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.
‘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