Welcome

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

False Prophet

Introduction

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’

and

‘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.


Conclusion

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.

Notes:

  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

Introduction

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’

and

‘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.


Male/Female

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’

and

‘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.


Good/Bad

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’

and

‘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!)


Youth/Age

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’.


Time/Eternity

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.


Life/Death

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.


Conclusion

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.

 

 

Notes

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’.

Honest With Me

Introduction

The narrator is considering how he might convince his lover of his loyalty.1 Although he’s addressing her, it’s unlikely that he’s speaking directly to his lover because he sometimes speaks as if he’s away from her in the city, and sometimes as if he’s with her at her home. More likely he’s rehearsing in his mind what he could say. Despite it’s taking the form of an imagined conversation rehearsed in the narrator’s mind, we’re given only the narrator’s side of it. Accordingly, although we can fill in the gaps, the song’s main concern is his thoughts, and by way of them his character.

There are three different ways these thoughts can be interpreted. First, they can be taken to represent the narrator’s genuine feelings. On this view he is honest and prepared to make concessions to his lover. Secondly, he can be seen as mentally rehearsing a series of lies and excuses designed to fool her into believing he can be trusted. Thirdly, both can be the case. It’s the third way which I’ll try to show we have good reason for accepting.

On this third view, the words the narrator uses might reflect both an honest and a scheming side to his nature, and might do so without his being aware that they carry multiple meanings. The song gives us reason to believe there are two separate parts to his consciousness, each operating independently of the other.  However, given the subtlety of the reasoning involved, one might conclude that his scheming side is the more genuine side of his character.

This piece comprises four sections. The first will set out evidence for seeing the narrator as honest. It will be relatively brief because the evidence is to be derived from a consideration of just the surface meanings of his words The second section will then focus on how the narrator’s thoughts can be interpreted as machinations to circumvent his lover’s wishes. This, the longest section, will require laying bare the subtleties in his reasoning together with the manner of its progression. In order to facilitate this there will be separate discussions of each of the five verses and the refrain. The remaining two sections will deal respectively with imagery involving unity and separation and imagery concerning life and death. It’s this latter imagery which gives us reason for seeing the narrator’s mind as divided into honest and dishonest parts.


I The Narrator As Honest

What follows is a brief interpretation of the song which shows the narrator in a sympathetic light. Although the reasoning behind certain assumptions isn’t given here, it will be provided in the next section where it will be more crucial to the points being made.

The narrator clearly believes his lover has reservations about him but won’t tell him precisely why she doesn’t want to pursue a relationship. She won’t, as he puts it, ‘be honest’ with him. His aim is to find a way of winning her round by convincing her of his love which on the present interpretation, is genuine.

Suspecting she distrusts him because he won’t leave ‘the city that never sleeps’, he claims it’s because he’s ‘stranded’ there. He imagines assuring her that he does his best to avoid ‘the Southside’ – presumably the red-light district – although he admits to having lapses. Nevertheless he claims to find the women there repulsive and to suffer when he remembers previous experiences, presumably with them. Whatever these experiences were, he’s adamant that he has nothing to be sorry for. He’s in the city simply because he had to leave his wife, having found life with her to be intolerable.

The two final verses, for reasons which will become apparent in the next section, contain a number of ambiguities. It’s in these verses that the narrator could be imagining he’s still in the city, or imagining he’s with his lover at her home. If the former, it might be that, keen to allay his lover’s qualms, and fearing she intends to end the relationship, he considers leaving the city once and for all even though it will cause him hardship.

However, when he says:

‘I’m here to create the new imperial empire,’

it’s as if he’s speaking from his lover’s home. The ‘new imperial empire’ would be their marriage, and by building it he’s going to make the effort required to make the marriage work. On this account the song ends happily. When he goes on to say he cares for his lover, he really does.

Alternatively, still imagining he’s at her home, he accepts that his presence is painful to her. He imagines telling her that he’ll get the train back and won’t visit any more.

Either way he’d be doing what he genuinely considers best.


II The Narrator As Dishonest

While it’s possible to see the narrator as honest, closer attention to the text will show that his primary concern is to maintain a lifestyle in the city which is inconsistent with his apparent declarations of fidelity. The following verse by verse discussion is aimed at demonstrating his dishonesty and at identifying other negative aspects of his character.


Verse 1

The first instance of apparent dishonesty comes right at the outset when he says he’s,

‘… stranded in the city that never sleeps’.

This seems to conflict with what he says In the fourth verse, where he implies t he can leave immediately on

‘The Southern Pacific leaving at nine forty-five’.

If the train’s ‘leaving’ means leaving the city, the narrator’s clearly being dishonest when he says he’s stranded.

He attempts to mitigate the impropriety of being stuck in a disreputable place by claiming he’s fully aware of the dangers and is intent on avoiding them. There are women, presumably prostitutes, there who give him ‘the creeps’, and he avoids ‘the Southside’ – presumably the haunt of these women. Or so he claims. This too is dishonest, as is apparent from the wording he uses:

Some of these women …’

give him the creeps, and he’s avoiding the Southside

‘… as best I can’.

The clear implication is that there are women who don’t repel him at all, and furthermore that he doesn’t totally avoid the places they frequent.

Apparently realising that his lover would see straight through him, he then changes tack. He considers admitting he’s at fault, but accompanies the admission with an excuse:

‘Lots of things can get in the way when you’re tryin’ to do what’s right’

How pathetic! To blame things getting in the way, rather than oneself, is just to avoid responsibility. In the light of this one suspects he wasn’t trying very hard to do what’s right.


Verse 2

Once again, it seems, the narrator realises that his lover is not going to believe him. Since prevarication has failed, he tries yet another tactic. His thoughts become aggressively defensive:

‘I’m not sorry for nothin’ I’ve done
I’m glad I fought – I only wish we’d won’

Yet again, however, he succeeds only in condemning himself out of his own mouth. It’s absurd for him to say that he’s not sorry he’s failed. He ought to be sorry. He claims to have ‘fought’, presumably against temptation, but if he did fight, he clearly didn’t fight hard enough. Give him a sword and, as is made clear in verse three, he can’t even cut a piece of meat with it. He lost but, as he implicitly acknowledges when he says ‘I wish we’d won’, the loss is not just his. He’s destroyed the prospect of a successful relationship not just for himself but for his lover too.

Doubtless realising that his lover will point this out, he follows up with another excuse. The reason he originally left for the ‘city that never sleeps’, we can glean, is that he hated being at home. From the reference to ‘my woman’ which follows, ‘home’ is presumably his marital home – although one suspects that the narrator is being deliberately ambiguous. If his excuse fails, it would be open to him to claim he meant the home of his parents who are mentioned in the final verse.

The excuse,

‘I never wanted to go back there – I’d rather have died,’

does in fact seem lame. Even if he needed to be away from home, that doesn’t explain why he’s still in the city with its implicitly infamous Southside. Merely never wanting to return home seems a rather whimsical reason for remaining in a place of temptation when a relationship is at stake.

Presumably it’s because he recognises this that he adds ‘I’d rather have died’. It would be in the hope of diminishing the tame effect of ‘I never wanted to go back there’.


Verse 3

a) Home Life

Having made home life his excuse, he’s now be in the position of having to explain what was so bad about it. Accordingly his thoughts turn to producing a description of his wife:

‘My woman got a face like a teddy bear
She’s tossing a baseball bat in the air’

Does he really expect his lover to believe that his wife’s face is a reason for leaving their home? And is there something so terribly reprehensible about playing with a baseball bat? It’s difficult to believe that these criticisms would have the desired effect on his lover even if she could be relied on to overlook the callousness of his remarks.

He probably realises he needs a more relevant criticism for he follows up with:

‘The meat is so tough you can’t cut it with a sword’

This is presumably intended as a criticism of her cooking. Not only is it a ludicrous exaggeration, thus making clear how little reason his home life gives him for remaining in the city, but one might wonder why he didn’t take on the cooking himself if he was dissatisfied with his wife’s.

He ends his description of home life by saying,

‘I’m crashing my car trunk first into the boards’

It’s difficult to see how his bad driving could constitute an excuse for his behaviour. One assumes he’s contemplating using the incident as a way of showing how frustrating his home life is – having failed to come up with any other frustrations which would justify his being in the city.

.
b) Bitterness

At this point halfway through the third verse, criticism morphs into bitterness:

‘You say my eyes are pretty and my smile is nice
Well I’ll sell it to ya at a reduced price’

While acknowledging his lover’s appreciation of his physical qualities, he uses the occasion to take another dig at his wife. His smile has become devalued, and it’s her fault, since as a result of smiling for her it’s become second-hand.

Not only is the charge ludicrous for seeing a smile in monetary terms, but it’s an indication of the narrator’s hypocritical outlook. If, as it seems, he’s been with other women, then he too has been responsible for any devaluing of his smile.


Verse Four

The fourth verse is exceptionally rich in ideas in that what the narrator says on at least three occasions is open to more than one interpretation. There’s no reason to opt for one interpretation over another. The ambiguities can simply be taken to show the narrator to be entertaining different thoughts simultaneously.

.
a) First Ambiguity

The first ambiguity arises when the narrator declares

‘Some things are too terrible to be true’

The line could be referring to his lover’s rejection of him, which he’s perhaps now anticipating. That she’s ended the relationship is too terrible for him to accept. Alternatively it could refer to rumours about his behaviour in the city. He’s claiming they’re so terrible they can’t possibly have occurred.

Unfortunately for the narrator, the latter interpretation is the more plausible. The phrase ‘Some things are too terrible’ serves as a reminder that we’ve already had good reason to doubt his fidelity. The word ‘Some’ makes us think back to its occurrence in the second line of the song where the narrator had said:

Some of these women they just give me the creeps’

– and this implied that there are other women he finds to his liking. Whatever it is that’s too terrible to be true, it clearly doesn’t include his consorting with other women.

.
b) Second Ambiguity

There’s a further ambiguity in the narrator’s follows up:

‘I won’t come here no more if it bothers you’.

It’s unclear whether ‘here’ refers to the city or the lover’s home. He could at least be imagining he’s in either location as her speaks. Either interpretation is consistent with the line which immediately follows:

‘The Southern Pacific leaving at nine forty-five,’

since there’s no indication of the direction of travel. If ‘here’ is the city, he’d be taking the train to her home; and if ‘here’ is her home, he’d be taking the train back to the city.

The ambiguity is significant, though, because it affects his meaning. If ‘here’ refers to the city, he’d apparently be acceding to her request that he shouldn’t live there. And if ‘here’ is referring to her home, he’d apparently be accepting that the relationship should end.

On either account what’s significant for our understanding of the narrator’s character is the addition of ‘if it bothers you’. It shows him to be condescending and therefore still determined to make out that his lover’s at fault for expecting him to leave the city or expecting him not to see her again.

.
c) Third Ambiguity

The response he imagines giving:

‘… I don’t care
I’m going off into the woods, I’m huntin’ bare’

can also be interpreted in different ways, depending on which interpretation of ‘here’ is being applied.

On the view that he’s acceded to her wishes, he’s making it clear that he’s duplicitously determined to carry on behind her back as before. On the view that his lover has rejected him, he’s claiming he’ll just accept it and carry on in the city as before. In each case we can see this because of a pun on ‘bare’. Since he associates his wife with a teddy bear, we can take ‘bare’ as ‘bear’, and therefore as referring to women. Hunting them will be seeking them out for a relationship.

The fact that either interpretation is consistent with his pursuing a life of infidelity shows just how determined he is to continue pursuing it.


Verse Five

Just as for verse four, this verse too can be interpreted in two ways. And just as for verse four, the effect is to show how rigid the narrator is in his intention to remain unfaithful. He begins:

‘I’m here to create the new imperial empire
I’m going to do whatever circumstances require’

Again, there’s ambiguity about the location of ‘here’. It may mean the city, or it may mean his lover’s home.

On the first interpretation of the couplet the narrator means he’s going to stay in the city whether his lover likes it or not, even if this results in their breaking up. This is what I’ll consider here. The second interpretation, on which the narrator is imagining speaking from his lover’s home, has already been considered in Section I above.

According to the first interpretation the narrator is being true to form. The reason he gives for remaining in the city is ludicrous. He can’t be creating an empire, except perhaps in a metaphorical sense. But the qualification ‘imperial’ suggests that it’s in some sense a real empire he’s referring to. Perhaps realising the weakness of the excuse, the narrator now attempts to support it by saying he’ll be following the advice of his parents:

‘… not to waste my years,’

if he sets about building an empire.

Rather than believing him, it seems more plausible we should see him as employing any ad hoc excuse that comes to mind so that he can continue his life of debauchery.

In the light of this, it would seem that we shouldn’t take seriously his apparently heartfelt declaration,

‘I care so much for you …’.

Not only does the forgoing suggest he cares very little for her, but it contradicts his previously having said:

‘… I don’t care
I’m going off into the woods, I’m huntin’ bare,’

It would seem he doesn’t care for her and, as the bare/bear pun suggests, he’s going looking for other women.

His duplicity again becomes apparent when, in a wonderfully condensed line, he declares:

‘I can’t tell my heart that you’re no good’

He not only has the audacity to accuse his lover of being worthless, but does so under cover of seeming to say he she isn’t.


The Refrain

Unless they’re taken literally, the lines repeated at the end of each verse provide yet more evidence of the narrator’s duplicity:

‘You don’t understand it – my feelings for you
You’d be honest with me if only you knew’

Each time, the narrator clearly starts to make an accusation –  ‘You don’t understand it’ – and then thinks better of it. The singular ‘it’, however, obviously wasn’t intended to refer to the plural ‘feelings’. At the ends of the first two verses the ‘it’ was probably intended to refer to his failure to avoid other women which he tried to justify in the first two verses. In verse three It might refer to his frustration with his wife, and in verses four and  five to his frustration with the addressee. What is clear, though, is that the reference to ‘my feelings for you’ is not because his lover’s feelings are uppermost in his mind, but almost certainly because he realises that what he had been going to say would have sounded implausible.

That the phrase ‘my feelings for you’ is a last minute substitution makes it probable that the line which follows,

‘You’d be honest with me if only you knew’

is also duplicitous. If only she knew – what? The reason he stops short of saying what, one suspects, is because there isn’t anything.

Overall the refrain has the effect of reinforcing in the listener’s mind just how scheming the narrator is.


III. Unity And Separation

The importance of unity in the song becomes apparent when we realise that there is no defined temporal setting. References to the Siamese twins and empire building suggest it’s set in the nineteenth century, while the use of modern idioms and a comment about bad driving place it in the present day. A reference to the Southern Pacific railway could place it in either and so has the effect of uniting the otherwise disparate eras. A major significance of this and other images of unity and separation which permeate the song is that they hint at the structure of the narrator’s mind .

While the narrator is claiming he’s honest, it’s apparent – as argued in Section 2 above – that he’s attempting to fool his lover. Since the same intentions can’t make him simultaneously honest and dishonest, one might expect just one or the other to be true. However, there’s reason for thinking that he’s not just seeming to be honest while being duplicitous, but that he actually is honest while being duplicitous – contradictory though that might seem.

To accommodate this what’s required is that instead of seeing his mind as a genuine unity of consistent thoughts, we see it as a non-genuine unity comprising two sets of mutually inconsistent thoughts. That the narrator’s mind is such a non-genuine unity is lent support by various other instances of non-genuine unities throughout the song.

When the narrator declares:

‘The Siamese twins are coming to town’

he’s unconsciously giving an example of such a false unity. The Siamese twins were two people with, essentially, just the one body. The narrator’s mind  will be likewise be a false unity if it comprises two independent sets of thoughts.

The abnormal unity of the Siamese twins seems to reflect not just the two-fold structure of the narrator’s mind but his idea of what a relationship should be. He expects to be united with the woman of his choice but without making any sacrifice to ensure that the relationship works – or,  in other words, that the unity is genuine.

That it isn’t genuine is reflected in his claim:

‘I’m glad I fought – I only wish we’d won’.

Three times in the line he refers to himself as ‘I’, and only this once in the entire song does he use ‘we’, suggesting that even he sees their unity as unconvincing.

Just as he approves of the unity of the Siamese twins, and of the present state of his relationship , he has no problem with the unwholesome unity of those congregating to see the spectacle:

‘People can’t wait – they’ve gathered around’

Nor, towards the end of the song, does he have any problem with the non-genuine unity imposed on peoples by empire builders when he says:

‘I’m here to create the new imperial empire’

In each case the false unity reflects that of his own mind.

Finally, his complaint about his wife’s cooking,

‘The meat is so tough you can’t cut it with a sword,’

provides an example of meat as a unity which, to be eaten, needs to be separated into slices. The undesirable unity of the meat  might be seen as reflecting the undesirable false unity of his mind.

***

The narrator’s attitude towards unity and separation isn’t just concerned with things which are unified but which would be better separate. It’s significant that the narrator associates himself with the destruction of what might seem to be wholesome unities. ‘When I left my home,’ he says,

‘… the sky split open wide’.

While he seems to be approving the idea of the sky’s being ‘split open’, perhaps using it to represent new possibilities becoming available, the image is significant in that biblically it represents God’s anger at human’s behaviour. In context this suggests that the narrator’s leaving his home should be seen as the wanton destruction of a genuine unity.3

 ***

It’s clear that some things are better as genuine unities and others as divided into their component parts, and we’re left assuming that the narrator’s mind needs to be in the former category. To become a genuine unity, it needs to relinquish its dishonest component so that it no longer comprises two contradictory sets of attitudes.


IV Life and Death

Images of death abound in the narrator’s descriptions of himself and others. These serve to reinforce in the listener’s mind his unhealthy, self-centred outlook and his inability to see that other people might be better than him.

Having announced that he’s stranded in the city, his memories, he says, could ‘strangle‘ him, This would seem to demonstrate a realisation of how near to moral death living in the city has brought him. The suggestion is reinforced by the similarity in sound, and therefore association between, ‘strangled’ and ‘stranded’. Furthermore, since the likelihood is that he isn’t stranded at all, but in the city by choice, the similarity suggests that he isn’t actually concerned by danger of moral death.

The narrator’s affinity with death is further reinforced by his arriving in the city in:

 ‘… the dead of the night’

and in his claim that he’d:

‘… rather have died

than return home. Later he makes himself sound like a mouldering corpse when he refers to advice ‘oozing‘ out of his ears.

It’s not just to himself that he applies images of death. In what seems to be a swipe at those who think differently to him he says he doubts whether:

‘… some people were ever alive‘.

In his wife’s case this is unjustified. Although he speaks of her derisively, when he reports that:

‘She’s tossin’ a baseball bat in the air’,

he’s failing to acknowledge the positive in her. She’s active, and we’ve no reason for taking his description at face value. For all we know she might be practising a skill such as juggling. At any rate, her liveliness contrasts favourably with his own decision to stay put and with his  lack of skill as a driver. The pot is calling the kettle black.


Conclusion

The song provides a presentation of the narrator’s character by way of his thoughts. As a result of an economy in the use of language which enables a statement to have two conflicting meanings, these thoughts simultaneously present him as wanting to appear honest while actually being dishonest.4 Accordingly, if he is honest, we need to judge him as an uneasy combination of loyalty and duplicity. Numerous images involving unity or separation give support to this notion.

Whether or not there’s an honest side to his character, the narrator is persistent in his attempts to find ways of overcoming his lover’s likely  objections. When he encounters an objection he attempts to resolve it. And when his method of so doing spawns a further objection, he attempts to resolve that too. Thus he moves from denying he’s at fault, to making excuses, to aggression,  to casting blame, to bitterness. As he does so, he also shows himself to be callous, condescending, chauvinistic, exploitative and self-centred.

Notes

  1. I refer to the woman the narrator is concerned to win over as his lover for want of a more accurate expression. There’s no indication in the song of how long the relationship has been going.
  2. Although the lover has complimented his appearance, in saying his ‘eyes are pretty’ and ‘his smile is nice’, it’s noticeable that he hasn’t responded in kind. He may be dimly aware of this because the language he attributes to her is what one would expect a man to use in complimenting a woman. It’s as if deep down he knows he’s not giving his lover her due. That there’s no sign of any such compliment from him serves to show him up as self-centred. The narrator’s failure to get on with his wife looks as if it’s going to be repeated with his lover.
  3. See Revelation 6.14.
  4. The writing is also economical in that the addressee’s likely responses are neither given nor required. It’s also subtle in that it reflects the rhetorical methods people use when attempting to persuade others.

Moonlight

Introduction

I don’t think anyone on first hearing the song would realise just how sinister it can appear. At first it seems to be just a love song. The narrator is hoping the object of his affections will meet him, and the song ends with his hope unfulfilled. Closer attention, though, makes it clear that while he’s thinking of arranging a romantic tryst, he’s also thinking about rape, murder and suicide.

Since the song comprises just the narrator’s thoughts, it may be that he’s not actually proposing to meet the woman. While being ‘out in the moonlight alone’ with her sounds romantic, the air, we’re told, is ‘thick and heavy’. The suggestion of thunder makes it more likely he’s merely daydreaming about a romantic meeting. And if he is just daydreaming, it remains possible that he has no clear intention of harming either the woman or himself.

Any such intention would be irrational for his thoughts, by normal standards, are confused. In particular, it’s not certain if he knows whether it’s love, sex  or revenge which is motivating his desire for a meeting.


Murder and suicide

It’s not until the fourth verse that the narrator’s thoughts include murder:

‘Well, I’m preachin’ peace and harmony
The blessings of tranquility
Yet I know when the time is right to strike’

Strike! The word not only has violent implications but these are enhanced by its contrast with ‘harmony’ and ‘tranquility’. The contrast is not just in meaning. The feminine endings of the first two lines, and the long vowels characterising most of the words, create a gentle sound. The effect is to render the short, sharp ‘strike’ all the more harsh, and unexpected.

A further indication that the narrator is thinking of murder is in the very next line,

‘I’ll take you cross the river dear’.

While on one level this may simply be a kind offer, it’s also presumably a reference to the mythological Styx which in Greek mythology provided a border between the lands of the living and the dead. In his assumed role of ferryman we should perhaps see him not only as dispatching the woman to the land of the dead, but himself too. This is supported by the line adapted from Donne, in verse seven:

‘For whom does the bell toll for love? It tolls for you and me’

in that this too suggests that the narrator is contemplating his own death. Whereas Donne has ‘It tolls for thee’, the narrator includes himself, thereby presenting death as a means of uniting himself with his lover.1

Further natural images throughout the song seem to reflect these thoughts about death. In the second verse the flower name ‘Black-eyed Susan’ itself suggests violence to a woman. Poppies, mentioned there too, have a traditional association with death. And the mentions of ‘purple’ and ‘snow’ in ‘purple blossoms soft as snow’ in verse seven have the effect of imbuing new life represented by the blossoms with a cold, funereal feel.

Other natural images include the clouds whose ‘turning crimson’ associates them with blood, and the leaves which fall because they’re dead. The ‘stone’ over which the shadows fall suggests grave stones. In the classical tradition (e.g. Virgil)  ‘cypress trees’ are also associated with death.

In the final verse the natural imagery is directly associated not just with death but, once again, with murder:

‘My pulse is runnin’ through my palm – the sharp hills are rising from
The yellow fields with twisted oaks that groan’.

The hills are ‘sharp’ like knives. They’ve pierced the fields, causing the trees to groan as if they’re dying. In the light of the opening clause the suggestion is that the narrator, in a state of nervous tension causing him to be aware of his pulse, is imagining using the knife on the woman.


New life

The narrator’s dark thoughts don’t have a monopoly on his mental life, however. These are to an extent balanced by references to new life.

While the groaning in the lines just quoted suggests the pain resulting from being stabbed, it can also be associated with the pain of child birth. Romans 8.22 refers to:

 ‘… all creation groaning in this one great act of giving birth’.

The ‘one great act of giving birth’ is the action of everyone – all creation – which is necessary for the spiritual rebirth of the world.

From the opening lines of the song the narrator is aware of the need for the great act of giving birth. It’s rebirth he yearns for when he longs,

‘To hear again the songbird’s sweet melodious tone’

The death associated with impending winter must give way to the new life of spring. The suggestion would be that participating in the great act of giving birth would involve his overcoming his darker thoughts.

In line with this there’s reason to think the narrator sees death as providing an unsatisfactory means of solving his problems. This is suggested by the enigmatic line:

‘The earth and sky that melts with flesh and bone’

The singular ‘melts’ implies he sees the earth and sky as losing their separate identities, perhaps as the effect of the ‘dusky’ light. This amorphous fusion of earth and sky then expands to embrace flesh and bone – the remains of humans after death – so that they become part of a larger and perhaps even more vapid whole. On this account, a unity with his lover in death would be pointless since it would amount to no more than their flesh and bone becoming part of this undifferentiated and valueless whole.2


Religious imagery

That the narrator is aware he has a part to play in the renewal symbolised by the onset of spring is implied in other religious language and imagery, both implicit and explicit. At the same time however his language suggests a tension between a commitment to that renewal and an impulse to further his darker desires.

That he’s:

preachin’ peace and harmony’,

 and what he refers to as:

‘The ‘blessings of tranquility’,

might suggest he’s willing to take on the role of bringing about renewal. Any such spiritual commitment, however, is in tension with his belief that there’s a time for him to ‘strike’.

The same tension is indicated by the use of the word ‘cross’ – ‘across’ – in:

‘I’ll take you cross the river dear’.

Its obvious connotations of sacrifice needed before redemption are in tension with his simultaneously seeing himself in the role of the ferryman, which implies he’s giving in to his desire for revenge.3

The tension is present again when the narrator says:

‘My tears keep flowing to the sea’.

He’s associating his misery with a river. Just as his previous use of the river image had been to represent kindness to the woman (‘I’ll take you cross the river, dear’) while at the same time suggesting his desire to murder, so the image here can be interpreted in conflicting ways. Although he associates the river with his misery, in a number of biblical texts, including Revelation, the river represents life – moral or spiritual life – which requires not giving into, but accepting, misery.4

There’s a similar ambivalence in the use of light imagery. The narrator’s present state of mind is reflected in the near absence of light. Not only is the light ‘dusky’ but it’s still fading. Since throughout the bible light is associated with God, its absence here can be taken as representing the narrator’s dire spiritual state. Nevertheless light is still present in:

‘… mystic glow’.

The implication is that, even in the depths of his despair, whether he realises it or not, there’s still hope.

The conflict is represented again by colour. Whereas the purple of the blossoms seemed to reflect the narrator’s obsession with death, the contrastingly coloured

‘…  petals pink and white, the wind has blown’,

are suggestive of life – and here of spiritual life, since they are blown by the wind, a biblical sign of the Holy Spirit.


Dishonesty

An indication of the narrator’s character becomes apparent by way of another image drawn from nature:

‘… the masquerades of birds and bees’.

The narrator seems to be accusing nature of beings dishonest in the way human beings are capable of being dishonest. In so doing, as will become apparent below, he is imposing an aspect of his own personality onto things in nature.

It’s significant that the expression ‘birds and bees’ is often used as a reference to courtship and sexual activity. In using ‘masquerade’ in this context, then, the narrator would be accusing the woman of pretending to be loyal to him while actually giving her attention to someone else. It’s her supposed betrayal of him which starts him thinking about murderous revenge.

The idea is reinforced in the lines:

‘Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief
It takes a thief to catch a thief’

The first line, ‘Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief’, implies that the narrator has rivals for the woman’s affections. It’s taken from the title of an earlier song in which three people love a girl but not as much as the song’s narrator claims to do.5

The second line, ‘It takes a thief to catch a thief’, implies that the narrator has found the woman out because he recognises her behaviour in his own. In announcing this, he is unintentionally admitting his own hypocrisy. He is as guilty of betrayal as she is. Indeed he may even be falsely imposing his own behaviour on her just as he does with the birds and bees when he accuses them of masquerading.

There’s a further instance of the narrator’s dishonesty when he imagines saying to the woman:

‘I know the kinds of things you like’.

While the statement could be taken at face value, it suggests that the meeting he envisages would not be purely romantic. It may be that the narrator’s motives all along  are sexual; he knows what he likes. Furthermore, there may be a hint at the end of the song that if he doesn’t get his way he’s going to take it. The ‘yellow fields’ through which the ‘sharp hills are rising’ are suggestive of rape (rapeseed) and, by way of that, suggestive of the word in its sexual sense.

In the light of the narrator’s own dishonesty and his accusation against the woman, if it’s accurate, the bell which tolls would be tolling for their spiritual deaths as much as for their physical deaths. Without the spiritual renewal the possibility of which is hinted at in his use of religious language, they will have ended up both physically and spiritually dead.


Conclusion

It’s not possible to condemn the narrator outright. The song seems to give us just his thoughts as they range over various possibilities, including murder, suicide, and rape, on the one hand, and acts of kindness and spiritual rebirth on the other. He doesn’t seem capable of coming down on one side or the other, however. Instead his commitment to peace, harmony and tranquillity is mixed up with his belief that there’s a time to ‘strike’ or get revenge. That confusion may be the result of a further confusion in religious outlook. In drawing from both Greek mythology and Revelation, he seems to combine the pre-Christian and the Christian, without acknowledging that the one represents death and the other life.

We don’t know to what extent the narrator is aware of the possibilities for spiritual renewal which are implied by the language he uses. Nor do we know how much he realises that what he presents in the language of romance can be seen as a toying with the possibilities of murder and suicide. His likely uncertainty about these things is reflected in the equally ambivalent characteristics of nature. A funereal purple offsets the youth of blossoms. The light is dusky but accompanied by a mystic glow. Earth and sky are two, yet one, and become one again with flesh and bone. And there’s a groaning which might equally be an effect of birth as of death.6

The impression one gets is that the confusions are capable of positive resolution. The narrator can opt for the ‘mystic glow’ rather than the ‘dusky light’, for Revelation rather than ancient myth, and for ‘peace and harmony’ rather than for ‘striking’. However, by the time the song has ended, his mental state is not sufficiently clear for him to be able to make a choice.


Appendix

For some reason the official Dylan site has recently replaced the version of the song which appears on Love and Theft, and which is analysed here, with one which has a number of changes. It seems to me that the album version is probably the later of the two. The one which now appears on the website seems inferior. For example it contains the line,

‘Draw the blinds, step outside the door’

The main effect of the line is that it indicates that the characters are inside. However in the sung version the effect is achieved much more economically by simply having the word ‘out’ between ‘me’ and ‘in’ in the line ‘Meet me in the moonlight alone’. This becomes ‘Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone?’

Other differences include the addition of the lines:

‘Step up and drop the coin right into the slot
The fading light of sunset glowed
It’s crowded on the narrow road
Who cares whether you forgive me or not’

In comparison with the album version, these seem somewhat clumsy. The word ‘glowed’ seems an unnecessary repetition of ‘glow’ which occurred two lines earlier in ‘mystic glow’. The final line doesn’t really fit with the narrator’s state of mind – he does very much care. The lines which effectively replace it:

‘Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief
It takes a thief to catch a thief’

succeed not only in getting across the fact that the narrator has rivals, but that he’s hypocritically accusing the woman of doing what he himself is doing.

Overall, comparing the two versions enables one to see how good the one on the album is.

 

Notes:

  1. Maybe the ungrammatical double use of ‘for’ also indicates that the narrator intends that they are both going to die.
  1. Another example of the narrator’s inability to see differentiating characteristics which lend value is in his description of the fields simply as ‘yellow’. It’s reminiscent of The Great Gatsby in which ‘yellow’ is used to the same effect as in, for example, the ‘yellow cocktail music’. He’s happy for the ‘sharp hills’ to pierce, and one imagines, destroy them.
  1. It’s printed without even an apostrophe in place of the missing ‘a’.
  1. ‘And he showed me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb’ (Revelation 22.1).
  1. Hoagy Carmichael and Paul Francis Webster Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, 1945.

High Water (For Charley Patton)

Introduction

While the flood referred to really did occur in Mississippi in 1927, and was the immediate cause of two hundred thousand African Americans losing their homes, the song can’t be said to be about the flood. The setting is Mississippi, but a number of  temporal inconsistencies prevent its being possible to assign the events to any particular time. The blues singer Big Joe Turner, who figures in the opening verse, was only eleven in 1927 and Darwin, referred to in verse five, was long dead. Furthermore the narrator drives a relatively modern car.

An effect of the anachronisms is to focus attention away from the historical and onto the song’s key themes, one of which is the underlying causes of suffering. To this end a number of characters are made to represent distinct moral points of view. In so doing they function as a foil for the narrator whose journey towards moral regeneration is a central concern of the song.1

This piece is in four main parts as follows, before a brief summing up:

Part 1: Evil
Wealth v Poverty
Bertha Mason
Death
Infidelity
Judicial Corruption

Part 2: Religious Imagery
The Flood
The Sun
Journeys

Part 3: Mental Outlook

Part 4: Solution
Love
Self-reliance


Part 1: Evil

Wealth v Poverty

Human behaviour is the main focus throughout the song. It’s first referred to in the second line:

‘All the gold and silver being stolen away’

One might think that ‘stolen’ refers to the sort of looting one would expect to occur in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. While it may well do so, the language suggests there’s more going on. Why ‘stolen away’ and not just ‘stolen’? The apparently redundant ‘away’ suggests something other than what might seem to be crude looting. ‘Stolen’ rather than simply referring to theft, can refer to the way the owners are protecting their wealth. They are surreptitiously hiding their property – stealing it away, in the manner of someone trying to evade detection.

At the outset of the song the narrator seems to be neither wealthy nor poor. His reference to the gold and silver being stolen away, suggest that it’s being done by others. None of it is his. On the other hand his driving a sports car suggests he’s not himself impoverished.

This puts him in a position to be able to comment objectively on the wealth and poverty around him. In both cases his tone is matter of fact. The reference to ‘All the gold and silver’ suggest its existence is just a fact of life. Similarly by referring to ‘the shacks’ in:

 ‘… the shacks are slidin’ down’,

he implies it’s equally to be accepted that most inhabitants wouldn’t live in proper houses.

A problem with this middle position is that it smacks of complacency. As the song progresses, it will become apparent that the narrator is far from morally blameless. Nevertheless he’s not evil either. Whereas he seems uncritical of those with the gold and silver, he doesn’t attempt to distance himself from the population generally – the friendly tone created by ‘folks’ in:

‘Folks lose their possessions …’

suggesting sympathy.


Bertha Mason

The word ‘shacks’ is echoed in the ‘shook’ of verse two:

‘Bertha Mason shook it – broke it
Then she hung it on a wall’

Bertha Mason is the repressed, half-creole wife in Jane Eyre whose suicidal fire-raising, on one view, represents the social evil to which repression gives rise. She might be directly responsible for her own death, but it would seem that the attitudes of others are at least indirectly responsible. In the song she can be taken as representing the lot of the socially disadvantaged African Americans who, despite the flood, were forced to remain in Mississippi by their landowner employers. The coercion is seemingly alluded to in Bertha’s bitter comment:

‘… “You’re dancin’ with whom they tell you to
Or you don’t dance at all”’

– in response to which the narrator’s matter of fact:

‘It’s tough out there’

seems cruelly complacent.

That the narrator is implicated in the suffering of the black population is indicated by his own comment in verse three:

‘I got a craving love for blazing speed’

The key word is ‘blazing’. The implication is that he, or at least his lifestyle, is responsible for Bertha’s death and for the deaths of those she represents.

Others too are responsible. The ‘all’ at the end of Bertha’s speech reminds us that ‘all the gold and silver were being stolen away’. Implicitly the lack of options represented by not dancing ‘at all’ are being attributed to the selfishness of those with gold and silver.

And Bertha herself can be seen as in part responsible for oppression. Not only is she half white but her comment about dancing can be seen as her being oppressive as much as a response to her own repression.


Death

The ‘slidin down’ of the shacks is echoed in a bizarre description of coffins dropping:

‘Coffins droppin’ in the street
Like balloons made out of lead’

Here  ‘droppin’ may act as a metonym, referring not just to the coffins but to the dead. People are dropping in the street. One imagines it’s the impoverished former inhabitants of the shacks who are dying. The lead balloon simile points to the wrongness of their deaths. Properly treated, the people would be flourishing, not dying.

That society divided into rich and poor is responsible for these deaths is suggested by the absurdity of the phrase ‘coffins droppin’. The metonymic coffins are not literally just dropping, so much as being dropped. Why hide the fact? By omitting to mention it, the narrator seems to be exemplifying a tendency people have to avoid accepting responsibility. The physical death represented by the coffins can thus be seen as a metaphor for moral or spiritual death for which society generally – including the narrator – is responsible.


Infidelity

The idea of flight, contrasting with the downward movement of the shacks and the coffins, is alluded to again in verse six. Here, though, the reference is to something in the ascendancy which shouldn’t be:

‘The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies.’2

Amongst other things cuckoos are associated with infidelity. The reference is thus to an evil of which the narrator himself seems to approve and may be guilty. The narrator entices women with his flash lifestyle:

‘Jump into the wagon, love …’

For sharing his luxurious lifestyle he expects a payoff:

‘… throw your panties on the board’.

The moral state of the world as represented by the narrator is upside down; infidelity shouldn’t be flying, just as the impoverished shouldn’t be dropping down dead.


Judicial Corruption

A final evil is corruption. Here the reference is to judicial, or perhaps state, corruption:

‘They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five
Judge says to the High Sheriff
“I want him dead or alive,
Either one, I don’t care”’

The Judge – in league with the representatives of the major Christian religions (assuming that that’s what the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew represent) – is exceeding his powers. He’s not only doing so in demanding Darwin be brought in, but is countenancing his possible death, prior to any trial. The Judge is thus part of a corrupt institutional fabric which doesn’t sufficiently respect life.

This is further emphasised by his and his accomplice’s being identified with the destruction brought about by the flood waters. The waters are ‘High’ and the Judge’s accomplice is the ‘High Sheriff’. And it’s ‘Highway Five’ that has been involved in Darwin’s initial detention.


Part 2: Religious Imagery

Eyes

There’s a further corruption which indirectly associates the narrator with the Judge. Following the interpolated line from The Cuckoo the narrator declares:

‘I’m preachin’ the Word of God
I’m puttin’ out your eyes’

The reference is to the fate of the originally strong, but now weak, Samson in Judges 16.21:

‘But the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass …’

The narrator might be claiming to preach the Word of God but, it would seem, is in fact behaving like the Philistines behaved to Samson. In his case it’s the weak in society whose suffering he’s helping to bring about.

In the song, the black singer Big Joe Turner’s  mind is a ‘dark room’ suggesting that he has metaphorically had his eyes put by those like the narrator.

That the narrator is behaving like the Philistines is reinforced by his earlier claim that he can:

‘… make a strong man lose his mind’

Samson had been a strong man up to his betrayal and subsequent blinding.3

 It’s ironic that the narrator is putting out people’s eyes since there’s a sense in which he himself is blind. He sees what’s going on as going on ‘out there’ – ‘it’s tough out there’, ‘things are breakin’ up out there’, ‘it’s rough out there’, it’s bad out there’. His perspective is therefore from inside. But since such a perspective has been described as from a ‘dark room’, the narrator’s field of vision will be more limited than he realises. This only changes once he learns to be generous. Only then, in the last verse, will he be able to see things as they really are – ‘lookin’ blue’. While what he sees is not good, the fact that he’s now able to see it is.


The Flood

The flood in the song stands in the same relation to the Mississippi flood as the flood recounted in Genesis does to any actual flood. A real flood in each case has given rise to a myth open to interpretation. The interpretation will need to be different in each case. In Genesis the flood is God’s punishment for evil. In the song it more obviously represents the evil itself – the harm done to ordinary people by the selfishness of others. Nevertheless, some of those responsible for evil are punished too. At one point the narrator has water;

‘… six inches ‘bove my head’

Both accounts have a place for renewal. Noah was able to start populating the world again. And the narrator in the song is able to develop morally.4


The Sun

Immediately from the first line we’re presented with a contrast between the flood water and the sun. The water, ironically sun-like in rising, is continual:

‘… risin’ night and day’.

That there’s no sign of the sun is made apparent from the behaviour of Big Joe Turner who is:

‘… lookin’ east and west
From the dark room of his mind’

He’s presumably searching for the sun since he’s looking to where it rises and sets.

In searching for the sun, Turner is actively searching for a cure for the very blindness which makes it difficult to find. He’s searching, as it were, for a way of redeeming either himself or others. He arrives at Kansas City, the place of the real Turner’s birth,  but until he finds the sun there’ll be no rebirth. His mind will remain dark.

The moral redemption for which he’s searching cannot be completed before the sun rises. The possibility of a sun/Son pun suggests therefore that moral redemption cannot occur before the Son rises. Redemption cannot occur on its own.

To dispel the darkness of his mind, Turner needs to see the sun. Seeing is thus associated with moral regeneration. The narrator too is morally blind when he fails to notice that the woman he wants help from is as much in need of his help:

‘Can’t you see I‘m drownin’ too’

He can’t. On the contrary, he’s a putter-out of eyes. Seeing is not his thing. For that he needs help from the sun. This comes only in the final verse when he at last appreciates that in the colloquial, pejorative sense of ‘blue’:

‘… everything is looking blue’

In another sense it’s perhaps the sky that’s blue because the sun is now out. At any rate he at last realises he has a responsibility for making people happy:

‘I just can’t be happy, love
Unless you’re happy too’


Journeys

Turner is searching for light. He’s only partially successful, it would seem, for his journey ends at Kansas City:

‘He made it to Kansas City
Twelfth Street and Vine’

That the journey represents a stage on a journey towards moral regeneration is indicated in three ways. First, the phrase ‘made it’, with its connotations of struggle, suggests he was making an effort. Secondly, since Kansas City was where the real Turner was born, arriving there again suggests rebirth.  And thirdly, there’s clearly no literal journey.  Not only is ‘nothing standing there’, but he arrives at an intersection – Twelfth Street and Vine – which in fact does not exist.

The journey is incomplete. While his effort is essential, he needs, and realises he needs, help. His moral darkness will not subside until the rising of the sun, or Son.

Charles Darwin too is on a journey, one towards ending religious bigotry (if we consider the legacy of the historical Darwin). Like Turner his journey is incomplete, interrupted by the guardians of the religious establishments – ‘the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew’ – who, despite their differences,  co-operate to bring about a common, destructive end.5


Part 3: Mental Outlook  

An appropriate mental attitude is seen as the key to moral regeneration. The word ‘mind’ occurs in the song three times. Big Joe Turner starts off looking:

‘From the dark room of his mind’.

The narrator expresses misdirected pride in his ability to:

‘… make a strong man lose his mind

and George Lewis:

‘… told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew
”You can’t open your mind, boys
To every conceivable point of view”’

Whereas the people generally have lost their possessions, Turner can be seen as a strong man who has been made to ‘lose his mind’. The implication is that he needs to find it again, and that that can be brought about only by letting in the moral light represented by the sun.

For the ‘dark room’ of Turner’s mind to be open requires it, contrary to George Lewis’ patronisingly delivered advice, to be open:

‘… to every conceivable point of view’.

The recipients, ‘the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew’, need to be tolerant of each other’s (presumably religious) points of view. They also need to accommodate scientific advances which might threaten religion rather than opposing the scientific ‘point of view’. Instead  they combine to get:

‘… Charles Darwin trapped …’

It’s not just Big Joe Turner who has lost his mind as a result of the narrator’s actions. So has Bertha Mason. We’re told:

‘Bertha Mason shook it – broke it
Then she hung it on a wall’

Broke what? Hung what? It doesn’t matter. To break something and then display it is absurd. And so is to display it on ‘a wall’ – just any wall. The behaviour is mad. We don’t know if Bertha Mason is the recipient of the poems the narrator writes, but if through them the narrator can make a strong man lose his mind, then it’s likely his work will have a similarly negative effect on their female dedicatee.6


Part 4: Solution

Love

By the end of the song the narrator has developed. He’s making an effort to be loyal:

‘Keeping away from the women
I’m givin’ ‘em lots of room’,

and there’s a new moral commitment in his declaration:

‘I just can’t be happy, love
Unless you’re happy too’

When he’d previously addressed the woman as ‘love,’ it had seemed insincere. Now it seems to genuinely reflect his feelings.

References to types of love throughout the song help make clear what is wrong with society while at the same time showing the narrator to have a need for moral development.  The narrator himself is treated well by Fat Nancy. When he casually asks her for food, she says he can:

‘Take it off the shelf’

And prior to that, in verse three, he hopes for such treatment:

‘I hope you treat me kind’.

This, though, is hypocritical since the woman he’s addressing is one whose interest he does not have at heart.

The only sort of love he’s interested in at that point is sex, as is shown by the injunction to:

‘Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties on the board’.

That his love is limited to sex is further indicated by his almost simultaneously using the word ‘love’ in connection with his car:

‘I got a craving love for blazing speed’

What he’s learnt by the end of the song is a selfless love. Rather than pursuing adulterous sex, he’s now keeping away from all but the one woman. And, what might amount to the same thing, rather than looking to be ‘treated kind’, he’s now prepared to make that one woman happy.


Self-reliance

The narrator’s personal moral growth goes hand-in-hand with his becoming more self-reliant. Originally what Bertha Mason said was true of him, if interpreted as a statement of fact:

‘”You’re dancin’ with whom they tell you to …”’

The implication is that, having no control over what he does, he can’t be self-reliant. Even the mad Bertha Mason actively ‘broke’ something and attempted to put right what she’d broken:

‘… she hung it on a wall’.

The narrator, by contrast, just sees things as ‘breaking up’. He accepts no responsibility. Rather than making amends, he  comes across as pathetic:

‘… don’t know what I’m going to do’.

He even relies on others’ help when they’re in no position to give it:

‘”Don’t reach out for me,” she said
“Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?”’

However, the penultimate verse sees the beginnings of a change. Fat Nancy tells him he can achieve more:

‘”As great as you are a man7
You’ll never be greater than yourself”’

This can be taken as drawing his attention to either the extent or the limits of what he can achieve. He doesn’t have to be totally dependent on others. And he can be a provider of help for others.

Initially the narrator responds with a statement which associates him with the Judge’s:

 ‘I don’t care’

– in that case a callous disregard for whether someone dies or not. Consistent with his usual inaction, the narrator exhibits the same lack of responsibility:

‘I told her I didn’t really care’

The change in the narrator is prompted by example. As a provider of food Fat Nancy is self-reliant. Her behaviour towards the narrator becomes a stimulus for his eventually helping both himself and others. While acceding to his request for food, she doesn’t just hand it to him but expects him to play an active part:

‘”Take it off the shelf”’

Although slow to begin with, in the final verse we see the narrator respond by taking full control of his behaviour. Now he’s:

‘… ‘getting’ up in the morning’,

suggesting a new decisiveness, the ‘up’ contrasting with the hopelessness represented by the downward trajectory of the shacks and the coffins early in the song.  And however ‘I believe I’ll dust my broom’ is taken, it too suggests a commitment to responsible activity as opposed to reliance on others.8

But crucially, not only is he following Fat Nancy’s example by taking control, but he’s following her example in enabling others to help themselves. His decision to leave ‘the women’ alone is done to improve their lot as well as his own:

‘I’m givin’ ‘em lots of room’

Being given room is also like being shown the shelf with the food on. He’s put them in a position whereby they can improve themselves. That this is a positive move is further made apparent in the choice of language. We can’t help contrasting ‘lots of room’ with the oppressive ‘dark room’ which Joe Turner failed to escape. Without help from others, effort is unfruitful.


Conclusion

The song provides a picture of society, presenting it as selfish. The selfishness is associated with wealth, decadence, and corruption on the part of those in power and, as represented by the flood, is shown to be both destructive and all-invasive. Escape from society’s ills depends on a resolve to actively combat one’s own selfishness. The effect of such a resolve is two-fold in that it not only benefits the one who exercises it, but in so doing it provides the stimulus needed for others to help themselves.

Where individuals are willing to make the required effort, but aren’t helped by others, their metaphorical journey is pointless or incomplete. Thus Big Joe Turner arrives in Kansas City to find no improvement. And Darwin is stopped on the highway.

The narrator’s own progress from a seemingly benign complacency is slow. Initially he’s at a loss to know how he should act. Desperate to avoid ‘drowning’, he finds that the only person who might help him is equally in need of his help. Initially unable to help himself or others, it’s only when he receives help that he’s able to actively bring about his own moral regeneration, and in so doing to put others in a position to do the same.

 

 

Notes:

1. Dylan’s song owes its title and subject matter to High Water Everywhere which was recorded in 1929 by Charlie Patton. It’s about Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and mistreatment of African Americans. Many couldn’t leave due to being bound to the custody of landowners for whom they served as sharecroppers. Wording from Patton’s Shake it and Break It occurs in adapted form in verse two (see note 6).

2. One version, which has ‘warbles’ instead of the usual ‘sings’, and – like Dylan’s song refers to silver and gold is The Strollers’ (Dave and Toni Arthur):

Well the cuckoo is a pretty bird and she warbles as she flies.
And she never holler “cuckoo!” till the Fourth of July.

Well I’ve played cards in England and I’ve played cards in Spain,
And I’ll bet you five dollars that I’ll win you next game.

Jack of Diamonds, Jack of Diamonds, I know you of old;
You robbed my poor pockets of my silver and gold.

Well the cuckoo is a pretty bird and she warbles as she flies.
And she never holler “cuckoo” till the Fourth of July.

Other versions refer to the cuckoo’s association with infidelity.

3. The narrator is also, perhaps, a hypocrite in that Samson’s blindness is sometimes thought to have been sanctioned as a punishment for his visiting a prostitute – behaviour not dissimilar to the narrator’s. Either way, blindness seems to characterise the narrator’s moral outlook.

4. While the flood itself might be seen as representing immoral behaviour and, like its biblical predecessor, the human consequences of such behaviour, the cuckoo is not a counterpart of the dove in the biblical account. Unlike the dove, it does not represent moral renewal.

5. The narrator’s moral progress is reflected in the move from ‘nothing’ to ‘something’ to everything’. There’s ‘nothing standing’ where Turner arrives in Kansas, the narrator acquires ‘somethin’ to eat’ from Fat Nancy, and finally the narrator’s moral redemption is reflected in Clarkesdale where ‘everything is looking blue’ – ‘blue’ suggesting that for him now the sun is shining.

6. Charley Patton, to whom the Dylan song is dedicated, recorded Shake It and Break It in 1929. It begins ‘Just shake it, you can break it, you can hang it on the wall’. Shake, Rattle and Roll was recorded by Big Joe Turner 1954. The highly sexual lyrics suggest that the allusions in Dylan’s song (‘Bertha Mason shook it’ in verse 2 and ‘Thunder rolling’ in the final verse) help emphasise the role of sexual attitudes in causing misery.

7. Perhaps a contraction of ‘As great as you are, you are a man’.

8. Dust can be taken as symbolising death. Accordingly the narrator’s dusting can be seen as his own taking on a new life. I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom is a song recorded by Robert Johnson 1936. The phrase may have relevant sexual connotations.

Floater (Too Much To Ask)

Introduction

The song comprises the thoughts of the narrator as his mind passes over events in his life, both past and present.

The narrator is apparently a young man who makes a living by fishing, has a difficult relationship with his boss and possibly a violent one with his father. As the song progresses, we also learn what he thinks about other family members, the local economy, those older men who haven’t left for a better life, and his love life. The character which emerges is far from ideal. Amongst other things he turns out to be bored, myopic, easily angered, violent, pessimistic, prejudiced, lazy and cruel. And he lets us know that while he’s putting up with his existence, he’s lost all hope of improving it.

While there are few positive qualities to balance the negative, it’s easy to recognise in the narrator a perfectly normal human being. And because he’s someone with whom we can relate, we can take the song seriously as an exploration of spiritual and material deficiencies which cause unhappiness.1 We not only become aware of the faults which can bring about loss of hope, but of how these in turn can impinge on the happiness of others.

The piece is divided up into the following sections:

  1. Blindness
  2. Obsession With Death
  3. More Violence
  4. Emerging life
  5. Spiritual Life
  6. Negative Outlook
  7. Old Versus New
  8. Lessons
  9. Excuses For Inactivity
  10. Cruelty


1. Blindness

From the outset the narrator is blind to what’s really the case. Bored, he resigns himself to:

‘Another one of them endless days’.

Yet, the day is not endless. Blinded by the dazzling rays, he fails to realise that their coming down over the window shows the sun to be setting, so that in fact the day is nearing its end.

This inability of the narrator’s to see what’s really the case is present throughout the song. So, when he says about his father that he’s:

‘Never seen him quarrel …’

with his mother, we can assume that he has simply failed to see what should have been obvious. That his father does in fact quarrel with his mother is lent support by the otherwise irrelevant-seeming comment that his father has ‘more lives than a cat’. The implication is that his father is a violent sort, constantly getting into scrapes. This is further backed up by the description of him as a ‘feudal lord’, suggesting an uncompromising desire to dominate, and with his own dealings with his father dealt with below.

This failure to see is not limited to the behaviour of others. It applies to the consequences of the narrator’s own behaviour. Thus when he says he’s:

‘… seen enough heartache and strife’,

he seems oblivious to the fact that he himself, as becomes apparent in the final verse, is a major cause of heartache and strife.

And it applies to his interpretation of events when, in the context of times being hard, the narrator says:

‘We’ll just have to see how it goes’.

As will become apparent, things are unlikely to go well for the narrator.


2. Obsession With Death

While the narrator sees no end to the misery of the day, he does recognise an end. But it’s the ultimate end – annihilation, death:

‘But old, young, age don’t carry weight
It doesn’t matter in the end

His focus on death is especially apparent when he issues a warning:

‘If ever you try to interfere with me or cross my path again
You do so at the peril of your own life’.

Not only does this amount to a threat to take life, but it can be seen as a threat to take his father’s life. This is because the phrase ‘cross my path’, in seeming to treat the addressee as a black cat bringing bad luck, takes up an earlier cat reference. This was to the narrator’s father who, we’re told, has:

‘… more lives than a cat’

Death is again the narrator’s preoccupation when he tells us his hopes are:

‘… buried under tobacco leaves’

– buried, that is, as if they’re a corpse. Death has replaced hope.


3. More Violence

Ironically, the narrator assumes he needs to resort to violence in his own situation. This is despite claiming that the tactic doesn’t work on the ground that the threat to:

‘… strong-arm you, inspire you with fear’

has ‘the opposite effect’.

While ‘the opposite effect’ could mean that it causes him not to be afraid, this is unlikely. Why, if he’s fearless, should he:

‘… keep listenin’ for footsteps’?

It seems more likely that ‘the opposite effect’ will be for him to attack his aggressor. That would be consistent with his later warning that he might retaliate:

‘If you try to interfere with me …
You do so at the peril of your own life’.

That the narrator has a propensity to violence is also apparent in the final verse when he assumes he needs to ‘kick someone out’ rather than to simply ask them to go.


4. Emerging Life

This concern with death is made to seem unduly pessimistic for often where the narrator sees only death, there’s new life emerging. Even the leaves he imagines burying his hopes are beginning ‘to stir’ thereby suggesting that there is hope.

***

An unconscious awareness of such emerging life is indicated by the narrator’s use of the word ‘come’. ‘Coming’ is a word we often associate with new life or activity, whereas ‘going’ tends to be connected with death. The latter is the case when, in the context of times being held to be hard the narrator says:

‘We’ll just have to see how it goes’.

He means he’ll wait to see what his present way of life turns up. He’s clearly no intention of experimenting with a new one.

However, rather than the sun being said to going down, its rays are said to ‘come(s)’ down, suggesting it’s bringing new life rather than just the death of the day.

‘Come’ is associated with new life again when in the narrator’s family:

‘Things come alive …’.

The implication is that they come alive having previously been inanimate or capable only of dying – ‘they fall flat’.

And the word ‘come’ is used to indicate activity when we’re told :

‘One of the boss’ hangers-on
Comes to call …’

Whereas the narrator’s dismissal of the caller as a ‘hanger-on’ casts the caller as a parasite, with no life of his own, in fact, the opposite is the case. Far from being parasitical, when he ‘comes to call’ he’s actively pursuing his own life. He’s only a hanger-on’ to the very limited extent that he relies on the boss for employment, but that – one would think –  hardly amounts to ground for criticism.


5. Spiritual life

The emergence of new life should have a double significance for the narrator. It not only signifies that he ought to be able to fashion a better material life for himself, but that there’s opportunity for him to resolve spiritual deficiencies in his make-up.

It’s ironic that immediately prior to announcing that his hopes are ‘buried’ the narrator overlooks one sign of hope associated with new life. He remembers:

‘… all the ring-dancin’ Christmas carols on all of the Christmas eves’

The ring-dancing reminds us, through association with hearing ‘the school bell ring’, that the narrator has something to learn.  Since Christmas is obviously associated with birth, the implication would seem to be that this something is the need to acquire a new life. It would seem significant, therefore, that the narrator gets only as far as remembering Christmas eves but falls short of remembering the day itself. It’s as if he’s always just on the verge of new life, but unable to get beyond death. Hence his hopes are buried with the Christmas eves.

The narrator’s failure to associate Christmas with new life is consistent with his failure to notice a spiritual presence in nature. Thus the sun which should enable him to see can be seen to represent the new life associated with Christmas – the son of God.2 The summer breeze – positive when compared with a squall which the narrator pessimistically sees it as a precursor to – could remind us of the Holy Spirit.3

The spiritual gap in his life thus represented is made more obvious when we remember his announcing about his second cousin:

‘I tell myself I could be happy forever with her’

As the last verse will make clear, the manner of his pursuing a relationship with her is unlikely to enable him to ‘be happy forever’ i.e. in spiritual language, to have eternal happiness. The idea of ending a co-existing relationship, which he seems to recognise as a necessary pre-requisite for such happiness, is something he considers ‘too much to ask’.


6. Negative Outlook

The narrator’s failing to notice the capacity things have for life  is matched by a general negative outlook. In the case of the natural world this negativity is not just towards the sun. It applies to the sound of the bees, the activity of the wind and the temperature of the rain.

Sometimes this negativity is conveyed through his choice of language. The narrator disapproves of the sunlight for being ‘dazzling’, but then when the ‘z’ sound of ‘dazzling’ reoccurs in ‘buzzin’, the effect is to transfer his negative attitude towards the sun onto the activity of the bees, so that he seems to resent them too.

The same happens when the ‘z’ sound occurs again in ‘breeze’ so that it’s unsurprising he associates what should be pleasant – it’s a ‘summer breeze’ –  with a squall to be avoided.

***

Negativity is also apparent in the narrator’s attitude towards the people who have left. It comes out in his derisive use of ‘them’. The expression:

‘… them rebel rivers’

is disdainful, just as:

‘… them endless days’

was disdainful.

Furthermore in saying:

‘They all got out of here any way they could
The cold rain can give you the shivers’

he not only treats the people’s motive as if it merely to escape, but implies their reason for escaping to be no more than a dislike of the weather. Rather than recognise that people might have their own individual reasons for leaving, it would seem he’s imposing on others a trivial and negative concern of his own.

The expression ‘They all got out’ is also an indication of an unrealistically negative view of those who left. The absurd exaggeration seems to imply, unfairly given the lack of any supporting reason, that those who left lack individuality.

***

The narrator is again unduly negative in uncritically accepting what he’s heard, namely that:

‘… times are hard’.

If they were really hard, one might have expected him to have joined the leavers in trying his luck elsewhere. Instead we once again find him exaggerating in order to provide himself with an excuse for staying put:

‘It don’t bother me – times are hard everywhere’.5

Not only is the claim that times are hard everywhere a ludicrous generalisation, but there are good reasons to doubt that times are hard for the narrator. First, there are signs that food is plentiful. He himself catches a lot of fish, and gives no indication that the catch is ever inadequate.

Secondly, in an attempt to prove that times are hard, he says:

‘You can just follow your nose’,

using the expression in its colloquial sense. Ironically, that same expression taken literally would have made it obvious that times are not hard. If you literally follow your nose, it’ll take you to both warmth, and olfactory pleasure:

 ‘You can smell the pinewood burnin’’.

Not only is there wood for fires, but it’s good quality wood which ‘burns with the bark still on’.


7. Old Versus New

That there is life, and that the narrator could achieve it, is brought out by the contrasts between old and new on the one hand, and young and old on the other. On one level the old is associated with death and the new with the life which replaces it. So, the new grove of trees is clearly better than the old one because the wood burns more effectively. And the new clothes that the grandmother makes from old cloth would clearly be better than just the old cloth itself.

While the narrator recognises the advantages of the new over the old, he seems to assume the young are similarly superior to the old. This is despite initially seeming to be neutral:

‘But old, young, age don’t carry weight’

He’s giving the impression of having weighed up the respective advantages of youth and age and of coming down neither on one side nor the other. If this is deliberate, it’s disingenuous. He’s fooling himself. When he says ‘age don’t carry weight’, this more naturally refers to advanced age, rather than youth. He’s really claiming that years, and the experience which comes with them, count for nothing. This is borne out by his blaming those older than himself for the breakdown in relationships with the relatively young:

‘The old men … get
On bad terms with the younger men’

Here it seems likely he’s casting blame on his father, whom he refers to as ‘my old man’, for the breakdown of their relationship .

If the narrator is assuming that the young have an advantage over the old, it would seem to be confined to his own case. That with respect to others he can take the opposite line becomes apparent when he describes a classroom incident.5


8. Lessons

The classroom incident involves two ironies.

First the narrator wrongly assumes that the older person, the teacher, is the only one he can learn from. This is apparent when, in a rare positive statement, he says:

‘Gotta get up near the teacher if you can
If you wanna learn anything’

The context would appear to be a minor disturbance in a lesson brought about by a boy’s making insulting comments about a girl’s appearance:

‘… “You got a poor complexion.
It doesn’t give your appearance a very youthful touch”’

Perhaps because it’s an English lesson, and because the boy might just be incompetently trying to chat the girl up, the narrator ironically dismisses the warring pair as Romeo and Juliet. Instead of being dismissively glib, however, he would have done better to learn from the girl’s response:

‘… ‘Why don’t you just shove off
If it bothers you so much’’

The retort is appropriate. Not only did the boy deserve to be put down, but – given that the narrator has nothing more to say about it – it seems likely that the girl did enough to resolve the incident. There’s no sign, even, that an intervention from the teacher has been needed.

The second irony lies in the fact that, although he isn’t aware of it, in a sense the boy is right when he says the girl’s appearance lacks ‘a youthful touch’. She acts with un-youthful maturity in making an immediate and decisive response. In the final verse we find a comparably immediate and decisive response from the older narrator to be woefully lacking. It’s the young girl’s response, then, that the narrator would have done well to learn from instead of complaining about not having been able to hear the older teacher.


9. Excuses For Inactivity

It’s probably the narrator’s proclivity for inaction which accounts for the song’s title Floater. Sometimes this inactivity seems to be caused by laziness. His assertion that it’s:

‘… stupid
To get into any kind of wind’

would appear to be an excuse for not working since the phrase ‘any kind of’ would seem to cover even an innocuous summer breeze.

And while some of the inhabitants are active:

‘They went down the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee
All the rest of them rebel rivers’,

the narrator, treats going ‘down’ the rivers as obviously bad, just as he treated the sun’s coming ‘down’ as bad when in so doing it was actively providing the very end to the day he wanted. The disparaging tone seems intended to justify his not joining them.

The narrator’s laziness is made particularly clear when he’s compared with the boy. The girl tells the boy to leave her alone if her appearance ‘bothers’ him. The word ‘bothers’ reminds us that the narrator uses the same word when describing his response to those who say times are hard:

‘It don’t bother me …’

Had times actually been hard, it should have bothered him. Whereas the boy ought to have been less bothered than he is, the narrator ought to have been more bothered. He uses his not being bothered as an excuse for doing nothing.


10. Cruelty

Not all the narrator’s inactivity can be attributed to laziness, though. This becomes apparent in the final verse:

‘It’s not always easy kicking someone out
Gotta wait a while – it can be an unpleasant task
Sometimes somebody wants you to give something up
And tears or not, it’s too much to ask’.

What’s immediately noticeable in this appeal for sympathy is the narrator’s apparently deliberate vagueness. While the prefix ‘some’ occurs no less than four times in as many lines –  ‘someone’, ‘sometimes’, ‘somebody’, ‘something’ – we aren’t told who is being referred to, what the ‘something’ is, or when they might want it to be given up. In choosing to use vague expressions, the narrator might seem to be deliberately masking the truth.

If so, he’s not masking it well. It’s seems probable that the ‘someone’ and the ‘somebody’ refer to different people. Despite his choice of these cold, distancing words, the only plausible candidates would seem to be the second cousin he claims to be in love with and another woman the narrator is actually, or also, living with. One of the two, presumably the one he’s not in love with, is in danger of being ‘kicked out’ at the behest of the other.

We’ve seen the narrator making excuses for inaction before so it’s not surprising to find him doing the same again. Despite the tears of one, or perhaps both, of the women, he attempts to justify maintaining a relationship with them both. It’s necessary to wait before acting, he claims, in order to spare himself unpleasantness, and yet only two lines later the need to wait has been replaced by the absence of a need to act at all. Absurdly, he’s presenting a slide from delay to total inaction as if the two are one and the same.

A second absurdity is the implication that waiting a while will help if a task is unpleasant. It won’t; it’s merely procrastinating. What’s worse is that the inadequacy of his reasons for inaction leads one to suspect that it’s not really the unpleasantness of the task of eviction that’s preventing him from performing it, but his selfish unwillingness to give up one of women. The suspicion is reinforced when, despite the distress he’s causing, he cruelly and without any attempt at justifying his response dismisses what’s required of him as ‘too much to ask’.


Conclusion

The final verse alone shows the narrator to be prone to violence, selfish, vacillating, inert, dissembling and cruel. Several of these traits are exemplified elsewhere in the song, thus showing how deeply embedded in his character are the causes of the unhappiness he brings on himself and others. Thus the violent tendency shown here is apparent in his earlier threatening to take someone’s life, the inertia in his failure to follow the example of others in leaving for a better life, and his dissembling in his giving the weather as a reason why others left for a new life.

The narrator’s need for a new life is made clear by reference to both material and spiritual impoverishment. Materially he’s bored by what he sees as the ‘endless days’. At the same time he’s oppressed at work and by disagreements with his father. It would seem he’d be materially better off if he followed the example of others in leaving to find a new life elsewhere. Spiritually, he’s bereft. He treats those senior to him with contempt, he sees violence as a way of resolving disagreements, and he causes unhappiness to one or more women in his life. His spiritual state is symbolised by his blindness and obsession with death. That a new material existence is possible is made apparent by the example of the young men who have left to find one. That a new spiritual life is possible is made clear through numerous ironies. Instead of benefitting from the sun, a cause of regeneration, he’s blinded by it. Instead of associating Christmas eves with new spiritual life, his memories of them get buried. And for him, the summer breeze, instead of being a sign of spiritual ubiquity, is just the precursor of a squall. There’s even a willingness to champion the new or young against the old which doesn’t get carried over into his own life.

One imagines the narrator will remain unhappy in his love life, as will the women involved – unless, that is, he gets rid of the character traits which prevented his ending a relationship. In particular it’s his affinity with violence which blinds him to the true nature of his task. Had he seen it as a matter of asking someone to go, rather than of kicking them out, he might have felt able to act. Also responsible is a proclivity for finding excuses, and so his using ‘unpleasantness’ as a reason for waiting awhile. And it’s laziness which enables him to take the easy way out of translating waiting awhile into not acting at all.

 

Notes

1. I stress that I use the term ‘spiritual’ in an essentially secular sense to mean moral. ‘Spiritual’ seems more appropriate because the song brings out the moral shortcomings of the narrator’s character with the help of allusions involving religious ideas. It’s not to suggest that the spiritual is concerned with anything other than the way the narrator runs his life.

The word ‘material’ is used in a slightly wider sense than usual to mean, in essence, non-moral. The narrator’s material wellbeing would therefore cover things like his family relationships and lifestyle as distinct from, say, the goods he possesses.

.

2. The sun appears in numerous Dylan songs in contexts which imply it’s to be associated with the Son. Dylan is continuing a tradition whose followers include the metaphysical poets Donne and Herbert who both employ a sun/Son pun. Thus Herbert in The Sonne:

‘To parents issue and the sunnes bright starre!
A sonne is light and fruit; a fruitfull flame
Chasing the fathers dimnesse, carri’d farre’

 and Donne in Hymn to God the Father:

‘But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now’

.

3. Poe in Spirits of the Dead is one of many poets who, like Dylan, follow the biblical tradition of associating breeze with God:

‘The breeze—the breath of God—is still—
And the mist upon the hill,
Shadowy—shadowy—yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token—
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!’

Leonard Cohen does the same in Light as the Breeze:

‘She stands before you naked
you can see it, you can taste it
but she comes to you light as the breeze
You can drink it or you can nurse it
it don’t matter how you worship
as long as you’re
down on your knees.’

.

4. The need to replace the old with the new, where the new is what is brought by Christ, is a major theme of John’s gospel. Right at the beginning there are four stories used to illustrate this theme. These are the marriage feast at Cana, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the woman at the well, and the feeding of the five thousand.

.

5. The narrator’s proclivity for exaggeration is also present in verse thirteen where he threatens:

‘If you ever try to interfere with me or cross my path again
You do so at the peril of your own  life’

The presence of ‘own’ before ‘life’ suggests that the narrator is exaggerating the danger to himself by implying that he sees his own life as threatened, and that this justifies his threatening the life of the addressee. In fact being interfered with or having your path crossed do not amount to your life being threatened.

 

 

 

Lonesome Day Blues

Introduction

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

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

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


The Woman as the Defeated

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

‘… spare the defeated …’,

‘… teach peace to the conquered’

and

‘… tame the proud’.

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

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


Further Bellicosity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Attitude to Death

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

‘… my brother got killed in the war’

compared with its meaning in:

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

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

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

‘… I left my long-time darlin’’

and

‘My pa he died and left me’.

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


Inaction

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

‘… never slept with her even once’.

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

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

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

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

Never was heard of any more’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further Inactivity

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

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

‘… forty miles from the mill’.

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

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

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

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

‘… not fit for man or beast’

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


Others’ Activity

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

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

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

His sister is active in that she:

‘… ran off and got married’.

And the narrator’s rival is actively:

 ‘… comin’ across the barren field’.8

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

‘… standing in the door’.

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


Errors of Judgement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Subconscious Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a further effect of the wind in that:

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

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


Conclusion

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

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

 

Notes

 

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

 

 

Bye And Bye

Introduction

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

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

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

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


The Title

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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


The Future

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

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

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

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


Desperation

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

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

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

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


Where The Wild Roses Grow

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

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

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

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

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

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


Disloyalty

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

‘… loyal and true …’

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

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

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

and the last line of the same verse:

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

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

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

‘… watchin’ the roads’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Positive Characteristics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Conclusion

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

Summer Days

Introduction

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

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

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

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


Part 1

The Underlying Narrative

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

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

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

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

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


Part 2

Evidence for Two Weddings

The Timing of the Reception

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

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


The Toast

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

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

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


Verse Six

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

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

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

***

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

‘Got a long-haired woman …’

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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


Part 3:

Theme of Repeating the Past


Importance of
There Being Two Weddings

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

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

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

‘… no time to lose’

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

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

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

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


The Opening and Closing Verses

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

‘Summer days, summer nights are gone’

and

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

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

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

‘Summer days and the summer nights have gone’,

as its middle line, the final verse simply has:

‘Summer days, summer nights are gone’.

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

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


Part 4

The Narrator’s Character

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


Showing Off

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

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

which becomes:

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

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

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

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

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


Immaturity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Inability to Face or Recognise the Truth

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

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

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

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

‘She’s looking into my eyes …’

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

‘… she’s holding my hand’.

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


Causes of the Narrator’s State of Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘… but the nails ain’t goin’ down’

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

When towards the end he says:

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

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


Conclusion

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

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

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

 

 

Notes

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mississippi

Introduction

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

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


The Woman

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

‘… mule’s in the stall’.3

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

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

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

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

‘I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too’.

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

As will become apparent, the line:

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

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


Rosie

The narrator’s outburst is immediately followed by:

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

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

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


Dishonesty

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

‘… the corner that I painted myself in

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

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

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

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

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

 ‘… days are numbered’.4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘… we walk the line’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Refusal to Change

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

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

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

‘Stick with me baby …’

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

A similar attitude is present when he claims to know:

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

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

And when he announces that:

‘Things should start to get interesting right about now’

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

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

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

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


Love Or Sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tendency To Give Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So many things that we never will undo’

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


Drowning

The negative outlook continues in the ninth verse:

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

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

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

‘My clothes are wet, tight on my skin’

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


Nothing

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

‘The emptiness is endless …’

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

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

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

‘Don’t even have anything for myself anymore’

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

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

Nothing you can sell me …’

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

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

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

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

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

‘I need somethin’ strong to distract my mind’

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


Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Other Religious Imagery

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

Positive imagery:

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

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

Negative imagery:

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

‘… the devil’s in the alley …’,

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

Similarly the word ‘raised’ in the line:

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

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

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

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

The reference to fire in:

‘Sky full of fire …’

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

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


Conclusion

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Every step of the way …’

and the last words before the final refrain are:

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

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

‘… trying to get away

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

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

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

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

NB. See Jocken Markhorst, The Mississippi Series, part 2: the line that never was (on the ‘Untold Dylan’ site) for the origin of the Lines ‘Only one thing I did wrong/Stayed in Mississippi a day too long’.