Not Dark Yet

Introduction

The song presents the response of someone to the approach of death. Long vowel sounds mimic the slowness of age, and the negative language throughout indicates the narrator’s total loss of hope. He comes across as utterly resigned to dying as he lists the minimal achievements of his life (‘I’ve been to London, I’ve been to gay Paree’) and contemplates extinction (‘Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer’). He’s lost faith in humanity and no longer cares about others. He doesn’t want to die, but unlike the author’s namesake he has no energy to ‘rage at the dying of the light’.

It’s a staggeringly beautiful song, both poignant and disturbing because we recognise the narrator in ourselves – he is us, and his death is our death. Nevertheless, any apparent simplicity is misleading. It’s as much about spiritual death as physical, and hints at the possibility of spiritual salvation. Furthermore, the narrator is made to seem dimly aware of this possibility. The result is a detailed presentation of a troubled mind in conflict with itself.

In addition to presenting the narrator’s reaction to oncoming death, the song follows the others on the album in detailing the narrator’s all too human response to his lost love. He’s moved on slightly from his position in the previous song, but in a way which shows him to be even more depressed than before. At the same time he comes across as self-centred, pessimistic and cursed with a Hamlet-like lassitude, all of which would seem to contribute to his failed life.

Although Dylan’s poetic technique contributes hugely to the song’s impact, I will as usual concentrate on the meaning. For the former there is of course the excellent chapter on Not Dark Yet in Christopher Ricks’ Dylan’s Visions Of Sin.*


Developing Outlook

As the album progresses, some change in the narrator’s outlook becomes apparent. What seems clear is that instead of this being the result of his own doing, he’s just allowing events to take their course. His approach remains as unpurposeful as ever.

Nevertheless, that there’s been some change of outlook is apparent from the contrast between the final verse’s:

‘Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb’

and the opening line of ‘Till I Fell In Love With You’:

‘Well my nerves are exploding’.

Neither position seems to hold out much hope for him. At least in moving from one extreme nervous state to the other one feels there’s a chance he might end up in a more moderate position, but even so there’s little indication that this would be down to anything other than chance.

A similar change of outlook is apparent in the line:

‘I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal’.

Previously, in ‘Till I Fell In Love With You’, he’d been more upbeat:

‘Nothing can heal me but your touch’,

– the phrase ‘but your touch’ suggesting he hadn’t lost all hope. But now, the finality of the expression ‘didn’t heal’ implies he thinks all hope is gone. He’s now more miserable than ever.

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Egotism

One of the causes of the narrator’s failed relationship is almost certainly his self-centredness. This is reflected in his egotistical use of the word ‘I’ nineteen times over the space of twenty-four lines, and of ‘my’ or ‘me’ a further six times. By contrast the third-person pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’ occur a total of just four times. This egotism is still there – by way of assonance – in the lines concerning the lover:

‘… and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writing what was in her mind

And the ‘I’ sounds not only occur again in:

I‘ve been down to the bottom of a whirlpool of lies
I ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ in anyone’s eyes‘**

but, as Ricks observes, they seem to frame the lines as if nothing is being allowed to escape this ego. One feels that if the narrator focused less on himself and more on his lover, his lot would be much happier.

One effect of this self-centredness is a failure to give the lover her due. Immediately after telling us:

‘Well my sense of humanity has gone down the drain’

he says

‘Behind behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain’

While this might be taken to be a welcome recognition that she, too, has suffered, such a recognition wouldn’t explain his loss of a sense of humanity. Although the pain he has in mind could be hers, much more likely it’s his. If it’s his own suffering  he has in mind, the claim would be that it’s caused by what he considers inhumane treatment at the hands of a beautiful woman.

In fact just three lines after the comment about his humanity ‘going down the drain’ we’re told:

‘She put down in writing what was in her mind’

The repetition of the word ‘down’ – ‘down the drain’/’down in writing’ – makes us link the points. It’s as if we’re to think that his disenchantment with humanity has been caused of all things by her writing him a letter.

Immediately following the line ”Behind behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain’, the word ‘kind’ appears again:

‘She wrote me a letter, and she wrote it so kind

The effect is to reinforce the view that he’s too focused on himself. While what he says appears generous in acknowledging the effort she’s making, his previous use of ‘kind’ in ‘some kind of pain’ suggests that what he’s really focused on his own suffering – the ‘kind of pain’ she, or her letter, has given him.***

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Pessimism

The repetitions of ‘down’ cited above can also be taken as a further indication of the narrator’s self-centredness. They suggest a determination to wallow in misery rather than take decisive action. This continues to occur when he complains:

‘I’ve been down to the bottom of a whirlpool of lies’

ironically seeming not to remember that at least some of the lies were his.****

That he considers himself at rock bottom is further apparent from the way we he keeps using the word ‘even’ for emphasis after negative words – ‘There’s not even room enough’, ‘I don’t see why I should even care’, ‘I can’t even remember’, ‘Don’t even hear’. The effect is to give the impression that things couldn’t be worse.*

A pessimistic outlook is apparent right from the start of the song.  In the first line the narrator focuses on shadows, but without acknowledging that shadows are themselves a result of a light source such as the sun. Similarly when he complains about its being too hot to sleep, he ignores the fact that it’s the sun which produces the heat. By focusing on the negative he fails to see the counter-balancing positives.

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Religious Imagery

This excessively negative attitude towards the sun appears again half way through the opening verse. The significance is now moral. The narrator could have blamed his own inadequacy for the ‘scars’ he’s been left with, but rather than blaming himself he blames the sun:

‘I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal’

Obviously it’s absurd to blame the sun for not curing his depression. However what’s important is that the sun would be a physical cure. Since his suffering can be seen as the result of an inferior moral outlook, his refusal to engage with the concerns of his lover, his blaming the sun draws attention to his failure to go after the required spiritual cure.

This is perhaps hinted at further in the use of the word ‘sun’ since it can also be heard as ‘Son’. The role of the Son – Christ – was to make such spiritual regeneration possible. Even on this reading, though, the narrator’s complaint is inappropriate. It is no more the task of Christ to provide a moral or spiritual cure than it is the task of the sun. Therein, as Shakespeare says, the patient must minister to himself.

Other religious imagery pertains to the Old Testament. The narrator’s spiritual apathy leads him to declare:

‘Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb’

The line brings to mind the shame of Adam and Eve when on their dismissal from the Garden of Eden they first became aware of their nakedness (Genesis 3.7). Nakedness is the narrator’s punishment just as it was theirs. The comparison is also apt in that, like Adam and Eve, the narrator has difficulty admitting that what befalls him is the result of personal wrongdoing.

In another presumably unconscious use of biblical language the narrator exclaims:

‘Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear’

It’s interesting that he expresses his apparent plea for sympathy in words similar to Cain’s ‘My punishment is more than I can bear’ (Genesis 4.13). Since Cain was responsible for his own plight, the comparison with the narrator is ironically apt.*

Since Adam is the father of all men, the narrator’s association with Adam helps ensure we see the narrator as standing for us all. At the same time like Cain, – and like humanity generally which the narrator represents – he is the inheritor of Adam’s human weakness. In this sense his own failings show he’s right that ‘humanity has gone down the drain’. He needs then to take advantage of Christ’s having made humanity’s spiritual regeneration possible. In terms of the sun/Son imagery he needs to be the sun and so dispel the falling shadows. Since the sun is the Son, the narrator will then be the Son, a second Adam (cf 1Cor 15. 22 and 45) with a role in saving not just himself but humanity generally from ‘the drain’.


The Refrain: Death As Spiritual

If there’s a key line in the song, it’s the refrain:

‘It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there’

‘Dark’ may well refer to physical death which the narrator sees approaching. However, despite the narrator’s tendency to focus on the physical, and to make bleak observations like ‘Shadows are falling’, the allusion may also be to spiritual death. What suggests this is the expression ‘getting there’. Not only does this sound awkward but we’d expect the final word, following ‘getting’, to be a repetition of ‘dark’ –  ‘it’s getting dark’.* The substitution of ‘there’ is significant, perhaps, in that it draws attention to the repeated use of its opposite, ‘here’ – in ‘I’ve been here all day’, ‘I was born here, I’ll die here‘, and ‘what it was I came here to get away from’.  Since ‘here’ is vague, not seeming to pick out any particular place, it would seem to refer to refer to spatial existence generally. That would make the contrasting ‘there’ refer to eternity.  The use of a spatial term for eternity suggests that perhaps unconsciously the narrator sees eternity as something other than mere darkness. In other words he knows deep down that the end of an empty life has a negative significance which goes beyond mere extinction.

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Self-Knowledge

It’s in his failure to act that the narrator pays too little attention to his spiritual wellbeing, and the consequences for his lover’s happiness which follow from that.

He says:

‘I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from’

Although, obviously, we’re not told what it is he’s trying to escape, the context suggests it’s his depression.  Nevertheless, the phrase ‘get away’, in reminding us of its opposite ‘getting there’ in the refrain, suggests that getting away might be a matter of getting away from the eternal consequences of his failure to act.

If so, getting away amounts to running away. The narrator fails to act and then, absurdly, tries avoid the consequences by running away. It’s interesting that this is the very thing he accuses time of doing:

‘… time is running away’

While he’s not going so far as to accuse time of moral cowardice, his use of an expression just as applicable to himself suggests he has more self-knowledge than he’s prepared to admit. That, too, might be cause for hope.

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Inactivity And Spiritual Death

That it is because of his failure to achieve, or act so as to resolve his problems, that the narrator is verging on spiritual death is made apparent in a number of ways.

Proudly he informs us:

‘I followed the river and I got to the sea’

This, however, is less creditable than might at first appear. Since rivers flow into the sea, following the river is more likely to be a matter of drifting along with it. All he does is go with the flow, never asserting himself or acting decisively.

This failure is emphasised in the lines:

‘I’ve still got the scars…’

and

‘I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still’

In the first quote the word ‘still’ has a temporal sense, implying that he hasn’t yet got rid of the scars. In the second ‘still’ tells us that he’s motionless. However, the full implications of the second quote are made clear if we take ‘still’ in the temporal sense it has in the first quote. In this way the phrase ‘I’m standing still’ will have the meaning of ‘I remain standing’ or ‘It’s still the case that I’m standing’. The point is that the narrator should realise from the fact that he’s still on his feet, that things aren’t as as bad as he’s inclined to believe. He has, then, no excuse for not setting about resolving his problems.

The narrator’s culpability in this respect is suggested by another play on words – the use of ‘here’ in the line:

‘I was born here, I’ll die here…’

taken in conjunction with the use of its homophone ‘hear’ in:

‘Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer’

He claims he’s permanently, and by implication pointlessly, ‘here‘, while being unable to ‘hear’ a prayer. The hearing of a prayer thus symbolises the spiritual renewal required to make just existing here pointless. Why, then does he not hear a prayer? He could do. All that’s required is that he say one himself. However, just as saying a prayer might symbolise spiritual renewal, so not saying one would symbolise the general inactivity which is bringing about his spiritual death.

That he’s failing to act in the required way also becomes apparent by his telling us what he’s already done: ‘I’ve been here all day’, ‘I’ve been to London, I’ve been to gay Paree’, ‘I’ve been down to the bottom’. What’s noticeable is the repeated use of ‘I’ve been…’. The use is significant. He’s ‘been’ so much, it seems, that he can no longer ‘be’. Accordingly he complains:

‘There’s not even room enough to be anywhere’

Why should all this ‘having been’ go hand in hand with there not being room enough to ‘be’? To be, to exist in a meaningful way in the present, requires having been usefully active in the past. That there’s no room to ‘be’, is because he’s done nothing hitherto to create such room. In other words, there’s no space to ‘be’ because up till now all he’s done is allowed himself to drift along. Since he cannot ‘be’, spiritually he’s as good as dead.

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Final Thoughts

‘I’ve been here all day’ the narrator tells us right at the beginning. And as Ricks points out, the song comprises twenty-four lines – one for each hour of that day. Since the day seems to represent the narrator’s life, it’s clear that the song covers the span of that life as the narrator looks back over it.

While the tone is pessimistic throughout, the narrator finding only failure to comment on, there is nevertheless ground for hope. ‘It’s too hot to sleep,’ he complains, and since that sleep is death, it would seem that death is being put off for a little while. The title, too, is optimistic. ‘It’s not dark yet’, it proclaims, and leaves it there without the complementary negativity of the refrain’s ‘but it’s getting there’. The point is that death is not yet upon him; there’s still time for him to turn his life around. And if he manages that, he’ll have staved off spiritual death. Physical death, we must assume, will continue to take its course.

Last revised: 21.8.2016

 

*Ricks is largely concerned with similarities between Not Dark Yet and Keats’ Ode To A Nightingale, but makes a variety of independent points.  Where I’ve made use of these, and I’ve made no direct acknowledgment, they’re marked with a single asterisk.

**’ I ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ in anyone’s eyes’ is one of three lines in the song apparently borrowed from Dylan’s own Marchin’ To The City where it appears without the ‘I ain’t’. The others are the pair ‘Well, I’ve been to London, and to gay Paree/I followed the river and I got to the sea’. These appear as ‘Go over to London, maybe gay Paris/Follow the river you get to the sea’.

***He, by contrast, does not make a similar effort for her. This can reasonably be inferred from his saying ‘ I see nothing to be gained by any explanation’ in Standing In The Doorway, and ‘I’m tired of trying to explain’ in Till I Fell In Love With You.

****Again, in Standing In The Doorway he says ‘You told yourself a lie/That’s alright Mama, I told myself one too’.

Till I Fell In Love With You

In part the song presents the narrator’s own account of his mental and physical state in the wake of his loss. His inner turmoil is apparent from his sometimes addressing his lover, and then sometimes himself. He describes his feelings, makes judgments about what has happened to him and its causes, makes observations about his environment and his supposed expectations for the future. Much of what he says cannot be trusted, however. He’s contradictory,  he exaggerates the effect of his troubles, he’s inconsistent and he indulges in self-deception. He’s disingenuous too, and throughout he seems to be blaming his lover for the state he’s in. Nowhere is he self-critical about his treatment of her or about his chronic lack of action.

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Contradictions

We see an instance of his unreliability as a judge of his own state in the second line of the refrain:

‘I was all right ’til I fell in love with you’

The problem is that this directly conflicts with what he says in Trying To Get To Heaven:

‘They tell me everything is gonna be all right
But I don’t know what ‘all right’ even means’

One of these claims has to be untrue. Only if he knows what ‘all right’ means is he in a position to say he was all right until he fell in love. The claims present his tendency to believe what it suits him to believe rather than what is actually the case.


Exaggeration

Even though he feels frustrated, it’s clear that the narrator enjoys exaggerating the effects of his situation. He refers to his nerves ‘exploding’, and to feeling as if the whole world is against him, and claims to feel that his eyes are ‘falling off’ his face – none of which seems remotely plausible in a literal sense. Furthermore he follows up this last remark about his eyes by ‘I’m staring at the floor’ perhaps in order to give colour to the hopelessness of his situation while not realising how pathetic such pointless behaviour makes him seem. Presumably it’s this unnecessary ‘staring at the floor’ which is actually responsible for the pathological eye condition.

His parenthetical ‘If I’m still among the living’ also seems unduly melodramatic, as if he’s determined to indulge in self-pity.

That same self-pity is present in the line:

‘I’ve been hit too hard, I’ve seen too much’

Why ‘too hard’ and not just ‘hard’? And in what sense has he seen ‘too much’? We’re not told, and the claims are exaggerated perhaps so as to provide an excuse for saying:

‘Nothing can heal me now, but your touch’.

The vaguely religious language here (cf Matt 1.40-45) puts the narrator in the position of a leper hoping to be healed by Jesus. The leprosy idea recurs when he mentions feeling his eyes are falling from his face (itself reminiscent of the line in Standing In The Doorway where he anticipates ‘the flesh falling off of my face’). Since he’s not actually a leper, the reason only her touch will heal him (as he sees it) is perhaps that he recognises his position is that of a penitent in need of forgiveness. What’s noticeable is that he doesn’t admit he’s in need of forgiveness. And this is perhaps why he presents himself as a leper, who suffers through no fault of his own, instead of as a penitent.


Inconsistency and Self-Deception

‘Well, my house is on fire, burning to the sky
I thought it would rain but the clouds passed by’

Even though we can assume he doesn’t intend the fire reference to be taken literally, but perhaps as a metaphor for the ending of his relationship, there’s something ludicrous about the narrator’s dead-pan expression here. The same applies if we interpret it sexually – with the addition that it’s even less easy to feel sympathy for his loss if the main thing he misses is sex. Despite this a literal interpretation provides an accurate portrayal of his character in that, in the face of calamity, his reaction is to do nothing.

It also demonstrates a willingness to take up inconsistent positions. In Love Sick he moans that ‘the clouds are weeping’. But he would now welcome rain if it means he can avoid having to act to put out the fire. Just as he believes what it suits him to believe at a particular moment, so his attitude to rain is the one it suits him to take at a particular moment.

His claim that ‘sweat(‘s) falling down’ seems to be an attempt to deceive himself he’s  exerting himself when he isn’t. On the contrary, he’s allowing junk to pile up – the junk ‘taking up space’ in a way which perhaps mirrors the way his inactivity has wasted time.* While his declared intention is to be elsewhere by:

‘Tomorrow night before the sun goes down’

one wonders why it has to be ‘tomorrow night. Why not tonight? Again he’s deceiving himself he’s being purposeful when in fact he’s just procrastinating.

Inconsistency and self-deception seem to be combined when he implies that he’s made an effort to get across his point of view:

‘I’m tired of talking, I’m tired of trying to explain’

In Standing in The Doorway he’d said to the contrary ‘There’re things I could say but I don’t’. And even if he has been ‘talking’ the expression sounds suspiciously vague as if he was talking without any clear purpose in mind. And ‘trying to explain’ would be all very well if an explanation was what was required – rather than, say, an apology. He mentions ‘my attempts to please you’, but this too is vague. Given his normal inactivity one might wonder if the vagueness is designed to cover up their non-existence.


Disingenuousness

In lines adapted from Dylan’s Marching To The City the narrator wistfully observes:

‘Boys in the street beginning to play
Girls like birds flying away’

He doesn’t comment directly on this, but there are two things we can note. The first is that what he notices is perhaps a reflection of his own behaviour to his lover which may have been responsible for her ‘flying away’ from him. When birds fly away they tend to be doing so from what they perceive as danger.

The second thing to note is that he also seems to associate flying away with his own behaviour because he immediately follows up with:

‘When I’m gone you will remember my name’

Accordingly, to his discredit, his own character seems to encapsulate both the irresponsibility of the boys and the timidity of the girls.

Further disingenuousness is apparent when he appeals to God:

‘But I know God is my shield and he won’t lead me astray’

The relevance of God is not at all obvious  – until one realises that the comfort the narrator takes in God not leading him astray is no more than an excuse for continuing on his present path (doing nothing) on the unlikely ground that it’s sanctioned by God. The fact that in the previous line he says ‘I’m coming to the end of my way’ – implicitly contrasting himself with Christ (‘I am the way’,  John 14.6) also shows how unlikely his approach would be to meet with God’s approval.

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Inactivity

This inclination to do nothing doesn’t just seem to be a result of his grief. It seems to characterise his life as a whole. This becomes apparent in the admonition:

‘When I’m gone, you will remember my name’

Why, one might ask, is it his name he singles out as what the lover will remember? Presumably because he has nothing else – no achievements – which he could be remembered by.

And when he tries to make himself seem an attractive proposition, he still manages to avoid any reference to genuine achievement:

‘I’m gonna win my way to wealth and fame’

Not only does this imply he’s got no intention of exerting himself, but he’s hardly likely to entice his lover back by dangling in front of her the prospect of mere uncertain future winnings. His judgment is poor – particularly since in Trying To Get To Heaven he was aware that being a gambler is unlikely to be fruitful (‘Some trains don’t pull no gamblers’).

The refrain too bears witness to the narrator’s chronic inactivity:

‘Still I don’t know what I’m gonna do’

He’s clearly got no intention of doing anything.


Conclusion

The narrator doesn’t seem to have moved forward either literally or psychologically since the previous song Trying To Get To Heaven. Instead there’s been a decline. There at least he repeatedly claimed to be ‘trying’. But that sense of purpose has now given way to utter listlessness, as borne out by the repeated ‘I just don’t know what I’m gonna do’. He’d claimed in the previous song that his lover’s memory was getting dimmer and was ceasing to haunt him. If so he’s clearly suffered a regression.

The fault clearly lies at his own door. In displaying a passivity to rival Hamlet’s, replacing action with a self-pitying exaggeration of his misery, he gives himself no chance. In fact he compounds his problems by failing to be self-critical and to accept any responsibility. For all that, our initial and perhaps abiding emotional response is one of pity. And this desire to temper criticism with compassion must be in part because in his failings we recognise our own.

 

*It’s noticeable that he blames the junk -‘Junk’s piling up’ – as if he is not responsible for it.

Trying To Get To Heaven

In this fifth song on ‘Time Out Of Mind’ the narrator again unintentionally provides us with an insight into the intricacies of his character as he continues to moan about his lot. He seems to be aware of some change for the better in his situation:

‘Every day your memory grows dimmer
It doesn’t haunt me like it did before’

Nevertheless the majority of the song presents the same pessimistic outlook as the earlier three. In the very opening lines he refers to ‘the heat rising in my eyes’ as if his problems are getting worse. The phrase ‘in my eyes’ is telling, perhaps suggesting that we’re being presented with a highly inaccurate, subjective view . That his account is biased becomes apparent later in his use of negative language, particularly the oft repeated word ‘down’. He’s going ‘down the road feeling bad’, ‘down the river’, and ‘down to New Orleans’. He’s intending to sleep ‘down in the parlour’, and he ‘shook the sugar down‘. It’s notable that the only use of ‘up’ in the song applies to the lover who he expects to ‘close up the book’. He persists in seeing himself as downtrodden by his lover.

The up/down imagery continues in the second and third verses where there’s a contrast between his outlook:

‘You broke a heart that loved you’

 and that of the people at the train station, whose hearts are like:

‘… pendulums swinging on chains’

The movement of a pendulum is from up to down to back up again. In other words the narrator seems to recognise that the normal state of affairs is for the heart to move from happiness to misery, and then back to happiness. The narrator can’t accept that he’ll ever be happy again, though. He sees his heart, far from swinging like a pendulum, as broken. To him his misery is permanent.

The pessimism continues:

‘When I was in Missouri, they would not let me be
I had to leave there in a hurry
I only saw what they let me see’

‘They’ are presumably those he’s close to who offer advice, advice which he spurns because they refuse to go along with his negative outlook.  But why did he only see what he was allowed to? Again, he seems determined to wallow in misery instead of taking control. It’s because he’s being so unduly pessimistic that it’s impossible for others to see things as he sees them, but rather than accept that they might be right he leaves. ‘I’ll close my eyes’, he says in the final verse, meaning it literally. The trouble is, though, that he’s already closed them metaphorically – refusing to allow himself to see things as they really are.

Another attempt to cheer him up meets with the same negative response:

‘They tell me everything is gonna be all right
But I don’t know what ‘all right’ even means’

While it’s probably true that:

‘When you think you’ve lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more’,

that just means things weren’t as bad as you thought they were. Rather than taking heart from this, the narrator instead seems to imply that he keeps going from bad to worse, continually losing more and more. But he’s given us no reason to suppose that that’s the case. From what he’s told us he’s had one loss and one loss only – his lover.

Part of the narrator’s problem, as in the earlier songs, is his inertness. Whereas he needs to take control of the situation, he gives up:

‘Gonna sleep down in the parlour, and relive my dreams
I close my eyes and I wonder, if everything is as hollow as it seems’

Sleeping is about the most inactive thing he could do. And ‘relive’ is the wrong word. It would be normal to relive a real-life experience when dreaming, but he has no worthwhile real-life experience to re-live. All he’s going to do is continue his wishful thinking. He’s left with reliving dreams because there’s nothing successful he’s done which he could re-live.

This inertness comes across again in his references to travel. Whereas other people are preparing to go somewhere – ‘waiting for the trains’, the narrator just complains:

‘Some trains don’t pull no gamblers
No midnight ramblers like they did before’

If he were really the ‘gambler’ and ‘midnight rambler’ he seems to characterise himself as, one would think he’d get on and take whatever opportunity presented itself. Proudly he announces:

‘I’ve been all around the world, boys’

but there’s no evidence of this. Again he seems to be indulging in wishful thinking. The ‘boys’ he’s addressing seem just to be in his mind. He wishes he could brag about something, further impress an admiring audience – ‘boys’ – but makes do with imagining doing it. In fact what he’s actually done seems to have been no more than ‘riding in a buggy with Miss Mary Jane’. He seems proud of it, yet it hardly seems an achievement to brag about. Since he refers to it as ‘a’ buggy, we can assume it wasn’t even his. The unnecessarily deferential use of ‘Miss’ suggests he’s unduly overawed by Miss Mary Jane, presumably due to what he sees as unusual success – having a buggy and a house in Baltimore. Since the reference to her house is soon followed by:

‘Gonna sleep down in the parlour…’

one assumes it’s her he’s expecting to put him up. That he hasn’t got a buggy or house of his own (and especially one with a parlour) seems to fit with his refusal to take control of his life. So does his being prepared to make a burden of himself.

The need to feel he’s achieved something occurs again at the end of the song where the tone becomes positive:

‘I’ve been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down’

While this might not be the exaggeration that having been all around the world was, it again doesn’t really seem to justify the bragging tone. If the reference is to LSD, the brag is of having succumbed to finding solace in drugs.*

This desire to be seen to be active shows the narrator is aware that he needs to take control of his life. He claims to be:

‘Trying to get to heaven before they close the door’

thus showing he knows time is short and if he doesn’t act he soon won’t be able to achieve his aim. That time running out is an issue for him is perhaps apparent too in the reference to clocks in the pendulum image.

‘Heaven’ is just one of a number of religious ideas used to map out the narrator’s life. Presumably he uses it to mean success in his love life. Nevertheless, his assumption that an unspecified ‘they’ are going to close the door on him is another instance of his refusal to take control. He should be making sure he gets into heaven. There should be no question of anyone shutting him out.  And, of course, one feels that the idea of being shut out of heaven is just an excuse for his expected failure to get there. He’s in the same pathetic mindset as when the woman (supposedly) shut the door on him to ‘leave him in the doorway crying’.

Another religious reference occurs in the line:

‘Now you can seal up the book and not write any more’

The words ‘seal up the book’ seem to be adapted from Daniel 12.4. There the prophet is told to keep his knowledge about the ‘end times’ secret – ‘shut up the words, and seal the book’. Here the wording seems to used by the narrator to give his pronouncement the appearance of authority, and perhaps to suggest that having broken his heart there’s nothing more his lover can do to harm him. At the same time it might also indicate a hope on the narrator’s part that his lover will forgo giving her side of the story, perhaps because it wouldn’t put him in a good light.

Another line:

‘I’ve been walking that lonesome valley’

ultimately derives from Psalm 23 – ‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil for you are with me’ – though Dylan’s line is more directly an adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s ‘I’m gonna walk that lonesome valley’. The effect of changing the psalm’s ‘darkest’ to ‘lonesome’ is to imply that the narrator (in each song) is in a state of absolute desolation. However, Guthrie’s use of the future tense suggests a determination which Dylan’s character doesn’t have. The latter’s use of the past tense just makes him seem excessively sorry for himself.

His refusal to acknowledge with the psalmist that he is not alone – people are willing to help him, but he ignores their advice – makes it all the more unlikely he will achieve his aim (‘get to heaven’ or achieve happiness) before it’s too late.

The song provides us with a fine picture of the subtleties and contradictions of human psychology. Although we have only the subject’s own words to go on, we’re able to piece together a much fuller and more accurate picture of his character than he himself is aware he’s providing, or is even aware of at all. The picture we’ve been given is of a complex, but pusillanimous character reacting to a painful loss. While his pain is understandable, it’s clear that he exaggerates his plight and blinds himself to possible solutions. In so doing he deceives himself that he’s doing more than he is. He clearly realises he needs to change his approach while refusing  to accept the help that’s available. Yet at the same time he seems unaware of the deficiencies in his character which underlie his apparent lethargy.

 

* Lee Hazlewood is quoted as giving the following account of the origin of his song  ‘Sugar Town’: “I was in a folk club in LA which had two levels. I could see these kids lining up sugar cubes and they had an eye-dropper and were putting something on them. I wasn’t a doper so I didn’t know what it was but I asked them. It was LSD and one of the kids said, ‘You know, it’s kinda Sugar Town.’ (Singsnap, accessed 1.8.16).

Million Miles

This again is a song which bears a close relation to other songs on the album. As with the first three our initial reaction is to empathise with the narrator in his clearly intense misery. But just as the first three go on to provide us with a deeper insight into the narrator’s character, so does this one. In it he comes across as self-centred, dishonest, indecisive and irresponsible.

The song  takes up the narrator’s claim in the previous song that the lover left him in the doorway crying. Here she’s told admonishingly:

‘You left me standing out in the cold’

But we find this to be somewhat dishonest because it turns out he was not left out in the cold at all, if this is taken to mean he had the door shut on him having been refused entry. The truth is that the woman left him:

‘Yes the last thing you said before you hit the street,
“Gonna  find me a janitor to sweep me off my feet”‘

Since she is the one who ‘hit the street’, the narrator seems to have been disingenuously appealing for sympathy – his own, or that of anyone listening to him – when he gets us to picture him standing out in the cold. Why bring in ‘the cold’ otherwise?  At the end of the song he implicitly appeals for sympathy again when he says:

‘I know plenty of people put me up for a day or two’

The intention is to make us think he’s downtrodden with nowhere to stay but prepared, nevertheless, to put a brave face on it. That we’re to think this is apparent from the phrase ‘plenty of people’ which implies he’s never going to be without help. But having given the impression we shouldn’t have to worry, he immediately takes this back and appeals for sympathy again by making it clear that the help on offer is limited – to ‘a day or two’.

As in the other songs, the narrator is hopelessly self-centred. ‘You took a part of me that I really miss’, he says. This is almost immediately followed up by ‘You took the silver, you took the gold’. In each case the focus is on him and what he’s lost, and he sees this loss in terms of material wealth. And when he’s not thinking of it as material, he may even be thinking of it- though not prepared to admit it in so many words – in terms of sex:

‘I need your love so bad, turn your lamp down low’

If it’s not sex, it’s romance he wants. Either way he’s failing to address the need to give which a successful relationship requires. His concern is himself – ‘I need’.

As in the earlier songs the narrator comes across as incompetent at dealing with the situation. After his lover’s janitor comment, which should have been a strong hint to him that he needs to give more, his own response – amazingly – is to tell her that it’s fine by him if she looks for someone else:

‘I said “That’s all right mama, you do what you gotta do”‘

So much for ‘trying to get closer’.

It’s ironic that he says:

‘Feel like talking to somebody, but I just don’t know who’

We’re left thinking that if he’d made the effort to talk to her, he wouldn’t be in this position. But, of course, such is his self centredness that he doesn’t even consider talking until it’s what he feels like doing. And when even now he has an opportunity to talk, on hearing ‘voices in the night trying to be heard’, he’s dismissive. The words are ‘mind polluting’. Presumably these voices are his conscience urging him to take appropriate action. But rather than facing up to what he’s being told, he ignores them.

Instead of being decisive, his approach is merely to wonder ‘how long it can go on like this’, and ‘what it’s all coming to’.  And even when he does act, he apparently acts in such a way as seems to confirm our view of him as indecisive and not taking control. We learn this from his admission that the things he did he ‘never did intend to do’.

Instead of taking action his tendency is to procrastinate:

‘Maybe in the next life I’ll be able to hear myself think’

Comforting himself in this way is just putting off the effort of thinking out a solution when the effort needs to be made now.  The religious language – ‘next life’ – perhaps widens the context so that we’re reminded that achieving salvation is a matter for this life. We can only be judged on what we achieve in the here and now.

In addition to being self-centred, dishonest and indecisive, the narrator is inclined to fool himself:

‘You told yourself a lie
That’s alright mama, I told myself one too’

He seems to be implying that his lover’s deception makes his deception alright. A propensity for what seems to be deliberate deceit is seen again in the contradiction between his claims that  he’s ‘drifting in and out of a dreamless sleep’ and ‘I don’t dare close my eyes and I don’t dare wink’.  Furthermore, and rather implausibly, he claims to need her love ‘for the places that I go’. But we’ve no evidence that he goes anywhere at all. He’s mentioned walking through streets and down a dirt road in previous songs, but no destinations have been mentioned. And even if the places he has in mind are those mentioned in later songs, it’s unclear how the woman’s love is relevant. The impression we get is that he’s just fooling himself that he’s making more effort than he is.

The penultimate verse is reminiscent of ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ in that in the repeated ‘Rock me’ he absurdly presents himself as a baby needing to be rocked to sleep. In doing so, he’s putting the onus for action onto his lover; he is the one who gets rocked. That his approach to life is back to front is clear from the way that it’s also the baby that’s doing the rocking:

‘Rock me pretty baby…’

The contrariness of his position is made apparent in the absurdity of wanting to be rocked ‘all at once’ – how’s that possible anyway? – and ‘for a little while’ and ‘for a couple of months’. Not only do the requests conflict with each other, but the final one involves  ludicrous exaggeration. It’s an exaggeration which reflects the exaggeration of the claim ‘I’m a million miles from you’. He isn’t. All that’s needed to close the gap is for him to make the appropriate effort.