The song comprises the narrator’s thoughts throughout. It’s one side of an imagined conversation in which he tries to get a former lover to return. It’s clear from the references to her that she is coping far better than he is. He reveals his surprise at her walking out, the suffering it’s causing him and his refusal to accept it’s over.
The Narrator’s Language
A curious thing about this song is its unashamed use of cliché in just about every line. The usage can be seen as distancing the author, Dylan, from the narrator. Stock expressions are a sign of the shallowness of the narrator’s thinking. They also betray his penchant for self-pity, self-deceit, misplaced self-confidence, and either an inability or unwillingness to see why his relationship has failed. These faults are offset by just one clear point in his favour – he admits some of the blame lies with him:
‘I can change, I swear’
Even then we wonder if we can take this at face value. Why hasn’t he changed already if he knows he should? The ‘I swear’ just adds to the uncertainty. Being clichéd, it doesn’t seem heartfelt. In the light of the evidence we can sympathise with the woman for ditching him.
The song begins with stock expressions wholly inappropriate to the situation being described, the break up of the relationship:
‘Our conversation was short and sweet
It nearly swept me off-a my feet’
The conversation may have been short, but it clearly wasn’t sweet. The narrator is just employing any mindless cliché that suggests itself. The second line is not only inappropriate, but heavily ironic as well. The expression to be swept off one’s feet is usually used to describe being unexpectedly enthralled by someone before a relationship gets going. Here, absurdly, it’s being used about the end of the relationship and, just as absurdly, about a conversation rather than about the woman herself. Furthermore, even if one thought the phrase might still apply to the narrator in its usual sense, it’s significant that he says it nearly swept him of his feet. Such an exultant phrase just doesn’t work with ‘nearly’ qualifying it. The effect is both to make the narrator seem ridiculous, and to cast doubt on the level of his commitment to the woman.
At one point the narrator seems aware of his propensity to think in clichés:
‘Love is so simple, to quote a phrase’
However, the awareness suggested by ‘to quote a phrase’ does nothing to exonerate him. As far as I know there’s no such expression as ‘Love is so simple’ but even if there is, he’s hardly quoting. The expression is a further sign of his lack of original thought.
Yet another example of mindless thought involves the stock phrase ‘a change in the weather’:
‘A change in the weather is known to be extreme’
Is it? Any change? The weather presumably represents the change in their relationship. But is that necessarily to be condemned as extreme? The metaphor is an extension of the weather metaphor in the first verse in which the narrator sees himself as ‘back in the rain’, and the woman as ‘on dry land’. The change can’t have been that extreme if she’s emerged without harm.
The choice of expression in the immediately succeeding line is also a giveaway:
‘But what’s the sense of changing horses in midstream?’
Is that what’s happening – he’s being forced to change his horse? The expression is common enough, but few people would use it in the context of human relationships. Not only does it imply that he’s thinking of the woman in not fully human terms – or he’s accusing her of thinking of him like that – but the analogy itself is inaccurate. While it’s actually absurd to change horses at the most inconvenient point in a journey, it’s not absurd at all to end a relationship some time into it.
- Love as A Financial Transaction
While his choice of language betrays the narrator as a shallow thinker, less committed than he’s making out, it also shows him to be bitter. He resents the effort involved in trying to win back the woman. He compares himself to a songbird since, like the bird’s, his efforts are ‘at his own expense’:
‘He’s singing his song for me at his own expense
And I’m just like that bird, oh, oh,
Singin’ just for you’
He’s being disingenuous. His own ‘singing’ is not just for the woman. The woman has no need of him, and his efforts have the sole aim of alleviating his own misery. What gives him away is the word ‘expense’. With its financial connotations it not only implies he resents the effort required to win back the woman, but that he thinks he’s being required to pay more than she’s worth.
Near the end of the song he again uses language appropriate to a financial transaction. This time it’s in response to the idea that she’ll have found someone else:
‘Oh, I know where I can find you, oh, oh
In somebody’s room
It’s a price I have to pay’
It may not be just one lover he has in mind either, because the phrase ‘somebody’s room’ is ambiguous. In using it, the narrator seems to be implying that the woman has multiple sex partners. Or he may be accusing her of being a prostitute, just as the narrator in ‘Tangled Up In blue’ seems to do when he wonders if the woman’s ‘hair was still red’. Since he provides no independent support for such aspersions, they can probably be dismissed as slanderous innuendo.
Ironically, if a slur is intended it rebounds. Since his mind has moved from the idea of a woman in somebody’s room, to him having to make a payment, it seems quite likely that in accusing her, he’s unintentionally betraying a tendency of his own to pay for sex.
In each verse apart from the middle one, the narrator dwells on his misery. He’s ‘back in the rain’, he’s singing through tears, he’s having to pay a price, and he’s beset by intolerable pain.
Most pathetic, perhaps, is the deep sigh represented by ‘oh, oh’ in each verse after he’s made some complaint.
It’s while harping on about his misery that he betrays another negative aspect of his character. The fact that he so easily makes us aware of his faults suggests he has little idea of them himself, which in turn suggests that his faults might have been the unwitting cause of the break up as well as preventing his being able to reverse it.
The narrator’s lot is not as bad as he makes out, however. It’s self-pity which causes him to bemoan being ‘in the rain’. It’s self-pity which causes him to imagine the woman is with another man. And in the final verse it’s self-pity which causes him to think that the pain of the break-up is driving him mad:
‘I’m going out of my mind, oh, oh
With a pain that stops and starts’
But once more he’s being disingenuous. If the pain stops and starts, it can’t be that distressing. It’s enough to make one wonder if it’s genuine at all.
Misjudgement and Self-Deceit
The narrator is guilty of mis-judging the woman:
‘Love is so simple, to quote a phrase
You’ve known it all the time, I’m learnin’ it these days’
It’s ironic that the one attempt he makes at honest praise, is undeserved. Love is not simple. If it were, he wouldn’t be in the mess he’s in. And if love is not simple, she can’t be truthfully said to have known that it is.
Neither could he be learning it, for the same reason. There’s a thin line to be drawn between the narrator’s misjudging his situation and deliberately deceiving himself about it, and there’s no way of telling which is the case here. But since he cannot be learning that love is simple (because it isn’t), he’s guilty either of misjudgement or self-deception when he proudly claims to be learning it, and humbly implies that he needs to. His pride and humility are misplaced.
One gets the impression he’s enjoying looking for sympathy, making his lot seem as bad as possible. Is he really so upset about the loss of the woman, or is he just deceiving himself about his desire for her? As we’ve seen, that his pain ‘stops and starts’ suggests it might be deception. The focus on pain suggests that he wants her as a way of easing his misery, but there’s little to suggest he wants her for herself. Similarly his use of ‘expense’, ‘price’ and ‘pay’ in connection with her suggests a lack of true feeling, as does his prefixing ‘swept me off-a my feet’ with ‘nearly’. But there’s more. The bird to which he compares himself is ‘sitting on a fence’ – and to sit on the fence is to be undecided about whether something’s good or bad. In comparing himself with the bird, he may be unconsciously admitting that he has doubts about the worth of the relationship, while continuing to deceive himself that that’s not the case.
When the narrator bemoans:
‘Oh, but what a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last’
he’s presumably voicing regret at their not being able to enjoy doing again the sorts of things they once did together. What’s telling is that the regret about the future is expressed by way of reference to the past. He offers no indication about how their future together might be an advance on the past. For someone who is supposed to be learning that love is simple, he seems to have made little progress. It seems ludicrous to appeal to their past together when it was in the light of their past together that the woman left him.
There’s another complaint that makes him look inadequate:
‘Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast’
For someone in control of their life, time doesn’t move too fast. In saying that it does, the narrator succeeds only in drawing attention to his inadequacy. A further reference to time contrasts him in this respect with the woman. Having declared, albeit wrongly, that love is simple, the narrator says:
‘You’ve known it all the time …’
thereby indicating that time has never got the better of her.
Another fault in the narrator’s character is a tendency to be patronising:
‘And you are on dry land
You made it there somehow‘
The ‘somehow’ implies that he wouldn’t have thought her capable of surviving the end of the relationship. It’s an odd thing to say, since the very fact that she has survived is enough to prove him wrong. Why admit he’s a bad judge of character?
And the line which immediately follows:
‘You’re a big girl now’
is likewise belittling. It’s the sort of expression a parent would use to a child – inappropriate between adults at any time, unless used ironically, but doubly so when of the two of them, the woman is clearly the more mature.
The patronising attitude continues in verse three:
‘I can change I swear
See what you can do’
The implication is two-fold. First, it’s that she’ll find it harder to change than he will, presumably because she’s got less willpower. Secondly, it’s that she needs to change. We’re given no evidence in support of either.
‘I can make it through
You can make it too’
It’s as if she needs encouraging due to a lack of self-belief. This is fantasy, as is the implication that the opposite is true of him. In patronising her, he’s demeaning her, for it seems very unlikely that she really is the less self-confident of the two. His earlier references to ‘rain’, ‘tears’, ‘pain’, and his thought about her having found someone else, all suggest the contrary – that he feels the need to boost his own self-belief. But to achieve this end, it seems, he’s prepared to demean her.
Totally oblivious to how his thoughts betray his character, the narrator comes off badly. The song is more than a condemnation of a weak character, though. It presents us with a picture of complexity, pointing out how human nature can comprise a wealth of even negative traits. In the song these range from shallow thinking, extreme self-pity, self-deceit, mis-judgement, complaining, bitterness, misplaced self-confidence, condescension, slander and a failure to recognise one’s own responsibility for how things turn out. In making it seem plausible that so many diverse traits can co-exist in a single individual, the song enables us to see the sort of complex richness of character which can lie hidden beneath the human exterior.