The songs on ‘Tempest’ are closely related to each other so that the album really needs to be taken as a whole. A study of any one song on its own will inevitably fail to do it full justice. This interconnectedness affects ‘Narrow Way’ in a number of ways and perhaps most of all in how it relates to ‘Long And Wasted Years’. Whereas the narrator in that song is best seen as God, or the divine aspect of Christ, speaking to the human Christ, the narrator in ‘Narrow Way’ is best seen as the human Christ, and the addressee as his divine counterpart. More or less the same events, beginning with the torment of the human Christ in the desert, are thereby presented from different points of view. Given their close association, a study of the songs’ similarities and differences is likely to result in further light being thrown on each. Before any such comparison can be undertaken, however, an interpretation of the present song is needed and that is what I’ll attempt to provide here.
The events of the song are presented as both eternal and temporal, just as they are in ‘Long And Wasted Years’. From the temporal perspective there is a progression in the narrator’s psychological outlook. The first verse has the human Christ in a state of anxiety and contemplating crossing the desert in the hope of straightening things out. In the main part of the song we learn about the doubt which is apparently plaguing him. Gradually this is resolved and the song ends in apparent reconciliation with his divine counterpart.
The representation of events as eternal is crucial to a major theme of the song – redemption. From a temporal perspective the human Christ has the God-given role of redeeming the human race. It’s down to him. But the eternal perspective allows the human Christ to be identified with human beings generally – as represented by early nineteenth century Americans and their British enemy. Accordingly, although Christ makes possible the redemption of humanity by his example of suffering, it’s not just down to him. The association between Christ and humanity perhaps suggests that humanity will only be redeemed by its own effort.
Christ And Eternity
That it’s Christ who is speaking becomes apparent in the first verse. Not only is he in the desert, but he tells us that he hasn’t got anything to go back home for – which fits with traditional accounts of his poverty. It’s notable that having implicitly mentioned his own home, he immediately exclaims:
‘Go back home, leave me alone’
On one level this may be God he’s addressing, and irritably because it’s God’s demands on him which have put him in his present state of mind. On another level the demand may be being addressed to himself, as he knows that ultimately there’s no point in refusing to take on his responsibilities. In a way there’s no distinction, of course, given the identity relation between the human and divine aspects of Christ.
On yet another level, however, the later reference to the destruction of the White House makes the demand to ‘go back home’ a plea to humanity to refrain from warlike interference in other people’s affairs:
‘Ever since the British burned the White House down
There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town’
The implication is that it’s the British who need to ‘go back home’, so leaving the Americans in peace*.
At the end of the song the idea is reintroduced:
‘We’ve been to the west and we’re going back again’
While on one level this refers to the newly reconciled divine and human aspects of Christ, it can also be taken as an oblique reference to the British who went to America, but who’ve now returned home. The fact that it’s in the first person suggests an identity relation between Christ and the British. Christ’s leaving the desert for home to fulfil his divine role in some sense is the British leaving America and returning home. Just as Christ redeems humanity, so by their action do the British.
An identification of Christ with humanity, as represented by the British, is also to be found in the line:
‘We looted and we plundered on distant shores’
Since the White House episode is in the future from the perspective of the human Christ, this and the previous references to it only make sense from an eternal standpoint. Taking such a standpoint enables us to associate, perhaps even identify, Christ’s discomfort in the desert with the discomfort of 19th Century Americans at the hands of the British. From the eternal perspective Christ’s acceptance of suffering co-exists with that of the whole of humanity, leaving open the possibility that there may be no distinction between his need for self-sacrifice and theirs.
There are further indications that temporally separated events are to be seen as eternal, or in a sort of ongoing ‘now’. One is in the use of ‘There’s’, in:
‘There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town’,
instead of ‘There has been a bleeding wound …’ , which grammatically would make better sense.
Another indication is in the lines which immediately follow this. Here the past tense is used despite the fact that the events referred to are still in the future – or would be if they weren’t just an expression of Christ’s doubts:
‘I saw you drinking from an empty cup,
I saw you buried, I saw you dug up’
The cup is the task of redemption which he wants to reject (cf. Luke 22.42 ”Father, if you are willing, take this cup of suffering away from me’). The cup’s emptiness reflects his fear that he may not be divine. And in the second line just quoted that fear is present again since, after a wholly inadequate substitute for resurrection (being ‘dug up’), he remains dead.
The earlier and later parts of the song present major changes in Christ’s attitudes. These include moves from betrayal to loyalty, and from doubting his divine nature to a welcoming acceptance of it.
Ironically the narrator’s protestations of loyalty to God in the third verse are presented in language more appropriate to Judas:
‘I kissed your cheek…’
It’s dramatic irony in that, without realising it, the human Christ might be taken to have betrayed God – and therefore himself – in doubting his divine status. By the penultimate verse, however, the speaker’s attitude has changed. The admonishing tone has been replaced by a more compliant one, but again one making use of the kiss image to emphasise how an attitude of betrayal has given way to loyalty:
‘Kiss away the tears I weep’
Just as the kiss is used to present a development in the narrator’s attitude, so are references to his head. These occur in the fourth and ninth verses. In the fourth the narrator, speaking from an eternal perspective, admonishes himself for his future self-sacrifice in a lost cause:
‘You went and lost your lovely head
For a drink of wine and a crust of bread’
There’s no hint that his self-sacrifice – the offering of himself to God so as to redeem humanity – is an ongoing, eternal matter involving his body and blood. The bread and wine and wine are disparagingly presented as no more than just that. However, by the ninth verse he’s accepted the need for his death, and the tone has changed from bitter irony to loving submission:
‘I’m gonna have to take my head and bury it between your breasts’
The woman being addressed can be taken as a representation of God, or Christ’s divine side. Thus the action represents a loving coming together of the divine and human parts of Christ. In addition, in being able to say he’ll bury his head between the woman’s breasts, Christ seems to have overcome his former doubts about surviving death. Then he’d imagined a different sort of burial, one not followed by a glorious resurrection:
‘I saw you buried, and I saw you dug up’
Now he sees himself as alive.
Attitudes to violence are a theme of the song and their presentation has the effect of broadening the song’s concerns to include human behaviour. Again the song presents a development in the narrator’s attitude. To begin with he expresses pro-violence views which might seem depressingly typical of the humanity whose redemption he’s been trusted with. In one way this would be appropriate since he is himself a member of that humanity. Only later, as he accepts his divine role, does he adopt the more responsible outlook which the human race he represents will also need to adopt if it is to achieve salvation.
The earlier view, countenancing violence, is expressed in the fourth verse:
‘In the courtyard of the golden sun,
You stand and fight, or you break and run’
The implication is that the only alternatives are fighting and its corollary, running away. But, one might wonder, why should these be the only options? It’s a bit like saying your only options are to be a bully or a coward. In any case, the result seems to have been disaster:
‘You went and lost your lovely head’
The belligerent attitude is also associated with childish squabbling:
‘We looted and we plundered on distant shores
Why is my share not equal to yours?’
And either envy or contempt:
‘Even death has washed its hands of you’
This last line might also be taken as a begrudging acknowledgment of the divine Christ’s defeat of moral and physical death. The line also contains the further implication that death – moral death – won’t wash its hands of, or cease to apply to, those who emulate the human Christ’s desire to opt out. On the other hand there’s a hint in the wording that the human Christ does eventually accept his divine role. It was only after Christ had accepted that role that Pilate ‘washed his hands’ of responsibility for his execution (Matt 27.24).
Violence is also presented as self-destructive, and later in the song Christ comes to recognise this. A line from verse four:
‘You stand and fight, or you break and run’
echoes a previous reference to breaking four lines earlier:
‘You broke my heart’
The implication is that it’s the violent outlook espoused by the human Christ which is responsible for his own heart-break. He now recognises that rather than blaming his divine self for his sorrows, he should attribute them to his present, all-too-human, violent outlook.
Later the undesirable effects of violence are acknowledged:
‘Blades are everywhere, they’re breaking my skin’
Again the ‘breaking’ reference reminds us of the broken heart and of the narrator’s need to attribute responsibility for it to himself. The speaker regrets that:
‘You won’t get out of here unscarred’
but, if that’s true, one need only put two and two together to find its cause. It would have been better not to have espoused violence in the first place; violence begets violence.
By the end of the song the move away from violence is complete. He hears a – presumably divine – voice saying:
‘Be gentle brother. Be gentle and pray’
Now it seems there’s a third course of action to supplement the two aforementioned possibilities, fighting and running away. We’re left with the impression that the new, third option of gentleness and prayer is the one the human Christ ultimately accepts. He no longer sees his choice as between rejecting God’s will and hiding away in the desert.
It would at first seem that the suffering to humanity caused by mindless violence has by the end of the song been augmented by the wound Christ received in his side while on the cross. However, there’s been a transformation. The replacement of the original spear wound to Christ’s side by:
‘… an arrow that pierced my chest’
has turned the original violence to Christ’s body into an injection of love. The pierced chest is presumably a pierced heart, and the heart so pierced by love is able to replace the earlier self-inflicted broken heart. The effect is to suggest that Christ has now acquired the love for humanity which is a pre-requisite for his being able to redeem it by way of self-sacrifice.
The second half of the song recounts the gradual reconciliation of the human Christ with his divine counterpart. To begin with, the expression ‘Cake walking baby’ in verse eight has a flippant tone completely at odds with the serious opening line of the song**:
‘I’m gonna walk across the desert till I’m in my right mind’
The human Christ, now reconciled to his divine role, seems to be laughing at his decision to walk across the desert. That’s he’s reconciled to the demands of his divine counterpart becomes further apparent in his plea:
‘Put your arms around me where they belong’.
In addition, the desire to ‘take you on a roller coaster ride’ has supplemented the repeated line:
‘If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday’.
Instead of the two parts of Christ working in opposite directions, one up, one down, the implication now is that they can move in harmony – up and down together, as if on a roller coaster.
By the tenth verse the reconciliation is all but complete. The human Christ is no longer in torment. Night, representing that torment, has given way to dawn, or new life. The line:
‘The moving finger is moving on’***
suggests an acceptance of change and that his past doubts can be forgotten. A new confidence in God brings about a trusting acceptance of death:
‘You can guard me while I sleep’.
The final verse – not for the first time in the song – represents the divine and human Christ as the sun. On the previous occasion in verse four, the human Christ had seemed to think of the sun as God, failing to see that ‘the golden sun’ and his own ‘lovely head’ were one and the same. Now, having set, the sun prepares to return. In the words of the human Christ using the plural to speak on behalf of both himself and his divine counterpart:
‘We’ve been to the west and we’re going back again’
– meaning something like ‘Now it’s clear we’re one being, rebirth following death seems a certainty’.
The acceptance of impending rebirth means it doesn’t matter that the voice recommending gentleness and prayer is heard at the ‘dusk of day’ – even though the phrase’s overtones of death make it sound ominous. It also doesn’t matter since, from an eternal perspective, dusk and dawn – death and rebirth – are timelessly one. That we should make the connection between dusk and dawn is encouraged by the similarity in form between the expressions ‘dusk of day’ and the more normal ‘dawn of day’ which it has replaced.
Also In the final verse Christ’s attitude has moved on from an earlier, jealous criticism of his divine counterpart for having ‘too many lovers,’ to an acceptance of the need to love mankind:
‘I love women and she loves men’
Since God, or Christ’s divine side, is being represented as a woman, the love of men alluded to is presumably God’s love for all men. The narrator’s love of women is likewise presumably a love for all women.
Although the divine and human parts of Christ are presented as each being responsible for either the male or the female half of the human race, this needn’t be taken literally. Since the divine and human parts of Christ are united in God, it’s God as a unified whole who is responsible for the human race as a whole. The appearance of a divided responsibility just serves to highlight the absurdity of a rift between the two parts of Christ.
By the end of the song Christ’s journey from doubt to a willing acceptance of his divine role is complete. And with it he comes to accept his identity with God and that his own violent death will not be the end.
All along, though, the human Christ’s doubt seems to have been self-delusional in that the refrain shows him to be constantly aware of the route he needs to take:
‘It’s a long road, it’s a long and narrow way’
– or as the evangelist has it, ‘wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction’ (Matt. 7.14). It’s only the human Christ, bound by time, who chooses the desert for his path. The eternal Christ is not so deluded as to see the desert path as narrow.
Although he’s able to complete his task of redemption, the eternal perspective from which he speaks makes it clear that Christ’s responsibility for humanity is humanity’s responsibility for itself. His own violent death is humanity’s doing, and it’s for humanity therefore to curb its tendency to violence. Christ has shown it how. Just as he had to let God ‘work down to’him, so humanity must follow his lead and let God work down to it.
*For historical background see http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/british-troops-set-fire-to-the-white-house
**Oxford Dictionaries definition of ‘cake walk’: A strutting dance popular at the end of the 19th century, developed from an American black contest in graceful walking which had a cake as a prize.
*** The phrase is adapted from ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ tr. Fitzgerald.