As I Went Out One Morning

Thomas Paine, famous for his publication the ‘The Rights of Man’, was also one of the founding fathers of the United States. The theme of the song could either be human rights as they exist in America, or else the political outlook of the new country itself. I’ll consider each possibility in turn.

Since Paine himself figures in the song, the setting would appear to be eighteenth century. However the archaic vocabulary and word order used throughout give it a medieval air. This in turn suggests the narrator’s behaviour towards the ‘damsel’ will be chivalric. This is heavily ironic for, as will be seen, it is far from that.

That the narrator’s behaviour is untoward can be seen from close examination. He sees a fair damsel in chains, but does nothing to release her from them. Instead he offers her his hand – a somewhat tame gesture in the circumstances. When she responds by taking him by the arm, perhaps putting her faith in him, he immediately turns on her. It’s clear that any relationship between them is to be on his terms only. If she acts on her own initiative, he sees her as a threat – ‘She meant to do me harm’.

The narrator’s chauvinistic attitude towards the woman also comes across in his language. ‘Depart from me this moment’ is the language of someone who doesn’t doubt either his authority or his superiority. Nevertheless the fault appears to be not just with the narrator but the society he would seem to represent. He tells the woman she has no choice, which suggests that women generally are subservient to men. That she recognises this is apparent from her response; she recognises that her response needs to be demeaning –  that she needs to ‘beg’ him to accept her proposal.

Her proposal is that they elope but in secret – presumably so that he does not have to admit to a relationship he finds demeaning. He tells us, though, that she ‘pleaded/From the corners of her mouth’. That she pleaded seems plausible given her position relative to his, but the claim it came from the corners of her mouth seems to be the narrator’s attempt to show her behaviour in the worst light possible. It must be untrue. If one pleads, one does not do it from the corners of one’s mouth!

The narrator’s disingenuousness is also apparent in that he admits to telling her to depart from him ‘with my voice’. Since ‘with my voice’ seems redundant, one wonders why he’s saying it. The implication seems to be that his body language was telling her something different – that he doesn’t want her to depart, so long as her staying is on his terms. This would explain why her response is so much more mild than one would expect given his terse ‘Depart from me this moment’. She simply says ‘But I don’t wish to’. She seems to be playing the game, hoping there’s still a chance to escape her ‘chains’. She may feel that secretly eloping would be better than nothing.

Tom Paine’s reaction to the scene is the opposite to what one would expect. He shouts at the woman. He commands her. He wants her to ‘yield’ to the narrator. He seems to accept the downtrodden position of women in society as right. He then goes as far as apologising to the narrator on behalf of the woman – even though the woman has done nothing wrong. In fact she’s behaved entirely in accordance with society’s expectations of women.

The song appears, then, to be a critique of attitudes to women as they exist in the United States. It suggests not only that women are downtrodden, but that even the forces of liberalism as represented by Paine conspire to keep them subjugated.

The second interpretation is that the damsel represents the nascent United States. Paine apologises because what was in part his brainchild has failed to reach his expectations. The narrator is equally critical. Given his untoward character, her attempt to have him join her in flying south suggests that the criticism might be justified. It’s unclear what flying south amounts to, but one possibility would be it represents an aggressive foreign policy which might well be seen as America’s betraying the ideals of the Revolution.

Updated 15.3.17

10 thoughts on “As I Went Out One Morning

  1. Thanks David for a very interesting take on this song. I’m enjoying very much your accounts of the John Wesley Harding and New Morning songs as they are so rarely examined in any depth.

    Another possible interpretation of ‘As I Went Out One Morning’ might be to see the young woman as the embodiment of an America that has drifted away from the freedoms espoused by Paine. Seen this way, the woman’s chains not only act as a symbol of an America that has undermined Paine’s liberties but also of her attempt to lure the song’s narrator to join her, locked into America’s manacles. It also occurs to me that the line where the woman refuses to let go of the man to which he replies that she has “no choice”, could be seen as the man telling the woman that, while she lures people to accept a shackled world, once you have turned to Tom Paine’s vision of liberty, her wiles cannot touch him. It is the man’s confidence in the freedoms that Tom Paine championed which is represented jointly in the protection he places on his ‘voice’ and in Tom Paine running across the fields to help free him from the woman’s attempts to corrupt him.

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    • I think I agree, Jerry. The interpretation you’ve put here is plausible.Certainly the chains could be ones she’s going to use rather than one’s that are restraining her – that hadn’t occurred to me. And there seems to be no reason to exclude your suggestion that once one’s accepted Tom Paine’s vision of liberty, her wiles will be impotent. I just wonder, though, whether the protection you refer to really accounts for the narrator’s saying ‘I told her with my voice’. If there were no significance to it’s being his voice, as opposed to something else, I’d have thought ‘I told her’ would have been enough. Not that that matters. I’m thinking more and more that interpretations can be valid without taking everything into account. Thanks for your comment.

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  2. Thanks David for your observations on my comment. I take your point about my explanation of the line ‘I told her with my voice’. If there is a meaning behind the inclusion of ‘with my voice’, as opposed to seeing it as just redundant language, the answer might lie in Paine’s writing. I have to confess that I have not read ‘Common Sense’ ‘The American Crisis’ or ‘The Rights of Man’ but just possibly it is no coincidence that sociologists use the term ‘voice’ to examine and discuss the existence and extent of the collective influence of employees on workplace managements and citizens on politicians.

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    • Maybe. People do quite often want to give other people ‘a voice’, meaning a say in how things should be. I’m not quite sure that these senses quite fit with ‘I told her with my voice’, though. My gut feeling is that it’s meant literally.

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  3. A simple interpretation could be the the narrator’s interpretation of drug addiction. The damsel walks in chains, she takes his arm, he new that instantly she meant to do him harm,depart from me this moment he tells her but she doesn’t want to,Then the voice of freedom appears running across the field commanding her to yield.

    The damsel is obviously the drug and Tom Paine opitimises freedom.

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  4. Thanks for commenting John. I’m not sure I agree, though. Allowing an interpretation to do with drugs might seem to validate all sorts of other interpretations involving things held by some to be undesirable – alcohol for instance. It seems to me that any interpretation must take into account all the salient features of the song, such as the presence of Paine himself (rather than any other advocate of freedom) and the medieval feel of the language. It’s difficult to see how these can be made to square with the interpretation you’re suggesting.

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  5. Tom Paine was a rationalist, atheist, anti-monarchist, etc., and also, it must be said, one of the presiding spirits of the American Revolution — which (as Patrick Deneen among other scholars have argued) established the first modern state upon liberal principles – liberal meaning dedicated to a world view that sees humans in terms of competing rights and society and indeed all relations in terms of contracts. A paradox of course is that America from the founding also contained slave states, a fact which I think must be borne in mind when the narrator, walking on “Tom Paine’s” estate sees “a damsel” walking “in chains”. The song hinges upon who this damsel is and what she represents – which it purposefully leaves unclear. “Tom Paine” is clearly angered and embarrassed that she has managed to accost this stranger who he addresses as “sir” – a social equal to him, whereas he “commands” the damsel. Is she some dark secret present from the United States’s very founding, the skeleton in Tom Paine’s closet, so to speak?

    “I will secretly accept you, and together we’ll fly south,” the damsel proposes to the narrator in the second verse. The southern states are of course where slavery flourished, whereas freed or escaped slaves tended to fly to the north. So it is not as simple as the damsel simply being a slave or representing the institution of slavery. An additional paradox is that the south before the Civil War (leaving aside for a moment the evil of slavery) tended to preserve a more hierarchical, settled, localist, pre-liberal economy and way of life than the northern states, one in which courtly terms like “damsel” might not sound of place. The woman is “the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains”. Is it possible to imagine that she is the human spirit in chains (the soul, alma or anima in Latin, is traditionally considered in feminine terms), one that while often literally enslaved in the South is soon to be enslaved in a different sense by the overpowering economic and social system imposed by Liberalism, which breaks apart all settled human habits and societies and denies the human soul a referent to the divine or eternal (hence the rationalist and atheist Paine is the master of this estate)?

    This is of course just my interpretation and I think the song is left deliberately open-ended but I think it is certainly possible. The narrator “knew that very instant she meant to do me harm”: thus liberalism and indeed all social and economic systems that deny man’s longing for the eternal are in the end bound to fail, and perhaps this is what he recognizes when he sees the beautiful maiden in chains–a very potent image which automatically conjures up mythology and the medieval period and so questions and even undermines the rationalist, anti-historical perspective of ‘year zero’ revolutionary like Paine. I would pair this song with ‘I Dreamed I saw St Augustine’ (which indeed follows it on the album) in which Augustine goes “tearing through these quarters… searching for the very souls whom already have been sold” and calling on them to “Arise! Arise!” — whereas Paine goes running to take his captive soul back into bondage. The narrator in Augustine dreams that he was one of the ones who put Augustine out to death (in fact the historical Augustine was not martyred) and, when he wakes, sees his own face in the mirror and “bowed his head and cried”. Does he cry because he knows that he is no longer living in the world of Augustine, one of sin but also of redemption, but in the world built by Thomas Paine?

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    • I had always thought that the woman was a slave as well, but one with skin light enough that she could pass for white, hence “the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains.” She is telling the narrator that she will be his consort if he will help her to escape from Tom Paine. The temptation that he would be committing such a theft of Tom Paine’s property is the harm that she means to do him.

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  6. The way i see it she is also Britannia, this album is littered with references to the revolution and sees its as a core pillar of true american spirit i feel. offer of a hand in this sense is a trade deal, while britain wants colonisation. Chains is slavery, and from the corners of her mouth is where she disperses her warships. America didnt venture further south BECAUSE there were too many brown people and they didnt want to ruin the purity of manifest destiny (white folks remaking eden). But idk womans place in society is an obvious read, whit paynes famous work being the rights of man, queue macbeth and LOTR. The queen is of course the fairest damsel, maybe you would recognise this being an American, i have no idea, God save the Queen. I liked your ideas about the corner of the mouth being lies, never thought of that before. Also one other thing i feel with this song, but makes no sense is the idea of Payne being a geographical feature, like a mountain or something, i always get this idea from the second line, ‘breathe the air around Tom Payne’s’ I dont know all i know is when i think of revolution era paintings theyre like big peaks and planes and stuff, and again, in Britain lots of mountains and stuff have names like this, here to not he called him Tom not Thomas, and has added the s. anyways idk lol lmk, great website, many thanks xoxox

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