The song rests on an irony. The narrator has been having an affair in Mississippi only to get back and find that the woman he is more committed to has apparently also been having an affair. The irony is in that her affair would be a direct result of his. He realises that if he’d behaved more responsibly and returned even a day earlier, the woman wouldn’t have given up on him and embarked on another relationship. Throughout the song we find the narrator berating himself for not having returned in time.
Essentially the song lays bare the character of the narrator by presenting his thoughts and fragments of his conversations, imagined or actual. He comes across as lacking both self-esteem and a confidence in his ability to put things right. Even he doesn’t seem to realise how he’s fooling himself, never seeming to depart far from the truth but rarely being totally honest either. Towards the end of the song there are signs of an increasing acceptance of responsibility for what has happened. The religious imagery which permeates the song suggests that the woman whose behaviour he despises could well be his salvation.1
It is not certain that the woman the narrator has returned to is having an affair; we have only the narrator’s suspicions to go on.2 That he thinks she has can be gleaned from the fifth verse phrase:
‘… mule’s in the stall’.3
That he thinks she’s having an affair is also apparent from the frustrated outburst in the next line:
‘Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all’
– this sounding like an impatient response to the woman’s excuses, or protestations of innocence.
The narrator’s belief that the unnamed woman is in fact in a relationship would explain various other things he says. These include his regret at having not arrived back a day earlier, and the line:
‘I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too’.
It would also explain his claim that it’s both of them whose ‘days are numbered’. The suggestion is that both have done wrong and have only a limited amount of time to make up for it.
As will become apparent, the line:
‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’
is open to a number of interpretations. If we see it as being addressed to the woman, that too would indicate that he sees her as having betrayed him. The effect, he’s saying, is that because of her their relationship can never be the same again.
The narrator’s outburst is immediately followed by:
‘I was thinkin’ ‘bout the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleepin’ in Rosie’s bed’
Who, one wonders, is Rosie? And what is her relevance to the outburst? It must be that Rosie is a woman he knew in Mississippi, and the cause of his delayed return.
We can assume that this Rosie couplet comprises a thought which occurs in the present, some time after the outburst. The narrator is reminding himself that while the woman was speaking he – amazingly – was consoling himself by thinking about Rosie. The narrator does not trouble to say whether the memory is accompanied by a sense of guilt.
While it’s easy to see the narrator as someone who blames both circumstances and the woman for his own failings, there are indications that he accepts some responsibility for the break up. This is most apparent when in the penultimate verse he refers to:
‘… the corner that I painted myself in’
There’s no attempt at this late stage to blame anyone but himself.
To a lesser extent the refrain too implies acceptance of responsibility:
‘Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long’
Here he admits fault, but apparently not moral fault. He accepts that he made a mistake, but there is no hint that he’s accepting responsibility for anything more serious than that. Furthermore it’s made to seem a very minor mistake; he stayed an extra day, but what’s one day in the scheme of things?
Well, quite a lot. He’s already admitted that both his and the woman’s:
‘… days are numbered’.4
If one’s remaining time is measured in days, then the loss of even one should not be taken lightly. He wasn’t with her when he could have been. And he’s not open about what he was doing instead. The truth about that has to be divined from the otherwise gnomic comment:
‘City’s just a jungle; more games to play’.
For him the city is somewhere where the law of the jungle applies. ‘Games’ can be taken as referring to sexual licentiousness. He’s not only taken advantage of the city’s lax ethical standards, but given himself extra time to do so.
The jungle image is implicitly taken up again in the line:
‘Walkin’ through the leaves, falling from the trees’
Falling leaves might represent the spiritual death of those whose ethical standards are low. The narrator sees himself as walking among the spiritually dead, by which he would mean the woman and her new lover. Since he’s walking, by implication he’s not including himself as spiritually dead.
However, this is the second time walking has figured. The first, at the beginning of the song, was:
‘… we walk the line’.
– the ‘line’ perhaps being one separating success from failure, or good from evil. What’s significant is that since both the narrator and the woman are walking the line, and the narrator is walking among the spiritually dead, so must the woman too be walking among the spiritually dead. In that case, since there is no one else, the spiritually dead must include the narrator and his lover. Although the narrator doesn’t admit it openly, his language suggests he is every bit as morally impoverished as he takes her to be.
The narrator is honest to an extent when, in reference to the city, he claims to be:
‘Trapped in the heart of it, tryin’ to get away’
– thereby implying the city’s no place to be. But that’s not saying much. He clearly wasn’t so trapped that he didn’t manage to get away a day later.
Furthermore use of the word ‘heart’ may have been deliberately chosen to give a wrong impression. It suggests that the city is something good, so that the narrator had no need to escape from it. ‘Heart’ has connotations of kindness and consideration for others, so there’d have been no problem if those were the things that had trapped him. His choice of language is disingenuous. What he’s actually trapped by is the prospect of having his desires satisfied. If the city represents such selfishness and neglect of the needs of others, it ought not to be associated with the heart.
There’s a further significance to the use of ‘heart’ here since it foreshadows it’s later use in:
‘My heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free’
At first the claim might sound positive. However, when one remembers that the narrator has used ‘heart’ to represent a tendency to immorality, it’s hardly good that the narrator’s is light and free. One might conclude he’s allowed it to be a bit too free. Again he comes across as untrustworthy, and again it’s by way of his using ‘heart’ to give a wrong impression.
There’s another example of the narrator’s using language dishonestly in his claim:
‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’.
Taking the ‘you’ this time as referring to himself, it seems to be an attempt to justify not giving up his way of life in the city altogether. But the supposed justification seems to depend on ‘you’ being taken differently – that is, to mean ‘one’, or to refer to people generally. He appears to be saying that since nobody can ever come back all the way, it’s hardly surprising that he can’t. This too is disingenuous. He’s supplied no reason to suppose that people generally can’t completely give up a way of life, so it’s inappropriate to use this to support his own failure to do so.
Refusal to Change
In addition to his lack of honesty, the narrator suffers from an inability to make progress. This is made apparent in what might seem a rather bland comment:
‘Everybody movin’, if they ain’t already there
Everybody got to move somewhere’.
In fact the lines get to the core of the narrator’s predicament. Staying still, both metaphorically and literally, achieves nothing. It’s ironic, then, that while he recognises part of his problem to be not having moved (he stayed too long in Mississippi), and he realises the necessity of his moving when he says that everybody has got to move’, he still doesn’t. He reacts to the necessity with:
‘Stick with me baby …’
Not only is he implying that he’s staying put, but in a sense he’s encouraging the woman to do likewise.
A similar attitude is present when he claims to know:
‘… that fortune is waitin’ to be kind’.
He just assumes that things will turn out well without his having to do anything. To say that ‘fortune is waiting’ is just a roundabout way of saying that he’s waiting for fortune.
And when he announces that:
‘Things should start to get interesting right about now’
he’s putting his faith in things becoming interesting of their own accord rather than through his doing anything to make them interesting:
His refusal to accept the need for change is again present where he expresses regret that:
‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’.
As suggested above, while ‘you’, here, might refer to him, it can also be taken to refer to the woman. If it’s her he’s addressing, then he’s presenting himself as fixed. He expects her to come to him to make up for their mutual wrongdoing, rather than the other way round. He seems to have no intention of making up the remaining distance by meeting her halfway – that is, by admitting his own guilt. That would require moving, which he won’t bring himself to do.
Love Or Sex
It might sound romantic when he all but ends his appeal for sympathy with a further appeal in verse eleven:
‘So give me your hand and say you’ll be mine’.
But the line is full of irony. The listener can’t help noticing that this appeal for the woman to ‘give’ comes after the admission:
‘Got nothin’ for you, I had nothin’ before’.
The narrator expects the woman to give her hand (presumably in marriage) without his having given anything to her. Furthermore, the appeal may just be a change of tactic. It follows an episode of bitterness on his part in which he can be seen as criticising her for not previously having given him her hand:
‘Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t
Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t’
The second line makes it clear that it was sex which he had previously offered and which she refused. It’s that which accounts for the bitter tone. The narrator would be bitter that, while the woman has acceded to his rival’s desires, she has rejected his. Since an appeal for sex didn’t work, he’s now appealing to her sense of romance.
Tendency To Give Up
One reason for the narrator’s failing to find a way out of his predicament is that he gives up too easily. It’s remarkable how often negatives, including the word ‘never’, figure in what he says:
‘All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme’.
He’s not just saying that he doesn’t have the ability to put his admiration for her into words, but that he could never do so. ‘Could never …’ – he’s given up even before the first hurdle.5
And ‘thoughts so sublime’! Perhaps these thoughts could have been a bit more sublime if they hadn’t focused on what Rosie’d said, and on sleeping with her. They’d then have stood some chance of doing the woman justice.
It’s clear, then, that in the above couplet the narrator is just making an excuse. This is further suggested by the fact that the couplet is immediately followed by the refrain. It’s as if his sub-conscious is telling him the real reason he hasn’t done the woman justice is that he’s been gallivanting in Mississippi.
The tendency to give up is present again when alludes to:
‘So many things that we never will undo’
Again, he’s given up before he’s even started. It’s hardly surprising he sees himself as ‘a stranger nobody sees’.
The negative outlook continues in the ninth verse:
‘Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinkin’ fast
I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past’
The sinking ship metaphor makes it sound as if events are beyond his control, since obviously one passenger can’t stop a ship from sinking. Thus he’s finding an excuse for not taking responsibility for his predicament. But when we realise that the ship represents his life, it’s far from clear that he’s as powerless to prevent disaster as he likes to imagine.
The metaphor is extended with the idea of drowning in poison. One’s ship sinking doesn’t necessarily have drowning as its consequence. And it definitely doesn’t mean one is being poisoned. Again, the drowning and poison references seem designed to imply helplessness, yet he’s given us no reason to think that he is helpless. On the contrary:
‘My clothes are wet, tight on my skin’
Somehow being shipwrecked has become a matter of being no more than uncomfortably damp on dry land. So much for drowning in poison. Yet he still presents his condition as a disaster.
The narrator’s inadequacy comes across in the emptiness of his life. As he says himself in an apparent reference to life without the woman:
‘The emptiness is endless …’
That the fault for that is his becomes apparent when we see how other expressions associated with ‘emptiness’ figure throughout the song – in particular ‘nothing’:
‘Got nothin’ for you, I had nothin’ before’
He’s hardly making himself seem attractive. Not only has he nothing to give (presumably as a present) after his absence, but he seems to be making his having previously given nothing an excuse for his giving nothing now. The feeble impression he’s creating is then cemented by his saying:
‘Don’t even have anything for myself anymore’
The inclusion of the word ‘even’ compounds the pathetic absurdity of this call for sympathy. It gives the impression that not having anything for oneself is worse than not having anything for someone else. Such self-centredness is hardly going to impress.
The verse ends with what seems to be a telling giveaway:
‘Nothing you can sell me …’
While this third ‘nothing’ reinforces the effect of the previous two occurrences, and the admission of not having anything for himself, the verse seems to be ending with a startling Freudian implication. ‘Nothing you can sell me …’ seems to imply the woman’s a prostitute. Since there’s no indication that this is in fact the case, the likely explanation is that so much of his time in Mississippi has been spent buying sexual favours that he forgets he’s not doing just that when he’s addressing the woman he wants to marry.
The negatives continue to abound. In the ninth there’s a fourth use of ‘nothing’:
‘I’ve nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me’
While this is intended to emphasise a positive emotional outlook, it would be true to form for him to think that affection is all he has got. It’s noticeable that he doesn’t take the opportunity to mention his affection for the woman. If he’s going to stand a chance of reviving the relationship, he ought to at least lavish that on her.
It might come as a relief to find him using the word ‘something’ as opposed to ‘nothing’ but, when he does, even this implies a lack:
‘I need somethin’ strong to distract my mind’
It’s pathetic that he needs to be distracted (presumably from thoughts of other women) rather than being able to exercise self-control. And while his reply that he’s going to ‘look at’ the woman he’s addressing might seem positive, even this serves to reinforce his negative self-image. In presenting the woman as strong he seems to be casting himself as weak.
There is hope for the narrator despite all his negative qualities. The eighth verse suggests that by following the woman’s example the narrator can destroy the blemishes on his character. The suggestion is made by way of religious imagery:
‘Well I got here followin’ the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are’
The first line associates the narrator with the Maji who honoured Christ by following a star, and hence associates him with the Christian values of love and selflessness. Additionally, since biblically the star leads to Christ, the language here implies that the woman at the end of his journey is in a sense Christ. In other words she can be seen as having a Christ-like role.
This has obvious moral significance for them both. We can speculate that the woman’s Christ-like role involves dispensing forgiveness. While the narrator seems unforgiving of the woman’s putative transgression when he says:
‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’,
it would be Christ-like for her to forgive him his actual transgression. His ‘following the southern star’ would then amount to his approaching her position of being forgiving. (A beginning would be for him to pay attention to her rather than saying ‘I have heard it all’.)
The second line of the above couplet associates the narrator himself with Christ by way of the word ‘crossed’. It suggests that in making the journey across the river for the sake of the woman, he has undergone the sort of sacrifice his spiritual renewal requires. Furthermore, what the narrator characterises as drowning in the river might otherwise be seen as baptism – spiritual renewal resulting from his effort to be with the woman again. Taken figuratively, his journey to the woman requires the discomfort represented by drowning in poison. The discomfort, in moral terms, is that of admitting his guilt and of a willingness to forgive what he sees as her guilt. While he’s understandably hostile to drowning in poison, his success with the woman requires he undergo that discomfort which at the same time would amount to his spiritual renewal.
Other Religious Imagery
It is apparent, then, that although the narrator gives the impression that there’s no hope for him, religious imagery makes it clear that this is not the case. This section will be primarily concerned with images not mentioned so far, either in the main text or the footnotes.6
In the seventh verse there’s a further way in which it’s possible to see the woman as representing Christ. In being strong enough to make the narrator go blind, she is like the bright light which resulted in Paul’s conversion. As such she can again be seen as a conduit to the narrator’s own spiritual renewal.
Just as the narrator misinterprets the task ahead of him as ‘drownin’ in the poison’, so he misinterprets his life when he complains he’s ‘got no future, got no past’. A state of having no future and no past is one of timelessness or Eternity. The narrator’s comment amounts, then, to dramatic irony. Although he doesn’t realise it, under the Christ-like guidance of the woman he has the opportunity of achieving what in Christian terms is called Eternal Life.
While a number of religious images are used to represent hope for the narrator, others represent the opposite. The most obvious religious image drawing attention to the negative side of the narrator’s character is:
‘… the devil’s in the alley …’,
By identifying himself with the devil, if that’s what he’s doing, the narrator is unconsciously recognising his moral limitations.
Similarly the word ‘raised’ in the line:
‘I was raised in the country, I been working in the town’
suggests that a selfish, uncaring attitude associated with the city has replaced a more selfless one. This is because ‘raised’, with its religious connotations of new spiritual life, is being associated with somewhere other than the city where the narrator has been. That urban living and new spiritual life do not go together is made clear by the association, through rhyme, of ‘town’ with ‘down’ in the line which follows:
‘I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down’
– ‘down’ being the opposite of ‘raised’.
The reference to fire in:
‘Sky full of fire …’
also suggests that the narrator’s behaviour is contravening the will of God. Various biblical references treat fire as a heavenly punishment for the wicked (e.g. 2 Kings I, Luke 9.54 and Revelation 8.5)
While overall the religious imagery reflects the narrator’s character by reflecting his many faults, the positive images suggest that there is hope for him. The overall effect, however, is to suggest that the narrator is on a knife edge – ‘walking the line’ between moral success and failure.7
Since the song was apparently originally intended for Time Out of Mind, it’s not surprising that the narrator comes across as hopelessly inadequate and lacking in self-esteem. For most of the song he’s not really admitting responsibility for the loss of the woman, and he seems to assume getting her back is a lost cause. While we’re given no reason to suppose he’s not right in this, beyond a tactical move involving a proposition of marriage he’s made little effort to win her back. Instead he resorts to exaggerating the effect his loss has had on him while assuming that it falls to the woman to demean herself by admitting a guilt which is every bit as much his.
There is some hope for him, however. He does accept some responsibility for his loss in recognising that it wouldn’t have happened if he’d returned to the woman earlier. And towards the end of the song, when he speaks of having painted himself into a corner, he seems to be accepting full responsibility. Some of the religious imagery also implies that there is hope for him. Nevertheless the final verse leaves us with his unjustified assumptions that he can be unforgiving towards the woman, and that things can never be the same again.
1. Some phrases in the song echo those of T.S.Eliot’s The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock. Like Prufrock the narrator is not doing what he knows he should do to further a relationship which, in the narrator’s case, it seems he has already betrayed. I’m not suggesting that the similarities are generally more than coincidence; it may just be that Dylan had Eliot’s words at the forefront of his mind as he wrote the song. I can’t see that recognising them helps elucidate the song’s meaning beyond perhaps showing that they have themes in common. It might be the case, for example, that Dylan’s narrator should be concerned to ‘spit out the butt ends of [his] days and ways’. The Eliot phrases are extra-indented below:
‘Time is pilin’ up’ (Verse 1):
‘And indeed there will be time’
‘I have heard it all’ (Verse 5):
‘For I have known them all already, known them all’
‘I’m gonna look at you ‘til my eyes go blind’ (Verse 7):
‘The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase’
‘I’m drowin’ in the poison …’ (Verse 9):
‘Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’
‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’ (Verse 12):
‘To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—’
‘ways’, ‘days’ and ‘hand’ passim:
‘Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?’
‘There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands’
2. See the Religious Imagery section for suggestions about how the woman can be taken to represent both God and Christ.
3. Muddy Waters uses the phrase ‘another mule kicking in your stall’ in Long Distance Call. Apparently it means that a woman has another man.
4. The expression ‘days are numbered’ is biblical and is followed by ‘there is hope for a tree, when it is cut down, that it will grow again’ (Job 14:5-7). The implication for the narrator is that whatever he has done to destroy his prospects can be undone. In part the song concerns the limited extent to which he achieves this undoing.
5. Although he seems to be addressing the woman, it’s more likely he’s just imagining a conversation with her. Had he actually said what he seems to be saying, he would have gone some way towards doing the very thing he claims he could never do.
6. From the start the narrator’s life is presented as a moral journey using the Christian concept of ‘the way’. Thus the song begins:
‘Every step of the way …’
and the last words before the final refrain are:
‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’
In the second verse the narrator, supposedly stuck in the city, is:
‘… trying to get away’
The effect of these ‘way’ references is to draw attention to the spiritual progress the narrator is either attempting to make and has already made.
7. There’s a reminder of the garden of Eden in:
‘Walkin’ through the leaves, fallin’ from the trees
Feelin’ like a stranger nobody sees’
The narrator’s ambiguous moral position is represented by the association with Adam and Eve in the garden on the one hand, and God feeling ignored while walking in the garden on the other (cf. Genesis 3.8).