Cold Irons Bound

In the eighth song on Time Out Of Mind the narrator presents himself as distressed to the point of insanity. He remains as self-centred as on earlier songs, but now appears dangerous having become newly pre-occupied with destruction. Nevertheless, while dark thoughts predominate, one instance of his behaviour suggests he has not totally lost hope.


That he’s hearing voices doesn’t augur well for the narrator. In Million Miles he was more positive about them – they were ‘trying to be heard’. In condemning them there as ‘mind polluting’ he seemed to be treating them as no more than the misguided attempts of others to convince him of his mistakes. In the present song there’s a subtle difference. He’s no longer just irritated by the voices  but, because there’s no one around, he sees them as a symptom of illness, perhaps insanity. It’s as if the world is winning its battle against him.

The narrator’s pessimistic outlook is in evidence from the very start. Time is passing, but he interprets this negatively:

‘Now I’m all used up and the fields have turned brown’

This colour of the fields suggests that it’s the height of summer. However rather than being enthused, the narrator  shows only that he’s aware of life having dried up. And he’s thinking primarily of his own life – or, as he puts it, ‘I’m all used up’. In fact, given that the line begins with the expression which includes ‘ up’, one might have expected it to end with ‘down’ to reflect his state of mind. As it happens, the same effect is achieved by the use of the similarly sounding ‘brown’.

In one way, however, his outlook has become slightly more positive. In the previous song, Not Dark Yet, he bemoans not hearing the murmur of a prayer. Now he acts in a more spiritually positive way:

‘I went to church on Sunday and she passed by’

The result is that he’s rewarded for his effort in going to church by a glimpse of his lover, although the line immediately following shows he doesn’t seem to appreciate this. He doesn’t, for example, take advantage of the opportunity to speak to her. Instead, he just complains:

‘My love for her is taking such a long time to die’

The expression ‘passed by’ above reminds us how, in Till I Fell In Love With You, ‘the clouds passed by‘. There the narrator was bemoaning the lack of rain instead  of acknowledging what could be seen as a blessing. It’s occurrence here likewise suggests that things are not as bad as he likes to imagine – ‘nothing but clouds of blood’.

His pessimism continues. In going over in his mind people he’s known, he seems to exaggerate:

‘I thought some of ’em were friends of mine, I was wrong about ’em all’

Them ‘all’? That suggests he was wrong about those he thought were not his friends. If he’s wrong about them, then he’s wrong to assume everyone’s got him ‘pinned up against the fence’ as he puts it in Till I fell In Love With You. Even so, there are signs of progress in that he’s rarely been prepared before to admit that he was wrong, albeit that the admission here is based on a misjudgement.

There’s a further way in which his outlook has become more positive. In Million Miles the narrator believed he was a million miles from his lover. At least now he’s become far more realistic. He’s twenty miles from her – or at least from the town where he saw her on the Sunday.

Nevertheless he still retains his earlier excessively pessimistic outlook. This is apparent from the refrain and the title which it echoes. The expression ‘cold irons bound’ is ambiguous. It could refer to his intended destination, a place called Cold Irons. Or it could be telling us he’s in chains – bound in irons – and so incapable of moving anywhere. The fact that he’s already moved twenty miles suggests that the former describes his situation better. But the place name, and the use of ‘bound’, nevertheless indicate a perverse state of mind. Even though he’s clearly capable of making progress, he’s determined to convince himself that he isn’t. Exactly the same over pessimistic outlook is present in Not Dark Yet: ‘I know it looks like I’m moving’, he says ‘ but I’m standing still’.


‘The walls of pride are high and wide’

the narrator tells us, presumably accusing his lover of being so proud he’s unable to get through to her. The listener might well wonder, though, if it isn’t the narrator’s pride which is preventing him from admitting his own faults. That his pride is insulating him from necessary engagement with the world is perhaps suggested when he goes on to say:

‘But you can’t see in and it’s hard looking out’

This suggests that he, rather than she, is the one whose built up a wall of pride.

Pride is not the only sign of his being self-centred. He’s given little indication that he’s had the woman’s interests at heart. This is apparent when he suddenly says:

‘It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay’

While he might be referring to beauty generally or the beauty of the relationship, the context makes it seem at least as likely that he’s referring to his lover’s physical attractiveness. If her overriding attraction to him is her beauty, the line might indicate that his interest in resuming the relationship is likely to wane once her beauty has gone. To put it another way, he seems to appreciate her for her effect on him, rather than for herself.

Self interest again seems to be the underlying motivation when he says:

‘Well the fat’s in the fire and the water’s in the tank
The whiskey’s in the jar and the money’s in the bank’

It’s tempting to think that the lines are meaningless – that they’re an attempt by the narrator to convince himself he’s achieved things when he hasn’t. Alternatively they could be taken as an attempt to reassure himself that he’s got what it takes make a good partner – to provide security or ‘protect’ her, as he goes on to put it. But the choice of expression is open to a range of further interpretation. I’ll suggest just one for each half-line.

‘The fat’s in the fire’, a common enough expression, suggests he’s taking satisfaction in the impending disaster he sees his lover as having brought on herself by rejecting him.

‘The whiskey’s in the jar’, though perhaps a way of seeking sympathy by telling us he’s got the means of drowning his sorrows, reminds us of the Irish folk song of that name in which a highwayman misjudges his lover who betrays him to the authorities. The phrase therefore suggests the narrator is likewise guilty of misjudging his lover.

Given that he’s being seen in some sense as a highwayman, ‘the money’s in the bank’ might bev taken to suggest he’s at least glad to have extorted something from the relationship (though it’s unclear what), even though the other person has suffered in the process.

And ‘the water’s in the tank’ reminds us of how in Till I Fell In Love With You he said that his house was on fire. It implies he has the means to put out the fire – whether this stands for his lust or the end of the relationship – but equally that he’s not making the effort to use it.

What’s clear is that in each of his four phrases so interpreted the narrator is unconsciously putting himself in a bad light.

Preoccupation With Destruction

Whereas in Not Dark Yet the narrator’s pre-occupation was with his own approaching death, here the possibility of death is extended to other things. His solution to his problems seems to be to destroy what he sees as their causes. However, he realises that this is impossible:

‘There are some kind of things you never can kill’

 What these things are is unclear. It might be his lover’s present disdain for him, or it might be his ‘love’ which ‘is taking such a long time to die’. Or it might be his lover herself. That it’s his lover seems likely given that ‘kill’ is normally used for the ending of life.

Similarly murderous sounding is the line:

‘It’s harder still to feel your heart torn away’

which, though on one level it refers to the narrator’s broken heart, might also be interpreted as a threat to the lover.

The fact that many murderers hear voices just as he now is suggests that he might be more likely to commit murder than most people.*

A fourth reason for seeing his lover as a potential victim stems from his claim that:

‘Reality has always had too many heads’.

It seems that what he’d really like to do is decapitate it – chop at least some of its heads off. There are two obvious candidates for such destruction – his lover and the Chicago winds.

That his lover is an aspect of reality, and so something he’d like to destroy, is apparent from his seeing her as a world:

‘I found my world … in you’

His reason for destroying her is her having destroyed him – her having ‘torn‘ his heart away.

It’s in that the winds, in his eyes, have also attempted to destroy him that they too might be taken as an aspect of reality that needs destroying. As he puts it, they’ve:

‘… torn me to shreds’.

The use of the word ‘torn’ in connection with both the lover and the winds helps establish that the narrator sees them as equally threatening to him, and so equally in need of annihilation.** But the twofold nature of the task – and presumably the impossibility of taking revenge on the wind – puts him off. It becomes an excuse for not undertaking any of it, and so his lover survives.

That he finds an excuse for inaction is fortunate in that it results not only in the survival of his lover but perhaps of himself. Inaction won’t render his lover an ongoing threat since he’s only imagining that she’s destroying him – she isn’t in any literal sense tearing his heart away. But if he’s right in seeing her as a world of which he is a part, in destroying her he really would be destroying himself. The sense in which this would be so is that, as Donne famously puts it, ‘no man is an island’.

That destroying her would lead to his own destruction is reinforced when the repetition of ‘found my world’ in:

‘I’ve found my world, found my world in you’,

makes us link what he’s saying to another claim involving repetition:

‘It’s almost like, almost like I don’t exist’

Given the near identity of the narrator and his lover, destroying her would be tantamount to bringing about his own non-existence.

Identity With God

Not only does he identify his lover with reality, but also it would seem with God:

‘Looking at you and I’m on my bended knee’

– ‘bended knee’ having connotations of genuflection. This is reinforced by his pronouncement:

‘I’ve found my world, found my world in you’

which, though addressed to the lover, has a religious feel to it. It’s what a devout Christian might say in praying to God. To the extent that the lover is both reality (the world) and God, the world and God are identified. The narrator should therefore welcome being ‘swallowed’ by the world ( ‘universe’) because that will amount to becoming one with God. As it is, he’s too self-centred to relish losing his identity in God. He wants it back so that he can pursue his selfish interests.

That he needs to take a different approach is further indicated in his observation:

‘… the road is rocky and the hillside’s mud’.

‘Rocky’ suggests the foundations of the church (cf Matt 16:18), and ‘hillside’ suggests Calvary. There’s an implicit suggestion, then, that he needs to stop idolising his lover and adopt a more Christian approach to her – that is, having dealings with her for her own sake and not just his. His saying that he ‘went to church on Sunday’ may be an indication of the beginnings of a more positive outlook.


The differences in the narrator’s outlook from earlier songs on the album are subtle. He is still self-centred and pessimistic to the point of seeming to contemplate a violent solution to his problems. However he’s sufficiently in control to be aware of encroaching insanity, and that his destructive approach is self-defeating. Although the language used to present his thoughts suggests a way of resolving his problems, his going to church is as yet the only sign of his taking more positive action.

 * Of course most people who hear voices are neither insane nor potential murderers. Nevertheless that there’s some connection between them suggests that the narrator’s having a propensity for murder should at least be considered.

**The double use of ‘torn’ also makes us want to link the claim about the winds with the one about the heart in another way. The fact that the former is such an absurd exaggeration suggests that the latter might be too. It’s not obvious that having one’s heart broken is worse than another’s loss of beauty.

6 thoughts on “Cold Irons Bound

  1. I feel the need to explain my earlier comment about your interpretation telling us more about you than Dylan. In Dylan’s own publication of his lyrics he shows us that you are making up your own lyrics. In Cold Irons bound the name is capitalized which makes it a place, not a state of being, as in your interpretation of shackles. You also make a big deal out of the use of the word “torn” when, again the actual lyrics are “Now the winds in Chicago have turned me to shreds”, I suspect just to torment you. Since you keep criticizing and making it seem pathological that the narrator is self centered as if this were a new or unusual insight into a songwriter’s psyche. It’s not.

    I believe that you need to think harder about what the author is saying and less about what you want the world to know about your own pathology.

    That’s better. More what I should have said earlier.


    • Thankyou for your comments Michael.

      If you look at the lyrics on Dylan’s official site (there’s a link to it from the right-hand side of the home page here), you’ll see that ‘cold irons bound’ is not capitalised. Neither is it capitalised in the Ricks/Nemrow edition of Dylan’s lyrics. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t capitalised in other editions. Nevertheless, whether it is or it isn’t is irrelevant since I take both possibilities into account in the analysis: ‘The expression ‘cold irons bound’ is ambiguous. It could refer to his intended destination, a place called Cold Irons. Or it could be telling us he’s in chains – bound in irons – and so incapable of moving anywhere’.

      The same applies to ‘torn me to shreds’. Neither the official lyrics nor Ricks and Nemrow present the phrase as ‘turned me to shreds’. I can understand it if you’ve come across an alternative version, though, because Dylan is constantly altering the lyrics of his songs. Nevertheless I was basing the analysis on what what I see in the texts I have available.

      I think you may have misunderstood my use of the term ‘narrator’. A mistake that a lot of people make is to assume that Dylan is referring to himself when he uses the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me’ in songs. It’s much more likely that the ‘I’ and ‘me’ in the songs (for whom I use the term ‘narrator’) is a fictional character. Very often the narrator will vary from song to song, although it seems to me that that’s not the case on Time Out Of Mind. It follows that when one criticises the narrator one isn’t criticising Dylan. Accordingly, I certainly don’t claim that Dylan is being self-centred. It’s the fictional narrator who is.


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  3. And stand by him, too, when bound in irons
    as well as when he walketh the street with applause
    (John Bunyan: The Pilgrim’s Progress, Chapter Vll)

    Dylan is hard to pin down.

    While Bunyan says stick with Christ no matter what, even if you are suffering on earth,
    “Cold Irons Bound’ can be taken to mean the narrator is still suffering on earth,
    but Christ has not been able relieve it:

    I found my world, found my world in you
    But your love just hasn’t proved true
    I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound.

    That is, Christ has a flaw in His character, not the “self-centred” narrator.

    The application of the orthodox Christian template is obversed.

    Forever blaming the narrator for his own suffering does indeed get a bit tedious.


  4. The narrator has given Christ a second chance before; hope springs eternal:

    I’m pledging my time to you
    Hoping you’ll come through too
    (Bob Dylan: Pledging My Time)


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