For those not very familiar with the song it’s worth pointing out a couple of things about it before beginning the analysis. It’s the ninth of eleven songs (all by Dylan, and all of whose lyrics are analysed this site) on the 1997 album Time Out Of Mind. These songs seem to share a common, fictitious narrator whose character seems to develop from song to song as the album progresses. A better appreciation of the song will be had by seeing it in the context of the others.
By this song, the narrator is in a distraught emotional state which, at least initially, gains him our sympathy. While on the surface this seems to be a highly romantic love song, as doubtless it is intended to be by the narrator, it is more than that. Throughout, as on previous songs, the narrator unintentionally exposes weaknesses in his character. In so doing he not only loses some of our sympathy, but makes his lover’s rejection of him all the more understandable.
Sees Lover As A Reflection Of Himself
The narrator’s egocentricity comes out fully in the first verse. The opening lines have him sympathising with his lover, but for being in a situation which is near to what he sees as his own:
‘When the rain is blowing in your face
And the whole world is on your case’
‘In your face’, in its colloquial sense, might seem to apply to what she sees as him in his relationship with her, rather than the other way about. Also what, we might ask, is meant by ‘your case’? The expression has a pathological feel to it, and would therefore be more obviously appropriate to the narrator whose ‘hearing voices’ in Cold Irons Bound suggested he was becoming insane. Also, rain imagery seems more apposite to him than to her. As early as Love Sick he was complaining that the ‘clouds are weeping’, and in Dirt Road Blues he was ‘rolling through the rain and hail’. In applying his situation to her, it’s as if he’s found an opportunity to feel sorry for himself. It’s wrong, he thinks, that the sympathy he gives her hasn’t been extended to him .
Despite this, the language of the second line goes even further, by implying not just that their situations are the same but that the narrator and his lover are identical. The phrase ‘the whole world is on your case’, makes us remember that in Cold Irons Bound his lover was his world – or so he told us (‘I found my world in you’). There he also felt ‘like the universe had swallowed me whole‘ – thereby unconsciously identifying or merging himself with the universe or whole world – and therefore with her. One consequence of this mutual identity is to make apparent the wrongheadedness of the narrator’s self-centredness. By being concerned only about himself, he brings about a division between himself and his lover, whereas if he were to focus on her needs he would at the same time – given their identity – be addressing his own.
A further consequence of seeing his lover as a version of himself is that he makes her lot out to be as bad as he thinks his own is. This is presented in the song by his references to things associated with night – shadows and stars:
‘When the evening shadows and the stars appear
And there is no one there to dry your tears’
But why stars? Stars are beautiful and not a cause for tears, as the lines imply. Their inclusion is an indication of the narrator’s pessimism – his failure to recognise when things are going well. And we’ve been given no reason to suppose that his lover should be attributed with a similar one-sided outlook.
Untrustworthiness And Other Faults
It’s clear, particularly from the third verse, that the narrator is not to be trusted. First, he seems disingenuous when he says ‘I know you haven’t made your mind up yet’ because in Till I Fell In Love With You he’d referred to ‘the girl/who won’t be back no more’. In addition, the fact that she had reason to leave him makes one treat with suspicion his assurance that he’d never do her wrong. Furthermore, he says he’d known this ‘from the moment that we met’ – but why only from then? There seems to be an unconscious implication that he’d normally be just the sort of person to do her wrong. And when he tells her he’d be able to make her dreams come true, the obvious thing to wonder, if that’s possible, is why he hasn’t he already done so.
Then there’s his claim in the fourth verse that in order to satisfy his lover, there’s ‘nothing that I wouldn’t do’. Like ‘make your dreams come true’ the phrase is vague, as if the narrator is at a loss to think of things he’d actually be willing to do for her. The fact that he is reduced to repeating it in the final verse seems only to reinforce the idea that he can’t think of anything specific he’d be willing to commit himself to.
‘I could offer you a warm embrace’ he says. On the surface it sounds both romantic and caring, just as the narrator intends. But why does he say ‘I could offer you…’? If he were really overwhelmed with love for her, wouldn’t he just embrace her? The formality of an offer suggests he’s more reticent than he wants us to believe.
In addition to being oddly reticent, he seems domineering, even misogynistic:
‘No doubt in my mind where you belong’
This seems to imply that his mind is superior to hers, and the word ‘belong’ implies he thinks of her as his property. Even though he’s referring to himself, the phrase ‘I’d go black and blue’ also carries hints of a dominant temperament. One wonders why the phrase even entered his mind if he’d had no thought of physically forcing her to comply. That he wants to force her is further supported by the wording of the title, repeated in the refrain – he wants to make her feel his love.
Space And Time
In addition to being vague he has a penchant for absurd exaggeration. It’s absurd for him to say he’s known how he’d behave ‘from the moment that we met’. It’s equally absurd when he goes to the other extreme, claiming:
‘I could hold you for a million years‘
Even if being held is what she needs, she doesn’t need it for that long. One feels that the narrator is just mindlessly expressing his own feelings. Furthermore, while in one way a million years is ludicrously long, in another it’s too short. Why the time limit? You’d expect him to say ‘I could hold you forever’, and that he doesn’t do so seems further evidence of a lack of commitment.
The phrase ‘million years’ reminds us of the phrase ‘million miles’ used in the song of that name. There he used it to refer to the distance which had grown between them. That distance, a million miles, seemed exaggeratedly long , just as here a period of a million years (compared with forever) can be seen as too short. This inability to successfully represent his relationship in spatial and temporal terms hints at an underlying non-spatiotemporal, eternal nature. That it has at least the potential for such a nature is supported by the notion implicit in the narrator’s language of unity or identity between his lover and himself. Just as this unity overrides spatial distinctions, so the inadequacy of temporal language gives the lie to temporal distinctions.
Need To Change
The narrator seems to recognise at least in principle, though, that he needs to behave differently:
‘Storms are raging on the rolling sea
And on the highway of regret’
Presumably the ‘storms’ represents the turmoil in the narrator’s mind as he contemplates the course of his life – represented by the sea and the highway. Apparently the storms have resulted in his regretting his past behaviour and in an intention to change:
‘The winds of change are blowing wild and free’
The intention seems unfocused though (‘wild and free’) as if any change or series of changes will do. His boast:
‘You ain’t seen nothing like me yet’
shows that he fails to see that change is unlikely to be worthwhile if it’s not purposeful. It looks at best as if the narrator is just going to try out a series of personas, even to the extent of demeaning himself (by ‘crawling down the avenue’). The result will be not just that his lover hasn’t seen anything like him, but that she’s not going to.
At least, though, he recognises that fault might lie with him; there’s been little indication of that up till now.
Like other songs on the Time Out Of Mind album, but perhaps to a greater extent, Make You Feel My Love can only be fully appreciated in the context of the album as a whole. Phrases regularly draw attention to related phrases, and so to themes, dealt with in earlier songs. As a result we see the narrator imposing his own mental state on his lover, showing inconsistency regarding his prospects of reviving their relationship, and conceiving the relationship in terms incapable of doing justice to its at least potentially unified and eternal nature. As in other songs, our sympathy for him is tempered by his constant, and unconscious, revelation of flaws in his character.