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

Key West (Philosopher Pirate)

Introduction

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

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

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

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


McKinley

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

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

The narrator was at the time:

‘… searchin’ for love and inspiration’

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

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

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


Mystery Street

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

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

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

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

‘You may lose your heart
And then your mind’

suggest that when the narrator says about Key West:

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

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

‘… the bleedin’ heart disease’.

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

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

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


Other Murder Most Foul references

Dizzy Miss Lizzy

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

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

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

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

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


Left/Right

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

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

and right is associatedwith his assassins:

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

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

‘Got my right hand high with the thumb down’

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

The left/right distinction occurs again in verse ten:

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

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

A related tactic is in evidence when he declares:

 ‘I play both sides against the middle’

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

In verse 11 the distinction occurs again:

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

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


Last Request

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

‘… I heard your last request’

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


Conscience

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

‘More needs she the divine than the physician’6

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

‘… paradise divine

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

‘… on the horizon line’

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


Hard Done By

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘… gold fringes on her wedding dress’?

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

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

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

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

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

 ‘Stay on the road – follow the highway sign’

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

 ‘… I’m stickin’ with you …’8

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

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

‘Such is life – such is happiness’

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


Sexual exploitation

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

‘That’s my story …’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I don’t love nobody – gimme a kiss’

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

‘… that bleedin’ heart disease’

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

‘… I oughta try a little tenderness’,

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

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

‘If you wear one put it behind your ear’

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

‘Walkin’ in the shadows after dark’


Key West as heaven

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

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

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

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

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

‘… the healing virtues of the wind’,

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

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

‘…  the gateway key
To innocence and purity’.

Key West is also:

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

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

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

‘… paradise divine’.


Key West as hell

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

hot …’

and

‘… down …’

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

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

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

He characterises the island as:

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

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

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

‘… fine and fair’

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

***

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


Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes:

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

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

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

Crossing The Rubicon

Introduction

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

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

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

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


1. The addressee

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

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

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

and

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

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

 ‘… kissed the girls’

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

 ‘… let me love’.

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

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

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

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

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

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


2.
Blood that flows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


3. Redemption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

4. Mona

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

The narrator asks:

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

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

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

‘You defiled the most lovely flower in all of womanhood

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

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

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


5. Mona as both victim and redeemer

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

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

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

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

‘… feel the Holy Spirit inside

and Mona is:

‘ … still in my mind’.

And since the Holy Spirit is:

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

Mona can be identified with Christ.

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

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

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

‘… come with me this far’

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

***

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

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

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

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

‘… the blood that flows from the rose’.

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

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

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

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

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


6.
Crossing the Rubicon

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

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

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

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

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


7. Moral failings

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


Failing to reform

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

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

‘If I survive then let me love …’

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

Likewise, when he advises himself to:

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

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


Homophobia

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

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

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

‘… find you some nice young pretty boy’

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

 ‘… this world so badly bent’.

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


Sexism and Misogyny

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

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

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

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

Again the note is assertive.

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

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

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

‘Show me one good man in sight …’

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

***

While the threat:

‘I’ll make your wife a widow’,

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

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


Self-deception

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

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

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

***

Something similar is going on when he demands:

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

for here the phrase ‘in sight’ is redundant.

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

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

***

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

‘Others can be tolerant – others can be good’

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

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


Wishful thinking

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

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

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

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


8. The worst time

Although the narrator is accused of crossing the Rubicon:

‘At the worst time at the worst place …’

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

 ‘… that’s all I seem to hear’

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

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

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

suggests that it might have been.

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


9.  The worst place

The criticism that he crossed:

‘… at the worst place’

can also be interpreted in two ways.

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

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

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

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

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


10. Narrator’s spiritual development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ‘… upon the hill’

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

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

‘I poured the cup and passed it along’

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

‘…  within the reach of every man who lives’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

‘… your ruby lips …’.

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

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

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

Mother Of Muses

Introduction

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

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

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


1. Poetic inadequacy

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

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

‘Sing of the Heroes who stood alone‘,

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

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

‘… stood alone’

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

In addition to standing alone, the Heroes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Man, I could tell their stories all day’

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

***

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

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

‘… with her eyes’

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

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

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


2. Moral deficiencies

Sexism

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

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

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


Inertia

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

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

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

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

‘… free me from sin’.

Likewise, while he recognises that the generals:

‘… cleared a path for Presley to sing’,

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

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

‘… why not give her to me’

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

‘I’m so tired of chasing lies’

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

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

‘… unleash your wrath’,

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

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

‘… tell me my fate’

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

‘Put me upright – make me walk straight’

and

 ‘Forge my identity from the inside out’,

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

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

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

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


Egoism

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

‘Mother of Muses sing for me’

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

‘Sing to me …’

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

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

‘Mother of Muses sing for my heart’

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

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

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


3. Changing attitude to death

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

***

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

‘Sing for a love too soon to depart’

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

‘Sing of honour and fame and of glory be’

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

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

 ‘I’ve grown so tired of chasing lies’

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

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

‘I’ve already outlived my life by far’

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

‘… invisible like the wind’

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

***

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

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

 ‘…  slow coming home’

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

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


4. Moral renewal: identity with Mnemosyne

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

‘Forge my identity from the inside out’,

together with the one which immediately follows it:

‘You know what I’m talking about’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘… the ‘deep, dark sea’.

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

5. Creative renewal

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

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

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


Conclusion

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

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

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

Notes:

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

Goodbye Jimmy Reed

Introduction

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

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


Religion

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

‘I live on a street named after a saint’

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

‘I can tell a Proddy from a mile away’

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

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

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

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

Neither should his reference to:

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

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


Sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I need you like my head needs a noose’

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

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


Jimmy Reed

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

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

‘For thine is the kingdom …’,

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

‘I’ll put a jewel in your crown …’

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

Likewise, when the narrator says:

‘… go tell the real story’,

and goes on to associate Reed with:

‘… this lost land’,

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

‘Can’t you hear me …’

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

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

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

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

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

‘… I’ll put out the light’.

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

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

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


The sister

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

 ‘God be with you, brother dear’

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

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

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

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


Exaggeration and vagueness

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

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

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

 ‘the people all said’

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

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

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

The vagueness continues when he says:

They threw everything at me …’

and

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

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

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

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

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


Negativity

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

‘Never pandered’,

 ‘… never acted proud’,

and

‘Never took off my shoes …’

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

The negatives continue. He’ll:

‘… put out the light’,

but not do anything positive. He:

Can’t play the record’

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

‘… needle got stuck’.

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

The negative ‘can’t’ reappears in:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh, nothing much …’

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

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

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

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


Inconsistency

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

‘Thump on the bible – proclaim the creed’

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

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

‘It suits you well, I must confess’

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


Conclusion

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

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

Black Rider

Introduction

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

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

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


First Verse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Second Verse

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

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

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

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

‘You fell into the fire …’,

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

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

‘… eating the flame’,

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

 ‘… stay in the game’.

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

The verse ends:

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

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


Third Verse

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

‘… walking away’,

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

Nevertheless, he’s tempted to return to it:

‘You try to make me look back’.

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

When he says about his heart being at rest:

‘… I’d like to keep it that way’,

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

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

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

***

There’s an alternative interpretation of the line:

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

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

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

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

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

‘One of these days …’

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

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


Fourth Verse

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

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

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

The first possibility is as follows. In pleading:

‘… tell me when – tell me how’,

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

‘… let it be now’,

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

On this account, his plea:

‘Let me go through – open the door’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

 ‘… let it be now’,

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

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

‘Let me go through – open the door’

and the penultimate line:

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

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

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

The ‘arm’ in:

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

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

‘… have to hack off your arm’.

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


Fifth Verse

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

‘The size of your cock will get you nowhere’

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

Consistent with each interpretation is his decision to:

‘… suffer in silence …’

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

‘Maybe I’ll take the high moral ground’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Conclusion

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

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

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

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

 

Notes:

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

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

Introduction

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

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


Addressee

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

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

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

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

and

‘I knew you’d say yes …’.

Also, the line:

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

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

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

‘I’m giving myself to you, I am’

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

In addition, the language of the title and refrain:

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

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

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


Despair

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, his reference to:

 ‘a snow white dove’

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

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

‘A lot of people gone …’ (v7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The response is ironic because unconsciously he’s intending to begin a new life with the woman, a rebirth of sorts he assumes is denied to flowers and other people. The irony is intensified by a further – this time double – reminder of the flowers’ going:

‘I’m going to go far away …’

It would seem that he has a glimmer of understanding that going, far from being final, might lead to something new.


Failure to look

The reason for the narrator’s pessimistic state of mind is that metaphorically he’s partially blind.3 He ‘saw’ the flowers die, but it seems he didn’t bother to look any further. As a result he fails to realise that only in the obvious, literal way did their death represent finality.

Likewise, in verse four he admits, he:

‘… looks at nothing … near or far4

Having not looked at anything far, he have little idea what he can learn from carrying out his intention to go ‘far away’ with the woman.

Because he won’t look for himself, he’s reliant at this stage on others to do the looking for him. He says to the traveling man:

Show me something that I’ll understand’

In so doing he’s just assuming that the understanding he wants – about how he can come to terms with physical death – can be provided for him by someone else.


Development of understanding

He’s wrong. Just as he’s alone in his misery, he needs to be self-reliant when acquiring understanding.

That the process of acquiring understanding is beginning to take off is made apparent by a continued use of sight imagery in verse four:

‘My eye is like a shooting star

The statement is in contrast with the opening line of the song in which he’s:

‘… lost in the stars

There he seemed passive, immobile – in complete contrast to a shooting star. Now his eye, at least, is active. At this stage it’s not much of an advance towards understanding, because the knowledge he has is innate – ‘just something I knew’ – and so presumably unconscious. Nevertheless it’s the start of a development that continues in verse six where he recognises the importance of sight:

‘Show me something that I’ll understand’

and will reach a zenith on seeing the addressee in verse eight, should this happen.

It’s no longer the case that his eye is looking at nothing, ‘near or far’. That this is so is reinforced by his decision referred to in verse six to

‘…go far away from home’

with the woman. The repetition of ‘far’ suggests an interest in what he’d previously considered not worth looking at. He’s also no longer dependant on what the travelling man can direct his sight towards.

An additional development is that that in going far away, it’ll be the whole of him which is active, and not just his eye.


Time passing and realisation

The ‘long road of despair’, to which the narrator refers, is presumably a spatial metaphor for a long period of misery in his life. His recognition that time is passing initially seems to just add to his despair:

‘I’m not what I was, things aren’t what they were’

But then he has a revelation. He suddenly appreciates that it’s by way of time passing that he’ll be able to acquire the understanding he craves:

‘It just takes me a while to realise things’

What he realises is a number of things:

First, he’s now realised that it’s inappropriate to consider death as the be all and end all.  As a result, his focus now changes to regeneration:

‘I’ll see you at sunrise – I’ll see you at dawn’

This statement is a surprise because sunrise and dawn are the same thing. We’d expect him to say ‘I’ll see you at sunrise – I’ll see you at dusk’. Instead, he’s now focusing on the positive. Just as the snow had seemed to exclude anything good by seeming to be continuous (the ‘first fall’ being the first of many snowfalls), so now there’s just sunrise and dawn – the same good thing repeated.5

***

The second thing he now understands is that the:

something I’ll understand’

which he wants the travelling man to provide, is the same something as the

something I knew’

of verse four. And it’s again this something which he has in mind when he says it takes him:

‘… a while to realise things’.

In other words, what he consciously understands now is the same thing he’d asked the travelling man to help him understand. It’s this which he now fully realises he’d known at an unconscious level all along.

***

Thirdly, he now realises that what it is he’d always known deep down is that the finality of death gives no cause for despair. The new life which seemed achievable by going ‘far away’ with the woman has transformed into a new life with God. What he’d known deep down, and now knows consciously, is that his desire for a new life can be fulfilled by his being with God. That, at least, is the implication of the language he uses to express his commitment, language which would seem inappropriate if addressed to a woman.


Achieving unity

It’s this lack of cause for despair that’s acknowledged in verse eight when he says:

‘I’ll lay down beside you, when everyone is gone’

By this he might mean that when people are no longer present to him because he is dead, he’ll continue to live eternally. Or he might mean that despite death’s continuing to affect everyone else, spiritually he’ll be exempt from it.

This realisation is given voice in the exultant declaration of the penultimate line:

‘I knew you’d say yes – I’m saying it too’

Assuming it’s God and the narrator saying yes to each other, they’re acting in unison – each asking for unity with the other and each answering yes when asked.

What seems also to be the case, though, although it’s not clear that the narrator realises it, is that a new life with God and a new life with the woman amount to one and the same thing. The exultant ‘yes’ can be as much said to, and heard from, the one as from the other. Even if literally he’s ‘laying down’ beside the woman, in so doing he will be ‘laying down’ beside God.


River image: emotional and intellectual development

It becomes clear that the narrator’s development is not just intellectual but emotional. By verse eight, his progress is making him feel uplifted:

‘My heart is like a river – a river that sings’

The heart and singing references each make it clear that he’s on the verge of becoming overwhelmed by positive emotion. There’s a contrast with the first verse in which the ‘sounds of the sad guitars’ were mere distant reflections of his inner state.

The river simile has the effect of emphasising the importance of regeneration. A river is continuously flowing, continuously changing. His heart is like a river, then, because of his new found capacity for emotional experience – emotional experience which seems to encompass God and the woman.

In the final verse the river image is extended to represent the development not just of the narrator’s emotions but of his whole being:

I travelled from the mountains to the sea’

Just as his activity in travelling succeeded that of his eye as the only active part of him, so now it’s not just his heart but the whole of him which has become active like a river.

The twofold use of the river image makes it clear that his development has been both intellectual and emotional.


The narrator’s failure

Although the song ends on an exultant high, it’s not so clear that the narrator has succeeded in unifying himself with either God or the woman.

First, in the final verse, despite the expression of commitment in the last two lines, the narrator’s commitment seems unassured. In hoping that:

‘… the gods go easy with me’,

he’s not merely gone back to putting his trust in others, something he’d learnt not to do in the case of the travelling man, but is putting his trust in other gods than the Christian one. By saying he hopes that the gods go easy with him, he seems to be admitting that their anger should not be unexpected. This suggests that there’s no longer any intention of actively giving himself to God or of going away with the woman. Instead, he’s passively hoping to get away with doing neither.

In the light of this, doubt would now seem to be cast on the meaning of the exuberant exclamation in verse eight:

‘I’ll see you at sunrise – I’ll see you at dawn’

The narrator’s joyful anticipation might not be of seeing the woman or God when he wakes up, but of seeing the pagan sun-god. Since the rising sun might also represent Christ, the image can be taken as representing ambivalence about to which deity he should be loyal.

Overall, while the references to pagan gods are likely to be purely figurative, their function seems to be to point out the narrator’s backsliding and lack of commitment.

***

The second reason for thinking the narrator might have failed in his attempts at unity is what he says in the fifth verse:

‘If I had the wings of a snow white dove
I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love
A love so real – a love so true
I made up my mind to give myself to you’

It seems he’s making an excuse for not having kept to his commitment. Presumably he means that he’d have to be perfect (‘snow white’) and like the Holy Spirit (a dove) in order to have done so. And that, he’s implying, is beyond him. Furthermore, although the emphatic language (‘so real’, ‘so true’) seems disingenuously designed to give the impression that his love will be constant, the implication that he doesn’t have the wings of a dove makes it clear that it won’t be.

The combination of religious language (‘gospel’ and ‘dove’) and language associated with romantic love suggests that there’s no distinction in the narrator’s mind between remaining loyal to the woman and remaining loyal to God. In not remaining constant to the woman he will be abandoning God.

***

A third, and perhaps the most obvious reason for suspecting him to have failed derives from a subtle variation in the refrain. At the end of verses two and five, the form of the refrain is subtly different to how it appears in the title and elsewhere. Instead of saying ‘I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you’, we have:

I made up my mind to give myself to you’

The change of tense suggests that the content of those verses represents thoughts had by the narrator after those recorded in the exuberant final verse. In the case of the second verse this is of no consequence since the narrator is simply recounting earlier thoughts. But in the case of the fifth, it would indicate the tacit admission that his own imperfection represents his final position. Thus now, in the present moment, he knows that he won’t be preaching ‘the gospel of love’ and that his love is neither ‘so real’ nor ‘so true’.


Conclusion

The narrator appears to be a representation of human beings generally. Like all of us, he can’t stand being alone with his feelings. And like all of us, he’s imperfect.

The song is an account in his words of his attempt to overcome despair at the finality of death. It shows his understanding developing gradually from an unconscious awareness of something worthwhile to a commitment to unity with the main addressee. This addressee seems equally identifiable as God and a woman. Along the way, he gradually learns the need for self-reliance and the value of experience.

Although the song appears to end happily, this is in part because of the order in which the narrator is giving us his thoughts. While he ends by giving the impression he’s achieved unity with the addressee, there are indications that the sentiments of the final verse don’t represent his final position. His commitment is less than he’d like it to seem.

Notes

  1. It might be relevant that according to Wikipedia the fourth place mentioned, Birmingham – presumably the one in Alabama – in 2010 had ‘the second highest ratio of Christians and the greatest ratio of Protestant adherents, in the U.S.’
  2. To that extent ‘I saw the flowers come and go’ is a repeat of the sentiment expressed in ‘I Contain Multitudes’ – ‘The flowers are dying like all things do’.
  3. Though not quite ‘sightless’ like the narrator’s self-creation in ‘My Own Version of You’
  4. The line sung is:
    ‘It looks at nothing here or there, looks at nothing near or far’
    Printed, it’s:
    ‘It looks at nothing, neither near or far’
  5. There’s an echo in the word ‘snowfall’ of the fall of man. The narrator was aware not just of the spiritual demise of Adam and Eve when he was aware of the first fall of snow, but by implication the moral ‘falls’ which have happened since. This seems to make him not just an individual but a representation of human beings generally.

My Own Version Of You

Introduction

The gothic character of the song should not distract from its main concern which is salvation. Although the narrator is trying to create a human being in the way that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein does, the song’s concerns are essentially different to Shelley’s. On a literal level, he wants to bring someone to life. It’s hinted that he holds himself responsible for their death and so is trying to undo the wrong. That, he thinks, will save him. For the most part the song does not operate on such a literal level, however. Identities and times both become fluid so that the narrator seems to take on the identities of both God and Christ, as well as that of the creature he’s creating. Ultimately such changes in his identity are required if he is to be saved.

The analysis has fifteen main sections:

  1. The Narrator as Flawed Humanity
  2. Identities
  3. The Creature
  4. Laughter and Tears
  5. The Knife
  6. The Head                  
  7. Where the Children Play
  8. Resurrection and Redemption
  9. Sight, Hearing and Feeling
  10. Armageddon
  11. Julius Caesar
  12. Hell
  13. It’ll be Done when it’s Done
  14. To be
  15. The Solution

Conclusion


1. The Narrator as Flawed Humanity

The narrator can be seen as representing everyone. This is apparent in two ways. First, he contains within him ‘the history of the whole human race’. Secondly, he’s imbued with a range of ordinary human characteristics. Among these are a recognition of a need to be saved, a determination to bring this about, generosity to the whole of mankind, a dislike of self pity, and a polite deference. At the same time he’s inconsistent. He can be brusque and dominating. He’s distraught, too, and despite claiming not to want pitying, lets it be known he has ‘no place to turn’ and is plagued by voices –

‘They talk all night they talk all day’

Presumably the voices are his conscience. His immediate reaction is to deny responsibility for whatever they’re accusing him of:

‘Not for a second do I believe what they say’

It seems he’s attempting to fool himself, an all too common human trait. It’s a fault which later he seems to recognise:

‘You won’t get away with fooling me’.

A fault that he’s perhaps not aware of is self-deception. When, after saying he’ll ‘balance the scales’ – or make amends for what he’s done – he adds:

‘I’m not not gonna get involved in any insignificant details’,

The impression one gets is that deep down he’s hiding the details even from himself.

A willingness to indulge in self-deception is also brought out by a difference between the printed and sung versions of the song. The word ‘second’ in ‘Not for a second do I believe what they say,’ becomes ‘minute’ in the sung version. He might not believe the accusations for a minute, this suggests, but we can assume that for anything up to fifty-nine seconds he does! One might also doubt he’d be looking forward to being saved if he believed the accusations to be false.

Another all too-human flaw which makes the narrator a representative of mankind is his trying to take the easy way out. In making the creature, he’s not intending to replace like with like. The creature is to be:

‘… my own version of you’

and someone:

‘…  who feels the way that I feel

As such it will be little more than a clone of the narrator, and accordingly no more capable of saving the narrator than the narrator himself. And over the course of the song we find that the narrator’s saviour can only be himself.

That he’s aware he has faults is again apparent when he says:

‘I’ll bring someone to life – spare no expense
Do it with decency and commonsense’

We can assume, reading between the lines, that he doesn’t always spare expense, nor does he always act with decency and commonsense.


2. Identities

The narrator, it seems, has no less than five other identities. What follows are the main, but not the only, reasons for this. These different identities will all play a part in our understanding the nature of his crime and how he is to be saved.

***

Initially, he seems to be the lover of someone who’s died. His use of the expression ‘baby’ suggests a romantic relationship. If so, he would be expressing his loss emotionally when he says:

‘I wish you’d taken me with you wherever you went’.

The manner of her death, which is presumably what he feels guilty about, seems to be reflected in a line which has him bringing her back to life:

‘Show me your ribs – I’ll stick in the knife.’

***

The narrator also seems to be identical with his creation. This is suggested by references to the face of each:

‘Can you look in my face …?’

‘I can see the history of the whole human race
It’s all right there – it’s carved ­into your face

***

If his creation is someone he has killed being brought back to life, then his identity with the creation makes him identical with her. It follows that in killing her he has killed himself. And in recreating her, he is attempting to recreate himself.

***

The narrator is also to be identified with God. Not only is he a creator but, like God, he creates a human being in his own image:

‘Someone who feels the way that I feel’.

***

Finally, he can be identified with Christ in that he wants to:

‘… do things for the benefit of all mankind’

That it’s Christ who is speaking through the narrator here is suggested not just by the desire to benefit mankind but by the somewhat stylised expression.

***

We needn’t take it that these identities are purely metaphorical. The song seems to be suggesting that the narrator really is the victim of his crime, and that to recreate himself he really must be God and Christ respectively. Even though from an everyday, temporal perspective he appears as himself, there are numerous other indications in the song of the five other identities. Their significance will be made clear in what follows.


3. The Creature

The addressee – the creature – can also be seen as Christ. That would make sense of the narrator’s saying:

‘I’ll be saved by the creature that I create’

And the creature’s being Christ would provide a less-literal sense in which, representing mankind, he’s responsible for the creature’s death.

That he has an inkling that the creature is really Christ, rather than just having Christ-like qualities, is also apparent when he asks:

‘… should I fall on my knees’

and

‘Can you give me the blessings of your smile’.

Again, the language is slightly formalised, suggesting now that the addressee is being treated with unusual reverence.

***

Since the creation is supposed to be the narrator’s potential saviour, it’s curious to find that in addition to comprising remnants of dead bodies, it’s to be made from the remains of gangsters:

‘I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando
Mix ‘em up in a tank and get a robot commando’

The significance of this is twofold. First, the creation’s gangster-like nature makes it unlikely that the creation will save the narrator. Accordingly, given the narrator’s identity with the creation, it seems unlikely that the narrator will save himself.

Secondly, that such a spiritual rebirth is nevertheless possible is hinted at in the origin of the first film. The film Scarface, starring Al Pacino, was a remake of the 1930s original, which makes Pacino a reborn version of the original actor. The reborn version is presumably better than the original.  A related idea is perhaps present in the languages that the narrator is learning:

‘I study Sanscrit and Arabic to improve my mind’

The living Arabic language has developed from, and is presumably an improvement on, the essentially dead Sanscrit.


4. Laughter and Tears

We’re reminded at the end of the song that the narrator has a gangster-like nature which would be incapable of saving him. The last line is:

‘Do it with laughter – do it with tears’,

the repeated words ‘do it with’ suggesting that laughter and tears are not to be distinguished. They too are one and the same thing – signs of mirth. The mirth will accompany the narrator’s act of murder – his sticking in the knife. And the crudeness of the laughter is reinforced when we contrast it with the comparative serenity of Christ’ smile as it bestows blessings. On this view, one feels that there are no blessings accompanying the narrator’s laughter. He has no hope of being saved.

Yet ‘tears’ also suggests that the narrator considers the situation to be anything but a cause for laughter. As such they represent the tears of Christ. The knife is not just a murder weapon but a conduit for a life-creating electrical current:

‘Show me your ribs – I’ll stick in the knife
I’m gonna jump start my creation to life’

 Sticking in the knife is not just an act of murder, but an act of spiritual renewal.*

5. The Knife

There is a further significance to the knife. It’s implicitly present again when the narrator, addressing his creation, says:

‘I can see the history of the whole human race
It’s all right there – it’s carved into your face’

The narrator, and the creation with whom he’s identical, is the product of all that has gone before him. The concept of carving suggests that the creation is being treated as a sculpture, the sculptor having delicately carved a perfect human race. On the other hand, it’s a manifestation of all the evil in the world, as if the face of the human race has been carved-up throughout time by a vengeful gangster.

The narrator’s creation, then, is a mixture of propensities.  In so far as he is creating himself, in the sense of bringing about his own salvation, he needs to behave like the delicate sculptor rather than the gangster. If he does, he will not just be renewing and thereby saving himself, but renewing and saving the whole of humanity.

This is the sense in which the narrator is both God and Christ. He’s God in that he produces a creation which has propensities for both good and evil. And he’s Christ in that he saves God’s creation from evil. But independently – as himself – the creation might or might not save him. Put differently, insofar as he is the creation, he might or might not save himself.


6. The Head

The ‘it’ which is referred to when the narrator says:

‘You can bring it to St Peter …

You can bring it to me on a silver tray’.

is not specifically identified. But from the line just quoted we can assume it’s the head of John the Baptist. After his decapitation on the orders of Herod, John’s head was brought to Herod on a platter (cf. Mark 6:14-29).

Since it’s a head, it is probably also the head the narrator has acquired for his creature and which, if put on straight, will enable the narrator to be saved by his creation. As such it’s simultaneously the head of Christ. And by way of the narrator’s identity with Christ, it is the head of the narrator. Furthermore, the narrator’s incessant feelings of guilt also suggest it can be seen as the head of his victim.

Why St Peter? St Peter was one of the disciples who discovered Christ’s empty tomb – a sign of the resurrection – and can therefore be directly associated with salvation. By requesting the head, something associated with death, be brought to St Peter, the narrator seems to be scornfully dismissing what St Peter stands for.

At the same time, the narrator seems unconsciously to have stumbled on a way of making amends for the murder – a murder which now goes beyond that of a lover but which is simultaneously the murder of John, the murder of Christ and, by way of those, his own spiritual self-murder. By requesting the head be brought to both St Peter and himself, the narrator will be associating himself with the spiritual life represented by St Peter.

But redemption, it seems, is not so straightforward. The head still has to be put on straight. Less figuratively, the narrator has much to do to recompense for his wrongdoing.


7. Where the Children Play

The head is also to be brought to

‘… the corner where the children play’

This suggests that the children will be corrupted into learning the evil ways of the past and passing them on. The process will continue as each generation of children grows up and corrupts the next until the whole future of humanity has been corrupted.

However, it’s not only corruption that will continue down the generations. The narrator’s concern that his creation be able to:

 ‘(p)lay every number that I can play’

is suggestive of good being passed on. The good is represented by musical skill. And because ‘play’ is here a pre-echo of the children’s activity at the corner, we get the idea of skills being passed down the generations.

It’s not just the future of humanity that gets corrupted, however. That humanity has been corrupted throughout the past is implied by the double occurrence of the word ‘play’ in thev line so that it can be associated not just with the creature but the narrator too. The narrator learnt from a generation prior to his, and presumably the process went on back down all the previous generations.

This treatment of the narrator as a child is also apparent when the narrator asks:

‘Can you cross your heart and hope to die?’

‘Cross my heart and hope to die’ is an expression used by children to convince their hearers that they’re being truthful.

Accordingly, whereas the head represents evil taking over the human race, the narrator’s concern to pass on his musical skills and his concern for truth are both suggestive of good being  passed down the generations.


8. Resurrection and Redemption

Since the death for which the narrator is responsible can be seen as Christ’s death, the narrator is now attempting to make up for it by bringing about a form of Christ’s resurrection. He’s bringing Christ back to life.

Thus, just as traditionally Christ’s death and resurrection are what saved mankind, so they are saving the narrator. But what this amounts to is the narrator saving himself. It’s to be through his own efforts, using:

‘… all my powers’

The word ‘powers’, archaic in this context, is also suggestive of Christ’s ability to raise himself from the dead, thereby further implying that the narrator’s redemption is to be independently brought about by Christ.

***

That the narrator can save himself is hinted at throughout the song by references to Christ’s pronouncement:

‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ (John 14:6).

which implies that one finds salvation by actively following Christ’s moral example. The words ‘way’ and ‘life’ continuously occur in what the narrator says, as does the concept of truth, implying that unconsciously the narrator knows how to bring about his salvation.

Thus, he repeatedly announces that he wants to bring someone to life, and says he’ll do it:

‘… in more ways than one’

One of the extra ways might be his following Christ’s example as a means of bringing himself, as distinct from his creature, to life. This is reinforced in the song by numerous further occurrences of ‘way’.

The narrator’s concern with truth is apparent when he asks his creation, and therefore effectively himself:

‘Can you cross your heart and hope to die?’

In using an expression normally used to imply sincerity he’s accepting that being untruthful will amount to spiritual death.

The question might also be aimed at the voices plaguing him with guilt. If so, he would now seem to be moving away from his previous refusal to accept the truth about himself:

‘Not for a [minute] do I believe what they say’

– and accepting that he has something to atone for.

9. Sight, Hearing and Feeling

The narrator’s sight – which can be taken to represent his understanding – is deficient. This is made apparent by the parts played by feeling and hearing in the contradictory attitudes he takes to his moral wellbeing. On the one hand he’s plagued by the internal voices he hears constantly reminding him of his guilt:

 ‘They talk all night and they talk all day’

– while on the other we find him confidently asserting  his moral worth, but only as something which he hears and feels:

‘You got the right spirit – you can feel it you can hear it’

and

‘You can feel it all night [-] you can feel it in the morn’

That both the expressed pessimism and optimism are misplaced is clear from there being nothing he sees.  And this would seem to suggest that at present, while nothing is assured,  he still has a chance of being saved.

That the narrator’s understanding is inadequate is also apparent from his requiring help in seeing light:

‘Is there light at the end of the tunnel – can you tell me please?’

And it’s because the person he wants to bring to life is:

‘… someone I’ve never seen

that he fails to recognise that the resurrection he’s planning can be as much Christ’s and his own, neither of whom he will have seen, as that of the lover.  It’s ironic, then, that in addressing the lover he says:

‘I’ll see you baby on Judgement Day’

for the person he sees on Judgement Day will be Christ.

That the narrator fails to understand the identity of his creation at this point becomes further apparent when he makes the creation seem as sightless as himself:

 ‘Can you look in my face with your sightless eye’

He seems to realise only that his creation is himself.

Despite his metaphorical blindness, however, the narrator is in danger of making matters worse by exhorting himself to work without light:

‘Do it in the dark …’

He’s refusing to see that he can save himself. It’s not total dark he’s in, however. The darkness, as it happens, is relieved by the moon:

‘Can you help me walk that moonlight mile?’

Salvation requires his own effort – walking the mile – but Christ, as represented by light from the moon, is making it easier for him.


10. Armageddon

When in despair with ‘no place to turn’ the narrator feels forced to:

‘…  pick a number between one and two’.

From the context the only choice he would seem to have in mind is between behaving morally and immorally. It seems there’s a double significance to this.

First, he’s going to make various pianists – and non-pianists, because bizarrely they include St John the Apostle:

‘[p]lay every number that I can play’.

In other words, he’s going to bend people to his will. St John the Apostle, it seems, will have to adapt his doctrine of the Resurrection, an event which with St Peter he happened upon first, to the narrator’s own Frankensteinian approach to how redemption is to be achieved.1

Secondly, we find that number the narrator opts for is two:

‘I’ll be at the Black Horse Tavern on Armageddon Street
Two doors down not that far to walk’

He chooses the right solution in that if it had been only one door down the destination would have been hell. That’s because we later learn that hell is a mere step away:

‘Step right into the burning hell’

Although ‘two doors down’ is the right choice, he makes it only because he assumes it’s his lover he’s addressing (he’ll hear her footsteps) and accordingly that it won’t be himself who’ll be walking.

When instead it turns out that the addressee is Christ and that he, the narrator, is the one who must make the effort to meet, the distance seems beyond him.  What he’s called ‘not that far to walk’ becomes a mile:

‘Can you help me walk that moonlight mile?’

That the meeting’s to take place on Armageddon Street makes it clear that the narrator is engaged in a final battle between the good and bad parts of himself. It’s promising that he asks for help in ‘walking that moonlight mile’, but only partially so. The moonlight, representing Christ, should be all the help he’d need. The light is at the end of the tunnel if only he’d recognise it.

***

There’s an absurdity, then, in the question:

‘Can you help me walk that moonlight mile?’

in that it suggests that the narrator hasn’t realised that Christ is available to help him. He made a similar mistake earlier when he announced:

‘It must be the winter of my discontent’

The line is based on the contrastingly optimistic opening of Richard III:

‘Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York’

But whereas Richard sees ‘glorious summer,’ the narrator sees only winter. But he shouldn’t. He’s aware of summer, and not just one summer. The opening of the song is:

‘All through the summers and into January’

He’s failing to see that his spiritual wellbeing isn’t necessarily as compromised as it seems. Just as he doesn’t need help because the moonlight is already providing it for him, so in the context of so many summers it shouldn’t now be the winter of his discontent.


11. Julius Caesar

On a literal level the method the narrator is using to bring about his salvation is ludicrous. There’s no need to literally resurrect the lover.  Metaphorically he does need to, but then it’s not the lover he’s resurrecting but himself.  For this he needs a reliable method. Things seem promising when he asks:

‘… what would Julius Caesar do?’

but his response is inadequate. It’s full of inconsistency.

There are two things worth emulating  Caesar for, and it’s curious that the narrator doesn’t straightforwardly do either of them. Prior to crossing the Rubicon and defeating Pompey, Caesar famously said ‘Let the die be cast’. The narrator, however, has already with apparent self-satisfaction declared:

‘… I don’t shoot no dice’,

This suggests a determination not to model himself on Caesar’s determination to do what needs doing. The inconsistency is matched by a further inconsistency when, while claiming not to gamble with cards or shoot dice, he seems quite prepared to trust to luck:

‘I pick a number between one and two’

And as already shown, he makes the right choice.

A further, more important, inconsistency is as follows. It’s more important because it reflects the human and divine sides of the narrator’s character.  After Pompey is murdered, his head is given to Caesar who, it’s said, sheds tears when he receives it because he’d intended to forgive Pompey. The narrator, in contrast with Caesar, calls for a head to be brought to him ‘on a silver tray’, in the manner of John the Baptist’s.

Nevertheless, we’re reminded of Caesar’s tears in the last line of the song when the narrator exhorts himself to:

‘Do it with laughter – do it with tears’

These tears are not now tears of mirth but tears shed in the spirit of Caesar – out of regret for death. The narrator has caused a death and like Caesar he is shedding tears of regret for it.


12. Hell

It’s curious that the narrator condemns the past:

‘… the hell with all things that used to be’

This is particularly so since he’s learning Sanscrit, a language from the past, and because he wants to emulate Caesar. It’s curious too that he condemns Freud and Marx, who lived in the past, as ‘enemies of mankind’ even though they obviously weren’t.

He seems to have misunderstood both when he describes them as:

‘Mister Freud with his dreams and Mister Marx with his axe’.

Freud didn’t have dreams in the implied sense of far-fetched aspirations but attempted to explain the role of dreams in human psychology. And not only didn’t Marx have an axe in any relevant sense, but the narrator seems to have confused him with Engels who looked forward to the day when the state would be confined to:

‘… the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze axe’2

In any case the phrase ‘enemy of mankind’ is disconcertingly reminiscent of the phrase ‘enemy of the state’ as used, not to describe either Freud or Marx, but by tyrants to describe dissenters from their tyranny. The narrator’s condemnation of Freud and Marx accordingly seems to cast him in the mould of such a tyrant. That this is so is reinforced when he exhorts us to relish the evil he imagines being meted out to them:

‘See the raw hide lash rip the skin off their backs’

He claims to want to do things:

‘… for the benefit of all mankind’,

but in condemning mankind’s benefactors he’s doing the opposite. Furthermore, he can be seen as exacerbating the amount of evil in the world so that what should have seemed an exaggeratedly pessimistic, Mephistophelian description of life on earth –

 ‘.. the burning hell’ –

turns out to be accurate. The narrator, the representative of mankind, is turning mankind against itself and creating a hell. He invites his creation to:

‘Step right into the burning hell’,

to witness the agonies of those being tortured there, but unnecessarily. The creature will be stepping into hell just by coming into existence. There’s a suggestion that the creature too will be creating hell. Like the creator, it will be mean-spirited. What the narrator thinks of as ‘the right spirit’:

‘… creeps in your body the day you are born’

With the creature having inherited its creator’s capacity for hell-making from the day it’s born, it becomes even more absurd to rely on it as a saviour.


13. To be

There’s a different way the narrator can be saved. He wants to know what it is:

‘… to be or not to be’

Despite the wording, it’s not the same as the question that troubled Hamlet. One answer is that to be is to be God. God is identified with existence – being  – throughout the bible where his name is given as ‘I am’. That the narrator’s being, in the sense of spiritual fulfilment, requires his identity with God is suggested by his also being a creator, by his identity with Christ and by his desire to walk the ‘moonlight mile’.4

The narrator doesn’t fully understand what it is to be in this sense. Contrary to what he thinks, he does not have the right spirit. While he condemns pre-Christian atrocities such as slavery which took place:

‘(L)ong ago before the First Crusade’

he pays no attention to the fact that slavery has gone on in the Christian era. Furthermore, in implicitly approving of the First Crusade, he seems to be guilty of a superficial, unthinking approval of Christianity at its worst.  It goes along with his relishing the suffering in hell of those he assumes to be enemies of mankind.


14. It’ll be Done when it’s Done

The narrator’s method for achieving salvation is to:

‘… turn back the years’

to a happier time before his crime and his consequent sense of guilt. He tries to recreate himself at a time prior to his guilt, even though he realises that the new version of himself will be born with the same defects as the original. Turning back the years seems the only option given that he has ‘no place to turn’.

In what sense, then, does the narrator try to turn back the years? Instead of ‘to be’, his answer is ‘to do’:

 ‘I want to bring someone to life – is what I want to do

The narrator places a lot of emphasis on doing:

‘If I do it upright …’

‘I want to do things for the benefit of all mankind’

‘And I ask myself what would Julius Caesar do

Do it with decency and commonsense’

Do it in the dark …’

Do it with laughter – do it with tears’

 And in the future perfect:

 ‘…  it’ll be done when it’s done

Doing is, nevertheless, a futile option. The words:

 ‘… it’ll be done when it’s done

falsely suggest that the answer to his problem is simple. His emphasis on doing rather than being is not going to bring about his spiritual rebirth.

Alarmingly, the words are reminiscent of Lady Macbeth’s immediately after the murder of Duncan. She tries to raise her spirits with the thought that ‘What’s done is done’ (3.2) Previously, while washing Duncan’s blood from her hands, she had declared of his murder ‘A little water clears us of this deed’. Ironically a little water would clear her of her guilt  –  if only she saw it as baptismal water. In other words, paradoxically, for her what’s done isn’t necessarily done, provided she makes the right choices.3

Just as Lady Macbeth mistakes the sort of water that will clear her, so the narrator mistakes the sort of resurrection that will clear him of his guilt. Simply bringing someone back to life in a bizarre nocturnal ritual, or condemning the whole of the past, or returning to the past, will be no substitute for the narrator’s self-redemption through following Caesar’s – and hence Christ’s – example.


15. The Solution

The narrator’s confident assertion that:

‘… it’ll be done when it’s done’

itself seems misjudged. It looks as if his method of doing is never going to reach fruition. He’s been working at it for years:

‘All through the summers and into January’

with nothing to show for it.

It’s hinted that instead of not caring how long it takes, he’d do better to avoid a temporal solution altogether. That an eternal – that is, timeless – Godly existence should be the narrator’s aim is hinted at in the lack of a clear temporal order in the song. It’s rarely clear, for example, how far the narrator has got in producing his creation. He speaks to it on several occasions as if it’s alive, and yet by the end bringing it to life is still something that hasn’t happened. Also, the use of the present tense to refer to the ‘right spirit’ as something which:

‘Creeps in your body the day you are born’

suggests that being born in the sense of spiritual rebirth – is not an event which happens in time. Rather it’s ongoing. One is continuously being born. Being born as a permanent state is what it is ‘to be’. Only outside time – and space, since he has ‘no place to turn’ – will he be able ‘to be’. It’s in his eternal, not his temporal, existence that can be identical with God and Christ.

The final hint of an atemporal solution is in the line:

‘Show me your ribs, I’ll stick in the knife’

since it makes the act of murder the same as the act of redemption, which would be impossible in the temporal world.

As it is, there’s a danger that true being will elude him. Each winter will be the winter of his discontent, because by each January he will have failed yet again. 


Conclusion

This is an extraordinary song. Its success lies in the way it plays with identity and temporal order, and interconnects a multiplicity of disparate ideas and images, first using them in one way, then in another.

What might on first hearing seem to be a gothic horror story turns out to be a representation of what’s required to make up for one’s moral failings. On the surface level, the narrator is incompetently attempting to assuage feelings of guilt by resurrecting the body of someone he has killed. Success, he thinks, will be tantamount to having turned back the years to a time before his crime. He’s like Lady Macbeth in his failure to see the need to get rid of the wrongdoing itself, rather than just its outward signs.

Nevertheless, having failed at living and at accepting the truth about himself, he wants to know what it is properly to exist. The song implies that to exist is to be – to be God and to be Christ. He needs to be God as creator, and Christ as redeemer. As creator, he needs to create himself.  And as redeemer, he must resurrect himself. But only from an eternal perspective will creation and resurrection will be literally the case. From a temporal perspective they cannot literally occur. Success at redemption and resurrection will only be achieved by following the ways of Christ and Caesar.

Since the narrator contains within himself ‘the history of the whole human race’, his story is humanity’s story. The way for him to achieve existence and be ‘saved’ will be the way for humanity generally to achieve existence and be saved.

 

Notes:

1. When addressing himself he says:

‘You know what I mean – you know exactly what I mean’

The emphatic way in which this is put suggests that the narrator is being self-critical for not having admitted to himself that he knows the identity of the person he’s bringing to life – himself.

2. Friedrich Engels, ‘Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State’, 1884.

3. Cf ‘Long ago before the first Crusade’. The Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade reference in I Contain Multitudes further reminds us that cruelty still goes on. The film also deals with the finding of one’s father where ‘father’ can be taken to represent God. That theme is also present in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

4. ‘I am’ appears explicitly in two later songs on the album, I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You and Murder Most Foul.

5. As the doctor says ‘More needs she the divine than the physician’ (Macbeth 5.1.74).

False Prophet

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.