At first this would seem like a simple love song. It is a love song, but more than a simple one. Although it’s about a relationship, it’s also about love more generally as is made clear by the opening line:
‘I’ve seen love go by my door’
It’s love the narrator’s seen, as distinct from a lover. A feature of the song which marks it out from others in the genre is that it charts the development of the narrator’s understanding of love. We’re told, in monologue form, what his experience of love used to be, what it is now, and the very different way in which it might continue.
I’ll be assuming the lover is female, although there’s no specific indication that this is so, and the Verlaine/Rimbaud comparison in the fifth verse might well be thought to suggest otherwise. Another reason for considering the lover to be male is the narrator’s self-obsession. His lover is male in that the lover is himself, thus rendering the relationship an auto-erotic, homosexual one. This would fit with his being both shooter and target (see below). It would also fit with his giving himself ‘a good talkin’ to’ in verse six.
Our immediate impression is that the narrator is regretting the imminent breakup of a relationship. His complaint throughout the song is:
‘You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go’
It’s worse than just a break up, however. The narrator is better seen as anticipating his lover’s death. It’s for that reason he doesn’t accompany her, despite being prepared to travel thousands of miles in the hope of finding her. The song is about the development of his love in the knowledge that she is going to be gone completely.
For the majority of the song the narrator’s attitude to love is presented through his response to nature. The first natural image he uses is dismal:
‘Dragon clouds so high above’
Clouds often represent gloom, but when qualified by ‘dragon’, the suggestion is one of menace. The clouds are not being seen in their true state, but as dangerous. Yet for that very reason the dragon image seems inappropriate. The narrator is seeing danger where there either is none, or should be none.1 The fact that the clouds are ‘high above’ suggests his judgment is erroneous since high clouds are always innocuous. Furthermore if it’s ‘careless love’ he’s comparing them to, then the fact that this is described as hitting him ‘from below‘, suggests that the cloud image is inapt.
The narrator is happy to see the passing of what he calls careless love. At this later stage, we’re to believe, Cupid has got it right. He’s:
‘Right on target, so direct’
From this point positive natural images abound, beginning with:
‘Purple clover, Queen Anne’s lace
Crimson hair across your face’
– the red and white of the Queen Anne’s lace reminding the narrator of his loved one’s hair contrasting with her face.
In verse five the images, though still positive, start to become absurd, however:
‘Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy
Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme’
‘Crazy’ seems more appropriate as a description of the narrator for using the term in connection with flowers, than it does for describing the flowers themselves. The term may have occurred to him because, perhaps unconsciously, he really sees it as applying to his lover. It’s also the case that the description of crickets is highly idealised. Not only can they can hardly be said to rhyme, but since only the males ‘talk’ (or chirp, by rubbing their wings), there couldn’t be a reciprocal, two-way, male/female conversation.
In so far as the descriptions might be representative of the relationship, then, they might seem to represent the narrator’s unconscious or suppressed idea about it. On this view, he’s presenting his lover as crazy and, unlike real crickets, quarrelsome – the ‘back and forth’ nature of their conversation representing disagreement. Although he’s no longer indulging in ‘careless love’, the love that’s replaced it would seem still to be wanting.
The final natural image in verse five:
‘Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy’
also seems idealistic. Some, but not all, rivers are blue. And while ‘slow’ has already been used to describe his love, his willingness to use ‘lazy’ might be an indication of the narrator’s own outlook rather than the approach required for a successful relationship. The oxymoronic ‘runnin’ slow’ might reflect the conflicting responses to the passing of time which the narrator alludes to when he says, ‘I could stay with you forever and never realise the time’.
The final stage in the narrator’s developing attitude to love comes in the final verse.
The following lines again involve references to nature, but the descriptions are no longer outlandish. They seem to have a refreshing honesty about them. And it’s here we realise that the lover’s leaving might be a matter of her death:
‘But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love’
Love is again associated with the sky, but just ‘the sky above’ – heaven – and no longer dragons and clouds. ‘Grass’ is qualified, but by a simple epithet ‘tall’. ‘Tall’ and ‘high’ both suggest superiority, and contrast with his having previously been hit from ‘below’. And whereas earlier when he’d seen his lover, he’d been reminded of nature – purple clover and Queen Anne’s Lace – now it’s the other way around. When he sees nature he’s reminded of her. He sees her in nature.
But not only that. Nature now becomes extended to include people – ‘the ones I love’.
The last verse began on a note of hopelessness, the narrator having accepted that the lover is leaving and vowing to undertake the presumably hopeless task of finding her in:
‘… old Honolulu,
San Francisco, Ashtabula’
– remote, apparently unconnected, and (in the last case) pretty unheard-of places. At the moment he expects to find her in the people he loves, but if that’s possible the further possibility is opened up of his finding her in people generally, wherever they are. And that therefore includes not just the American inhabitants of the three places mentioned, but those who gave these places their names – the Polynesians of ‘old Honolulu’, the Spanish who originally colonised San Francisco, and the Lenape who for centuries lived in Ashtabula. It’s the diversity of the people with whom the different places are associated which links them. The narrator will be finding his lover in the ones he loves in the sense that he’ll be finding her qualities in everyone. He’ll have acquired an all-embracing love.
The narrator began by describing love as having:
‘… never been this close before’
Ironically love ends up at its closest when his lover is imagined to be discoverable in one of the three remote places.
By the end of the song the narrator has started to see his love not just as a woman, but in pantheistic terms – as the Ideal expressed in nature. This explains his implied distinction between the absent lover and ‘the ones I love’. She is now being considered as on another plain to the ones he loves.
This transformation of his idea of the lover into an idea of the Ideal, or God, is prefigured in a number of ways.
First, there’s the line:
‘Crimson hair across your face’
This may be the lover’s actual hair being compared with the Queen Anne’s lace, but it might also be taken more literally. If the narrator is taken to be addressing nature, then ‘your face’ will be the face of the earth, and Queen Anne’s lace will be the earth’s hair. Even at this early stage the narrator is beginning to equate the lover and nature – nature personalised with a face and hair.
That the hair is described as crimson (rather than, say, auburn) is significant. Crimson is the colour of fresh blood, and so the lover is the possessor of blood that’s been shed. The letters of ‘cross’ in the word ‘across’ help confirm that both she and nature are being identified with Christ. She is Christ in that she’s his potential saviour in enabling him to see what love really involves.
Another way the transformation is prefigured is in the line:
‘I could stay with you forever and never realise the time’
While on a literal level the narrator is simply claiming he’d be so overwhelmed by his lover’s presence he’d not notice time passing, there seems here to be an intimation of an eternal existence in ‘forever’. The line represents an advance on:
‘This time around it’s more correct’
– ‘this time around’ suggesting a need to escape from a temporal cycle of endless repetition.
The narrator makes the passing comment that he’s:
‘Been shooting in the dark too long’
Of course, whatever other connotations the phrase might have, he means this as an allusion to his attempts to find love. He sees himself as Cupid shooting an arrow, and so as firing it at himself. One significance of this is that it’s an indication of his self-obsession. It’s also an indication of incompetence:
‘It’s always hit me from below’.
This incompetence in love is taken up in verse five by an explicit reference to the progenitors of French symbolist poetry, Verlaine and Rimbaud. Verlaine famously shot Rimbaud, not out of love, but in a jealous rage. Like the narrator, he more or less missed, hitting Rimbaud in the wrist. The narrator’s attempts at love are like those of Verlaine and Rimbaud, not just in the shooting but in the storminess and perhaps inappropriateness of his relationships (the ‘talkin’ back and forth’) which comparison with theirs implies. Despite the selfish motivation of each marksman, there’s a difference however. Whereas Verlaine was aiming to kill someone else, the narrator’s shooting does not involve violence (unlike his counterpart’s in Idiot Wind**).
Developing attitude towards love
The narrator’s progress towards a fuller understanding of love is reflected in the different ways the word ‘love’ is used. The word itself is used four times, each time in a different sense. In the opening line:
‘I’ve seen love go by my door’,
the abstract noun ‘love’ represents love generally, but does so by presenting it in concrete form as something ideal which has literally by-passed the narrator. But when the narrator goes on to declare:
‘I’ve only known careless love’,
he’s no longer referring to ideal love, but to an inadequate substitute.
By contrast with these uses, when he says:
‘You might be spoilin’ me too much, love’,
he’s using the term as a mode of address. And finally, in:
‘… the ones I love’
it’s a verb used to represent moral commitment.
These different uses of ‘love’ parallel the development of the narrator’s attitude. The first three show him in a negative light. He starts with regret that his past romantic experiences have been unsatisfactory, while exulting in his present relationship. He then lets us know, via the epithet ‘careless’, that his approach hitherto has been uncommitted and irresponsible. There’s no self-reproach; the term ‘careless love’ seems chosen to represent his own experience to date as something comparable with, albeit slightly inferior to, the real thing. One gets the impression he sees being uncommitted and irresponsible as just one of those unfortunate things which happen. He’s unaware there might be a causal connection between genuine love having by-passed him, on the one hand, and his acceptance of so-called careless love, on the other.
The use of ‘love’ in:
‘You might be spoilin’ me too much, love’
is presumably intended to suggest affection. Instead it seems to indicate no more than a presumption that the woman is his. It seems shallow, and in keeping with the maudlin tone of the line in which it appears. The word refers to the woman; it picks her out like a sort of pointer, but there’s little indication that the connotations of the word are uppermost in the narrator’s mind as he uses it. Since he refers to her hair as ‘crimson’, which might even suggest he sees her as a whore, and two verses later he’s able to somewhat disparagingly characterise the relationship as ‘this affair’, it’s clear that his understanding of love is far from ideal.
The final use is different. He’s moved from sexual love (eros) to selfless love (agape). The fact that he sees the woman in the ones he loves suggest that his attitude to her has become appreciative of her qualities.
The change of attitude indicated in this final use of ‘love’ is prefigured in the resolution he refers to at the end of the penultimate verse. Whereas the narrator had referred to crickets ‘talkin’ back and forth’, by the end of this verse he’s ready to:
‘… give myself a good talkin’ to’
If the crickets talking was in part a sub-conscious reference to altercations between the woman and himself, then the narrator can now be seen as substituting self-admonishment for criticism of her. It is in keeping with this that the lines about seeing her in the sky, the tall grass and other people appear more distant and reverential. The contrast between the use of ‘love’ here and in the third mention, the apostrophising her as ‘love’, is huge.
The development of the narrator’s understanding of love is also reflected in his comments involving the word ‘right’. In the first verse, the narrator condemns his previous approach, saying:
‘When something’s not right it’s wrong’
In doing so he seems to be trying to justify his present change of tack by saying something no-one could really object to, instead of risking saying something meaningful. On the surface ‘not right’ means ‘wrong’ so to that extent he’s come up with no more than a tautology.
But is he even right when he says that when something’s not right, it’s wrong’? He himself seems implicitly to cast doubt on this in the very next verse. Here he refers to the arrow as:
‘Right on target …’
Since by the end of the song the narrator’s understanding of love has changed markedly, this would suggest that the arrow was not right on target, earlier on, because it had stimulated a self-centred, patronising approach to love. Furthermore, the narrator seems to appreciate this when he qualifies the love that he’s now experiencing as:
‘… more correct’
If it’s only more correct, though partially right, it can’t have been right on target. At this stage, it would seem, the narrator has reached a mid-way position in his understanding of love. He has moved from ‘careless love’ to an appreciation of his lover’s qualities, but is still far from the very different understanding of love, which he’s closing in on in the final verse.
In terms of right and wrong, the narrator has moved from a simplistic understanding of these to one which recognises that neither is an absolute.
The development in the narrator’s attitude to love is matched by the development in his attitude to loneliness. Throughout the song, the narrator claims he’s going to become lonely when his lover goes. Only gradually do we realise that this going is her dying. Despite this, by the end he’s gone some way towards coming to terms with it:
‘You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know’,
He’s come to accept that in physical terms he can’t keep her. This knowledge represents an advance on his only previous claim to knowledge, knowledge of careless love which even he found unsatisfactory.
By the end, though, he’s also learnt to see that in some sense she won’t have departed. Her qualities are everywhere. Despite his still repeating in the last line:
‘You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go’
there’s a sense in which he’s not actually going to be lonesome when she goes. That he says he is, is the result of an unresolved conflict in his mind. He’s yet to fully appreciate that the object of love, whose death he’s now accepted, is the same as the object of love whose existence he expects to find everywhere. Whether he will – and indeed whether it is – is left undecided.
- It’s plausible that the dragon clouds represent suicidal thoughts. In verse six the narrator castigates himself for ‘stayin’ behind without you’. Choosing to join the lover would be a matter of choosing to die.
- There are a number of points of comparison between this song and Idiot Wind. Some of these are as follows:
First, whereas here love goes past the narrator’s door, in the earlier song the narrator himself would ‘crawl’ past the wife’s door. The effect is to emphasise the distinction between love as it should be and, in that song, the narrator’s guilt-ridden love.
Secondly, the narrators in each song use shooting as a means of acquiring love. The gunman in Idiot Wind acts as a foil for the present narrator whose shooting is utterly benign.
Thirdly, in both songs the narrators are at some point inactive, whereas the wife and the lover are active. The present narrator’s inactivity causes his ‘stayin’ far behind’. Only once his life has ceased to be represented by the ‘slow’ and ‘lazy’ river’, and he determines to search for her, does he look like achieving success.
Finally, in both songs the object of the narrator’s love can be seen to have physically died, but to have continued to exist in a ubiquitous, eternal sense. And they are each associated with the saving power of Christ.