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.*
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.
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’
‘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.***
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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…’
‘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.
‘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’.