The song represents the development of the narrator’s mental state as recalled by him. The narrator is not wholly trustworthy, though. While the development he presents is from despair to a final state of exultant joy, there are reasons for suspecting that he’s reluctant to give us the whole picture and that he’s not really committed to giving himself to anyone. Of particular significance is a subtle change to the wording of the refrain in certain verses which suggests that they, rather than the joyful last verse, represent the final position of the narrator.
The main issues dealt with here are the identity of the main addressee, the narrator’s despair and the reasons for it, his gradual intellectual and emotional development, and finally his ultimate failure.
There’s an ambiguity about who is being addressed in the title and in the refrain. There is undoubtedly a woman because the narrator says:
‘I’m going to go far away from home with her’
And it would seem to be a woman he’s addressing when he says:
‘I’ll see you at sunrise – I’ll see you at dawn
I’ll lay down beside you …’
‘I knew you’d say yes …’.
Also, the line:
‘I don’t think I could bear to live my life alone’,
would seem to indicate that he has living with a woman in mind.
On the other hand, there are indications that the addressee is God. The first is that the otherwise pleonastic ‘I am’ at the end of the line:
‘I’m giving myself to you, I am’
suggests that the line can be interpreted as spoken to God. In Exodus 15, God tells Moses his name is ‘I am’.
In addition, the language of the title and refrain:
‘I’ve (or ‘I’) made up my mind to give myself to you’,
suggests that he’s speaking to God. It’s not how an expression of love for a woman is likely to be put. Furthermore, most of the lines just quoted are in language which would be appropriate for addressing God, and in verse three the names of the places in which his commitment is supposed to take place are associated with Christianity. Thus ‘Salt Lake City’ has Mormon associations, ‘East L.A’ is part of the city named after Our Lady, Queen of the Angels, and San Antone (like the street in ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’) is named after a saint.1
It would seem that the ambiguity about the identity of the addressee is explained by the absence of a clear distinction in the narrator’s mind between the woman and God. There’s a sense in which if he genuinely, selflessly, gives himself to the woman, he will be giving himself to God. And conversely, if he doesn’t fulfil his commitment to go away with the woman, he won’t be committing himself to God. For that reason, the commitment referred to in the title and the refrain can be taken as being both to God and to the woman.
In verse seven, the narrator recalls a long period in which he felt alone with his misery
‘I travelled the long road of despair
I met no other traveller there’,
This continues a recalling of an earlier stage of that misery in the second verse:
‘I saw the first fall of snow
I saw the flowers come and go’,
The tone is one of despondency. There is no indication that the snow might be beautiful. And although he acknowledges the existence of flowers, the language is listless. They don’t ‘bloom’ or ‘blossom’ or ‘burst out’. They merely ‘come and go’. The ‘and go’ has a double significance. It not only completes the dull cliché ‘come and go’ but the context suggests that the flowers’ dying is final. It’s not as if there’s a coming and going suggestive of a continuous cycle of death and re-birth; he expects no reappearance of the flowers the following spring.2
The narrator’s choice of language is significant because it throws light on his outlook later in the song where the word ‘snow’ and the concept of going recur.
Thus, his reference to:
‘a snow white dove’
in the fifth verse, thereby associating the dove with perfection, suggests that he’s capable of seeing more than negative qualities in snow, even if he has yet to do so.
And his use of ‘go’ in ‘come and go’ doesn’t just let us know about his pessimism with respect to the impermanence of flowers. It recurs in the past tense when he later laments the deaths of others:
‘A lot of people gone …’ (v7)
and when he assumes that eventually no one will be left:
‘I’ll lay down beside you when everyone is gone’ (v8).
By way of the use of ‘gone’ he seems to be implying that death is as permanent for people as it is for flowers. That death is in fact not permanent in the case of flowers suggests that in some sense he might be wrong in the case of people.
The upshot is that the ‘despair’ he refers to in verse seven is likely to be unjustified.
That he’s in fact capable of believing that his despair is unjustified is indicated in his response to the inevitability of his own death:
‘I’m not what I was, things aren’t what they were
I’m going to go far away from home with her’
The response is ironic because unconsciously he’s intending to begin a new life with the woman, a rebirth of sorts he assumes is denied to flowers and other people. The irony is intensified by a further – this time double – reminder of the flowers’ going:
‘I’m going to go far away …’
It would seem that he has a glimmer of understanding that going, far from being final, might lead to something new.
Failure to look
The reason for the narrator’s pessimistic state of mind is that metaphorically he’s partially blind.3 He ‘saw’ the flowers die, but it seems he didn’t bother to look any further. As a result he fails to realise that only in the obvious, literal way did their death represent finality.
Likewise, in verse four he admits, he:
‘… looks at nothing … near or far’4
Having not looked at anything far, he have little idea what he can learn from carrying out his intention to go ‘far away’ with the woman.
Because he won’t look for himself, he’s reliant at this stage on others to do the looking for him. He says to the traveling man:
‘Show me something that I’ll understand’
In so doing he’s just assuming that the understanding he wants – about how he can come to terms with physical death – can be provided for him by someone else.
Development of understanding
He’s wrong. Just as he’s alone in his misery, he needs to be self-reliant when acquiring understanding.
That the process of acquiring understanding is beginning to take off is made apparent by a continued use of sight imagery in verse four:
‘My eye is like a shooting star’
The statement is in contrast with the opening line of the song in which he’s:
‘… lost in the stars’
There he seemed passive, immobile – in complete contrast to a shooting star. Now his eye, at least, is active. At this stage it’s not much of an advance towards understanding, because the knowledge he has is innate – ‘just something I knew’ – and so presumably unconscious. Nevertheless it’s the start of a development that continues in verse six where he recognises the importance of sight:
‘Show me something that I’ll understand’
and will reach a zenith on seeing the addressee in verse eight, should this happen.
It’s no longer the case that his eye is looking at nothing, ‘near or far’. That this is so is reinforced by his decision referred to in verse six to
‘…go far away from home’
with the woman. The repetition of ‘far’ suggests an interest in what he’d previously considered not worth looking at. He’s also no longer dependant on what the travelling man can direct his sight towards.
An additional development is that that in going far away, it’ll be the whole of him which is active, and not just his eye.
Time passing and realisation
The ‘long road of despair’, to which the narrator refers, is presumably a spatial metaphor for a long period of misery in his life. His recognition that time is passing initially seems to just add to his despair:
‘I’m not what I was, things aren’t what they were’
But then he has a revelation. He suddenly appreciates that it’s by way of time passing that he’ll be able to acquire the understanding he craves:
‘It just takes me a while to realise things’
What he realises is a number of things:
First, he’s now realised that it’s inappropriate to consider death as the be all and end all. As a result, his focus now changes to regeneration:
‘I’ll see you at sunrise – I’ll see you at dawn’
This statement is a surprise because sunrise and dawn are the same thing. We’d expect him to say ‘I’ll see you at sunrise – I’ll see you at dusk’. Instead, he’s now focusing on the positive. Just as the snow had seemed to exclude anything good by seeming to be continuous (the ‘first fall’ being the first of many snowfalls), so now there’s just sunrise and dawn – the same good thing repeated.5
The second thing he now understands is that the:
‘something I’ll understand’
which he wants the travelling man to provide, is the same something as the
‘something I knew’
of verse four. And it’s again this something which he has in mind when he says it takes him:
‘… a while to realise things’.
In other words, what he consciously understands now is the same thing he’d asked the travelling man to help him understand. It’s this which he now fully realises he’d known at an unconscious level all along.
Thirdly, he now realises that what it is he’d always known deep down is that the finality of death gives no cause for despair. The new life which seemed achievable by going ‘far away’ with the woman has transformed into a new life with God. What he’d known deep down, and now knows consciously, is that his desire for a new life can be fulfilled by his being with God. That, at least, is the implication of the language he uses to express his commitment, language which would seem inappropriate if addressed to a woman.
It’s this lack of cause for despair that’s acknowledged in verse eight when he says:
‘I’ll lay down beside you, when everyone is gone’
By this he might mean that when people are no longer present to him because he is dead, he’ll continue to live eternally. Or he might mean that despite death’s continuing to affect everyone else, spiritually he’ll be exempt from it.
This realisation is given voice in the exultant declaration of the penultimate line:
‘I knew you’d say yes – I’m saying it too’
Assuming it’s God and the narrator saying yes to each other, they’re acting in unison – each asking for unity with the other and each answering yes when asked.
What seems also to be the case, though, although it’s not clear that the narrator realises it, is that a new life with God and a new life with the woman amount to one and the same thing. The exultant ‘yes’ can be as much said to, and heard from, the one as from the other. Even if literally he’s ‘laying down’ beside the woman, in so doing he will be ‘laying down’ beside God.
River image: emotional and intellectual development
It becomes clear that the narrator’s development is not just intellectual but emotional. By verse eight, his progress is making him feel uplifted:
‘My heart is like a river – a river that sings’
The heart and singing references each make it clear that he’s on the verge of becoming overwhelmed by positive emotion. There’s a contrast with the first verse in which the ‘sounds of the sad guitars’ were mere distant reflections of his inner state.
The river simile has the effect of emphasising the importance of regeneration. A river is continuously flowing, continuously changing. His heart is like a river, then, because of his new found capacity for emotional experience – emotional experience which seems to encompass God and the woman.
In the final verse the river image is extended to represent the development not just of the narrator’s emotions but of his whole being:
‘I travelled from the mountains to the sea’
Just as his activity in travelling succeeded that of his eye as the only active part of him, so now it’s not just his heart but the whole of him which has become active like a river.
The twofold use of the river image makes it clear that his development has been both intellectual and emotional.
The narrator’s failure
Although the song ends on an exultant high, it’s not so clear that the narrator has succeeded in unifying himself with either God or the woman.
First, in the final verse, despite the expression of commitment in the last two lines, the narrator’s commitment seems unassured. In hoping that:
‘… the gods go easy with me’,
he’s not merely gone back to putting his trust in others, something he’d learnt not to do in the case of the travelling man, but is putting his trust in other gods than the Christian one. By saying he hopes that the gods go easy with him, he seems to be admitting that their anger should not be unexpected. This suggests that there’s no longer any intention of actively giving himself to God or of going away with the woman. Instead, he’s passively hoping to get away with doing neither.
In the light of this, doubt would now seem to be cast on the meaning of the exuberant exclamation in verse eight:
‘I’ll see you at sunrise – I’ll see you at dawn’
The narrator’s joyful anticipation might not be of seeing the woman or God when he wakes up, but of seeing the pagan sun-god. Since the rising sun might also represent Christ, the image can be taken as representing ambivalence about to which deity he should be loyal.
Overall, while the references to pagan gods are likely to be purely figurative, their function seems to be to point out the narrator’s backsliding and lack of commitment.
The second reason for thinking the narrator might have failed in his attempts at unity is what he says in the fifth verse:
‘If I had the wings of a snow white dove
I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love
A love so real – a love so true
I made up my mind to give myself to you’
It seems he’s making an excuse for not having kept to his commitment. Presumably he means that he’d have to be perfect (‘snow white’) and like the Holy Spirit (a dove) in order to have done so. And that, he’s implying, is beyond him. Furthermore, although the emphatic language (‘so real’, ‘so true’) seems disingenuously designed to give the impression that his love will be constant, the implication that he doesn’t have the wings of a dove makes it clear that it won’t be.
The combination of religious language (‘gospel’ and ‘dove’) and language associated with romantic love suggests that there’s no distinction in the narrator’s mind between remaining loyal to the woman and remaining loyal to God. In not remaining constant to the woman he will be abandoning God.
A third, and perhaps the most obvious reason for suspecting him to have failed derives from a subtle variation in the refrain. At the end of verses two and five, the form of the refrain is subtly different to how it appears in the title and elsewhere. Instead of saying ‘I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you’, we have:
‘I made up my mind to give myself to you’
The change of tense suggests that the content of those verses represents thoughts had by the narrator after those recorded in the exuberant final verse. In the case of the second verse this is of no consequence since the narrator is simply recounting earlier thoughts. But in the case of the fifth, it would indicate the tacit admission that his own imperfection represents his final position. Thus now, in the present moment, he knows that he won’t be preaching ‘the gospel of love’ and that his love is neither ‘so real’ nor ‘so true’.
The narrator appears to be a representation of human beings generally. Like all of us, he can’t stand being alone with his feelings. And like all of us, he’s imperfect.
The song is an account in his words of his attempt to overcome despair at the finality of death. It shows his understanding developing gradually from an unconscious awareness of something worthwhile to a commitment to unity with the main addressee. This addressee seems equally identifiable as God and a woman. Along the way, he gradually learns the need for self-reliance and the value of experience.
Although the song appears to end happily, this is in part because of the order in which the narrator is giving us his thoughts. While he ends by giving the impression he’s achieved unity with the addressee, there are indications that the sentiments of the final verse don’t represent his final position. His commitment is less than he’d like it to seem.
- It might be relevant that according to Wikipedia the fourth place mentioned, Birmingham – presumably the one in Alabama – in 2010 had ‘the second highest ratio of Christians and the greatest ratio of Protestant adherents, in the U.S.’
- To that extent ‘I saw the flowers come and go’ is a repeat of the sentiment expressed in ‘I Contain Multitudes’ – ‘The flowers are dying like all things do’.
- Though not quite ‘sightless’ like the narrator’s self-creation in ‘My Own Version of You’
- The line sung is:
‘It looks at nothing here or there, looks at nothing near or far’
‘It looks at nothing, neither near or far’
- There’s an echo in the word ‘snowfall’ of the fall of man. The narrator was aware not just of the spiritual demise of Adam and Eve when he was aware of the first fall of snow, but by implication the moral ‘falls’ which have happened since. This seems to make him not just an individual but a representation of human beings generally.