I Pity The Poor Immigrant

The song has a tone of calm regret created by the narrator’s use of words with long vowels throughout. In making him seem relaxed and in control, these words give the listener the impression that he is to be believed. In fact the narrator, consciously or otherwise, is using this air of calmness as a cover for his own hatred. Combining it with claims of sympathetic concern allows him to disguise his highly unsympathetic feelings towards the immigrant. I say ‘consciously or otherwise’ because it might be that the narrator doesn’t properly know his own mind. It’s common for human beings to be irrational, to hold mutually contradictory views while not being aware of the contradictions. Here it might be the case that the narrator genuinely pities the immigrant, while at the same time seeking to poison the mind of the listener against him. Alternatively, it might be that he thinks he ought to pity him, tries to do so, but ends up giving in to his negative feelings. For present purposes, however, I’ll put these possibilities on one side and assume he’s fully aware of, and in full agreement with, what he’s doing. That will leave it for the reader to decide how much of what’s said can be reconciled with the alternative views.

One’s immediate impression from the title is that the song is one of compassion. In the first verse this is reinforced by implied regret that the immigrant is ‘left so alone’, that he ‘hates his life’ and that he ‘fears his death’. However all this need not be taken at face value. The opening lines read:

‘I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home’

Although the lines imply that the narrator would have been happier for the immigrant’s sake if he’d stayed at home, the suspicion might enter our minds that the narrator would have welcomed this for his, the narrator’s, own sake. There’s no indication that the immigrant’s presence is welcome or that his departure would be in any way regrettable. Nevertheless, at this point we only have grounds for suspicion. What can’t be denied is that the malevolence of the narrator becomes obvious in the fifth and sixth lines where he brands the immigrant as a cheat and a liar:

‘The man who with his fingers cheats
And who lies with ev’ry breath’

So much for pity! The long vowels in ‘fingers’ and ‘cheats’, and in ‘lies’ and breath’ present such an atmosphere of calm that we might almost miss the vitriol in these lines. The underlying condemnation is there again in the concluding lines of the verse:

‘Who passionately hates his life
And likewise fears his death’

Long vowels in almost every word provide a calmness which, despite the narrator’s profession of pity, can only contrast with the immigrant’s supposed passion. Who could think we’re being informed that in being so passionate the immigrant is getting things out of proportion and going wildly over the top? Yet this is what comes across. This is poison dressed up as pity. The narrator is skilfully bolstering his own reputation in the listener’s eyes, while at the same time tarnishing the immigrant’s. We might note that the narrator doesn’t stop to ask why the immigrant is so passionate. A genuinely sympathetic person might think it’s because his life is so appalling and his death, possibly a violent one, seems imminent. For all we know, ‘fears his death’ might be a matter of fearing that there are those out to kill him.

The second verse too initially comes across as sympathetic . We’re told the immigrant’s ‘strength is spent in vain’, and that his tears are ‘like rain’. Again, however, the sympathy is followed by apparent criticism. ‘He eats but is not satisfied’ seems to paint him as a glutton, and that he falls in love with ‘wealth itself’ makes him seem avaricious. It’s more likely, we might suppose, that his lack of satisfaction is the result of not having enough to eat, and falling in love with wealth is an exaggeration of the immigrant’s wishing he had just some money. While the phrase ‘his strength is spent in vain’ might suggest that the immigrant is to be pitied for unrewarded effort, equally it might be that the narrator is trying to elicit a critical response – that the immigrant is downright incompetent.

The narrator rather gives himself away when he mentions that the immigrant ‘turns his back on me’. Other than the ‘I’ in ‘I pity’, this is the only time the narrator refers to himself. It’s as if he is so incensed by his treatment by the immigrant that he can’t avoid mentioning it. But to be openly hostile would be to abandon the benevolent disguise. And so the narrator keeps cool. Rather than admit openly that the immigrant has scorned him, he keeps up the pretence of gentle kindliness, seeming to regret only for the immigrant’s sake that he turned his back. But all the while the narrator knows that his poison will work.

The lines:

‘Whose heaven is like Ironsides
Whose tears are like rain’

need to be taken together. That his ‘tears are like rain’ not only tells us how unhappy the immigrant is, but the reference to heaven makes it seem as if it’s not just the immigrant but it’s heaven, or God, that’s crying. This would fit with the narrator’s overt view that the immigrant is to be pitied. Equally it might be that this telling juxtaposition of ‘tears’ and heaven’, and the consequent idea of tears raining down from heaven, is unconscious on the part of the narrator- particularly if we suppose the last thing he wants to do is present the immigrant as deserving of God’s sympathy.

The reference to Ironsides is obscure, and on any account it’s difficult to determine what the narrator intends us to understand by ‘His heaven is like Ironsides’. However, ‘Ironsides’ may be a reference to the US warship the Constitution which in 1812 survived attack from a more heavily armed British frigate. The unlikely escape was apparently due to the British ship’s shot merely bouncing off the side of the Constitution which was from then on nicknamed ‘Old Ironsides’. In the light of this, ‘Whose heaven is like Ironsides’ might be taken to mean that the immigrant’s greatest happiness (‘heaven’) lies in nothing better than the surprising escapes he makes from those out to get him. Equally, since the ‘Ironsides’ story is somewhat mythological (I imagine), the line might be taken to mean that the immigrant’s hope of a better life (heaven on earth) is non-existent. As such it could be seen as reiterating the content of the preceding line about the immigrant’s strength being spent in vain.*

The narrator shows himself to be just as two-faced in the final verse. To say the immigrant ‘fills his mouth with laughing’ is to choose language which serves to reinforce the earlier suggestion that the immigrant is a glutton. And ‘tramples through the mud’ is language more appropriate for describing an animal than a human being. Why say ‘who fills his mouth with laughing’ and not just ‘he laughed’? Why ‘tramples’? Why ‘mud’? Implicitly the narrator, under the guise of sympathy, is telling us that the immigrant is contemptible.

And what are we to make of ‘Who fills his town with blood’? Again the tone is calm and regretful, the stressed syllables all having long, drawn out vowels. And again our immediate reaction is to applaud the narrator for his sympathy. But what sympathy? Whatever ‘blood’ represents – murder? lynching? – we’re actually being told it’s the immigrant’s fault. He is filling the town with blood. Again under the guise of compassion the narrator sticks the knife in.

In the final four lines we’re told that his

‘…visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass’

Superficially we’re being told, with apparent regret, that the immigrant’s aspirations are hopeless. And the sub-text subtly informs us that the immigrant should have realised this because, after all, the narrator realises it. Once again, however, we have lines which are open to a different interpretation. ‘Visions’ and ‘final end’ both have religious connotations. And ‘Must shatter like the glass’ seems to refer to St Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 13:12 ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face’. Applied to the immigrant the suggestion is that the somewhat impoverished vision of heaven he has at the moment – unlikely escapes and raining tears – will disappear, shatter, and he will achieve salvation, ‘gladness’. Though this may be the benevolent listener’s interpretation, it isn’t the narrator’s. The narrator sees the immigrant’s ‘final end’ as the end of his life ‘when his gladness comes to pass’. And the narrator knows full well that the mental state of the immigrant is anything but one of ‘gladness’.

* The title of the album from which I Pity The Poor Immigrant comes provides a modicum of reason to suppose that Dylan might have had the ship in mind. The date in 1812 on which the Constitution earned the nickname’ Ironsides’ was the same as the one on which John Wesley Hardin died eighty-three years later – 19th August. See http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/old-ironsides-earns-its-name

The Drifter’s Escape

The song questions the attitudes of society – people generally, and in particular those in positions of authority. While it seems to be both a condemnation of callousness and selfishness, and critical of those who don’t take responsibility for their own well-being, it offsets human failings by recognising that those failings tend to go hand in hand with virtues. In addition it seems to suggest a means for achieving some sort of redemption.

The events depicted are from the standpoint of a narrator present in a courtroom in which a drifter has just been tried, and presumably sentenced, for an unspecified crime. Through its opening words the song straight away makes us feel sorry for the drifter. He is, from his own mouth, presented as weak and in need of help – ‘Oh help me in my weakness’. Whether he is really deserving of our pity is another matter, though. There are two reasons. First, one would have expected him to have said ‘Oh help me in my predicament’, not ‘in my weakness’. To ask to be helped out of a predicament is reasonable, but to ask to be helped out of one’s weakness is nonsensical. Weakness is a character trait, control of which cannot be exercised by others – at least, not in the way predicaments can. Accordingly, one suspects that the drifter is more devious than he at first appears. Secondly, it would appear that he hasn’t taken the trouble to find out what he’s accused of. This might well confirm any suspicion that he’s not really a deserving case for sympathy.

Nevertheless, that he is in fact weak seems true. It is suggested not only by his admitting it, but also by his having to be carried out of the court, and even by his being described as a drifter. The expression ‘drifter’ implies his life has no aim, and that he just allows himself be at the mercy of events. He’s weak in that he doesn’t assert himself.

In support of the drifter’s being devious, we might also conclude that his predicament is not as bad as he goes on to imply. He tells us that his ‘trip’ – perhaps meaning his life, but with a telling suggestion of his having ‘tripped up’ – hasn’t been pleasant. He seems to expect this to be taken figuratively, to mean it’s been unpleasant. However, he hasn’t actually stated his life has been unpleasant, or mentioned anything at all untoward having happened in it. It may be, then, that he’s trying to beguile us into feeling sorry for him. ‘And my time it isn’t long’ is likewise ambiguous. On the one hand he seems to be implying he’s not far from death – again to gain sympathy – and on the other exploiting the ambiguity as a way of not having to directly admit that the sentence handed down to him was actually lenient.

The second verse can be taken as presenting a similarly ambivalent picture of the judge. The judge’s casting aside his robe can be taken as representing an awareness that his role as a human being extends beyond his official position. Officially, he is required to mete out punishment, but as a human being he is required to be compassionate, and this is what we see in what appears to be a purposeful dismissal of his badge of office. He seems to recognise how pathetic the drifter is, and to be sorry for him. On the other hand, the further extent of his concern is limited to an emotional response – the tear coming to his eye, and to an admission (‘why must you even try?’) that he can’t see why the drifter should be required to accept society’s values. It’s here that we see a similarity between the judge and the drifter. Neither, it would seem, has troubled to find out something it is their responsibility to know, and in each case their lack of knowledge might be seen as the result of a character weakness. There seem to be three further weaknesses in the judge’s character. He appears to make no effort to inform the drifter about why he’s being punished. Neither does he admonish the jury for their inappropriate behaviour – as if, once out of his robe, his official duties are over. (It’s perhaps a comparable fault that he’d not been able to show compassion while wearing his robe.) And if the judgment of the attendant and the nurse in the final verse is to be trusted, he is at fault for presiding over an unsatisfactory trial.

While the picture we get of the judge is ambivalent, that of the jury is not. The ludicrous depiction of the jury’s crying ‘for more’ makes them seem like an audience trying to get more than its money’s worth after a final encore. And that, in turn, makes them seem to be treating the plight of the drifter as trivial. If ‘more’ refers to a longer sentence, then we might wonder what business it is of the jury to be demanding it. They seem no better than the rabble outside whose stirring, the narrator makes a point of telling us, can be heard from the door. And if the crowd are ‘stirring’ because the sentence is lenient, it might be they’d do better to emulate the humanity of the judge. As it is their restlessness would seem to stand for the social irresponsibility and blood thirst to be found in some parts of society.

It may be that the narrator is no more reliable than the drifter. He tells us that the crowd’s stirring could be heard from the door, and the implication is ‘even from the door’ – and therefore that they had become menacing. However, the one place one might expect to hear a crowd who are outside is from the door. That they could only be heard from the door does nothing to suggest they were getting unruly. And ‘stirring’ is not exactly baying for blood. Another possibility is that the narrator is trying to malign a well-behaved crowd, though it’s unclear what his motive would be. It seems more plausible that their behaviour would have matched that of the jury and that the stirring is the beginning of something more threatening. We can probably trust his account of the jury’s behaviour because it’s corroborated by how he says the attendant and the nurse responded. I think we can conclude that there’s no obvious reason for distrusting the narrator. That he mentions that the crowd can be heard from the door may be just to account for his knowledge about what’s going on outside when he’s inside.

The resolution of the drifter’s problem is instigated by the almost comical intervention of an ‘act of God’. Whether or not the thunderbolt is literally God’s doing is not established. What is clear, though, is that those present take it to be. However, their immediate response is not to mend their ways by determining to act more humanely in future, but – true to form – to look after themselves. They see themselves as in danger, so they pray. Or, perhaps, they see themselves as having angered God, and so they attempt to ingratiate themselves with him. Either way, we’re left feeling that a more appropriate response would have been to demonstrate a concern for the drifter which they had hitherto denied him.

The thunderbolt’s ultimate effect is that the drifter is able to escape. It’s left up to the listener, though, to decide whether he should be seen as a criminal escaping a deserved punishment or as a pathetic but now fortunate former victim of society. If the thunderbolt definitely came from God, the latter interpretation would seem warranted. If it was sheer chance, the former might. The narrator has presented the facts but it’s up to the listener to decide on their significance. Likewise we can either condemn the drifter outright as a devious manipulator of our sympathies, or we can modify our criticism by accepting that at last he has given us reason to respect him.

In favour of the latter is that, where previously he’d been pathetically inactive, he is now seen to be taking advantage of the situation on his own initiative. By deciding to escape he has shown he’s no longer a straw for every wind that blows. Accordingly, whether or not it’s actually the work of God, the God-like intervention has enabled him to redeem himself somewhat by acting in a decisive way – something which the judge in particular lacked the will to do. His decisiveness here can be seen as his overcoming his weakness of character. But, as before, it’s left up to the listener to decide whether the drifter has indeed exonerated himself.

Overall, then, the main characters – the drifter and the judge – are both presented as complex. Of course, although we appear to be being presented with a straightforward, unbiased account of the facts, we need to take precautions to ensure we’re not subtly being led by the narrator to conclude one way or the other. Nevertheless, the song gives the listener plenty to work on in the form of weighing up the virtues and failings of each character. The only way the song obviously leads us, it would seem, is in expecting us to condemn outright the behaviour of the jury and the mindless rabble.

Pay In Blood

The song in part works as a dramatic monologue, in this case comprising the thoughts, rather than the spoken words, of the narrator. The narrator would appear to be a contemporary of Jesus, and the person being addressed Jesus himself. By way of his thoughts, the narrator unintentionally gives us a deeper insight into his character than the surface meaning allows. In addition, we’re presented with two different outlooks – Jesus’ and the narrator’s – and of how disastrous consequences can result from the failure of one (of each, perhaps) to accommodate the other. As such the song’s subject matter will be just as relevant here and now as to those living in the first century middle east. That it is applicable today as a warning to those in single-minded pursuit of their ends, perhaps political ends, is reinforced by the use of modern idioms throughout.

From the start the narrator makes it clear he’s dissatisfied with his lot. He’s merely grinding his life out, and he’s oppressed – ‘nothing more wretched than what I must endure’. Since from the use of the present tense we can judge him to be, on one level at least, a contemporary of Jesus, the perceived cause of his oppression, those who ‘strip your useless hopes away’, would presumably be the Roman occupiers. And from his claim to be ‘circling around the southern zone’ he would seem to be an inhabitant of Judea, the southern part of this Roman province where Jesus was crucified – Galilee being the northern part. The narrator’s complaint about his treatment continues throughout the song, so that he comes across as excessively self-pitying. In fact, his cry of ‘Hear me holler’ seems to exemplify the principle that empty vessels make most sound, especially given the similarity in sound between ‘holler’ and ‘hollow’.

In addition to being self-pitying, the narrator comes over as thoroughly vicious. He continually threatens violence – ‘I could stone you to death’, ‘I’ll put you in a chain’, ‘I’ve got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim’. One might expect him to have it in for the Romans, but his threats seem to be directed at Jesus. The reason seems to be that he sees Jesus as a traitor to the cause of political autonomy – ‘Our country must be saved and freed’. In the light of this, the violence he threatens ‘for the wrongs that you’ve done’ would seem to be because he sees Jesus as actively working against the cause. This interpretation would seem corroborated if in the fourth verse it’s Jesus the narrator is castigating as ‘another politician pumping out the piss’, and himself he’s describing as ‘another ragged beggar blowing you a kiss’. The tone is bitter. He sees himself as put down, and in thrall to a politician he doesn’t respect. In both cases the obvious exaggeration  seems in character for someone we’ve already seen to be exaggeratedly self-pitying.

The moral failings of this narrator make an unenviable list. He’s disparaging – ‘You gulped it down’; he’s dismissive – ‘Another politician…’; and he’s passive in the sense that he relies on exploiting others’ mistakes. It’s clear that he objects to Jesus in part because he sees him as one of the ‘rising’ men (i.e. increasingly successful men) – thereby missing the more literal, theological sense in which Jesus rises. In bragging that he’s ‘been out and around with the rising men’ the narrator makes it clear that he regrets that this is as far as he ever got; to be out and around with them is not the same as being one of them. His enmity towards Jesus is therefore fuelled by envy of someone he sees as being on the rise, making progress. Rather than taking steps to be successful himself, however, he sulks. He blames unspecified others – ‘They strip your useless hopes away’, and he blames fate – ‘Low cards’. He seems to exult in pessimism; not only are his hopes taken from him, he tells us, but they were useless anyway!

Despite this litany of failings, he tries to present himself positively.  He informs us that he’s both hard-headed – ‘My head’s so hard, must be made of stone’ – and brave – ‘You could put me out in front of a firing squad’. Ironies abound with this character. It’s this very hard-headedness – what he sees as a no-nonsense attitude – which causes his violent opposition to Jesus and which is presumably instrumental in bringing about Jesus’ death. His head, made of stone, – i.e. his uncompromising attitude – is the stone which metaphorically he uses to stone Jesus to death.

It’s ironic too, from a Christian perspective, that the revenge he has in mind is stoning, given Jesus’ using the occasion of such a stoning to condemn hypocrisy – ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ (John 7.53-8).  Since the narrator’s attitude to Jesus is no less oppressive that that of the Roman occupiers to the narrator, the narrator is condemning himself out of his own mouth as a hypocrite.

There are numerous further ironies arising from the narrator’s choice of expression. If he is the beggar ‘blowing you a kiss’, he’s unconsciously condemning himself as a traitor to Jesus by associating himself with Judas’ mode of betraying Jesus to the authorities. And earlier he complains about being ‘drenched in the light that shines from the sun’. In addition to the surface meaning, that he is so drenched is true if ‘sun’ is read as ‘Son’, for Jesus saw himself as the ‘Son of Man’ whose God-given task was to free the chosen people from oppression (and of course Jesus is often taken to be the literal son of God). As an opponent of oppression, the narrator is, then, blindly criticising someone who’s on his side in being against oppression. Being drenched in a light cast by Jesus should give the narrator an advantage, but it’s one which he doesn’t appreciate. Instead he threatens to make Jesus’ ‘eyeballs swim’, thereby  unconsciously using a similar image of water to express thoroughly anti-Christian, violent feelings. And any association of drenching and swimming with baptismal water has been lost on him.

Just as he associates himself with water, but in a way which misses the point, so he associates himself with the sun in a way which misses the point. While ‘circling around the southern zone’ can be interpreted as a reference to his own movements in Judea, it can also be taken as an unconscious identification of himself with the sun (son). The sun’s (apparent) rotation around the earth occurs in the southern part of the sky, and so over the southernmost part (zone) of the earth. The irony here  is that someone who distances himself from Jesus should unwittingly seem to associate himself with him.

It’s perhaps worth noting that when the narrator is ‘circlin’ around’ the southern zone, he is made to sound like a bird of prey. Since he’s also been ‘around’ with the ‘risin’ men’, they too are perhaps to be seen as birds of prey. The image suggests that their success is pursued by way of exploiting others.

The narrator’s ironic application to himself of what applies so much more valuably to Jesus continues with his complaints about having suffered ‘so many blows’ and to having ‘been though Hell’. Jesus, of course, suffered actual blows – scourging – and quite literally, according to the ‘harrowing of Hell’ tradition, visited Hell immediately following his death, in order to free those who didn’t deserve to be there. The main effect of the narrator’s complaint about having ‘been through Hell’ is to point out how pathetically inconsequential his outlook is compared with Jesus’. Whereas he moans about his own situation, Jesus acts to improve the situation of others.

That there are these, albeit ironic, similarities between the narrator and Jesus makes it all the more tragic that the narrator opposes Jesus, for in opposing Jesus he is, by implication, opposing himself. To bring about the destruction of Jesus is to bring about his own destruction.

The ironies continue when the narrator declares ‘The more I die, the more I live’. Presumably he means his life is so bad, it’s a sort of living death – the only living he does is a matter of dying. In ironic contrast his opponent, Jesus, actually did die, as opposed to merely using the idea of dying as a self-pitying exaggeration of his unhappiness. Whereas the narrator is egotistically concerned only about himself – …’I die…’, ‘… I live…’ – Jesus made life (in the sense of eternal life) possible for everyone. The more he died, the more everyone else was able to live.

Further ironies occur in the fourth and fifth verses. Jesus is called as a ‘bastard’, and told ‘If only you could prove who your father was’. Since, according to the tradition, his father is God, the narrator seems to invite the response ‘If only you knew who his father was!’ Jesus is criticised for crossing the line – perhaps meaning going too far politically, or of being a turncoat. There’s irony in the word ‘crossed’ since it was by way of dying on the cross that Jesus was able to achieve what he did. The reference to a drug in his wine only serves to point to the blood Jesus shed for others which it represents . The narrator is derisively condemning those things of which he fails to see the value.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is in the repeated line:

‘I pay in blood, but not my own’

The irony is two-fold, for in spite of both Jesus and the narrator making some sort of blood sacrifice, there is a crucial difference in the reason for making it and in the manner of its being made. Where Jesus was acting in the interests of mankind generally, the narrator is acting in his own political interests. And where Jesus paid in his own blood for the salvation of others, the narrator is adamant that it’s only the blood of others which will be spilt, presumably in the pursuit of his political ends. Despite his bragging about his bravery, when compared with Jesus the narrator comes across as pusillanimous – not prepared to put his life on the line for his beliefs. In this context the demand that Jesus ‘show me your moral virtues first’ comes across as a ridiculous case of the pot implying the kettle’s black. Ultimately, perhaps, he does in fact again end up paying with his own blood in that his negative outlook on life has made him self destructive. It’s plausible that he, like Judas with whom he unconsciously associates himself, will end up committing suicide.

The song works, then, equally as a condemnation of a narrow-minded, bigoted  narrator out of his own mouth and as a warning about how the moral failings he exemplifies might continue to result in unnecessary suffering. At the same time it extols the moral virtues of self-sacrifice and, by implication, compassion. The association of these with Jesus perhaps implies that ultimately it’s these which will prevail.

If Dogs Run Free

The song is about the reality and value of unity and creative activity, as opposed to separateness and inactivity. It is extremely concise and exhibits the sort of complexity and compression normally associated with metaphysical  poetry.

The first allusion to the themes is in the title ‘If Dogs Run Free’, a phrase which gets repeated throughout the song. ‘Run’ indicates that the concern is with action. ‘Free’ is ambiguous between free from each other and free from other things. Though dogs can act individually, free from each other, they achieve more if they hunt as a pack, a unified whole, and so in a way not free from each other. Even as a pack, however, they are still running free in that their activity is unconstrained by other things.  Which sense of ‘free’ is apposite at a particular point in the song will depend on whether it is at that point extolling individuality or togetherness.


Unities arising from togetherness are apparent from the outset. In the first verse the separate, individual sounds the writer hears coalesce to become

… a symphony
Of two mules, trains and rain

‘Symphony’ here refers to a harmony of sound heard in the actual world. In harmonising, the separate sounds become one harmonious sound.

On hearing this sound, the writer is then led to create further harmony to reflect the experience – as he tells us in the second verse:

My mind weaves a symphony
And tapestry of rhyme

This second ‘symphony’ and the  ‘tapestry of rhyme’,  are the writer’s tools for representing the sounds he has heard. And, indeed, the earlier sounds are picked out by words which rhyme -‘two’ and ‘mules’, and then ‘trains’ and ‘rain’. This rhyming harmonises the words in a symphony just as the original sounds in the world were harmonised in a symphony by the writer’s hearing them.

A further unity then arises. For the audience, the first symphony of sound can only be known by way of the second – the writer’s words used to represent it. For the audience, then, there is no distinction between the two symphonies. They are one.


A related feature of the song is the breaking down of the usual distinctions between stability (or stasis)and movement (and, in consequence, the distinction between the spatial and the temporal). The distinction between movement and stability is lost when the plain is described as ‘swooping’, a term one would be more likely to associate with a plane, rather than something as immobile as a plain! It is lost again with the reference to ‘the swamp of time’. Time, which is in fact dynamic, is represented as static, like a swamp. Since ‘swooping’ has positive connotations,  and ‘swamp’ only negative ones, it would appear that for the writer things are valued only if they retain or acquire a dynamic quality, and not if they retain or acquire a static one.  The static should become dynamic, but not vice versa. The absurdity of time losing its dynamic quality is apparent in the clichéd pronouncement ‘The best is always yet to come’. In a dynamic world this is untrue – the best will not remain in the future but will often be achieved.

A unity out of movement and stability arises again with

Oh, winds which rush my tale to thee
So it may flow and be

The tale’s existence (‘be’) depends on its movement (‘flow’). Since the singer’s ‘tale’ is about reality, the actual world, the suggestion is that there is only true existence where the dynamic and the static are united.  There is no being (static) unless there is flowing (dynamic) – and then since the being is flowing, it cannot be static. This applies to the tale in that, unless it is passed on, it fails to be a tale.


These mergers (of sounds in the world and the sounds of words, and of stability and movement) parallel another merger –  that of the singular and plural. Rhyme is again involved in drawing attention to this. The first line of the first verse ends in ‘we’, and the first line of the second verse ends in its rhyming, singular counterpart ‘me’. It is, then, when the two ‘me’s’ become ‘we’ that, the writer’s tale achieves its ‘being’. Put another way, it is only when the two individuals involved in writing and hearing the tale come together, that the tale get its ‘being’.

Singulars becoming plurals is also apparent in each of the pairs of rhymes (‘two mules, trains and rain’) considered above. In each pair a singular is coupled with a plural – ‘two’ and ‘rain’ are singular, whereas ‘mules’ and ‘trains’ are plural. At the same time, although singular, ‘two’ represents duality, and thus plurality – and ‘rain’ can be taken to stand for a plurality of water drops. In each case, then, a plurality becomes a unity, a whole – the drops become ‘rain’, and the mules become ‘two’, i.e. a single pair.


So far it would appear that unities arising from togetherness are to be preferred to their separate, individual constituent parts. This again becomes apparent at the end of the first verse. Here some mindless, clichéd advice – in effect to go it alone – is derided by way of rhyme (which, presumably to emphasise the point, is miserably banal). And although action is advised, unlike in the case of the tale it is independent action:

Just do your thing, you’ll be king

However, having derided the idea of independent action, the song then goes on to explore the alternative to it – to see if there is in fact any virtue in it. Whereas the ‘why not we’ of the first verse seems to deride individual action, the ‘why not me’ of the second  verse seems to see value in it. Furthermore, it is the writer’s mind alone – ‘my mind’ – which produces the symphony and tapestry of rhyme.

Nevertheless, despite this, it is made clear that ultimately individual action is undesirable:

To each his own,  it’s all unknown

The suggestion here is that if the writer’s tale is not shared with someone else (‘To each his own’), its content will remain unknown. And since the tale is about reality, reality – though it will exist  – will remain unknown. There won’t be anything more that can be said about it:

… then what must be
Must be, and that is all

Two lines into the final verse, the writer’s allegiance to unity arising from togetherness has been established.


The remainder of the final verse relates the claims (that being involves action, and that unity is superior to separateness) to lovers and to reality as a whole.  With respect to the first claim, that being involves action,  we are told, in lines replete with positive connotations, that

True love can make a blade of grass
Stand up straight and tall

While on a literal level what’s being said is obviously untrue (!), it is significant that what is being extolled are the dynamic qualities of true love – it causes the grass to grow. The phallic overtones suggest that the dynamism, more literally, is sexual. Accordingly true love can have no being without sexual activity. Nor can any offspring. The being of each is activity dependant.

Activity is also alluded to in the phrase ‘the cosmic sea’, presumably a reference to the whole of reality. The word  ‘sea’  draws attention to the necessary dynamic qualities of that reality. True love and reality as a whole are both characterised by activity.

The second claim, that unity is superior to separateness, is also apparent here. In the lines

In harmony with the cosmic sea
True love needs no company

true love is deemed to be complete, and to mirror the unity and completeness of the whole of reality. Furthermore it becomes integrated in that reality since, in being a self-sufficient, unified, dynamically-dependant  whole,  it is ‘in harmony’ with it (thus echoing the harmony characterising the symphonies of sound and rhyme). Because it is complete and mirrors the unity of the whole of reality,  true love doesn’t involve two separate individuals, but individuals who in some sense have lost their individuality and become one. And just as the two symphonies not only each integrated separate sounds and words but themselves became integrated, so true love not only brings together the lovers  but enables them to become integrated in the unity of the whole of reality by way of harmonising with it.

I Am A Lonesome Hobo


These three short verses are a magnificent example of conciseness and compression. The narrator is presented by way of his own words as thoroughly duplicitous, and at the same time as a subtly skilful manipulator of his audience. The immediate impression one gets is that the narrator is utterly honest, albeit self-pitying. After all, he seems to be happy to confess to his misdeeds. And he appears generous enough to advise his listeners how to avoid a fate similar to his. That’s the immediate impression. However it soon becomes apparent (to an attentive listener) that everything he says is either questionable or downright untrue. What we have is an ex-convict, skilfully beguiling his audience in order to recover a justly lost reputation.

Verse 1

The opening two lines begin with as many lies. Despite his attestation, he is not really a ‘hobo’ and (judging from the reference to a brother) he does have ‘family’. That he’s not a hobo is apparent from his admission that he had ‘fourteen carat gold in his mouth and silk upon his back’. Well what’s happened to the gold in his mouth? People don’t usually lose their fillings when they hit hard times. Probably it’s still there. And what about the silk shirts? It’s clear he didn’t have to escape in the middle of the night without having time to grasp a few possessions because, by his own admission, he did no more than ‘wander off’ in shame – and that wouldn’t account for his supposed destitution. He admits to having been prosperous, and we’re given no reason to suppose that he isn’t still prosperous.

The tone is apparently self-pitying and it continues throughout the first verse:

‘Where another man’s life might begin
That’s exactly where mine ends’

But why? If other people’s lives can begin when they’re in his position, then why can’t his begin again from that position? He seems to be doing nothing more than making his lot sound as bad as possible. Later on he refers to his wandering off in shame as his ‘fatal doom’ – a ludicrous exaggeration. We can’t trust what he says. He seems out to elicit his audience’s sympathy.

Then comes the confessional bit:

‘I have tried my hand at bribery
Blackmail and deceit
And I’ve served time for ev’rything
‘Cept beggin’ on the street’

It’s not altogether surprising that he’s been in prison for bribery and blackmail, but by putting the emphasis on the time served, he seems to be trying to make us feel sorry for him instead of condemning what he’s done. Indeed he makes it sound as if we should feel a lot of sorrow because of the supposedly colossal amount of time he’s served – he’s served time for ‘everything’ (with the one exception of begging).

And then he skilfully makes it look as if his crimes weren’t really all that bad. After all, he lets it be known, he didn’t  stoop to begging. And by saying that, he puts begging into the same league as the crimes he did commit. He implies in fact that begging would have been even worse because it’s where he drew the line. In reality, of course,  begging would have been a very minor crime by comparison, and it would have been much better if he’d become a beggar instead of engaging in bribery or blackmail.

Was it moral uprightness which kept him from begging, as he seems to imply? It’s unlikely. The actual reason he didn’t beg is almost certainly that there would have been no point. Beggars expect to make little more than is required to keep body and soul together, yet this person may not only have access to his previous wealth, but also the proceeds of his crimes. Giving the impression that  it’s his virtue which prevents him from begging, is just an instance of his deceiving his audience.

Verse 2

The narrator hasn’t learnt his lesson, then.  One of the faults he admits to is deceit but, it seems, even now he’s being cunningly deceitful. And we can see this again in the line ‘Once I was rather prosperous’. It’s the word ‘rather’ which is disingenuous. From the evidence he gives – the gold, and the silk, and the admission of there being  ‘nothing I did lack’ – it’s clear he was very prosperous, not just ‘rather prosperous’. Since he’s aim is to get the audience’s sympathy, he presumably feels it would be better to downplay his wealth.

Then we come to the reason he gives for his downfall, and this he presents in highly cryptic fashion. Why? Presumably it’s a deliberate attempt to pull the wool over our eyes again. He says:

‘But I did not trust my brother
I carried him to blame’

‘Brother’ is open to being interpreted in two ways – male sibling and neighbour, as in ‘love thy neighbour’. It’s possible that the narrator is aware of the biblical connotations and is deliberately using the word ‘brother’ to give his pronouncement a religious air. Anything to win people over! Either way it’s not at all clear why lack of trust should be what leads to his destitution. We can assume that he was not justified in withholding his trust, whatever that amounted to, because of the confessional tone – he’s admitting as much. But it’s not obvious why mere lack of trust should have disastrous consequences. It would appear that there’s more going on than meets the eye.

To explain what he means by lack of trust he says ‘I carried him to blame’. The first criticism to make is that it’s difficult to see how this, however it’s interpreted, is supposed to illustrate a lack of trust. It would seem, rather, that the narrator is trying to pass off his wrongdoing as mere lack of trust when in fact it was something altogether more serious. This wouldn’t be surprising since he tried to pass off bribery and blackmail as no worse than begging.

Secondly, ‘I carried him to blame’ doesn’t make sense! It sounds like obfuscation. The natural thing would have been to say ‘I blamed him for something he didn’t do’ (if that’s what happened).  It may well be, then that the narrator is trying to cover up having blamed the brother for something the narrator himself did. It’s this which is suggested by the odd use of ‘I carried’. We can only speculate, but it’s possible that when the narrator says ‘I carried him to blame’ he was about to say something like ‘I carried out the crime, and then saw that my brother got blamed for it’, but changes his mind about making such an honest admission when he’s gets two words into the sentence. Whatever the reason for the nonsensical utterance, it’s clear that we’re not getting the full truth.

More disingenuousness follows. He makes out that it wasn’t his misdemeanour which resulted in his fall from grace. It was instead the unintended consequences of that misdemeanour which resulted in his fall. The mere lack of trust he showed ‘led’ him, we’re told, to his downfall. How? The implication is that from then on what happened was out of his control, and so the end result was not his fault. It’s noticeable that he doesn’t tell us what these events were which he couldn’t do anything about, and we’re left with the suspicion that there weren’t any. It was his original misdemeanour, far more serious than he’d like to admit, which actually did for him.

Verse 3

The audience manipulation continues into the final verse. It begins with flattery:

‘Kind ladies and kind gentlemen’

Not only can calling his audience kind be seen as flattery, but the word ‘kind’ seems to have been repeated just to make sure the audience don’t fail to notice his generosity of spirit! This is immediately followed by another device to make the audience feel sympathy – equivocation:

‘Soon I will be gone’.

‘Gone’ is ambiguous. It might mean ‘gone away’ or it might mean ‘dead’. One suspects from the narrator’s general duplicity that the truth is the former, but that he hopes his audience will take him to mean the latter. This is supported by the way he expresses himself in what follows:

‘Before I do pass on’

‘Pass on’ is equally ambiguous. It too – perhaps through association with ‘pass away’ – seems to imply the narrator is about to die and so warrants sympathy.

The final four lines comprise three pieces of advice given by the narrator to his audience. This advice doesn’t seem to have been asked for, and it’s unclear what business it is of the narrator’s to give it. Nevertheless it has the effect of making the narrator appear decent, as if he’s got other people’s well-being at heart (which, from what we’ve learnt, seems extremely unlikely). Not only that, but he makes it look as if he’s going out of his way to advise his audience about how to avoid a fate as bad as his.  The effect will be to magnify the horror of his fate in their eyes, and thereby to increase their sympathy for him.

The advice itself is almost worthless – but then its point was not so much to advise, as to elicit undeserved respect and sympathy. The first piece of advice has the effect of reinforcing the narrator’s previous attempt to imply that his wrongdoing was really quite trivial. By telling his hearers to stay free from petty jealousy, he’s implying that his own wrongdoing involved nothing worse than petty jealousy. The second piece, ‘Live by no man’s code’, is either just platitudinous, or else downright bad advice (since some people’s approach to life is well worth emulating).  The third piece, ‘And hold your judgment for yourself’, is probably intended to mean one should think for oneself. At best it’s vague advice. But it’s also ironic in that it can be taken to mean ‘You should blame yourself and not anyone else for the effects of your own wrongdoing’ and this is the very thing the narrator seems to be refusing to do with respect to the brother. Good advice for him would be to put his own house in order!

We’re not told who the audience is which the narrator is addressing. We can imagine though that it might well have been taken in. That’s his skill. If we too were taken in by him on first listening, that’s Dylan’s skill.

Like A Rolling Stone

This song can be seen as a warning about the dangers of living pointlessly, going along with the crowd, and not treating others appropriately.  The protagonist seems to be a frivolous society girl who, having fallen from her social pedestal, is given advice by the narrator about how to pick herself up. From what he says his ultimate desire, one would think, is that her recovery should lead to a more worthwhile existence.

There is no indication that the characters are real life people. On the contrary the writer seems to indicate that it’s the situation alone he’s concerned with. What happens is to be seen as a fairytale – they’re things which didn’t really happen, even in the distant past. The opening makes this clear since ‘Once upon a time’ is a traditional start to fairy stories. And the idea is reinforced by the reference in the fourth verse to a ‘Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people’ – fairytale characters in a fairytale setting.  What we might expect from a fairy story is a moral, and this is what we seem to get. What we have is a cautionary tale – a warning of the sort of thing which might well happen even if it hasn’t happened to any particular real person yet.

In the song we are made to see the pitfalls of certain types of behaviour – in particular the protagonist’s trivial, insensitive behaviour for which she is continually castigated by the narrator. Before her fall we’re informed she was minimally generous to others, suggesting at least that there is some hope for her; but she’s also made to seem snobbish and patronising. This happens when we’re told she ‘threw the bums a dime’. Although these are the narrator’s words, in using ‘bum’ it would seem he’s mimicking, and so informing us about, the sort of derogatory language she would have used. It’s a term which suggests the user has little respect for the recipient of their supposed generosity. In addition, that she ‘threw’ the money also suggests a lack of genuine concern for those she’s meant to be helping. And the fact that it was only a dime she threw is enough to make her action seem positively  insulting.

On other occasions, we find out, she’s not so much insulting as insensitive to the feelings of others. That she ‘never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns’ suggests she can’t be bothered to find out about people, but instead takes them at face value. With the circus imagery – jugglers and clowns – the narrator gets across the superficiality of her understanding of others. To her, the narrator implies, the people she interacts with are like circus performers in the eyes of children – two-dimensional humorous characters who have no existence outside the ring.  It’s apparent that she is blind to the emotional complexities of others. She sees people as existing for her benefit, and takes no interest in their lives beyond the trivial things – disparagingly referred to by the narrator as ‘tricks’ –  they are required to do for her.  Nevertheless the implication seems to be that had she noticed their frowns, she might have been more generous. The narrator need not be indulging in outright condemnation. Her crime is perhaps thoughtlessness rather than viciousness.

In addition to the circus reference, fairground imagery is also used to get across the superficiality and pleasure centredness of this person’s life. She is said to have ridden a ‘chrome horse’ – the chrome being a thin covering of a metal with little to recommend it beyond its shininess. Presumably this is a sardonic reference to her glitzy lifestyle. This superficiality is reinforced in the admonition ‘You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you’; for her, life is merely a matter of getting ‘kicks’. And even then she requires other people to put themselves out so that she can get them.

The propensity which causes her not to notice the ‘frowns on the jugglers and the clowns’ is also the cause of her undoing. She naively fails to look beneath the surface and as a result misjudges her ‘diplomat’. Perhaps this is someone she sees as highly sophisticated – that might explain the shoulder-borne Siamese cat!  But the cat in that position is perhaps vaguely reminiscent of a parrot, thus giving the diplomat a piratical air which she should have taken as a warning. Later, once the diplomat has betrayed her trust in him, it’s implied that she is in need of ‘alibis’; the diplomat then can be seen as someone who protected her by finding ways of excusing her behaviour, or denying it ever occurred. Unlike her, he turns out to be genuinely callous, however, with the result that he takes advantage of her naivety and steals all she has.

Although the narrator’s words are addressed to a particular person, the actual beneficiaries of the warning could be anyone whose outlook is similar – naive pleasure seekers without the imagination to appreciate what life can be like for the less fortunate. The lesson would seem to be that if you don’t treat other people with respect, if you don’t afford them the dignity which is their right, and if you fritter away your life, you might end up destroying that life. That the warning is intended not just for the woman is apparent from the lines:

‘Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re drinkin’, thinkin’, that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things

Here other people are shown with the same outlook the protagonist had. The princess is presumably the protagonist’s replacement, the society goddess who has succeeded her. And ‘all the pretty people’ are those who don’t bother to assert their individuality, but just dress and behave like the rest. The description makes it clear both that this princess’s behaviour and that of the crowd-following ‘pretty people’ is destined to end in disaster, just as the protagonist’s has done. Just as the latter got ‘juiced’ at school, so these people spend their time getting ‘juiced’ – drinking. They are on the same path as her. Also by telling us they think they’ve ‘got it made’ the narrator seems to imply they’re probably jumping the gun – they haven’t got it made at all. Reversals, it’s being suggested, are just as likely to occur in their lives. And so for all of us.

The similarity between these people and the protagonist is again made clear in the reference to the exchange of gifts. Just as these people are exchanging gifts, so the protagonist had herself previously exchanged gifts. They seem to be on the same path as her. It is one of these supposedly ‘precious’ gifts, a diamond ring, which she is now being advised to pawn. This leaves us in little doubt that the protagonist’s present misfortune is these people’s future misfortune. If they don’t heed the song’s warning, they too will end up in poverty like her.

Despite all this, the song should not be seen as entirely pessimistic. There is a way up, as well as a way down. Whereas previously, true to character, the protagonist had been contemptuous of ‘Napoleon in rags and the language that he used’, her position now may be inferior to this person’s. (While the ‘in rags’ is a reference to his poverty, it may be a poverty he has by now managed to discard. This seems likely since he is recommended by the narrator as someone able to assist the protagonist. If so, and if the nickname Napoleon reflects a new status – suggesting grandeur and perhaps the conquest of his earlier misfortunes – he and the woman have exchanged positions.) There is hope for her now, according to the narrator, if she’ll swallow her pride and let this Napoleon help her back on her feet. It’s only if her lack of consideration for others extends to refusing to co-operate, that she’s damned. That he could help her to a worthwhile recovery is made clear from the insight we get into his character. Even though she had previously treated him with contempt – ‘You used to be so amused…’ – he is not put off. Neither is he put off by her fall from grace. He doesn’t treat her with the disdain she treated him. He is the sort of person to set her off on a better path.

It’s worth noting that the ‘pretty people’ and ‘Napoleon’ can be seen as different camps each representing a different sort of unity. The pretty people together with the protagonist are all unified in that they are doing the same as each other – dressing prettily, drinking and being deluded that they’ve ‘got it made’. But this is mindless unity; following the crowd. There’s no point to it because it just leads downhill. By contrast Napoleon and the protagonist together can be seen as representing a beneficial unity based on co-operation. It’s by their working together that the protagonist’s lot (and Napoleon’s too, depending on whether or not he’s still in rags) can be improved. This contrast in unities is reinforced by the contrasting descriptions applied to the camps – prettiness as opposed to raggedness.

It may be worth pointing out in this context the significance of the ‘mystery tramp’. Although he might have seemed a potential a source of help, given his experience of living on the streets, the protagonist had spurned co-operation with him. But subsequently, we learn she relented and became anxious to ‘make a deal’. This suggests the beginnings of an improvement in her outlook, her already seeing that there’s nothing to be achieved by going it alone, or going along with the crowd. As it happens, she attempted co-operation with the wrong person. Previously a ‘mystery’ to her, she’s now learnt he’d have been incapable all along of helping her – an incapacity represented by his ‘not selling any alibis’ and his vacant stare. Nevertheless she has at least now accepted the principle of co-operation, and this augurs well for how she might respond to the overtures of Napoleon.

That there is hope for the protagonist is indicated in other ways too. The chorus continually reminds us that she’s ‘like a rolling stone’. On one level this implies that her life is going ever faster downhill, but on another it reminds us of the proverb ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’. This tells us there are benefits to being on the move, perhaps even through the lower echelons of society. If one keeps moving, one doesn’t get stultified, or destroyed by mind-numbing routines. In addition, we’re told, she’s ‘invisible now’ and has ‘no secrets to conceal’. The invisibility would seem to imply that her previous fame is no longer a restraint on her progress. And the lack of secrets implies perhaps that her previous life involved pretences – ‘secrets’, but we’re not told what – which she can now do without. Without such encumbrances she can make headway. Having thrown off the shallowness of her previous lifestyle she is in a position to succeed.

The narrator’s words are harsh. His somewhat vitriolic condemnation of the protagonist’s attitude might make the listener want to criticise him and even, perhaps, side with the protagonist against him. Such a response would, I think, miss the point. While for the fictional narrator these are real events happening to real people, for the listener, this is just a fairy story. But a fairy story can have a moral, and it’s the highly complex moral of this one which asks for our attention.