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.

17 thoughts on “Tempest (song)

  1. Thanks for a fabulously detailed and informed reading of Dylan’s latest song masterpiece!

    As far as who is narrating the story: I always understood from the first verse that the moon does. “The pale moon rose in its glory/ Out on the Western town/ She told a sad, sad story/ Of the great ship that went down”. The moon rises in the east, so whatever has occured east of the Western town is already known to the moon (we assume that the Western town is American – Duluth perhaps – so obviously the North Atlantic has already been covered by the moon). In contrast to the initial impersonal “its”, the moon is then personafied as a feminine storyteller (“she”). The moon is traditionally associated with femininity, and the traditional notion of revelatory feminine storytelling is as old as Scheherazade of Arabian Nights and the Oracle of Delphi.

    I tend to believe that the watchman is situated completely outside of the story – perhaps he is sleeping in the Western town where he is informed (illuminated) by the grim, lunar wisdom of the moon. In that sense the watchman could lay dreaming in a totally different day and age – perhaps a full century past the Titanic shipwreck. Perhaps he even woke up and wrote a long song about it – not just the actual shipwreck but all the apocalytic indications and associations his dream brought to him…


    • Thanks for your comment Stig. That’s interesting about the moon. The idea that the moon is over the western town (New York, the ship’s destination?) and knows what’s happened already, seems plausible. The change from ‘she’ to ‘it’ is present in the original Carter song, so I didn’t pay it much attention. Nevertheless Dylan may well have kept it in for reasons of his own. Two occur to me. One is it suggests an underlying unity – the ‘it’ and the ‘she’ are the same thing. This occurs again when it seems that Leo and Cleo must be a unity. The other is that the moon is often associated with madness, and so might be the cause of Leo’s madness. I’m not sure what to make of that, though, because madness doesn’t seem to be a theme that’s developed in the song. The watchman is also present, and asleep, in the Carter song, but I think there might be something in your suggestion about its being unclear when he’s asleep. His viewpoint might be ‘eternal’, then, in that he’s outside the temporal frame of the main events.

      Having said that, of course the watchman is sleeping ‘as the ballroom dancers twirled’. That suggests he was on the deck as the ship was sinking. It occurs to me, though, that it may be significant that he’s not merely sleeping but ‘dreaming’ which might be seen as halfway between sleep and being awake. It may also be significant that he dreams the ship’s going into the ‘underworld’- a neutral state compared with heaven and hell.


  2. Pretty thorough, though I doubt that Dylan on all occasions has meant these connections in these details as suggested, yet you make a good case and it explains the queer language of this song which grows in stature the more you listen to it. Even the musical details, at first seeming just subdued, become stronger.


    • Thanks Hans. Yes I’m not sure to what extent these things are conscious on Dylan’s part. I don’t think that matters, though. An awful lot happens on an unconscious level in writing, and we’re never going to have access to Dylan’s unconscious. We’re therefore forced to deal with ‘the words on the page’. If the connections are there, they’re there, whether intended or not.


      • As a writer of songs and stories I totally agree there! Sometimes even my own writing suprises me with new meanings and associations when reading it over.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. All these analyses have been stimulating – thank you.
    I wonder if the “host” in Tempest refers to the Eucharist – if only in a punning way. As I’m sure you know “host” derives from the Latin hostia, meaning sacrificial victim. The altar bread only becomes the host after transubstantiation. As you note this song has many Christ references (though I’m in the camp that argues that few post 1980 Dylan songs don’t have Christ references) and to transfigurative changes too.
    More generally there seems to me to be an unexpectedly Romish cast to the whole collection of songs – certainly the overt Mariolatry and Mel-Gibsonesque focus on the Passion and blood sacrifice of Christ. Up to and including Dylan’s apparently bizarre decision not to play the Tempest songs in Rome on that tour – almost as if he feared they would be seen as sacrilegious in that City.


    • Thanks for commenting Nick. I think you’re right about the host. There’s perhaps also some connection with the Eucharist because of the association with wine by way of the brandy. The only effect, as far as I can see, is to reinforce the idea that there’s an alternative to a lifestyle based on riches and violence – but I think it does reinforce it. Having said that, there may be significance to his ‘going down slow’. At any rate it puts him in contrast with the passengers flying ‘far and fast’.

      It’s interesting that Dylan didn’t play ‘Tempest’ songs in Rome. I hadn’t realised that.


  4. Dear David,
    please stop overanalyzing these songs, it steals away the Dylan i love to hear.
    Anytime i read your articles, I´m bored and really sick of these biblical interpretations. Sorry, and not only it´s raining the whole day long. Did you talked with Bob, did you met him ? He would kick your….Shure he is a strong believer and he´s picking here and there. While writing Songs for Tempest he was cought for some time by the ideas of transfiguration and as he said, he tried to make something more religious. Well done, and the whole album is really a masterpiece.
    I think, you try to come closer, but you´re still a million miles away.
    Shure, i don´t have to read your stuff, but sometimes i think, if it ranges on Position 1 or 2 on expecting rain, it could be interesting.
    So start again listening to Bob, its not too late.
    Do you speak german ?
    Since a few months we have the Book ” The voices from the underworld”
    The mystery plays of Bob Dylan.
    It might be a good cure for you and of course a shot of Love.


    • Thanks for your comment Marco. Of course, just because you’re ‘sick of biblical interpretations’ it doesn’t necessarily mean those interpretations aren’t plausible. Perhaps you think that no biblical interpretation could possibly be plausible. If so you need to be able to explain what the function of so much biblical language in the songs is. Just to say Dylan was ‘caught by the ideas of transfiguration’ and ‘tried to make something more religious’ seems terribly vague. I’m sure that such explanatory comments are intended to do no more than point us in the right direction. They’re not a substitute for thought. I’ve not read the book you mention, so I’d be interested if you’d care to raise here any interpretative points which have impressed you.


  5. Hy David, I´m happy that you can handle my critics, I try for what you´re asking for.
    First remember Masked & Anonymous with all the characters on stage. Then take Tempest, this “monumental” plot with the following characters on board: we see Cupid, Love, Pity, The reaper, a Dandy, the richman, even a politician, the bishop and the sin. All these people/charaters are sitting in the same boat. By Fate or bei the will of God, the passengers are all dying,equal how good or bad they were in the past, on their way to their eternal home, to a golden age fortold or a brave new world or whereever you believe, what is going on behind the horizon.
    Dylan is thinking in plots, this world of intensive pictures and as he told us last year he has a strong affinition to the plays of Shakespeare. and i think this song is this kind of a play, where all these characters are connected with eachother, in our world and in every single human beeing.
    One sentence to the watchman. He´s definetly not on board, he is kind of a prophet, it could be the same night, time could be also out of mind, he saw what will happen, but he could´nt tell.
    For shure, the bible, Shakespeare, Petrarca, greek and roman stories are the main sources for Dylans Lyrics,
    But Dylan said also some important thing :
    If you as the listener have no own experience with the thing, the song is about, you will not understand the song and so this song will not exist for you .
    Have a nice time. .


    • Thanks for getting back, Marco. I have to say I’m still a bit perplexed. A number of points you make seem to be without much support. You say, for example, that the watchman is definitely not on board. But what’s the evidence for that? At most I’d say it’s just about conceivable he’s not on board. But only just about. In fact there’s a clear indication that he is on board, namely that he’s ‘at forty-five degrees’ which would be a mighty odd coincidence if he were anywhere but on the ship. On the other hand, being on a sinking ship would seem to explain it.

      You seem to suggest that the watchman is a prophet. Isn’t that the very sort of biblical interpretation which you dislike, though? I agree, through, that the idea itself is an interesting one – potentially at any rate. Whether it actually is depends on what significance it can be shown to have. If it’s to show that he’s out of time in some sense (a religious idea Dylan seems deal with a lot) that’s fine in so far as it goes, but it still needs making clear what having an eternal watchman adds to the song. (If he is a prophet he doesn’t seem to be any better at the job than he is at being a watchman, given that either way he fails to give a warning of impending disaster.)

      You say that the passengers are all dying, but is that really so? We’re told, or it’s at least implied, that some die, but not all. What about the little boy who (it’s implied) gets given a seat in a lifeboat? What about Davey and his girls? Do they die? We’re not told. What is implied is that a huge number of those on Dylan’s Titanic were saved because that was the case on the real Titanic. The numbers lost were the same on each – sixteen hundred – so it would be reasonable to assume that the numbers saved were the same.

      I’m not sure about all the characters being connected with each other is the case either – except in that they’re all on the same sinking ship. Apart from that, many don’t seem to have anything to do with most of the others. Is it made clear that Mr Astor connected with anyone apart from his wife? What about the bishop? The best one can say is that a lot of passengers are connected with someone else, but not that they’re connected with each other. Even if the connection is that they’re all on the same sinking ship, it still needs to be made clear what the significance of that connection is.

      I think I agree with the point you attribute to Dylan – that to appreciate a song you need the appropriate experience. That’s seems to be generally true to a greater or lesser extent. I doubt if one could appreciate ‘Anna Karenina’, say, unless one had experienced something like the emotional turmoil Anna goes through. But in Dylan’s case I think it’s probably more likely to be true in the case of ‘Time Out Of Mind’, which is largely to do with human psychology, than for the songs on ‘Tempest’. But I’d be happy to be persuaded otherwise!

      Thanks again.


  6. Hy David,
    you don´t have to be perplexed, we are used to perplecity, specially when we talk about Dylan.
    First i´m really impressed that you take your time to answer all thes comments on your page.
    And it´s not my dislike of biblical links in the lyris, this would be a big missunderstanding.
    In Dylan Lyrics we have more layers than these. The dialog, we both have shows therefore only a different interpretations or gates to the song, enough support or not .
    So i go again, starting with
    The reapers task has ended
    Love and Pity couldn´t nothing more achieve
    all cashed and carried
    the good, the bad, the rich, the poor, the loveliest and the best

    The carter song turns via Hollywood in a middle aged “deadly dance”
    a modern story , where the high lord of Heaven sending out Death to load any creature to come, to pay life´s bills.” in a manner of morall plays.
    It´s about the embodiment or personification os human virtues and vices.
    Something is happening, what has happened long before or will happen sometime, timeless and eternal.
    And what about the 45 degrees. Longitude, Latitude, Temperature (somewhere in the shadow of the southern zone), equal.
    Four Times we see this watchman.
    And he´s the dreamer, who sees the sinking of the ship.
    He dreams the happening itself.
    He´s not a figure in this plot, forget the prohet,
    he´s not really a watcher, he´s the director
    So all the figures, Dylan set on the titanic are all dreamed

    “We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep”
    The sleep, which is covering Life and Dying, this is the sleep of the watchman.
    Who knows in which world the dreamer will be, when he finally wakes up.


    • Perhaps a case could be made for the watchman being in some sense outside of time and space. That seems plausible to me in a way that his literally not being on the ship doesn’t. And it is interesting that the watchman’s dream coincides with reality. We still need to be able to say more precisely what the significance of this would be for the function of the watchman in the song, though. It’s just occurred to me that dreaming might be thought to stand in the same relation to sleep as eternity does to everday life. The dreaming watchman has more knowledge of the danger than someone in a mere dreamless sleep, but because he’s asleep he’s powerless to save either himself or the passengers he’s responsible for. And, those who see their lives as having eternal significance are more knowledgable (for want of a better way of putting it) than those who don’t. The difference is that because they’re not asleep they are in a position to morally save themselves and those (humanity generally) they’re responsible for.

      I’m more inclined now to give some credence to the view that there’s a morality play influence at work in the song. Again, the problem is to say why there is. There does seem to be some sort of (very loose) connection between the events of ‘Everyman’ and those of the song. And it’s clear that there’s a fair amount of personification in the song just as there is there – as you pointed out. It would certainly be worth considering whether Death has the same warning function in each. What you’ve said about Love and Pity sending their prayers seems plausible. Although, as personifications, one would have expected them to simply be loving and sympathetic, maybe – as you say – they see there’s nothing more to be achieved that way. Their prayers would then perhaps show that they still have a benevolent attitude.


  7. Hy David.
    The misfortune is happening without a reason, it´s just there.
    If you ask why is happening what is happening and try to understand the sence of the story, we are told : But there is no understanding on the judgement of God´s hand
    Or is it only because of a wizard´s rage.
    Only the narrator knows, not one of the passengers, they only hear, that the air was filled with voices.
    So, Dylans Blending of Places, Lyrics and Times kind is quit near to the kind Shakespeare did.
    But this waltz is no variation of “The Tempest”, it´s his macabre contrariness.
    “There is no harm done” is now “the damage had been done”.
    Or at the end of “The Tempest” all the shipwrecked persons are “safely found/Our king and company,
    in plain Tempest they are all sunk into the underworld.
    All the american hopes and the salvation questions within the counterculture of the sixties are gone with inconsolable mourning.
    So, Shakespeare is still in the alley,anyway, its a nice storytelling, too.

    Bye an Bye


  8. Dylan writes 45 verses without pulling or pushing one on the next or the last. He is biblical but only in feeling. He winds together a story we know with the story related from an artist. The score exhibits the feel of the pace of it’s telling when “The ballroom dancers twirled.”
    I pictured in my mind ladies in gowns and men in tuxedos whirling to a lively waltz.
    I saw the God and heaven references and am happy to see your relating so many of them. We can all learn.
    It may be way off base, but I view the watchman possibly with “All along the watchtower,” or a stronger feeling that since he is dreaming instead of sleeping, he could be stoned. Weed or something a bit stronger. Somebody should have been minding the store, so we can blame him for not sounding the alarm in time.
    The rest plays one verse on the next without lingering.
    I don’t love all of Dylan’s songs, but I do most of them.


  9. A reference to Jamie Brockett’s “Legend of the Titanic.”
    Youtube’s offering has the picture I imagined of ballroom dancers in a lively waltz to the rolling violin music.
    Brockett’s song is heavily laden with pot smoking reference, so I stick to my thought that “The Watchman was really, really stoned. Referenced to be dreaming, yes dreaming awake, and couldn’t warn anyone of what he saw out of his porthole. The rest is great poetry, good research, typical Dylan biblical overtones, and great example of his story telling greatness.


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