood that flows from the rose’

It seems that by way of this association with blood, the river represents redemption. This is because in the New Testament the Holy Spirit is described as:

‘… the true blood of Christ which still is flowing …’ (Revelation 1:5) 2

The phrase ‘the blood that flows from the rose’ is enigmatic until in verse six we encounter the accusation:

 ‘You defiled the most lovely flower in all of womanhood’

The double occurrence of ‘flows’ in ‘gently as she flows’ and ‘blood that flows from the rose’ is taken up by the first syllable of ‘flower’ in ‘the most lovely flower’. This lets us know that it’s the blood from this ‘most lovely flower’ which is the aforementioned ‘blood that flows from the rose’. It’s this rose, this most lovely flower, that has been defiled – or deflowered.

Furthermore, the phrase ‘the most lovely flower’ associates the defiled woman with the redemption represented by the river and, relatedly, its gentleness. As will be demonstrated in more depth below, she is not just the narrator’s victim but potentially his redeemer.

3. Redemption

The word ‘redeem’ tends to be used in two contexts – a religious one, in which one is redeemed by Christ for one’s sins, and a commercial one, in which one buys back articles from a pawn broker. Both senses are present in the song.

It’s the religious one that the narrator is primarily concerned with. Early in the song he claims to see the world as wicked and by implication in need of redemption:

 ‘What are these dark days I see in this world so badly bent’,

but then immediately changes the focus to himself as potential redeemer:

 ‘How can I redeem the time – the time so idly spent’

It’s unclear whether he means it’s his own misspent time that he’d buy back if only he knew how, or the whole world. Were he in fact able to redeem the world, he’d be taking on a Christ-like role – a theme which will be developed.

The phrases ‘dark days’ and a ‘world so badly bent’ suggest, however, that it’s something worse than idleness that needs redeeming.


Absurdly, the narrator immediately goes on to change the subject from spiritual redemption to the other, commercial, sort of redemption:

‘I pawned my watch and I paid my debts …’

It’s absurd because superficially it seems he’s doing the trivial opposite of what he intended. Instead of redeeming the time, he’s ended up pawning his watch!

There’s a serious side to this, though. Paying his debts, in the sense of making up for his wrong doing, is what he needs to do to be redeemed. In ancient Rome debts had to be paid by the Ides, or fifteenth, of March. By crossing the Rubicon on the fourteenth, he’d be only just in time.

4. Mona

There is only one person mentioned by name in the song, Mona. What we find out about her from just one line in the final verse will be crucial to our understanding of how redemption is to be achieved.

The narrator asks:

‘Mona Baby, are you still in my mind …’

These few words tell us a number of things. First, to the extent that she’s the narrator’s addressee she’s imaginary; one doesn’t ask an actual person if they’re still in your mind. Secondly, the phrase ‘still in my mind’ suggests that he’s conjured her up before. Thirdly, both this, and the fact that he’s having a one-sided conversation with her in his head, suggest that any prior one-sided conversation would have been with her and so would also have been imaginary.

There are various such conversations, including one in verse six involving an accusation and a threat:

‘You defiled the most lovely flower in all of womanhood

I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife and I’ll miss you when you’re gone’

The nature of the accusation, rape, would suggest that this is Mona accusing the narrator, rather than the other way about. But since we’re assuming that what she says is made up by the narrator, the narrator must be accusing himself. In his mind the words come from Mona, but they’re his words. The accusation represents his acceptance that he’s done something wrong, and the addition of ‘I’ll miss you when you’re gone’ represents a desire that what he’s done hasn’t damned him. It’s what he’d like to hear from her.

If it is Mona he imagines speaking these words, this is one of several reasons for thinking she’s the person he abused.

5. Mona as both victim and redeemer

In the final verse Mona is not being made to speak words the narrator wants to hear. It’s her mere presence, albeit a fictional one, together with the exceptional loyalty towards him which this represents, which the narrator takes comfort from:

‘Couldn’t be anybody else but you who’s come with me this far’

There are other things in addition to loyalty that Mona represents in this verse, though. She can be identified with the Holy Spirit and, through the Holy Spirit, Christ. These provide further reasons for identifying her with the narrator’s victim. I’ll take each of these in turn.

There’s an indication that Mona and the Holy Spirit are one and the same since both exist within the narrator. He can:

‘… feel the Holy Spirit inside

and Mona is:

‘ … still in my mind’.

And since the Holy Spirit is:

‘the true blood of Christ which still is flowing …’ (Revelation 1:5),

Mona can be identified with Christ.

Mona is again identified with Christ – and the ‘true blood of Christ which is still flowing’-  through the religious sounding phrase ‘I truly believe’:

 ‘Mona Baby, are you still in my mind – I truly believe that you are’

What she’s done to merit this identification with Christ is to have shown loyalty and compassion; to have:

‘… come with me this far’

Her loyalty, together with her representing Christ, suggests that she is instrumental to how the narrator might achieve redemption.


Mona is instrumental to the narrator’s possible redemption in that her loyalty amounts to forgiveness – the forgiveness of the narrator by his victim. For that to be so, she needs to be that victim.

That Mona and the narrator’s victim are identical becomes apparent when we realise that the latter too is identical with Christ. There are two ways in which she can be identified with Christ. First, since she is:

‘… the most lovely flower in all of womanhood’,

and as such can be identified with ‘the rose’ in:

‘… the blood that flows from the rose’.

This ‘blood that flows’ from her is Christ’s flowing blood. And secondly, it’s because ‘the rose’ with which ‘the most lovely flower’ is identical, can be taken as the risen – that is, the risen Christ.

Since the victim and Mona are both Christ, then Mona’s loyalty is the victim’s loyalty. In the latter’s case it amounts to forgiveness – and, because she is Christ, to Christ’s forgiveness. As such it is a step on the way to the narrator’s redemption.

To be redeemed, however, the narrator must presumably show that he’s worthy of this forgiveness. This is in doubt. In his appreciative comment:

‘Couldn’t be anybody else but you who’s come with me this far’,

the words ‘this far’ are telling. They imply that the attitude of forgiveness, might cease. That would be the case if the narrator were undeserving of it; if he failed to reform.

Crossing the Rubicon

Ever since Caesar took the decision to enter Rome and overthrow Pompey, ‘to cross the Rubicon’ has come to mean to take decisive action on which there is no going back. We can assume, then, that when the narrator uses the phrase, he’s referring to a decisive act of his own. This act seems to be two separate things, both his original crime and his later attempt at achieving redemption, just as the woman he abused is both victim and potential redeemer.

At the start of the song the narrator is looking back:

‘I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day of the most dangerous month of the year’

For Caesar it turned out that the most dangerous month was March, since he was assassinated on the Ides – the fifteenth – of March. By noting the date, the narrator seems aware that his action could be a precursor to his own demise – in his case spiritual rather than literal. If crossing the Rubicon were to be interpreted as his crime alone, then redemption would look to be impossible because there would be no going back. Hence the despairing cry of ‘Oh God!’ on the recorded version.

However, crossing the Rubicon doesn’t represent his crime alone. As a manifestation of the Holy Spirit it’s a symbol of redemption and the narrator’s crossing it a step on the road to his actual redemption.

7. Moral failings

The narrator has a number of moral weaknesses. I’ll mention five or six. Some of these make it far from certain that he’ll achieve redemption.

Failing to reform

The narrator seems likely to put his redemption at risk by carrying on in the same old way. This becomes apparent when he refers ambiguously to embracing his ‘love’, without making it clear whether or not this is his wife or his victim.

A further sign that he might not achieve redemption is his saying:

‘If I survive then let me love …’

– at least if its erotic love he has in mind. (Agape would be consistent with redemption.)

Likewise, when he advises himself to:

‘Take the high road – take the low, take the one you’re on’,

he seems content to do what he finds himself doing anyway – evil or not. The language is taken from the traditional Scottish song ‘Loch Lomond’ where the low road leads to a lover’s death. Accordingly, by being prepared to take the low road, the narrator is showing he’s prepared to continue with behaviour which will end up with his own spiritual or physical death. 3


A crime like rape would seem to have an obvious motive. However a pair of lines in verse seven suggests that the narrator’s motive is more complex:

‘You won’t find any happiness here – no happiness or joy
Go back to the gutter and try your luck – find you some nice young pretty boy’

The phrase ‘Go back to the gutter and try your luck’ is enough to get across the narrator’s scathing self-contempt once the horror of his crime has sunk in. This becomes even more scathing with:

‘… find you some nice young pretty boy’

The choice of the phrase ‘nice young pretty boy’ suggests a homophobic side to the narrator’s character – a suggestion reinforced by his earlier reference to:

 ‘… this world so badly bent’.

And since ‘Go back to the gutter’ suggests that an interest in boys is something he had in the past, the contempt implies it’s an interest he’s tried to suppress. For all we know, his motive for raping his victim was as an attempt to prove his heterosexuality to himself – although there’s no precise indication that this is the case. 4

Sexism and Misogyny

It’s consistent with his contempt for the idea of attraction to a ‘pretty boy’ that the narrator immediately changes the subject to men:

‘Tell me how many men I need and who I can count upon’

and what he takes to be manly qualities such as assertiveness. The phrase ‘Tell me’ is more assertive than the ‘find you’ of the previous line. And the idea of knowing who can be counted upon has a definiteness about it which ‘try your luck’ lacks. The verse ends:

‘I strapped my belt and buttoned my coat and I crossed the Rubicon’

Again the note is assertive.

Gender bias is again evident when he refers to freedom (presumably from sin) as being:

‘… within the reach of every man who lives’.

This is preceded by another assertive demand involving the same gender bias:

‘Show me one good man in sight …’

Ironically, given the nature of his crime, he seems to be ignoring the existence of women.


While the threat:

‘I’ll make your wife a widow’,

if directed at himself, is an indirect way of saying that he’s considering taking his own life, it can be seen as misogynistic in that he ignores the effect on his wife of being made a widow. His focus is entirely on himself.

The narrator also comes across as misogynistic in being both married and sexually profligate.


The narrator is guilty of self-deception. This is shown by his question:

‘What are these dark days I see in this world …’

If the days are ‘dark’, then – literally – he can’t be seeing them. One wonders if he’s focusing on evil in the world as a whole simply to distract himself from his own imperfections.


Something similar is going on when he demands:

‘Show me one good man in sight that the sun shines down upon’

for here the phrase ‘in sight’ is redundant.

There are two reasons for this. First, if one is shown something, it will automatically be in sight so ‘in sight’ doesn’t need saying.

Secondly, the inclusion of ‘in sight’ has the effect of changing the meaning of the request. The narrator, following Diogenes in his fruitless search for just one good man, is declaring that there are no good men in the world. Presumably, once again, it’s to make his own imperfections seem not so bad. However, it’s an obvious lie. But by including the phrase ‘in sight’, he can give the lie a semblance of truth. What he ends up saying is true, but absurdly insignificant – namely that there is no good man within the short radius of his vision.


A tendency to self-deception also becomes apparent when he directly contradicts his claim that there’s not one good man:

‘Others can be tolerant – others can be good’

Again he’s disingenuously saying what it suits him to say. As before, his aim in saying ‘others can be good’ is to make his own crime seem less bad. It’s just the strategy that’s different. Whereas before it was to claim that goodness is impossible, it’s now to imply that he doesn’t have the ability to be good in the way that others can.

‘Others can be tolerant’ is likewise disingenuous, although for a different reason. The claim seems intended not so much to excuse his crime but to place himself in a favourable moral light by condemning it. Other people might be able to tolerate criminality, he’s saying, but he has higher standards – which he clearly knows that he doesn’t. 5

Wishful thinking

The choice of language in a line from verse six tells us something about the narrator’s character:

‘I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife and I’ll miss you when you’re gone’

Here, he seems guilty of wishful thinking in that what’s said is unduly favourable to him. Although he’s threatening himself, a crooked knife wouldn’t normally be the implement of choice for cutting somebody up. Rather it’s as if he’s suggesting to himself that his crime needn’t warrant taking his own life. Hence, perhaps, the hopeful ‘If I survive …’ of verse five.

Similarly ‘I’ll miss you when you’re gone’, being an unlikely sentiment to be uttered immediately prior to killing someone, is more likely to be an expression of the narrator’s own hope that there’ll be something about him worth remembering. And as with the ‘crooked knife’, it might also indicate that he’s beginning to backslide on his intention to take his own life.

8. The worst time

Although the narrator is accused of crossing the Rubicon:

‘At the worst time at the worst place …’

this, it would seem is only half the story. It’s the view of his critics (or himself in critical mode), but one which he disparages:

 ‘… that’s all I seem to hear’

Since crossing the Rubicon can be taken as both his original crime and his later forgiveness, whether he actually crossed at the worst time and place will depend on which of the two we have in mind.

If what he means is the crime, then it’s true that he crossed at the worst time. Likewise getting up ‘early’ to cross the river can be seen as occurring ‘at the worst time’ if dawn is when his crime occurred. What is presumably a remembered warning:

‘Keep as far away as possible – it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn’

suggests that it might have been.

But it’s also true that he crossed at a time which wasn’t the worst if crossing the river is taken as a further step on the way to redemption. The narrator disparages his critics for not acknowledging this but instead seeming to harp on about his crime.

9.  The worst place

The criticism that he crossed:

‘… at the worst place’

can also be interpreted in two ways.

It would be the worst place in that he crossed a mere:

‘Three miles north of purgatory – one step from the great beyond’

It’s because his crossing – his crime – took him so close to purgatory that he might be deemed to have crossed at the worst place.

Nevertheless, by focusing on his moral failing the critics are ignoring his desire for forgiveness. If he’s redeemed, he’ll have avoided punishment in the afterlife by three miles, and death by ‘one step’. He’s thereby remained a small but significant distance from ‘the worst place’.

Just as the river represents both his crime and his potential redemption, so his crossing it both does and does not occur at the worst time and place

10. Narrator’s spiritual development

One would think from his numerous references to religious concepts that redemption would be uppermost in the narrator’s mind. This is most obviously the case, though, only towards the end of the song. In contrast, at the start, he abandons all hope suggesting, following Dante, that he deserves hell. 6

Gradually he becomes more ambivalent. For example, two inconsistencies are apparent in his having:

 ‘… prayed to the cross and kissed the girls …’

First, it seems extraordinary that he’s unaware that prayer and sexual licentiousness don’t go together.

A second inconsistency lies in his seeming to combine the previously expressed reverence for the cross with reverence for a pagan deity:

‘I got up early so I could greet the Goddess of the Dawn’

There’s still no commitment to Christian values at this stage.

As the song progresses, his attitude towards Christianity becomes more serious. Halfway through, when he asks for his heart to be put:

 ‘… upon the hill’

following his intended suicide, he’s at least seeming to associate  his death with Christ’s on Calvary.

He also assumes the role of Christ at the last supper:

‘I poured the cup and passed it along’

This seems to represent a desire that everyone should partake in his suffering so that the whole world – ‘the time’ – is redeemed. Thus what seemed absurd at the beginning of the song, his desire to redeem the world rather than just himself, now seems plausible in that he takes steps to ensure that the redemptive behaviour he instigates is taken up by others. As he puts it, redemption is:

‘…  within the reach of every man who lives’

The last two verses represent further development. In the final line of the song:

 ‘I lit the torch and I looked to the east and I crossed the Rubicon’

he’s looking to the east and hence in hope of seeing the rising sun, not now for guidance from the pagan Goddess of the Dawn –  but for ‘the light that freedom gives’. This, judging by the need for a torch, is still not visible. Nevertheless, in verse eight he does claim to see this light.

Verse eight is also important for showing the narrator becoming associated with Christ and redemption – ‘freedom’ from sin – by way of internalising the Holy Spirit. This first happens by way of feeling. In verse four, he says:

‘I feel the bones beneath my skin and they’re trembling with rage’

 And then, In verse eight, it’s feeling which makes the Holy Spirit known to him:

 ‘I feel the Holy Spirit inside and see the light that freedom gives’

It is as if by raging at his crime he is identifying with the Holy Spirit.

An association with Christ and the Holy Spirit occurs again in the final verse by way of Mona’s identification with Christ and the narrator’s identification with Mona.


The song is about redemption. The narrator wants to be redeemed following his rape of a woman. It doesn’t just concern the narrator’s own redemption, though. He’s aware that redemption is needed by, and is within the reach of, ‘every man who lives’. For his own part, though, that means he must live, and so has a reason to put aside the unwelcome idea of having to take his own life.

Among the narrator’s faults is wishful thinking. He wants it to be the case that he’s forgiven and he imagines his victim forgiving him. By way of the song’s river, blood and flower imagery, we’re able to identify his victim with Christ, and as such she represents the route to his redemption – the forgiveness he imagines her bestowing on him. To capitalise on this, he must reform but by the end of the song it’s not clear whether or not he has.

The uncertainty is due to the working of numerous ambiguities which are never resolved. We often don’t know whether what is being alluded to is the narrator’s crime or his redemption. Thus, crossing the Rubicon seems to represent both the act leading to his spiritual death and a step on the way to his possible redemption. The sun (as the Goddess of the Dawn) represents his initial pagan outlook. But it also represents his developing Christian one. Love, as in the narrator’s demand to be allowed to ‘love’, can be interpreted as erotic love or ‘agape’. And the ‘love’ he embraces could be his victim or wife.7 The road he takes could be the high road or the low road – the latter, but not the former, leading to spiritual death. The happiness he wants is to be obtained either from the hill (Calvary) or the gutter (more immorality). The key which is broken off could be to keep him in the company of his victim or away from temptation. For none of these pairs do we find out which one the narrator ultimately opts for.

The problem about whether he achieves redemption is further compounded by his having so many faults. These include homophobia, sexism, misogyny, self-deception and wishful thinking. Furthermore, the last line of the song refers to winter, associated with death. Nevertheless, that there’s hope is implied by the development of his Christian outlook, which is discernible through all the ambiguities, and by his believing he feels the Holy Spirit ‘inside’ – as well as the value he puts on his victim’s forgiveness. It’s also implied by his own role as redeemer in pouring the cup and passing it along.


  1. The line is based on Homer, Iliad Book 6, line 414.
  2. As in I contain Multitudes there may be a suggestion of life and death being inseparable. The ‘most lovely flower’ is alive as the river likewise is. In crossing the river, i.e. committing crime, the narrator goes against this representative of life. In verse eight he refers to redemption being ‘… within the reach of every man who lives’ which suggests that he now values life over death.
  3. The reference is to the refrain: ‘You’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road / And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.’ ‘The narrator is a Jacobite soldier in England dying from battle injuries, and is addressing a fellow soldier who is unhurt and will return to Scotland. The ‘high road’ is the main road or highway which the survivor will use. The ‘low road’ refers to a folk belief that the souls of the dead, after burial, could travel instantaneously through the ground to their homelands. The dying man is saying that once he is dead and buried his soul will return to Scotland faster than his surviving comrade will march there, hence he says ”I’ll be in Scotland afore ye”. (Jonathan Gurney on Quora). There’s also an Irish version of the song is called ‘Red is the Rose’ – which phrase is possibly therefore the inspiration for Dylan’s ‘the blood that flows from the rose’.
  4. Another possibility, which I won’t be considering, is that the addressee is a male lover. The gender is consistent both with there being a wife and the defiling of a woman. And being a lover is consistent both with the phrase ‘I’ll miss you when you’re gone’ and with an earlier reference to:

‘… your ruby lips …’.

The interpretation might also tie up with two apparent references to gay      relationships in the song. The criticism that he’s homophobic would still apply even if his contempt were not being directed at himself but, say, at a male lover.  According to the dylyricus website, Dylan has sung variations on the original lyrics, including:

‘Well, you foxy man, you’re the talk of the town
You’ve been suckin’ off all of the younger men
I trusted you once and that was more than enough
I’ll never trust another person again
I’ll rip your heart, cut your heart out with a crooked knife
And I’ll weep until it’s gone
I stood between heaven and earth, and I crossed the Rubicon’

  1. The phrase ‘others can be tolerant’ would also fit with an interpretation of the song in which the narrator is threatening someone else for raping the woman. In that case it would be an excuse for his taking violent revenge. I’m not sure such an interpretation, though immediately more obvious, can be sustained, however.
  2. ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’ Dante Divine Comedy, Canto III, line 9.
  3. The line is ‘I embraced my love, put down my head and I crossed the Rubicon’ In addition to the obvious interpretation, ‘put down my head’ might mean he didn’t take his head, i.e. he didn’t think before crossing river and ‘defiling’ the ‘most lovely flower’. This might suggest ‘my love’ is the abused woman. There’s an echo of My Own Version of You in which the narrator wants the head ‘put on straight’.

Mother Of Muses


What an amazing song! Even by Dylan’s standards it’s a masterpiece of concision. Over just six verses it traces the creative and moral transformation of a poetically wanting, sexist, self-centred, indolent narrator, one whose sense of failure makes him welcome death. These deficiencies become apparent through his objectification of, and inappropriate dependence on, two mythical Greek deities. These are Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses and goddess of fate and memory, and her daughter Calliope, the inspirer of musical and poetic creativity. Once he recognises that these deities have no independent existence, however, his faults all but vanish. He becomes active, self-confident and reconciled to life.

By the end of the final verse we’re able to see that the song exists not just as Dylan’s, but as the narrator’s. It’s the successful outcome of the narrator’s new-found self-confidence and creativity. What seemed to start out as poetically inept becomes part of a successful whole which exemplifies the narrator’s creative transformation.

This piece is in five main sections. These deal respectively with the narrator’s poetic inadequacy, his moral deficiencies, his changing attitude to death, his moral redemption, and his renewal as a creative artist.

1. Poetic inadequacy

From the beginning of the second verse to the end of the third it becomes apparent that the narrator lacks creative skill. Since these verses represent the starting point for his creative development, by analysing them we’ll be better able to see just how far he’s come by the end of the song.

The narrator’s creative incompetence becomes apparent in the second and third verses. Having declared an admiration for heroes and generals, he does almost nothing to justify that admiration. It’s true that when he asks Mnemosyne to:

‘Sing of the Heroes who stood alone‘,

he’s asking for inspiration, but she certainly doesn’t impart it! That’s unsurprising. It’s her daughter who should be appealed to for poetic inspiration.

What stands out is that the narrator fails to tell us who these ‘Heroes’ are that he wants praised in song. If their names have been worth engraving on memorials, one would have thought they’d be worth mentioning. Instead we get told, in language as vague as it is romantic, that they:

‘… stood alone’

It’s unlikely he has in mind the five generals he does go on to name; it’s difficult to think of a sense in which they ‘stood alone’.

In addition to standing alone, the Heroes:

‘… struggled with pain so the world could go free.’

What pain? Once again, it’s absurdly vague. In any case, one doesn’t usually struggle with pain; more likely one suffers pain when struggling against an adversary. And the phrase ‘so the world could go free’ is no better. It’s both clichéd and all but devoid of meaning. It seems to be almost entirely empty minded, romantic sounding, twaddle.

At least when the narrator expresses admiration for the five generals, he is able to name them:

‘Sing of Sherman, Montgomery and Scott
Sing of Zhukov and Patton and the battles they fought’

The trouble is that naming them is about all he can do. The only remotely specific thing we get told is that they prepared the way for those who came after them:

‘Who cleared the path for Presley to sing
Who carved out the path for Martin Luther King’

The examples here don’t seem particularly well chosen. One doesn’t usually imagine that without these generals there would have been no Elvis or Martin Luther King. Furthermore, the narrator’s choice of ‘carved’ when describing the generals’ achievement seems to have unintended implications. The word suggests the generals’ achievement was through violence of a sort associated with gangsters. They could be seen, therefore, not just as preparing the way for King, but as preparing the way for his death – perhaps at the hands of an assassin emulating their violence.

Either way, the panegyric ends in a hopelessly vague way:

‘They did what they did and then went on their way’

If one’s exploits don’t amount to more than doing what you did and going on your way, we’d all be the focus of admiration!

The narrator’s inability to think of something precise to support his approval is then reinforced by the lame line:

‘Man, I could tell their stories all day’

Really? Then ‘why don’t you?’ one might ask. Instead, from what we’ve learnt, the generals might as well be clones of each other.


While Homer invokes Calliope at the start of the Iliad to help him give an accurate account of the Trojan War, the song’s narrator invokes Mnemosyne and demotes Calliope to the level of love interest. Not only is this humorously absurd, but the narrator’s inability to justify his admiration for the heroes and generals can be put down to the lack of skill which Calliope could have helped him acquire.

Since the narrator seems not to have noticed anything worth saying about the heroes and generals, his lack of artistry contrasts with that of Calliope, whose artistic ability is the result of observation. She speaks, we’re told:

‘… with her eyes’

By contrast the narrator just complains that he can’t effectively use his:

‘Things I can’t see – they’re blocking my path’

It will only be when the narrator has ceased to treat Calliope as a mere love interest, and acquired her propensity to observe, that he will have the artistic skill he lacks.

2. Moral deficiencies


One of the narrator’s deficiencies is his sexism – a defect which, like his poetic incompetence, has been remedied by the end of the song to the extent that by then he’s seeing the female goddesses as integrally related to himself. This is not to say that the narrator is any more sexist than the rest of society; his faults can be seen as those of society.

There are seven named men referred to in the song and just two named females, both goddesses. The remainder are anonymous and mentioned only in passing – nymphs and a chorus of women. Although someone seems to be apostrophised as ‘Man’ in the third verse, the word would be better seen as an expression of amazement. Even so, its appearance demonstrates the narrator’s gender bias. The same bias seems to underlie the fact that five of the named men are fighters – generals – suggesting he admires male qualities associated with violence and success. A sixth, Martin Luther King, didn’t fight literally but nevertheless died violently. Presley, although unassociated with violence, is presumably included as an example of male success.

The opposite is the case when it comes to the women. The narrator presents them as subservient to men. Although Calliope and the nymphs are presented admiringly, there’s no early indication that the narrator’s interest in them is other than romantic or sexual. Generally the women are presented as inferiors fit to be dominated. Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, is repeatedly expected to sing, and later in the song to perform a whole variety of tasks for the narrator. For the female chorus singing is not enough – they’re required not just to sing but to sing their hearts out. And Calliope is seen merely as property to be ‘given’.


While the narrator’s characterisation of the Heroes and generals is inept, what he does is enough to give us an insight into his own character. He comes across as relying on others (represented by the goddesses) instead of himself. In this respect, too, he can be seen as embodying the faults of humanity generally.

There are numerous examples of his inertia. While the Heroes:

‘… struggled with pain so that the world could go free’,

the narrator makes no such effort. Instead of working for freedom, he appeals to Mnemosyne to make him free:

‘… free me from sin’.

Likewise, while he recognises that the generals:

‘… cleared a path for Presley to sing’,

he expects Mnemosyne to sing for him. Presley was active – he sang. The narrator, by contrast, is passive – he leaves the singing to others.

The narrator puts his lack of success down to things blocking his path, but the real cause is likely to be that he’s lazy to see where they are and remove them. There are numerous examples of his laziness. He wants Calliope, for example, but makes no effort to get her beyond saying:

‘… why not give her to me’

A propensity to avoid the appropriate effort may also be apparent when he complains that he’s been deluded:

‘I’m so tired of chasing lies’

Being tired looks like an excuse for doing nothing. He’s going to give up for the wrong reason – not because lies are lies, but because he can’t be bothered.

The final two verses also suggest laziness in that they’re full of things the narrator wants done for him as distinct from having help with. He tells Mnemosyne to:

‘… unleash your wrath’,

assuming it’s appropriate for her to show anger at the causes of his failure. Why, one wonders, can’t he release his own wrath?

An unwillingness to take charge of his future is apparent in the plea to Mnemosyne to:

‘… tell me my fate’

It’s an appropriate appeal insofar as Mnemosyne is the goddess of fate, but inappropriate insofar as he’s burdening someone else with a responsibility which should be his. Likewise, when he pleads with her to:

‘Put me upright – make me walk straight’


 ‘Forge my identity from the inside out’,

he is effectively asking her to be responsible for making him into a new and better person, instead of taking that responsibility on himself. The use of the word ‘forge’ also suggests that his request is inappropriate since, in addition to its primary meaning of ‘create’, it indicates that the narrator’s newly created identity won’t be genuine if it’s the work of someone else. The language in these lines is reminiscent of a line in ‘My own Version Of You’:

‘If I do it upright and put the head on straight’,

but there the narrator, far from shirking, was being active.

There then follows a series of egotistical exhortations on the part of the narrator for things to be done on his behalf – ‘Take me …’, ‘Let me …’, ‘Wake me’, ‘… shake me’, ‘free me …’, ‘Make me …’. Again, he’s just satisfied with having things done for him and, beyond pleading, doing nothing for himself.


A third fault which the narrator has is an excessive concern for himself.  In this respect, too, he can be seen as a representative of humanity. Right from the opening line the narrator unintentionally makes us aware of his egocentric nature:

‘Mother of Muses sing for me’

Why, one wonders, should she sing for him? Or for him? The Iliad, the likely model for the song’s invocation to a goddess, begins significantly differently:

‘Sing to me …’

There the poet is simply asking for inspiration. He’s not asking to be personally exalted.

There’s a further example of his egocentricity in his attitude to the chorus. Whereas he exhorts the chorus women to sing their hearts out, he wants his own heart to be taken care of:

‘Mother of Muses sing for my heart’

His self-centredness again becomes apparent if we take the last two lines of the opening verse together:

‘Sing of honour and fame and of glory be
Mother of Muses, sing for me’

While on the surface the demand is for inspiration, what seems to be implied  by ‘sing for me’ is that it’s his own honour, fame and glory he’d like remembered.

3. Changing attitude to death

A theme of the song is the narrator’s developing attitude to death. At the outset he sees death as associated with heroism and therefore glorious. He then sees his own death as all too imminent. Not only does he now reject the falsity of the association of glory with death, but he gives up on life. Although this can be taken literally, he can also be seen as giving up in the face of his own moral and creative failure. Once again, however, he goes on to change his mind for by the end of the song he has eschewed death – whether interpreted in a literal, moral or creative way – and is again committed to living.


At the outset the narrator seems to express regret that his life is drawing to a close:

‘Sing for a love too soon to depart’

This realisation apparently has an effect on his attitude to honour, fame and glory. Although he wants Mnemosyne to:

‘Sing of honour and fame and of glory be’

there’s a hint that the narrator is at least beginning to doubt that the implications of honour, fame and glory are all positive. The doubt arises when we hear the descending notes on which Dylan sings the three syllables ‘glory be’ suggesting that the narrator is horrified by a realisation that glory rarely comes other than in the wake of death.1

By the fourth verse the narrator seems to have eschewed his interest in honour, fame and glory. He sees their falsity:

 ‘I’ve grown so tired of chasing lies’

This sounds world-weary, as if honour and fame have let him down and he might as well be dead.

The new attitude that life isn’t worth living is reinforced when he declares:

‘I’ve already outlived my life by far’

This needn’t mean that old age is causing him to accept death. He might not even be old. It would be consistent with his world-wearyness to pessimistically welcome a premature death.

Having come to the view that death is preferable to life, he now asks the goddess to bring it about:

 ‘Take me to the river and release your charms
Let me lay down in your sweet lovin’ arms’

The river could be the Lethe – associated with death and oblivion in Greek mythology. It’s ironic that the narrator wants to ‘lay down’ because he’d admired the unnamed Heroes because they had ‘stood alone’.  Lying down with someone else in the face of adversity hardly puts you in the same company as those who are prepared to stand alone. His desire to lie down is also inconsistent in that he’d previously asked Mnemosyne to put him ‘upright’.


Suddenly he remembers the sins of his past life.3 In apparent panic he shouts:

‘Wake me – shake me – free me from sin’

Death has ceased to seem an attractive escape presumably because he fears punishment for his wrongdoings.

The same panicky desire to avoid punishment makes him want to become:

‘… invisible like the wind’

The phrase ‘invisible like the wind’ is reminiscent of lines in False Prophet seeming to identify the narrator there with evil: ‘… there’s nothing to see/Just a cool breeze encircling me’. Like Adam and Eve after the Fall, the narrator wants to hide rather than atone for his past, ironically forgetting that he’d previously been critical of things which are invisible.


Finally, having given up on death, the narrator seems to accept life once more. A desire to hide gives way to his having ‘a mind to ramble’ and ‘a mind to roam’. Such activity might seem inconsistent with his earlier desire to ‘walk straight’. In terms of shouldering responsibility he is, as he puts it, ‘travelin’ light’. Nevertheless, it would appear he’s taking a step in the right direction.

In the final line of the song he tells us he’s:

 ‘…  slow coming home’

To the extent that ‘home’ refers to the afterlife, he recognises that he’s still moving towards death. And to the extent that it refers to his redemption, he recognises that he’s bringing this about. But he’s ‘slow’ in that he’s no longer welcoming an immediate death, and that for a while he’ll remain morally imperfect.

And in referring to the afterlife as ‘home’, he’s showing a confidence that by the time his life ends he’ll have nothing to fear from dying.

4. Moral renewal: identity with Mnemosyne

There’s some justification for this confidence that he’ll redeem himself. This is indicated in the lines

‘Forge my identity from the inside out’,

together with the one which immediately follows it:

‘You know what I’m talking about’

How, one might wonder, can Mnemosyne know what he’s talking about? And how can he know that she knows?

An obvious answer is that she can know, and he can know that she knows, if he and she are ultimately one and the same. This would mean he has hitherto been wrong to objectify her and so to attempt to off-load his responsibilities onto her. That they are identical is indicated by the exhortation to forge his identity ‘from the inside out’. That would require her to already be at his centre.

The significance of their being one and the same is that any forging of his identity which she brings about will in fact be brought about by him.  It follows that he’ll now know that the responsibility lies with him for all the tasks he’d previously required her to perform on his behalf. These include freeing him from sin – that is, bringing about his redemption. He’ll have taken responsibility for his own moral renewal.

The last two lines of the song provide further evidence that the narrator has developed morally. They demonstrate that he is no longer relying on Mnemosyne as a being separate from himself. Instead he’s relying on his own ability to think:

‘Got a mind to ramble got a mind to roam
I’m travelin’ light – and I’m slow coming home’

Previously it had been his heart (in the sense perhaps of an emotional concern for himself) and not his mind which had been his concern. Now he’s self-reliant in that he’s thinking for himself. The word ‘light’ is significant in that it seems indicative of the narrator’s spiritual development since the beginning of the song where he was more interested in its opposite – dark:

‘… the ‘deep, dark sea’.

The word ‘coming’ is significant too in that it suggests the narrator is already at ‘home’ in a moral, though preumably not literal, afterlife. In other words, either his redemption is complete and he’s looking back at himself making the journey, or – enigmatically – once the process of redemption is underway it is already in a sense complete.

5. Creative renewal

Since Mnemosyne is the mother of the muses, and also part of the narrator, it follows that her offspring, Calliope, is the narrator’s offspring. As such, he doesn’t need Calliope to be given to him. He is capable of producing for himself the musical and poetic inspiration which she represents. In recognising this, he sees that he has responsibility for his own poetic development.

That he takes on this responsibility, and does so successfully, is clear in that the song itself is finally a success. Although the song – which can be seen as the narrator’s own creative composition in that it’s his words throughout – is ultimately successful, it hadn’t looked as if it was going to be. The first three verses suffered from the narrator’s lack of ability to adequately represent his admiration for the heroes and generals. The inclusion of this apparent flaw can be seen as justified now that the song has become a work charting the narrator’s creative development. What was a flaw when viewed in isolation is no longer a flaw when seen in the context of the whole song.  Any idea that the crude depictions of heroes and generals detract from the song disappears once we’ve appreciated their importance as a background against which to see the narrator’s subsequent creative development.

That final stage of development works in two ways to make the song a success. It ensures the narrator has the requisite skill. And it gives him the substance to shape the song into a record of his artistic development, thereby giving it balance. That the song has turned out a success itself provides proof of the narrator’s late creative ability.


We’re to see the narrator as representing humanity. The song – his song – depicts his moral and creative development. This is achieved through a presentation of his changing attitude towards two mythical characters – Mnemosyne and her daughter Calliope. Not only does he misunderstand the traditional roles of each, but he burdens the former with responsibilities which should be his own. He ceases to objectify them, or see them as independent of himself, so that it becomes apparent that he is the Mother of Muses whose help he’s been seeking. He’s become responsible for his own development. He’s matured in other ways too. He no longer has a puerile admiration for heroes and military leaders and has overcome a fear of death.

The death which the narrator ends up accepting can be interpreted as moral. Over the course of the song he develops morally in a number of ways. Whereas he started out as somewhat sexist in seeing females as subservient and males as strong and successful, by the end he’s able to accept them as integral to himself. His indolence, marked by a desire to ‘lay down’ and have things done for him, is replaced by a desire to to be active – to ‘ramble’ and ‘roam’. And his egoism disappears once he ceases to distinguish Mnemosyne, and the rest of humanity which she represents, from his newly forged self.

Creatively he starts out as naive and incompetent. He’s naive in that he has a mindless admiration for heroes and generals, and he’s incompetent in that he’s incapable of adequately justifying that admiration in his song. When he asks to be given the muse Calliope, it’s for personal gain.  He’s merely ‘falling in love’ with her, and seems oblivious to what she might offer in terms of poetic inspiration. However, his eventual realisation that relying on others is tantamount to moral death results not only in the beginnings of his moral redemption but in his maturation as a creative artist. The evidence for that maturation is the success of the song as a representation of his development.


  1. The phrase ‘glory be’ has religious connotations which seem unconnected with military honour and glory. It may be that the narrator is beginning to realise that there’s a contrast between the glory traditionally due to God and the glory he naively attributes to military heroes. The religious language might also mark the beginning of his moral development.
  2. Interestingly, on the recorded version this line is ‘Let me lay down awhile in your sweet loving arms’.
    The addition of ‘awhile’ would seem to suggest a lack of commitment on the narrator’s part which anticipates the next line ‘Wake me – shake me – free me from sin’.
  3. This could be seen as the work of Mnemosyne since she is the goddess of memory.

Goodbye Jimmy Reed


A number of reviewers have said that this song is a tribute by Dylan to Jimmy Reed. But it doesn’t seem to be. It’s about self-deception and in particular how the narrator believes he’s giving a favourable impression of himself while succeeding only in doing the opposite. The narrator comes across as mixture of Jimmy Reed fanatic and of someone disappointed in Reed who thinks, wrongly, that he can succeed where Reed failed. He shows himself to be an unmotivated, inconsistent, misogynistic, woolly-headed loner who is too ready to blame others for his own inadequacies.

There’s more. The song has something in common with I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight. Just as the narrator in that song was covering up a predilection for assaulting women sexually, so is the narrator here. Unlike in the earlier song, though, the present narrator attempts to pass the blame on to the women themselves.


We can tell much about the narrator from the opening two verses. Almost everything he says shows him to be critical in the most negative way. This gives us an insight into his character. He turns out to be misogynistic, ignorant and intolerant of religion. His approval of a ‘straightforward puritanical tone’ tells us that the opening line

‘I live on a street named after a saint’

is not the innocent descriptive comment it might at first seem to be. It’s intended ironically. Not only does the narrator shows no interest in the identity of the saint, but his sympathy with Puritanism would suggest he has no time for saints. The irony then turns to denigration when he dismisses protestants, not only by using the term ‘Proddy’, but by implying that they’re over-zealous:

‘I can tell a Proddy from a mile away’

He’s ignorant enough to think Jews and Muslims pray in churches, and announces this in the context of a misogynistic remark about women worshippers:

‘Women in the churches wear powder and paint
Where the Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims all pray’

In saying this, he’s implying that Muslim women wear excessive makeup, which is hardly the case.

The narrator’s implicit approval of ‘old-time religion’ and a bible-thumping approach to worship shouldn’t be taken literally. It’s not God he worships but Jimmy Reed – and even more than Jimmy Reed, it’s himself.

Neither should his reference to:

‘… the mystic hours when a person’s alone’

be taken literally. His real concern may simply be to justify a misanthropic desire for solitude. He’s exploiting the fact that genuine mystical experience is often said to occur when a person is on their own.


A more genuine reason than the one the narrator gives for being on his own may be that he doesn’t get on with women. And this he makes up for by being a sexual predator. He as good as tells us this in the penultimate verse where he says of the ‘transparent woman’:

‘I thought I could resist her, but I was so wrong’

The words ‘resist her’ imply that it’s the woman who was a sexual threat to him. He’s claiming he couldn’t fight off her sexual advances. It’s far more likely that he was the threat though and that he’s covering this up. That this is so is implied by the cryptically expressed:

‘I’ll break open your grapes I’ll suck out the juice’

What’s more, his comments in the opening lines of the verse focus on her purely as a sex object:

‘Transparent woman in a transparent dress
It suits you well …’

He also seems to be implicitly blaming her for his assault on her, claiming it’s due to the way she’s dressed. This is an extension of the attitude he had in the opening verse where he criticised female church goers for wearing ‘powder and paint’. There too he may have been doing so to imply that women generally are responsible for the assaults on them made by men.

The narrator makes no attempt to treat the ‘transparent’ woman as a person.  The fact that he doesn’t mention her name suggests he’s as uninterested in knowing it as he is in knowing the name of the saint after whom his street is named. He’s just concerned with his own needs and makes this explicit when he says:

I need you like my head needs a noose’

– implying that he has no use for the woman other than as a way of fulfilling his sexual desires. This focus on his own desires is in keeping with his earlier attitude:

‘Give me that old time religion, it’s just what I need

Jimmy Reed

The narrator’s attitude to Jimmy Reed is ambivalent. He can be seen as simultaneously hero-worshipping Reed and as contemptuous of him – seeing himself as superior.

That the narrator hero-worships Reed is suggested by the second verse. Infatuation seems to be causing him to treat Reed not just as a king, as suggested by the phrase:

‘For thine is the kingdom …’,

but, given the religious language, as God. And although by saying:

‘I’ll put a jewel in your crown …’

the narrator is primarily saying he’ll advance Reed’s reputation, the use of ‘crown’ also shows he’s treating Reed as some sort of king.

Likewise, when the narrator says:

‘… go tell the real story’,

and goes on to associate Reed with:

‘… this lost land’,

the biblical flavour of the phrases suggests that he’s associating Reed with Christ. The latter phrase in particular treats him as a potential saviour of the world. Despite knowing he’s dead, and visiting his grave, the narrator addresses him as if he were in some sense alive, as a sort of Christ cheating death:

‘Can’t you hear me …’

Hearing him could only happen if Reed were still alive. The whole line is:

‘Can’t you hear me calling from down in Virginia’.

where the emphasis is on ‘me’. He seems to be saying ‘Whereas you were famous for your song Down in Virginia, it’s me that’s doing the calling now’. If the world is to be saved, and its saviour, Reed, is dead, then it’s the narrator who must save it. It’s up to him to ‘proclaim the creed’.

On this view, the refrain is also ambivalent. On the one hand, by saying ‘Goodbye’ the narrator shows his respect for Reed. On the other, it and the similar expressions he uses can be taken as indicating his disappointment in Reed for dying before having saved the world. In context ‘Goodbye’ might be seen as implying an unspoken ‘and good riddance!’

That the narrator’s attitude to Reed is ambivalent in this way is again suggested by the phrase:

‘… I’ll put out the light’.

Taken literally, it might indicate respect to someone who is dead, but equally it might indicate the narrator’s intention to put an end to Reed’s time in the limelight and replace him as musical saviour of the world.

There’s further ambivalence when the narrator says he can only fight his adversaries with a ‘butcher’s hook’.  By this he’s not just associating himself with Reed, who had worked as a butcher, but is seeing himself as Reed. If he is seeing himself as Reed, then he must hold that ‘the kingdom, the power and the glory’ he attributes to Reed equally belong to himself.

On the other hand, the butcher’s hook reference suggests contempt – as if the only legacy Reed left the narrator as a defence against his critics was a butcher’s hook.

The sister

Whether or not the narrator is using the ‘Goodbye’ with contempt, it contrasts with how a sibling – presumably the narrator’s sister – greets him:

 ‘God be with you, brother dear’

The sister uses the phrase ‘God be with you’ with genuine feeling. It’s significant, though, that it’s the same phrase in unabbreviated form as the ‘Goodbye (God-be-with-ye)’ repeatedly used by the narrator. The difference is that the narrator is not showing anything like the same personal concern for Reed.

Neither does he show concern for anyone else as a person, even his sister. Rather than returning his sister’s greeting, he simply and coldly answers her question. The form of the question:

‘If you don’t mind me asking, what brings you here?’

indicates a difference between them. It’s considerate, but the first clause tells us that the sister is expecting to be snapped at despite the reasonableness of what she’s asking. And the line also lets us know that the narrator doesn’t visit her much. The encounter is clearly a surprise.

Exaggeration and vagueness

The third verse is an attempt by the narrator to stand up for himself. And it fails. He seems to denigrate critics for pointing out his lack of originality rather than learning from their criticism. The denigration is achieved by exaggerating their advice to make it sound absurd:

‘You won’t amount to much the people all said
‘Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head
Never pandered, never acted proud
Never took off my shoes and threw them into the crowd’

Obviously he wasn’t being advised to do any of the things he lists. Rather, he’s taking refuge in exaggeration. Furthermore, the phrase:

 ‘the people all said’

is an absurd generalisation reminiscent of the equally absurd claim that in ‘the churches’:

‘… the Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims all pray’

Presumably he’s been criticised for being incompetent – but rather than admit the source of the criticism, which might make it seem justified, he attributes it vaguely to ‘the people’ who ‘all said’. He makes it sound as if people generally can’t be trusted.

The vagueness continues when he says:

They threw everything at me …’


They have no pity – they don’t lend a hand’

Again, we aren’t told who ‘they’ are, and  – as the narrator presumably intends – this prevents our being able to judge whether or not it’s right to withhold the pity and the support he claims is lacking. The narrator omits to tell us why he thinks he deserves pity, or why it would be appropriate for him to expect help.

And an attempt to answer a question from his sister in the final verse is hopelessly vague:

‘… I’m just looking for the man
I came to see where he’s lying in this lost land’

‘The man’ – which man? If he means Jimmy Reed, in what sense is he the man? It sounds as if the narrator is assuming his hearer must agree with his inflated estimation of Reed. He seems to be engaging in a sort of adolescent hero worship.


We can see from the three ‘nevers’ in verse three:

‘Never pandered’,

 ‘… never acted proud’,


‘Never took off my shoes …’

– that what the narrator is actually being criticised for is his negative outlook. He’s not doing anything to make a success of his life.

The negatives continue. He’ll:

‘… put out the light’,

but not do anything positive. He:

Can’t play the record’

And why can’t he play the record? It’s because his:

‘… needle got stuck’.

The excuse once again implies a negative outlook. He blames the needle, not himself; needles stick when records haven’t been kept in good condition. And he does nothing to put matters right.

The negative ‘can’t’ reappears in:

‘… I can’t sing a song that I don’t understand’

Well, he could if he took the trouble to get to understand it, but he’d rather just complain.

In the fourth verse, it’s in negative language that he disparages his critics:

‘They have no pity –they don’t lend a hand’

But he’s not short of self-pity, and the language in which he expresses this is again negative:

‘Had nothing to fight with but a butcher’s hook’

It’s also not true. He could have fought back either by demonstrating Jimmy Reed’s virtues as a musician, or by demonstrating the virtues of his own musicianship.

Another ‘nothing’ in the final verse is a sign of the aimlessness of his life. When asked what brings him to where his sister is, he replies:

‘Oh, nothing much …’

He even dismisses the whole of his country in negative terms, referring to it as ‘this lost land’.

All this negativity emphasises the distinction between the narrator and his critics. Whereas he associates himself with nothing, he associates them with everything:

‘They threw everything at me, everything in the book’

He’s clearly oblivious to how pathetic his whingeing attempts to sound downtrodden make him seem.


The narrator’s attitude is inconsistent. On the one hand he complains about ‘everything in the book’ being thrown at him, and yet on the other he makes a great deal of ‘the book’ in his dealings with them:

‘Thump on the bible – proclaim the creed’

In other words, while he objects to having others weighing him down with their requirements he thinks nothing of doing the same to them.

There’s a further inconsistency in his outlook. In the first verse, he objects to women wearing makeup in church. This is ironic given that he’s perfectly happy to applaud a woman for wearing a ‘transparent dress’:

‘It suits you well, I must confess’

Since the word ‘confess’ is usually used in religious contexts, it reminds us of his earlier opinion and alerts us to the inconsistency.


The song has little to say about Jimmy Reed himself. But it does present the narrator’s ambivalent view of him. It also presents in its narrator a picture of a flawed individual who has changed from being a Reed fanatic (something echoed musically in the blues style in which it’s presented) to disappointment and, for no good reason, to seeing himself as inheriting Reed’s mantle.

The vision he has is almost laughable in that neither Reed nor he would have been capable of saving the world with their music. But it’s particularly so in the narrator’s case since it’s clear that others think him musically inept, and because his character is so flawed.   He’s shown to be a sexual predator, and one who attempts to put the blame for his wrongdoings on the women he wrongs. He’s also obsessive, weak, misanthropic, and inconsistent – not least in his intolerance of religion – and particularly so given the absurdly religious attitude he has to his hero. In addition, he lacks motivation, makes wild criticisms, sees himself as a victim, and has little sense of responsibility to himself or to others. Unlike many of Dylan’s characters, he comes across as an all-round failure.

Black Rider


The song represents the progression of the narrator’s thoughts as he tries to overcome a debilitating penchant for adulterous sex. That he’s obsessed with sex is suggested by phrases with sexual connotations which recur throughout the song. These include ‘Black Rider’, a name suggestive of both sex and immorality, and expressions such as ‘living too hard’, ‘up all night’ and ‘on the job’, as well as the more explicit ‘size of your cock’. By contrast romance figures only once in the song, at the end.

The mysterious ‘Black Rider’ comes across not so much as a separate person from the narrator but as a mere device. It’s an aspect of the narrator which the latter treats as responsible for his sex drive, for exercising his freewill, and as a stand-in for people who, even in his imagination, the narrator fears addressing directly. As a supposedly independent facilitator of the narrator’s actions, it enables the narrator to avoid taking responsibility for them. And by way of criticising the Black Rider, the narrator is able to disingenuously avoid criticising himself. Furthermore, the Black Rider, as object of the narrator’s sympathy, enables the latter to indulge in unwarranted self-pity.

I’ll take each of the five verses in turn.

First Verse

The song begins with the narrator indulging in self-pity and making weak excuses for his lack of action. The opening lines suggest he’s concerned about the consequences of his lifestyle. But instead of remonstrating with himself as an adulterer, he offers sympathy as if to someone else:

‘Black Rider, Black Rider you been livin’ too hard
You been up all night havin’ to stay on your guard’

The second line suggests that the narrator cannot sleep for worry; hence the self-pity. He’s been ‘up all night’ in a sexual sense, but also in that he’s had to stay alert to avoid being caught with someone else’s wife.

Then comes the first of two excuses. By way of his proxy, the narrator claims to have been impeded from living a sexually pure life:

‘The path that you’re walkin’ – is too narrow to walk
Every step of the way another stumblin’ block’

What the stumbling blocks are we’re left to imagine – more available women, perhaps.

The excuse is reinforced with a cynical condemnation of biblical advice. In saying the path is ‘too narrow’, he’s implying he’s been following the biblical injunction to:

‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction ….  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life …’ (Matt 7. 13-14)

That the road the narrator has chosen is too narrow implies, ironically, that it’s leading to his destruction just as much as the wide one would. The fault, we’re led to believe, is not in himself but in the bible.

He finds another excuse. The road he’s following has changed:

‘… it’s not the same as it was a minute ago’

In what sense it’s changed is unclear. He seems, though, to be implying that he would have been able to take it if it had been easy due to its familiarity. In so doing he’s ignoring the fact that taking the narrow road is expected to be difficult. The excuse seems to demonstrate a lack of commitment.

Second Verse

Here, not only does the narrator use the Black Rider addressee as a device to enable him to avoid blaming himself, but we find he uses metaphorical, alliterative, and euphemistic language to deceive himself about the extent of his responsibility and commitment to self-reform.

He’s loath to quash the aspect of his character he represents as the Black Rider, seeing it as accounting for the richness of his life:

‘You’ve seen the great world and you’ve seen the small’

He begrudgingly recognises that he needs to act against this part of himself. Using the image of fire to represent disaster, he says:

‘You fell into the fire …’,

Once again, the tone is one of self-pity, but it’s unjustified. The alliteration on the letter ‘f’ seems designed by the narrator to make us not notice the significance of ‘fell’. The word ‘fell’ implies (as ‘jumped’, for example, wouldn’t) that the disaster was not of the narrator’s making. But since we can also take ‘fire’ to represent the narrator’s passionate behaviour, then whatever disaster ensued would seem to have been his doing.

The narrator’s language now becomes euphemistic. While he advises himself about how to avoid:

‘… eating the flame’,

(i.e. how to avoid wilfully accepting the consequences of his behaviour) it’s not for any moral purpose. It’s merely so that he can:

 ‘… stay in the game’.

The ‘game’ is presumably a euphemism for a sex-orientated lifestyle, as its similarity with the expression ‘on the game’ might suggest. He seems to be implying that his aim will be at best to modify, rather than significantly change, his lifestyle.

The verse ends:

‘Be reasonable, Mister – be honest be fair [or ‘be honestly fair’]
Let all of your earthly thoughts be a prayer’

While this looks at first like a genuine attempt to act appropriately, this isn’t the case. The commitment to prayer is unlikely to be heartfelt given that his commitment to the biblical ‘narrow way’ wasn’t. That he’s just giving an appearance of honesty is further suggested by his addressing his Black Rider aspect rather than himself. He’s passing the buck. If he ends up not being reasonable, honest and fair, he’ll be able to kid himself that it’s the Black Rider’s fault rather than his own.

Third Verse

By the third verse, the narrator has apparently made some progress. The verse begins with him proudly convincing himself that he’s been successful in giving up his licentiousness. He’s:

‘… walking away’,

– the word ‘away’ hinting that he’s following the biblical, narrow way that he’s been only pretending to follow earlier.

Nevertheless, he’s tempted to return to it:

‘You try to make me look back’.

Once more he’s blaming the Black Rider, this time for tempting him rather than admitting that the temptation is a product of his own desire.

When he says about his heart being at rest:

‘… I’d like to keep it that way’,

the word ‘way’again reminds us of the biblical narrow way. We know he’s not going to be able to ‘keep it that way’ without effort. Alas, though, he wants to have his cake and eat it:

‘I don’t want to fight – at least not today’

The final clause is reminiscent of St Augustine’s prayer, ‘Lord, make me chaste and strong willed but not yet’. The procrastination, like his earlier excuse, suggests the narrator lacks commitment to a more moral way of life.


There’s an alternative interpretation of the line:

‘I don’t want to fight – at least not today’

 which requires it to be taken together with the final two lines of the verse:

‘Go home to your wife stop visiting mine
One of these days I’ll forget to be kind’

While these lines purport to be spoken by the narrator to the Black Rider, they make better sense if they’re taken as spoken by the husband of the woman the narrator is hoping to seduce. On this interpretation, the three lines represent a desire for an amicable resolution on the part of the husband.  They’re unlikely to be the husband’s actual words, of course – he’d be extraordinarily forbearing if they were! They are more likely to be a representation of how the narrator unrealistically hopes the husband will react if he catches his wife and the narrator together.

What also suggests the language is really the narrator’s rather than the husband’s is the phrase:

‘One of these days …’

– it’s another example of the narrator’s tendency to procrastinate.

If this latter interpretation does represent how the narrator is thinking, he’s not only fooling himself about a possible outcome of a potential or actual affair but he’s fooling himself that he’s decided to go no further. Like Augustine, he’s happy to be neither chaste nor strong willed.

Fourth Verse

Suddenly any remnant of the narrator’s resolution has gone to the wind. Now he’s making himself subservient to the Black Rider. Whereas in the previous verse it seemed he wanted nothing to do with the Black Rider, in each of the first three lines of this one he begs for the Black Rider’s help:

‘Black Rider, Black Rider tell me when – tell me how
If ever there was a time then let it be now
Let me go through – open the door’

He wants help in achieving – what? There are two possibilities.

The first possibility is as follows. In pleading:

‘… tell me when – tell me how’,

he’s wanting to know when and how he can begin, or can continue, an illicit relationship. He is no longer opposing the adulterous outlook the Black Rider part of him represents. Accordingly, the demand to:

‘… let it be now’,

represents an impatience for such a relationship (and along the way a further about turn, since the demand conflicts with his claim in the third verse to not want to fight – ‘at least not today’).

On this account, his plea:

‘Let me go through – open the door’

is a plea for access to the woman. In demanding the door to be opened, he’s reneging on his earlier advice to his Black Rider aspect to ‘seal up your lips’. We might even see the Black Rider morphing, in the narrator’s mind, into the woman. It’s her he is pleading with to let him in.

The change of attitude is accompanied by another change. His heart is no longer ‘at rest’ but, as he declares:

‘My soul is distressed my mind is at war’.

In admitting this, he seems fully aware of the gravity of his change of attitude, for he sees it as harming him mentally.

The final lines of the verse seem to be an anticipation of the woman’s response to his desire for an immediate, illicit relationship:

‘Don’t hug me – don’t flatter me – don’t turn on the charm
I’ll take out a sword and have to hack off your arm’

It’s curious that ‘arm’ in ‘hack off your arm’ is in the singular. Is he imagining hugging her with just one arm? More likely it’s that he can’t bear to admit that it’s not his arm which the woman would see as the offending part in need of hacking off!

At all events, the anticipated response is not what he wanted. In his mind she’s rejecting him, and doing so forcibly. Abandoning his decision to avoid immoral sexual relationships is a strategy destined to fail.


The second explanation for what might be going on in this verse is that the narrator is keeping to his decision to avoid immoral sexual relationships. In demanding:

 ‘… let it be now’,

he’d be trying to summon the courage to end the relationship. That too would explain his distress. The active part of his mind would be ‘at war’ with the promiscuous aspect represented by the Black Rider.

This interpretation can also accommodate both the third line of the verse:

‘Let me go through – open the door’

and the penultimate line:

‘Don’t hug me – don’t flatter me – don’t turn on the charm’

The narrator, addressing the woman, is attempting to prevent her from undermining his efforts to end the relationship. She’s attempting to stop him from leaving. She is now indistinguishable from the Black Rider part of him that wants the relationship to continue – hence in addressing the Black Rider, he is also addressing her.

Once again, the words need not actually be spoken by the narrator.

The ‘arm’ in:

‘I’ll take out a sword and have to hack off your arm’

would again be the narrator’s. He’s threatening to mutilate the philandering ‘Black Rider’ aspect of himself if he gives in to the woman. Again, the euphemistic use of ‘arm’ can be seen as a refusal to confront the gravity of the situation and so represents a lack of commitment. It’s also significant that in the printed version of the song (though not the sung version) he says he’ll:

‘… have to hack off your arm’.

The otherwise redundant ‘have to’ also suggests a lack of commitment – as if the effort required would be too much.

Fifth Verse

Either of the above interpretations seems to reflect the narrator’s thoughts equally well. Since, even for him, there may be no fact of the matter about which interpretation reflects his true state of mind, his decisions in the final verse might be taken as in response to either, or even both together. Thus, with respect to the first interpretation (that he’s once again contemplating having an illicit sexual relationship), his statement:

‘The size of your cock will get you nowhere’

would represent an abandonment of his decision to pursue such a relationship. With respect to the second interpretation (that he’s contemplating ending the relationship), it would represent an endorsement of his decision to end the relationship. On either account he no longer has to fear dire physical consequences, and for that reason he’s comfortable using ‘cock’ instead of ‘arm’.

Consistent with each interpretation is his decision to:

‘… suffer in silence …’

Suddenly he hits on a new strategy. He can make out his position is a moral one:

‘Maybe I’ll take the high moral ground’

Were he to adopt this strategy, it would be consistent with suffering in silence and seem to fulfil the advice of the second verse to ‘be honest, be fair’. The glib tone, however, suggests that opting for ‘the high moral ground’ would be no more than a pretence – a mere ruse for achieving his original, illicit end. There’s further support for this in his getting the expression wrong – saying ‘high moral ground’ when the usual expression is ‘moral high ground’.

But does he suffer in silence? Almost as soon as it’s adopted, the policy of silence is abandoned. Having just promised to suffer in silence, he backtracks – literally at least:

‘Some enchanted evening I’ll sing you a song’

Now, the possibility of a ‘moral’ approach is joined by a romantic one as part of a new strategy for seducing the woman.  That this too is just a strategy is clear for two reasons. First, he’s using the title of a song rather than being direct, and in so doing is pretending there is such a thing as an ‘enchanted evening’. Secondly, there’s a reiteration in the last line of his doubts about his sexual prowess:

‘Black Rider Black Rider you’ve been on the job too long

Were those doubts in abeyance, one feels he wouldn’t be bothering with the romantic approach.

Even now he may have not finally made up his mind. It still might be that he returns to his original, adulterous ways.  Not only has he not committed himself to the disingenuous moral approach, but there are signs of his procrastinating again. It’s some enchanted evening, he says, that he’ll sing her a song. We can assume he might never get round to it.1


As so often with Dylan’s songs, the narrator is far from being a mere interesting or unusual character. He can be seen as representing human beings generally, thereby showing typical thought processes and, by way of those, our failings.

Here, the narrator is confronting a dilemma. On the one hand he wants to continue fulfilling his sexual desires, while on the other he knows he shouldn’t. In so far as he has good intentions, he lacks commitment and is too ready to make excuses for not acting as he believes he should. Constantly his choice of language gives him away, numerous expressions he uses demonstrating that he’s primarily interested in sex.  He also disingenuously uses language which presents his situation in an overly favourable light, and to seemingly justify delays in putting his intentions into practice.

His moral weakness is apparent when he settles on one course of action and then adopts another. A veneer of honesty also helps him avoid accepting responsibility for his failings. In addition, his apparent desire for romance also seems to be just a ploy for use if all else fails.

The narrator’s creation of a Black Rider persona allows him to live in a fool’s paradise. It enables him to be inauthentic – to fool himself that he’s more committed to reforming himself than he is. It also enables him to effectively offer himself good advice and yet seem to avoid any responsibility if he doesn’t take it. He can step back from responsibility for the consequences of his actions by behaving as if it belongs to the Black Rider.



  1. The criticism cannot apply to the narrator of the Rogers song ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ because there is no particular woman he has in mind. Any such evening really may be in the distant future.

I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You


The song represents the development of the narrator’s mental state as recalled by him. The narrator is not wholly trustworthy, though. While the development he presents is from despair to a final state of exultant joy, there are reasons for suspecting that he’s reluctant to give us the whole picture and that  he’s not really committed to giving himself to anyone. Of particular significance is a subtle change to the wording of the refrain in certain verses which suggests that they, rather than the joyful last verse, represent the final position of the narrator.

The main issues dealt with here are the identity of the main addressee, the narrator’s despair and the reasons for it, his gradual intellectual and emotional development, and finally his ultimate failure.


There’s an ambiguity about who is being addressed in the title and in the refrain. There is undoubtedly a woman because the narrator says:

‘I’m going to go far away from home with her

And it would seem to be a woman he’s addressing when he says:

‘I’ll see you at sunrise – I’ll see you at dawn
I’ll lay down beside you …’


‘I knew you’d say yes …’.

Also, the line:

 ‘I don’t think I could bear to live my life alone’,

would seem to indicate that he has living with a woman in mind.

On the other hand, there are indications that the addressee is God. The first is that the otherwise pleonastic ‘I am’ at the end of the line:

‘I’m giving myself to you, I am’

suggests that the line can be interpreted as spoken to God. In Exodus 15, God tells Moses his name is ‘I am’.

In addition, the language of the title and refrain:

‘I’ve (or ‘I’) made up my mind to give myself to you’,

suggests that he’s speaking to God. It’s not how an expression of love for a woman is likely to be put. Furthermore, most of the lines just quoted are in language which would be appropriate for addressing God, and in verse three the names of the places in which his commitment is supposed to take place are associated with Christianity. Thus ‘Salt Lake City’ has Mormon associations, ‘East L.A’ is part of the city named after Our Lady, Queen of the Angels, and San Antone (like the street in ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’) is named after a saint.1

It would seem that the ambiguity about the identity of the addressee is explained by the absence of a clear distinction in the narrator’s mind between the woman and God. There’s a sense in which if he genuinely, selflessly, gives himself to the woman, he will be giving himself to God. And conversely, if he doesn’t fulfil his commitment to go away with the woman, he won’t be committing himself to God. For that reason, the commitment referred to in the title and the refrain can be taken as being both to God and to the woman.


In verse seven, the narrator recalls a long period in which he felt alone with his misery

‘I travelled the long road of despair
I met no other traveller there’,

This continues a recalling of an earlier stage of that misery in the second verse:

‘I saw the first fall of snow
I saw the flowers come and go’,

The tone is one of despondency. There is no indication that the snow might be beautiful. And although he acknowledges the existence of flowers, the language is listless. They don’t ‘bloom’ or ‘blossom’ or ‘burst out’. They merely ‘come and go’. The ‘and go’ has a double significance. It not only completes the dull cliché ‘come and go’ but the context suggests that the flowers’ dying is final. It’s not as if there’s a coming and going suggestive of a continuous cycle of death and re-birth; he expects no reappearance of the flowers the following spring.2

The narrator’s choice of language is significant because it throws light on his outlook later in the song where the word ‘snow’ and the concept of going recur.

Thus, his reference to:

 ‘a snow white dove’

in the fifth verse, thereby associating the dove with perfection, suggests that he’s capable of seeing more than negative qualities in snow, even if he has yet to do so.

And his use of ‘go’ in ‘come and go’ doesn’t just let us know about his pessimism with respect to the impermanence of flowers.  It recurs in the past tense when he later laments the deaths of others:

‘A lot of people gone …’ (v7)

and when he assumes that eventually no one will be left:

‘I’ll lay down beside you when everyone is gone’ (v8).

By way of the use of ‘gone’ he seems to be implying that death is as permanent for people as it is for flowers. That death is in fact not permanent in the case of flowers suggests that in some sense he might be wrong in the case of people.

The upshot is that the ‘despair’ he refers to in verse seven is likely to be unjustified.

That he’s in fact capable of believing that his despair is unjustified is indicated in his response to the inevitability of his own death:

‘I’m not what I was, things aren’t what they were
I’m going to go far away from home with her’

The response is ironic because unconsciously he’s intending to begin a new life with the woman, a rebirth of sorts he assumes is denied to flowers and other people. The irony is intensified by a further – this time double – reminder of the flowers’ going:

‘I’m going to go far away …’

It would seem that he has a glimmer of understanding that going, far from being final, might lead to something new.

Failure to look

The reason for the narrator’s pessimistic state of mind is that metaphorically he’s partially blind.3 He ‘saw’ the flowers die, but it seems he didn’t bother to look any further. As a result he fails to realise that only in the obvious, literal way did their death represent finality.

Likewise, in verse four he admits, he:

‘… looks at nothing … near or far4

Having not looked at anything far, he have little idea what he can learn from carrying out his intention to go ‘far away’ with the woman.

Because he won’t look for himself, he’s reliant at this stage on others to do the looking for him. He says to the traveling man:

Show me something that I’ll understand’

In so doing he’s just assuming that the understanding he wants – about how he can come to terms with physical death – can be provided for him by someone else.

Development of understanding

He’s wrong. Just as he’s alone in his misery, he needs to be self-reliant when acquiring understanding.

That the process of acquiring understanding is beginning to take off is made apparent by a continued use of sight imagery in verse four:

‘My eye is like a shooting star

The statement is in contrast with the opening line of the song in which he’s:

‘… lost in the stars

There he seemed passive, immobile – in complete contrast to a shooting star. Now his eye, at least, is active. At this stage it’s not much of an advance towards understanding, because the knowledge he has is innate – ‘just something I knew’ – and so presumably unconscious. Nevertheless it’s the start of a development that continues in verse six where he recognises the importance of sight:

‘Show me something that I’ll understand’

and will reach a zenith on seeing the addressee in verse eight, should this happen.

It’s no longer the case that his eye is looking at nothing, ‘near or far’. That this is so is reinforced by his decision referred to in verse six to

‘…go far away from home’

with the woman. The repetition of ‘far’ suggests an interest in what he’d previously considered not worth looking at. He’s also no longer dependant on what the travelling man can direct his sight towards.

An additional development is that that in going far away, it’ll be the whole of him which is active, and not just his eye.

Time passing and realisation

The ‘long road of despair’, to which the narrator refers, is presumably a spatial metaphor for a long period of misery in his life. His recognition that time is passing initially seems to just add to his despair:

‘I’m not what I was, things aren’t what they were’

But then he has a revelation. He suddenly appreciates that it’s by way of time passing that he’ll be able to acquire the understanding he craves:

‘It just takes me a while to realise things’

What he realises is a number of things:

First, he’s now realised that it’s inappropriate to consider death as the be all and end all.  As a result, his focus now changes to regeneration:

‘I’ll see you at sunrise – I’ll see you at dawn’

This statement is a surprise because sunrise and dawn are the same thing. We’d expect him to say ‘I’ll see you at sunrise – I’ll see you at dusk’. Instead, he’s now focusing on the positive. Just as the snow had seemed to exclude anything good by seeming to be continuous (the ‘first fall’ being the first of many snowfalls), so now there’s just sunrise and dawn – the same good thing repeated.5


The second thing he now understands is that the:

something I’ll understand’

which he wants the travelling man to provide, is the same something as the

something I knew’

of verse four. And it’s again this something which he has in mind when he says it takes him:

‘… a while to realise things’.

In other words, what he consciously understands now is the same thing he’d asked the travelling man to help him understand. It’s this which he now fully realises he’d known at an unconscious level all along.


Thirdly, he now realises that what it is he’d always known deep down is that the finality of death gives no cause for despair. The new life which seemed achievable by going ‘far away’ with the woman has transformed into a new life with God. What he’d known deep down, and now knows consciously, is that his desire for a new life can be fulfilled by his being with God. That, at least, is the implication of the language he uses to express his commitment, language which would seem inappropriate if addressed to a woman.

Achieving unity

It’s this lack of cause for despair that’s acknowledged in verse eight when he says:

‘I’ll lay down beside you, when everyone is gone’

By this he might mean that when people are no longer present to him because he is dead, he’ll continue to live eternally. Or he might mean that despite death’s continuing to affect everyone else, spiritually he’ll be exempt from it.

This realisation is given voice in the exultant declaration of the penultimate line:

‘I knew you’d say yes – I’m saying it too’

Assuming it’s God and the narrator saying yes to each other, they’re acting in unison – each asking for unity with the other and each answering yes when asked.

What seems also to be the case, though, although it’s not clear that the narrator realises it, is that a new life with God and a new life with the woman amount to one and the same thing. The exultant ‘yes’ can be as much said to, and heard from, the one as from the other. Even if literally he’s ‘laying down’ beside the woman, in so doing he will be ‘laying down’ beside God.

River image: emotional and intellectual development

It becomes clear that the narrator’s development is not just intellectual but emotional. By verse eight, his progress is making him feel uplifted:

‘My heart is like a river – a river that sings’

The heart and singing references each make it clear that he’s on the verge of becoming overwhelmed by positive emotion. There’s a contrast with the first verse in which the ‘sounds of the sad guitars’ were mere distant reflections of his inner state.

The river simile has the effect of emphasising the importance of regeneration. A river is continuously flowing, continuously changing. His heart is like a river, then, because of his new found capacity for emotional experience – emotional experience which seems to encompass God and the woman.

In the final verse the river image is extended to represent the development not just of the narrator’s emotions but of his whole being:

I travelled from the mountains to the sea’

Just as his activity in travelling succeeded that of his eye as the only active part of him, so now it’s not just his heart but the whole of him which has become active like a river.

The twofold use of the river image makes it clear that his development has been both intellectual and emotional.

The narrator’s failure

Although the song ends on an exultant high, it’s not so clear that the narrator has succeeded in unifying himself with either God or the woman.

First, in the final verse, despite the expression of commitment in the last two lines, the narrator’s commitment seems unassured. In hoping that:

‘… the gods go easy with me’,

he’s not merely gone back to putting his trust in others, something he’d learnt not to do in the case of the travelling man, but is putting his trust in other gods than the Christian one. By saying he hopes that the gods go easy with him, he seems to be admitting that their anger should not be unexpected. This suggests that there’s no longer any intention of actively giving himself to God or of going away with the woman. Instead, he’s passively hoping to get away with doing neither.

In the light of this, doubt would now seem to be cast on the meaning of the exuberant exclamation in verse eight:

‘I’ll see you at sunrise – I’ll see you at dawn’

The narrator’s joyful anticipation might not be of seeing the woman or God when he wakes up, but of seeing the pagan sun-god. Since the rising sun might also represent Christ, the image can be taken as representing ambivalence about to which deity he should be loyal.

Overall, while the references to pagan gods are likely to be purely figurative, their function seems to be to point out the narrator’s backsliding and lack of commitment.


The second reason for thinking the narrator might have failed in his attempts at unity is what he says in the fifth verse:

‘If I had the wings of a snow white dove
I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love
A love so real – a love so true
I made up my mind to give myself to you’

It seems he’s making an excuse for not having kept to his commitment. Presumably he means that he’d have to be perfect (‘snow white’) and like the Holy Spirit (a dove) in order to have done so. And that, he’s implying, is beyond him. Furthermore, although the emphatic language (‘so real’, ‘so true’) seems disingenuously designed to give the impression that his love will be constant, the implication that he doesn’t have the wings of a dove makes it clear that it won’t be.

The combination of religious language (‘gospel’ and ‘dove’) and language associated with romantic love suggests that there’s no distinction in the narrator’s mind between remaining loyal to the woman and remaining loyal to God. In not remaining constant to the woman he will be abandoning God.


A third, and perhaps the most obvious reason for suspecting him to have failed derives from a subtle variation in the refrain. At the end of verses two and five, the form of the refrain is subtly different to how it appears in the title and elsewhere. Instead of saying ‘I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you’, we have:

I made up my mind to give myself to you’

The change of tense suggests that the content of those verses represents thoughts had by the narrator after those recorded in the exuberant final verse. In the case of the second verse this is of no consequence since the narrator is simply recounting earlier thoughts. But in the case of the fifth, it would indicate the tacit admission that his own imperfection represents his final position. Thus now, in the present moment, he knows that he won’t be preaching ‘the gospel of love’ and that his love is neither ‘so real’ nor ‘so true’.


The narrator appears to be a representation of human beings generally. Like all of us, he can’t stand being alone with his feelings. And like all of us, he’s imperfect.

The song is an account in his words of his attempt to overcome despair at the finality of death. It shows his understanding developing gradually from an unconscious awareness of something worthwhile to a commitment to unity with the main addressee. This addressee seems equally identifiable as God and a woman. Along the way, he gradually learns the need for self-reliance and the value of experience.

Although the song appears to end happily, this is in part because of the order in which the narrator is giving us his thoughts. While he ends by giving the impression he’s achieved unity with the addressee, there are indications that the sentiments of the final verse don’t represent his final position. His commitment is less than he’d like it to seem.


  1. It might be relevant that according to Wikipedia the fourth place mentioned, Birmingham – presumably the one in Alabama – in 2010 had ‘the second highest ratio of Christians and the greatest ratio of Protestant adherents, in the U.S.’
  2. To that extent ‘I saw the flowers come and go’ is a repeat of the sentiment expressed in ‘I Contain Multitudes’ – ‘The flowers are dying like all things do’.
  3. Though not quite ‘sightless’ like the narrator’s self-creation in ‘My Own Version of You’
  4. The line sung is:
    ‘It looks at nothing here or there, looks at nothing near or far’
    Printed, it’s:
    ‘It looks at nothing, neither near or far’
  5. There’s an echo in the word ‘snowfall’ of the fall of man. The narrator was aware not just of the spiritual demise of Adam and Eve when he was aware of the first fall of snow, but by implication the moral ‘falls’ which have happened since. This seems to make him not just an individual but a representation of human beings generally.

My Own Version Of You


The gothic character of the song should not distract from its main concern which is salvation. Although the narrator is trying to create a human being in the way that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein does, the song’s concerns are essentially different to Shelley’s. On a literal level, he wants to bring someone to life. It’s hinted that he holds himself responsible for their death and so is trying to undo the wrong. That, he thinks, will save him. For the most part the song does not operate on such a literal level, however. Identities and times both become fluid so that the narrator seems to take on the identities of both God and Christ, as well as that of the creature he’s creating. Ultimately such changes in his identity are required if he is to be saved.

The analysis has fifteen main sections:

  1. The Narrator as Flawed Humanity
  2. Identities
  3. The Creature
  4. Laughter and Tears
  5. The Knife
  6. The Head                  
  7. Where the Children Play
  8. Resurrection and Redemption
  9. Sight, Hearing and Feeling
  10. Armageddon
  11. Julius Caesar
  12. Hell
  13. It’ll be Done when it’s Done
  14. To be
  15. The Solution


1. The Narrator as Flawed Humanity

The narrator can be seen as representing everyone. This is apparent in two ways. First, he contains within him ‘the history of the whole human race’. Secondly, he’s imbued with a range of ordinary human characteristics. Among these are a recognition of a need to be saved, a determination to bring this about, generosity to the whole of mankind, a dislike of self pity, and a polite deference. At the same time he’s inconsistent. He can be brusque and dominating. He’s distraught, too, and despite claiming not to want pitying, lets it be known he has ‘no place to turn’ and is plagued by voices –

‘They talk all night they talk all day’

Presumably the voices are his conscience. His immediate reaction is to deny responsibility for whatever they’re accusing him of:

‘Not for a second do I believe what they say’

It seems he’s attempting to fool himself, an all too common human trait. It’s a fault which later he seems to recognise:

‘You won’t get away with fooling me’.

A fault that he’s perhaps not aware of is self-deception. When, after saying he’ll ‘balance the scales’ – or make amends for what he’s done – he adds:

‘I’m not not gonna get involved in any insignificant details’,

The impression one gets is that deep down he’s hiding the details even from himself.

A willingness to indulge in self-deception is also brought out by a difference between the printed and sung versions of the song. The word ‘second’ in ‘Not for a second do I believe what they say,’ becomes ‘minute’ in the sung version. He might not believe the accusations for a minute, this suggests, but we can assume that for anything up to fifty-nine seconds he does! One might also doubt he’d be looking forward to being saved if he believed the accusations to be false.

Another all too-human flaw which makes the narrator a representative of mankind is his trying to take the easy way out. In making the creature, he’s not intending to replace like with like. The creature is to be:

‘… my own version of you’

and someone:

‘…  who feels the way that I feel

As such it will be little more than a clone of the narrator, and accordingly no more capable of saving the narrator than the narrator himself. And over the course of the song we find that the narrator’s saviour can only be himself.

That he’s aware he has faults is again apparent when he says:

‘I’ll bring someone to life – spare no expense
Do it with decency and commonsense’

We can assume, reading between the lines, that he doesn’t always spare expense, nor does he always act with decency and commonsense.

2. Identities

The narrator, it seems, has no less than five other identities. What follows are the main, but not the only, reasons for this. These different identities will all play a part in our understanding the nature of his crime and how he is to be saved.


Initially, he seems to be the lover of someone who’s died. His use of the expression ‘baby’ suggests a romantic relationship. If so, he would be expressing his loss emotionally when he says:

‘I wish you’d taken me with you wherever you went’.

The manner of her death, which is presumably what he feels guilty about, seems to be reflected in a line which has him bringing her back to life:

‘Show me your ribs – I’ll stick in the knife.’


The narrator also seems to be identical with his creation. This is suggested by references to the face of each:

‘Can you look in my face …?’

‘I can see the history of the whole human race
It’s all right there – it’s carved ­into your face


If his creation is someone he has killed being brought back to life, then his identity with the creation makes him identical with her. It follows that in killing her he has killed himself. And in recreating her, he is attempting to recreate himself.


The narrator is also to be identified with God. Not only is he a creator but, like God, he creates a human being in his own image:

‘Someone who feels the way that I feel’.


Finally, he can be identified with Christ in that he wants to:

‘… do things for the benefit of all mankind’

That it’s Christ who is speaking through the narrator here is suggested not just by the desire to benefit mankind but by the somewhat stylised expression.


We needn’t take it that these identities are purely metaphorical. The song seems to be suggesting that the narrator really is the victim of his crime, and that to recreate himself he really must be God and Christ respectively. Even though from an everyday, temporal perspective he appears as himself, there are numerous other indications in the song of the five other identities. Their significance will be made clear in what follows.

3. The Creature

The addressee – the creature – can also be seen as Christ. That would make sense of the narrator’s saying:

‘I’ll be saved by the creature that I create’

And the creature’s being Christ would provide a less-literal sense in which, representing mankind, he’s responsible for the creature’s death.

That he has an inkling that the creature is really Christ, rather than just having Christ-like qualities, is also apparent when he asks:

‘… should I fall on my knees’


‘Can you give me the blessings of your smile’.

Again, the language is slightly formalised, suggesting now that the addressee is being treated with unusual reverence.


Since the creation is supposed to be the narrator’s potential saviour, it’s curious to find that in addition to comprising remnants of dead bodies, it’s to be made from the remains of gangsters:

‘I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando
Mix ‘em up in a tank and get a robot commando’

The significance of this is twofold. First, the creation’s gangster-like nature makes it unlikely that the creation will save the narrator. Accordingly, given the narrator’s identity with the creation, it seems unlikely that the narrator will save himself.

Secondly, that such a spiritual rebirth is nevertheless possible is hinted at in the origin of the first film. The film Scarface, starring Al Pacino, was a remake of the 1930s original, which makes Pacino a reborn version of the original actor. The reborn version is presumably better than the original.  A related idea is perhaps present in the languages that the narrator is learning:

‘I study Sanscrit and Arabic to improve my mind’

The living Arabic language has developed from, and is presumably an improvement on, the essentially dead Sanscrit.

4. Laughter and Tears

We’re reminded at the end of the song that the narrator has a gangster-like nature which would be incapable of saving him. The last line is:

‘Do it with laughter – do it with tears’,

the repeated words ‘do it with’ suggesting that laughter and tears are not to be distinguished. They too are one and the same thing – signs of mirth. The mirth will accompany the narrator’s act of murder – his sticking in the knife. And the crudeness of the laughter is reinforced when we contrast it with the comparative serenity of Christ’ smile as it bestows blessings. On this view, one feels that there are no blessings accompanying the narrator’s laughter. He has no hope of being saved.

Yet ‘tears’ also suggests that the narrator considers the situation to be anything but a cause for laughter. As such they represent the tears of Christ. The knife is not just a murder weapon but a conduit for a life-creating electrical current:

‘Show me your ribs – I’ll stick in the knife
I’m gonna jump start my creation to life’

 Sticking in the knife is not just an act of murder, but an act of spiritual renewal.*

5. The Knife

There is a further significance to the knife. It’s implicitly present again when the narrator, addressing his creation, says:

‘I can see the history of the whole human race
It’s all right there – it’s carved into your face’

The narrator, and the creation with whom he’s identical, is the product of all that has gone before him. The concept of carving suggests that the creation is being treated as a sculpture, the sculptor having delicately carved a perfect human race. On the other hand, it’s a manifestation of all the evil in the world, as if the face of the human race has been carved-up throughout time by a vengeful gangster.

The narrator’s creation, then, is a mixture of propensities.  In so far as he is creating himself, in the sense of bringing about his own salvation, he needs to behave like the delicate sculptor rather than the gangster. If he does, he will not just be renewing and thereby saving himself, but renewing and saving the whole of humanity.

This is the sense in which the narrator is both God and Christ. He’s God in that he produces a creation which has propensities for both good and evil. And he’s Christ in that he saves God’s creation from evil. But independently – as himself – the creation might or might not save him. Put differently, insofar as he is the creation, he might or might not save himself.

6. The Head

The ‘it’ which is referred to when the narrator says:

‘You can bring it to St Peter …

You can bring it to me on a silver tray’.

is not specifically identified. But from the line just quoted we can assume it’s the head of John the Baptist. After his decapitation on the orders of Herod, John’s head was brought to Herod on a platter (cf. Mark 6:14-29).

Since it’s a head, it is probably also the head the narrator has acquired for his creature and which, if put on straight, will enable the narrator to be saved by his creation. As such it’s simultaneously the head of Christ. And by way of the narrator’s identity with Christ, it is the head of the narrator. Furthermore, the narrator’s incessant feelings of guilt also suggest it can be seen as the head of his victim.

Why St Peter? St Peter was one of the disciples who discovered Christ’s empty tomb – a sign of the resurrection – and can therefore be directly associated with salvation. By requesting the head, something associated with death, be brought to St Peter, the narrator seems to be scornfully dismissing what St Peter stands for.

At the same time, the narrator seems unconsciously to have stumbled on a way of making amends for the murder – a murder which now goes beyond that of a lover but which is simultaneously the murder of John, the murder of Christ and, by way of those, his own spiritual self-murder. By requesting the head be brought to both St Peter and himself, the narrator will be associating himself with the spiritual life represented by St Peter.

But redemption, it seems, is not so straightforward. The head still has to be put on straight. Less figuratively, the narrator has much to do to recompense for his wrongdoing.

7. Where the Children Play

The head is also to be brought to

‘… the corner where the children play’

This suggests that the children will be corrupted into learning the evil ways of the past and passing them on. The process will continue as each generation of children grows up and corrupts the next until the whole future of humanity has been corrupted.

However, it’s not only corruption that will continue down the generations. The narrator’s concern that his creation be able to:

 ‘(p)lay every number that I can play’

is suggestive of good being passed on. The good is represented by musical skill. And because ‘play’ is here a pre-echo of the children’s activity at the corner, we get the idea of skills being passed down the generations.

It’s not just the future of humanity that gets corrupted, however. That humanity has been corrupted throughout the past is implied by the double occurrence of the word ‘play’ in thev line so that it can be associated not just with the creature but the narrator too. The narrator learnt from a generation prior to his, and presumably the process went on back down all the previous generations.

This treatment of the narrator as a child is also apparent when the narrator asks:

‘Can you cross your heart and hope to die?’

‘Cross my heart and hope to die’ is an expression used by children to convince their hearers that they’re being truthful.

Accordingly, whereas the head represents evil taking over the human race, the narrator’s concern to pass on his musical skills and his concern for truth are both suggestive of good being  passed down the generations.

8. Resurrection and Redemption

Since the death for which the narrator is responsible can be seen as Christ’s death, the narrator is now attempting to make up for it by bringing about a form of Christ’s resurrection. He’s bringing Christ back to life.

Thus, just as traditionally Christ’s death and resurrection are what saved mankind, so they are saving the narrator. But what this amounts to is the narrator saving himself. It’s to be through his own efforts, using:

‘… all my powers’

The word ‘powers’, archaic in this context, is also suggestive of Christ’s ability to raise himself from the dead, thereby further implying that the narrator’s redemption is to be independently brought about by Christ.


That the narrator can save himself is hinted at throughout the song by references to Christ’s pronouncement:

‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ (John 14:6).

which implies that one finds salvation by actively following Christ’s moral example. The words ‘way’ and ‘life’ continuously occur in what the narrator says, as does the concept of truth, implying that unconsciously the narrator knows how to bring about his salvation.

Thus, he repeatedly announces that he wants to bring someone to life, and says he’ll do it:

‘… in more ways than one’

One of the extra ways might be his following Christ’s example as a means of bringing himself, as distinct from his creature, to life. This is reinforced in the song by numerous further occurrences of ‘way’.

The narrator’s concern with truth is apparent when he asks his creation, and therefore effectively himself:

‘Can you cross your heart and hope to die?’

In using an expression normally used to imply sincerity he’s accepting that being untruthful will amount to spiritual death.

The question might also be aimed at the voices plaguing him with guilt. If so, he would now seem to be moving away from his previous refusal to accept the truth about himself:

‘Not for a [minute] do I believe what they say’

– and accepting that he has something to atone for.

9. Sight, Hearing and Feeling

The narrator’s sight – which can be taken to represent his understanding – is deficient. This is made apparent by the parts played by feeling and hearing in the contradictory attitudes he takes to his moral wellbeing. On the one hand he’s plagued by the internal voices he hears constantly reminding him of his guilt:

 ‘They talk all night and they talk all day’

– while on the other we find him confidently asserting  his moral worth, but only as something which he hears and feels:

‘You got the right spirit – you can feel it you can hear it’


‘You can feel it all night [-] you can feel it in the morn’

That both the expressed pessimism and optimism are misplaced is clear from there being nothing he sees.  And this would seem to suggest that at present, while nothing is assured,  he still has a chance of being saved.

That the narrator’s understanding is inadequate is also apparent from his requiring help in seeing light:

‘Is there light at the end of the tunnel – can you tell me please?’

And it’s because the person he wants to bring to life is:

‘… someone I’ve never seen

that he fails to recognise that the resurrection he’s planning can be as much Christ’s and his own, neither of whom he will have seen, as that of the lover.  It’s ironic, then, that in addressing the lover he says:

‘I’ll see you baby on Judgement Day’

for the person he sees on Judgement Day will be Christ.

That the narrator fails to understand the identity of his creation at this point becomes further apparent when he makes the creation seem as sightless as himself:

 ‘Can you look in my face with your sightless eye’

He seems to realise only that his creation is himself.

Despite his metaphorical blindness, however, the narrator is in danger of making matters worse by exhorting himself to work without light:

‘Do it in the dark …’

He’s refusing to see that he can save himself. It’s not total dark he’s in, however. The darkness, as it happens, is relieved by the moon:

‘Can you help me walk that moonlight mile?’

Salvation requires his own effort – walking the mile – but Christ, as represented by light from the moon, is making it easier for him.

10. Armageddon

When in despair with ‘no place to turn’ the narrator feels forced to:

‘…  pick a number between one and two’.

From the context the only choice he would seem to have in mind is between behaving morally and immorally. It seems there’s a double significance to this.

First, he’s going to make various pianists – and non-pianists, because bizarrely they include St John the Apostle:

‘[p]lay every number that I can play’.

In other words, he’s going to bend people to his will. St John the Apostle, it seems, will have to adapt his doctrine of the Resurrection, an event which with St Peter he happened upon first, to the narrator’s own Frankensteinian approach to how redemption is to be achieved.1

Secondly, we find that number the narrator opts for is two:

‘I’ll be at the Black Horse Tavern on Armageddon Street
Two doors down not that far to walk’

He chooses the right solution in that if it had been only one door down the destination would have been hell. That’s because we later learn that hell is a mere step away:

‘Step right into the burning hell’

Although ‘two doors down’ is the right choice, he makes it only because he assumes it’s his lover he’s addressing (he’ll hear her footsteps) and accordingly that it won’t be himself who’ll be walking.

When instead it turns out that the addressee is Christ and that he, the narrator, is the one who must make the effort to meet, the distance seems beyond him.  What he’s called ‘not that far to walk’ becomes a mile:

‘Can you help me walk that moonlight mile?’

That the meeting’s to take place on Armageddon Street makes it clear that the narrator is engaged in a final battle between the good and bad parts of himself. It’s promising that he asks for help in ‘walking that moonlight mile’, but only partially so. The moonlight, representing Christ, should be all the help he’d need. The light is at the end of the tunnel if only he’d recognise it.


There’s an absurdity, then, in the question:

‘Can you help me walk that moonlight mile?’

in that it suggests that the narrator hasn’t realised that Christ is available to help him. He made a similar mistake earlier when he announced:

‘It must be the winter of my discontent’

The line is based on the contrastingly optimistic opening of Richard III:

‘Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York’

But whereas Richard sees ‘glorious summer,’ the narrator sees only winter. But he shouldn’t. He’s aware of summer, and not just one summer. The opening of the song is:

‘All through the summers and into January’

He’s failing to see that his spiritual wellbeing isn’t necessarily as compromised as it seems. Just as he doesn’t need help because the moonlight is already providing it for him, so in the context of so many summers it shouldn’t now be the winter of his discontent.

11. Julius Caesar

On a literal level the method the narrator is using to bring about his salvation is ludicrous. There’s no need to literally resurrect the lover.  Metaphorically he does need to, but then it’s not the lover he’s resurrecting but himself.  For this he needs a reliable method. Things seem promising when he asks:

‘… what would Julius Caesar do?’

but his response is inadequate. It’s full of inconsistency.

There are two things worth emulating  Caesar for, and it’s curious that the narrator doesn’t straightforwardly do either of them. Prior to crossing the Rubicon and defeating Pompey, Caesar famously said ‘Let the die be cast’. The narrator, however, has already with apparent self-satisfaction declared:

‘… I don’t shoot no dice’,

This suggests a determination not to model himself on Caesar’s determination to do what needs doing. The inconsistency is matched by a further inconsistency when, while claiming not to gamble with cards or shoot dice, he seems quite prepared to trust to luck:

‘I pick a number between one and two’

And as already shown, he makes the right choice.

A further, more important, inconsistency is as follows. It’s more important because it reflects the human and divine sides of the narrator’s character.  After Pompey is murdered, his head is given to Caesar who, it’s said, sheds tears when he receives it because he’d intended to forgive Pompey. The narrator, in contrast with Caesar, calls for a head to be brought to him ‘on a silver tray’, in the manner of John the Baptist’s.

Nevertheless, we’re reminded of Caesar’s tears in the last line of the song when the narrator exhorts himself to:

‘Do it with laughter – do it with tears’

These tears are not now tears of mirth but tears shed in the spirit of Caesar – out of regret for death. The narrator has caused a death and like Caesar he is shedding tears of regret for it.

12. Hell

It’s curious that the narrator condemns the past:

‘… the hell with all things that used to be’

This is particularly so since he’s learning Sanscrit, a language from the past, and because he wants to emulate Caesar. It’s curious too that he condemns Freud and Marx, who lived in the past, as ‘enemies of mankind’ even though they obviously weren’t.

He seems to have misunderstood both when he describes them as:

‘Mister Freud with his dreams and Mister Marx with his axe’.

Freud didn’t have dreams in the implied sense of far-fetched aspirations but attempted to explain the role of dreams in human psychology. And not only didn’t Marx have an axe in any relevant sense, but the narrator seems to have confused him with Engels who looked forward to the day when the state would be confined to:

‘… the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze axe’2

In any case the phrase ‘enemy of mankind’ is disconcertingly reminiscent of the phrase ‘enemy of the state’ as used, not to describe either Freud or Marx, but by tyrants to describe dissenters from their tyranny. The narrator’s condemnation of Freud and Marx accordingly seems to cast him in the mould of such a tyrant. That this is so is reinforced when he exhorts us to relish the evil he imagines being meted out to them:

‘See the raw hide lash rip the skin off their backs’

He claims to want to do things:

‘… for the benefit of all mankind’,

but in condemning mankind’s benefactors he’s doing the opposite. Furthermore, he can be seen as exacerbating the amount of evil in the world so that what should have seemed an exaggeratedly pessimistic, Mephistophelian description of life on earth –

 ‘.. the burning hell’ –

turns out to be accurate. The narrator, the representative of mankind, is turning mankind against itself and creating a hell. He invites his creation to:

‘Step right into the burning hell’,

to witness the agonies of those being tortured there, but unnecessarily. The creature will be stepping into hell just by coming into existence. There’s a suggestion that the creature too will be creating hell. Like the creator, it will be mean-spirited. What the narrator thinks of as ‘the right spirit’:

‘… creeps in your body the day you are born’

With the creature having inherited its creator’s capacity for hell-making from the day it’s born, it becomes even more absurd to rely on it as a saviour.

13. To be

There’s a different way the narrator can be saved. He wants to know what it is:

‘… to be or not to be’

Despite the wording, it’s not the same as the question that troubled Hamlet. One answer is that to be is to be God. God is identified with existence – being  – throughout the bible where his name is given as ‘I am’. That the narrator’s being, in the sense of spiritual fulfilment, requires his identity with God is suggested by his also being a creator, by his identity with Christ and by his desire to walk the ‘moonlight mile’.4

The narrator doesn’t fully understand what it is to be in this sense. Contrary to what he thinks, he does not have the right spirit. While he condemns pre-Christian atrocities such as slavery which took place:

‘(L)ong ago before the First Crusade’

he pays no attention to the fact that slavery has gone on in the Christian era. Furthermore, in implicitly approving of the First Crusade, he seems to be guilty of a superficial, unthinking approval of Christianity at its worst.  It goes along with his relishing the suffering in hell of those he assumes to be enemies of mankind.

14. It’ll be Done when it’s Done

The narrator’s method for achieving salvation is to:

‘… turn back the years’

to a happier time before his crime and his consequent sense of guilt. He tries to recreate himself at a time prior to his guilt, even though he realises that the new version of himself will be born with the same defects as the original. Turning back the years seems the only option given that he has ‘no place to turn’.

In what sense, then, does the narrator try to turn back the years? Instead of ‘to be’, his answer is ‘to do’:

 ‘I want to bring someone to life – is what I want to do

The narrator places a lot of emphasis on doing:

‘If I do it upright …’

‘I want to do things for the benefit of all mankind’

‘And I ask myself what would Julius Caesar do

Do it with decency and commonsense’

Do it in the dark …’

Do it with laughter – do it with tears’

 And in the future perfect:

 ‘…  it’ll be done when it’s done

Doing is, nevertheless, a futile option. The words:

 ‘… it’ll be done when it’s done

falsely suggest that the answer to his problem is simple. His emphasis on doing rather than being is not going to bring about his spiritual rebirth.

Alarmingly, the words are reminiscent of Lady Macbeth’s immediately after the murder of Duncan. She tries to raise her spirits with the thought that ‘What’s done is done’ (3.2) Previously, while washing Duncan’s blood from her hands, she had declared of his murder ‘A little water clears us of this deed’. Ironically a little water would clear her of her guilt  –  if only she saw it as baptismal water. In other words, paradoxically, for her what’s done isn’t necessarily done, provided she makes the right choices.3

Just as Lady Macbeth mistakes the sort of water that will clear her, so the narrator mistakes the sort of resurrection that will clear him of his guilt. Simply bringing someone back to life in a bizarre nocturnal ritual, or condemning the whole of the past, or returning to the past, will be no substitute for the narrator’s self-redemption through following Caesar’s – and hence Christ’s – example.

15. The Solution

The narrator’s confident assertion that:

‘… it’ll be done when it’s done’

itself seems misjudged. It looks as if his method of doing is never going to reach fruition. He’s been working at it for years:

‘All through the summers and into January’

with nothing to show for it.

It’s hinted that instead of not caring how long it takes, he’d do better to avoid a temporal solution altogether. That an eternal – that is, timeless – Godly existence should be the narrator’s aim is hinted at in the lack of a clear temporal order in the song. It’s rarely clear, for example, how far the narrator has got in producing his creation. He speaks to it on several occasions as if it’s alive, and yet by the end bringing it to life is still something that hasn’t happened. Also, the use of the present tense to refer to the ‘right spirit’ as something which:

‘Creeps in your body the day you are born’

suggests that being born in the sense of spiritual rebirth – is not an event which happens in time. Rather it’s ongoing. One is continuously being born. Being born as a permanent state is what it is ‘to be’. Only outside time – and space, since he has ‘no place to turn’ – will he be able ‘to be’. It’s in his eternal, not his temporal, existence that can be identical with God and Christ.

The final hint of an atemporal solution is in the line:

‘Show me your ribs, I’ll stick in the knife’

since it makes the act of murder the same as the act of redemption, which would be impossible in the temporal world.

As it is, there’s a danger that true being will elude him. Each winter will be the winter of his discontent, because by each January he will have failed yet again. 


This is an extraordinary song. Its success lies in the way it plays with identity and temporal order, and interconnects a multiplicity of disparate ideas and images, first using them in one way, then in another.

What might on first hearing seem to be a gothic horror story turns out to be a representation of what’s required to make up for one’s moral failings. On the surface level, the narrator is incompetently attempting to assuage feelings of guilt by resurrecting the body of someone he has killed. Success, he thinks, will be tantamount to having turned back the years to a time before his crime. He’s like Lady Macbeth in his failure to see the need to get rid of the wrongdoing itself, rather than just its outward signs.

Nevertheless, having failed at living and at accepting the truth about himself, he wants to know what it is properly to exist. The song implies that to exist is to be – to be God and to be Christ. He needs to be God as creator, and Christ as redeemer. As creator, he needs to create himself.  And as redeemer, he must resurrect himself. But only from an eternal perspective will creation and resurrection will be literally the case. From a temporal perspective they cannot literally occur. Success at redemption and resurrection will only be achieved by following the ways of Christ and Caesar.

Since the narrator contains within himself ‘the history of the whole human race’, his story is humanity’s story. The way for him to achieve existence and be ‘saved’ will be the way for humanity generally to achieve existence and be saved.



1. When addressing himself he says:

‘You know what I mean – you know exactly what I mean’

The emphatic way in which this is put suggests that the narrator is being self-critical for not having admitted to himself that he knows the identity of the person he’s bringing to life – himself.

2. Friedrich Engels, ‘Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State’, 1884.

3. Cf ‘Long ago before the first Crusade’. The Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade reference in I Contain Multitudes further reminds us that cruelty still goes on. The film also deals with the finding of one’s father where ‘father’ can be taken to represent God. That theme is also present in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

4. ‘I am’ appears explicitly in two later songs on the album, I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You and Murder Most Foul.

5. As the doctor says ‘More needs she the divine than the physician’ (Macbeth 5.1.74).

False Prophet


A false prophet is a person who falsely claims to speak for God and who does so for evil ends. The narrator here repeatedly denies being a false prophet yet the title suggests the denial itself is false. Since an extraordinary amount of what the narrator says is open to more than one interpretation, it would be foolish to come down on one side or the other. In any case even attempting to do so might be to miss the point. Instead I will argue that the song shows good and evil to be inextricably combined, so that the narrator both is and is not a false prophet, and that this is something the narrator only gradually, and imperfectly, comes to realise.

The issue, then, is not whether the narrator is good or evil. Rather, I suggest, it is about the roles of good and evil in our lives. The suggestion is that evil cannot be overcome by good because good and evil are aspects of a single reality.  Accordingly, sides of the narrator representing good and evil are shown to be engaged in an apparently irresolvable conflict. While the conflict is shown to be internal to the narrator, and by implication to each of us, it is also presented as political. Thus ‘strife’ – the hopeless attempt of good to overcome evil – is shown to be a permanent condition both of the individual and of society.

This piece comprises five main parts divided up as follows:

I   The Narrator
II  The Guides
III  Macbeth          (i Gender, ii Ghostliness, iii Three,)
IV The Victims      (i Vengeance ii Head And Heart, iii Political)
V  Good And Evil  (i Garden Of Eden, ii Wilderness, iii Search
.                                                                                                     for Perfection, iv   Eternity,)

I  Narrator

There are at least three reasons for supposing that the narrator is to be identified with the narrator of I Contain Multitude­s. The matter is important since there are reasons for taking the narrator there to be both the speaker and the person being addressed – and that these are respectively male and female aspects of his character. If this is so, it supports the view that there are two such aspects to the narrator’s character in False Prophet and that likewise, one or other will be addressing its counterpart.

The first reason for seeing the narrators as identical is that both are presented as having an attitude towards nakedness. In I Contain Multitude­s the narrator says:

‘… I paint nudes’

and in False Prophet the narrator dismisses his supposed inferiors with:

”Bury ’em naked with their silver and gold’ (v.4)


Similarly, in both songs attitudes are expressed to victuals. While in I Contain Multitudes the speaker proudly announces he’ll ‘eat fast foods’ and speaks favourably about drinking a toast, in False Prophet the speaker disparages both food and drink:

‘Don’t care what I drink – don’t care what I eat’ (v.6)


That the narrators are the same is further supported by the fact that each claims a similarity to Indiana Jones. In I Contain Multitudes the narrator says:

‘I’m just like Anne Frank – like Indiana Jones’

and in False Prophet he says:

‘I’ve searched the world over for the Holy Grail’ (v.6)

– such a search being undertaken by Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade.


The point is not that the above similarities show that there’s definitely only the one narrator, but that they show there might be.

II  The Guides

Initially the narrator’s remark about his guides ‘from the underworld’:

‘No stars in the sky shine brighter than you’ (v.2),

might suggest they’re a positive influence, brightness suggesting light. However, light also characterised Satan before his fall. The guides, it would appear, are good but with at least an inherent capacity for evil. Furthermore, while ‘the underworld’ as the abode of the dead is neutral between good and evil, it has evil connotations when it’s taken to mean the world of criminality. Again, the guides’ brightness seems balanced by a capacity for evil.

While the guides might be taken to represent good and evil, we need to know how this relates to their role as guides. I suggest that what enables them to perform this role is their closeness to each other. There are two ways in which this closeness becomes apparent. First, there’s no hint that they operate independently of each other. And secondly, the closeness is suggested by their names. Their names are derived from two songs, Hello Mary Lou and Miss Pearl, which were released as two sides of the same record. In this respect Mary Lou and Miss Pearl, like the songs, are a unity. They are two sides of the same coin, so to speak. They cannot exist apart. And since they represent good and evil, their guidance amounts to encouraging the narrator to see that good and evil cannot exist apart.

Given the cheery way he greets the guides:

‘Hello Mary Lou – Hello Miss Pearl’ (v.2),

one would expect the narrator to go along with their guidance.  However, rather than do so, it would seem (as will be argued for below) that in his own case he refuses to accept that evil will always accompany good. Rather than accompany his guides, he’ll remain solitary – going:

‘…  where only the lonely can go’ (v. 3),

in his determination to conquer evil.1

III  Macbeth

I’m suggesting that the lesson the narrator ought to be taking from the guides is that he is a combination of good and evil. That good and evil cannot be separated has its counterpart in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth to which the song alludes in a number of ways. What the song draws from the play will be considered below.

i Gender

In the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth can be seen as two components of what in real life would be a single character. At different points they each exhibit a cruelty they associate with masculinity and a kindness (or naturalness) they associate with femininity. When Macbeth declines to enter into his wife’s plot to kill the king, she criticises him for his lack of masculinity – ‘… when you durst do it, then you were a man‘. In return Macbeth acknowledges her as having an ‘undaunted mettle [that] should compose nothing but males‘. Further, in the play masculinity is shown to be latent in Macbeth, and femininity latent in Lady Macbeth.

In the song the narrator too is presented as having both masculine and feminine qualities, just as he is in I Contain Multitudes (which one would expect, given their apparent identity). He’s showing kindness, which Lady Macbeth associates with femininity, when he says:

‘I opened my heart to the world …’ (v.1),

and displays cruelty, which Lady Macbeth would consider a masculine trait, when for example he dismisses those he considers his inferiors:

‘.. you can bury the rest
Bury ’em naked …
Put ’em six feet under …’ (v.4)

Given the move from the past to the present tense in the two quotations, the narrator – like Macbeth – seems to move from kindness to a latent cruelty. Like his guides, he has an inherent capacity for evil.

At the end of the song the narrator declares:

‘I’m nobody’s bride’ (v. 10)

Since only a female can be a bride, this too implies that he sees his qualities are essentially female. In denying he’s a bride, he’s not denying his femininity but claiming to have put a healthy distance between himself and his supposedly masculine qualities. His kind femine side, he’s ceclaring, is not married to his evil masculine side.

ii Ghostliness

Other things the narrator says allude to the play more directly. There are, for example,  two lines which reinforce the idea of a similarity between the narrator and Lady Macbeth. The first:

‘What are you lookin’ at – there’s nothing to see’ (v.5)

echoes Lady Macbeth’s reaction to Macbeth’s horror on seeing the ghost of the man he’s just had murdered.

If, as I’ve suggested, there is both an evil male and a good female aspect to the narrator, then here we have the former addressing the latter. From the quotation, one can imagine the female aspect, like Macbeth, is staring into space appalled  having just been  confronted with the previously unrealised fact of his cruel, masculine nature.

The second line which reinforces the similarity between the narrator and Lady Macbeth:

‘Put out your hand – there’s nothin’ to hold’ (v.8)

is reminiscent of a scene in which Macbeth tries to grasp a non-existent dagger leading him to his intended victim. The ghostly dagger represents Macbeth’s as yet unrealised potential for evil.

In each case, what the narrator is becoming aware of – but dimly, as if it’s a ghost – is the cruel, male aspect of himself. He’s so appalled, that later on he denies that this part of him represents his true nature:

‘I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest
I ain’t no false prophet …’ (v.7)

iii Three

A third way in which the song echoes Macbeth is in its constant allusion to the number three. In Macbeth the number is associated with evil. There are three witches, and the number three repeatedly occurs in their chants. In the song, allusions involving the number three suggest that underlying the narrator’s goodness is a capacity for evil. The allusions thus help reinforce the idea that good cannot be separated from evil.

Three is associated with the narrator’s good, female aspect. To the extent that he’s female he combines with the two female guides – Mary Lou and Miss Pearl – to form a Holy Trinity. At the same time, in resembling the three witches, they form an unholy trinity.


The association of the number three with the entanglement of good and evil is again evident when the narrator proudly announces:

‘I’m the enemy of treason – the enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life’ (v. 3)

On the one hand it’s clearly good to oppose these three things. On the other, the three-fold focus is on something negative – being an enemy. Enemies by their nature are associated with hatred and derision.

The three things the narrator opposes, when taken together, not only reinforce the idea that he’s a combination of good and evil, as just shown, but make clear his predicament. His avowal that he’s the enemy of ‘treason’, ‘strife’ and the ‘unlived meaningless life’, while demonstrating good intentions, is impossible to put into practice. There will be circumstances in which the first two inevitably clash with the third. A lived and meaningful life, for example, might require him to oppose a tyrant, thus committing treason. However good his intentions, he will be forced into doing a wrong. And if ‘strife’ refers to his inner conflict in attempting the impossible, getting his good side to eclipse the bad, then strife will be permanent.


The denial:

‘I ain’t no false prophet’ (vs 3, 7, 10)

occurs three times throughout the song. To deny something three times makes the narrator comparable with Peter when he denied knowing Christ three times before the latter’s arrest. Thus if Peter was a combination of saintliness and weakness, so perhaps is the narrator.

As shown earlier, the narrator utters the phrase ‘I ain’t no false prophet’ in verse seven to deny that his ghostly, cruel aspect represents his true nature. He cannot bear to think that any cruelty isn’t mitigated by goodness.

And as just shown, in verse three after saying:

‘I’m the enemy of treason – the enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life’ (v. 3)

the narrator also uses the phrase, in effect to show that he’s better than he can possibly be.

The third and  final occurrence of the denial that he’s a false prophet, in verse ten, follows the lines:

‘You know darlin’ the kind of life that I live
When your smile meets my smile – something’s got to give’ (v 10)

The narrator recognises that when his kind, female aspect greets with a smile his unkind, male aspect, the latter must give way if he’s to count as good. But it can’t give way if the narrator is to remain a complete human being.


The number three is present once more when the narrator declares:

‘I’m first among equals – second to none
I’m last of the best’ (or ‘blest’) (v. 4)

Again on the surface this speaks favourably for the narrator. First, second and last – and yet all equal; he could be being presented as the three members of the Holy Trinity.

Since the narrator is ‘first’ and ‘last’, this would seem to make Christ’s saying ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first’ (Matt 20) apply to the narrator. It’s good to have the humility to be last and be raised to become first – and so the narrator is saying he does. But it’s bad to have the arrogance to put yourself first and then be reduced to being last – and that’s the narrator’s position as well. The positive in him is counteracted by the negative.

Evil, it would seem, always accompanies good. And the upshot of this is that however much the narrator might strive to replace the evil in his nature with good, he is destined to fail.

IV  Victims

So far, I’ve suggested that the narrator prefers to associate himself with the supposedly feminine qualities associated with Macbeth rather than the masculine ones of Lady Macbeth. I’ve also suggested that the song shows that to expect someone to be wholly good is to expect too much. Good and evil are inextricably mixed. Sometimes, though, it’s not just that evil inevitably accompanies good, but that it takes the place of good. The narrator’s character suffers either from a bias towards evil or from a hopelessly one-sided outlook. That this is so will be apparent from a consideration of the narrator’s victims.

i Vengeance

In the song the narrator openly declares he’s:

‘… here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head’ (v7)2

The announcement is stark and would seem to suggest that in this case his cruel, masculine aspect is in control. There’s little to justify vengeance beyond, perhaps, an appeal to the Old Testament God.

That this vengeance is to take the form of murder is lent some support by the narrator’s boast that he’s:

‘… second to none’ (v4),

for this same phrase is used in Murder Most Foul to characterise an act of assassination.

That he and the guides are intent on murder is also apparent from the line:

‘You girls mean business and I do too’ (v2),

the word ‘business’ anticipating another phrase from Murder Most Foul:

‘Business is business and it’s murder most foul’

And if there were any doubt about the narrator’s murderous intent, the ‘I do too’ will serve to allay it.

The implication is that, for all his leanings towards kindness and his attempts to lead a worthwhile life, the narrator sometimes gives in to his cruel, masculine side.

ii Head and Heart

There’s a further reason for seeing the narrator’s attitude to vengeance as demonstrating the cruel, masculine side of his character.

His aim, he announces in verse seven, is to:

… bring vengeance on somebody’s head‘ (v7)

While the expression is colloquial, in context it alludes to the opposition between ‘head and heart’ – or thought and emotion. It suggests that the narrator, or an aspect of him, is opposed to thought.

That rather than siding with thought he sides with the emotions, or heart, is apparent from his saying:

‘I opened my heart to the world’ (v.1)

In verse seven, then, the emotional – in this case vengeful – part of him wants to destroy the head, the part associated with intelligence. It wants raw emotion to succeed over thought.

As if to reinforce the narrator’s  opposition to thought, his focus tends to be away from the head towards the feet. Thus his guides are:

‘fleet footed‘,

he wants people buried:

‘six feet under’,

and he boasts of his ability to climb a mountain of swords on his:

‘bare feet‘.

If the narrator’s emotional, in this case vengeful, aspect is bent on subjugating the more intelligent, supposedly male part of himself, then there’s a lack of balance.  A purely, or predominantly, emotional outlook is not always appropriate.

iii Political

The song need not just be taken as concerning a battle between different aspects of an individual. It can be interpreted on a vaster political level.

The ‘goodbye’ in the narrator’s greeting to a stranger:

 ‘Hello stranger – Hello and goodbye’ (v. 9)

has an ominous ring, perhaps suggesting that the stranger is going to be eliminated as a threat. It’s the immediately following line which, if taken literally, suggests that the context is now political:

‘You rule the land but so do I’ (v. 9)

The stranger, it would seem, is a political rival – but won’t be for long.

The lines which follow suggest that in addition to being a rival in the traditional sense, the victim represents a class:

‘You lusty old mule – you got a poisoned brain
I’m gonna marry you to a ball and chain’

Since a mule is a hardworking, useful animal, it can perhaps be taken as representing workers generally – Marx’ proletariat. It’s brain has been poisoned – perhaps by religion, the ‘opium of the masses’ – so that it’s too trusting and accepting of its lot.

The second line’s ‘ball and chain’ is reminiscent of the Communist Manifesto’s appeal to the world’s workers to unite – ‘You have nothing to lose but your chains!’ On this view, the narrator represents the ruling class’ determination to keep the proletariat subjugated. In this way he’s setting himself up against ‘Mister Marx with his axe’ in the next song, My Own Version Of You – the axe being the way of cutting through the chains.

Whatever the claims of the working class, it’s obviously inappropriate to see class conflict purely from the perspective of just one class. Once again the narrator seems inappropriately one-sided in.

V  Good And Evil

i Garden of Eden

While the word ‘it’ in:

‘I know how it happened – I saw it begin’ (v.1)

is ambiguous, one thing it could refer to is the fall – either of Satan or of man, because in each case the fall was the beginning of evil and misery. That might mean we should see the narrator as God or Satan (i.e. with Godly or Satanic properties) since both were witnesses to the fall. If he is both, then he combines good and evil.

That the ‘it’ refers to the fall of man, and that the narrator is both God and Satan, would be supported by the invitation to:

‘… walk in the garden – so far and so wide’ (v.5),

– assuming that the garden is the garden of Eden. That the narrator at this point is God is indicated by the similarity of the language here to that used in the bible:

‘And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day’ (Gen. 3,8 – italics in source).

In the song too it’s ‘the cool of the day’ insofar as the narrator feels ‘a cool breeze encircling’ him.

That the garden is ‘wide’ associates it with the world (as in ‘world wide’) and thus suggests that the concern of the song is good and evil in the world.

We cannot assume that the narrator is just being presented as God, though. The narrator’s earlier references to knowledge in the phrases:

‘I know how it happened’


‘I know what I know’

suggest that he is Adam or Eve. This is because it was their acquiring forbidden knowledge that brought about the fall.

The knowledge was of good and evil. Having acquired both, Adam and Eve are lumbered with both – as are mankind whom they represent. In other words, any attempt by the narrator to return to a prelapsarian state of perfect goodness will be thwarted because there is no such thing any more. Perfect good only exists when there is no knowledge of evil. It’s as if good and evil are two aspects of a single reality which can no more exist independently of each other than left and right can exist independently of each other.

ii Wilderness

Evidence that the narrator comprises both good and evil occurs again when the narrator, having bribed a victim with gold, apparently offers the City of God:

‘Oh you poor Devil – look up if you will
The City of God is there on the hill’

On the one hand, if the phrase ‘Oh you poor Devil’ is taken literally to mean ‘Oh you poor sinner’, the lines could be a genuine attempt to convert the addressee – the cruel, male aspect of the narrator – to God.

On the other, however, they’re also  reminiscent of Satan’s tempting Jesus in the wilderness when Jesus is offered all the kingdom’s of the world. The victim is offered a heavenly existence – the City of God.

iii The Search For Perfection

The song opens on a note of despondency:

‘Another day without that don’t end – another ship going out
Another day of anger, bitterness and doubt’ (v.1)

The phrase ‘another ship going out’ might be a metaphor for the days just alluded to. The narrator seems to think the ships might as well not go out and there might as well be no more days. He seems inert, as if he’s incapable of finding value in anything. He can’t make things happen, he just watches on.3 Since he later declares he’s previously been active:

‘I’ve searched the world over for the Holy Grail’ (v.6),

the despondency seems to be new. The search was for an unachievable perfection represented by the Holy Grail, but he’s stopped searching now and is just passively hoping perfection – the triumph of good over evil within himself – will come about of its own accord:

‘… something’s got to give’ (v. 10)

Although he’s unaware of it, his outlook has developed, however. While he doesn’t consciously accept that perfection is unachievable, his thoughts show a development in that direction. Whereas once he dismissed the imperfect out of hand:

‘Bury ’em naked with their silver and gold’ (v. 4)

by the end of the song he’s prepared to compromise with evil:

‘Open your mouth – I’ll stuff it with gold’ (v.8)

Like Aneurin Bevan he’ll use gold, for which he showed contempt in verse four, to mitigate a worse harm.4 He’ll at least no longer be plaged by an unfulfillable desire to eliminate one half of himself.

iv Eternity

The wording of the opening line:

‘Another day without [or ‘that don’t’] end …’ (v.1)

suggests that events need not be viewed just from a temporal perspective. It’s not just that the day doesn’t end, if the line is interpreted literally, but that there have been other such unending days before. A series of unending days requires that they overlap, or else each succeeding day would put an end to the immediately preceding one. Thus the days which occur do so outside of time. There’s no sense in which they precede or succeed other unending days. In this sense they are eternal.

From the narrator’s position in time, though, the eternal is inaccessible. Misery, in the form of ‘anger, bitterness and doubt’ (v. 1), as well as ‘treason’, ‘strife’ and the ‘the unlived, meaningless life’ (v. 3), will continue. Nevertheless, while his despondency is still present in the last line of the song:

‘Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died’ (v. 10),

there may still be hope. I suggested above that this might be a matter of accepting that perfection is impossible. The further suggestion now is that this applies only in the temporal world. It would seem that the narrator ‘s life can also be viewed from an eternal perspective since in order to be able to remember one’s birth and death, one would have to exist outside time. From that perspective there’s a possibility that evil and suffering need not be permanent.

Nevertheless, despite this intimation of eternity, the memory lapses referred to in the quoted line suggest that the narrator continues to remain  in the temporal world with all its imperfections. He doesn’t have, or perhaps doesn’t yet have, eternal life.


On this interpretation, the concern isn’t whether or not the narrator is some mysterious evil figure – a biblical false prophet – out to delude humanity. Insofar as the narrator might be such an evil figure, doubt is cast on his existence. There’s ‘nothing to see’. In any case, it’s doubtful whether we could recognise him as a false prophet, it being in the nature of false prophets to hide their falsity.

Instead, I’ve suggested,the song concerns how far it’s reasonable to expect good to overcome evil in normal life. The answer would appear to be that it isn’t. It’s not just that the narrator appears to be a mixture of good and evil, but that there’s doubt as to whether the concepts good and evil can ever be accurately applied independently of one another. To be ‘the enemy of treason’ seems fine until one is confronted with a tyrant. And even stuffing one’s opponent’s mouth with gold might be acceptable if it’s done for a laudable reason. Aneurin Bevan thought it was. Rather, while good and evil can be distinguished, they seem inextricably combined so that neither can exist without the other.

Rather than being characterisable outright as good or evil, the narrator can be seen as hosting a continual battle between traits  pulling him towards one or the other. He recognises that the two have to go together (‘I sing songs of love – I sing songs of betrayal’), but also can’t accept their co-existence (‘… something’s got to give’).  He’s thus in an impossible position, striving for an absolute good which can’t be achieved, at least in the temporal world. However, by the end of the song the narrator seems at least unconsciously to have accepted the need for a compromise between good and evil. The song ends as it began with a suggestion of an eternity (that is, the world understood in a non-temporal way) in which the apparently unending miseries and moral inconsistencies of temporal existence are capable of resolution.


  1. Only The Lonely: a characteristic of Rough and Rowdy Ways is to give song titles meanings they didn’t originally have. Just as Hello Mary Lou and Miss Pearl are song titles, so is Only The Lonely the title of a Roy Orbison song.
  2. There’s may be another echo of Macbeth, and perhaps also the Merchant Of Venice, in the phrase ‘another ship going out’ (v 1). The phrase can be seen as relating to the narrator’s desire for vengeance. In Macbeth vengeance tends to take the form of murder. The witches plot revenge on a woman by sinking the ship of her innocent husband and Macbeth gets revenge on Macduff by having Macduff’s wife and children murdered. In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio is waiting for one of his ships to return so that he can repay a loan to Shylock. If it doesn’t, Shylock will get his revenge by taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
  3. In Murder Most Foul someone says “Son, the age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.” It hasn’t. Every age is the age of the anti-Christ, if the anti-Christ is interpreted as the propensity for evil in all of us, so it can’t have just begun with the murder of Kennedy. And there’s evil, not because the age of the anti-Christ has just begun of its own accord, but because every age has its people who bring evil about.
  4. In 1948 Ernest Bevan explained how he was able to bring about the National Health Service in Britain despite opposition from doctors out to protect their lucrative private contracts. His did it by buying them off or, as he put it, ‘by stuffing the doctors’ mouths with gold.’

I Contain Multitudes


The basis of this and other songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways is Walt Whitman’s long poem Song of Myself and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Whitman presents the self as in some sense containing everything which influences it or has brought it about. In time, this self will be a component of those selves in future generations who succeed it. This applies not just to Whitman but to everyone. Given the vast numbers of people who have gone before us, any one of us will, as Whitman puts it, ‘contain multitudes’. Each of us is a multiplicity, and each of us will survive as components of those who succeed us. We will live on in them. Given the heterogeneity of the ‘multitudes’, however, a person’s nature will inevitably contain inconsistencies:

‘Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)’

At one point, Dylan’s narrator likewise claims to be ‘a man of contradictions’ and to ‘contain multitudes’. However, unlike Whitman’s narrator who placidly accepts that he’s the result of all that went before him, Dylan’s is engaged in an internal battle between the parts he’s inherited. The battle is presented as being between a man and a woman, but these can be taken as representing the coarse as opposed to the more sensitive sides of a person’s character. It’s in this respect that the song echoes Macbeth where the two protagonists can be taken as representing the supposedly manly and womanly sides of a single person. The battle can also be seen as between good and bad, and between influences associated with youth and age, life and death and the temporal and the eternal. And it’s ongoing, any victory being provisional since each side is being constantly renewed both in the narrator’s own person and through future generations.

I say ‘Dylan’s narrator’, as if there is just the one. As with many Dylan songs, however, it’s not always clear how many narrators there are. For reasons which will become apparent in the next section I’m going to assume that there is just one narrator but that he’s in dialogue with himself, speaking as a man and occasionally as a woman, thereby giving voice to the coarse and sensitive sides of his makeup.1

The Narrator

On the surface, it might seem that the narrator is addressing a person he or she loves. This is suggested by lines like:

‘Follow me close – I’m going to Bally-na-lee
I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me’


‘Half my soul baby belongs to you’

Both quotations suggest a romantic attachment. The first would most likely be the words of a woman to a man since in the poem The Lass from BallynaLee, to which it refers, it’s the lass who invites the young man to accompany her.2 The second quotation would most likely be a man addressing a woman since the addressee is referred to as ‘baby’.

While to an extent such an interpretation seems plausible, there is an alternative. This is particularly required in the case of the second quotation since it seems unlikely that a lover would openly commit only half his soul to his beloved.

Instead of seeing these lines as spoken by one person to another it might be more plausible to see them as spoken by one part of the narrator to another. The narrator is, as it were, imagining that a part of him is male and a part female. Accordingly, in the first quotation, one part of the narrator would be urging the other not to destroy the whole by detaching itself. And in the second, one part of the narrator, speaking on behalf of the whole, would actually be recognising the importance of a different part or aspect of himself.

Multitudes and Contradictions

The narrator recognises that he contains multitudes – meaning that everything that he is is a result of everything that has gone before him and will contribute to all that comes after him. As the range of his influences is so vast, he inevitably embodies contradictions. In the song this richness of makeup is in part represented by straightforward inconsistencies. For example, in the penultimate verse the narrator makes two threats:

‘I’ll sell you down the river – I’ll put a price on your head’

In so doing he makes it seem as if as if it’s just one threat – using the two phrases to mean the same thing. But they don’t mean the same thing. To sell someone down the river is to get rid of them. To put a price on someone’s head is to pay to get them back. In making both threats the narrator seems to be in the contradictory position of both wanting to reject what the woman, or female part of him, represents, while simultaneously wanting to retain it. In threatening just a part of him, he is literally fighting a ‘blood feud’.

The richness and contradictory nature of his makeup is also shown by his depiction in terms of various dualities – male versus female, good versus bad, youth versus age, life versus death, and temporal versus eternal. I’ll take each of these in turn.


Rough and Rowdy Ways as a whole is a unity. Themes recur from song to song. Relevant here is that there are  numerous allusions to Macbeth on the album. Like Macbeth, the narrator is a murderer, and like Macbeth he fights ‘blood feuds’. Importantly, if the man and the woman can be seen as two sides of the same person, a comparison can be drawn with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Not only does the latter have manly qualities (‘For thy undaunted mettle should compose nothing but males’) but in organising the assassination of Duncan she can be seen as making up for the supposedly manly qualities missing in Macbeth. She operates as a part of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is reflected in the witches and they too are a mixture of female and male (‘… you should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret/That you are so’). In the case of Dylan’s narrator, the sign of manliness is not a beard but a ‘black moustache’.

That the song’s narrator is one person made up of two different people is apparent when the narrator declares:

‘I’ll drink to the truth of things that we said’

since this is reminiscent of the biblical injunction:

‘Speak every man truth with his neighbour, for we are members of one another‘ (Ephesians 4.25).

Since, in the narrator’s case, the supposed man and woman are speaking the truth to each other, they fulfil a major condition for being ‘members of one another’.

The likelihood of there being just one narrator further becomes apparent when we realise that he seems to be attributing both male and female characteristics to himself. This is clearest when both types of characteristic are self-attributed in the same line, for example:

‘I fuss with my hair and I fight blood feuds’


‘I paint landscapes – I paint nudes’

Even if men can be vain about their hair, ‘fussing’ with one’s hair is stereotypically a female trait as judged from a man’s perspective. A disposition towards blood feuds and an interest in nudes, on the other hand, are more suggestive of a man than a woman. Accordingly, the narrator is attributing to himself archetypically male and female characteristics.

Similarly, whereas one associates a ‘black moustache’ with a man, a woman is more likely to be a wearer of ‘rings that sparkle and flash’. That’s not to say that, on the surface, the fussing and the wearing of rings don’t still serve the purpose of making the narrator seem flashy.

The dual male/female nature is further indicated by the reference to:

‘Pink pedal pushers and red blue jeans’

which suggests the narrator’s idea of appropriate female and male colours, pink and blue respectively. And, the oxymoronic ‘red’ reminds us of the narrator’s masculinity by way of his other associations with the colour red – his Cadillac is red, and he indulges in blood feuds.

The narrator’s declaration:

‘Half my soul belongs to you’

would also seem to support the view that the narrator recognises that the female addressee is one half of himself. As noted above, it would be an oddly non-committal thing to say to a lover, but would be literally true if the addressee is one part of the speaker.

Similarly, his threat to show the woman his heart,

‘But not all of it – only the hateful part’

suggests that the non-hateful part is hers which could only be so if they are one and the same person.

Finally, that there’s just one person is also supported by the reference to the concept of loss in the first and final verses. In the first verse the narrator says:

 ‘I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me,’

and in the final verse he says:

‘Get lost Madam …’

The narrator’s mind in the first verse and the harshly dismissed ‘Madam’ of the final verse are implicitly being identified with each other in that they’re both in danger of being lost. Accordingly, the ‘Madam’ he’s speaking to would be his own mind. The narrator, it seems, is prepared to lose his female component even if it amounts to the destruction of his own mind.


Just as he is a mixture of female and male characteristics, the narrator is a mixture of good and bad. On most occasions good is associated with the female part and bad with the male. He can be seen as good in that he speaks approvingly of:

 ‘… the truth of things that we said’.

However, it may be a mark against him that on the two occasions he expresses approval he does so in the context of drink:

‘I’ll drink to the truth of things that we said’


‘I’ll drink to the man that shares your bed’.

Furthermore, in the first quotation, the awkward sounding omission of the definite article before ‘things’ suggests he might be prevaricating. There are things they said, it would seem, that he doesn’t want to drink to the truth of, even though they are true. And, taking the second quotation literally, the use of ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ to refer to the man she sleeps with might suggest bitterness.

Good and bad sides to the narrator become further apparent with his admission that his heart has hateful and a non-hateful parts:

‘… I’ll show you my heart
But not all of it – only the hateful part’

That there’s good in him is clear if it’s true that he’s:

‘… just like Anne Frank – like Indiana Jones’

For that to be the case he’d need to be a victim of antisemitism, like Anne Frank, and to have set about defeating the perpetrators of it. This would make him like Indiana Jones in the latter’s taking on the Nazis.3

That the narrator has a bad side is clear from his being like:

‘… them British bad boys the Rolling Stones’.

(In further support of his containing multitudes, he’s not merely ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ but like all of them!)


A third duality in the narrator’s makeup, and therefore a further way in which he ‘contains multitudes’ and is ‘a man of contradictions’, is in his encompassing both youth and age. The youth/age combination applies to both his male and female parts.

His male part is  young in that he’ll:

‘… rollick and frolic with all the young dudes’

and in that he’s like:

‘them British bad boys the Rolling Stones’

But being like the Rolling Stones also shows that the characteristic of youth is combined with age, though. He’s like them as they were in their youth when they were ‘bad boys‘, but also  – presumably – in being aged as they have become. Obviously he can’t literally be old and young simultaneously, but he’s the product of both age and youth in others who either preceded him or currently affect him.

The youth/age combination also applies to the narrator in that he’s young:

‘… like Anne Frank …’

and aged in that he sings:

 ‘… the songs of experience like William Blake’4

It also applies in that he’s able to distinguish between two different female components of his makeup. These are the, presumably young, ‘pretty maids’ and the ‘old queens’ who each figure in verse six. The reference to guns and knives in the context of the ‘old queens’ makes it clear that he sees age as a threat, and by implication approves of youth.

Unsurprisingly, then, towards the end, of the song the narrator is seen to embody a battle between youth and age. Not only does he call the female part of himself an:

‘… old wolf…’

but, adopting the perspective of youth, refers to it mock-deferentially as ‘Madam’.


The song’s intention is to develop Whitman’s view which is partially hinted at in the opening lines:4

‘Today and tomorrow and yesterday too
The flowers are dying like all things do’

The hint is partial in that the lines deal only with death, not birth. In so doing they represent the death-oriented outlook of the narrator represented by his male side (see below).  Despite this, the lines treat the process of dying not just as continual, but as atemporal – that is eternal, in the sense of encompassing all time. They do so by ungrammatically employing the present tense – ‘are dying’ – to describe not merely what is occurring, but what has already occurred and what has yet to occur.

That there’s no actual distinction between past, present and future is further suggested by a statement that makes life, not just death, exist eternally:

‘Everything’s flowin’ all at the same time‘.

The subsequent repeated use of ‘all‘ in:

All the pretty maids and all the old queens
All the old queens from all my past lives’

helps emphasise that the ‘everything’ which ‘flows all at the same time’ includes the totality of pretty maids, old queens and the narrator’s past lives. In other words these too ‘flow at the same time’ and are thus eternal. In that the present young results from what is old, the young is indistinguishable from the old; and in that the present male results from previous females, the male is indistinguishable from those females.

And since the pretty maids  are coexistent with the old queens who, in time, replace them, the pretty maids, like the flowers, are eternally dying. 5

But that doesn’t mean the flowers are just dying. ‘Flowing’ in:

‘Everything’s flowin’ all at the same time’.

carries positive connotations. It suggests living, so that young and old are not just eternally dying but eternally living. That explains why the narrator sleeps:

‘… with life and death in the same bed’

However both statements conflict with what he says two lines later where he announces:

‘I drive fast cars and I eat fast foods’.

The concept ‘fast‘ clearly can’t apply if everything is happening timelessly. The contradiction lies in the conflict between his apparent recognition that existence is eternal and his commitment to temporal enjoyments. Since he claims to be ‘a man of contradictions’, he may well be aware of the inconsistency. What he doesn’t seem aware of is that opting for the temporal shouldn’t amount to a rejection of the eternal, since the temporal continues to exist in what succeeds it, and thus is itself eternal.


And just as the temporal and eternal, are not to be distinguished, neither are life and death. The narrator seems to focus on the death of everything, including the flowers. He may not realise that his own choice of wording implies not just that death accompanies, or follows on from life, but that life and death ultimately are not to be distinguished. Not only does:

‘Everything’s flowin’ all at the same time’

imply that everything is permanently alive, but its wording seems to imply that the dying flowers are permanently alive. This is due to the similarity between the words ‘flowing’ and flowers’ – which latter might be read ‘flow-ers’.6

The flowers then are permanently dying because they die:

‘Today and tomorrow and yesterday too’

and yet are permanently alive in their continuous flowing.


The non-distinction between life and death is also relevant to the narrator’s violent outlook. The narrator sees his female side as a threat against which he protects himself by carrying:

‘… four pistols and two large knives’.

Sometimes, however, protection has over spilled into actual violence:

‘Got skeletons in the walls of people you know’

The skeletons are presumably of those earlier selves which have become part of him and which he’s got rid of. They’re known to the addressee in that they’re earlier versions of the female side of his character. As he predicts, the loss of this humane side of him – his heart’s non-hateful part – causes him to lose his mind. And it’s as a result of his madness that- like Poe’s mad, inhumane narrator in the short story The Telltale Heart – he admits his guilt.

Nevertheless, the destruction of those selves is futile because they live on in whatever succeeds them.

Narrator’s Development

The narrator, it seems, is torn between the different parts that make up his character – male and female, old and young, life and death, temporal and eternal. Instead of recognising that each member of a pair cannot exist in isolation from the other, he commits himself to the first member of each pair to the exclusion or attempted annihilation of the second. As the song progresses, the male, youthful, bad, temporal side of his makeup increasingly becomes dominant. It then staves off a threat from the female, aged, good, eternal part by attempting to come to an accommodation, and so returning to a state of equilibrium. This is possible because, being eternal, nothing he has destroyed has been destroyed permanently.

The three sub-sections which follow aim to show how the narrator develops as the song progresses. The move is from male/female equality, to the male’s becoming the dominant partner, and then finally to its reaching an accommodation which brings the relationship back to its original state – thus itself being an example of eternal existence.

a) Equal or Submissive

At the start of the song the male and female sides of the narrator are in harmony. Thus in verse three, while seeming to acknowledge the woman’s importance, the narrator declares:

‘Half my soul baby belongs to you’

He willingly recognises that his female side comprises half of his being.

Initially he sees her as at least an equal in that any dominance on his part is matched by a balancing factor. Thus, his initial  commanding ‘Follow me close’ is qualified by:

‘I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me’

which is more a deferential plea to her for help.

Likewise the line:

‘Tell me what’s next – what shall we do?’

expresses dominance in the first half but balances this with submission to her ability to better know what to do in the second. That at this stage he is not setting himself apart from her is again indicated by the use of ‘we’ in ‘what shall we do?’ This all embracing ‘we’ in the third verse is just the second and last time it occurs in the song. In the very next line he’s favouring his male side:

‘I’ll drink to the man that shares your bed’

b) Dominant

While the narrator’s male and female sides start from a position of near equality, the male side starts to become increasingly dominant.

By mentioning having a ‘red Cadillac’ and the ‘black moustache’, he shows he’s proudly aware of his masculine characteristics. That he favours masculinity becomes further apparent in that, with the exception of Anne Frank, the writers, performers and composers he mentions are all male.

Not only does he show pride in his male characteristics when he:

‘… drinks to the man that shares your bed,’

but he sees this as pride in himself as if his female side is of no consequence. This is because ‘the man who shares your bed’ must be himself, given that he’d be unlikely to drink to a rival. 

By the fourth verse the narrator has already marginalised his female side:

‘I’m just like Anne Frank – like Indiana Jones
And them British bad boys the Rolling Stones’

Here the female characteristics are outnumbered around six to one by the male, with the former being represented by Anne Frank alone.

That he now considers the male part supreme is confirmed when he arrogantly declares he has:

‘… no apologies to make,8

proudly declares he lives:

‘on the boulevard of crime’9

and aggressively announces he carries:

‘… four pistols and two large knives’

None of these is balanced by compensating female characteristics.

The dominance of the male reaches a zenith in the final two verses. When he says:

‘Greedy old wolf – I’ll show you my heart
But not all of it – only the hateful part’

he’s  threatening his female side with revenge for its ‘greed’ – or more accurately, its desire to do away with his harsh, masculine qualities. And it’s because he feels threatened that he threateningly orders her to:

‘Keep your mouth away from me’

and responds with a threat of his own:

 ‘I’ll sell you down the river’

By the time he rudely delivers the orders:

‘Get lost madam – get up off my knee,’

he’s so entranced by his masculinity, that he doesn’t care that this total rejection of the female is tantamount to destroying his own mind. We know that it is, though, because the notion of getting lost reminds us of what he’d said at the outset:

‘I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me’

If she obeys him and ‘gets lost‘, his dominance will be over for he will have lost his mind. This is the situation near the beginning of the song where he has in fact gone insane.

c) Concessive

Unlike in the early verses, the narrator’s commands are no longer mitigated by any form of concession to his female side. However, this dominating approach changes in the last few lines of the song where the narrator attempts to negotiate an agreement.

Presumably when earlier he’d said he can:

‘… go right where all things lost … are made good again,’

he knew that there’s no such place. It’s no more possible to go ‘right where all things are lost’ than it is to go:

‘…  right to the edge  … right to the end’.

The edge and the end are unreachable in that everything continues in what succeeds it.10

On the other hand, the expression ‘go right‘ suggests he’s aware that the only way he’ll regain his mind is by doing the right thing. He’ll no longer see himself as one of the ‘bad boys’. He sees the ‘right’ thing as reaching an accommodation with his female side.

To do this, and to stave off the threat of her destroying or devouring his male characteristics, he makes a bargain.

Keep your mouth away from me,’

he says, and in return:

‘I’ll keep the path open – the path in my mind’.

It’s the repetition of ‘keep’ that suggests the line is a response occasioned by fear of her mouth – i.e. of being devoured. He’s making a concession in offering to keep the path in his mind open, because keeping the path in his mind open requires that he keep her. She’s a necessary part of his mind. Without her, there would be no mind and so no path in his mind.

In line with this, when he says:

‘I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind’

he’s attempting to reinforce the appeal of the bargain. He’s saying that if he does keep her (i.e. if he does hold onto his mind), in return for her not devouring him, she will be rewarded with his love.

That a settlement is reached is clear in that the song ends with a statement indicating a new sensitivity:

‘I play Beethoven’s sonatas and Chopin’s preludes’

But it’s not really new. The present tense ‘I play’ shows that, considered eternally, he has been playing them all along. The relationship between the two sides of the narrator is the same now as it was at the beginning of the song. The deaths the narrator has brought about have had no effect on the eternal unity of his male and female components.


While the song uses  Whitman’s poem as a base, it takes up where Whitman left off. It’s only at the end of his poem that Whitman acknowledges that the vast complexities in the makeup of a person are problematic in giving rise to contradictions. There’s no attempt to consider the implications of these for how someone should conduct his or her life. The song, on the other hand, suggests what the implications of the complexities might be and suggests that one side of the narrator’s makeup cannot be jettisoned in favour of the other. Anything that has gone before will continue to live on in what comes after. Thus male and female, youth and age, good and bad, life and death and the temporal and the eternal have to co-exist if the person is to exist at all.

The song begins, however, by presenting the narrator as seeing death in everything. Perhaps as a result he tends to destroy what’s inconsistent with his ideal male, self-image. Increasingly he favours his male side, over the female, youth over age, bad over good, death over life and the temporal over the eternal. This in turn leads to more contradiction in that, simultaneous with rejecting the female side, is a desire to recover it. After an angry final rejection of the female and a commitment to his male side, the song ends with a compromise under which he accepts his more sensitive ‘female’ side in order to ensure the survival of his more coarse ‘male’ component. By the end of the song, the relationship is thus the same as it was at the beginning.




1. There are a number of options which include: a) a woman addressing a man throughout, b) a woman in a dialogue with herself, c)  a man addressing a woman throughout, d) a man in dialogue with himself, e) a woman and a man at different points of the song. Since it would be tedious to go through all the possibilities systematically, I’ll concentrate on justifying the option I think most likely – option ‘c’.

2. Anthony Raftery The Lass From Bally-na-lee. A young man on his way to church sees a pretty girl who invites him to accompany her instead.

3. The first film in the series  is set in 1936. Indiana Jones is hired by government agents to locate the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis.

4. While he claims to be like William Blake in singing the ‘Songs of Experience’, which focus on evil and corruption, it’s noticeable that he omits mention of the ‘Songs of Innocence’ and the simple, unencumbered view of life they represent.

5. I use ‘intention’ to mean not the songwriter’s intention, consideration of which is largely irrelevant to a song’s meaning, but the intention of the song itself – meaning what the song is intending towards.

6. This takes ‘old queen’ to refer to a woman rather than a gay man. It’s not obvious how the latter would make a plausible interpretation. To the extent that the narrator is a combination of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the old queens in each past life would each be Lady Macbeth.(Comment modified 14.9.20)

7. i.e. pronounced ‘flo-ers’.

8. ‘I have no apologies …’: Whitman’s narrator, in Song of Myself (20), feels he owes no apologies because he is just the product of the way the universe is:

 ‘ I see that the elementary laws never apologise,
(I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by, after all.)’

9.  ‘… boulevard of crime’: This doesn’t necessarily indicate that the narrator is criminal. Like much else in the song, it’s open to more than one interpretation. According to Wikipedia, the Boulevard du Crime was the 19th century nickname of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris, the nickname resulting from the many crime melodramas that were shown every night in its many theatres.

10.  Whitman expresses it in Section 33 of Song of Myself:

‘And all I see multiplied as high as I can cipher edge but the rim of the farther systems’.