The subject of the song is escape – escape from the ghastliness, as perceived by the narrator, of everyday life.
Throughout the song the narrator imagines he’s awake when he’s in fact asleep and dreaming. That it’s night is hinted at in a number of ways: evening has gone; the narrator denies he’s sleepy (suggesting that it’s a time for sleeping), and then sees it as worth denying that he’s asleep; he refers to his weariness; the street is ‘dead’; and he refers to morning as if it’s not far off. That he is in fact dreaming all the while is indicated by his senses having gone, and the surreal contradictions in the claims ‘I’m not sleepy’ and ‘My weariness amazes me’. Given that it’s night, ‘swingin’ madly across the sun’ could only occur in a dream. Yet he thinks he’s awake. His claim to be ‘still not sleeping’ gives the impression of someone trying, but failing to get to sleep. That his judgement here cannot be trusted is corroborated by his claiming to ‘know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand’ and that it has ‘Vanished from my hand’. In the literal way he means, he obviously cannot know these things to have happened.
It appears at first as if there are two characters – the tambourine man and the narrator. This, however, conflicts with the following:
‘And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind
It’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing’.
The person being addressed is the tambourine man, and the person addressing him is the narrator. Who, then, is the ‘ragged clown’? If it’s not a third person (see below), it must be the narrator describing himself. That would be consistent with his being ‘behind’ and ‘chasing’ – i.e. following the tambourine man as the narrator is in fact doing.
Then this clown is described as
‘a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing’.
So, the clown is a shadow. If the shadow is seen by the tambourine man (‘a shadow you’re seeing’), the clown/shadow can’t be the tambourine man. But there again the ‘he’ of ‘he’s chasing’ implies it can’t be the narrator either – because it’s the narrator who’s doing the chasing, and he wouldn’t use the third person to refer to himself. So who is this clown/shadow? There isn’t anyone else.
The only possibility is that it must be both tambourine man and narrator seen from different perspectives. Since the narrator is doing the chasing, the one being chased (the shadow) must be the tambourine man. And since the shadow is seen by the tambourine man, it must be the narrator. There’s one person chasing his own shadow.
Put another way, the clown/shadow must be the narrator from the tambourine man’s point of view, and it must be the tambourine man from the narrator’s point of view. And that implies an identity between the tambourine man and the narrator. Such an identity would indeed obtain if the former doesn’t exist outside the narrator’s dream. And the narrator is indeed chasing his own shadow in that he’s chasing something as integral to him as his shadow, and something immaterial which he caused to exist. That idea is reinforced later on when we’re told he’s ‘silhouetted by the sea’ – so that he is his own silhouette. And the idea that the narrator is the tambourine man is reinforced by our being told that the narrator has ‘one hand waving free’. Why one hand only? Presumably because the other is holding a tambourine.
So the tambourine man represents a part of the narrator’s own psychology. He represents escape from what the narrator seems to see as a dreary existence. The narrator wants to be ‘far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow’ and for the tambourine man to cause his disappearance – ‘take me disappearing…’. Even his laughter is described as ‘escapin”, and ‘on the run’, as if it, too, has been confined till now by a humourless existence. And the sky is lauded for being the only impediment (‘fence’) to the narrator’s achieving an absolute, new-found freedom:
‘And but for the sky there are no fences facin”
In other words, there is no impediment; his freedom is total.
And what does he want to escape from? ‘Crazy sorrow’ is one thing. He wants to escape the sorrows of his vaguely remembered past life – the ‘foggy ruins of time’. In doing so he will bypass what he describes as ‘frozen leaves’ and ‘haunted, frightened trees’ – the natural images perhaps symbolising the anxieties of childhood. The future too is to be escaped from, for he wants to bury ‘all memory and fate‘, and even the very next morning is described in raucous terms as ‘jingle jangle’.
Natural imagery also figures in presenting the narrator’s hopes. It’s not just evening but ‘evening’s empire’ which puts an end to the day. The sky is a ‘diamond sky’ – a description indicating both its star-studdedness and richness. The sea is a refuge (albeit temporary as indicated by the implicit references to the sands of time – sand is the vessel which now contains the evening, and there are ‘circus sands‘). The narrator hopes to escape by ship to the ‘windy beach’, and it’s ‘deep beneath the waves’ that he wants to bury his unpalatable past and future.
In his exaltation,
‘Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’ madly across the sun’
he tells us,
‘It’s not aimed at anyone’.
It’s an ideal world, where the laughter is not cruel. The narrator’s joy is expressed not only as laughter, but as laughter (or himself) ‘spinnin’, swingin’ madly across the sun’. It’s a joyous, light-filled, unencumbered, carefree world he’s imagining – the mad spinning and swinging contrasting with the deadness of the street he has left. And the joyous spinning is echoed in the ‘skippin’ reels of rhyme’ and his dancing ‘circled‘ by the ‘circus‘ sands.
Despite all this, it’s clear that the narrator has too much faith in the supposedly ideal existence he’s conjuring up. First, the beach he wants to escape too is ‘windy’ – hardly a recommendation. And he’s probably cold judging by the fact that the leaves are described as ‘frozen’. Also, the craziness he wants to avoid is as present in his ideal world as it is in his normal life. He’s happy with the laughter ‘swingin’ madly‘ even though he wants to avoid madness in the form of ‘crazy sorrow’. One reason he won’t escape from madness is because it is he himself who, in a sense, is mad. The ‘haunted, frightened trees’ are a projection of his own irrational fear of daily existence. While their leaves are ‘frozen’, suggesting immobility, the narrator’s language suggests the trees are out to get him. Although ‘twisted reach’ applies to the unavoidability of sorrow, the mental image one gets is of a tree extending a branch as if to grab him and pull him back*. Since they are a projection of himself, it is he who is pulling himself back by allowing his sorrow to dominate his life.
In a similar way, the narrator’s has too one-sided a view of the spinning and the reels and the circling. These images, similar in that they all involve circularity, are for that very reason reminders of the ‘smoke rings of his mind’ which oppress him. Significantly it’s another oppressive circularity with which the song ends – that of time. In bed, asleep, he may have escaped the day. Deep down he knows there can be no real escape:
‘Let me forget about today until tomorrow‘
The day, with its raucous ‘jingle jangle’ morning, will be back.
*Compare T.S.Eliot’s ‘twisted branch upon the beach’in Rhapsody On A Windy Night.
Last updated 21.10.2016