Tempest (song)


In his review of ‘Desolation Row’ the poet Philip Larkin described it as possibly having ‘half-baked words’. I dread to think what he’d have said about ‘Tempest’! The song seems to have been built up from expressions drawn from other songs, and worn out clichés which would have made McGonagall proud. On the other hand it provides the title to the album as a whole and is clearly thematically central. Much of the negative effect may be a result of Dylan’s attempting to incorporate ill-fitting biblical phrases and other material into a structure borrowed from a Carter family song about the Titanic. Not all, though. And one is left with the impression that what comes across as incongruous to the point of clumsy may be deliberate. I shall proceed on that assumption. What is certain, however, is that much more is going on in the song than is immediately apparent.

The song is not really about the sinking of the Titanic. Hardly any of the incidents or people mentioned have anything to do with the Titanic’s maiden and final voyage. Of all the changes the most obvious is probably the substitution of a storm for the iceberg which directly caused the historical sinking. The change is apposite because the song has a religious theme, and because tempests figure over and over again in various parts of the bible. The Book of Revelation, Dylan’s main biblical concern, refers to both a ‘commotion’ and a ‘whirlwind’, both of which terms figure in the song . Biblical tempests can represent either punishment from God (as in Psalms 11:6) or perhaps trials of faith (Matt. 8:24). Both ideas seem present in Dylan’s song, and they’re explored through attitudes to wealth, violence, generosity and religion.


A major difference between this song and its Carter source is the emphasis on wealth. ‘The rich man, Mr Astor’ is by no means unique in being rich among passengers described as ‘all the lords and ladies’. There’s no mention at this stage of anyone obviously not wealthy. Later we’re told ‘the host was pouring brandy’, again implying a lavish lifestyle, as does the presence of an orchestra (as distinct from a mere band), and ballroom dancers. And there’s a bishop who can clearly afford a cabin of his own. The fittings too are opulent. Chandeliers sway from the balustrades, and there’s a staircase sporting ‘brass and polished gold’. Gold again figures when the life these people are pursuing is described as ‘a golden age’. The only explicit references to poverty are in the bishop’s somewhat mindless abrogation of responsibility ‘the poor are yours to feed’, and in the clichéd description of the victims – ‘the good, the bad, the rich, the poor’. The expression ‘the rich man’, preserved from the Carter song, and used here to describe Astor, inevitably reminds us of Christ’s warning about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s a warning which seems not to have been heeded by the passengers generally.


Another difference is the emphasis on violence. The voyage seems to be a representation of life, with the ship representing the world. And it’s a world full of self-defeating violence whose absurdity comes across most of all in the passenger called Wellington. His response to the disaster is to ‘strap on both his pistols’ and wonder how long he could ‘hold out’, as if he were under siege. If we see him simply as a passenger on a sinking ship, his behaviour is ludicrous – and in a way which matches the response of the bishop. Whereas the bishop thinks irrelevantly of hunger, Wellington thinks equally irrelevantly of protecting himself against aggressors. Since a number of songs on ‘Tempest’ refer to the Anglo/US war of 1812, Wellington may be a reference to the victor of Waterloo who had participated in the 1812 campaign. Accordingly his gun-toting behaviour would reflect society’s propensity to go to war at minimal provocation.

Among further references to violence we’re told that:

‘Brother rose up against brother
In ever circumstance.
They fought and slaughtered each other’

Again, taken literally, this is absurd. One imagines there would not have been many brothers on the ship, and those that were didn’t behave like this. But it shouldn’t be taken literally. All three lines are of biblical origin – probably Genesis 4.8, 1 Thess 5.18, and 2 Kings 3.23 respectively. The violent events alluded to are the murder of Abel by Cain and kings slaughtering each other. What’s noticeable is that in each case people are killing others similar to themselves. Humanity is being represented as responsible for its own undoing. The phrase ‘In every circumstance’ is associated in Thessalonians with occasions when God should be thanked, so its use here perhaps works as a reminder of a more responsible approach to one’s lot.

In a similar way, the line:

‘There were traitors, there were turncoats’

seems to be a reference to life generally rather than events on board the Titanic. Again, the idea seems to be that humanity self-destructs when it turns on itself.

At the end of the song we’re told that the news of the sinking:

‘…struck with deadly force’

those waiting for news of their loved ones. The words ‘deadly force’ not only seem appropriate to the violence of the storm which sank the ship, but echo the description of the behaviour of those on board. These:

‘… fought and slaughtered each other
In a deadly dance’

The use of ‘deadly’ in each case makes it seem that there’s no underlying distinction between God’s vengeance, the destructive power of nature, and the self-interested violence of the passengers. God’s wrath is presented as being indistinguishable from the self-destructive effects of humanity’s self-interest.


While violence is strongly associated with the disaster, the song’s opposition to violence is not unequivocal. Love, for instance , while associated with affection:

‘He kissed his darling wife’,

can itself be the result of violence:

‘Cupid struck his bosom
And broke it with a snap’

What matters is here is that it’s a harmless, totally non-malevolent, violence. The point seems to be that it’s not violence in itself which is bad, but the violent attitudes taken by human beings.

Several other descriptions also suggest that what is bad from one point of view, or in one way, may be good from another. ‘The seas were sharp and clear’ suggests both danger and safety. The oxymoronic ‘dark illumination’ and ‘The night was black with starlight’ perhaps suggest that despite the disaster there is still hope. And this contrasts with the wholly positive ‘He saw the starlight shining/streaming from the East’ – the positivity following on, and resulting, from a selfless act of generosity. The overall suggestion seems to be that whereas the world is in fact neutral between good and bad, we can through our actions change how it seems to us.

Most of the passengers have a pessimistic outlook, though – and this too is reflected in the language which describes things as they choose to see them. In particular there’s an overwhelming imbalance between the use of the words ‘up’ and ‘down’. Descriptions include ‘the great ship that went down‘,’ lights down in the hallway’, the pleonastic ‘descending down the stairs’ and ‘they lowered down the lifeboats’, ‘blood pouring down his arm’ and ‘the needle pointing downward‘. By contrast, the only mentions of ‘up’ are in the bishop’s turning his eyes ‘up‘ to heaven, and ‘The roll was called up yonder’ , a biblical phrase referring to heaven. For most passengers events seem worse than they need to through their own doing.


The imbalance between the use of ‘up’ and ‘down’ can be seen, then, as directly reflecting an imbalance between optimism and pessimism among the passengers. This imbalance reflects a difference in attitude to our existence which can be viewed either as spatiotemporal or as eternal.

The theme is introduced by the apparently McGonagallesque line:

”Twas the fourteenth day of April’

Initially the line seem clumsily self-conscious in its use of ‘poetic’ and superfluous words, and one might wonder at the narrator’s concern with a precise date in a song which has little regard for historical accuracy. However the line, by way of both its content and seeming clumsiness, serves to draw attention to the impoverishment of a temporal, as distinct from an eternal, perspective.

Two lines later we’re told the ship was, in the words of the cliché:

‘Sailing into tomorrow’

Literally, this is impossible, of course. You can only sail into spatial locations, not temporal ones. By eliding the usual distinction between time and space, a unity between them has been created. This is reinforced by the use of the expression:

‘The promised hour …’

which, in making our thoughts jump to the more usual expression ‘the promised land’, makes it seem as if the concepts of space and time are interchangeable. The usual contrast between space and time is then replaced by a further contrast between the new space/time unity on the one hand and eternity on the other. Almost immediately we’re told that the ‘lords and ladies’ are:

‘Heading for their eternal home’

The expression ‘eternal home’ is suggestive of salvation or damnation in some atemporal sense (cf. 2 Cor 5.1).

This opposition between a spatiotemporal existence and eternity becomes particularly apparent when we’re told that Wellington’s bed ‘begin to slide’ (rather than begins or began). The ungrammatical, tenseless ‘begin’ suggests timelessness. Like another character Leo, who recognises its ‘no time now to sleep’ (cf. Romans 13:11), Wellington has the chance to embrace eternal values. His response, however, is a rebuff. He decides instead to wait:

‘… for time and space to intervene’

In other words he rejected eternity for a spatiotemporal reality, and attended to earthly matters – like, presumably, finding people to shoot.

Underlying Unity: Leo and Cleo

The attitude which goes along with eternal life is the opposite of Wellington’s and those who relish violence. This is the attitude of selfless concern for others. One way that such selflessness is represented in the song is through the character Leo whose concern for others is represented by a quite literal identity with another person. This occurs in the line:

‘Leo said to Cleo’

The name ‘Cleo’ contains ‘Leo’ within it, suggesting that although there are two people they are at the same time one and the same. That Leo is Cleo is then further reinforced by the idea of Cupid striking his ‘bosom’. This is because ‘bosom’ implies femininity, the word normally being applied to a woman rather than a man. Since Leo has become part of Cleo, the love so represented is perhaps better seen as agape rather than the erotic love normally associated with Cupid.

Leo’s total unity with someone else is perhaps then reinforced by the lines:

‘But he’d lost his mind already
Whatever mind he’d had’

Leo has lost his mind in the sense of having lost his self identity in pursuing his concern for others. This is a literal selflessness to be associated with the eternal in that it goes beyond normal spatiotemporal distinctions.

The hint of an eternal existence which goes beyond the spatiotemporal is to be found in other unities too. Often these involve repeated words. So:

‘The sky splitting all around’

is followed by:

‘The ship’s bow split apart’

The sky is splitting to reveal God, and the same word’s being applied to the ship reinforces the idea that the ship’s destruction is itself a manifestation of God.

And while the ship is:

‘Dropping to her knees

the captain is said to be:

Kneeling at the wheel’

Again the repeated word hints at identity. The captain is identified with the ship, by way of kneeling, and since the ship is identified with God by way of splitting, the result is a unity comprising all three.

When drawing, Leo is described as ‘ … often so inclined’, while the smokestack is described as ‘leaning sideways’ and the watchman’s we’re told is ‘at forty-five degrees’. The commonality again suggests an identity involving God. This is because Leo and the watchman are both identified with a part of the ship which is itself identified with God.
The possibility of unity with God is also implied by the use and repetition of the word ‘aside’. We’re told that:

‘The angel’s turned aside‘,

and that Wellington:

‘…pushed the tables aside‘.

The word ‘aside’ is significant in that Moses was only able to see God when he ‘turned aside’ (Exodus 3.3). Thus the angels’ turning aside is as much an acknowledgement of the presence of God as a desertion of the passengers. And Wellington’s pushing the tables aside likewise suggests his own possible (but perhaps unrealised) identity with God. In his case the potential identity is reinforced by his behaviour’s similarity to that of Christ overturning tables in the temple.


The passengers’ destination is ‘a golden age foretold’ implying a better existence. On a secular level the idea seems to be that America represents an opportunity for a better life on earth – that’s how the passengers see it. In addition, though, the expression ‘a golden age foretold’ has a somewhat mystical feel to it. There seems to be a suggestion that, viewed from a non-temporal standpoint, the golden age is achievable on earth. It’s in this sense that the passengers think they’re ‘heading for their ‘eternal home’.

A similar mystical feel arises from the expression ‘The promised hour was near’. The words ‘the promised hour’ occur in Josiah, and refer to God’s promise to the Israelites of a land of their own. This is often taken to refer to the salvation of mankind. In addition, the promised hour can be seen as the hour of judgment (Mark 13.32). None of the passengers – noticeably not even the bishop – seems to have been prepared for it. At the end of the song the deaths of the passengers are explicitly put down to ‘the judgement of God’s hand’.

The destruction of the Titanic is, then, apocalyptic. While it can be seen as the fate of the passengers, in so far as the Titanic represents the world, it also represents the fate of mankind. ‘Apocalypse’ literally means the lifting of a veil, or revelation, and in the song we’re told:

‘The veil was torn asunder’.

The vision of the apocalypse in the ‘Book of Revelation’ tells us ‘the sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up’. In the song we have the ‘Sky splitting all around’. The references to ‘Revelation’ are made explicit when we’re told that the captain is reading the Book of Revelation and:

‘…filled his cup with tears’.

‘Cup’ is associated there with ‘the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation’ (Rev 14.10). On a literal level his tears are for the loss of his ship, but in the light of the quotation are better seen as anger and indignation for the loss of the world. He is also like Christ in that he too shed tears for the world.

It’s significant that when the captain realises the compass needle is pointing downward (which it would if the ship were upended), he’s looking at ‘its face’. The mention of ‘face’ suggests that now he’s seeing the face of God, something which can happen only at the point of death (Exodus 33:20).

The Bishop and Leo

Two passengers who can be instructively compared are the bishop and Leo. The bishop is aware of his obligations but seems to do little about them. His comment to God, ‘The poor are yours to feed’, can be seen as buck-passing. In the situation they’re in it isn’t even relevant since, although there are plenty of poor people on board, hunger is hardly their present concern. He should in any case be helping anyone who needs help, rich or poor. His assumed diffidence can be contrasted with the attitude of Leo who goes out of his way to help others:

‘He tried to block the doorway
To save others from harm’

The main thing which marks Leo out as different, though, is in the lines which immediately follow:

‘Blood from an open wound
Pouring down his arm’

Leo is here presented as a Christ-like character whose efforts for others are at the expense of his own blood. This makes his contrast with the bishop all the more ironic. Whereas the bishop merely refers to ‘the poor‘, Leo’s arm is actually pouring blood. This also puts him in contrast with the host who likewise is pouring – but merely brandy. It’s significant too that Leo has ‘an open wound’, ‘open’ associating it with the universe which had ‘opened wide’ to reveal God. We’re being presented with different views of God – the God who exacts punishment (manifested as the consequences of people’s actions), and the God who redeems.

Three More New Testament References

It’s clear that ‘Tempest’ is full of references to the New Testament. Two which haven’t been noted involve a passenger referred to simply as ‘the host’, and Wellington.
About the host we’re told that he was ‘was the last to go’. This could be seen as meaning that he put wining and dining before behaviour of a more responsible sort in the circumstances. However the phrase seems to be a reminder of Christ’s warning that the ‘first shall be last, and last shall be first’ (Mark 10.31). Accordingly it could mean that the host put others before himself. If so he would end up being among the saved (in the eternal sense, but not the temporal – because presumably he’d have missed out on getting a place in a lifeboat).

For Wellington, we’re told, ‘the passageway was narrow’. His response on seeing this was to merely notice people’s misery rather than go down the passageway to see what help he could provide. The phrase reminds us of the New Testament warning ‘broad is the road that leads to destruction’ (Matt. 7.14) – the narrow road, by contrast, leading to salvation. In not taking it, Wellington seems to have foregone the chance of being saved (again, in the spiritual sense).

Given that the sinking can be seen as the work of God, the narrator’s comment:

‘No change, no sudden wonder
Could undo what had been done’

seems heavily ironic by way of its use of biblical language. The implication is that that far from recognising God’s approval of the sinking, which was itself actually a ‘change’ or ‘sudden wonder’ brought about by God, the passengers see the ending of their opulent lifestyles as something God should want to reverse – and would do if only his omnipotence went this far. The lines express a sort of quiet despair. The passengers are presented as resigned to their fate. In a temporal sense this may be realistic, but the use of biblical language suggests that their spiritual fate might not be so predestined.


The notion of spiritual predestination is brought to the fore by the reference to Calvin and Blake:

‘Calvin, Blake and Wilson
Gambled in the dark.
Not one of them would ever live
To tell the tale, or disembark’

The first line is almost certainly adapted from the Yeats poem ‘Under Ben Bulben’ in which the narrator is appealing for painters to ‘bring the soul of man to God’. The poem contains the lines:

‘When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude
Prepared a rest for the people of God’

Calvert, Wilson, Blake and Claude (Lorrain) are visionary artists, although Blake is of course also the romantic poet*. Dylan has kept Wilson and Blake, but replaced Calvert with Calvin – presumably the sixteenth century protestant theologian. If so, the replacement is significant because it suggests a concern with Calvin’s theory of predestination – the view that God has actively chosen some people for damnation as well as for salvation. Dylan’s trio are gambling that they’ve been saved, that they’d ‘ever live’ – which can be read as have eternal life. Metaphorically it’s a gamble because they don’t know – they’re in ‘the dark’ about it. Calvin’s gamble would have been that he’s been predestined to eternal life, and Blake’s that eternal life depends on how one lives (Blake being thoroughly opposed to the notion of predestination).

The idea of predestination pervades the song by way of an ever present feeling of pointlessness and futility. Alarm bells ring ‘to keep back the swelling tide’, a character puts on pistols, passengers cling to each other, passengers jump into icy water, the brothel keeper dismisses his girls, people wait at the landing, the watchman knows what’s happening, but only in a dream. All of these things seem futile. Yet much of this is balanced by behaviour which is hopeful. The rich man kisses his wife, the bishop prays, someone gives his seat up, Leo tries to block the doorway, the watchman tries to tell someone, people try to understand.

Predestination is again alluded to in the final line of the penultimate verse:

‘All things had run their course’

The phrase ‘run their course’ suggests things developing on a preset path. However the statement has a bias towards the temporal in that it implies these things are happening in time. Considered from an eternal perspective things may not be so set in stone. If so, rather than being predestined people can still choose to be redeemed. That there is an alternative to predestination is supported by the implicit reference to Christ as redeemer in the description of the blood from Leo’s open wound.


Despite superficially appearing clumsily written, the song is far from empty. It takes a historical event, but not to throw light on it. The actual sinking of the Titanic is important only to provide a context for presenting issues concerning such matters as the revelation of God, predestination, redemption, the spatiotemporal as opposed to the eternal, and attitudes to wealth and violence. To do this it makes use of copious expressions drawn virtually verbatim from the bible, as well as other lyrical work, and deploys them in a setting and line structure borrowed from the Carter source and in which they don’t easily sit.

Not only is the song not about the actual Titanic, neither is it about the relatively recent film ‘Titanic’ starring Leonardo di Caprio. The significance of the character Leo is discussed above, but there is perhaps some further point to the film reference. It’s notable that the account we get is from a vague, unnamed source (‘She told a sad, sad story’), and only indirectly, via the song’s narrator, at that. Furthermore it includes an obvious fictional interpolation (Leo), as well as material drawn from a number of other sources both secular and biblical. Given the seriousness and nature of the song’s themes, this miscellany of origin and content perhaps mirrors the way the gospels also present a hodgepodge of material from unstated sources. To that extent the song can be seen as reflecting the manner in which the gospels deal with that same material.


* Thanks to an Expecting Rain discussion for alerting me to the Yeats source and the possible identity of Wilson.