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.
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.
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.
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.