I don’t think anyone on first hearing the song would realise just how sinister it can appear. At first it seems to be just a love song. The narrator is hoping the object of his affections will meet him, and the song ends with his hope unfulfilled. Closer attention, though, makes it clear that while he’s thinking of arranging a romantic tryst, he’s also thinking about rape, murder and suicide.
Since the song comprises just the narrator’s thoughts, it may be that he’s not actually proposing to meet the woman. While being ‘out in the moonlight alone’ with her sounds romantic, the air, we’re told, is ‘thick and heavy’. The suggestion of thunder makes it more likely he’s merely daydreaming about a romantic meeting. And if he is just daydreaming, it remains possible that he has no clear intention of harming either the woman or himself.
Any such intention would be irrational for his thoughts, by normal standards, are confused. In particular, it’s not certain if he knows whether it’s love, sex or revenge which is motivating his desire for a meeting.
Murder and suicide
It’s not until the fourth verse that the narrator’s thoughts include murder:
‘Well, I’m preachin’ peace and harmony
The blessings of tranquility
Yet I know when the time is right to strike’
Strike! The word not only has violent implications but these are enhanced by its contrast with ‘harmony’ and ‘tranquility’. The contrast is not just in meaning. The feminine endings of the first two lines, and the long vowels characterising most of the words, create a gentle sound. The effect is to render the short, sharp ‘strike’ all the more harsh, and unexpected.
A further indication that the narrator is thinking of murder is in the very next line,
‘I’ll take you cross the river dear’.
While on one level this may simply be a kind offer, it’s also presumably a reference to the mythological Styx which in Greek mythology provided a border between the lands of the living and the dead. In his assumed role of ferryman we should perhaps see him not only as dispatching the woman to the land of the dead, but himself too. This is supported by the line adapted from Donne, in verse seven:
‘For whom does the bell toll for love? It tolls for you and me’
in that this too suggests that the narrator is contemplating his own death. Whereas Donne has ‘It tolls for thee’, the narrator includes himself, thereby presenting death as a means of uniting himself with his lover.1
Further natural images throughout the song seem to reflect these thoughts about death. In the second verse the flower name ‘Black-eyed Susan’ itself suggests violence to a woman. Poppies, mentioned there too, have a traditional association with death. And the mentions of ‘purple’ and ‘snow’ in ‘purple blossoms soft as snow’ in verse seven have the effect of imbuing new life represented by the blossoms with a cold, funereal feel.
Other natural images include the clouds whose ‘turning crimson’ associates them with blood, and the leaves which fall because they’re dead. The ‘stone’ over which the shadows fall suggests grave stones. In the classical tradition (e.g. Virgil) ‘cypress trees’ are also associated with death.
In the final verse the natural imagery is directly associated not just with death but, once again, with murder:
‘My pulse is runnin’ through my palm – the sharp hills are rising from
The yellow fields with twisted oaks that groan’.
The hills are ‘sharp’ like knives. They’ve pierced the fields, causing the trees to groan as if they’re dying. In the light of the opening clause the suggestion is that the narrator, in a state of nervous tension causing him to be aware of his pulse, is imagining using the knife on the woman.
The narrator’s dark thoughts don’t have a monopoly on his mental life, however. These are to an extent balanced by references to new life.
While the groaning in the lines just quoted suggests the pain resulting from being stabbed, it can also be associated with the pain of child birth. Romans 8.22 refers to:
‘… all creation groaning in this one great act of giving birth’.
The ‘one great act of giving birth’ is the action of everyone – all creation – which is necessary for the spiritual rebirth of the world.
From the opening lines of the song the narrator is aware of the need for the great act of giving birth. It’s rebirth he yearns for when he longs,
‘To hear again the songbird’s sweet melodious tone’
The death associated with impending winter must give way to the new life of spring. The suggestion would be that participating in the great act of giving birth would involve his overcoming his darker thoughts.
In line with this there’s reason to think the narrator sees death as providing an unsatisfactory means of solving his problems. This is suggested by the enigmatic line:
‘The earth and sky that melts with flesh and bone’
The singular ‘melts’ implies he sees the earth and sky as losing their separate identities, perhaps as the effect of the ‘dusky’ light. This amorphous fusion of earth and sky then expands to embrace flesh and bone – the remains of humans after death – so that they become part of a larger and perhaps even more vapid whole. On this account, a unity with his lover in death would be pointless since it would amount to no more than their flesh and bone becoming part of this undifferentiated and valueless whole.2
That the narrator is aware he has a part to play in the renewal symbolised by the onset of spring is implied in other religious language and imagery, both implicit and explicit. At the same time however his language suggests a tension between a commitment to that renewal and an impulse to further his darker desires.
‘… preachin’ peace and harmony’,
and what he refers to as:
‘The ‘blessings of tranquility’,
might suggest he’s willing to take on the role of bringing about renewal. Any such spiritual commitment, however, is in tension with his belief that there’s a time for him to ‘strike’.
The same tension is indicated by the use of the word ‘cross’ – ‘across’ – in:
‘I’ll take you cross the river dear’.
Its obvious connotations of sacrifice needed before redemption are in tension with his simultaneously seeing himself in the role of the ferryman, which implies he’s giving in to his desire for revenge.3
The tension is present again when the narrator says:
‘My tears keep flowing to the sea’.
He’s associating his misery with a river. Just as his previous use of the river image had been to represent kindness to the woman (‘I’ll take you cross the river, dear’) while at the same time suggesting his desire to murder, so the image here can be interpreted in conflicting ways. Although he associates the river with his misery, in a number of biblical texts, including Revelation, the river represents life – moral or spiritual life – which requires not giving into, but accepting, misery.4
There’s a similar ambivalence in the use of light imagery. The narrator’s present state of mind is reflected in the near absence of light. Not only is the light ‘dusky’ but it’s still fading. Since throughout the bible light is associated with God, its absence here can be taken as representing the narrator’s dire spiritual state. Nevertheless light is still present in:
‘… mystic glow’.
The implication is that, even in the depths of his despair, whether he realises it or not, there’s still hope.
The conflict is represented again by colour. Whereas the purple of the blossoms seemed to reflect the narrator’s obsession with death, the contrastingly coloured
‘… petals pink and white, the wind has blown’,
are suggestive of life – and here of spiritual life, since they are blown by the wind, a biblical sign of the Holy Spirit.
An indication of the narrator’s character becomes apparent by way of another image drawn from nature:
‘… the masquerades of birds and bees’.
The narrator seems to be accusing nature of beings dishonest in the way human beings are capable of being dishonest. In so doing, as will become apparent below, he is imposing an aspect of his own personality onto things in nature.
It’s significant that the expression ‘birds and bees’ is often used as a reference to courtship and sexual activity. In using ‘masquerade’ in this context, then, the narrator would be accusing the woman of pretending to be loyal to him while actually giving her attention to someone else. It’s her supposed betrayal of him which starts him thinking about murderous revenge.
The idea is reinforced in the lines:
‘Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief
It takes a thief to catch a thief’
The first line, ‘Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief’, implies that the narrator has rivals for the woman’s affections. It’s taken from the title of an earlier song in which three people love a girl but not as much as the song’s narrator claims to do.5
The second line, ‘It takes a thief to catch a thief’, implies that the narrator has found the woman out because he recognises her behaviour in his own. In announcing this, he is unintentionally admitting his own hypocrisy. He is as guilty of betrayal as she is. Indeed he may even be falsely imposing his own behaviour on her just as he does with the birds and bees when he accuses them of masquerading.
There’s a further instance of the narrator’s dishonesty when he imagines saying to the woman:
‘I know the kinds of things you like’.
While the statement could be taken at face value, it suggests that the meeting he envisages would not be purely romantic. It may be that the narrator’s motives all along are sexual; he knows what he likes. Furthermore, there may be a hint at the end of the song that if he doesn’t get his way he’s going to take it. The ‘yellow fields’ through which the ‘sharp hills are rising’ are suggestive of rape (rapeseed) and, by way of that, suggestive of the word in its sexual sense.
In the light of the narrator’s own dishonesty and his accusation against the woman, if it’s accurate, the bell which tolls would be tolling for their spiritual deaths as much as for their physical deaths. Without the spiritual renewal the possibility of which is hinted at in his use of religious language, they will have ended up both physically and spiritually dead.
It’s not possible to condemn the narrator outright. The song seems to give us just his thoughts as they range over various possibilities, including murder, suicide, and rape, on the one hand, and acts of kindness and spiritual rebirth on the other. He doesn’t seem capable of coming down on one side or the other, however. Instead his commitment to peace, harmony and tranquillity is mixed up with his belief that there’s a time to ‘strike’ or get revenge. That confusion may be the result of a further confusion in religious outlook. In drawing from both Greek mythology and Revelation, he seems to combine the pre-Christian and the Christian, without acknowledging that the one represents death and the other life.
We don’t know to what extent the narrator is aware of the possibilities for spiritual renewal which are implied by the language he uses. Nor do we know how much he realises that what he presents in the language of romance can be seen as a toying with the possibilities of murder and suicide. His likely uncertainty about these things is reflected in the equally ambivalent characteristics of nature. A funereal purple offsets the youth of blossoms. The light is dusky but accompanied by a mystic glow. Earth and sky are two, yet one, and become one again with flesh and bone. And there’s a groaning which might equally be an effect of birth as of death.6
The impression one gets is that the confusions are capable of positive resolution. The narrator can opt for the ‘mystic glow’ rather than the ‘dusky light’, for Revelation rather than ancient myth, and for ‘peace and harmony’ rather than for ‘striking’. However, by the time the song has ended, his mental state is not sufficiently clear for him to be able to make a choice.
For some reason the official Dylan site has recently replaced the version of the song which appears on Love and Theft, and which is analysed here, with one which has a number of changes. It seems to me that the album version is probably the later of the two. The one which now appears on the website seems inferior. For example it contains the line,
‘Draw the blinds, step outside the door’
The main effect of the line is that it indicates that the characters are inside. However in the sung version the effect is achieved much more economically by simply having the word ‘out’ between ‘me’ and ‘in’ in the line ‘Meet me in the moonlight alone’. This becomes ‘Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone?’
Other differences include the addition of the lines:
‘Step up and drop the coin right into the slot
The fading light of sunset glowed
It’s crowded on the narrow road
Who cares whether you forgive me or not’
In comparison with the album version, these seem somewhat clumsy. The word ‘glowed’ seems an unnecessary repetition of ‘glow’ which occurred two lines earlier in ‘mystic glow’. The final line doesn’t really fit with the narrator’s state of mind – he does very much care. The lines which effectively replace it:
‘Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief
It takes a thief to catch a thief’
succeed not only in getting across the fact that the narrator has rivals, but that he’s hypocritically accusing the woman of doing what he himself is doing.
Overall, comparing the two versions enables one to see how good the one on the album is.
- Maybe the ungrammatical double use of ‘for’ also indicates that the narrator intends that they are both going to die.
- Another example of the narrator’s inability to see differentiating characteristics which lend value is in his description of the fields simply as ‘yellow’. It’s reminiscent of The Great Gatsby in which ‘yellow’ is used to the same effect as in, for example, the ‘yellow cocktail music’. He’s happy for the ‘sharp hills’ to pierce, and one imagines, destroy them.
- It’s printed without even an apostrophe in place of the missing ‘a’.
- ‘And he showed me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb’ (Revelation 22.1).
- Hoagy Carmichael and Paul Francis Webster Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, 1945.