Duquesne Whistle

The song is highly complex. On the one hand it charts the temporal, moral development of the narrator from despair for a misspent life, through hope and a setback, to a oneness with Christ. On the other hand this oneness is shown to be eternal – outside of time – and so to exist independently of the narrator’s eventual coming to appreciate it. Throughout the song eternal oneness is made apparent through the bringing together in unity of pairs of things and through a further bringing together of those unities.

The train as Christ and the narrator

The most obvious image is that of the train. It can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Given the narrator’s initial adverse reaction to it:

‘… like it’s gonna sweep my world away’

it seems to represent death.  The whistle is, then, a warning about death and perhaps the impending final judgment. But (with ‘Slow Train Coming’ in mind) the train can also be seen as bringing back Christ for his second coming at the end of the world.

The narrator’s position with respect to it is ambiguous. Most of the time he’s hearing it approaching, insisting the whistle be heard, and is amazed that some don’t seem to notice it – ‘Can’t you hear …?’ Unlike them, he at least is fully aware of its implication. At the end of the song, however, he seems no longer to be hearing it from a distance, but to be on it. This is because he becomes aware of the lights in his native land which he’d not otherwise be in a position to see. He is further associated with the train when the ‘it’ originally used to refer to it, becomes ‘me’.  On his first hearing it, the train sounded as if it were ‘on a final run’, but this is overturned when the narrator wonders ‘if they’ll know me next time round’.  The phrase ‘next time round’ perhaps serves to reinforce the narrator’s identity with Christ, contemplating his second coming.

The women

Throughout the song the train seems to be associated with four or five women. For the most part the narrator treats them as separate individuals, his thoughts passing from one to another as time progresses. By contrast, the listener’s perspective seems to be non-temporal – eternal . Constant associations of the women with the train suggest that they, together with Christ and the narrator, are all one. The fulfilment of the narrator’s hope, and the dispelling of his anxiety, which only come about for the narrator at the end of the song are, from the eternal perspective, already in place.

The first association of the train with a woman, one which introduces the opposition between the temporal and the eternal,  occurs in the second verse.  Previously the pronoun used to pick out the train had changed from ‘it’ to ‘me’, but here the train becomes ‘she’. And then, in words borrowed from Poe’s ‘The Raven’, the whistle is said to blow ‘like she’s at my chamber door’. The train has become Lenore, whose loss for the narrator of that poem is impossible to accept. On one level, perhaps the train’s identification with the ghostly Lenore represents the narrator’s own religious doubts. But on another it leads to further identity associations which culminate in an eternal oneness.

Imperceptibly the identity of the Lenore figure changes to that of a particular woman (one assumes) in the narrator’s life:

‘You smiling through the fence at me’

At the same time there’s another pronoun change as ‘she’ becomes ‘you’. There’s a feeling of happy reminiscence about this, as if the narrator is remembering a childhood experience. Perhaps it’s his mother crouching down to smile at her son.

The line which follows:

 ‘Just like you always smiled before’

has a dual purpose. It seems to represent reliability or constancy. At the same time it reminds us of the repeated journeys of the train, and In so doing it serves to associate the woman with both Christ’s second coming and – given the narrator’s identity with Christ – with the narrator.

In the third verse the insistent sound of the whistle becomes ‘a sweet voice steadily calling’ and the train is now associated with a third woman, ‘the mother of Our Lord’. This may suggest further identity associations, for if the person smiling through the fence is in fact the narrator’s mother, one is led to identify the two mothers with each other. This in turn serves to identify the sons – so again the narrator is being identified with Christ.

A fourth woman is immediately introduced for we’re told in the very next lines that the whistle is blowing ‘like my woman’s on board’. Since the train is approaching, this would seem to presage a happy reunion. But its previous association with Poe’s Lenore makes any successful reunion doubtful in the narrator’s mind. Again the narrator can be seen to be in two conflicting states of mind – happy about the meeting , but doubtful it will happen.  If the woman represents Christ, the narrator is again expressing an ambivalent attitude to religion.

This doubt is again apparent in the next verse when ‘my woman’ becomes ‘that woman’:

‘I wake up every morning with that woman in my bed
Everybody telling me she’s gone to my head’

The narrator seems to be distancing himself from her and recognises – in the ‘gone to my head’ – that he may be obsessed with something unreal. Nevertheless there’s a hint in the phrase ‘I wake up every morning’ that the woman, spiritually, is real. Waking up every morning, like the running of the train, and the smiling through the fence, is a repeated action – thereby associating ‘that woman’ with both the happiness of the smile and with Christ’s return.

The tree, the train, the rock and redemption

Christ permeates the song. Not only does the approaching train seem to represent his second coming, but his mother is explicitly mentioned, and the ‘sweet voice’ might also be taken to be hers.

By the final verse, the narrator’s religious doubts have disappeared. The pronoun used to pick out the woman, previously ‘you’, is now ‘we’:

‘I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing
That old oak tree, the one we used to climb’

We can assume that this would not be any old oak tree, but Christ’s cross, so the person being included in ‘we’, would seem to have to be Christ. That ‘we used to climb’ the oak tree implies that the narrator sees himself as having been in some sense crucified with Christ. Climbing the tree, as distinct from having been hung on it, represents not just being crucified, but bringing this about voluntarily. It is, in other words, Christ’s act of redemption. Taking into account the previous reasons for identifying the narrator with Christ, we can take him not just to be accompanying  Christ, but actually to be Christ in the process of redeeming both the narrator and the world.

Climbing the tree is itself another repetitive action – it’s the one we used to climb. This can be interpreted in either, or perhaps both, of two ways.  First, the narrator is being identified with Christ on his return, which is what the other repetitions seemed to be alluding to. Secondly, the act of redemption is being shown to be not just a one-off act in time, but an ongoing eternal act. Accordingly, whether consciously or not, the narrator is alluding to himself as an eternal being.

At the end of the song the whistle is said to be ‘blowing right on time’. The tone of the last line is positive because by this stage his uncertainty is gone and he is confident of redemption. In other words, because the narrator sees himself as redeemed, he no longer sees the train as about to ‘kill me dead’. For him now, death is merely a temporal end, not an eternal one.

The realisation of his redemption also replaces the uncertainty represented by his being a gambler. As the last verse closes, spiritually, he is no longer gambling – he is certain of his salvation.

In the light of this, the narrator’s use of the word ‘rock’ in the fourth line:

‘That Duquesne train gonna rock me night and day’

might be an instance of dramatic irony. At this stage his uncertainty is still dominant, yet ‘rock’, used in the gospels to stand for the strong foundation of the church, would indicate that all along – eternally – his salvation is secure.

From a position of personal security, his concern shifts to everyone else. As  Christ he wonders if he’ll be recognised – if his dying for humanity will have  borne fruit. Likewise he wonders if the cross is still taken notice of – ‘if that old oak tree’s still standing’.

The train as a sexual image

The concern for himself which the narrator originally felt seems to have been caused by guilt. This guilt is associated with sex. It’s probably out of guilt that he falsely denies he’s a pimp. He moves immediately from describing the train’s light as a ‘red light glowing’, which has obvious associations with pimping, to describing the whistle ‘blowing like she’s at my chamber door’ – another phrase with sexual connotations. On this level the ‘she’ referred to  could be ‘that woman’ in his bed. One way or another the train has become a vast representation of sexual guilt.

In the final verse the word ‘glowing,’ in ‘The lights of my native land are glowing’, creates an atmosphere of warmth which might suggest the train is taking the narrator to his true, spiritual home. However the presence of ‘glowing’ here also reminds us of its earlier association with a red light.  We can assume that the inhabitants are every bit as guilty as the narrator. Such a view is corroborated by our having been told the train is travelling ‘through another no-good town’.  Since we’re likely to transfer the epithet ‘no-good’ to the native land, the implication now is that though the narrator might be saved, it’s by no means certain that the rest of the world is.

Sexual references continue with ‘that old oak tree’s still standing’. The tree is now a phallic image. But since the train can also be seen as bringing Christ and the tree can be seen as Christ’s cross, the suggestion would seem to be that there may be no distinction between the means of eternal death and the means of salvation. Another unity.*


Since the word ‘blowing’ appears twenty-two times, that alone would suggest it is important. Primarily the blowing of the whistle is to be seen as a precursor of the apocalypse:

‘Blowing like the sky’s gonna blow apart’

The idea of blowing the sky apart is then developed so that it is not just the world that’s going to end, but the narrator’s life as if he’s  blown up by bomb:

‘You’re like a time bomb in my heart’

It’s significant that the addressee is compared to a time bomb, rather than any other sort of bomb. This implicit reference to temporal existence suggests that it’s only temporal existence which is about to cease – so by implication the narrator’s eternal existence will be untouched. Though he has yet to realise it, he is already redeemed.

The above line is preceded by:

‘You’re the only thing alive that keeps me going’

It seems paradoxical that the only thing that keeps him going should blow him up, but this reflects a similar opposition between temporal and eternal. Death in the former co-exists with the permanence of the latter. But equally, If the addressee is a woman, her sexuality can be seen as representing both his temporal life, and also his spiritual death.

It’s unclear who the addressee is but, in addition to being seen as a woman, it can also be taken to be the narrator himself. A repetition suggests this. In the third verse we’re told:

‘You’re the only thing alive that keeps me going

and in fourth:

‘I know exactly where you’re going

It’s quite likely that though there might appear to be two people going somewhere, there is really just one. If the narrator is addressing himself, then he’s effectively saying he knows where he himself is going. This would explain how he’s able to ‘lead you there myself at the break of day’. That it’s himself he’s addressing would also account for what otherwise might seem to be over familiarity in the apostrophising:

‘You old rascal”

which precedes ‘I know exactly where you’re going’. Jokily referring to himself as a rascal is ironic since the narrator is in fact ‘a rascal’, if not something worse.

While throughout the song  ‘blowing’ seems to be primarily destructive, in the penultimate verse the narrator imbues it with an additional, more positive connotation. The line:

‘It’s blowing like it’s gonna blow my blues away’

can be taken to mean  both that it will end his life – blow his blues away together with everything else – and conversely that it will  bring him happiness by ending his sorrows. This represents a development in the narrator’s outlook.  The train isn’t just interpreted as blowing ‘like it’s on a final run’ and ‘like she ain’t gonna blow no more’ – both of which can be taken to indicate approaching annihilation. The slight hint of happiness in ‘gonna blow my blues away’ is a precursor of his actual happiness – the culmination of the narrator’s development – in the final line:

‘Blowing like she’s blowing right on time’


While the train as a sexual image represents the narrator’s downfall, and as an image of Christ it represents his salvation, it is also a vehicle taking the narrator on a temporal journey. The final line with its implicit approval of the train’s imminent arrival, represents the narrator at last coming to terms with death. Over the course of the song he seems to have moved from a lack of certainty and fear of  death, to hope, to over-confidence, to an ultimate identification with Christ.

He began with regret at what he saw as the approach of death:

‘Blowing like it’s gonna sweep my world away’

– the ‘my’ before ‘world’ indicating that he treasured his temporal existence over the eternal.  Immediately this regret becomes less certain as he imagines that even as he stops he keeps on going.  Movement is subsumed by stability, just as the eternal’s subsumes the temporal. Despite this there’s still no certainty. The defensive denials about gambling and pimping suggest that he continues to fear eternal death for a misspent temporal life. Hope returns with the line adapted from Poe, and this hope gives way to confidence, perhaps overconfidence, with the somewhat out of place:

‘You old rascal, I know exactly where you’re going’.

Ultimately the narrator identifies himself with Christ, thinking about his expected return:

‘I wonder if they’ll know me next time round’.

Even here, though, there’s an implicit worry – a concern represented by the fear of not being recognised. But when he announces that the whistle is blowing ‘like she’s right on time’, all doubt seems to have vanished. The narrator is literally at one with Christ.


*Thanks to Chris Gregory for his observations on sexual imagery in his own post on ‘Duquesne Whistle’. If I hadn’t read his piece, I probably wouldn’t have noticed any of it.

Roll On John



Such a beautiful song! Musically and lyrically it’s sublime.

Surprisingly perhaps, after ‘Tempest’, much of the beauty is due to the variety and richness of the numerous interpolations.  Here their inclusion is seamless. They make part of an integrated whole, their words often being key to the themes explored in the song. Some of this beauty is created by the use of words penned by Lennon himself, as in:

‘I heard the news today, oh boy’.

The beauty is in the poignancy. The line’s long vowels and alternating unstressed and stressed syllables recreate in us the same sense of helplessness and grief once suffered by Lennon. But here the line is also the precursor to an onslaught of other emotion. A languid sense of helplessness is immediately displaced in the next line by an incipient anger, indicated by five consecutive stressed syllables:

‘They haul’d your ship up on the shore’.*

However the vowels are still long; if there’s anger it’s under control. But it’s controlled only until the fourth line, where the words become full of bitterness:

‘They tore the heart right out and cut it to the core’.

The long vowels have been abandoned and the resulting staccato effect tells us the narrator’s blood is boiling – until the line tails away after the incisive ‘cut it’.

Beauty also results from  the variety of the roles given to the narrator who is variously critic, devotee, adviser, biographer, and mourner. As adviser it’s not clear that he’s not Lennon himself. The advice is contradictory, however:

‘Leave right now, you won’t be far from wrong’

is soon followed by

‘Slow down, you’re moving way too fast’.

The beauty is again in the poignancy. These exhortations are suggestive of a man in conflict with himself and therefore at least in part the author of his own demise.

The Lennon Character

While a number of commentators have speculated that there may be allusions to other Johns (ranging from the John Smith of Pocahontas fame to St John the Divine) as far as I can see there’s no need to look further for the identity of the protagonist than to a slightly fictionalised John Lennon. That’s not to say the song is just about Lennon, though. It’s may be more about him than ‘Tempest’ is about the sinking of the Titanic, but it is also a vehicle for the exploration of themes which appear throughout the album. Nevertheless Lennon is pretty central.

His character is presented as one of extremes. He ranges from appearing  a rather unsavoury whoring drunk, in the early lines:

‘Another bottle empty, another penny spent’


‘From the Liverpool docks to the red-light Hamburg streets’,

to being  presented as Christ-like in much of the rest of the song. We see this straight away when his reaction to an implied threat is unconfrontational:

‘He turned around and he slowly walked away’.

That however is the only obviously ‘Christian’ act that’s attributed to him. There is, though, a possible reference to the real Lennon’s political activism, when we’re told a faceless ‘they’ tied his hands and clamped his mouth. And there’s perhaps  a hint at his social concern in details like ‘playing to the cheap seats’. His virtues are not being trumpeted as exceptional, though. That they’re presented in a context of moral failing marks him as ordinary, barely different from the rest of us. It’s elsewhere, then, that comparisons with Christ are to be found.

Christ Imagery

To a great extent it’s in the song’s imagery that Lennon comes across as Christ-like. There are several such ways that the identification is made.

To begin with, the inclusion of the detail about being shot in the back, though historically accurate, perhaps presents Lennon, like Christ, as a victim of a betrayal.


Another way in which Lennon is implicitly identified with Christ is as occupant of a cave. In one way the cave can be seen as the underworld, a non-existence from which there is no escape:

‘Wasn’t no way out of that deep, dark cave’.

That Lennon is in the underworld is supported by the earlier phrase describing his death,’and down he went’.

However, the cave can also be seen as Christ’s burial chamber, so given that the cave’s occupant is Lennon, then Lennon is implicitly being identified with Christ.


A third identification of Lennon with Christ is suggested by the line:

‘The sooner you go, the quicker you’ll be back’.

On the surface this would seem to refer to Lennon’s journey by ship from the island he’s on, but there are perhaps overtones of Christ’s ascension and second-coming.


Fourthly, in verse six we’re told:

‘Your bones are weary, you’re about to breathe your last.*
Lord, you know how hard that it can be’

The reason Lennon knows how hard breathing your last breath can be, must be because in some sense he’s done it before. The gospel account of Christ’s death tells us:

Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last’ (Mark 15,37).

The wording is too similar to the song’s ‘breathed your last’ for Lennon’s death and Christ’s death not to be being treated there as one and the same.


Finally, Lennon also seems to be being identified with Christ by way of the interpolation of the opening line of Blake’s most famous poem in the final verse:

‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright’

The word ‘tyger’ is likely to recall T.S.Eliot’s:

‘… In the juvenescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger’,

so if it’s Lennon who is being addressed as ‘Tyger’, the implication is that he is Christ.

That it is Lennon who is being addressed as ‘Tyger’ is apparent from the use of Blake’s description ‘burning bright’ to echo the chorus’s depiction of Lennon, ‘You burned (or burn) so bright’. To associate him with the ‘tyger’ might also seem apposite in that the tyger itself is presented by Blake as the product of a god whose creations are, in a sense like Lennon, both good and evil.


The identification of Lennon with Christ is just one of many unities which pervade the song. Perhaps the most important is alluded to in the interpolated:

‘Come together now right over me’

in which the ideal of a unified humanity is extolled.


Another unity involves Christ and the world. We’re told in the fourth verse:

‘The city gone dark, there is no more joy’.

If the city represents the world, then the idea would seem to be that Christ’s death and the spiritual death of the world are one and the same. This is because the cave, associated now with the death of Christ, had previously been described as ‘dark’.  Since ‘dark’ is also being used to describe the city, we’re led to associate the two. Furthermore, since Christ is being identified with the world, there is the implication that the resurrection of Christ will amount to the resurrection, in the form of the redemption, of the world too.


A further unity, this time between Lennon and the world, is implied by his relinquishing an isolated existence. Initially Lennon is described as having been:

‘… cooped up on an island far too long’*.

There’s the suggestion that he’s been too inward looking. ‘Island’ here is reminiscent of John Donne’s ‘No man is an island‘. In arguing for the unity of mankind, Donne asserts that:

 ‘any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind’.

Similarly the above quotation suggests not only that Lennon was too cut off from mankind in life, but that mankind is diminished both by this and by his death.


Time and space are also treated as a unity. This occurs when the word ‘right’ in verse five’s exhortation to:

‘Leave right now’

appears again two verses later in the expression:

‘Take the right hand road’.

The temporal is being associated with the spatial –  ‘right now’ with ‘right hand road’ – so that they become unified as part of an eternal one.


Finally, there’s also perhaps the suggestion that good and bad are ultimately one. The lights Lennon is associated with are both those of the ‘red light Hamburg streets’ and the light referred to in the chorus which he’s urged to shine. These can be taken as representing respectively his positive and negative qualities. But in being urged to ‘Shine your light’, since he’s not being urged to give reign to his negative qualities, the implication seems to be that these have been subsumed by the positive ones. Qualities which when viewed separately can be seen as good and bad, when viewed together appear as just good.

All these, then are presented as unities – humanity, Christ and the world, Lennon and the world, time and space, good and bad. It will be necessary to consider another unity, however, before the significance of these will become apparent. Meanwhile we need to be aware of the further importance of time, and its relationship with the eternal.

Time Imagery

For much of the song Lennon is presented as bound by time. In the opening line he asks for ‘the time of day’ – the first of several occurrences of ‘day’.  And in the third verse we’re told he has:

‘Rags on your back just like any other slave’*

While on one level the line implies a Christ-like poverty, on another it seems to represent him as a mere temporal being. ‘Rags on your back’ seems to be a compression of phrases from Donne and Shakespeare.

In Donne’s  ‘The Sunne Rising’ there’s the line:

‘Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time’.

And in King Lear the Duke of Kent announces:

‘Years on my back I have forty-eight’

By compressing and slightly altering the expressions ‘rags of time’ and ‘Years on my back’ the song is able to refer to ‘Rags on your back’. The effect is to portray Lennon as someone for whom time is a burden which he’d be better off relinquishing. In similar vein, he is ‘like any other slave’ in that, like the rest of us, he is a slave of time.

In the light of this use of the back as a bearer of the burden time, the fact that we’re told:

‘They shot him in the back

in part emphasises that by being shot he was released from time – leaving his eternal existence unaffected.

The word ‘back’ again provides a reminder of Lennon’s temporal existence in the lines:

‘The sooner you go, the quicker you’ll be back


‘Too late now to sail back home’.

The first of these, by way of the possible allusion to Christ’s second coming, suggests that what can be expressed in temporal terms has an eternal significance.

Eternal  v. Temporal

That temporal events have a greater, eternal significance is suggested throughout the song. The events of the song seem to occur in an ‘eternal present’ in that the eight verses cover the events of Lennon’s life, among other things, in a temporally bizarre order:

His death, his early career, a retrospective on his life and death, the effect of his death, advice to him in life, the time at which his death is imminent, the moments after his death.

Since the present of each verse is not always before the present of the succeeding verse, the impression is given that the various exhortations, the advice, the implied regret and the events alluded to do not occur in actual time. Since there’s no past and future, they’re all part an eternal present.


That the events of the song can be seen as taking place in an eternal present also becomes apparent from the fact that the expression ‘right now’ is used both in the exhortation:

‘Leave right now

 in verse five and in:

 ‘Come together right now

in verse six’. From a temporal perspective there are two different ‘right nows’.  But the dual occurrence of the expression ‘right now’ leads one to associate, and so identify, the two ‘nows’.


The transcendence of the temporal by the eternal is also reflected in the description of Lennon’s light. The chorus line ‘You burn (or burned) so bright’ is regretful in tone,  reflecting the fact that Lennon is dead. This tone of regret is enhanced if the past tense is being used. Yet the the complementary ‘burning bright’ suggests the opposite. Can his existence transcend his death? It can if in some sense he has an eternal, or timeless existence which goes beyond the temporal.

There’s a similar implication in the first line of the chorus:

‘Shine your light,

If the exhortation makes sense now that Lennon is dead, there’s again a sense in which his existence transcends his death.


The idea of the eternal transcending the temporal is also apparent in the references to a quarry and a cave. Not only is a quarry a type of cave anyway, but that the quarry here is the cave is also suggested by the words ‘down’ and ‘deep’ respectively in:

Down in the quarry with the Quarrymen’


‘Wasn’t no way out of that deep, dark cave’.

Since the quarry seems to represent life (the activity of Lennon’s early band the Quarrymen), and the cave represents death, the identity of the two suggests that life and death – so easily differentiated at the temporal level – eternally are no more to be distinguished than good from bad**.


This subjugation of the temporal to the eternal is further reinforced by the way the order of events gets reversed in the lines:

‘Tore the heart right out and cut it to the core’


‘Put on your bags and get ’em packed’

It’s only once something has been cut to the core that the heart can be torn out. And if bags are ‘put on’, it’s literally absurd to only then pack them. These reversals would appear to emphasise that the ordering in time of events in the world is of no ultimate importance.


A hint of the transcendence of the eternal may also be present in the line:

‘They’ll trap you in an ambush before you know’.

Spoken by the narrator, who already knows about Lennon’s death, it’s absurd as a warning. And because Lennon doesn’t ‘know’ about the trap, he’s not in a position to warn himself. The only way the warning makes sense is if it’s timelessly, eternally, true.


Finally there’s a lack of certainty about what Lennon’s life amounts to whose solution might be resolved in terms of the eternal. Presented as a sea journey, it begins in the Liverpool docks rather than just Liverpool where he was born. But the journey seems to end nowhere in particular. As in real life it takes in Hamburg, but then becomes a ‘road’ journey to ‘where the buffalo roam’. This could be anywhere. All we can say is that the description is vaguely romantic, cowboyish perhaps, in keeping with the murder’s exaggeratedly being described as an ambush. The journey ends with the  foundering of his ship – ‘on the shore’. Which shore? Again it doesn’t seem to matter. But, in part by association with ‘sure’, ‘shore’ suggests stability, or lack of change, which in turn suggests eternity.


The final unity, which allows us to piece together all the foregoing considerations concerns the song’s use of ‘they’. Who are ‘they’? Here too the song seems deliberately unspecific. In addition to its use in ‘They’ll trap you in an ambush before you know’, there are three more instances of acts being attributed to an unnamed ‘they’:

They shot him in the back…’


They tied your hands and clamped your mouth’*


They hauled your ship up on the shore’*.

On one level of interpretation the first ‘they’ refers to Lennon’s murderers, the second perhaps to those who stifled his political activism, and the third to either of these. However, from the fact that in each case the identity of the ‘they’ is left open, it remains possible to identify all three with each other.  Tying his hands and clamping his mouth could accordingly, like hauling his ship up on the shore, be the same action as shooting him. Lennon’s murder would be being presented in terms of its political consequences.

But still the question ‘Who are ‘they’?’  remains unresolved. The only candidates from within the song are those implored to ‘Come together right now, over me’, or those who, like Lennon, are ‘slaves’ of time. In other words us. We are the killers of Lennon. And given that Lennon, the ordinary man, also represents us, we are not only his killers but their victim.


So ultimately the song is about  us. We are the ‘they’ who killed Lennon, an act co-extensive with our own spiritual death. This final unity needs to be taken in conjunction with those unities previously noticed to enable us to complete the picture.  Of particular importance are the unities of Lennon and Christ, Christ and the world, and  Lennon and the world.

Since Lennon is identified with Christ, our being the killers of Lennon amounts to the same as our being the killers of Christ. And since Christ is identified with the world, our killing of Christ makes us responsible for our own spiritual destruction.

Despite this the song is far from negative. Unity can again be appealed to, this time as a source of hope. Because Lennon is identified with Christ, we too by way of our identity with Lennon, are Christ. That is, although we’ve brought about our spiritual death, we’re also capable of our own redemption. Temporally this is by ‘coming together’. But from an eternal stance, the killers and the redeemers are already timelessly one.



* Single asterisked lines have their origin in, or are directly quoted from, Robert Fagles’ translation of the Odyssey,Viking Penguin 1996. Thanks to Paul Sutcliffe for pointing this out. See Scott Warmuth’s Pinterest page ‘A Tempest Commonplace’ for these and other quotations found on ‘Tempest’. I doubt whether the fact that phrases, and indeed whole lines, are ‘borrowed’ affects the meanings I’ve attributed to them because the contexts are so different. Nevertheless, it clearly affects my suggestion that ‘Rags on your back just like any other slave’ has its origins in Shakespeare and Donne. A crucial difference, with respect to meaning, is Dylan’s inclusion of ‘other’ before ‘slave’. In the ‘Odyssey’ Odysseus is being described simply as wearing rags like a slave. In the song Lennon is being described as a slave.


 **One effect of this is to identify both Christ’s death and Lennon’s with hope. ‘Wasn’t no way out’ can either be interpreted as an ungrammatically informal way of saying there can be no escape from death or, taken literally, as implying the possibility of resurrection. And if Christ’s death is not final after all, then neither, given his identity with Christ, is Lennon’s.

Tempest (song)


In his review of ‘Desolation Row’ the poet Philip Larkin described it as possibly having ‘half-baked words’. I dread to think what he’d have said about ‘Tempest’! The song seems to have been built up from expressions drawn from other songs, and worn out clichés which would have made McGonagall proud. On the other hand it provides the title to the album as a whole and is clearly thematically central. Much of the negative effect may be a result of Dylan’s attempting to incorporate ill-fitting biblical phrases and other material into a structure borrowed from a Carter family song about the Titanic. Not all, though. And one is left with the impression that what comes across as incongruous to the point of clumsy may be deliberate. I shall proceed on that assumption. What is certain, however, is that much more is going on in the song than is immediately apparent.

The song is not really about the sinking of the Titanic. Hardly any of the incidents or people mentioned have anything to do with the Titanic’s maiden and final voyage. Of all the changes the most obvious is probably the substitution of a storm for the iceberg which directly caused the historical sinking. The change is apposite because the song has a religious theme, and because tempests figure over and over again in various parts of the bible. The Book of Revelation, Dylan’s main biblical concern, refers to both a ‘commotion’ and a ‘whirlwind’, both of which terms figure in the song . Biblical tempests can represent either punishment from God (as in Psalms 11:6) or perhaps trials of faith (Matt. 8:24). Both ideas seem present in Dylan’s song, and they’re explored through attitudes to wealth, violence, generosity and religion.


A major difference between this song and its Carter source is the emphasis on wealth. ‘The rich man, Mr Astor’ is by no means unique in being rich among passengers described as ‘all the lords and ladies’. There’s no mention at this stage of anyone obviously not wealthy. Later we’re told ‘the host was pouring brandy’, again implying a lavish lifestyle, as does the presence of an orchestra (as distinct from a mere band), and ballroom dancers. And there’s a bishop who can clearly afford a cabin of his own. The fittings too are opulent. Chandeliers sway from the balustrades, and there’s a staircase sporting ‘brass and polished gold’. Gold again figures when the life these people are pursuing is described as ‘a golden age’. The only explicit references to poverty are in the bishop’s somewhat mindless abrogation of responsibility ‘the poor are yours to feed’, and in the clichéd description of the victims – ‘the good, the bad, the rich, the poor’. The expression ‘the rich man’, preserved from the Carter song, and used here to describe Astor, inevitably reminds us of Christ’s warning about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s a warning which seems not to have been heeded by the passengers generally.


Another difference is the emphasis on violence. The voyage seems to be a representation of life, with the ship representing the world. And it’s a world full of self-defeating violence whose absurdity comes across most of all in the passenger called Wellington. His response to the disaster is to ‘strap on both his pistols’ and wonder how long he could ‘hold out’, as if he were under siege. If we see him simply as a passenger on a sinking ship, his behaviour is ludicrous – and in a way which matches the response of the bishop. Whereas the bishop thinks irrelevantly of hunger, Wellington thinks equally irrelevantly of protecting himself against aggressors. Since a number of songs on ‘Tempest’ refer to the Anglo/US war of 1812, Wellington may be a reference to the victor of Waterloo who had participated in the 1812 campaign. Accordingly his gun-toting behaviour would reflect society’s propensity to go to war at minimal provocation.

Among further references to violence we’re told that:

‘Brother rose up against brother
In ever circumstance.
They fought and slaughtered each other’

Again, taken literally, this is absurd. One imagines there would not have been many brothers on the ship, and those that were didn’t behave like this. But it shouldn’t be taken literally. All three lines are of biblical origin – probably Genesis 4.8, 1 Thess 5.18, and 2 Kings 3.23 respectively. The violent events alluded to are the murder of Abel by Cain and kings slaughtering each other. What’s noticeable is that in each case people are killing others similar to themselves. Humanity is being represented as responsible for its own undoing. The phrase ‘In every circumstance’ is associated in Thessalonians with occasions when God should be thanked, so its use here perhaps works as a reminder of a more responsible approach to one’s lot.

In a similar way, the line:

‘There were traitors, there were turncoats’

seems to be a reference to life generally rather than events on board the Titanic. Again, the idea seems to be that humanity self-destructs when it turns on itself.

At the end of the song we’re told that the news of the sinking:

‘…struck with deadly force’

those waiting for news of their loved ones. The words ‘deadly force’ not only seem appropriate to the violence of the storm which sank the ship, but echo the description of the behaviour of those on board. These:

‘… fought and slaughtered each other
In a deadly dance’

The use of ‘deadly’ in each case makes it seem that there’s no underlying distinction between God’s vengeance, the destructive power of nature, and the self-interested violence of the passengers. God’s wrath is presented as being indistinguishable from the self-destructive effects of humanity’s self-interest.


While violence is strongly associated with the disaster, the song’s opposition to violence is not unequivocal. Love, for instance , while associated with affection:

‘He kissed his darling wife’,

can itself be the result of violence:

‘Cupid struck his bosom
And broke it with a snap’

What matters is here is that it’s a harmless, totally non-malevolent, violence. The point seems to be that it’s not violence in itself which is bad, but the violent attitudes taken by human beings.

Several other descriptions also suggest that what is bad from one point of view, or in one way, may be good from another. ‘The seas were sharp and clear’ suggests both danger and safety. The oxymoronic ‘dark illumination’ and ‘The night was black with starlight’ perhaps suggest that despite the disaster there is still hope. And this contrasts with the wholly positive ‘He saw the starlight shining/streaming from the East’ – the positivity following on, and resulting, from a selfless act of generosity. The overall suggestion seems to be that whereas the world is in fact neutral between good and bad, we can through our actions change how it seems to us.

Most of the passengers have a pessimistic outlook, though – and this too is reflected in the language which describes things as they choose to see them. In particular there’s an overwhelming imbalance between the use of the words ‘up’ and ‘down’. Descriptions include ‘the great ship that went down‘,’ lights down in the hallway’, the pleonastic ‘descending down the stairs’ and ‘they lowered down the lifeboats’, ‘blood pouring down his arm’ and ‘the needle pointing downward‘. By contrast, the only mentions of ‘up’ are in the bishop’s turning his eyes ‘up‘ to heaven, and ‘The roll was called up yonder’ , a biblical phrase referring to heaven. For most passengers events seem worse than they need to through their own doing.


The imbalance between the use of ‘up’ and ‘down’ can be seen, then, as directly reflecting an imbalance between optimism and pessimism among the passengers. This imbalance reflects a difference in attitude to our existence which can be viewed either as spatiotemporal or as eternal.

The theme is introduced by the apparently McGonagallesque line:

”Twas the fourteenth day of April’

Initially the line seem clumsily self-conscious in its use of ‘poetic’ and superfluous words, and one might wonder at the narrator’s concern with a precise date in a song which has little regard for historical accuracy. However the line, by way of both its content and seeming clumsiness, serves to draw attention to the impoverishment of a temporal, as distinct from an eternal, perspective.

Two lines later we’re told the ship was, in the words of the cliché:

‘Sailing into tomorrow’

Literally, this is impossible, of course. You can only sail into spatial locations, not temporal ones. By eliding the usual distinction between time and space, a unity between them has been created. This is reinforced by the use of the expression:

‘The promised hour …’

which, in making our thoughts jump to the more usual expression ‘the promised land’, makes it seem as if the concepts of space and time are interchangeable. The usual contrast between space and time is then replaced by a further contrast between the new space/time unity on the one hand and eternity on the other. Almost immediately we’re told that the ‘lords and ladies’ are:

‘Heading for their eternal home’

The expression ‘eternal home’ is suggestive of salvation or damnation in some atemporal sense (cf. 2 Cor 5.1).

This opposition between a spatiotemporal existence and eternity becomes particularly apparent when we’re told that Wellington’s bed ‘begin to slide’ (rather than begins or began). The ungrammatical, tenseless ‘begin’ suggests timelessness. Like another character Leo, who recognises its ‘no time now to sleep’ (cf. Romans 13:11), Wellington has the chance to embrace eternal values. His response, however, is a rebuff. He decides instead to wait:

‘… for time and space to intervene’

In other words he rejected eternity for a spatiotemporal reality, and attended to earthly matters – like, presumably, finding people to shoot.

Underlying Unity: Leo and Cleo

The attitude which goes along with eternal life is the opposite of Wellington’s and those who relish violence. This is the attitude of selfless concern for others. One way that such selflessness is represented in the song is through the character Leo whose concern for others is represented by a quite literal identity with another person. This occurs in the line:

‘Leo said to Cleo’

The name ‘Cleo’ contains ‘Leo’ within it, suggesting that although there are two people they are at the same time one and the same. That Leo is Cleo is then further reinforced by the idea of Cupid striking his ‘bosom’. This is because ‘bosom’ implies femininity, the word normally being applied to a woman rather than a man. Since Leo has become part of Cleo, the love so represented is perhaps better seen as agape rather than the erotic love normally associated with Cupid.

Leo’s total unity with someone else is perhaps then reinforced by the lines:

‘But he’d lost his mind already
Whatever mind he’d had’

Leo has lost his mind in the sense of having lost his self identity in pursuing his concern for others. This is a literal selflessness to be associated with the eternal in that it goes beyond normal spatiotemporal distinctions.

The hint of an eternal existence which goes beyond the spatiotemporal is to be found in other unities too. Often these involve repeated words. So:

‘The sky splitting all around’

is followed by:

‘The ship’s bow split apart’

The sky is splitting to reveal God, and the same word’s being applied to the ship reinforces the idea that the ship’s destruction is itself a manifestation of God.

And while the ship is:

‘Dropping to her knees

the captain is said to be:

Kneeling at the wheel’

Again the repeated word hints at identity. The captain is identified with the ship, by way of kneeling, and since the ship is identified with God by way of splitting, the result is a unity comprising all three.

When drawing, Leo is described as ‘ … often so inclined’, while the smokestack is described as ‘leaning sideways’ and the watchman’s we’re told is ‘at forty-five degrees’. The commonality again suggests an identity involving God. This is because Leo and the watchman are both identified with a part of the ship which is itself identified with God.
The possibility of unity with God is also implied by the use and repetition of the word ‘aside’. We’re told that:

‘The angel’s turned aside‘,

and that Wellington:

‘…pushed the tables aside‘.

The word ‘aside’ is significant in that Moses was only able to see God when he ‘turned aside’ (Exodus 3.3). Thus the angels’ turning aside is as much an acknowledgement of the presence of God as a desertion of the passengers. And Wellington’s pushing the tables aside likewise suggests his own possible (but perhaps unrealised) identity with God. In his case the potential identity is reinforced by his behaviour’s similarity to that of Christ overturning tables in the temple.


The passengers’ destination is ‘a golden age foretold’ implying a better existence. On a secular level the idea seems to be that America represents an opportunity for a better life on earth – that’s how the passengers see it. In addition, though, the expression ‘a golden age foretold’ has a somewhat mystical feel to it. There seems to be a suggestion that, viewed from a non-temporal standpoint, the golden age is achievable on earth. It’s in this sense that the passengers think they’re ‘heading for their ‘eternal home’.

A similar mystical feel arises from the expression ‘The promised hour was near’. The words ‘the promised hour’ occur in Josiah, and refer to God’s promise to the Israelites of a land of their own. This is often taken to refer to the salvation of mankind. In addition, the promised hour can be seen as the hour of judgment (Mark 13.32). None of the passengers – noticeably not even the bishop – seems to have been prepared for it. At the end of the song the deaths of the passengers are explicitly put down to ‘the judgement of God’s hand’.

The destruction of the Titanic is, then, apocalyptic. While it can be seen as the fate of the passengers, in so far as the Titanic represents the world, it also represents the fate of mankind. ‘Apocalypse’ literally means the lifting of a veil, or revelation, and in the song we’re told:

‘The veil was torn asunder’.

The vision of the apocalypse in the ‘Book of Revelation’ tells us ‘the sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up’. In the song we have the ‘Sky splitting all around’. The references to ‘Revelation’ are made explicit when we’re told that the captain is reading the Book of Revelation and:

‘…filled his cup with tears’.

‘Cup’ is associated there with ‘the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation’ (Rev 14.10). On a literal level his tears are for the loss of his ship, but in the light of the quotation are better seen as anger and indignation for the loss of the world. He is also like Christ in that he too shed tears for the world.

It’s significant that when the captain realises the compass needle is pointing downward (which it would if the ship were upended), he’s looking at ‘its face’. The mention of ‘face’ suggests that now he’s seeing the face of God, something which can happen only at the point of death (Exodus 33:20).

The Bishop and Leo

Two passengers who can be instructively compared are the bishop and Leo. The bishop is aware of his obligations but seems to do little about them. His comment to God, ‘The poor are yours to feed’, can be seen as buck-passing. In the situation they’re in it isn’t even relevant since, although there are plenty of poor people on board, hunger is hardly their present concern. He should in any case be helping anyone who needs help, rich or poor. His assumed diffidence can be contrasted with the attitude of Leo who goes out of his way to help others:

‘He tried to block the doorway
To save others from harm’

The main thing which marks Leo out as different, though, is in the lines which immediately follow:

‘Blood from an open wound
Pouring down his arm’

Leo is here presented as a Christ-like character whose efforts for others are at the expense of his own blood. This makes his contrast with the bishop all the more ironic. Whereas the bishop merely refers to ‘the poor‘, Leo’s arm is actually pouring blood. This also puts him in contrast with the host who likewise is pouring – but merely brandy. It’s significant too that Leo has ‘an open wound’, ‘open’ associating it with the universe which had ‘opened wide’ to reveal God. We’re being presented with different views of God – the God who exacts punishment (manifested as the consequences of people’s actions), and the God who redeems.

Three More New Testament References

It’s clear that ‘Tempest’ is full of references to the New Testament. Two which haven’t been noted involve a passenger referred to simply as ‘the host’, and Wellington.
About the host we’re told that he was ‘was the last to go’. This could be seen as meaning that he put wining and dining before behaviour of a more responsible sort in the circumstances. However the phrase seems to be a reminder of Christ’s warning that the ‘first shall be last, and last shall be first’ (Mark 10.31). Accordingly it could mean that the host put others before himself. If so he would end up being among the saved (in the eternal sense, but not the temporal – because presumably he’d have missed out on getting a place in a lifeboat).

For Wellington, we’re told, ‘the passageway was narrow’. His response on seeing this was to merely notice people’s misery rather than go down the passageway to see what help he could provide. The phrase reminds us of the New Testament warning ‘broad is the road that leads to destruction’ (Matt. 7.14) – the narrow road, by contrast, leading to salvation. In not taking it, Wellington seems to have foregone the chance of being saved (again, in the spiritual sense).

Given that the sinking can be seen as the work of God, the narrator’s comment:

‘No change, no sudden wonder
Could undo what had been done’

seems heavily ironic by way of its use of biblical language. The implication is that that far from recognising God’s approval of the sinking, which was itself actually a ‘change’ or ‘sudden wonder’ brought about by God, the passengers see the ending of their opulent lifestyles as something God should want to reverse – and would do if only his omnipotence went this far. The lines express a sort of quiet despair. The passengers are presented as resigned to their fate. In a temporal sense this may be realistic, but the use of biblical language suggests that their spiritual fate might not be so predestined.


The notion of spiritual predestination is brought to the fore by the reference to Calvin and Blake:

‘Calvin, Blake and Wilson
Gambled in the dark.
Not one of them would ever live
To tell the tale, or disembark’

The first line is almost certainly adapted from the Yeats poem ‘Under Ben Bulben’ in which the narrator is appealing for painters to ‘bring the soul of man to God’. The poem contains the lines:

‘When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude
Prepared a rest for the people of God’

Calvert, Wilson, Blake and Claude (Lorrain) are visionary artists, although Blake is of course also the romantic poet*. Dylan has kept Wilson and Blake, but replaced Calvert with Calvin – presumably the sixteenth century protestant theologian. If so, the replacement is significant because it suggests a concern with Calvin’s theory of predestination – the view that God has actively chosen some people for damnation as well as for salvation. Dylan’s trio are gambling that they’ve been saved, that they’d ‘ever live’ – which can be read as have eternal life. Metaphorically it’s a gamble because they don’t know – they’re in ‘the dark’ about it. Calvin’s gamble would have been that he’s been predestined to eternal life, and Blake’s that eternal life depends on how one lives (Blake being thoroughly opposed to the notion of predestination).

The idea of predestination pervades the song by way of an ever present feeling of pointlessness and futility. Alarm bells ring ‘to keep back the swelling tide’, a character puts on pistols, passengers cling to each other, passengers jump into icy water, the brothel keeper dismisses his girls, people wait at the landing, the watchman knows what’s happening, but only in a dream. All of these things seem futile. Yet much of this is balanced by behaviour which is hopeful. The rich man kisses his wife, the bishop prays, someone gives his seat up, Leo tries to block the doorway, the watchman tries to tell someone, people try to understand.

Predestination is again alluded to in the final line of the penultimate verse:

‘All things had run their course’

The phrase ‘run their course’ suggests things developing on a preset path. However the statement has a bias towards the temporal in that it implies these things are happening in time. Considered from an eternal perspective things may not be so set in stone. If so, rather than being predestined people can still choose to be redeemed. That there is an alternative to predestination is supported by the implicit reference to Christ as redeemer in the description of the blood from Leo’s open wound.


Despite superficially appearing clumsily written, the song is far from empty. It takes a historical event, but not to throw light on it. The actual sinking of the Titanic is important only to provide a context for presenting issues concerning such matters as the revelation of God, predestination, redemption, the spatiotemporal as opposed to the eternal, and attitudes to wealth and violence. To do this it makes use of copious expressions drawn virtually verbatim from the bible, as well as other lyrical work, and deploys them in a setting and line structure borrowed from the Carter source and in which they don’t easily sit.

Not only is the song not about the actual Titanic, neither is it about the relatively recent film ‘Titanic’ starring Leonardo di Caprio. The significance of the character Leo is discussed above, but there is perhaps some further point to the film reference. It’s notable that the account we get is from a vague, unnamed source (‘She told a sad, sad story’), and only indirectly, via the song’s narrator, at that. Furthermore it includes an obvious fictional interpolation (Leo), as well as material drawn from a number of other sources both secular and biblical. Given the seriousness and nature of the song’s themes, this miscellany of origin and content perhaps mirrors the way the gospels also present a hodgepodge of material from unstated sources. To that extent the song can be seen as reflecting the manner in which the gospels deal with that same material.


* Thanks to an Expecting Rain discussion for alerting me to the Yeats source and the possible identity of Wilson.

Narrow Way


The songs on ‘Tempest’ are closely related to each other so that the album really needs to be taken as a whole. A study of any one song on its own will inevitably fail to do it full justice. This interconnectedness affects ‘Narrow Way’ in a number of ways and perhaps most of all in how it relates to ‘Long And Wasted Years’. Whereas the narrator in that song is best seen as God, or the divine aspect of Christ, speaking to the human Christ, the narrator in ‘Narrow Way’ is best seen as the human Christ, and the addressee as his divine counterpart. More or less the same events, beginning with the torment of the human Christ in the desert, are thereby presented from different points of view. Given their close association, a study of the songs’ similarities and differences is likely to result in further light being thrown on each. Before any such comparison can be undertaken, however, an interpretation of the present song is needed and that is what I’ll attempt to provide here.

The events of the song are presented as both eternal and temporal, just as they are in ‘Long And Wasted Years’. From the temporal perspective there is a progression in the narrator’s psychological outlook. The first verse has the human Christ in a state of anxiety and contemplating crossing the desert in the hope of straightening things out. In the main part of the song we learn about the doubt which is apparently plaguing him. Gradually this is resolved and the song ends in apparent reconciliation with his divine counterpart.

The representation of events as eternal is crucial to a major theme of the song – redemption. From a temporal perspective the human Christ has the God-given role of redeeming the human race. It’s down to him. But the eternal perspective allows the human Christ to be identified with human beings generally – as represented by early nineteenth century Americans and their British enemy. Accordingly, although Christ makes possible the redemption of humanity by his example of suffering, it’s not just down to him. The association between Christ and humanity perhaps suggests that humanity will only be redeemed by its own effort.

Christ And Eternity

That it’s Christ who is speaking becomes apparent in the first verse. Not only is he in the desert, but he tells us that he hasn’t got anything to go back home for – which fits with traditional accounts of his poverty. It’s notable that having implicitly mentioned his own home, he immediately exclaims:

‘Go back home, leave me alone’

On one level this may be God he’s addressing, and irritably because it’s God’s demands on him which have put him in his present state of mind. On another level the demand may be being addressed to himself, as he knows that ultimately there’s no point in refusing to take on his responsibilities. In a way there’s no distinction, of course, given the identity relation between the human and divine aspects of Christ.

On yet another level, however, the later reference to the destruction of the White House makes the demand to ‘go back home’ a plea to humanity to refrain from warlike interference in other people’s affairs:

‘Ever since the British burned the White House down
There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town’

The implication is that it’s the British who need to ‘go back home’, so leaving the Americans in peace*.

At the end of the song the idea is reintroduced:

‘We’ve been to the west and we’re going back again’

While on one level this refers to the newly reconciled divine and human aspects of Christ, it can also be taken as an oblique reference to the British who went to America, but who’ve now returned home. The fact that it’s in the first person suggests an identity relation between Christ and the British. Christ’s leaving the desert for home to fulfil his divine role in some sense is the British leaving America and returning home. Just as Christ redeems humanity, so by their action do the British.

An identification of Christ with humanity, as represented by the British, is also to be found in the line:

‘We looted and we plundered on distant shores’

Since the White House episode is in the future from the perspective of the human Christ, this and the previous references to it only make sense from an eternal standpoint. Taking such a standpoint enables us to associate, perhaps even identify, Christ’s discomfort in the desert with the discomfort of 19th Century Americans at the hands of the British. From the eternal perspective Christ’s acceptance of suffering co-exists with that of the whole of humanity, leaving open the possibility that there may be no distinction between his need for self-sacrifice and theirs.

There are further indications that temporally separated events are to be seen as eternal, or in a sort of ongoing ‘now’. One is in the use of ‘There’s’, in:

There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town’,

instead of ‘There has been a bleeding wound …’ , which grammatically would make better sense.

Another indication is in the lines which immediately follow this. Here the past tense is used despite the fact that the events referred to are still in the future – or would be if they weren’t just an expression of Christ’s doubts:

‘I saw you drinking from an empty cup,
I saw you buried, I saw you dug up’

The cup is the task of redemption which he wants to reject (cf. Luke 22.42 ”Father, if you are willing, take this cup of suffering away from me’). The cup’s emptiness reflects his fear that he may not be divine. And in the second line just quoted that fear is present again since, after a wholly inadequate substitute for resurrection (being ‘dug up’), he remains dead.

Developing Outlook

The earlier and later parts of the song present major changes in Christ’s attitudes. These include moves from betrayal to loyalty, and from doubting his divine nature to a welcoming acceptance of it.

Ironically the narrator’s protestations of loyalty to God in the third verse are presented in language more appropriate to Judas:

‘I kissed your cheek…’

It’s dramatic irony in that, without realising it, the human Christ might be taken to have betrayed God – and therefore himself – in doubting his divine status. By the penultimate verse, however, the speaker’s attitude has changed. The admonishing tone has been replaced by a more compliant one, but again one making use of the kiss image to emphasise how an attitude of betrayal has given way to loyalty:

‘Kiss away the tears I weep’

Just as the kiss is used to present a development in the narrator’s attitude, so are references to his head. These occur in the fourth and ninth verses. In the fourth the narrator, speaking from an eternal perspective, admonishes himself for his future self-sacrifice in a lost cause:

‘You went and lost your lovely head
For a drink of wine and a crust of bread’

There’s no hint that his self-sacrifice – the offering of himself to God so as to redeem humanity – is an ongoing, eternal matter involving his body and blood. The bread and wine and wine are disparagingly presented as no more than just that. However, by the ninth verse he’s accepted the need for his death, and the tone has changed from bitter irony to loving submission:

‘I’m gonna have to take my head and bury it between your breasts’

The woman being addressed can be taken as a representation of God, or Christ’s divine side. Thus the action represents a loving coming together of the divine and human parts of Christ. In addition, in being able to say he’ll bury his head between the woman’s breasts, Christ seems to have overcome his former doubts about surviving death. Then he’d imagined a different sort of burial, one not followed by a glorious resurrection:

‘I saw you buried, and I saw you dug up’

Now he sees himself as alive.


Attitudes to violence are a theme of the song and their presentation has the effect of broadening the song’s concerns to include human behaviour. Again the song presents a development in the narrator’s attitude. To begin with he expresses pro-violence views which might seem depressingly typical of the humanity whose redemption he’s been trusted with. In one way this would be appropriate since he is himself a member of that humanity. Only later, as he accepts his divine role, does he adopt the more responsible outlook which the human race he represents will also need to adopt if it is to achieve salvation.

The earlier view, countenancing violence, is expressed in the fourth verse:

‘In the courtyard of the golden sun,
You stand and fight, or you break and run’

The implication is that the only alternatives are fighting and its corollary, running away. But, one might wonder, why should these be the only options? It’s a bit like saying your only options are to be a bully or a coward. In any case, the result seems to have been disaster:

‘You went and lost your lovely head’

The belligerent attitude is also associated with childish squabbling:

‘We looted and we plundered on distant shores
Why is my share not equal to yours?’

And either envy or contempt:

‘Even death has washed its hands of you’

This last line might also be taken as a begrudging acknowledgment of the divine Christ’s defeat of moral and physical death. The line also contains the further implication that death – moral death – won’t wash its hands of, or cease to apply to, those who emulate the human Christ’s desire to opt out. On the other hand there’s a hint in the wording that the human Christ does eventually accept his divine role. It was only after Christ had accepted that role that  Pilate ‘washed his hands’ of responsibility for his execution (Matt 27.24).

Violence is also presented as self-destructive, and later in the song Christ comes to recognise this. A line from verse four:

‘You stand and fight, or you break and run’

echoes a previous reference to breaking four lines earlier:

‘You broke my heart’

The implication is that it’s the violent outlook espoused by the human Christ which is responsible for his own heart-break. He now recognises that rather than blaming his divine self for his sorrows, he should attribute them to his present, all-too-human, violent outlook.

Later the undesirable effects of violence are acknowledged:

‘Blades are everywhere, they’re breaking my skin’

Again the ‘breaking’ reference reminds us of the broken heart and of the narrator’s need to attribute responsibility for it to himself. The speaker regrets that:

‘You won’t get out of here unscarred’

but, if that’s true, one need only put two and two together to find its cause. It would have been better not to have espoused violence in the first place; violence begets violence.

By the end of the song the move away from violence is complete. He hears a – presumably divine – voice saying:

‘Be gentle brother. Be gentle and pray’

Now it seems there’s a third course of action to supplement the two aforementioned possibilities, fighting and running away. We’re left with the impression that the new, third option of gentleness and prayer is the one the human Christ ultimately accepts. He no longer sees his choice as between rejecting God’s will and hiding away in the desert.

It would at first seem that the suffering to humanity caused by mindless violence has by the end of the song been augmented by the wound Christ received in his side while on the cross. However, there’s been a transformation. The replacement of the original spear wound to Christ’s side by:

‘… an arrow that pierced my chest’

has turned the original violence to Christ’s body into an injection of love. The pierced chest is presumably a pierced heart, and the heart so pierced by love is able to replace the earlier self-inflicted broken heart. The effect is to suggest that Christ has now acquired the love for humanity which is a pre-requisite for his being able to redeem it by way of self-sacrifice.


The second half of the song recounts the gradual reconciliation of the human Christ with his divine counterpart. To begin with, the expression ‘Cake walking baby’ in verse eight has a flippant tone completely at odds with the serious opening line of the song**:

‘I’m gonna walk across the desert till I’m in my right mind’

The human Christ, now reconciled to his divine role, seems to be laughing at his decision to walk across the desert. That’s he’s reconciled to the demands of his divine counterpart becomes further apparent in his plea:

‘Put your arms around me where they belong’.

In addition, the desire to ‘take you on a roller coaster ride’ has supplemented the repeated line:

‘If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday’.

Instead of the two parts of Christ working in opposite directions, one up, one down, the implication now is that they can move in harmony – up and down together, as if on a roller coaster.

By the tenth verse the reconciliation is all but complete. The human Christ is no longer in torment. Night, representing that torment, has given way to dawn, or new life. The line:

‘The moving finger is moving on’***

suggests an acceptance of change and that his past doubts can be forgotten. A new confidence in God brings about a trusting acceptance of death:

‘You can guard me while I sleep’.

The final verse – not for the first time in the song – represents the divine and human Christ as the sun. On the previous occasion in verse four, the human Christ had seemed to think of the sun as God, failing to see that ‘the golden sun’ and his own ‘lovely head’ were one and the same. Now, having set, the sun prepares to return. In the words of the human Christ using the plural to speak on behalf of both himself and his divine counterpart:

‘We’ve been to the west and we’re going back again’

– meaning something like ‘Now it’s clear we’re one being, rebirth following death seems a certainty’.

The acceptance of impending rebirth means it doesn’t matter that the voice recommending gentleness and prayer is heard at the ‘dusk of day’ – even though the phrase’s overtones of death make it sound ominous. It also doesn’t matter since, from an eternal perspective, dusk and dawn – death and rebirth – are timelessly one. That we should make the connection between dusk and dawn is encouraged by the similarity in form between the expressions ‘dusk of day’ and the more normal ‘dawn of day’ which it has replaced.

Also In the final verse Christ’s attitude has moved on from an earlier, jealous criticism of his divine counterpart for having ‘too many lovers,’ to an acceptance of the need to love mankind:

‘I love women and she loves men’

Since God, or Christ’s divine side, is being represented as a woman, the love of men alluded to is presumably God’s love for all men. The narrator’s love of women is likewise presumably a love for all women.

Although the divine and human parts of Christ are presented as each being responsible for either the male or the female half of the human race, this needn’t be taken literally. Since the divine and human parts of Christ are united in God, it’s God as a unified whole who is responsible for the human race as a whole. The appearance of a divided responsibility just serves to highlight the absurdity of a rift between the two parts of Christ.


By the end of the song Christ’s journey from doubt to a willing acceptance of his divine role is complete. And with it he comes to accept his identity with God and that his own violent death will not be the end.

All along, though, the human Christ’s doubt seems to have been self-delusional in that the refrain shows him to be constantly aware of the route he needs to take:

‘It’s a long road, it’s a long and narrow way’

– or as the evangelist has it, ‘wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction’ (Matt. 7.14). It’s only the human Christ, bound by time, who chooses the desert for his path. The eternal Christ is not so deluded as to see the desert path as narrow.

Although he’s able to complete his task of redemption, the eternal perspective from which he speaks makes it clear that Christ’s responsibility for humanity is humanity’s responsibility for itself. His own violent death is humanity’s doing, and it’s for humanity therefore to curb its tendency to violence. Christ has shown it how. Just as he had to let God ‘work down to’him, so humanity must follow his lead and let God work down to it.



*For historical background see http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/british-troops-set-fire-to-the-white-house

**Oxford Dictionaries definition of ‘cake walk’: A strutting dance popular at the end of the 19th century, developed from an American black contest in graceful walking which had a cake as a prize.

*** The phrase is adapted from ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ tr. Fitzgerald.

Long And Wasted Years


At first glance the song is about a marriage which has failed and one of the partners’ attempts to mend it. However, various indications suggest that on a deeper level the song concerns the incarnation of Christ and the means of achieving salvation. The idea is explored through three individual characters – the narrator, the woman who’s being addressed, and the ‘enemy’. The narrator and the woman, would appear to represent respectively the divine part of Christ (God himself), and Christ the man. The enemy would appear to be Satan.

It’s never made explicit who the various parties represent, and as the song develops it becomes clear that none of the three can be completely differentiated from the other two. Accordingly something which applies to one of them is likely to apply to at least one of the others and, as it turns out, to the human race generally.

The narrator, then, seems to be Christ in his divine role. He begins by lamenting the split between the divine and human sides of his nature (the Father and the Son)and suggesting that the feeling of loss is experienced by them both:

‘Maybe it’s the same for you as it is for me’

He regrets the human race’s moral demise – ‘they may be dead by now’ – and urges his human part to take the action required to save it. Whilst the divine Christ is expressing his regret, it seems that the human Christ is in the desert presumably trying to come to terms with his divine role. Although on one level the song ends without the reunion of the divine and human sides of Christ, and so without the world yet having been redeemed, on another both that unity and the redemption are presented as eternal and so, in a sense, complete.

Space, Time and Eternity

It’s notable that various ideas and images are repeated as the song develops. Most importantly perhaps is the language used to express regret at the beginning and end of the song because it suggests that what goes on in time is also timeless, or eternal. The opening line is:

‘It’s been such a long, long time since we loved each other and our hearts were true’

and in similar vein the penultimate verse ends:

‘… it’s been a while
Since we walked down that long, long aisle’.

In each case the regret is about the time that’s passed since the divine and human parts of Christ were together, presumably a precondition of the latter’s being able to take on his role as redeemer. Both at the beginning and in the penultimate verse the phrase ‘long, long’ appears – ‘long, long time’ and ‘long, long aisle’. The repetition of the phrase makes us want to identify the temporal distance referred to in the first case with the spatial distance implied in the second. In our minds the temporal becomes just spatial, and so timeless, so that what on one level happened in the distant past, on another is eternal.

If the walk down the ‘long, long aisle’ is a marital metaphor for the union of the divine and human sides of Christ, then it’s that union which is both in the distant past and timeless. It’s in the distant past in that it represents the situation prior to the incarnation, before Christ had become human. And it’s eternal in that their union is no longer in time and so is permanent.

There’s another repetition in which temporal distance gives way to spatial. In the fourth verse we’re told:

‘I ain’t seen my family in twenty years’

and in the eighth there are:

‘Two trains running side by side, forty miles wide, down the eastern line’.

The ‘long long time’ is now represented as a period of twenty years separation, or ‘family’ upheaval, during which the Father has been separated from the Son. But in addition, those twenty years have become forty miles – that is twenty for each train – just as the ‘long, long time’ is going to become a ‘long, long aisle’.

And just as the replacement of the ‘long, long time’ with the ‘long, long aisle’ can be taken to represent the replacement of the temporal with the non-temporal, or eternal, so the replacement of twenty years with twice twenty miles can be seen as a replacement of the temporal with the non-temporal, or eternal. Once again the temporal separation between the two elements of Christ is no longer to be seen as having occurred. Father and Son remain together – ‘side by side’.

But not just that. The eternal togetherness of the divine and the human in Christ, suggested by the temporal separation’s becoming a spatial separation, is reinforced when that spatial separation itself gives way to unity. Again this is suggested by the language. Where one would expect the trains to be ‘forty miles apart’, in a curious expression we’re told they’re ‘forty miles wide’ – which suggests that the two trains are in fact one, very wide (very wide!) train. Just as a temporal separation has given way to a spatial separation, so the spatial separation has given way to complete unity.

The upshot is that from an eternal perspective Christ is to be perceived as a unified whole. In the post-incarnation period the human Christ is temporally separated from the divine, while this is belied by their eternal union.

Christmas and Easter

Nevertheless, from a purely temporal perspective it’s still the case that there has been a separation. This separation was brought about by the incarnation. It is presumably this which occurred, according to the last verse, ‘on that cold and frosty morn’. Since by tradition Christ was born in winter, the ‘cold and frosty morn’ would seem to be Christmas day.

The phrase used to refer to the separation is ‘our souls were torn’ and this can be taken in two senses. In the first, the Son and Father are ‘torn’ in the sense of torn apart, or separated from each other. In the second, this tearing would apply to each of the parts – since each part, divine and human, is itself totally God. It’s being ‘torn’ in this latter sense which is demonstrated in the narrator’s devastation at being separated from the incarnated Christ, and by the incarnated Christ’s torment which gives rise to his talking in his sleep:

‘Last night I heard you talking in your sleep, saying things you shouldn’t say’.

Only once these rents have been mended can Christ go about the business of redemption. However, there’s no need to regret the separation because from the eternal perspective there is no separation – eternally the mending is outside time and so in a sense complete. This is made apparent in the final lines of the song:

‘… we cried because our souls were torn.
So much for tears. So much for these long and wasted years’

While on one level the implication is that the passing years have been a waste of time, on another it’s that nothing has been lost. This is because ‘so much for these long and wasted years’ can be taken to mean either that the long and wasted years were a waste of time, or alternatively that they failed to be the waste of time they seemed to be.

Similarly with the expression ‘so much for tears’. In the context of crying, it means crying has been useless, but in the context of ‘torn’ it means being torn doesn’t matter. Whether both meanings are intended will depend on how ‘tears’ is pronounced when the song is sung.

Whereas the incarnation is presented as a temporal tearing apart, Christ’s divine mission of redemption is represented as a train journey, an eternal event involving the united Christ. Unsurprisingly the former is associated with Christmas. And equally unsurprisingly the latter seems to be associated with Easter. This is by way of the expression ‘down the Eastern Line’, in which ‘Eastern’ suggests a journey whose destination is Easter and the fulfilment of Christ’s divine purpose.

The Family

While the family referred to in the fourth verse:

‘I ain’t seen my family in twenty years’

can be taken to refer to Father and Son, who have been separated since the incarnation, it is likely also to represent God’s family in the sense either of the Jewish people, or (taking the idea of the chosen race more widely) the human race. God the Father has lost touch with his people (seen as the chosen people being expelled from ‘their land’, Israel) since they became inheritors of original sin. Consequently, he sends his Son to put matters right – to ‘shake it up’:

‘Shake it up, baby, twist and shout …’

In the verse about the family there’s the phrase:

‘They may be dead by now’

– ‘dead’ suggesting that the ‘family’ is morally dead and so in need of Christ to save them.


The Son’s incarnation in time has given him human characteristics and it’s these which have separated him from God. One of these is doubt about his own nature which we first find out about when the divine Christ says:

‘Last night I heard you talking in your sleep, saying things you shouldn’t say’

and follows this up by tentatively suggesting as a solution:

‘Is there anywhere we can go? Is there anybody we can see?’

We discover that the human Christ, at least, has already gone somewhere, the desert – not a place his divine counterpart had in mind:

‘What’re you doing out there in the sun anyway?
Don’t you know the sun can burn your brains right out’.

And in biblical accounts (such as in Matt 4.1-11) there is someone he can see – Satan.

The lines quoted can also be taken as Christ’s divine side chiding his human side for going into the desert, seen as taking a negative approach to his role. It’s that role – redeeming the human race – which requires Christ to become human. And in turn it would perhaps be his ultimate acceptance of that role which would amount to his temporal reunion with God.

The disastrous personal consequences of delaying this acceptance would go beyond Christ’s having his ‘brains burnt right out’ are seen to have much wider consequences:

‘I think that when my back was turned, the whole world behind me burned’

Whatever the occasion referred to, this implies that the demise of Christ through burning would be the demise of the human race.

The Enemy

The reference to the enemy in the verse is apposite given that Satan was present in the desert with Christ. Since the enemy has ‘an iron heart’ he would seem to represent those who lack compassion and it’s this which sets him at odds with Christ.

The lines about the ‘enemy’ can help make sense of the sun references  – ‘out there in the sun’ and ‘the sun can burn your brains right out’.

If Christ is in the desert doubting his divine role, then these references suggest that his being taunted by Satan is in effect Christ taunting himself. In other words, to this extent he is his own enemy. A Son/sun pun implies that the Son and the sun are one and the same. And if it’s the Son who can burn his brains right out, the destructive work of the sun would be the self-destructive work of the Son.

Accordingly, the enemy’s defeat, were it to occur, would be the Christ defeating himself – which can be interpreted as the divine side of Christ overcoming his human weaknesses:

‘My enemy crashed into the dust, stopped dead in his tracks and lost his lust
He was run down hard and he broke apart’

It’s appropriate for this defeat to be described in the past tense even though it has yet to happen, because time has given way to the eternal (in the sense of that which is outside time). While from a temporal perspective the enemy’s defeat is only a possible future event, from an eternal one it is timeless. Hence it is as true to say that it has happened as that it has yet to happen. In a similar way in the song, the redemption of the human race by Christ has still to occur and yet is eternal.

The identity between the enemy and Christ, in that the enemy represents Christ’s human weakness, is further reinforced in the lines just quoted. If the enemy ‘stopped dead in his tracks’, he’s being implicitly identified with Christ who is on the tracks of ‘the Eastern Line’.

A further identity is implied in that in losing his lust, a devilish form of love, the enemy is like the divine and human lovers of the first verse who once loved each other but whose love needs to be restored. And just as the lovers’ hearts are no longer ‘true’, so the enemy’s heart is described as ‘iron’, indicating a lack of emotional warmth.

Furthermore, that the enemy ‘broke apart’ would clearly seem to identify him with both the divine and human sides of Christ which have themselves broken apart.

While the enemy is clearly made out to be Christ, at the same time the language implies he is destroyed by Christ. This is by way of the verb ‘run’ being used in connection with both Christ and the enemy. The enemy is ‘run down hard’, and this implies that he’s crushed by the trains – Christ – in that these are ‘running‘ side by side.

Two more identities can be seen which involve the ‘enemy’. The first is with the family which the narrator hasn’t seen in twenty years. We’re told:

‘… they may be dead by now,
I lost track of ’em after they lost their land’.

Since the ‘enemy’ stopped ‘dead in his tracks’ there’s an implicit identification of the enemy with the family which may be dead. And since the family is God’s chosen people, there’s the further implication that God’s chosen people – the human race – is its own enemy.

The second identification arises from this. If the human race is the enemy, and the enemy is Christ, then it follows that the human race is Christ. And since Christ is responsible for bringing about the redemption of the human race, it follows that the human race has a responsibility for its own redemption.

On the one hand the human race is its own enemy, and on the other it is its own saviour.

Anachronisms And Further Identities

A continuation of the sun imagery provides a way of strengthening the identity between the divine and human in Christ:

‘I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes; there are secrets in them I can’t disguise’

There’s perhaps a hint here of St Paul’s dusty mirror image for our understanding of God, ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.’ (1 Cor 13.12). What are the secrets? The Pauline mirror analogy suggests it’s Christ’s own divinity – a divinity about which at this stage he is only dimly aware.

There is another way of interpreting the line. The reference to sunglasses can also be taken literally. Sunglasses, though appropriate for the desert, in the present biblical context appear anachronistic. This is just one of a number of anachronisms in the song, all of which help to reinforce a particular idea – the pre-eminence of the eternal over the temporal. The anachronisms do this because their presence can only be tolerated if in some way the temporal has been eclipsed.

Others anachronisms include modern idioms and expressions adapted from other songs:

‘Shake it up, baby, twist and shout’

as well as the trains and train track references.

An additional, though related, effect of all these anachronisms is to suggest a further identification. Since their presence in a song with a biblical setting has the effect of extinguishing the temporal distance between past and the present, it’s not just the human race two millennia ago which is identified with Christ, and so is responsible for its own redemption.  It’s also the human race as represented by us now. The anachronisms bring us into the picture. We too are Christ, and as such we take on a responsibility for our own redemption.


Ultimately the song provides a view from an eternal perspective according to which God, the incarnated Christ, the enemy, the chosen people and the human race up to the present day, are all one. On a temporal level there’s a separation between God and Christ, which amounts to uncertainty about the redemption. From an eternal standpoint this is resolved. But it isn’t just resolved by presenting God and Christ as united. Along the way Christ is presented as a flawed human, his own enemy, an enemy which he must overcome if the redemption is to occur. Since the human race is also identified with the enemy and therefore Christ, it too by implication has a role in its own redemption.

Scarlet Town


In ‘Scarlet Town’ we’re presented with a view of the world as it seems to the narrator. The setting is a dance hall, although the song just comprises the narrator’s thoughts and a few spoken words from the moment the music starts, to around the time he makes a request. In the earlier part of the song the features of the world are made to appear harsh, as if there is no hope for any but the privileged. But the descriptions we’re given are highly subjective. They come through the eyes of a flawed character whose judgments can be unduly biased. However, as the song develops so do his thoughts. By the end, we’ve been given reasons to believe there may be substantial hope after all.

Origin in ‘Barbara Allen’

The song borrows phrases from various John Greenleaf Whittier poems, and a juxtaposition of Dylan’s and Whittier’s versions will sometimes serve to highlight the very different effect that Dylan is creating. More importantly, perhaps, a version of the traditional song ‘Barbara Allen’ provides the title and a couple of lines for Dylan’s song, and the latter can be seen as a more detailed study of the folk song’s main theme. The original tells the story of a young woman who spurns her lover as he’s on his deathbed, but comes to regret it. She dies and is buried in the same churchyard. Then:

‘Out of sweet William’s heart, there grew a rose
Out of Barbara Allen’s a briar.

They grew and grew in the old churchyard
Till they could grow no higher
At the end they formed, a true lover’s knot
And the rose grew round the briar’

The song ends happily in that the unity which the lovers failed to achieve in life, is achieved in death. Nevertheless, even in death their characters remain unchanged – Sweet William’s being represented by a rose, and Barbara Allen’s by a coarse briar. In some versions the colours, the red of the rose and the green of the briar, are emphasised. Despite the opposite qualities represented by the plants – true love and harsh cruelty – the harshness no longer matters. It’s overcome by gentleness, represented by the rose growing round the briar.

Dylan’s song too presents a world containing both good and bad, and one in which the presence of bad should in no way prevent the combination of the two from resulting in ultimate good. His world, though, is far more recognisably our world, so that unlike its progenitor the song isn’t in danger of becoming over sentimental.

That Scarlet Town should be seen as the whole world is clear for a number of reasons. Not only does it contains the seven wonders of our world, but the events and people alluded to seem to have a universal significance. Life and death, wealth and poverty, beauty and ugliness, kindness and cruelty are all present just as they are in real life.

Doubts about William and Mary

The second verse gives us what at first seems to be a straightforward account of an impending death – that of Sweet William. The tone is sad and seems to reflect the narrator’s state of mind:

‘Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissing his face and heaping prayers on his head’

However, all is not necessarily as it seems. Mistress Mary may have no more genuine concern for the dying William than Barbara Allen before her. Although her behaviour might seem innocent enough, one might wonder why she’s said to be merely at ‘the side of the bed’ rather than at his side. The situation is being presented as ambiguous, though it’s not clear whether the doubt is being imparted by the writer or the narrator. The words are the narrator’s, but whether the doubt is his will depend on how consciously he chose them. It may be that the writer is giving the narrator’s account an ironic overlay of meaning so that we’re not forced to take what he says at face value.

We’re also told she’s:

‘Kissing his face and heaping prayers on his head’.

Again this sounds innocent until one notices the precise words used. Kisses are not always the sign of affection they’re meant to be. Kissing has overtones of betrayal. The idea is taken up later in the song:

‘See who will hold you and kiss you goodnight’

where on one level ‘kiss you goodnight’ – in a verse beginning ‘…the end is near’ – can be seen to mean ‘kill you’. ‘Heaping prayers’ might also seem to be suspiciously overdoing it. Again, in each of these cases it’s unclear whether it’s the writer or the narrator who is responsible for the secondary meaning.

There’s also ambiguity about the line:

‘I’ll weep for him as he would weep for me’.

It’s not just that we don’t know whether this is a statement of the narrator’s outlook (‘I’d weep’) or Mistress Mary’s, but it suggests both sorrow and the lack of sorrow. Which is the case will depend on how likely it is that ‘he would weep for me’. While the implication is that he would weep copiously, what might be implied is ‘He wouldn’t weep for me at all, so I’m not going to weep for him’.

There’s evidence in the first verse for each interpretation – sorrow or lack of sorrow for the dying man. There we were told that ‘Uncle Tom’ is still working for Uncle Bill’. ‘Uncle Tom’ can be taken to represent black people, while Uncle Bill, judging by his name, is Sweet William. The line can be taken in two ways. On one level it suggests that there’s still slavery or, at the very least that black people are still being mistreated (as in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’) by unscrupulous employers like Uncle Bill. But equally it might be ‘Uncle Tom’ who is being criticised, the expression ‘Uncle Tom’ often being used for someone who is being unduly subservient.

There is, then, nothing definite that can be said about the characters of Mistress Mary and Sweet William. The uncertainty forces us to see the characters as each representing both good and evil, and as such exemplifying the theme taken from ‘Barbara Allen’.

The Narrator’s Pessimism

Whether or not he’s alive to the possible negative qualities of William and Mary, the narrator undoubtably takes a rather jaundiced view of the world. He seems to be a pessimist. He seems anxious to present the world as corrupt.

In connection with the beggars, ‘Help comes’ he admits. But he immediately adds ‘but it comes too late’, as if he’s determined to dwell on the negative. The writer’s allusion to the parable of the rich man and the beggar (Luke 16.20) also makes it clear to the listener that the narrator is being unduly pessimistic, for the whole point there is that the beggar ultimately is rewarded.

The narrator also seems unduly pessimistic when he (presumably unconsciously) alludes to the biblical account of a woman being healed by touching Jesus’ cloak (Matt 9.20) – ‘I touched the garment, but the hem was torn’. What would it matter if the hem is torn? The narrator, it seems, is making excuses, claiming that circumstances are against him.

This pessimism seems to extend to an excessive self-deprecation (ironically given his reference to ‘Uncle Tom’):

‘You make your humble wishes known’

What need is there for him to describe his wishes as ‘humble’? There’s no contextual requirement as there is in the Whittier poem from which the phrase comes:

‘But, bowed in lowliness of mind,
I make my humble wishes known’ (The Wish of To-Day)

And the fact that Dylan’s narrator sees these wishes as being made in cemeteries – ‘by marble slabs and in fields of stone’ – suggests that he focuses too much on the negative aspects of death. This happens again when he announces ‘the end is near’. And it also happens when his presumably ironic ‘Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn’ seems to have him replace Gabriel with a fictional nursery rhyme character as he anticipates the death of Sweet William. The narrator, it seems, does not hold out hope for eternal life.

For the narrator the world seems devoid of hope:

‘Put your heart on a platter and see who will bite
See who will hold you and kiss you goodnight

In Scarlet Town crying won’t do no good’

To put your heart on a platter is presumably to open up, or announce your innermost feelings. But there’s a sinister atmosphere, perhaps created by the association with John the Baptist whose severed head was delivered to Herod on a platter (Matt 14.6). ‘Bite’ could mean ‘respond positively’, but in the light of this association and the reference to crying, it seems more likely to mean ‘take a bite out of it’. Similarly ‘hold you and kiss you good night’ could be taken literally with the suggestion that such a display of affection could occur. Or it could be meant literally but with the implication that such a display won’t occur. Or it could simply mean there’s a high chance someone’s going to do you in.

All in all, the narrator is presenting us with a bleak picture.


In presenting this thoroughly pessimistic view, the narrator seems to be ignoring signs of hope.

That there is hope is indicated in numerous descriptions. First, the ‘hot noon hours’ needn’t be as unpleasant as the description implies because there are also ‘palm leaf shadows’ – suggesting shade. The Whittier source has:

‘The palm-leaf shadow for the hot noon hours’ (To Avis Keene)

which puts emphasis on the effect of the palm leaves by mentioning them first. Dylan’s takes the emphasis away from the shadows by mentioning the heat first:

‘Scarlet Town in the hot noon hours
There’s palm-leaf shadows and scattered flowers’

The effect is to make the narrator seem to be presenting things in as bad a light as possible. This happens again in the line:

‘Help comes, but it comes too late’

Although mentioned first, help is not what gets emphasised. By saying it comes too late, the narrator creates the impression that there’s in fact no hope. But he could equally have said ‘although it arrived too late, at least help did come’. This would have put the emphasis on help coming, but deprived the narrator of a chance to be pessimistic.

A couple of descriptions imply that the narrator sees his choices as predetermined. To begin with, you don’t have to ‘put your heart on a platter’ – an absurdly exaggerated form of wearing it on your sleeve – ‘and see who will bite’. This might be seen as unnecessarily asking for trouble. If ‘put your heart on a platter’ means ‘make an open display of your feelings’ then it’s hardly surprising if this would get met with hostility. But a more subtle account of one’s feelings would almost certainly have less injurious consequences.

Secondly, while the narrator resorts to alcohol and drugs as a way of dealing with problems:

‘You fight ’em with whiskey, morphine and gin’

he surely doesn’t have to. This would amount simply to giving in. It seems weak on the part of the narrator to just assume he’s doomed. Why, we might wonder, can’t he be assertive in the face of adversity?

That the world has positive and not just negative characteristics is also reflected in the plants singled out for mention. There’s ‘silver thorn’ – reminding us of both Judas’ betrayal of Christ for payment in silver, and of Christ’s crown of thorns – but this is balanced by the innocuous ivy leaf. And:

‘There’s walnut groves and maple wood’

Coming at the end of a verse dwelling on death, this line might seem intended to strengthen the narrator’s negative picture, but it’s capable of doing the opposite. Walnut foliage is green whereas maple’s is gloriously red. Thus Scarlet Town’s trees reflect the harmony in death of the lovers in ‘Barbara Allen’. All that’s needed for there to be hope is not a complete absence of evil, but the co-existence of evil and good. And these requirements are met in Scarlet town where we can find:

‘The evil and the good living side by side’

This hope is perhaps reflected in some of the song’s other religious allusions. Scarlet Town is ‘under the hill’. Presumably this is Calvary, thus suggesting the possibility of salvation. It also suggests why Scarlet Town is so called – the whole population is covered in Christ’s blood which has dripped down onto it. In other words guilt is universal. And the name of Sweet William’s lover has been changed to Mary so that it now puts us in mind of the intercessionary role of Christ’s mother.

Narrator’s Negative Character

The narrator not only comes across as a pessimist, but part of the time as unprepared to take on responsibility for others. This is particularly apparent from the way he describes Scarlet Town as if from a distance – as if he’s not really part of it. The dismissive tone of ‘The streets have names that you can’t pronounce’ makes Scarlet Town seem unfamiliar – a foreign country, suggesting that the narrator thinks it’s troubles shouldn’t impinge on him. But it shouldn’t be foreign; the narrator was born there. It’s only foreign when contrasted with the comfortable cosy existence from which the narrator speaks:

‘You’ll wish to God that you stayed right here’.

The mention of God is ironic because the godly thing to do would be to get involved putting things right.

We can also see his attitude as cruelly dismissive. In the company of his lover he says to her, admiringly,

‘You’ve got legs that can drive men mad’.

But as soon as he starts talking behind her back she becomes

‘… my flat-chested junkie whore’.

And he’s avaricious:

‘Gold is down to a quarter of an ounce’

– a conflated line suggesting his regret both at the price of gold having gone down, and at the amount of it that’s available. The welfare of the people would not be likely to be dependent on either; gold is a concern of the wealthy.

Narrator’s Positive Character

Despite his negative qualities the narrator should not be condemned outright. He himself is an example of Scarlet Town’s quality of having ‘the evil and the good living side by side’. The evil in him is balanced by good – perhaps even infused with it. While his description of his lover is cruel, in the very same sentence he shows kindness in asking for a song to be played for her. Furthermore he recognises his imperfections and makes a point of ‘making amends’. The decision is crucial because it’s as he goes about ‘making amends’ that his pessimistic outlook becomes a smile, and that in turn results in a general transfiguration:

‘While we smile all heaven descends’

After the ‘all’ followed by a word beginning with ‘h’, we might have expected him to say ‘all hell is let loose’ or something similar. But he doesn’t. Despite the pessimism we saw earlier, he is capable of seeing that the positive can co-exist with the negative. In the final lines he seems to admit that there is such co-existence:

‘The black and the white, the yellow and the brown,
It’s all right there in front of you in Scarlet Town’

There’s a balance between black and white, between evil and good. And the presence of evil is not to be dwelt upon. On the contrary:

‘All human forms seem glorified’

The narrator realises that pessimism is the wrong approach. We don’t need perfection. Humanity can be transfigured – glorified – even though it contains evil. Just as Barbara Allen was an imperfect character, and was able to produce an ideal unity with the good William after her death, so people in the actual world can be transfigured despite its wickedness. In the company of the good ‘all human forms seem glorified’ – the wicked included.


Despite this there are indications that we shouldn’t be complacent. We’re told ‘all human forms seem glorified’, not that they are glorified. Also, the colours black, white, yellow and brown mentioned in the penultimate line are perhaps more than anything else the colours of people’s skins, a reminder that there’s still massive inequality. Uncle Tom is still working for Uncle Bill in the sense that black people are too often treated as inferior to white people. Nevertheless there is hope. Sweet William’s death may be ushering in a springtime of renewal.

Minor revision 18.9.2018

Early Roman Kings


The song is about the nature of God, the relationship between man and God, and whether salvation in the sense of moral regeneration can be achieved. While the song invokes the religious concept of Christ as saviour, it nevertheless implies that moral improvement might only result from human endeavour. On one level the kings of the title represent humanity generally, and in particular those who killed Christ. On another, they are to be identified with Christ and thus humanity is able to take on the role of Christ and become responsible for its own salvation. Unusually, Christ is represented as a flawed human being as well as the traditional God, thereby extending to him the sort of uncertainty felt by Blake about whether the Creator is God or devil. It’s this presentation of Christ which makes further identities possible and underlies the implication that man could be either dependent on Christ or responsible for his own fate or salvation.

The narrator is Christ. The first three verses describe the Roman kings and the final three focus on Christ himself. There is no one temporal setting, nor any one spatial setting. The same events occur in the present day, in first century Judea, and at the beginning of the human race. And they take place in ancient Greece, Judea, Rome and modern America. This suggests that events such as Christ’s crucifixion and possible resurrection are not confined to a particular time and place. They are ongoing processes which affect everyone and for which all are responsible.


The Roman Kings As Humanity

Humanity is represented by the Roman kings and for the most part it is presented negatively. The description ‘early Roman kings’ perhaps suggests that it was with humanity alone that moral power resided before the birth of Christ, himself in some sense a king. There was apparently once a motor cycle gang with the name Roman Kings, but even if it is accepted that the Roman kings in the song behave like a gang, any connection between them and the real-life gang would seem to end there.

The Roman kings as presented in the second verse represent humanity at an embryonic stage – ‘in the early, early morn’ – with their descent of the mountain perhaps being the fall of man (an idea taken up later in the song with the fall of Detroit), or the fall of Lucifer. The kings’ negative qualities are particularly apparent in the third verse where they are described, amongst other things, as destructive, lecherous, treacherous – and conceited:

‘Each of them bigger than all men put together’

In the first verse they are presented as somewhat shallow humans with a penchant for dressing up. But they are also made to seem menacing – they wear ‘sharkskin suits’ suggesting voraciousness, and they’re ‘driving the spikes in’, which suggests cruel violence. The later focus on Christ suggests that these spikes could be the nails used in his crucifixion. At the same time as they’re driving the spikes in it seems they’re ‘nailed in their coffins’ so that their act of killing Christ can be seen as an act of moral self-destruction. By nailing themselves in their coffins they are their own undertakers, appropriately signified by their ‘top hats and tails’.

If being nailed in their coffins is to be taken as meaning they’re spiritually dead, this is supported by their ‘blazing the rails’. The phrase suggests both setting fire to the rails (to be seen as a path through life) thereby destroying lives, and – like the later phrase ‘hell bent’ – associates them with hell fire. One expects trails to be blazed, not rails, and accordingly ‘blazing the rails’ serves as a reminder of what humanity could achieve, but doesn’t. (On the other hand, ‘blazing the rails’ might be taken more positively to mean building a railway – a way through life. ‘Driving the spikes in’ would be part of the construction process.)

It’s noticeable that the descriptions at this stage are all in the present tense. Thus the kings are made to seem to be wearing their loud sharkskin suits at the same time as they’re wearing top hats and tails. The suggestion is that their trivial liking for foppery is part of their undoing. In the second verse the use of the present tense suggests timelessness – as if the acts referred to there are for all time, never starting, never completed, always ongoing. It is now ‘early, early morn’, and the kings are now coming down the mountain. It’s not just that we’re being taken back to an earlier, prelapsarian ‘now’.Rather that ‘now’ is the same ‘now’ in which there are high-top boots and ‘spikes’ – now to be taken to mean running shoes used for a race in which ‘you’ – presumably the listener – try unsuccessfully to get away from the pack as it tears down what is now a running track. Humanity timelessly continues to restrict the moral progress of its individual members as they attempt to get away from vices such as lechery and treachery which render it literally ‘hell bent’.


The Roman Kings As Divine

The song eradicates any sharp distinction between humanity and the divine, and in the case of Christ replaces it with uncertainty. In the second verse we’re given the following description of the Roman kings:

‘All the early Roman kings in the early, early morn
Coming down the mountain, distributing the corn’

Here we see the kings as Greek gods coming down from Olympus bearing wholesome gifts. That the gifts are ‘corn’ perhaps suggests they are also to be seen as a particular god – no longer Greek – Christ. Their coming down the mountain is thus Christ coming from heaven to earth, and the corn is the Eucharist, the ‘bread of life’. Other reasons to associate the kings with Christ include the kings’ being ‘nailed in their coffins’. Not only was Christ nailed to the cross but he speaks as if he’s in a coffin like them when he says:

‘My bell still rings’

In his case it’s a so-called safety coffin with a bell to alert people if he happens to have been buried alive.

In addition the kings consider themselves ‘bigger than all men put together’, a description which fits Christ.

These associations of the kings with Christ suggest that they and the humanity which they represent are themselves Christ-like. What traditionally Christ does in terms of salvation, humanity too can achieve. It’s not just that humanity is hell bent, therefore. Humanity and Christ are one.

The language used to describe the kings, while making them seem frightening, also suggests a divine status. They’re ‘blazing the rails’, they operate ‘by night’ and they’re ‘speeding through the forest’. These descriptions are reminiscent of those applied to the Creator in Blake’s ‘Tyger’. The tiger is ‘burning bright in the forests of the night’ suggesting it has both the heavenly quality of light and the hellish qualities of burning and darkness. Blake expresses uncertainty about the nature of the Creator, and the same sort of uncertainty applies to the Roman kings. The Roman kings by implication have the same ambivalent status between God and devil, or between salvation and damnation. (When the line from the ‘Tyger’ is quoted in ‘Roll On John’, ‘forests’ becomes singular – ‘forest’ – suggesting it’s the speeding Roman kings the writer has in mind even there. In ‘Tempest’ Blake is one of the passengers on the Titanic who ‘gambled in the dark’ – again suggesting uncertainty.)

It would seem that to some degree divinity does characterise the Roman kings. This is important in that it allows them to be not just the cause of wrongdoing but its cure. With respect to their own redemption they can play the role of Christ.


Uncertainty About Christ’s Divine Status

In Verse Two:

The picture Christ gives us of himself is likewise ambivalent. Traditionally held to be fully man and fully God, he seems in the second verse to be a man with no divine status or at least with doubts about it. The dramatically ironic reference to Good Friday is the first indication of this:

‘Tomorrow is Friday, we’ll see what it brings’

The horrible implication is that he has no firm idea what it will bring – his own trial and execution. This, then is Christ the man, a man without omniscience.


In Verse Four:

In the fourth verse, too, Christ appears as man and expresses uncertainty about his divine status:

‘I keep my fingers crossed, like the early Roman kings’

Since the Roman kings were described in language borrowed from Blake’s ‘Tyger’, their uncertainty would seem to be about their moral status – whether they are to be seen as evil or good, as fit for hell or salvation. In keeping his fingers crossed like them, Christ seems to be expressing doubt about his own status as God while remaining hopeful that he is.

The uncertainty continues:

‘I can dress up your wounds with a blood-clotted rag’

Although the ability to ‘dress up’ makes him seem like the Roman kings in their garish outfits, it’s pertinent that it’s wounds he dresses up and, furthermore, that it’s other people’s wounds. This alone makes him God-like, at least when compared with the Roman kings who dress up only themselves.

The line makes Christ’s possible God-like status becomes apparent in another way too. Using a blood-clotted rag for the sake of appearance would be to practise a human deceit. But if the blood clotted rag is a way of dressing our (or at least the addressee’s) wounds by the shedding of his own blood, it signifies a God-like ability to make possible our salvation. Nevertheless it remains significant that Christ says that he can ‘dress up your wounds’ and not simply that he can dress them. The doubt about his divinity remains.

The rest of the verse presents Christ as man rather than as God . It seems to be the man who is responsible for coarse language:

‘I ain’t afraid to make love to a bitch or a hag’

The historical Jesus did consort with prostitutes but he is not normally represented as having sex with them or treating them so disdainfully. What’s more, he seems to be wanting some sort of recognition for his sexual prowess:

‘If you see me coming…
Wave your handkerchief in the air’

This attitude would make him have more in common with the lecherous kings than with God, although at the same time the lines could perhaps be seen as an exhortation to surrender to the will of God.

That the significance of Friday is lost on him is again suggested when he says:

‘I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings’

He speaks as if he’s in a coffin’ – and glad it’s a safety coffin. His concern may be to rise from the coffin, but there’s no sign he’s expecting to rise from the dead.


In Verse Five:

The fifth verse starts with the speaker sounding like a Roman king, a man, rather than God. Without actually threatening to take life, he announces he’s capable of doing so:

‘I can strip you of life, strip you of breath,
Ship you down to the house of death’

On the other hand, while ‘strips’ has sexual overtones reminding us of his Roman-king-like nature, at the same time it makes him an opposite of the Roman kings. Whereas they ‘dress up’ he ‘strips’.

And that he thinks he may be God becomes apparent as the verse develops:

‘One day you will ask for me,
There’ll be no one else that you’ll wanna see’

The implicit self-comparison with the emperor Nero, who famously fiddled while Rome burnt, might suggest man-like qualities:

‘Bring down my fiddle, tune up my strings’

However the adoption of the ‘fiddle’ metaphor also suggests he’s about to turn the tables on Nero. Nero reputedly let Rome burn so that he could blame the Christians and so destroy them, as hinted in the third verse:

‘They destroyed your city, they’ll destroy you as well’

Christ’s fiddling is for the opposite purpose:

‘I’m going to break it wide open like the early Roman kings’

‘Break it wide open’ is a curiously constructed phrase. One normally breaks things up and, perhaps, leaves things wide open. It’s both positive and negative, implying both destructiveness and welcome. In destroying what the Roman kings, and particularly Nero, stand for – human egocentricity and the destruction of Christianity – Christ intends to open up a route to salvation. That at least supports the view that he sees his status as divine.


In Verse Six

The doubt about Christ’s divine status continues in the final verse. The mountain which the Roman kings descended from, godlike, is now the mountain of Christ who was timelessly present on it when Detroit fell. Viewed from outside time, it can be taken either as Calvary or heaven. If the mountain is Calvary, the suggestion is that the demise of the Roman kings- or the immorality they represent – is underway. If it is heaven, the fall of Detroit under the hand of the Roman kings can be seen as the fall of man. The picture we’re getting is of a Christ who witnesses man’s early demise and then intervenes to put matters right by way of his death on Calvary. However, it’s also the case that the fall of man and man’s redemption are being presented as two sides of the same coin. This would again suggest that man might be able to make amends for his own fall. There is no need for the divine intervention of Christ.

The verse continues:

‘Ding Dong Daddy, you’re coming up short’

Whilst ‘Daddy’ seems to make the addressee God the father, ‘Ding, dong’ seems to make it Christ’s possibly dead self in the safety coffin. The contemptuous tone now is in part the result of there seeming to be no possibility of salvation. Instead of rising from the dead, Christ sees himself as a corpse – no longer even a man – whose only hope of life is a somewhat pathetic bell. (There may also be an allusion to Blake’s Nobodaddy.)

The tone too, contemptuous and crude as well as critical, suggests it is Christ the flawed man speaking. Given the context, he’s presumably criticising his father for failing to prevent the excesses of the Roman kings in Detroit. His response, to put God on trial in a Sicilian court, suggests a viciousness which associates him with the Roman kings. And ironically what he threatens God with is in fact what the Romans do to Christ. His behaviour makes him much more man than God.

However all is not what it seems. it is in fact the case that the Christ operating here is both man and divine. His act of trying God, and the Roman kings’ act of trying him, can be taken as one and the same act. When God goes on trial, Christ will be on trial – provided Christ is God. The Mafia overtones of ‘Sicilian court’ suggest the trial of God is going to be a fix just as Christ’s trial was actually fixed. And so, by acting as a Roman king Christ brings about a trial and hence the salvation he criticises God, his father, for doing nothing about. Both the manhood and the divinity of Christ are involved in his pursuit of salvation for mankind.

The song ends:

‘I’ve had my fun, I’ve had my flings
Gonna shake ’em all down like the early Roman kings

The expression ‘shake ’em all down’ is perhaps a portmanteau expressing the concepts ‘shake things up’ and ‘send the evildoers down to hell’. Christ is renouncing the flawed ways of men and declaring his determination to stamp out immorality. But whether he expects to do this as God or man remains uncertain. The identification with the Roman kings in the second line suggests that it’s not like them so much as by way of them that he’s going to act. It remains open whether this requires him to be divine.

At the same time the use of ‘all’ in ‘shake ’em all down’ suggests it’s the Roman kings themselves who are going to hell because the focus of the song has been not just Roman kings but ‘all the early Roman kings’. This would require Christ to be acting independently and perhaps therefore as God. However the ‘all’ could equally refer to ‘all the women’ who go crazy about people they know to be disreputable. Or it could refer to the ‘all‘ who were killed when Detroit fell – the whole of humanity if Detroit’s fall is the fall of man. In these cases it remains open whether ‘Gonna shake ’em all down’ requires him to be divine.



The subject of the song seems to be man’s fall from grace, his far from perfect subsequent lifestyle, and the way in which he can return to moral perfection. The speaker is Christ, but a Christ who seems unsure about himself and of how salvation is going to come about. The temporal and spatial settings suggest that both the fall of man and the process of salvation are ongoing, which makes the role of Christ unclear. They also suggest that salvation should not be seen just as the fruit of Christ’s death two thousand years ago, but as the result of present day endeavours.

That the time and source of salvation may be more fluid than the traditional view holds is likewise suggested by the ways in which those dealt with in the song are variously identified with each other. The bird representing the Holy spirit acts ‘like the early Roman kings’. Christ behaves as they behave. God the father is also the corpse of Christ in the coffin. The Roman kings are the destroyers of both Rome and Detroit. They are pagan gods coming down the mountain, and at the same time they are Christ coming down to earth; and Christ on Calvary. They are also the listener. And crucially the listener is also Christ. If Christ is not divine, the Roman kings – the listener – will have to rely on themselves to achieve salvation. This might be possible given their own divine status. And if Christ is divine, it’s through their identity with Christ that they might achieve their own salvation. Nevertheless if Christ’s own uncertainty about his divine status is warranted, then it remains uncertain what his involvement can be in man’s salvation.

Tin Angel

The features which perhaps stand out most, apart from its borrowed title and vague origin in traditional folk songs, are the various incongruities which appear throughout the song. It’s by way of resolving these that the song’s meaning will be made clear – that it’s about a man who reacts to bad news by doing nothing.

There are a ten main sections including the conclusion. These are headed:

1. Time
2. Identities
3. A Dream
4. The Boss’ Character – Preliminary
5. The Wife
6. The First Victim
7. The Survivor
8. The Boss’ Character – Positive
9. The Boss’ Character – Negative
10. Conclusion

If time’s short,  reading Sections 1 – 4 and 10 should be enough to get the gist.

1.  Time

Temporal incongruities fall essentially into two types – those concerning the structure of the song and those concerning the era in which the song seems to be set.

a)  Structure

The very last line of the song makes it clear that what we’re being told is happening could not possibly actually be happening. There’s insufficient time for it. This is because the song is narrated from a time a maximum of a night and a day away from the arrival home of the boss:

‘It was late last night when the boss came home’ (v 1)

If the boss then takes a further night and a day to reach the place where his rival has taken ‘the lady’, that means that the boss’ arrival coincides with the narrator’s telling of the story. That itself stretches credulity. But as if that were not enough, we’re then informed that:

‘Funeral torches blazed away
Through the towns and the villages, all night and all day‘ (v 28)

One wonders how the narrator can possibly know that because he has to be speaking before the last mentioned night and day. It seems he’s speaking about things which haven’t happened yet, as if they’ve already happened. The two night and day periods which the song covers have in some way been mapped onto a single night and day which is the maximum available time for the song’s events to have occurred in.

b)  Era

The era in which the song is apparently set also seems to involve the mapping of one time onto another. ‘Boss’, as a term meaning master, was first used in the nineteenth century. Accordingly the term’s being used here indicates that the events must occur sometime between the early nineteenth century and the present day. The same can be inferred from there being an ‘electric wire’. The boss’ reference to a coat and tie also suggests a relatively modern period, as do various colloquial expressions like ‘gutless ape’. In addition, the temporal setting is narrowed down from the other direction by the fact that both men travel by horse. Overall the setting would appear to be the nineteenth century.

Contrasting with this, however, are a number of features clearly representative of an earlier era. These include a gun which fires balls rather than modern bullets and, from an even earlier period, a helmet and a cross handled sword.

When the two eras meet we can’t help getting an impression of absurdity. Even if it’s plausible for someone to be wearing a coat and tie while on a long journey on horseback, that he should also in the days of electric light have a helmet on his head and be carrying a sword is ridiculous.

There are obvious temporal incongruities, then, which need explaining.

2.  Identities

Just as the time frame seems distorted, so do the identities of the characters. A key line is perhaps:

‘It was hard to tell for certain who was who’ (v 8)

While the point being made is that in the darkness the boss can’t tell Henry Lee and ‘the lady’ apart, once the three are together it becomes impossible to know for sure who’s speaking on a number of occasion. It’s as if their identities have merged.

The main problem occurs after the gun (assuming it is just one gun) has been fired. It’s unclear whether it’s the boss or Lee who has been killed. Consequently, in the conversation which follows with the lady (verses 21-27), it’s impossible to tell whether it’s the boss or Lee she quarrels with or which one she stabs. The lines:

‘”You shot my husband down, you fiend”‘ (v 22)

suggest it was the boss who’s been shot. However her interlocutor’s amazed reply suggests it was Lee:

‘”Husband? What husband? What the hell do you mean?”‘ (v 22)

It would seem that there is no single answer to the question about who was killed first.

3.  A Dream

The very title ‘Boss’ gives the impression of a tough character no sane person would mess with. Perhaps he’s a mafia godfather. His behaviour in seeking instant revenge for Henry Lee’s insult would then be just what we’d expect. But things are not so straightforward.

That appearances are deceptive first becomes apparent when we consider the boss’ behaviour in the third verse:

‘The boss he lay back flat on his bed
He cursed the heat and he clutched his head
He pondered the future of his fate
To wait another day would be far too late’ (v 3)

If the boss is the tough character we might think he is, it seems unlikely that, on hearing that his wife has gone off with another man, he’d go for a lie down. Not only does he do that, but the news seems to have knocked him out. It’s made him feverous – ‘he cursed the heat’ – and given him a headache. Certainly no Al Capone this fellow! He believes there’s no time to lose in getting revenge and – he falls asleep! It’s not a deep sleep. It’s a half-waking sleep. But everything which happens from now on is a dream characterised, at least in part, by wish fulfilment. Or perhaps it’s a cross between a dream and a day dream in which the boss gives way to wishful thinking.

Early corroborations of the fact that the boss is dreaming come in the series of incongruities which follow the third verse. Leaving aside the implication that he’s wearing his best clothes when going off on a difficult journey on horseback, there’s the line:

‘”If you see me go by, put up a prayer”‘ (v 4)

If he were actually up and about and speaking to someone, it would be to his servant. There can be no question of the servant seeing him go by, though. That implies the servant would be somewhere on the route. It’s the sort of request you’d make to someone you think might be looking out for you in the hope of catching a glimpse. The line cannot plausibly be being spoken, then, because in the circumstances it doesn’t make sense. The only person hearing it would be at his starting point and already seeing him. What the line does, perhaps, is gives us an indication of the boss’ self-centredness, imagining he could be the focus of attention. But the main thing is, it helps confirm that the events aren’t real.

The next incongruity is the line:

‘Insomnia raging in his brain’ (v 6)

If the boss were on horseback, this wouldn’t make sense. It implies he’s trying desperately to get to sleep but can’t, whereas if he were actually on horseback the opposite would be likely. As he rode he’d quite possibly be falling asleep – it’s night, and he’s tired – but desperately trying to remain awake. If, on the other hand, he’s in fact on his bed, it’s quite plausible that his bad news, and the pressure to take action, are preventing him from getting to sleep despite his tiredness and his fever and his headache. And so, instead of sleeping, insomnia rages and he becomes delirious.

One final indication that what we have is a dream comes from the final verse:

‘All three lovers together in a heap
Thrown into the grave forever to sleep
Funeral torches blazed away
Through the towns and the villages, all night and all day’ (v 28)

The bodies, it seems, have just been dumped in a communal grave. This would be unlikely and especially unlikely since one belonged to the ‘chief of the clan’. Furthermore, if this were to happen, it would hardly have been accompanied by such a light display. In reality, that is. In dreams anything can happen.

4. The Boss’ Character – Preliminary

It’s not, then that he’s some mad, quixotic character actually attired in jacket and tie while mounted, and at the same time wearing a helmet and sword. We can dismiss that as dream stuff. But it is true he’s dreaming he’s some sort of knight in armour going off to rescue a damsel from the clutches of a monster. In his dream it’s all serious – serious wish-fulfilment. He wants to be the sort of story-book hero which he quite clearly isn’t. In fact the dream becomes a vehicle for presenting his contrasting fantasy-view of himself with a deeper self knowledge. The former is in evidence when he continues to behave in his dream like a character from medieval fiction:

‘He lowered himself down on a golden chain’ (v 9)

This is the stuff of fairy tales. So is his later seeing his wife as a ‘bloody queen’. It’s not just in his dream he romanticises her like this either. His dream world, it would seem, is just an extension of a delusional everyday escapism. Right at the opening of the song he finds ‘a desolate throne’ – doubtless a reference to a make-believe, fairytale world which he inhabits.

That he sees himself as some sort of hero is confirmed just after he imagines his arrival. ‘(H)is knuckles were bloody’ suggests that, in his mind, he’s already violently dealt with his enemy. However, this imagined valour is immediately followed by an unfortunate piece of bathos:

‘He ran his fingers through his greasy hair’ (v 9)

Obviously, as we all know, real heroes don’t have greasy hair. Here, in his dream, he can’t help letting the anti-heroic truth come through. Deep down he knows the character he creates for himself is nothing more than a fiction.

This truth, that the boss is anything but the sort of character he’s imagining himself to be, is further indicated in what are the first words spoken about him:

‘”Don’t worry about him, he wouldn’t harm a fly”‘ (v 10)

Again the truth is coming through. The valiant, bare-knuckle fighter has been replaced by a feeble wimp. In his dream the boss is hearing from the lips of his wife what he knows to be true. Indeed this propensity not to stand up for himself might have been in part what encouraged her to leave him ; she knew he wouldn’t respond with violence. Nothing that follows gives the lie to this statement of hers because any later bravado on his part is just part of his dream.

5. The Wife

In addition to the fact that she’s prepared to exploit her husband’s weakness, we learn a number of other things about the boss’ wife from his dream. First she patronises him, treating him like a child – ‘Silly boy’. Then when the sight of her beauty all but makes him violent, she goads him – ‘feed your eyes’.

We also learn from the dream how she appears in his eyes. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it suggests he has conflicting thoughts. The first is positive, that she’s really loyal. The second is that she deserves to die. Both might be dismissed as wishful thinking.

That he wants to think she’s loyal is reinforced by her line:

‘”All husbands are good men, as all wives know”‘ (v 25)

Although this might appear on the surface an absurd thing to say, it makes some sense as a representation of the boss’ desire to believe his wife repentant and appreciative after all. But the wording also betrays his fear that nothing about him could be the object such appreciation. There’s nothing about him which is not to be found in ‘all men’.

The view of his wife which conflicts with this – that she deserves to die – is represented by her suicide. Of course, this is the sort of romantic ending to a life one could imagine the boss thinking up, and as such it fits well into his fantasy world. Nevertheless it can be seen as the wife getting her just deserts for leaving him.

Speech involving the wife enables a range of views to come across about both her character and the boss’. This is particularly so when it’s unclear who is speaking or who is being addressed. There are two occasions of such ambiguity involving the wife. In the first it’s unclear who is being addressed:

‘”You’re a reckless fool, I could see it in your eyes
To come this way was by no means wise”‘ (v 12)

The wife is speaking, but it could be to either man. And depending on which it is, a different aspect of her character comes across. If it’s to the boss, she’d be showing her true colours – resenting his presence, and in so doing confirming in his mind how hard done by he is. On the other hand, if she’s speaking to Henry Lee, it might be taken as forceful criticism of his choice of route to their hideout- a criticism over which the (dreaming) boss can exult. It would seem she’s no more going to be dominated by Henry Lee than she was in her marriage by the boss.

A few verses later it’s the speaker, rather than the person being addressed, which is in doubt. These lines could be spoken either by the wife, demonstrating – from the boss’ point of view – how intractable she is, or by the boss, thereby demonstrating his strength of will:

‘”You’ve had your way too long with me
Now it’s me who’ll determine how things shall be”‘ (v 17)

And the meaning of the boss’ lines which follow these will depend on whether or not it was indeed the wife speaking:

‘”Try to escape,’ he cussed and cursed
‘You’ll have to try to get past me first”‘ (v 17)

If his wife was the previous speaker, these lines of the boss could be a response implying he thinks she’s just threatened to escape from him. But if he was the previous speaker, then he’d be just backing up his claim to ‘determine how things shall be’. Either way, the boss comes across as someone determined to exert his will – in ironic contrast to the actual boss in bed at home dreaming.

6. The First Victim

The first two killings are enigmatic in that we don’t know who dies, or who the killer is, in either case. All we know is that if it wasn’t one man, it was the other.

There’s a prefiguring of the confusion in verse nineteen where there’s no way of telling whether it’s the Boss or Henry Lee who is speaking and sounding forceful:

‘”Look sharp, or step aside ‘
Or in the cradle you’ll wish you’d died”‘ (v 19)

It could be the boss intending to get past Lee to his wife, or equally it could be Lee determined to leave – possibly with the wife.

This initial uncertainty is then repeated when the shots are fired. Although one of the men is killed, it’s not clear who because it’s not clear which one has the gun. Indeed there could be two guns, the first fired by the boss, say, and the other by Henry Lee. Or maybe Lee fired first, and missed, and the boss then fired accurately. The reference to a ‘ball’ in the description of the second firing suggests an antique weapon – a flintlock perhaps – and that the boss would imagine himself with such a weapon would seem consistent with what we’ve already seen of his character. Another possibility is that either man could have fired two shots in fulfilment of, or in response to, the threat just quoted.

The upshot is that we don’t know who was killed.

7. The Survivor

And because we don’t know who was killed, we don’t know which man survived. From this point on the male speaker is either the boss or Henry Lee. A case can be made for either.

That it’s the boss seems quite likely from the fact that ‘his arms ached’ – which one would expect after his exploits with the golden chain. If so, he can still be seen as exerting his authority:

‘”If you don’t mind, I’ll have the knife”‘ (v 24)

and sounding tough:

‘” My fighting days have come to a halt”‘ (v 26)

but at the same time a sulk – his true character coming through:

‘”This is all your fault”‘ (v 26)

In addition, if the survivor is the boss, his being stabbed by the wife would serve to corroborate in his own mind how cruel she is to him.

Nevertheless there’s further evidence which makes it not implausible that the survivor is Henry Lee. As mentioned above, this occurs when the wife says:

‘”You shot my husband down, you fiend”‘ (v 22)

These words should leave no doubt. The boss is the wife’s husband, so – it would seem – the person addressed must be Lee. On this interpretation, since Lee is insulted and later stabbed by the wife, one can only assume that the boss, in his dream, is exulting in his wife’s latent loyalty.

Ultimately, there’s no truth one way or the other about which one survived.

8. The Boss’ Character – Positive

The boss clearly has positive qualities, although most of what might be seen as positive attributions are at best ambiguous.

First, the narrator presents him as a boss, suggesting at least some sort of status. Secondly, the servant is shown speaking respectfully to him and whatever his fears of being deserted, this one has yet to desert.

In addition he has a certain amount of wealth, as seen from the fact that he can afford a mansion and the servant. On the other hand money may be tight given that in his dream he orders ‘the cheapest labour that money can buy’. But there again this could just be meanness.

From the dream episode we learn that he has a certain pride in his appearance, in calling for his coat and tie. We also learn that his face has ‘all the nobility of an ancient race’ – although it’s implied that this is only so when it’s in shadow. In fact a feeling of inferiority about his own facial appearance, leading to jealousy about his wife’s facial beauty, might explain the otherwise rather extraordinary command:

‘”Cover your face, or suffer the consequence”‘ (v 13)

a command which even more extraordinarily precedes his telling her to put her clothes back on. The order of the commands would be explained if her beauty is what’s uppermost in his mind – and which he’ll destroy unless she hides it.

9. The Boss’ Character – Negative

Instead of being about a strong man confronting adversity, the song can be taken as about a weak, or at least gentle, person who is all thought and no action. But is he gentle? It would seem that being someone who wouldn’t hurt a fly only sums up his surface character. Deep down he’s quite happy to will all sorts of revenge on Lee and his wife.  Perhaps that adds to his interest. It makes him not so unusual – someone we might even identify with. Nevertheless one might laugh at the poetic justice inherent in his attempt to build himself up as a romantic avenger, an attempt which results only in his coming across as a ludicrous parody of the chivalrous knight he’s imagining himself to be.

The boss seems to lack stamina. He seems to be someone who gives up at the first hurdle. When we’re told that he ‘pondered the future of his fate’, the phrase ‘of his fate’ – far from being redundant (and nonsensical) as it might at first appear – serves to suggest that he’s giving in to what he sees as fate. Giving in to the assumption that he’s powerless to shape future events, he just goes to sleep. Similarly the line which follows:

‘To wait another day would be far too late’ (v 3)

which one might think merely an ungrammatical way of indicating that the boss thinks he’d better act straightaway, can also be taken as meaning there’s no point in acting. The boss is reasoning that it’ll take a day to reach his wife and by then it will be too late to do anything. So he doesn’t.

Further negative aspects of his character come out in the dream, some of them involving distortions involving time. One concerns his ability to delude himself. The first words he hears are:

‘”Got a strange premonition there’s a man close by”‘ (v 10)

‘Premonition’ – a word for knowledge about the future – is being used for knowledge in the present. It’s as if the boss is bringing a future event, an event which couldn’t take place before another night and day have elapsed, into the present. It’s as if he subconsciously realises he’s fooling himself by substituting for future revenge his present dream.

A similar possibly self-delusional collapsing of the future and present also seems to occur when we’re told he:

‘Crawled on his belly, put his ear to the wall
One way or another put an end to it all’ (v 7)

– not ‘would put an end to it all’ which would be required if putting an end to it all were a future event. The implication is he’s putting an end to the whole business now – that is, while his ear’s pressed against the wall. No further action is required – or so he takes comfort in convincing himself.

Another negative aspect is his apparent inability to get his words out straight while under duress – ‘what and for why?’ instead of ‘why and for what?’

And another is what would seem to be a replacement of one fact by another when the former would have seemed to present him as weak:

‘His knuckles were bloody, he sucked in the air’

The air seems irrelevant. What we can assume is that he in fact sucked his knuckles having hurt them, but doesn’t want to admit this even to himself.

Additionally, it would seem, he cannot command loyalty for long. Twice he’s ‘deserted’ – once by his wife and once, in his dream, by his men. One assumes that the latter represents self doubt – a fear based on prior evidence of what’s already happened once.

While we’re not told what he heard of the lovers’ conversation when he ‘put his ear to the wall’, the first bullet grazing his ear would seem to be a symbolic representation of the pain it gave him. In the light of this it’s notable that when he blames his wife at the end, he does so by whispering in her ear, thereby achieving like-for-like revenge. It would seem that he’s quite prepared to hurt someone emotionally – at least in a dream.

Finally, for negative characteristics, he has a ludicrously romantic view of himself, one that’s at odds with a perhaps suppressed meanness in his true character, but one which is brought to light in the dream. This is seen when he talks about gifts:

‘”I’d have given you the stars and the planets too”‘ (v 15)

He would have done – but he doesn’t! Instead, his ludicrous protestations of generosity are transformed into something more realistic, but just as unwarranted:

‘”Or never again this world you see”‘ (v 15)

Instead of giving her the whole universe, he swings to the opposite extreme and threatens to take away the world she has.

10.  Conclusion

The timescale has made it apparent that the narrator could not possibly know the outcome of the boss’ journey if it were in fact a real journey. An advantage of the dream interpretation is that the problem doesn’t arise. What seemed like two nights and two days in the dream would in fact have been dreamt in only a matter of minutes. Accordingly, on waking up – maybe only minutes after lying down – there’d have been plenty of time for the boss to have related the dream, and for the narrator to have heard about it. We don’t need to know anything about the narrator, just that the tale need not be seen as an extraordinary example of omniscient narratorhood.

The dream allows the writer to present two very different aspects of the protagonist’s character. We see how he appears to the world – non-violent, easily succumbing to illness and prone to avoiding reality. And we see a darker side which only becomes apparent when he’s asleep – that he takes pleasure in the thought of violent revenge. We also see how in adopting a brave persona he’s capable of pretence, a pretence which extends to not admitting his weak points even to himself.  But having two conflicting sides to his nature, one overt and one hidden, is not just a peculiarity of the boss. We’re left with the impression that what applies to him applies no less to us. The song can be seen as demonstrating the double-faceted nature of human psychology generally.


Soon After Midnight



The song seems to be a representation of human psychology in that it depicts someone vacillating between reconciling himself with God and continuing his godless ways. The narrator seems to be both a user of prostitutes and perhaps a murderer, but it’s left unclear how much he really wants to turn over a new leaf and whether he in fact does so. There also seems to be a suggestion that human life is a unified whole in which the concept of change cannot apply. There are two main sections to this analysis, ‘The Narrator’s Character’ and ‘Time’, and then a brief summing up.


The Narrator’s Character


The narrator’s character is full of reversals, inconsistencies and misjudgements. He’s also boastful and contemptuous. We learn that it’s night time, and yet that his ‘day has just begun’ – a back to front life perhaps reflecting back to front morals, given what he seems to be doing.

We also learn, in the third line, that he feels in need of help:

‘I need to tell someone’

The person being addressed may well be God since ‘sing your praises’, although a common expression, has religious overtones. The ‘need to tell someone’ might be seen, then, as a need to confess to a crime already committed, a crime implied by ‘I’ve been down on the killing floors’. Alternatively it might be seen as a need to seek help for an unwanted temptation to kill. Either way this inability to cope, this plea for support, is in stark contrast to the bravado of the third verse:

‘I’m in no great hurry
I’m not afraid of your fury
I’ve faced stronger walls than yours’

The language here is full of self confidence – inexplicable in the light of the earlier comment. In the first verse he’s aware that time is short – it’s after midnight – and by implication he’s aware that any need requires fulfilling quickly. Any reference to time is gone in the third verse, however, and with it any concern for speed. Instead a bolshie self assertiveness, totally out of keeping with the previous urgency, takes over.


Not only is what’s said inconsistent, but it’s wholly inappropriate:

‘My heart is cheerful
It’s never fearful’

In the light of his need to confess, or seek help, he should be anything but cheerful. And he shouldn’t boast about not being fearful. His ‘need to tell someone’ suggests a need to be God-fearing which the boast belies.

The boasting continues when he proudly announces he’s been ‘down on the killing floors’. If that’s taken to mean he’s murdered, any pride about it is surely a misjudgement, and more so given that he’s speaking to God. Even if it just means he’s been hardened against fear through experience, the tone is still far from exemplifying the sort of humility appropriate when addressing God. His words are not those of someone seeking forgiveness or reconciliation. They’re evidence of a thorough recklessness.


And what he says in the final verse shows him to be guilty of a disdainful contempt:

‘I didn’t think you’d do

This, while implying he’s aware of having misjudged his hearer, suggests that he’s not the type to shrink from dismissing people out of hand. The use of ‘you’d do’ makes one wonder what’s happened to the self-effacing modesty of the opening verse.

Duplicity and Misjudgement

It is, of course, only apparent modesty which is shown even in the first verse. One doesn’t usually need to go ‘searching for phrases’ in order to praise someone. It’s as if the narrator is trying to hoodwink God that he’s about to be praised when really the narrator is bent on ignoring him. It’s the same sort of duplicity that’s we’ll see is present when he later describes his relationship with the girl called Honey. In the light of this lack of modesty it’s hardly surprising to find the narrator in effect challenging God to a trial of strength:

‘I’m not afraid of your fury
I’ve faced stronger walls than yours’

Not only is this arrogance, but it again shows the narrator to be guilty of misjudgement since the only walls to be broken down would seem to be those erected by the narrator himself. The walls are the dictates of his own character which he too easily gives in to. Ironically what he says is true – he has faced stronger walls than God’s; his own. By adopting an inappropriate adversarial stance he’s preventing himself from being able to break through to God.


The mismatch between the appropriately self-deprecatory tone of the first verse and the bolshie tone of the third makes the narrator seems beset by a sort of madness. In fact he seems to admit that he’s mad when he says:

‘The moon is in my eye’

It seems to be a conscious madness, though – one which he could, if he so chose, do something about.

The madness seems to continue in the fourth verse. There may be a sort of perverse logic in condemning Charlotte for her scarlet clothing. Scarlet can represent evil, due to its association with the whore of Babylon. One cannot see any justification (however perverse) for his implied condemnation of Mary too, though. Mary, we’re told, ‘dresses in green’. Green, with its natural associations, ought to set her apart from whatever evil he thinks he sees in Charlotte. Her name too, that of Christ’s mother and Mary Magdalene, is perhaps a hint at the presumptuousness of associating her with evil.


There’s more irrationality. On the one hand the narrator uses prostitutes, and on the other he appears to condemn the practice. That he uses them is clear:

‘A girl named Honey
Took my money
She was passing by’

And that he condemns the practice would seem apparent from his murdering, or intending to murder, two of them and their client.

Given his relationship with Honey, it’s also utterly hypocritical of him to condemn one of the other girls as a ‘harlot’ since he doesn’t use any such pejorative term for Honey – presumably in an attempt to avoid condemning his association with her. At the very least, just as he was prepared to hoodwink God earlier, here he’s hoodwinking himself about the morality of his behaviour.

The hypocrisy apparent here is further in evidence when we consider his dealings with a character called Slim:

‘Two-timing Slim
Who’s ever heard of him?
I’ll drag his corpse through the mud’

The implication is that Slim deserves to die because he’s having a relationship with two women simultaneously. This seems quite extraordinary given that the narrator himself appears to be two-timing. His date with the ‘fairy queen’, together with the Honey incident, would make the narrator every bit as worthy of condemnation as Slim.

Implicitly, then, his condemnation of Slim is a condemnation of himself. And it’s this which is brought out in the line ‘Who’s ever heard of him?’ It’s intended as a rhetorical question, but it has an answer. The narrator has heard of him. He’s heard of him because to all intents and purposes he is Slim. If Slim deserves to die, morally if not literally, then so does the narrator.

Further Duplicity

It may be a conscious or unconscious realisation of this which causes the narrator to deny responsibility for the Honey affair. He’s clearly prevaricating about his association with her. If it’s past midnight, it’s extremely unlikely that she was just ‘passing by’ as he somewhat gratuitously informs us. It’s far more likely that he went out of his way to procure her. Instead of admitting this, he tries to pass it off as fate – her ‘passing by’. It’s not just fate he blames, though, but her. He didn’t offer the money, he wants it to be thought; she ‘took’ it – his money, as if it wasn’t by then hers. He blames fate, and he blames Honey, but he doesn’t blame himself.


If the narrator is hoping to reform, his boastfulness, contempt, arrogance, pride, hypocrisy and general duplicity don’t make this seem likely. It’s also far from clear that he’s prepared to do what’s required to bring it about. This is suggested when we compare his words with those used about the watchman in ‘Tempest’. Whereas the latter, we’re told, ‘tried to tell someone, ‘ the narrator here declares ‘I need to tell someone’. The expressions are identical but for one crucial thing – ‘he tried‘ has replaced ‘I need‘. Whereas the watchman is making an effort – albeit in his dream – and doing so for the general good, the narrator here not only seems to bypass opportunities to do good, but seems to be concerned just for himself. Neither attitude bodes well if at least a part of him wants to achieve reconciliation with God.



A further contrast with ‘Tempest’ is apposite. Just as a character there waits for ‘time and space to intervene’, the intervention of time would seem to be a theme here too. It’s relevant to the question about whether the narrator achieves salvation. Only if there is separate past, present and future (the intervention of time) is reform possible, because reform involves change across time. The song seems to present time as a unified whole, however, which would render the required change out of the question. One of the passengers in ‘Tempest’ is Calvin, the exponent of pre-determination and, at least on one level, his spirit would seem to be present here.


The importance of time is hinted at in the title, where each of the three words is to do with it. It’s supported too by the fact that these words get repeated in the first, second, fourth and final verses as part of the refrain ‘It’s soon after midnight’. The main point being made would seem to be that time is short if the narrator is to achieve salvation. It’s noticeable that the only verses in which the refrain does not appear – the third and fifth – are the ones in which the narrator’s bravado suggests that he’s banished all thought of urgency. In the final verse, with the reappearance of the refrain, time – urgency – is back with a vengeance.


It might strike one as curious the way the wording of the title is used when it’s repeated in four of the verses:

‘It’s soon after midnight’

Strictly speaking it can’t be soon after midnight. The word ‘soon’ is future-looking, at least in the way it’s normally used. It means that something is going to happen, albeit in the near future, but nevertheless in the future. Even in an expression about the past, like ‘It was soon to happen’, we’re told the event had still to come about. To say ‘It is (it’s) soon after midnight’ is therefore contradictory. It’s what one might say on being told something is going to happen soon and, impatient for it, you rhetorically retort ‘It’s soon now‘ – meaning that the time for it to happen has already arrived. The identity of the times picked out by ‘is’ and ‘soon’ implies that the present moment both is and isn’t after midnight. Two distinct times, the present and the future, have been fused into one.

The effect of this is two-fold. First, the identification of present and future moments reinforces the urgency with which the narrator needs to act. It suggests that the non-presence of action at one time is likely to mean the non-presence of action at a later time. The current ‘now’, the present ‘now’, is the only time for action. An action put off will never be performed. On the other hand, and paradoxically given the foregoing, the fusing of present and future means it can never be too late to act, because the time for doing it never goes away no matter how late it is. Midnight might be the official cut off, but even ‘after midnight’ the deadline has not passed. On the one hand the narrator must act now, and on the other, even if he doesn’t, all is still not lost.

Verse Five

A comparable fusing of times occurs in the penultimate verse:

‘Two timing Slim
Who’s ever heard of him?’

A pun on ‘two timing’ suggests that, in addition to being in more than one relationship, the character exists in two times simultaneously.

It’s worth noting too the effect of the question ‘Who’s ever heard of him?’. At face value it suggests a contempt similar to that expressed by the phrase ‘you’d do’ in the line ‘I didn’t think you’d do’ in the final verse. However, it’s also significant that the very process by which the information (that no one’s heard of him) is given, is the very process which makes it no longer true. You can’t take in that you haven’t heard of someone without at the same time having heard of them. Or, to put it another way, the present having-heard-of-them has become fused with the past not-having-heard-of-them, to make the past and the present one.

A possible implication of this is perhaps that even at a time of present guilt, past innocence is still in some way the case. Equally, at a time of present innocence, past guilt is still the case. Accordingly the earlier ‘killing floors’ murders will exist in the present, and these murders will in some sense be the murder of the two girls and Slim.

Something similar is going on in the immediately preceding lines, except that it seems to be the present and the future again which are being fused

‘They chirp and they chatter
What does it matter?
They lie and die in their blood’

Clearly if people (presumably Charlotte and Mary, and possibly Slim) are actively chirping and chattering, they’re unlikely to be lying and dying in their blood. However the use of the present tense in the quoted lines makes it so. One would expect the deaths to be in the future relative to the chirping and chattering, but they’re being treated as if they’re simultaneous with it. The effect is to make what might be no more than a contemplated future murder have the importance of a murder being committed now. Even a present time of innocence can still be imbued by future guilt.

Verse Six

A further fusing of different times is accomplished in the final verse where there’s a renewed urgency:

‘It’s now or never
More than ever’

Literally this cannot be the case. It implies that it’s been ‘now or never’ before, yet the whole point of the expression is that it’s only applicable once. What we’re being told is that a unique ‘now’ has been in the past – and that that ‘now’ has reappeared in, while being distinct from, the present unique ‘now’. The present ‘now’ is a combination of a past moment and the current moment.

Previously when past and present were fused, it seemed possible both that past innocence could co-exist with present guilt, and that past guilt could co-exist with present innocence. The latter seems to apply again here. Since the ‘more than ever’ implies the narrator’s been in exactly the same position more than once before, and presumably rejected God at what he thought was the last opportunity for reconciliation, it seems quite likely this final rejection will simply be repeated. The opportunity – the final opportunity – will be missed. If reconciliation couldn’t be achieved before, it is not going to be achieved now. The past rejections have worked their way into the present to become the present rejection. The present is not an escape from the past.



Like in many Dylan songs, the narrator seems on one level to be a representation of human nature. Weak and desperate for support, he’s immediately capable of becoming proud, contemptuous, cruel and hypocritical. He’s fully aware of what’s required of him, and wants to satisfy the requirements, yet at the same time he’s procrastinating. Ambiguity about whether he’s just committed murder, or whether he’s still contemplating doing so, make it uncertain whether he’ll manage to redeem himself.

However even if he has succumbed to committing murder again, further ambiguity about time makes it unclear whether or not he is finally lost. This ambiguity cuts across the straightforward view of a person attempting but possibly failing to reform. Instead, ambiguity about time makes his life seem a unified whole – an interrelated whole in which the temporal parts are not wholly distinct. What has happened, is happening and will happen all acquire their natures from each other. Given this, whether the narrator is actually able to change his moral outlook is unclear, for without the usual temporal distinctions the concept of reform would appear not even to make sense. Equally, though, if the narrator is able to take decisions, the decisions he takes will be for all time – past and future. Though reform requires change across time, decisions may not. It may be oversimplifying, then, to conclude that his fate is pre-determined.

30.11.15. Modified 1.12.15

Pay In Blood

The song in part works as a dramatic monologue, in this case comprising the thoughts, rather than the spoken words, of the narrator. The narrator would appear to be a contemporary of Jesus, and the person being addressed Jesus himself. By way of his thoughts, the narrator unintentionally gives us a deeper insight into his character than the surface meaning allows. In addition, we’re presented with two different outlooks – Jesus’ and the narrator’s – and of how disastrous consequences can result from the failure of one (of each, perhaps) to accommodate the other. As such the song’s subject matter will be just as relevant here and now as to those living in the first century middle east. That it is applicable today as a warning to those in single-minded pursuit of their ends, perhaps political ends, is reinforced by the use of modern idioms throughout.

From the start the narrator makes it clear he’s dissatisfied with his lot. He’s merely grinding his life out, and he’s oppressed – ‘nothing more wretched than what I must endure’. Since from the use of the present tense we can judge him to be, on one level at least, a contemporary of Jesus, the perceived cause of his oppression, those who ‘strip your useless hopes away’, would presumably be the Roman occupiers. And from his claim to be ‘circling around the southern zone’ he would seem to be an inhabitant of Judea, the southern part of this Roman province where Jesus was crucified – Galilee being the northern part. The narrator’s complaint about his treatment continues throughout the song, so that he comes across as excessively self-pitying. In fact, his cry of ‘Hear me holler’ seems to exemplify the principle that empty vessels make most sound, especially given the similarity in sound between ‘holler’ and ‘hollow’.

In addition to being self-pitying, the narrator comes over as thoroughly vicious. He continually threatens violence – ‘I could stone you to death’, ‘I’ll put you in a chain’, ‘I’ve got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim’. One might expect him to have it in for the Romans, but his threats seem to be directed at Jesus. The reason seems to be that he sees Jesus as a traitor to the cause of political autonomy – ‘Our country must be saved and freed’. In the light of this, the violence he threatens ‘for the wrongs that you’ve done’ would seem to be because he sees Jesus as actively working against the cause. This interpretation would seem corroborated if in the fourth verse it’s Jesus the narrator is castigating as ‘another politician pumping out the piss’, and himself he’s describing as ‘another ragged beggar blowing you a kiss’. The tone is bitter. He sees himself as put down, and in thrall to a politician he doesn’t respect. In both cases the obvious exaggeration  seems in character for someone we’ve already seen to be exaggeratedly self-pitying.

The moral failings of this narrator make an unenviable list. He’s disparaging – ‘You gulped it down’; he’s dismissive – ‘Another politician…’; and he’s passive in the sense that he relies on exploiting others’ mistakes. It’s clear that he objects to Jesus in part because he sees him as one of the ‘rising’ men (i.e. increasingly successful men) – thereby missing the more literal, theological sense in which Jesus rises. In bragging that he’s ‘been out and around with the rising men’ the narrator makes it clear that he regrets that this is as far as he ever got; to be out and around with them is not the same as being one of them. His enmity towards Jesus is therefore fuelled by envy of someone he sees as being on the rise, making progress. Rather than taking steps to be successful himself, however, he sulks. He blames unspecified others – ‘They strip your useless hopes away’, and he blames fate – ‘Low cards’. He seems to exult in pessimism; not only are his hopes taken from him, he tells us, but they were useless anyway!

Despite this litany of failings, he tries to present himself positively.  He informs us that he’s both hard-headed – ‘My head’s so hard, must be made of stone’ – and brave – ‘You could put me out in front of a firing squad’. Ironies abound with this character. It’s this very hard-headedness – what he sees as a no-nonsense attitude – which causes his violent opposition to Jesus and which is presumably instrumental in bringing about Jesus’ death. His head, made of stone, – i.e. his uncompromising attitude – is the stone which metaphorically he uses to stone Jesus to death.

It’s ironic too, from a Christian perspective, that the revenge he has in mind is stoning, given Jesus’ using the occasion of such a stoning to condemn hypocrisy – ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ (John 7.53-8).  Since the narrator’s attitude to Jesus is no less oppressive that that of the Roman occupiers to the narrator, the narrator is condemning himself out of his own mouth as a hypocrite.

There are numerous further ironies arising from the narrator’s choice of expression. If he is the beggar ‘blowing you a kiss’, he’s unconsciously condemning himself as a traitor to Jesus by associating himself with Judas’ mode of betraying Jesus to the authorities. And earlier he complains about being ‘drenched in the light that shines from the sun’. In addition to the surface meaning, that he is so drenched is true if ‘sun’ is read as ‘Son’, for Jesus saw himself as the ‘Son of Man’ whose God-given task was to free the chosen people from oppression (and of course Jesus is often taken to be the literal son of God). As an opponent of oppression, the narrator is, then, blindly criticising someone who’s on his side in being against oppression. Being drenched in a light cast by Jesus should give the narrator an advantage, but it’s one which he doesn’t appreciate. Instead he threatens to make Jesus’ ‘eyeballs swim’, thereby  unconsciously using a similar image of water to express thoroughly anti-Christian, violent feelings. And any association of drenching and swimming with baptismal water has been lost on him.

Just as he associates himself with water, but in a way which misses the point, so he associates himself with the sun in a way which misses the point. While ‘circling around the southern zone’ can be interpreted as a reference to his own movements in Judea, it can also be taken as an unconscious identification of himself with the sun (son). The sun’s (apparent) rotation around the earth occurs in the southern part of the sky, and so over the southernmost part (zone) of the earth. The irony here  is that someone who distances himself from Jesus should unwittingly seem to associate himself with him.

It’s perhaps worth noting that when the narrator is ‘circlin’ around’ the southern zone, he is made to sound like a bird of prey. Since he’s also been ‘around’ with the ‘risin’ men’, they too are perhaps to be seen as birds of prey. The image suggests that their success is pursued by way of exploiting others.

The narrator’s ironic application to himself of what applies so much more valuably to Jesus continues with his complaints about having suffered ‘so many blows’ and to having ‘been though Hell’. Jesus, of course, suffered actual blows – scourging – and quite literally, according to the ‘harrowing of Hell’ tradition, visited Hell immediately following his death, in order to free those who didn’t deserve to be there. The main effect of the narrator’s complaint about having ‘been through Hell’ is to point out how pathetically inconsequential his outlook is compared with Jesus’. Whereas he moans about his own situation, Jesus acts to improve the situation of others.

That there are these, albeit ironic, similarities between the narrator and Jesus makes it all the more tragic that the narrator opposes Jesus, for in opposing Jesus he is, by implication, opposing himself. To bring about the destruction of Jesus is to bring about his own destruction.

The ironies continue when the narrator declares ‘The more I die, the more I live’. Presumably he means his life is so bad, it’s a sort of living death – the only living he does is a matter of dying. In ironic contrast his opponent, Jesus, actually did die, as opposed to merely using the idea of dying as a self-pitying exaggeration of his unhappiness. Whereas the narrator is egotistically concerned only about himself – …’I die…’, ‘… I live…’ – Jesus made life (in the sense of eternal life) possible for everyone. The more he died, the more everyone else was able to live.

Further ironies occur in the fourth and fifth verses. Jesus is called as a ‘bastard’, and told ‘If only you could prove who your father was’. Since, according to the tradition, his father is God, the narrator seems to invite the response ‘If only you knew who his father was!’ Jesus is criticised for crossing the line – perhaps meaning going too far politically, or of being a turncoat. There’s irony in the word ‘crossed’ since it was by way of dying on the cross that Jesus was able to achieve what he did. The reference to a drug in his wine only serves to point to the blood Jesus shed for others which it represents . The narrator is derisively condemning those things of which he fails to see the value.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is in the repeated line:

‘I pay in blood, but not my own’

The irony is two-fold, for in spite of both Jesus and the narrator making some sort of blood sacrifice, there is a crucial difference in the reason for making it and in the manner of its being made. Where Jesus was acting in the interests of mankind generally, the narrator is acting in his own political interests. And where Jesus paid in his own blood for the salvation of others, the narrator is adamant that it’s only the blood of others which will be spilt, presumably in the pursuit of his political ends. Despite his bragging about his bravery, when compared with Jesus the narrator comes across as pusillanimous – not prepared to put his life on the line for his beliefs. In this context the demand that Jesus ‘show me your moral virtues first’ comes across as a ridiculous case of the pot implying the kettle’s black. Ultimately, perhaps, he does in fact again end up paying with his own blood in that his negative outlook on life has made him self destructive. It’s plausible that he, like Judas with whom he unconsciously associates himself, will end up committing suicide.

The song works, then, equally as a condemnation of a narrow-minded, bigoted  narrator out of his own mouth and as a warning about how the moral failings he exemplifies might continue to result in unnecessary suffering. At the same time it extols the moral virtues of self-sacrifice and, by implication, compassion. The association of these with Jesus perhaps implies that ultimately it’s these which will prevail.