The song covers the life of Christ, from before his birth to after the resurrection. Its primary concern is Christ’s institution of a new order to replace the covenant between Moses and God – the ‘last deal’ which has failed or ‘gone down’*. This need results from the continuing prevalence of corruption represented in the song by:
‘Merchants and thieves, hungry for power…’
Although the song makes reference to incidents connected with the life of Christ, in themselves these are of secondary significance. Of more direct importance is the speech he gives at the end which makes it clear that his audience have a stark choice between life and ‘elimination’. Nevertheless the earlier part is important for the use it makes of a number of stylistic innovations including such things as deliberate anachronism and the inconsistent use of personal pronouns. These innovations serve to present life and existence generally as a unified whole. The implication is that those who don’t acknowledge this unity, and set themselves apart, are as good as dead. Accordingly, the events alluded to in the earlier parts of the song indirectly help to establish the main theme, the choice between life and death.
Although Christ’s resurrection is a defeat for the old order, it’s only a partial victory for him. While there’s a hint that complete victory will eventually be accomplished, the song ends with an implicit threat of a further battle.
Theme: A New Order
The main theme of the song is, then, Christ’s institution of a new order and its upshot. We learn this in the final two verses. For reasons which will become clear, it’s apparent that the speaker in these verses is Christ. In his divine capacity he reproaches the representatives of the old order, implying that it’s worthless:
‘I don’t need your organisation …’
He then speaks as man:
‘… I’ve shined your shoes,
I’ve moved your mountains …’
He’s making it clear that under the new regime there’ll be no place for status, and no place for his audience if they don’t conform. Just as he has believed in himself by having faith to move mountains (Matt 17:20) and gone out of his way for them, they too should be prepared to believe in him and go out of their way for others. The anachronistic shoe-shining reference, though emphasising the role of Christ as servant rather than master, is of particular relevance in that it reminds us of Christ’s standing in the eyes of John the Baptist who considered himself ‘not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal’ (John 1.27) . Christ’s use of it suggests that he wants his hearers to adopt a similarly humble role.
Theme: Unity v Division
A second, but essentially related, theme is the superiority of unity over division. This is introduced in the first verse with a contrast between ‘banners united‘, and:
‘Desperate men, desperate women, divided‘
Not only is the existence of division made explicit by the word ‘divided’, but it’s emphasised by the men and women being referred to separately. The line could, for example, have been ‘Desperate people divided’ which would have obviated the need for ‘desperate’ to be repeated. It’s clear that division, in being associated with desperation, is being looked on as negative.
Despite this, throughout the song there are unities where one would expect division. The narrator, the listener (‘you’), Dylan himself**, the Good Shepherd, the divided people, the Captain, Apollo, Jupiter, Christ, Mary and God are all identified one with another so that they seem to be being treated as instantiations of the same being.
The overall effect is to establish that in instituting a new order Christ, far from attempting to bring about further division, is concerned to bring to the surface an inherent underlying unity.
Pronouns And Gender
The song is notable for an extraordinary use of personal pronouns. ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘her/she’, and ‘he/his’ each gets assigned to more than one person by the narrator. ‘I’ in verse two might be both Dylan himself and the Captain (or God), and in verse four Christ. ‘You’ in verse four seems to refer to the Captain’s ‘beloved maid’, mankind and perhaps the reader. ‘She’ or ‘her’ refers to Christ in verses four and five, and to God in verse six. ‘He’ or ‘his’ refers to the Captain in verse three and to Christ in verses seven and eight. The overall effect is that no one person, including the narrator, seems ultimately to be distinct from any other. They participate in an overall unity and so help illustrate this theme of the song.
The theme of unity versus division is pursued in a different way in verse eight. Here a speech begins simply:
‘ “Gentlemen,” ‘
The audience, it’s implied, is entirely male – suggesting a patriarchal society in which women are separated off as inferior. This divisive outlook contrasts with the speaker’s implied approval of unity when he speaks inclusively of himself and his audience, saying peace will bring ‘us’ no reward.
This approach to gender can be taken as representing the new liberal outlook which is replacing the harsh gender distinctions of the old order. The male/female separation referred to in the first verse, and implied again in the eighth, is presented as having been overcome under the new order.
This new approach can also be the reason for the apparent exchange of gender between Christ and God as the song progresses. The exchange suggests that, with respect to them, gender distinctions up till now have been misapplied . It further suggests that with respect to people, distinctions based on gender should not be made.
Time And Eternity
The anachronism ‘Gentlemen’ points to another unity – between the modern era and Christ’s. Other anachronisms which have the same effect include two in verse five. These are the distinctly modern stitches and heart-shaped tattoo apparently borne by Christ.
After a third-person account of the resurrection in verse seven, which follows a first person account of it in verse five, there’s a further temporal unity in which past and present become one:
‘He’s pulling her down, and she’s clutching onto his long golden locks’
The risen Christ (‘he’) is pulling God (‘she’) down – presumably to the earth at his incarnation – so that he and God form a united whole. However, since the incarnation is obviously prior to the resurrection, and because the incarnation is referred to in response to a question about ‘what measures he now will be taking’, the past (the incarnation) seems to be being fused with the present (the resurrection) to constitute another, this time eternal, whole.
That under the new order temporal divisions are to give way to unity becomes apparent at the outset:
Sixteen banners united …’
First, it seems as if sixteen years are to be experienced spatially, and therefore non-temporally, in the manner of banners.
‘… the Good Shepherd grieves’
might also imply that Christ’s existence is eternal since, if the temporal setting of the first verse precedes that of the third, an account of the incarnation, the adult Christ (the Good Shepherd) is being active at a time preceding his birth.
A similar point might be made about Christ wearing a veil over ‘her’ shaved head since this shows Christ anachronistically conforming to a Pauline injunction from decades later concerning correct dress for women (1 Cor 11:6).
It’s apparent, then, that there are at least five occasions in which temporal distinctions give way to an underlying, eternal unity.
The Captain And The Maid
The identities of two people need to be established. These are the Captain and, it would seem, a woman. We’re told in the third verse:
‘The Captain waits above the celebration
Sending his thoughts to a beloved maid
Whose ebony face …’
Since the battle is between the old order and the new, the Captain – the one in charge – would seem to have to be God ***. The ‘beloved maid’ would be Christ’s mother, and the thoughts she receives are therefore of God’s intention that he should father her child. She seems to be being presented as a ‘Black Madonna’ – perhaps to make clear the new order’s commitment to social unity in its opposition to racial elitism. But in addition the ‘beloved maid’ is also Christ himself – the word ‘beloved’ reminding us of the voice at Jesus’ baptism saying ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased’ (Matt 3.17). The Captain’s love is not, then, just for Mary but is the sacrifice of his son, and – given his identity with Christ – Christ’s own self-sacrifice for mankind.
The verse ends:
‘The Captain is down but still believing that his love will be repaid’
Previously the Captain had been ‘above’ the celebration, so in addition to referring to his mood, ‘down’ might well indicate his coming down from heaven at Christ’s incarnation. His belief that his love will be repaid is a belief that people will accept the demands of the new order.
The word ‘down’ recurs in verse four:
‘… I couldn’t help but follow,
Follow her down past the fountain where they lifted her veil’
Given the previous use of ‘down’ in connection with the Captain, we can assume that these lines are a first person account by him of the same event – his arrival on earth from heaven at the incarnation.
God, Christ, Jupiter, Apollo
The theme of unity versus division continues in verse four after the unexpected appearance of two Graeco/Roman gods. A woman, later identified as Christ, has been, we’re told:
‘… torn between Jupiter and Apollo’
‘Torn’ – as in torn apart – amounts to division. The event appears to have been the crucifixion, described from a purely human angle.
Jupiter and Apollo, while father and son, are themselves mutually separate pagan gods who on one level seem to be associated with further division – the tearing apart of Christ. By contrast, their Christian equivalents God and Christ, while also father and son, are identical with each other in line with the song’s theme of unity.
This might seem to set the two camps at loggerheads – the divided Jupiter and Apollo on one side, the united God and Christ on the other. However such a conflict between Christian and pagan deities is avoided by a further identity. This is the identity of Christ with Apollo.The identity becomes apparent in a line from verse seven:
‘He’s pulling her down and she’s clutching onto his long golden locks’
God is pulling Christ down – presumably at the incarnation when the two become united on earth. What’s important is that Christ’s having ‘golden locks’ makes him sun-like, or like Apollo the sun god. In other words Christ is taking on the qualities of Apollo. The result is that the old order is being subsumed rather than challenged. And just as Christ subsumes Apollo, so Jupiter (now Christ’s father) is subsumed by God. The new order is being instituted without setting up an unnecessary conflict with the old.
This identity between Christ and Apollo in turn leads to a further identity and a further division. Since being torn between Jupiter and Apollo seems in part to be a representation of Christ’s crucifixion, his being torn or destroyed between Jupiter and Apollo is equivalent to his being destroyed – crucified – between two thieves. His identity with Apollo, then, is the equivalent of his identity with one of the thieves – the so called ‘good’ thief (Luke 23:29-43).
Further, since ‘merchants and thieves’ were the cause of the corruption, and hence a need for a new order, his being identified with a thief would suggest the job of getting rid of corruption is at least half done.
Although an unnecessary conflict between the old pagan and new Christian orders has been avoided, there still needs to be a war. This is the war between the new order and those who resist its implementation and who Christ warns in the penultimate verse.
The song begins with ‘banners united over the field’. ‘Banners’ and ‘field’ both have military connotations, and in a military context ‘united’ would imply a prospect of victory – presumably Christ’s. If that is so, it might explain why there’s a ‘celebration’, and why a ‘Captain’ should be on hand. Later militaristic references include ‘destruction in the ditches’ and ‘dog soldiers’, while the song ends with the promise of peace and the surrender of death, but with a hint of a further battle to come given that death has only surrendered and its ghost retreated. That battle would presumably be Armageddon (Revelation 16:16).
The reference to ‘dog soldiers’ occurs in the sixth verse whose lack of a finite verb makes it particularly obscure:
‘The palace of mirrors
Where dog soldiers are reflected
The endless road and the wailing of chimes
The empty rooms …’
The effect, though, is to suggest the apparent permanence of the conflict, and to create a sense of hopelessness by the use of words such as ‘endless’, wailing’ and ’empty’. The reflections too, by implying repetition, suggest that the war is destined to go on without resolution****. Since the permanence of conflict seems to be being alluded to even after an account of the resurrection in verse five, the sense of hopelessness is enhanced.
There is a hint here that all is not lost though. While ’empty rooms’ sounds desolate, the expression can remind us of the empty tomb and its significance. This significance becomes apparent in the verse seven in which the resurrection signals the return of hope.
Following a second account of the resurrection in verse seven, Christ announces:
‘Peace will come…
But will bring us no reward when the false idols fall”
The idols are presumably the wealth and power pursued by the merchants and thieves of verse two , and which are no longer to be valued. That peace will ‘bring us no reward’ is either because it is not going to come in the lifetime of his hearers, or because reward itself would be a false idol. That there’s no immediate prospect of peace has already been suggested by the messenger (presumably of death) carrying a ‘black nightingale’ rather than a dove.
It’s implied, however, that ultimately there will be a reward. This will be when the final battle is won. Although the song ends before that happens, an earlier reference to ‘the celebration’ implies that, from an eternal perspective, it has already been won.
Christ: Good Shepherd, Paschal Lamb, God
The grieving Good Shepherd of verse one is, of course, Christ (John 10.11). And the lost sheep over which he grieves would be the divided men and women who cannot achieve salvation without help. The second verse, however, represents Christ differently – either as one of the lost sheep or as a sacrificial lamb (John 1.29):
‘She’s smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born’
Christ is represented, then, in three ways – as the Good Shepherd, as the lost sheep and as the sacrificial Paschal lamb. Later, as we’ve seen, he’s also represented as God.
A further way in which this identity is made clear occurs in verse four. After beginning with an apparent reference to the passion of Christ:
‘They shaved her head’
it ends with
‘… they lifted her veil’
The description is echoing accounts of the crucifixion in which the veil in the temple was torn to reveal the presence of God (Matt 27.51), and implies that the face revealed is not just Christ’s but God’s.
It’s curious that there appear to be two accounts of the resurrection. The first, in verse five, is from Christ’s perspective, and the second (in verse seven) is from that of a third-person. The accounts are characterised by a marked difference in tone. The first, in the past tense, is of someone who has been thoroughly disillusioned, and who perhaps doubted his divinity:
‘I struggled to my feet
I rode past destruction in the ditches,
With the stitches still mending beneath a heart-shaped tattoo
Renegade priests and treacherous young witches
Were handing out the flowers that I’d given to you’
The focus is negative throughout – struggle, destruction, unhealed wounds, reneging and treachery.
The stitches would be a reference respectively to Christ’s wounds, and the heart-shaped tattoo is perhaps a sign of his killers’ contempt in much the same way as was the taunting notice on the cross which called him king of the Jews.
The contemptuous attitude perhaps continues with the ‘renegade priests and treacherous young witches’ distributing flowers intended for ‘you’, where the flowers perhaps represent Christ’s message, and ‘you’ is literally the listener. The priests and witches are perhaps a fifth column within the new order who are subverting it. Either way, there’s little indication that Christ feels he has successfully instituted a new order.
A second account of the resurrection occurs in verse seven. Whereas Christ’s own account in verse five had made him seem totally human, this third-person account unites him with God:
‘He’s pulling her down, and she’s clutching onto his long golden locks’
– ‘he’ being Christ, and ‘she’ God.
The verse begins:
‘She wakes him up
Forty-eight hours later …’
It’s no longer a merely human Christ who has to rely on his own resources to get to his feet as in verse five. Christ is being raised by God. The tone now is up-beat. The phrase ‘forty-eight hours later’ is the distance between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and the latter is traditionally associated with Christ’s triumph. Then we’re told:
‘… the sun is breaking
Near broken chains, mountain laurel and rolling rocks’
Here ‘sun’ can be read as ‘Son’ and so he’s implicitly being treated as the son of God. The chains being broken symbolise the restrictions which prevented the disillusioned people of the first verse from achieving salvation. And ‘rolling rocks’ puts us in mind of the miraculous rolling away of the stone sealing Christ’s tomb (Matt 28.2).
The Christ presented here is the successful Christ of the Christian religion, whereas the Christ of verse five is a man believing he’s been defeated.
The change brought about by Christ, the replacement of an old, divisive system by a new, inclusive one, is seen in terms of the first of two references in the song to the Tarot. Christ is described as having been born:
‘On midsummer’s eve near the Tower’
The Tower is a Tarot card emblem associated with overwhelming change. (The tower reference could, of course, also be to the biblical Tower of Babel which might be seen as representing a shortcut to salvation, and therefore something to which Christ would be opposed.)
The other Tarot reference, in the final verse, is to ‘the King and Queen of Swords’ who, while representing unity, and therefore support for the new order, seem at risk of being divided. It’s ominous that they represent a refuge for the ghost of death – spiritual death – who, having divided (‘come between’) the opposition, is in a position to prepare a second sally.
That they are united is apparent from their being referred to as ‘the King and the Queen of Swords’ rather than ‘the King of Swords and the Queen of Swords’, the sort of formula used in the first verse to represent men and women as divided.
At the end of the song we’re left in the present day. The new order has been with us for two millennia, but the final battle has yet to occur. Death has been temporarily vanquished but has yet to be finally defeated at Armageddon.
At least that’s the case from our temporal perspective. From an eternal perspective the last battle has taken place and – judging by the celebration – been won. We can assume that from this same eternal perspective some people have chosen to reject being part of an undivided whole comprising God and humanity. These are those who remain loyal to the old order and who Christ warned to expect ‘elimination’ if they refused to adjust and so accept his ‘changing of the guards’.
Minor revisions 4.12.2016
* The theme is superficially similar to that of T.S.Eliot’s The Journey Of The Magi .
**See for example Seth Rogovoy: Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, Scribner 2009. Rogovoy, amongst others, suggests that the phrase ‘sixteen years’ with which the song cryptically opens, might refer to the time Dylan had been performing up to the album’s release. If so it’s plausible that ‘I stepped forth from the shadows to the marketplace’ could also refer to Dylan starting out at the beginning of his career.
***Compare Robert Johnson: My Last Fair Deal Gone Down where ‘my Captain’ is blamed for the narrator’s misfortune
**** The reflection of the soldiers in the Palace of Mirrors is reminiscent of the scene in which Macbeth is shown Banquo’s descendants which ‘stretch out to th’ crack of doom’ (Macbeth IV.I.122). In the song it’s the war represented by the soldiers which stretches out to the crack of doom – Armageddon and the end of the world.