The basis of this and other songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways is Walt Whitman’s long poem Song of Myself and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Whitman presents the self as in some sense containing everything which influences it or has brought it about. In time, this self will be a component of those selves in future generations who succeed it. This applies not just to Whitman but to everyone. Given the vast numbers of people who have gone before us, any one of us will, as Whitman puts it, ‘contain multitudes’. Each of us is a multiplicity, and each of us will survive as components of those who succeed us. We will live on in them. Given the heterogeneity of the ‘multitudes’, however, a person’s nature will inevitably contain inconsistencies:
‘Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)’
At one point, Dylan’s narrator likewise claims to be ‘a man of contradictions’ and to ‘contain multitudes’. However, unlike Whitman’s narrator who placidly accepts that he’s the result of all that went before him, Dylan’s is engaged in an internal battle between the parts he’s inherited. The battle is presented as being between a man and a woman, but these can be taken as representing the coarse as opposed to the more sensitive sides of a person’s character. It’s in this respect that the song echoes Macbeth where the two protagonists can be taken as representing the supposedly manly and womanly sides of a single person. The battle can also be seen as between good and bad, and between influences associated with youth and age, life and death and the temporal and the eternal. And it’s ongoing, any victory being provisional since each side is being constantly renewed both in the narrator’s own person and through future generations.
I say ‘Dylan’s narrator’, as if there is just the one. As with many Dylan songs, however, it’s not always clear how many narrators there are. For reasons which will become apparent in the next section I’m going to assume that there is just one narrator but that he’s in dialogue with himself, speaking as a man and occasionally as a woman, thereby giving voice to the coarse and sensitive sides of his makeup.1
On the surface, it might seem that the narrator is addressing a person he or she loves. This is suggested by lines like:
‘Follow me close – I’m going to Bally-na-lee
I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me’
‘Half my soul baby belongs to you’
Both quotations suggest a romantic attachment. The first would most likely be the words of a woman to a man since in the poem The Lass from Bally–na–Lee, to which it refers, it’s the lass who invites the young man to accompany her.2 The second quotation would most likely be a man addressing a woman since the addressee is referred to as ‘baby’.
While to an extent such an interpretation seems plausible, there is an alternative. This is particularly required in the case of the second quotation since it seems unlikely that a lover would openly commit only half his soul to his beloved.
Instead of seeing these lines as spoken by one person to another it might be more plausible to see them as spoken by one part of the narrator to another. The narrator is, as it were, imagining that a part of him is male and a part female. Accordingly, in the first quotation, one part of the narrator would be urging the other not to destroy the whole by detaching itself. And in the second, one part of the narrator, speaking on behalf of the whole, would actually be recognising the importance of a different part or aspect of himself.
Multitudes and Contradictions
The narrator recognises that he contains multitudes – meaning that everything that he is is a result of everything that has gone before him and will contribute to all that comes after him. As the range of his influences is so vast, he inevitably embodies contradictions. In the song this richness of makeup is in part represented by straightforward inconsistencies. For example, in the penultimate verse the narrator makes two threats:
‘I’ll sell you down the river – I’ll put a price on your head’
In so doing he makes it seem as if as if it’s just one threat – using the two phrases to mean the same thing. But they don’t mean the same thing. To sell someone down the river is to get rid of them. To put a price on someone’s head is to pay to get them back. In making both threats the narrator seems to be in the contradictory position of both wanting to reject what the woman, or female part of him, represents, while simultaneously wanting to retain it. In threatening just a part of him, he is literally fighting a ‘blood feud’.
The richness and contradictory nature of his makeup is also shown by his depiction in terms of various dualities – male versus female, good versus bad, youth versus age, life versus death, and temporal versus eternal. I’ll take each of these in turn.
Rough and Rowdy Ways as a whole is a unity. Themes recur from song to song. Relevant here is that there are numerous allusions to Macbeth on the album. Like Macbeth, the narrator is a murderer, and like Macbeth he fights ‘blood feuds’. Importantly, if the man and the woman can be seen as two sides of the same person, a comparison can be drawn with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Not only does the latter have manly qualities (‘For thy undaunted mettle should compose nothing but males’) but in organising the assassination of Duncan she can be seen as making up for the supposedly manly qualities missing in Macbeth. She operates as a part of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is reflected in the witches and they too are a mixture of female and male (‘… you should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret/That you are so’). In the case of Dylan’s narrator, the sign of manliness is not a beard but a ‘black moustache’.
That the song’s narrator is one person made up of two different people is apparent when the narrator declares:
‘I’ll drink to the truth of things that we said’
since this is reminiscent of the biblical injunction:
‘Speak every man truth with his neighbour, for we are members of one another‘ (Ephesians 4.25).
Since, in the narrator’s case, the supposed man and woman are speaking the truth to each other, they fulfil a major condition for being ‘members of one another’.
The likelihood of there being just one narrator further becomes apparent when we realise that he seems to be attributing both male and female characteristics to himself. This is clearest when both types of characteristic are self-attributed in the same line, for example:
‘I fuss with my hair and I fight blood feuds’
‘I paint landscapes – I paint nudes’
Even if men can be vain about their hair, ‘fussing’ with one’s hair is stereotypically a female trait as judged from a man’s perspective. A disposition towards blood feuds and an interest in nudes, on the other hand, are more suggestive of a man than a woman. Accordingly, the narrator is attributing to himself archetypically male and female characteristics.
Similarly, whereas one associates a ‘black moustache’ with a man, a woman is more likely to be a wearer of ‘rings that sparkle and flash’. That’s not to say that, on the surface, the fussing and the wearing of rings don’t still serve the purpose of making the narrator seem flashy.
The dual male/female nature is further indicated by the reference to:
‘Pink pedal pushers and red blue jeans’
which suggests the narrator’s idea of appropriate female and male colours, pink and blue respectively. And, the oxymoronic ‘red’ reminds us of the narrator’s masculinity by way of his other associations with the colour red – his Cadillac is red, and he indulges in blood feuds.
The narrator’s declaration:
‘Half my soul belongs to you’
would also seem to support the view that the narrator recognises that the female addressee is one half of himself. As noted above, it would be an oddly non-committal thing to say to a lover, but would be literally true if the addressee is one part of the speaker.
Similarly, his threat to show the woman his heart,
‘But not all of it – only the hateful part’
suggests that the non-hateful part is hers which could only be so if they are one and the same person.
Finally, that there’s just one person is also supported by the reference to the concept of loss in the first and final verses. In the first verse the narrator says:
‘I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me,’
and in the final verse he says:
‘Get lost Madam …’
The narrator’s mind in the first verse and the harshly dismissed ‘Madam’ of the final verse are implicitly being identified with each other in that they’re both in danger of being lost. Accordingly, the ‘Madam’ he’s speaking to would be his own mind. The narrator, it seems, is prepared to lose his female component even if it amounts to the destruction of his own mind.
Just as he is a mixture of female and male characteristics, the narrator is a mixture of good and bad. On most occasions good is associated with the female part and bad with the male. He can be seen as good in that he speaks approvingly of:
‘… the truth of things that we said’.
However, it may be a mark against him that on the two occasions he expresses approval he does so in the context of drink:
‘I’ll drink to the truth of things that we said’
‘I’ll drink to the man that shares your bed’.
Furthermore, in the first quotation, the awkward sounding omission of the definite article before ‘things’ suggests he might be prevaricating. There are things they said, it would seem, that he doesn’t want to drink to the truth of, even though they are true. And, taking the second quotation literally, the use of ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ to refer to the man she sleeps with might suggest bitterness.
Good and bad sides to the narrator become further apparent with his admission that his heart has hateful and a non-hateful parts:
‘… I’ll show you my heart
But not all of it – only the hateful part’
That there’s good in him is clear if it’s true that he’s:
‘… just like Anne Frank – like Indiana Jones’
For that to be the case he’d need to be a victim of antisemitism, like Anne Frank, and to have set about defeating the perpetrators of it. This would make him like Indiana Jones in the latter’s taking on the Nazis.3
That the narrator has a bad side is clear from his being like:
‘… them British bad boys the Rolling Stones’.
(In further support of his containing multitudes, he’s not merely ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ but like all of them!)
A third duality in the narrator’s makeup, and therefore a further way in which he ‘contains multitudes’ and is ‘a man of contradictions’, is in his encompassing both youth and age. The youth/age combination applies to both his male and female parts.
His male part is young in that he’ll:
‘… rollick and frolic with all the young dudes’
and in that he’s like:
‘them British bad boys the Rolling Stones’
But being like the Rolling Stones also shows that the characteristic of youth is combined with age, though. He’s like them as they were in their youth when they were ‘bad boys‘, but also – presumably – in being aged as they have become. Obviously he can’t literally be old and young simultaneously, but he’s the product of both age and youth in others who either preceded him or currently affect him.
The youth/age combination also applies to the narrator in that he’s young:
‘… like Anne Frank …’
and aged in that he sings:
‘… the songs of experience like William Blake’4
It also applies in that he’s able to distinguish between two different female components of his makeup. These are the, presumably young, ‘pretty maids’ and the ‘old queens’ who each figure in verse six. The reference to guns and knives in the context of the ‘old queens’ makes it clear that he sees age as a threat, and by implication approves of youth.
Unsurprisingly, then, towards the end, of the song the narrator is seen to embody a battle between youth and age. Not only does he call the female part of himself an:
‘… old wolf…’
but, adopting the perspective of youth, refers to it mock-deferentially as ‘Madam’.
The song’s intention is to develop Whitman’s view which is partially hinted at in the opening lines:4
‘Today and tomorrow and yesterday too
The flowers are dying like all things do’
The hint is partial in that the lines deal only with death, not birth. In so doing they represent the death-oriented outlook of the narrator represented by his male side (see below). Despite this, the lines treat the process of dying not just as continual, but as atemporal – that is eternal, in the sense of encompassing all time. They do so by ungrammatically employing the present tense – ‘are dying’ – to describe not merely what is occurring, but what has already occurred and what has yet to occur.
That there’s no actual distinction between past, present and future is further suggested by a statement that makes life, not just death, exist eternally:
‘Everything’s flowin’ all at the same time‘.
The subsequent repeated use of ‘all‘ in:
‘All the pretty maids and all the old queens
All the old queens from all my past lives’
helps emphasise that the ‘everything’ which ‘flows all at the same time’ includes the totality of pretty maids, old queens and the narrator’s past lives. In other words these too ‘flow at the same time’ and are thus eternal. In that the present young results from what is old, the young is indistinguishable from the old; and in that the present male results from previous females, the male is indistinguishable from those females.
And since the pretty maids are coexistent with the old queens who, in time, replace them, the pretty maids, like the flowers, are eternally dying. 5
But that doesn’t mean the flowers are just dying. ‘Flowing’ in:
‘Everything’s flowin’ all at the same time’.
carries positive connotations. It suggests living, so that young and old are not just eternally dying but eternally living. That explains why the narrator sleeps:
‘… with life and death in the same bed’
However both statements conflict with what he says two lines later where he announces:
‘I drive fast cars and I eat fast foods’.
The concept ‘fast‘ clearly can’t apply if everything is happening timelessly. The contradiction lies in the conflict between his apparent recognition that existence is eternal and his commitment to temporal enjoyments. Since he claims to be ‘a man of contradictions’, he may well be aware of the inconsistency. What he doesn’t seem aware of is that opting for the temporal shouldn’t amount to a rejection of the eternal, since the temporal continues to exist in what succeeds it, and thus is itself eternal.
And just as the temporal and eternal, are not to be distinguished, neither are life and death. The narrator seems to focus on the death of everything, including the flowers. He may not realise that his own choice of wording implies not just that death accompanies, or follows on from life, but that life and death ultimately are not to be distinguished. Not only does:
‘Everything’s flowin’ all at the same time’
imply that everything is permanently alive, but its wording seems to imply that the dying flowers are permanently alive. This is due to the similarity between the words ‘flowing’ and flowers’ – which latter might be read ‘flow-ers’.6
The flowers then are permanently dying because they die:
‘Today and tomorrow and yesterday too’
and yet are permanently alive in their continuous flowing.
The non-distinction between life and death is also relevant to the narrator’s violent outlook. The narrator sees his female side as a threat against which he protects himself by carrying:
‘… four pistols and two large knives’.
Sometimes, however, protection has over spilled into actual violence:
‘Got skeletons in the walls of people you know’
The skeletons are presumably of those earlier selves which have become part of him and which he’s got rid of. They’re known to the addressee in that they’re earlier versions of the female side of his character. As he predicts, the loss of this humane side of him – his heart’s non-hateful part – causes him to lose his mind. And it’s as a result of his madness that- like Poe’s mad, inhumane narrator in the short story The Telltale Heart – he admits his guilt.
Nevertheless, the destruction of those selves is futile because they live on in whatever succeeds them.
The narrator, it seems, is torn between the different parts that make up his character – male and female, old and young, life and death, temporal and eternal. Instead of recognising that each member of a pair cannot exist in isolation from the other, he commits himself to the first member of each pair to the exclusion or attempted annihilation of the second. As the song progresses, the male, youthful, bad, temporal side of his makeup increasingly becomes dominant. It then staves off a threat from the female, aged, good, eternal part by attempting to come to an accommodation, and so returning to a state of equilibrium. This is possible because, being eternal, nothing he has destroyed has been destroyed permanently.
The three sub-sections which follow aim to show how the narrator develops as the song progresses. The move is from male/female equality, to the male’s becoming the dominant partner, and then finally to its reaching an accommodation which brings the relationship back to its original state – thus itself being an example of eternal existence.
a) Equal or Submissive
At the start of the song the male and female sides of the narrator are in harmony. Thus in verse three, while seeming to acknowledge the woman’s importance, the narrator declares:
‘Half my soul baby belongs to you’
He willingly recognises that his female side comprises half of his being.
Initially he sees her as at least an equal in that any dominance on his part is matched by a balancing factor. Thus, his initial commanding ‘Follow me close’ is qualified by:
‘I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me’
which is more a deferential plea to her for help.
Likewise the line:
‘Tell me what’s next – what shall we do?’
expresses dominance in the first half but balances this with submission to her ability to better know what to do in the second. That at this stage he is not setting himself apart from her is again indicated by the use of ‘we’ in ‘what shall we do?’ This all embracing ‘we’ in the third verse is just the second and last time it occurs in the song. In the very next line he’s favouring his male side:
‘I’ll drink to the man that shares your bed’
While the narrator’s male and female sides start from a position of near equality, the male side starts to become increasingly dominant.
By mentioning having a ‘red Cadillac’ and the ‘black moustache’, he shows he’s proudly aware of his masculine characteristics. That he favours masculinity becomes further apparent in that, with the exception of Anne Frank, the writers, performers and composers he mentions are all male.
Not only does he show pride in his male characteristics when he:
‘… drinks to the man that shares your bed,’
but he sees this as pride in himself as if his female side is of no consequence. This is because ‘the man who shares your bed’ must be himself, given that he’d be unlikely to drink to a rival.
By the fourth verse the narrator has already marginalised his female side:
‘I’m just like Anne Frank – like Indiana Jones
And them British bad boys the Rolling Stones’
Here the female characteristics are outnumbered around six to one by the male, with the former being represented by Anne Frank alone.
That he now considers the male part supreme is confirmed when he arrogantly declares he has:
‘… no apologies to make,‘8
proudly declares he lives:
‘on the boulevard of crime’9
and aggressively announces he carries:
‘… four pistols and two large knives’
None of these is balanced by compensating female characteristics.
The dominance of the male reaches a zenith in the final two verses. When he says:
‘Greedy old wolf – I’ll show you my heart
But not all of it – only the hateful part’
he’s threatening his female side with revenge for its ‘greed’ – or more accurately, its desire to do away with his harsh, masculine qualities. And it’s because he feels threatened that he threateningly orders her to:
‘Keep your mouth away from me’
and responds with a threat of his own:
‘I’ll sell you down the river’
By the time he rudely delivers the orders:
‘Get lost madam – get up off my knee,’
he’s so entranced by his masculinity, that he doesn’t care that this total rejection of the female is tantamount to destroying his own mind. We know that it is, though, because the notion of getting lost reminds us of what he’d said at the outset:
‘I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me’
If she obeys him and ‘gets lost‘, his dominance will be over for he will have lost his mind. This is the situation near the beginning of the song where he has in fact gone insane.
Unlike in the early verses, the narrator’s commands are no longer mitigated by any form of concession to his female side. However, this dominating approach changes in the last few lines of the song where the narrator attempts to negotiate an agreement.
Presumably when earlier he’d said he can:
‘… go right where all things lost … are made good again,’
he knew that there’s no such place. It’s no more possible to go ‘right where all things are lost’ than it is to go:
‘… right to the edge … right to the end’.
The edge and the end are unreachable in that everything continues in what succeeds it.10
On the other hand, the expression ‘go right‘ suggests he’s aware that the only way he’ll regain his mind is by doing the right thing. He’ll no longer see himself as one of the ‘bad boys’. He sees the ‘right’ thing as reaching an accommodation with his female side.
To do this, and to stave off the threat of her destroying or devouring his male characteristics, he makes a bargain.
‘Keep your mouth away from me,’
he says, and in return:
‘I’ll keep the path open – the path in my mind’.
It’s the repetition of ‘keep’ that suggests the line is a response occasioned by fear of her mouth – i.e. of being devoured. He’s making a concession in offering to keep the path in his mind open, because keeping the path in his mind open requires that he keep her. She’s a necessary part of his mind. Without her, there would be no mind and so no path in his mind.
In line with this, when he says:
‘I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind’
he’s attempting to reinforce the appeal of the bargain. He’s saying that if he does keep her (i.e. if he does hold onto his mind), in return for her not devouring him, she will be rewarded with his love.
That a settlement is reached is clear in that the song ends with a statement indicating a new sensitivity:
‘I play Beethoven’s sonatas and Chopin’s preludes’
But it’s not really new. The present tense ‘I play’ shows that, considered eternally, he has been playing them all along. The relationship between the two sides of the narrator is the same now as it was at the beginning of the song. The deaths the narrator has brought about have had no effect on the eternal unity of his male and female components.
While the song uses Whitman’s poem as a base, it takes up where Whitman left off. It’s only at the end of his poem that Whitman acknowledges that the vast complexities in the makeup of a person are problematic in giving rise to contradictions. There’s no attempt to consider the implications of these for how someone should conduct his or her life. The song, on the other hand, suggests what the implications of the complexities might be and suggests that one side of the narrator’s makeup cannot be jettisoned in favour of the other. Anything that has gone before will continue to live on in what comes after. Thus male and female, youth and age, good and bad, life and death and the temporal and the eternal have to co-exist if the person is to exist at all.
The song begins, however, by presenting the narrator as seeing death in everything. Perhaps as a result he tends to destroy what’s inconsistent with his ideal male, self-image. Increasingly he favours his male side, over the female, youth over age, bad over good, death over life and the temporal over the eternal. This in turn leads to more contradiction in that, simultaneous with rejecting the female side, is a desire to recover it. After an angry final rejection of the female and a commitment to his male side, the song ends with a compromise under which he accepts his more sensitive ‘female’ side in order to ensure the survival of his more coarse ‘male’ component. By the end of the song, the relationship is thus the same as it was at the beginning.
1. There are a number of options which include: a) a woman addressing a man throughout, b) a woman in a dialogue with herself, c) a man addressing a woman throughout, d) a man in dialogue with himself, e) a woman and a man at different points of the song. Since it would be tedious to go through all the possibilities systematically, I’ll concentrate on justifying the option I think most likely – option ‘c’.
2. Anthony Raftery The Lass From Bally-na-lee. A young man on his way to church sees a pretty girl who invites him to accompany her instead.
3. The first film in the series is set in 1936. Indiana Jones is hired by government agents to locate the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis.
4. While he claims to be like William Blake in singing the ‘Songs of Experience’, which focus on evil and corruption, it’s noticeable that he omits mention of the ‘Songs of Innocence’ and the simple, unencumbered view of life they represent.
5. I use ‘intention’ to mean not the songwriter’s intention, consideration of which is largely irrelevant to a song’s meaning, but the intention of the song itself – meaning what the song is intending towards.
6. This takes ‘old queen’ to refer to a woman rather than a gay man. It’s not obvious how the latter would make a plausible interpretation. To the extent that the narrator is a combination of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the old queens in each past life would each be Lady Macbeth.(Comment modified 14.9.20)
7. i.e. pronounced ‘flo-ers’.
8. ‘I have no apologies …’: Whitman’s narrator, in Song of Myself (20), feels he owes no apologies because he is just the product of the way the universe is:
‘ I see that the elementary laws never apologise,
(I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by, after all.)’
9. ‘… boulevard of crime’: This doesn’t necessarily indicate that the narrator is criminal. Like much else in the song, it’s open to more than one interpretation. According to Wikipedia, the Boulevard du Crime was the 19th century nickname of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris, the nickname resulting from the many crime melodramas that were shown every night in its many theatres.
10. Whitman expresses it in Section 33 of Song of Myself:
‘And all I see multiplied as high as I can cipher edge but the rim of the farther systems’.