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

27 thoughts on “I Pity The Poor Immigrant

  1. These songs are complete within themselves. They stand alone, with whatever the listener brings to them and he always starts with the feeling, before the words. Your intellectual approach to his songs come at them from the wrong direction, in my opinion.


    • Thanks for commenting Scott. I think I’d agree with your first two sentences and that leaves me a bit baffled by the third. I think my reply might be that even if you start with the feeling you’ve still got to take into account the words.


  2. Like Scott says, we bring our own. I’ve always seen this song from a reincarnational perspective, strange as that might seem to the Western mind. People speak of “old souls,” etc – those who have a wisdom beyond their years and experience. Dylan, to me, speaks of the unwise, foolish earthbound souls who can’t see the way forward, but prefer to succeed in the acquisition of things and the exaltation of self. Remember, later on, he says “you’ve got to serve somebody.”


      • Well, everything. We all “immigrate” to this earthly realm seeking to satisfy desires we have created but which ultimately do not serve us. Some souls learn and drop what hinders them, and others, such as the Poor Immigrant, blindly seek to satisfy their egocentric perceived needs, not realizing the hole they dig. Frankie Lee and the Immigrant share the same berth on the same train to nowhere. One can only pity them.


      • Thanks for replying. I agree it might be possible to interpret ‘immigrant’ more figuratively than I’ve done. I wonder how the narrator should be seen if he’s to fit in with your view of the immigrant? You say ‘One can only pity…’, but I’m not sure I can see the narrator as representating those of us who know better than the immigrant because it seems to me the narrator’s too sly and unpleasant.


  3. I don’t see “sly” or vengeful, except that Dylan’s verse almost always has some sly approach. Seems unpleasant, of course — kind of like Dead Man, Dead Man. Heaven like Ironsides, I think, can be related to the stiff, dead end certainties of the Christian fundamentalist, Taliban, etc. Mr. Dylan would probably tell us the song just popped into his head — that there’s no particular meaning other than what comes to each listener, as it came to him.


    • I think you’re seeing the song (and maybe all of Dylan’s songs) as only to be interpreted in a sort of piecemeal way – one in which only a proportion of what’s in the song is taken into account. I’ve nothing against that type of approach, and it has the undoubted advantage that it allows you to put forward interesting interpretations, like your Ironsides one, which wouldn’t fit into my all-embracing one. Nevertheless I think the all-embracing sort of interpretation I’ve attempted contibutes something to the appreciation of Dylan which goes beyond what less global interpretations achieve. My view is that if you can interpret a song in a more holistic sort of way, then why not do so? The reverse is also true, of course. The type of interpretation you favour allows you to find meaning which couldn’t be accommodated by my all-embracing approach. So, overall I’d say that to do the songs justice requires both sorts of interpretation.


  4. I think I agree; and, of course, I don’t know. I’m not sure Dylan knows either. I’d say it, but I won’t — something about the wind.


    • Thanks Rich, that’s helpful. Of course Dylan might have been adapting the biblical quote, but either way it’s useful to know. It might seem to support interpretations which see the song as critical of the immigrant.


  5. Notice the palindronic nature of the initial/capital letter of each word in the title ie. IPTPI ?

    There is a town in the Republic of Ireland called Navan which is one of the very, very, few palindronic town/city names in the world. Navan and IPTPI obviously both have 5 letters each.

    The Irish diaspora is obviously well documented. As is the Irish traditionally being known as the blacks of both Europe and the British Isles.

    Also notice that he uses the word Immigrant rather than Emigrant. Emigration being the act of leaving one’s native country with the intent to settle elsewhere. Conversely, Immigration describes the movement of persons into one country from another.

    You may like to comment on all or some of this, David. In relation to, or otherwise, what you and your other commentators have already noted.


    • Thanks for this. I think I’m more sympathetic to the view that there might be something in the choice of of ‘immigrant’ over ’emigrant’. It’s only the initial letters of the title which are palindronic, and I’m not sure that there’s enough in it not to put it down to chance. That it’s an immigrant may be significant in that it means he is now among people who are alien too him. This will (sadly, but inevitably given the way the world is) be a cause of tension which, I think, comes across in the song.


  6. I forgot to add that variants of Navan had been in use since Norman times. It is thought to come from Irish an Uamhain, meaning “the cave/souterrain”. Souterrain (from French sous terrain, meaning “under ground”) is a name given by archaeologists to a type of underground structure associated mainly with the European Atlantic Iron Age.

    Obviously this brings Subterranean Homesick Blues to mind. “who wishes he would have stayed home”
    Bob himself could be seen to be in part talking about himself as an immigrant to New York from Minnesota and the Iron Range.

    As for coincidences, well Bob Dylan is all about synchrionicity so I’m not sure how that is an issue. Its all part of whatever deal he said he made with destiny. As long as one stays within the realms of converging connotations, one will sort of be alright.


  7. As one of the 5 words, and indeed the initial one, only has one letter and the capital/initial letter is also the only letter in each word that is of different size than the other letters, then looking at the palindronic nature of the captial/initial letters makes even more sense. Also, capital can also refer to a capital city of a country, state or some other geographic region.

    Of course it is also very common for things to be referred to by the letters of their capital letters i.e. acronyms. Alliteration is also usually at work when the initial letters of each word are palindronic.

    Furthermore, I have been through the titles of all the songs on the list on bobdylan.com and of all
    the song titles with more than three words in the title there is only one, I Pity The Poor Immigrant.


  8. Are we to take the narrator`s prejudicial support of JWH as also a rusical reversal? I just don`t get his anti-immigrant status in this song – seriously mislead, aint we all etc at some time or another


  9. Thanks for commenting, Twice. I think my answer to your question is yes. The narrator is being ironic all the way through the Harding song. In this song it’s not so much irony as maliciousness. The Harding narrator isn’t being venomous towards Harding, just heavily critical. The narrator here is being downright nasty. It’s interesting that Dylan uses the narrator device in these different ways.


  10. Agreed on the upping the ante on attack levels. I Pity the Immigrant aint supportive – I`d go so far as to suggest: even Juvenalian-ly. Is there anything out there to support a: `Dr Swift does the Modest Proposal` version of immigrant sympathy for this song? BD`s lack of centre (possibly to win the centre, who knows) presents artistic risk, which I think should be genuine to be believed, as `(narrative) experimental can remain spineless`. Has he repudiated this track anywhere? It`s not a tour favourite, for sure…


    • It’s not particularly Swiftian is it? I don’t see the song as satire so much as a presentation of character. I don’t see why Dylan should have repudiated the song if it’s doing what I’ve suggested. There’s no indication he’d sympathise with the narrator rather than the immigrant, so it remains in line with his general liberal outlook.


  11. This album is one of my personal favourites, for its sounds and postures. The ole cough iron works its clear hearted magic and the oratorical majesty sinks deep with the very well-chosen quotes and phrasing, but while I love it to bits, there`s something as cheaply phoney as the state of Denmark about what the lyrics are actually saying. FTW. I suppose it lives out the tragedy of lots of words, but lost for words.


  12. <>
    I appreciate your comments back, David. I think I may have missed what you have written about his liberal outlook (apologies if so).

    Are you suggesting that a song like JOKERMAN is not targeted at reversing antipathies towards SAVED etc – that it offers entirely a viewpoint that he neither shares or would wish to promote? I find this problematic.

    Back to JWH album. The middle ground sympathies maybe are too liberal for the form the songs take. They present themselves as protest/anti-prejudicial sympathetic but are more like playful voicings rambling ideas to pathos as the inflections of timbre and tone suggest. Expressionism with maybe too much of an anodyne distance – basically, the gestures become faux – with unconcern either way. (The centre cannot hold – it wasn`t much of a centre anyway – take your pick). Perspectives get patterned – very prettily at times. The idealism in the music`s vatic power is hideously crushed (imho) by the flight from social or political engagement the lyrics espouse.


  13. I think Jokerman might well be seen as presenting a more sceptical view of Christ than one might have expected from the author of Saved. But I have no idea what Dylan’s actual opinion is, and I don’t really see it as important. What interests me is the different views presented for their own sake and, from a literary perspective, the ways he presents them. It seems likely, though, that later songs represent developments in Dylan’s thought.

    I’m not sure why you see the songs on JWH as playful voicings or rambling ideas. I agree about ‘playful’ if you mean there are touches of humour, but the humour generally seems to draw attention to something serious. ‘Just then a bolt of lightning/Struck the courthouse out of shape’ is an amusing way of setting a scene to bring out both the hypocrisy and myopia of supposedly religious people. There’s nothing ‘faux’ or anodyne about that, is there? It seems to be working in the same way as satire – subjecting serious thoughts to gentle criticism. I don’t see that there’s any flight (re this example anyway) from social or political engagement. Rather, an effect of the humour is to encourage people not to reject the criticism out of hand which they might do if it had been presented more confrontationally.


  14. A presentation of views with no convictions? I suppose that`s what I mean by adopting the timbre of, I suppose, the satire of Horace rather than the far more risky and, possibly pertinent, satire of Juvenal. Having a gentle irony about superstitious religious people (in your lightning strikes the chapel example) is not my main concern: It is the very currying of favour with least confrontation, WHILE deploying the deftest strains of protest on this album (a la Hattie Carroll, etc,…Though I`ll have to re-check those ones out next I guess). They, at least, sound(-ed) like they cared about what they were denouncing. But maybe, there is no honour in the music industry production values this artist desires. Joan Baez maybe sussed this…


  15. I’ll tell to ye a rovin’ tale
    Of sights that I have seen
    (Tramps And Hawkers)

    Who eats but is not satisfied
    Who hears but does not see
    (I Pity The Poor Immigrant)


  16. The analyst as usual picks on the narrator for some reason – but the narrator pities those immigrants who come seeking God’s Promised Land, and end up worshipping the Golden Calf of the ‘American Dream’ ~ exploit and ignore the plight of others in order to make yourself rich big time.


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