Early Roman Kings

Overview

The song is about the nature of God, the relationship between man and God, and whether salvation in the sense of moral regeneration can be achieved. While the song invokes the religious concept of Christ as saviour, it nevertheless implies that moral improvement might only result from human endeavour. On one level the kings of the title represent humanity generally, and in particular those who killed Christ. On another, they are to be identified with Christ and thus humanity is able to take on the role of Christ and become responsible for its own salvation. Unusually, Christ is represented as a flawed human being as well as the traditional God, thereby extending to him the sort of uncertainty felt by Blake about whether the Creator is God or devil. It’s this presentation of Christ which makes further identities possible and underlies the implication that man could be either dependent on Christ or responsible for his own fate or salvation.

The narrator is Christ. The first three verses describe the Roman kings and the final three focus on Christ himself. There is no one temporal setting, nor any one spatial setting. The same events occur in the present day, in first century Judea, and at the beginning of the human race. And they take place in ancient Greece, Judea, Rome and modern America. This suggests that events such as Christ’s crucifixion and possible resurrection are not confined to a particular time and place. They are ongoing processes which affect everyone and for which all are responsible.

 

The Roman Kings As Humanity

Humanity is represented by the Roman kings and for the most part it is presented negatively. The description ‘early Roman kings’ perhaps suggests that it was with humanity alone that moral power resided before the birth of Christ, himself in some sense a king. There was apparently once a motor cycle gang with the name Roman Kings, but even if it is accepted that the Roman kings in the song behave like a gang, any connection between them and the real-life gang would seem to end there.

The Roman kings as presented in the second verse represent humanity at an embryonic stage – ‘in the early, early morn’ – with their descent of the mountain perhaps being the fall of man (an idea taken up later in the song with the fall of Detroit), or the fall of Lucifer. The kings’ negative qualities are particularly apparent in the third verse where they are described, amongst other things, as destructive, lecherous, treacherous – and conceited:

‘Each of them bigger than all men put together’

In the first verse they are presented as somewhat shallow humans with a penchant for dressing up. But they are also made to seem menacing – they wear ‘sharkskin suits’ suggesting voraciousness, and they’re ‘driving the spikes in’, which suggests cruel violence. The later focus on Christ suggests that these spikes could be the nails used in his crucifixion. At the same time as they’re driving the spikes in it seems they’re ‘nailed in their coffins’ so that their act of killing Christ can be seen as an act of moral self-destruction. By nailing themselves in their coffins they are their own undertakers, appropriately signified by their ‘top hats and tails’.

If being nailed in their coffins is to be taken as meaning they’re spiritually dead, this is supported by their ‘blazing the rails’. The phrase suggests both setting fire to the rails (to be seen as a path through life) thereby destroying lives, and – like the later phrase ‘hell bent’ – associates them with hell fire. One expects trails to be blazed, not rails, and accordingly ‘blazing the rails’ serves as a reminder of what humanity could achieve, but doesn’t. (On the other hand, ‘blazing the rails’ might be taken more positively to mean building a railway – a way through life. ‘Driving the spikes in’ would be part of the construction process.)

It’s noticeable that the descriptions at this stage are all in the present tense. Thus the kings are made to seem to be wearing their loud sharkskin suits at the same time as they’re wearing top hats and tails. The suggestion is that their trivial liking for foppery is part of their undoing. In the second verse the use of the present tense suggests timelessness – as if the acts referred to there are for all time, never starting, never completed, always ongoing. It is now ‘early, early morn’, and the kings are now coming down the mountain. It’s not just that we’re being taken back to an earlier, prelapsarian ‘now’.Rather that ‘now’ is the same ‘now’ in which there are high-top boots and ‘spikes’ – now to be taken to mean running shoes used for a race in which ‘you’ – presumably the listener – try unsuccessfully to get away from the pack as it tears down what is now a running track. Humanity timelessly continues to restrict the moral progress of its individual members as they attempt to get away from vices such as lechery and treachery which render it literally ‘hell bent’.

 

The Roman Kings As Divine

The song eradicates any sharp distinction between humanity and the divine, and in the case of Christ replaces it with uncertainty. In the second verse we’re given the following description of the Roman kings:

‘All the early Roman kings in the early, early morn
Coming down the mountain, distributing the corn’

Here we see the kings as Greek gods coming down from Olympus bearing wholesome gifts. That the gifts are ‘corn’ perhaps suggests they are also to be seen as a particular god – no longer Greek – Christ. Their coming down the mountain is thus Christ coming from heaven to earth, and the corn is the Eucharist, the ‘bread of life’. Other reasons to associate the kings with Christ include the kings’ being ‘nailed in their coffins’. Not only was Christ nailed to the cross but he speaks as if he’s in a coffin like them when he says:

‘My bell still rings’

In his case it’s a so-called safety coffin with a bell to alert people if he happens to have been buried alive.

In addition the kings consider themselves ‘bigger than all men put together’, a description which fits Christ.

These associations of the kings with Christ suggest that they and the humanity which they represent are themselves Christ-like. What traditionally Christ does in terms of salvation, humanity too can achieve. It’s not just that humanity is hell bent, therefore. Humanity and Christ are one.

The language used to describe the kings, while making them seem frightening, also suggests a divine status. They’re ‘blazing the rails’, they operate ‘by night’ and they’re ‘speeding through the forest’. These descriptions are reminiscent of those applied to the Creator in Blake’s ‘Tyger’. The tiger is ‘burning bright in the forests of the night’ suggesting it has both the heavenly quality of light and the hellish qualities of burning and darkness. Blake expresses uncertainty about the nature of the Creator, and the same sort of uncertainty applies to the Roman kings. The Roman kings by implication have the same ambivalent status between God and devil, or between salvation and damnation. (When the line from the ‘Tyger’ is quoted in ‘Roll On John’, ‘forests’ becomes singular – ‘forest’ – suggesting it’s the speeding Roman kings the writer has in mind even there. In ‘Tempest’ Blake is one of the passengers on the Titanic who ‘gambled in the dark’ – again suggesting uncertainty.)

It would seem that to some degree divinity does characterise the Roman kings. This is important in that it allows them to be not just the cause of wrongdoing but its cure. With respect to their own redemption they can play the role of Christ.

 

Uncertainty About Christ’s Divine Status

In Verse Two:

The picture Christ gives us of himself is likewise ambivalent. Traditionally held to be fully man and fully God, he seems in the second verse to be a man with no divine status or at least with doubts about it. The dramatically ironic reference to Good Friday is the first indication of this:

‘Tomorrow is Friday, we’ll see what it brings’

The horrible implication is that he has no firm idea what it will bring – his own trial and execution. This, then is Christ the man, a man without omniscience.

 

In Verse Four:

In the fourth verse, too, Christ appears as man and expresses uncertainty about his divine status:

‘I keep my fingers crossed, like the early Roman kings’

Since the Roman kings were described in language borrowed from Blake’s ‘Tyger’, their uncertainty would seem to be about their moral status – whether they are to be seen as evil or good, as fit for hell or salvation. In keeping his fingers crossed like them, Christ seems to be expressing doubt about his own status as God while remaining hopeful that he is.

The uncertainty continues:

‘I can dress up your wounds with a blood-clotted rag’

Although the ability to ‘dress up’ makes him seem like the Roman kings in their garish outfits, it’s pertinent that it’s wounds he dresses up and, furthermore, that it’s other people’s wounds. This alone makes him God-like, at least when compared with the Roman kings who dress up only themselves.

The line makes Christ’s possible God-like status becomes apparent in another way too. Using a blood-clotted rag for the sake of appearance would be to practise a human deceit. But if the blood clotted rag is a way of dressing our (or at least the addressee’s) wounds by the shedding of his own blood, it signifies a God-like ability to make possible our salvation. Nevertheless it remains significant that Christ says that he can ‘dress up your wounds’ and not simply that he can dress them. The doubt about his divinity remains.

The rest of the verse presents Christ as man rather than as God . It seems to be the man who is responsible for coarse language:

‘I ain’t afraid to make love to a bitch or a hag’

The historical Jesus did consort with prostitutes but he is not normally represented as having sex with them or treating them so disdainfully. What’s more, he seems to be wanting some sort of recognition for his sexual prowess:

‘If you see me coming…
Wave your handkerchief in the air’

This attitude would make him have more in common with the lecherous kings than with God, although at the same time the lines could perhaps be seen as an exhortation to surrender to the will of God.

That the significance of Friday is lost on him is again suggested when he says:

‘I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings’

He speaks as if he’s in a coffin’ – and glad it’s a safety coffin. His concern may be to rise from the coffin, but there’s no sign he’s expecting to rise from the dead.

 

In Verse Five:

The fifth verse starts with the speaker sounding like a Roman king, a man, rather than God. Without actually threatening to take life, he announces he’s capable of doing so:

‘I can strip you of life, strip you of breath,
Ship you down to the house of death’

On the other hand, while ‘strips’ has sexual overtones reminding us of his Roman-king-like nature, at the same time it makes him an opposite of the Roman kings. Whereas they ‘dress up’ he ‘strips’.

And that he thinks he may be God becomes apparent as the verse develops:

‘One day you will ask for me,
There’ll be no one else that you’ll wanna see’

The implicit self-comparison with the emperor Nero, who famously fiddled while Rome burnt, might suggest man-like qualities:

‘Bring down my fiddle, tune up my strings’

However the adoption of the ‘fiddle’ metaphor also suggests he’s about to turn the tables on Nero. Nero reputedly let Rome burn so that he could blame the Christians and so destroy them, as hinted in the third verse:

‘They destroyed your city, they’ll destroy you as well’

Christ’s fiddling is for the opposite purpose:

‘I’m going to break it wide open like the early Roman kings’

‘Break it wide open’ is a curiously constructed phrase. One normally breaks things up and, perhaps, leaves things wide open. It’s both positive and negative, implying both destructiveness and welcome. In destroying what the Roman kings, and particularly Nero, stand for – human egocentricity and the destruction of Christianity – Christ intends to open up a route to salvation. That at least supports the view that he sees his status as divine.

 

In Verse Six

The doubt about Christ’s divine status continues in the final verse. The mountain which the Roman kings descended from, godlike, is now the mountain of Christ who was timelessly present on it when Detroit fell. Viewed from outside time, it can be taken either as Calvary or heaven. If the mountain is Calvary, the suggestion is that the demise of the Roman kings- or the immorality they represent – is underway. If it is heaven, the fall of Detroit under the hand of the Roman kings can be seen as the fall of man. The picture we’re getting is of a Christ who witnesses man’s early demise and then intervenes to put matters right by way of his death on Calvary. However, it’s also the case that the fall of man and man’s redemption are being presented as two sides of the same coin. This would again suggest that man might be able to make amends for his own fall. There is no need for the divine intervention of Christ.

The verse continues:

‘Ding Dong Daddy, you’re coming up short’

Whilst ‘Daddy’ seems to make the addressee God the father, ‘Ding, dong’ seems to make it Christ’s possibly dead self in the safety coffin. The contemptuous tone now is in part the result of there seeming to be no possibility of salvation. Instead of rising from the dead, Christ sees himself as a corpse – no longer even a man – whose only hope of life is a somewhat pathetic bell. (There may also be an allusion to Blake’s Nobodaddy.)

The tone too, contemptuous and crude as well as critical, suggests it is Christ the flawed man speaking. Given the context, he’s presumably criticising his father for failing to prevent the excesses of the Roman kings in Detroit. His response, to put God on trial in a Sicilian court, suggests a viciousness which associates him with the Roman kings. And ironically what he threatens God with is in fact what the Romans do to Christ. His behaviour makes him much more man than God.

However all is not what it seems. it is in fact the case that the Christ operating here is both man and divine. His act of trying God, and the Roman kings’ act of trying him, can be taken as one and the same act. When God goes on trial, Christ will be on trial – provided Christ is God. The Mafia overtones of ‘Sicilian court’ suggest the trial of God is going to be a fix just as Christ’s trial was actually fixed. And so, by acting as a Roman king Christ brings about a trial and hence the salvation he criticises God, his father, for doing nothing about. Both the manhood and the divinity of Christ are involved in his pursuit of salvation for mankind.

The song ends:

‘I’ve had my fun, I’ve had my flings
Gonna shake ’em all down like the early Roman kings

The expression ‘shake ’em all down’ is perhaps a portmanteau expressing the concepts ‘shake things up’ and ‘send the evildoers down to hell’. Christ is renouncing the flawed ways of men and declaring his determination to stamp out immorality. But whether he expects to do this as God or man remains uncertain. The identification with the Roman kings in the second line suggests that it’s not like them so much as by way of them that he’s going to act. It remains open whether this requires him to be divine.

At the same time the use of ‘all’ in ‘shake ’em all down’ suggests it’s the Roman kings themselves who are going to hell because the focus of the song has been not just Roman kings but ‘all the early Roman kings’. This would require Christ to be acting independently and perhaps therefore as God. However the ‘all’ could equally refer to ‘all the women’ who go crazy about people they know to be disreputable. Or it could refer to the ‘all‘ who were killed when Detroit fell – the whole of humanity if Detroit’s fall is the fall of man. In these cases it remains open whether ‘Gonna shake ’em all down’ requires him to be divine.

 

Conclusion

The subject of the song seems to be man’s fall from grace, his far from perfect subsequent lifestyle, and the way in which he can return to moral perfection. The speaker is Christ, but a Christ who seems unsure about himself and of how salvation is going to come about. The temporal and spatial settings suggest that both the fall of man and the process of salvation are ongoing, which makes the role of Christ unclear. They also suggest that salvation should not be seen just as the fruit of Christ’s death two thousand years ago, but as the result of present day endeavours.

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That the time and source of salvation may be more fluid than the traditional view holds is likewise suggested by the ways in which those dealt with in the song are variously identified with each other. The bird representing the Holy spirit acts ‘like the early Roman kings’. Christ behaves as they behave. God the father is also the corpse of Christ in the coffin. The Roman kings are the destroyers of both Rome and Detroit. They are pagan gods coming down the mountain, and at the same time they are Christ coming down to earth; and Christ on Calvary. They are also the listener. And crucially the listener is also Christ. If Christ is not divine, the Roman kings – the listener – will have to rely on themselves to achieve salvation. This might be possible given their own divine status. And if Christ is divine, it’s through their identity with Christ that they might achieve their own salvation. Nevertheless if Christ’s own uncertainty about his divine status is warranted, then it remains uncertain what his involvement can be in man’s salvation.

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18 thoughts on “Early Roman Kings

  1. I think you are out on a limb here. When I first heard Early Roman Kings, its riff brought me back to Muddy Water’s “I’m a Man,” in which masculinity and sexual prowess are bragged about. Dylan’s song is a hipster twist built on that old foundation, making commentary on the rulers of the modern world (same as the old), how they use power (same as before), and how they will go down. “Early Roman kings” — I immediately thought of the greed and corrupting forces undermining government, citizenship, religion, and basic human decency. “Bigger than all men put together” — the banks “too big to fail.” “Peddlers and meddlers…they destroyed your city” — the Wall Street greed houses capable of bankrupting, ruining cities, countries, pension funds. The mafia allusions — how things are twisted to serve the oligarchs under the table. “Blazing the rails” — the old railroad tycoons buying up the west (USA references here). “Distributing the corn” — controlling the basic necessities of life (cornering the market, Monsanto, etc). “They drag you back” — economic coercion, police state, NSA. These people and their institutions are admired in our distorted world — “all the women going crazy for …”

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    • As far as I can see the difference between what you think and what I’ve said is largely one of emphasis. I agree that there’s sexual bragging. And certainly I see the kings in some sense as corrupting forces in the way you suggest. And the Detroit reference seems to show that the effect is in part financial. The other things you mention seem to me to be plausible too. Nevertheless there are clear Chrisian allusions – mountains, blood, Friday, Nero’s fiddling, fingers crossed which need to be taken into account. As do the Blake references. What you suggest might well work as an addition to what I’ve put but I don’t think it can totally replace it.

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  2. In the 4th verse, we come to the words of someone with the power to make things happen — sorta like Muddy Waters’ (or Bo Diddley’s) brag. One would only use a “blood-clotted rag” if it was all they had (came off of yourself), so this can be a reference to Christ, I admit. “I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings” is a theme Dylan has used of late referring to his own virility, I think. I know Detroit refers to a battle, but it could also have to do with American manufacturing and, thus, America’s destruction at the hands of our multi-national capitalist overlords. The Sicilian court means a judgement that cannot be overcome — it’s fixed. Anybody familiar with traditional blues lyrics knows it is “gonna shake ’em on down,” not “all down.”

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    • Well the Detroit reference looks as if it’s to a battle, but as far as I know Detroit’s never been involved in one – at least to the extent that it ‘fell’. I agree with you then that it seems more likely it’s a reference to its (or America’s, or the world’s) financial woes. Also it’s a city and therefore the reference follows up the earlier reference in ‘they destroyed your city’. This would make its destruction the work of the Roman kings and, as you say in your other reply, that seems to amount to corruption. I agree that ‘my bell still rings’ can be seen as a reference to virility and it therefore goes with the other sexual references – ‘make love’, ‘bitch’, ‘coming’, ‘standing’ and so on. Nevertheless the preceding phrase ‘I ain’t dead yet’ needs to me taken into account and the obvious way of doing so is to see the speaker as in a coffin. That has the advantage of going with the verse one description of the Roman kings in their coffins. It also goes with the idea of Christ overcoming death. I’m not sure why you think Sicilian court means a judgement which can’t be overcome, or how that’s significant even if it does. Because of the Mafia link I took it to be a reference to justice meted out by one group in its own interests. That would reflect the sort of justice meted out to Christ by interested groups – Romans and temple authorities. You may be right about ‘shake ’em on down’ but I hear ‘shake ’em all down’ and that’s what’s in most printed versions. Dylan could have changed the traditional blues lyric to fit his theme. He’d thereby be allowing it to be open to two interpretations. Again overall I’m not sure there’s all that much difference between your view and mine – which is satisfying!

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      • Kings in their coffins — remember “Dead Man, Dead Man?” Sicilian court, I just meant judgement is assured; they won’t be able to weasel their way out of it like they do now. Shake ’em on down means to shake the blues off, also to boogie (dance and romp it up). There was a Battle of Detroit during the 1812 War. British forces tricked the Americans defending Fort Detroit into a full surrender near present-day Detroit, Michigan. Probably no mountain though.

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      • Ah, that’s interesting. About Detroit. It ties up with the British burning the White House down in Narrow Way. Mind you, that line’s followed by ‘there’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town’ which might be to do with destroyiong cities. Not sure about ‘Sicilian court’, though I see what you mean.

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  3. Well, mountains can just mean the elite are elevated above everyone else. Friday is the day Jesus was crucified, but also near the end (of the week). Nero — how about Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went to Georgia” (I don’t see it, but hey)? I guess I missed it; did you explain about “fingers crossed?” It’s hard to be specific with Dylan. His songs are as if in dreams, and that may be where he gets them.

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    • Yes, I think that might well be, at least in part, what mountains signify. So, the Roman kings would be an elite descending to our level and paternalistically doling out food for us. That fits. I doubt if mountains just mean that though. All the other things Greek gods, Calvary etc still apply. Still, Christ up on the mountain at the end (there’s loads of up/down imagery) could mean that he has replaced the old elite.

      I’m not sure about your fiddle point. That it’s Nero fits with the idea of the kings being Roman and anti-Christian. On the other hand if it is Nero, Christ is in a sense having a fiddle-playing contest with him.

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  4. I interpret the Early Roman Kings as the modern elites who are not going to evade Final Justice. I consider the “make love” reference to be one of being analogous to Agape rather than Eros, in the manner of “Make You Feel My Love”, the meaning being that Christ’s Love is universal, no matter how wretched or lowly the objects of It.

    I have to completely disagree with the Pelagian elements of your thesis which I find no evidence of in Dylan’s profession of his Christianity in song or interview and which I would assert is directly contradicted by it’s companion song, “Narrow Way”.

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    • Thanks for your comment. I agree with your point about modern elites. That ties up with the expensive clothes. And I’m sure Dylan’s playing on the ambiguity of ‘love’ in English so ‘make love’ also means love in the love-thy-neighbour sense. Nevertheless ‘make love’ tends to mean have sex, so I don’t think the eros sense can be discounted. Also, the point’s supported by Dylan’s having obviated the need to have an asexual Christ by getting him to use expressions like ‘bitch’ and ‘hag’. Sexual licenciousness would fit the character. At least it would fit him more than it fits Christ as he’s usually presented.

      I’m not sure about the Pelagian element either. I’m certainly not suggesting Dylan believes in it. I think my point was that if Christ is doubting his own divinity, then he’d need to entertain the idea of redemption occurring without him. Part of what I was suggesting wasn’t really Pelagian, though. It’s that we’re all Roman kings and, crucially, we’re all Christ. So even if we’re necessarily self-reliant when it comes to redemption it’s still the case (in a sense) that Christ is doing the redeeming. It’s not Christ the man whose doing it, but the Christ in us all – a sort of mystical Christ. I’ve no idea what Dylan actually thinks about this, but I do think a case can be made for the idea being there in the song. If it’s not, there needs to be another explanation for all the identifying of one party with another.

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      • I understand your attempt to make sense of Dylan’s lyrics, but I think that Dylan’s lyrics are rarely prosaic and usually not amenable to definitive interpretation, so the listener must complete this himself. Obviously, we are both quite close in what we are taking from the lyrics, but with some fundamental differences:

        1). I would consider expressions like ‘bitch’ and ‘hag’ as not necessarily implying sexual licentiousness in a character, but may simply be descriptive of types. In these cases, not very desirable types, but the point is that Christ is prepared to extend His Mercy to all. Of course Dylan is playing games with the ambiguity-most of the songs on Tempest seem to operate on multiple levels-but I consider that the Christic meaning is not erotic. The song may operate on another level in which eroticism would apply but I’m having trouble enough with this one! I don’t believe Dylan would utilise blasphemy-his Christianity has always seemed very orthodox.

        2). I don’t get the notion in the song of “Christ in us all”, and I doubt Dylan would propose it. He seems to believe in a concrete “God of Time and Space” rather than in this mystical sense.

        Anyway, thanks for taking the trouble to reply and kudos to you for so skilfully delving into the depths of this song. I find Tempest one of Dylan’s greatest albums, but it lacks this kind of appropriate analysis. Keep up the good work.

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      • Thanks again for commenting. Ultimately of course there’s no answer. Even if Dylan said to one of us, ‘That’s not what I meant’ still that wouldn’t be the last word. The song must ultimately bear any interpretation which it can be shown to support. It comes down to what we can make of it.

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  5. Sorry, but I think the truest comment in all of this is the statement that the song can lyrics can bear any interpretation that you can suppose you have found some support for. It’s like seeing pictures in clouds, or ink blots! It seems to me that Dylan is just playing around with words and images – one word or image suggesting another – in a kind of free association of ideas. It’s just what Dylan has done for years, with – as it seems to me – greater or lesser degrees of success. ‘Early Roman Kings’ isn’t the worst of its kind, but it’s also very far from being amongst the best. As to what it’s all ‘about’, it simply isn’t possible to connect everything up together to discover some rational ‘meaning’. In any case, I’m not sure that I would WANT it to be possible, since if it could simply be ‘decoded’, the question would arise as to why it was necessary to write it in code in the first place? If this is REALLY Christ narrating (which I can’t believe for a moment) , or that there is some other vaguely Christian intent (whether ‘Pelagian’ or otherwise – and I certainly had to look THAT one up!) why should the poem try so hard to DISGUISE the fact? What would be the point?

    Finally I must just add that given that this is supposed to be a song and not just a lyric, it must surely be one of the most musically tedious and inept ever recorded. Has Dylan forgotten somewhere along the line that he is actually supposed to be a musician?

    As I began by saying………sorry.

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  6. Thanks for your comment Ken. But where to begin! Well, I do think that a song can bear any interpretation that there’s support for – but only in proportion to that support, of course. An example might be the ‘spikes’ image in the first verse. On one level they’re the spikes used to fix the rails in place when building railways, but on another they’re the spikes athletes use to keep a grip on the track. The interpretations seem pertinent since there are both railway references and running references. The meaning of ‘track’ is thus fluid between the two, suggesting both train track and running track. Part of the effect is to suggest that the Roman kings are both helpful, enabling other people to travel or progress through life, and self-centred, concerned only to win. In addition the association of spikes with nails (an alternative name for railway spikes) suggests that the Roman kings are also those who nailed Christ to the cross. Of course such an approach inevitably lends a superficial obscurity to the song, but hardly rreduces it to the level of a code to be cracked.

    It rather puzzles me that you don’t think the song’s at least largely interpretable in the way I’ve suggested and that Dylan’s just playing around. Of course that sort of thing has been done by modernist writers, but I don’t find that sort of free association here. My own view is the exact opposite – that there’s far more to the song than I’ve properly grasped. Of course I’m not suggesting that what I’ve suggested about Christ is the only interpretation possible. It might be possible to show, say, that the speaker is a parody of Christ, or the anti-christ. There may be some support for that from the Revelation references in other songs. But seeing the speaker as Christ provides a generally coherent interpretation. For a start there’s the reference to Friday which must surely be Good Friday. If the speaker is Christ, the reference takes on a somewhat black irony it wouldn’t otherwise have, and leads to the suggestion that this is a Christ who has only a muted idea of his divine role. Then there’s the association of blood with healing. Who else uses blood to heal? Even the speaker’s use of ‘hag’ and ‘bitch’ is not far removed from the tone of ‘Woman, my time is not yet come’ spoken to his mother. And Christ famously consorted with prostitutes. Further, the speaker’s claim to keep his fingers crossed immediately puts one in mind of the famous painting which gave rise to the expression by showing Christ with crossed fingers. I find it odd that you say you can’t believe it’s Christ when to me it’s such an obvious possibility! But thanks again for a stimulating comment.

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  7. Perhaps I need to be more specific as to why i have a problem relating the poem to Christ. Take for example the first stanza. We have reference to sharkskin suits, bow ties, high top boots, rails, coffins, top hats and tails and a little bird flapping its wings. How is any of this relevant to Christ? It is true that we do also have the word ‘Roman’ and Christ lived in Roman times, and there is a mention of driving in spikes which might possibly suggest the action of driving nails into a crucifix, if we really want it to. But surely we can’t just ignore everything else?

    In the 2nd stanza the early Roman kings are coming down the mountain, distributing corn. I can’t understand how it can be justified to move from this to Greek gods coming down Mount Olympus, and then make a further move to Christ coming down from heaven. And of course it is only if you have made this transition – which, as I’ve said I don’t see how you can justify – that you can possibly even begin to relate the corn to the Eucharist. I also don’t really see why the early Roman kings should be speeding through the forest, and there seems even less reason why the Greek gods or Christ should be doing so.

    I could go on through the whole thing,but perhaps this is enough to make my point. I didn’t know about the picture of Christ with his fingers crossed: but surely we know what the expression ‘keeping my fingers crossed’ means (especially in the casual, colloquial tone in which the poem is written) and in the absence of any clearer reference to the picture I can’t see that the commonly used meaning can simply be overridden.

    When I commented that Dylan was ‘playing around’ with words and images, I didn’t intend it as a particularly derogatory comment. Lots of poets play around in this way – it’s one of the things that poetry can do very effectively – I just think we have to keep a very close eye on the words that are actually given to us on the page and be very careful about going too far beyond them. Clouds are still clouds, and ink blots are still ink blots.

    .

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  8. I’m unconvinced. You say ‘driving in spikes … might possibly suggest the action of driving nails into a crucifix, if we really want it to’, but I don’t really want it to. The last thing I want to do is impose an interpretation. My suggestion arose simply because the idea occurred to me as I was listening to the song. And even you admit it ‘might possibly suggest’ the action of driving nails into a crucifix.

    Regarding Olympus, again it’s just what occurred to me. If there’s an allusion to a mountain, Olympus is an obvious possibility. Also there’s something stately about the language; ‘coming down’ has overtones of measured control, contrasting with the later ‘speeding’ and ‘racing’. Even if we scrub the Olympus suggestion, though, I still see a regal stateliness there which suggests that the Roman kings at this point are genuinely kingly.

    You say there’s no reason why Greek Gods or Christ should be taken as speeding through the forest. I agree, which is why I didn’t say they were! It’s only as Roman kings, to be interpreted now in a wholly derogatory sense, that they’re speeding through the forest. Here I do actually picture them as on motor bikes, but more important is that the tone has changed to one of menace. The stateliness has gone and it’s no surprise that ‘you try to get away’ – they’re a danger. And of course the forest is the abode of Blake’s tyger so the forest reference now makes them predatory.

    You imply I’m suggesting that the ‘commonly used meaning (of ‘keep my fingers crossed’) can simply be overridden’. I’m not, though. I’m suggesting that both the reference to Christ by way of the painting and the commonly used meaning are present. The common meaning suggests uncertainty thus reflecting Christ’s lack of certainty about his own status, something which is backed up by the Blake allusions.

    Over to you!

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  9. Obviously the narrator is Christ.

    I think mickvet is right that in the line ‘I’m not afraid to make love to a bitch or a hag’ the relevant kind of love is agape rather than eros. The frequent use of coarse language/imagery throughout the album seems to create a superficial surface that is at tension with the underlying meaning. In this regard ‘a bitch or…’ seems like a reference to Matthew 15.26 where Christ calls a woman (by implication) a dog.

    But mickvet also says ‘I don’t get the notion in the song of “Christ in us all”, and I doubt Dylan would propose it.’ I don’t know whether this idea is in the song, but I see no reason why Dylan should not propose it. First, a recurrent theme in the album is the Eucharist (e.g. Pay in Blood) wherein Christians in some sense partake of the body and blood of Christ. This is of course related to the Pauline view of the church as the body of Christ (c.f. Corinthians 12:27 ‘Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.’)

    Now some tentative alternative interpretations:

    ‘Coming down the mountain’ is interpreted above as Christ coming from heaven to Earth. But Old Testament connotations seem stronger, e.g. Moses bringing the commandments in Exodus 34:29. This might tie in with the general new law/old law theme in the album (c.f. Pay in Blood ‘our nation must be saved and freed’ which in context sounds like the salvation of Israel).

    ‘Bell still rings’ is interpreted as a safety-coffin. Although that seems highly plausible another image might be that of the leper-bell (as far as I can tell the bell itself is not biblical but is often thought to be).

    ‘Distributing the corn’ is interpreted as suggesting that the Kings are Christ (presumably because of the association of grain/bread with the body of Christ). Again there is an alternative Old Testament image, here of Joseph distributing corn at Genesis 42.6 (and in a Poynter artwork). Joseph has corn to distribute because he predicted a famine which might be a parallel for the Detroit economic decline.

    Alternatively, if the relation between corn and Christ is that the former is the body of Christ then the Early Roman Kings (given their multiplicity) seem more like the clergy rather than Christ himself (though of course acting in persona Christi). The bird may then be the Holy Spirit acting through the church, and their debauched and avaricious behavior a more or less literal reflection on much of church history.

    Regarding the mafia imagery: presumably the trial in a Sicilian court puts us in mind of the Sicilian mafia (and the widely publicized Sicilian mafia trials). As such reportedly significant presence of Sicilian mafia in Detroit might be relevant, as a connection between two seemingly isolated images. Perhaps also relevant is the 1984 Train 904 bombing carried out in order to distract security forces from investigating the Sicilian mafia since this would give a literal sense to ‘blazing the rails’.

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  10. Thanks for your comment Kyrilo. Everything you say seems utterly plausible to me. I’d forgotten about the Matt 15.26 passage where Christ implies the woman is a dog and that ties up the ‘bitch or a hag’ line nicely with the love being agape. And the Poynter drawing may well be significant in that it has ‘distributes’ in the title (cf. Dylan’s ‘distributing’).

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