All five verses have the narrator wistfully recounting his thoughts about the woman who has left him. Three have him asking someone to act as an intermediary between him and the woman, while the remaining two represent his private thoughts.
A problem about the song concerns the extent to which the narrator wants to revive the relationship. At times he gives the impression of being far less committed than he makes out. The ambivalence may be due to the flaws in his character which precipitated the break up, and which now prevent him knowing how best to proceed. As will become apparent, he has a skewed idea about what a relationship requires to be successful and is too ready to find excuses and to cast blame. At times his outlook is made to seem quite laughable.
It seems at first as if the narrator is pining for his lost lover. He tries to make contact with her, sends her a kiss, says he respects her, and that he suffers both when he hears her name and when he recalls details of the break up. He also emphasises the distance which now exists between them when he says:
‘… she might be in Tangier’.
The effect of ‘Tangier’ is to make her sound inaccessible. Furthermore the very next line:
‘She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, I hear’
reinforces that distance by its use of the words ‘here’ (and the homophone ‘hear’) applying to his vicinity, and ‘there’ applying to hers.
It becomes apparent, though, that he may be less concerned about renewing the relationship than some of these things suggest. It’s particularly significant, for example, that he doesn’t seek out the woman himself, but is happy to contact her – and send a kiss – via an intermediary.
More importantly, perhaps, this lack of concern is supported by his saying to the intermediary:
‘She might think that I’ve forgotten her, don’t tell her it isn’t so’.
That would be an odd message to send someone you were hoping to restart a relationship with. The word ‘don’t’ makes it clear that he wants her to think his attitude has changed. Either he’s putting on a show of indifference, or else he really is indifferent.
That the narrator lacks desire for any personal contact with the woman is corroborated by the matter of fact way he says:
‘And I hear her name here and there as I go from town to town’.
‘Here and there’ is an imprecise expression. It implies a lack of interest in things associated with her.
The apparent lack of concern continues in the final verse:
‘If she’s passin’ back this way, I’m not too hard to find
Tell her she can look me up if she’s got the time’.
There’s no appearance of enthusiasm. That he thinks she might be ‘passin’ back’ shows that the distance between them is not an obstacle to their meeting in person, yet he makes no effort to make the journey himself. He seems happy enough to see her, but no more than that.
That he’s unconcerned about reviving the relationship might seem to conflict with his obvious suffering. The manner of her leaving, we’re told in verse two:
‘… still brings me a chill’,
and, also in verse two:
‘… our separation, it pierced me to the heart’.
Nevertheless, although the feelings may be genuine, the latter phrase tells us just that he was distraught at the time, not that he is now. And the former alludes to no more than a present reaction to the memory of what was at the time an unwelcome event.
Overall, and strangely for what at first appears to be a love song, it would seem that the narrator is prepared to put little effort into reviving the relationship. The question, then, is why?
One answer is that the narrator is exercising cunning. By showing an absence of concern about reviving the relationship, he’s manipulating the intermediary. This is evident when he instructs the latter to:
‘Say for me that I’m alright’.
Why just ‘alright’? One suspects it’s part of a device to get the woman to feel sorry for him. He puts on the semblance of a brave face, in order for the intermediary to see through it. The aim is to dupe the intermediary into passing on that he’s more unhappy than he seems. The narrator will go up in her estimations because, by not being open about his unhappiness, he’ll appear to be being strong in adversity.
A second explanation for the narrator’s reticence is that it’s not love that’s uppermost in his mind, but resentment.
This resentment comes across in his bitterness. He even uses the word ‘bitter’:
‘Though the bitter taste still lingers on …’
In so doing, his intention is to criticise the woman and this alone suggests he’s not as enamoured by her as he’d like us to believe.
And his claim that the way she left ‘still brings me a chill’ also suggests that it’s not a loving emotion which subsumes him.
Although he attempts to balance these feelings with the claims that:
‘She still lives inside of me …’
and that he and the woman have:
‘… never been apart’,
these claims come across as too mushily sentimental to be taken as genuine. If she still ‘lives inside’ him at all, it’s in the unintended sense that she rankles him.
One suspects that the real reason for his saying she lives inside of him is to make him seem beyond reproach. He’s attempting to put the blame for his misery fairly and squarely on her.
The absurdity of the narrator’s approach becomes doubly apparent when we notice that the words ‘lives inside of me’ echo those of St Paul:
‘… it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2.20).
First, the narrator seem to be using the woman’s supposed living in him to justify not living his own life, as if she can live his life for him. Secondly, and relatedly, the idea that there is a comparison to be drawn between his love relationship and the relationship with Christ which St Paul is advocating is ludicrous. St Paul is advocating allowing Christian ideals to replace one’s own more selfish outlook. There’s no way that this has a counterpart in a romantic relationship. By using Paul’s language out of context, the narrator makes himself ridiculous.
The ludicrousness of the narrator’s approach is compounded when he goes onto say in verse four:
‘And I hear her name here and there as I go from town to town’
It’s significant that this line echoes the earlier line from verse one:
‘She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, I hear‘
The lines each contain ‘here’, ‘there’ and the homophone ‘hear’, but whereas the focus in verse one was on the geographical distance between ‘here’ and ‘there’ – their respective vicinities – now, with her supposedly ‘inside of him’, neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’ matters.
The absurdity of this change of focus becomes apparent when we realise that the narrator seems to be unconsciously travestying a further biblical text:
‘Neither shall they say, See here! or, see there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 17.21).
While Luke wants us to believe that ‘here’ and ‘there’ don’t matter if God is within you, the narrator is saying they don’t matter if the woman is within you!
Once more the allusion seems heavily ironic to the point of ridiculous. It doesn’t even make sense for the ex-lover to be primarily within (‘inside of’) the narrator in the way Luke thinks the kingdom of God is. Luke is using metaphorical language to make a point about moral living which simply has no counterpart in a romantic relationship.
Narrator’s and Woman’s Contrasting Attitudes to Life
While the narrator’s echoing of Paul and Luke seem intended, ridiculously, to imply that he has discovered a superior way of living, it becomes clear that the opposite is the case. For example, in the final verse we encounter the phrase:
‘Sundown, yellow moon …’.
Although presumably chosen for its romantic connotations, this image of nightfall has the unintended effect of associating the narrator with death. And, ironically given the allusions to Paul and Luke, ‘sundown’ (Son-down) suggests spiritual death – death without resurrection.
That the narrator’s approach is tantamount to giving up on life is reinforced by the very next phrase:
‘… I replay the past’.
Instead of looking ahead to a new life, he looks back on the one that’s gone.1
By contrast, the woman looks ahead:
‘She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, I hear’
Spring represents the new life for which she left the narrator. And the reference to ‘living’ in the second half of the line makes it clear that she, unlike the narrator, is going to make the effort to live.
Further Religious Imagery
There’s further irony in what is presumably another (presumably unconscious) biblical reference. The narrator claims that the woman’s departure:
‘… pierced me to the heart’.
This presents her as one of those who tormented Christ, and has him putting himself in the position of Christ. (‘But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water’ (John 19.34). Again it’s hard to see how the implicit glorification of himself, together this time with the denigration of the woman, can be justified.
In fact a further implicit biblical reference suggests the opposite. His offering her a kiss, albeit by proxy, makes her Christ and him a Judas-like tormentor (Mark 14.44).2
That the narrator’s implicit comparisons with himself and Christ are ironic becomes even more apparent from the insights into his character we’re afforded from reading between the lines of what he says. Even things which suggest he’s well intentioned, genuinely bereft, and perhaps deserving of our sympathy, can also be interpreted as highlighting flaws in his character.
He unintentionally betrays how domineering he can be when he declares:
‘Oh whatever makes her happy, I won’t stand in the way’.
While his intention is the opposite – to let it be known that he won’t be restrictive – the mere fact he raises the subject causes suspicion. Why does he need to offer the assurance, unless to allay fears that he would in fact stand in the way? Furthermore, to the extent that the narrator is out to revive the relationship, and the woman isn’t, it would be difficult to see him as not standing in her way.
It’s also rather odd that he’s offering that assurance to the person he’s addressing. This may be because he’s hoping he’ll pass it on, but it might also be because he expects this person too to see him as obstructive.
A second reason for seeing the narrator as domineering is his reference to:
‘… the night I tried to make her stay’
The expression ‘make her stay’ could be taken as implying compulsion – that he was requiring her to stay whether she wanted to or not.
Thirdly, his approach in the song is itself a sign of an over-dominant character. It comes across as a series of instructions to the addressee – ‘say hello’, ‘say for me’, don’t tell her’, ‘kiss her’, and ‘Tell her she can look me up …’
Furthermore, in this last case it’s not just the intermediary who is being bossed about. It’s the woman too in that a way of getting in contact is being set out for her. His addition of
‘… if she’s got the time’
seems no more than an insincere attempt to be conciliatory. It’s clear from the end of the immediately preceding line:
‘I’m not that hard to find’,
that he wouldn’t accept lack of time as an excuse for her failing to look him up.
Further evidence of his domineering character is contained in the line:
‘Always have respected her in doing what she did in gettin’ free’
We might want to applaud the generosity implicit here if we didn’t wonder what precisely the woman can have done to merit his respect. It can’t simply be that she left him, because he’s still bitter about that. The key words would seem to be ‘in gettin’ free’. If so, it must be that he respects her for having escaped, and this can only be because he’d been effectively imprisoning her.
Finally, that he’s domineering comes across from his not shying away from appearing self-critical:
‘Either I’m too sensitive or else I’m getting’ soft’
On the surface this appears as an honest admittance of a fault. However it’s more than that. Not only does it seem to be said in the hope of hearing it denied, so that it’s a covert appeal for sympathy, but – in the absence of any evidence that he’s either too sensitive or soft – it appears calculated to remove any idea that the narrator is dominating. Softness, in particular, suggests the opposite.
There’s another type of falsity apparent in the lines leading up to the one about being too sensitive:
‘And I hear her name here and there as I go from town to town
And I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off’
The narrator claims his response to the discomfort of hearing the woman’s name has been ‘to turn it off’. But by his own admission he’s only heard her name ‘here and there’, and presumably over quite a long time since it’s been as a result of traveling to different towns. What, then, has he learned to turn off’? There doesn’t seem to have been very much. Again, rather than actually suffering from constantly hearing the woman’s name (assuming that that’s what ‘it’ refers to), the narrator must be trying to elicit sympathy. It’s not that he’s over-sensitive, so much as that he wants to others to believe that he’s over-sensitive.
There’s further irony here in that despite there being nothing appreciable to turn off, the narrator’s complaining would suggest that he’s not turned anything off anyway.
The narrator Is hard to please. On the one hand he complains that things are getting ‘kind of slow’. On the other he complains that the past ‘all went by so fast’. Both these things might be true. Nevertheless, if he dislikes life slowing down, it’s somewhat odd that he complains when things move quickly. Alternatively, if he prefers things to move quickly, it’s odd that he complains when they slow down.
This suggests that he’s not being wholly honest. Rather than giving an accurate account of his feelings, he may once again be seizing on opportunities to elicit sympathy. For example, if we take the claim that everything went by ‘so fast’ at face value, that in itself might suggest the time he and the woman were together was not as good as he’s making out. The greater the number of happy occasions there were, the more time they would have taken. As it is, there were sufficiently few such occasions for him to know ‘every scene by heart’.
The narrator’s understanding of love seems shallow. One feels that he gets pleasure out of presenting himself as a forsaken lover.
Again he makes himself laughable by taking on the role of the fictitious medieval courtly lover – not just by pining for the woman, but by using an intermediary to intercede for him.3
That he sees himself in a traditional romantic role is apparent when he says:
‘We had a falling out, like lovers often will’
In itself the second clause is redundant. It’s irrelevant that other lovers are often in the same boat. However, by showing his situation to be typical of theirs the narrator is able to distract from his own responsibility for the break up.
This presenting himself as a romantic occurs again in the final verse:
‘Sundown, yellow moon …’
By using the language of love songs to describe real life, he’s showing he has a rather skewed idea of what a relationship needs to be. And in the light of this it’s hardly surprising that the woman has left him.
This is an unusual love song. The narrator, while apparently pining for his departed lover, seem unenthusiastic about making contact again. Numerous biblical allusions seem to mock his outlook and emphasise the contrast between the woman’s forward-looking, life-affirming approach and his own orientation towards the past.
As the song progresses we become aware of numerous flaws in the narrator’s character which might have contributed to the break up and to the dishonesty of his response to it. He’s bitter, domineering, false, inconsistent and has an over romanticised view of what a loving relationship entails. He seems more concerned with justifying himself and getting his own back than in reviving the relationship.
1. Like Orpheus, and the consequence is the same – failure to bring the woman back.
2. Another biblical reference has him comparing the two of them to man in his ‘fallen’ state:
‘We had a fallin’ out …’
It is this fallen state from which the woman recovers when she begins a new life, but from which he doesn’t when he focuses on his previous life.
He may also be being presented as making a further implicit comparison of himself with Christ – this time Christ’s second coming in the phrase ‘as I make the rounds’.
3. The narrator is thus a counterpart of Chaucer’s Absolon in The Miller’s Tale.