The final song on Time Out Of Mind is again in the form of a monologue presenting the narrator’s thoughts. Things have moved on, though, in that the narrator is no longer obsessed by his failed relationship. His former lover isn’t even mentioned. His intention now is to arrive at a state, represented by the Scottish Highlands, which will make him happy.

It’s made clear, however, that his approach is wrong. It leads him increasingly to withdraw from the world, with the result that there’s no lifting of his former depression.  It also becomes clear that the spiritual fulfilment he craves will only be achieved by his engaging more fully with those around him.

The Narrator’s Character

A number of character traits in evidence on earlier songs are just as apparent here. The narrator’s earlier indecisiveness is shown in a ludicrously exaggerated way in the restaurant. Not only can’t he decide what food to order, but he can’t even decide whether he knows he can’t decide! Furthermore his former relationship and his reaction to its break up seem to be mirrored in his rather arbitrary choice of food and his response when it isn’t available. In each case he doesn’t even consider alternatives open to him, but responds by wandering around aimlessly.

An excessive concern for material wealth also seems to be in evidence here, as it was on Million Miles and Cold Irons Bound. In this song he sees even his conscience only in terms of monetary value:

‘What would I do with it anyway? Maybe take it to a pawn shop’

There’s no recognition that spiritual fulfilment requires acting in accordance with one’s conscience.

Similarly, any impression that his declaration:

‘I don’t want nothing from anyone’

is an expression of commendable self-sufficiency immediately evaporates when he follows it up with ‘ain’t that much to take’. The highwayman of Cold Irons Bound is again in evidence.

In addition to implying he’d willingly be parasitical on others, this last comment can also be seen as an instance of his ongoing pessimism. It’s not the only one. Others include his dismissing life as a ‘rat race’ and saying he’s on ‘anything but a roll’. He says resignedly that ‘there’s less and less to say’, an impression perhaps resulting from a tendency to rely too much on himself for company. The result of his pessimism is his acting without any precise, clearly attainable objective in mind. Instead he just drifts.

In the light of all this it’s difficult to see that the narrator has made much progress. He does have the aim – albeit a misguided one in the literal sense he means it – of getting to the Highlands, but he seems to have no more idea about how to achieve this than he had about how to revive his defunct relationship. He claims to be determined to ‘figure out’ how to get there, but even so it’s notable that ‘figuring out’ doesn’t require any physical exertion. One suspects that soon the Highlands will have ceased to matter to him, in much the same way as his former lover has.

There is however some indication that he’s acquiring the self-knowledge which would be required for him to live happily. He’s clearly aware now that he thinks in monologues, something which in earlier songs had been apparent only to the listener. That might be the spur to getting him to engage again with other people. There also seems to be some cause for hope in that he’s modest enough to admit to being ‘lost’ and  to having ‘made a few bad turns’.

Finally, with respect to his character, whereas in Cold Irons Bound he’d only found it odd that he was hearing voices, there’s more indication now that he’s aware he might be on the verge of mental illness:

‘Insanity is smashing up against my soul’

The expression is ambiguous, however. It’s unclear whether it’s his soul or insanity which he thinks is being destroyed. For him to have a chance of surviving it needs to be the former; he needs to realise that insanity is close to destroying him. Even on this interpretation, though, there’s no suggestion that his realisation will result in action. By treating insanity as something external to him he can distance himself from it as if rectifying it is no concern of his.

The Waitress

The restaurant episode is important for bringing out further faults in the narrator’s character – including the song’s main concern, an unwillingness to relate positively with others. It does so by enabling us to compare him with, as well as assess the way he relates to, the waitress.

Despite a roughness of manner, compared with the narrator the picture we get of the waitress is positive. She comes across as resourceful since she’s able to supply the pencil and paper necessary for his drawing. Not only can she supply what he can’t, but this has the effect of drawing attention to a failing which might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Pencil and paper are the very things which, as an artist, one might have expected him to have.

We’re told too that she ‘studies’ him ‘closely’, and from this we can assume her impression of him is going to be accurate. That this is so is corroborated by her being able to tell he’s an artist. He, by contrast, comes to an immediate and highly superficial impression of her:

‘She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs’.

It addition to being superficial, this observation shows him to be sexist. Although she doesn’t hear the above description as the listener does, she’s alive to this. Her later remarks

‘…”You don’t read women authors, do you?” ‘


‘… “you just don’t seem like you do”‘

clearly imply she sees it. The simplistic and unflattering drawing, and his adding insult to injury by insisting it’s a true likeness, are enough for her to have come to a judgement. That she’s right to see him as sexist is further corroborated by his later dismissively referring to ‘fake’ blondes, when he admits he ‘can’t tell a real blonde from a fake’, and by his reference to the young men in the park as being with ‘their young women’.

In the light of the narrator’s ongoing sexism it’s ironic that the one woman author he is able to admit to having read is a feminist.

The narrator is, then, both unresourceful and sexist.  Instead of engaging positively with the waitress, he ridicules her. His rudeness continues right up to his departure, for when she has to leave him briefly (for ‘a minute’) he impolitely just gets up and goes. It is this unwillingness to engage with others which threatens to be his undoing.

The Highlands As Unreal

It’s made quite clear that the narrator is wrong in assuming that life in the Scottish Highlands will more than make up for his failure to engage with other people in his present surroundings. This marks a difference between the song and Burns’ short poem My Heart’s In The Highlands, the wording of whose title is borrowed by Dylan. Burns, like Dylan’s narrator, presents the Highlands nostalgically:

‘My heart’s in the highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer,
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go’

The difference is that there’s no indication in the Burns poem that the Highlands are far from ideal. In Dylan’s song there is.

The narrator’s romanticism fools him into thinking that life in the Highlands would be significantly different from life in America. This comes across in a number of ways. The fire which we learnt took hold of his house in Till I Fell In Love With You is still present in the Highlands’ capriciously ‘blazing’ bluebells. And because they blaze despite the presence of ‘Aberdeen waters’, it seems that being on fire is likely to be no less of a problem in the Highlands than elsewhere.

That the narrator has misjudged the Highlands also comes across in his description of:

‘Big white clouds like chariots that swing down low’

While these are not rain clouds, they are still clouds, and so can be seen as representing imperfection. Furthermore, they are presumably not dissimilar to the clouds at home which failed to produce rain at the time of his house fire. And if their whiteness is the attraction, perhaps because it symbolises good, there are white things where he is anyway – notably the waitress’ ‘long white, shiny legs’.

Even if white were to symbolise good, it’s clear that there’s less white than one might expect. The lake is called the Black Swan – and black often serves to represent bad. It cannot be auspicious if the swan, the one thing one would expect to be white, is black.

Another reason for thinking he has a too rosy view of the Highlands is that it seems to conflict with what he really likes. He yearns for the wind which:

‘… whispers to the buckeyed trees in rhyme’

but his longing for the soft sounds of whispers seems to conflict with his liking loud music so much he’ll risk angering others by turning the sound up.

Similarly his romanticising the ‘horses and hounds’ seems to conflict with a readiness to avoid a dog in Boston on the dubious ground that it’s mangy.

His delusion that life in the Highlands would be perfect is also made apparent in his yearning for:

‘… the twang of the arrow and a snap of the bow’

His romantic outlook prevents his associating bows and arrows with death. As far as animal welfare is concerned, things are no better in the Highlands than in Boston where one might buy a ‘full length leather coat’ without pausing to consider where the leather comes from.

Everday Life As Positive

It’s clear that the picture the narrator presents of the Highlands is of a place far more fault-ridden than his yearning suggests should be the case. Conversely it’s also clear that the narrator’s everyday environment has positive qualities which don’t appear in his picture of the Highlands. In Boston he sees:

‘… people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes’

It’s significant that they’re ‘in the park’ since it implies it’s not necessary to go ‘way up in the border country’ in order to forget ones troubles. That they’re succeeding in doing so suggests that their approach to life is one the narrator would do well to adopt.

Similarly whereas the only colours mentioned in connection with the Highlands (other than the blue in the bluebells) are black and white, it’s significant that in Boston people are:

‘… drinking and dancing, wearing bright coloured clothes’

The bright colours in particular are clearly an attraction the Highlands lack.

It’s not the case, then, that ‘the party’s over’, as the narrator puts it. On the contrary, everyday life seems to have at least as much to recommend it as life in the Highlands.

Religious  Imagery

The narrator’s misguided attempt to achieve spiritual fulfilment in the Highlands is reflected in the song by the use of traditional religious images. On one level the Highlands represent a better existence which the narrator thinks is achievable by turning his back on his present surroundings. On another, they represent an ideal state – Eden before the fall, or heaven perhaps.

The heaven interpretation is supported by the narrator’s announcement that he’ll go there when he feels ‘good enough’ to do so. It’s also supported by the Highlands, like the traditional heaven, being high up.  The narrator has an affinity with things which are ‘up’ and an aversion to those that are ‘down’.  He wants the music turned ‘up‘ and he slides ‘up‘ out of his chair. Conversely he’s told to turn the music ‘down’ and sits ‘down’ in the restaurant. ‘Down’ here represents the misery he associates with engaging with others – authority figures, perhaps, and the waitress.  Nevertheless, despite their being presented as a sort of heaven, the Highlands – at least as he envisages them – are illusory. What the narrator craves is more likely to be found in ordinary, everyday, social existence.

Eggs are another religious image. Often they’re taken to symbolise new life, and particularly new spiritual life. But spiritual life is not a commodity to be obtained directly by paying for it. Accordingly their unavailability in the restaurant can be seen as representing the narrator’s inept approach to spirituality. The sun too can be seen as representing this:

‘The sun is beginning to shine on me
But it’s not like the sun that used to be’

If ‘sun’, in the first line, is read ‘Son’, the suggestion now is that the narrator’s future happiness will depend on living in accordance with Christian precepts (such as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’) which can be done only by engaging with others.

Earlier, on getting up to leave the restaurant he’d relinquished the opportunity to engage with humanity as represented by the waitress. Far from emulating Christ, he became the snake in the Garden of Eden – slithery:

‘I slide up out of my chair’

Eternity And The Present

What the narrator hasn’t realised is that if he engages fully with the people and things of this life, he will in the process be experiencing eternal life. Eternal life, so understood, is to be seen not as an escape from time into some sort of eternal realm, but as life which is lived fully in the present.

Instead of his seeing his life as eternal, in this sense, it’s clear that the narrator sees the world in purely temporal terms – past, present and future. Yet he has some intimation that such a view is impoverished. He says, for example:

‘I wish someone would come
And push back the clock for me’

thereby showing a desire to escape from the present into the past. This desire to escape the present is misguided since it’s only in the present that he can find eternal value (a fact perhaps reflected in the song’s being written entirely in the present tense). What matters is what he does now.  Instead he tries to avoid the present. He even seems to try to convince himself that he’s not actually in the present, but either in the past or the future. So, he seems to be in the past when he says:

‘I’m listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound
Someone’s always yelling “Turn it down!”‘

Judging by the frustrated, somewhat intolerant response, ‘Turn it down,’ he seems to have regressed to his time as a (possibly annoying) teenager. The opposite is the case in the restaurant where he speaks as if he’s in the future:

‘I don’t do sketches from memory’

As the waitress points out, there cannot possibly be any reason to consult his memory. Memory is only ever of use in looking back from the future. Ironically his illusion that he’s in the future does actually show a need the clock to be pushed back. He has, as the waitress puts it, ‘chosen the wrong time to come’.

It’s not just that the narrator has chosen the wrong time (the temporal as represented by the past and future, rather than the eternal as represented by the present) in his search for a better life. He’s also chosen the wrong place – the Highlands rather than his present surroundings.

Despite these confusions, the narrator makes a curious statement which might show that he has at least some understanding of the mindset he needs to adopt. Referring to the Highlands, he says:

‘That’s where I’ll be when I get called home’

At first glance this seems nonsensical. He seems to be saying he’ll already be there when he gets called there! But in a sense this is true. If the Highlands represent eternal existence then he is already there, at least in the sense that his present surroundings can provide that eternal existence. Accordingly, in saying he’ll be there when he gets called there, the narrator seems to have a glimmering of the truth that he doesn’t need to go anywhere to find the sort of eternal life he craves.

Failure To Engage

Despite this, the narrator shows little recognition that the Highlands as he tends to envisage them are a poor substitute for the eternal existence already available to him. In the restaurant he fails to properly notice to the waitress. As she puts it, ‘I’m right here in front of you, or haven’t you looked!’ He hasn’t looked. And he doesn’t look. If he looked, it wouldn’t be the case that he couldn’t see ‘any other way to go’ than that represented by the Highlands.

It’s not just the waitress he doesn’t see. He thinks ‘there’s nobody in the place’, ‘there’s nobody around’ and, once he leaves,  there’s ‘nobody going anywhere’.  Whether or not there actually is ‘nobody’ is unclear, but he’s so detached from the world it wouldn’t be surprising if this were an illusion.  Up to a point he recognises this detachment, when he tells us he feels:

‘… further away than ever before’

and that to him:

‘Everything looks far away’

Such recognition is of little value, however, if it’s not a precursor to doing something about it, and for that he shows little inclination. If only he realised it, his seeing what he mistakes for eternal life as ‘over the hills and far away‘ is another case of seeing as distant something in fact present to him.

While on leaving the restaurant he forgoes one chance of engaging with humanity, and so acquiring eternal life, there’s a suggestion that he’ll soon have another such chance:

‘I step outside …’

Since he’s already recognised that he can achieve eternal life ‘one step at a time’, his stepping outside indicates that he’s doing something towards that end. That there is such an opportunity becomes apparent when he sees examples of happiness which one feels could provide a model for his own spiritual wellbeing:

‘I see people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes
They’re drinking and dancing, wearing bright coloured clothes’

He also notices:

‘All the young men with their young women looking so good’

If they’re to be a model, it’s pertinent that they’re ‘looking so good‘ because he’s already recognised he can only acquire eternal life – what he mistakes for life in the Highlands – when he’s ‘good enough to go’. It’s also pertinent that he says he’d be willing to become like them ‘in a minute, if I could’. We’re reminded that it was ‘a minute’ which cost him his previous opportunity to acquire spiritual fulfilment –  when the waitress left him for that amount of time.

There are two reasons one feels he won’t seize the new opportunity. First, he’d like merely to ‘trade places’ with the people in the park – that is impose his misery on them in exchange for their happiness, rather than simply become like them. He’s seeing happiness, like his conscience earlier, merely as a commodity to be traded rather than as something of spiritual value. Secondly, as if anticipating criticism for not being more outgoing, he pompously declares:

‘Some things in life, it gets too late to learn’

– which he’s only too willing, it seems, to believe.


The last verse of the song, and of the album, holds out some hope for the narrator. Whereas in earlier songs the emphasis was on night, now it’s on dawn with its suggestion of a new start:

‘Well, my heart’s in the Highlands at the break of day’

As the album has progressed there have been a few signs of improvement in the narrator’s outlook – notably on Can’t Wait where the possibility of adopting a new eternal outlook seemed to have been glimpsed. However, while this song continues the trend, it’s clear that the turnaround is far from complete. He expresses some new found optimism in thinking he’s some way towards getting the life he covets – ‘I’m already there in my mind‘ – but even this level of optimism is unfounded. The hope offered by the Highlands – taken literally as he does -is a false hope. Rather than working out how to get there physically he needs to see that physically, in the only sense that matters, he’s already there. What’s lacking is being there in his mind – in the sense that he hasn’t yet realised the importance of engaging with the people and things around him.


Last revision 4.10.2016

Can’t Wait


Throughout Time Out Of Mind there has been a gradual development in the narrator’s mental state. This development not only continues in Can’t Wait, but speeds up considerably. At the beginning of the song the narrator seems desperate for his lover to return. He’s no longer kidding himself as he was on Make You Feel My Love that she hasn’t ‘made her mind up yet’. Now he accepts she has and this puts him at the end of his tether. Unexpectedly, however, by the close of the final verse his longing has all but disappeared.

The main aim of what follows is to assess various candidate explanations for this development. These are the narrator’s beginning to adopt a new perspective on the relationship, changes in his emotions and sexual desires, and the possibility of his simply having given up. There will be a little discussion of his lack of purposive behaviour, but some familiar character traits – such as his pessimism and lack of discrimination – will be taken for granted.

Time v Eternity

The song begins with a sense of urgency – ‘I can’t wait’ and ‘It’s late’. It’s being ‘way past midnight’ suggests that something the narrator wants is long overdue. We can assume that what he’s waiting for is for his lover to return. The refrain, too:

‘And I don’t know how much longer I can wait’

constantly reminds us that the narrator feels he can tolerate only a limited amount of further delay to his desire being satisfied.

And an even greater sense of urgency might seem to be created in the final verse by the observation:

‘… the end of time has just begun’

If time itself is ending, the narrator’s hopes are doomed.

By the end of the song, however, there’s been no panic. Contrary to our expectation all sense of urgency seems to have dissipated.  The ending of time is apparently no more than ‘mighty funny’, and by this stage the narrator is capable of merely ‘strolling’ through his memories (‘the lonely graveyard of my mind’) as if he no longer has a care in the world. So  in what sense has the end of time just begun if this doesn’t demand urgent action?

One possible answer is that ‘the end of time’ refers to timelessness, or eternity. If so, action cannot be urgent because action outside time cannot exist at all. Instead ‘the end of time’ can offer consolation to the narrator in that it gives a non-temporal permanence to things which he values, but which from a non-temporal perspective are transient. What matters isn’t that timelessness, or eternity, has literally just begun (that’s to view it from a temporal perspective) but that it exists. To what extent the narrator appreciates this, if at all, remains unclear.

The possibility of non-temporal, or eternal, existence also has consequences for the way some of the narrator’s other comments are to be interpreted. Just as with ‘the end of time has begun’, the perspective – temporal or eternal – makes a difference. So for example, when the narrator complains:

‘… after all these years you’re still the one’

it’s only a plea for sympathy if interpreted temporally. He’s saying he continues to love her in the way both he and she originally loved each other. But viewed non-temporally, the years drop out. We’re left with the non-temporal permanence of their original shared love.

The same applies to the statement:

‘I left my life with you somewhere back there along the line’

This can be interpreted non-temporally if ‘back there’ is given a purely spatial reference. The effect will be that the statement now expresses a different truth. It will no longer be saying that his life with her has an existence only in the past. The way is open for it to be seen as non-temporally permanent.

The possibility of his interpreting ‘the end of time’ in this way holds out some hope for the narrator. What matters ultimately is not the future of the relationship, but its eternal (timeless) nature. In the light of this, his claim that he’s ‘standing at the gate’ might be seen as meaning he’s on the threshold of eternity.

Whether the narrator has taken on the full significance of the end of time having begun is unclear. While it’s true he’s no longer bedevilled by a sense of urgency, it’s also the case that the primary meaning of the comments just quoted is temporal. If he were fully aware of its significance, it’s unlikely he’d dismiss it as ‘funny’ or, at the end of the song, still regret not having been ‘spared’.


It’s possible, then, that by ‘the end of time’ the narrator has in mind something unconnected with eternity. It’s plausible that it’s an allusion to the effect on him of the break-up. It would be an exaggeration, but it would be in character for him to exaggerate. There’s no obvious reason why he shouldn’t have come to accept that the relationship is over and such an acceptance would in itself explain the lack of urgency evinced at the end of the song.

There is some positive reason too for thinking he might have come to accept the end of the relationship. In Cold Irons Bound he’d bemoaned that his love was ‘taking such a long time to die’. By the end of Can’t Wait it might be that it has died. This seems likely given that in the next song, Highlands, his former relationship doesn’t even get a mention. It would also explain why he sees the end of time as ‘mighty funny’. Given the emotional turmoil he’s been in since the break up, it might well seem strange that his lover doesn’t matter to him anymore.


That he’s been able to accept that the relationship has ended would seem to be supported by a comparable change in his attitude towards sex.

When in Cold Irons Bound the narrator bemoans that his love is taking ‘such a long time to die’, he might be using ‘die’ to allude to reaching sexual climax.* His complaint would thus be about a lack of opportunity for sex as a result of his lover leaving. That that’s the case in the second verse here too is suggested by his answer to the question about what ‘keeps me loving you so’. In the very next line he says:

‘I’m breathing hard, standing at the gate’

The language is clearly sexual, suggesting that sex might his true motivation for wanting her back. The same applies to the expressions ‘the sweet love that we knew’, and even his use of the clichéd ‘honey’, given that ‘sweet death’ is a synonym for orgasm.

Support for the view that by the end of Can’t Wait his attitude towards sex has changed comes from there being an increasing lack of intensity in the sexual language he uses.  ‘The air burns’ is less intense than the equally sexual ‘burning to the sky’ found in Till I Fell In Love With You. ‘I’m breathing hard, standing at the gate’, being purely anticipatory, is less intense again. Already it would appear that a gradual diminution in intensity is underway.

Finally, towards the end of Can’t Wait, his saying:

‘I’m looking for anything that will bring a happy glow’

suggests all intensity has gone. Indeed the final quotation’s ‘happy’ and ‘glow’ both have positive connotations suggesting he no longer sees his well-being in terms of sexual satisfaction.


Another meaning the narrator might have in mind when referring to ‘the end of time’ is his own death. If at the end of the song he’s come to accept that his life is over, this would explain the lack of urgency. That he allows death to dominate his thoughts is suggested by his regular use of dark terms such as ‘night’, ‘doomed’ and ‘graveyard’. When he tells his lover:

‘… my heart can’t go on beating without you’

in effect he’s telling her that by ending their relationship she’s killing him. He might even  be interpreted as telling her that if he dies, it will be her fault. That he’d see her as the cause of his death is supported by the immediately preceding line which makes her responsible for the blow giving rise to his heart failure:

‘Your loveliness has wounded me, I’m reeling from the blow’

Since she wouldn’t literally be killing him, we’re left with the impression that the death he’s envisaging would be self imposed. Rather than having killed him literally, she’d have driven him to suicide.

On this view the narrator can end up taking one of two courses. He can either see his life in terms of eternity, and so recognise its non-temporal, permanent value, or reject it by killing himself. By the end of the song it’s still not clear which way he’s going to go.

Lack Of Purpose

Given his early sense of the need for urgency, it’s all the more ironic that the narrator still has no plan of action beyond ‘looking for anything that will bring a happy glow’. His strategy for reviving the relationship has been merely to wait for it to happen. Now that that’s failed, he’s got nothing to put in its place. If he does act, he acts aimlessly:

 ‘It doesn’t matter where I go anymore, I just go’,

 and he’s indecisive:

‘…I don’t know what I would do’

It seems he’d allow a similar lack of purpose to dog any renewal of the relationship since he’d expect the two of them merely to ‘roam together’ rather than go anywhere in particular.

His excuse for just letting some things happen is that he can’t control himself:

‘I’d like to think I could control myself, but it isn’t true’

It’s true that he doesn’t control himself when it’s all too easy to wallow in misery, but merely not doing something is not the same as not being able to do it. The context of this quotation is the thought about what might happen if he saw his lover ‘coming’. If this is interpreted non-sexually to mean ‘approaching’, he seems to be saying much the same as In Cold Irons Bound where his reaction to seeing her was ‘One look at you and I’m out of control’. And yet on that occasion he seemed to be anything but ‘out of control’ – he did nothing. Even if ‘coming’ is interpreted sexually, it’s still seems unlikely he’d find it difficult to control himself given the waning of his sexual desire.

The narrator’s explanation for being unable to control himself is:

‘That’s how it is when things disintegrate’

– ‘things’ presumably referring either to the relationship. This is unconvincing. It’s more likely that being out of control would cause things to disintegrate than the other way round. It’s difficult to see why the disintegration of his relationship should cause him to lose control.

Although the narrator realises he needs to justify his lack of purpose, his appeals to lack of control and disintegration fail to do this.


By the end of the song the urgency which the narrator showed at the beginning has waned. The refrain has become an expression of helplessness rather than one of desperation.  Although the urgency is associated with a desire to resume the relationship, including a sexual relationship, its dissipation is not obviously to the narrator’s moral credit. It’s not as a result of positive action on his part that he’s no longer so unhealthily obsessed, but simply that his love and his lust have died. He may even be seeing his own death as the most likely way of resolving his problems.

Nevertheless there are indications that a renewal of the narrator’s moral existence is a possibility. Such renewal would come about if he interpreted  ‘the end of time’ as timelessness or eternity instead of as death. Viewed as timelessly permanent, the relationship –  whose loss he bemoans when viewing it from an ordinary temporal perspective – will be seen to have a value which cannot diminish. Ultimately his moral survival will depend on whether he continues to be as aimless and focussed on death as he appears here, or whether these traits can give way to a full realisation of eternal permanence in the things he values.

* Compare Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap and be buried in thy eye”.

Make You Feel My Love

For those not very familiar with the song it’s worth pointing out a couple of things about it before beginning the analysis. It’s the ninth of eleven songs (all by Dylan, and all of whose lyrics are analysed this site) on the 1997 album Time Out Of Mind. These songs seem to share a common, fictitious narrator whose character seems to develop from song to song as the album progresses. A better appreciation of the song will be had by seeing it in the context of the others.

By this song, the narrator is in a distraught emotional state which, at least initially, gains him our sympathy. While on the surface this seems to be a highly romantic love song, as doubtless it is intended to be by the narrator, it is more than that. Throughout, as on previous songs, the narrator unintentionally exposes weaknesses in his character. In so doing he not only loses some of our sympathy, but makes his lover’s rejection of him all the more understandable.

Sees Lover As A Reflection Of Himself

The narrator’s egocentricity comes out fully in the first verse. The opening lines have him sympathising with his lover, but for being in  a situation which is near to what he sees as his own:

‘When the rain is blowing in your face
And the whole world is on your case’

‘In your face’, in its colloquial sense, might seem to apply to what she sees as him in his relationship with her, rather than the other way about. Also what, we might ask, is meant by ‘your case’? The expression has a pathological feel to it, and would therefore be more obviously appropriate to the narrator whose ‘hearing voices’ in Cold Irons Bound suggested he was becoming insane. Also, rain imagery seems more apposite to him than to her. As early as Love Sick he was complaining that the ‘clouds are weeping’, and in Dirt Road Blues he was ‘rolling through the rain and hail’. In applying his situation to her, it’s as if he’s found an opportunity to feel sorry for himself. It’s wrong, he thinks, that the sympathy he gives her hasn’t been extended to him .

Despite this, the language of the second line goes even further, by implying not just that their situations are the same but that the narrator and his lover are identical. The phrase ‘the whole world is on your case’, makes us remember that in Cold Irons Bound his lover was his world – or so he told us (‘I found my world in you’). There he also felt ‘like the universe had swallowed me whole‘ – thereby unconsciously identifying or merging himself with the universe or whole world – and therefore with her. One consequence of this mutual identity is to make apparent the wrongheadedness of the narrator’s self-centredness. By being concerned only about himself, he brings about a division between himself and his lover, whereas if he were to focus on her needs he would at the same time – given their identity – be addressing his own.

A further consequence of seeing his lover as a version of himself is that he makes her lot out to be as bad as he thinks his own is. This is presented in the song by his references to things associated with night – shadows and stars:

‘When the evening shadows and the stars appear
And there is no one there to dry your tears’

But why stars? Stars are beautiful and not a cause for tears, as the lines imply. Their inclusion is an indication of the narrator’s pessimism – his failure to recognise when things are going well. And we’ve been given no reason to suppose that his lover should be attributed with a similar one-sided outlook.

Untrustworthiness And Other Faults

It’s clear, particularly from the third verse, that the narrator is not to be trusted. First, he seems disingenuous when he says ‘I know you haven’t made your mind up yet’ because in Till I Fell In Love With You he’d referred to ‘the girl/who won’t be back no more’. In addition, the fact that she had reason to leave him makes one treat with suspicion his assurance that he’d never do her wrong. Furthermore, he says he’d known this ‘from the moment that we met’ – but why only from then? There seems to be an unconscious implication that he’d normally be just the sort of person to do her wrong. And when he tells her he’d be able to make her dreams come true, the obvious thing to wonder, if that’s possible, is why he hasn’t he already done so.

Then there’s his claim in the fourth verse that in order to satisfy his lover, there’s ‘nothing that I wouldn’t do’. Like ‘make your dreams come true’ the phrase is vague, as if the narrator is at a loss to think of things he’d actually be willing to do for her. The fact that he is reduced to repeating it in the final verse seems only to reinforce the idea that he can’t think of anything specific he’d be willing to commit himself to.

‘I could offer you a warm embrace’ he says. On the surface it sounds both romantic and caring, just as the narrator intends. But why does he say ‘I could offer you…’? If he were really overwhelmed with love for her, wouldn’t he just embrace her? The formality of an offer suggests he’s more reticent than he wants us to believe.

In addition to being oddly reticent, he seems domineering, even misogynistic:

‘No doubt in my mind where you belong’

This seems to imply that his mind is superior to hers, and the word ‘belong’ implies he thinks of her as his property. Even though he’s referring to himself, the phrase ‘I’d go black and blue’ also carries hints of a dominant temperament. One wonders why the phrase even entered his mind if he’d had no thought of physically forcing her to comply. That he wants to force her is further supported by the wording of the title, repeated in the refrain – he wants to make her feel his love.

Space And Time

In addition to being vague he has a penchant for absurd exaggeration. It’s absurd for him to say he’s known how he’d behave ‘from the moment that we met’.  It’s equally absurd when he goes to the other extreme, claiming:

‘I could hold you for a million years

Even if being held is what she needs, she doesn’t need it for that long. One feels that the narrator is just mindlessly expressing his own feelings. Furthermore, while in one way a million years is ludicrously long, in another it’s too short. Why the time limit? You’d expect him to say ‘I could hold you forever’, and that he doesn’t do so seems further evidence of a lack of commitment.

The phrase ‘million years’ reminds us of the phrase ‘million miles’ used in the song of that name. There he used it to refer to the distance which had grown between them. That distance, a million miles, seemed exaggeratedly long , just as here a period of a million years (compared with forever) can be seen as too short. This inability to successfully represent his relationship in spatial and temporal terms hints at an underlying non-spatiotemporal, eternal nature. That it has at least the potential for such a nature is supported by the notion implicit in the narrator’s language of unity or identity between his lover and himself. Just as this unity overrides spatial distinctions, so the inadequacy of temporal language gives the lie to temporal distinctions.

Need To Change

The narrator seems to recognise at least in principle, though, that he needs to behave differently:

‘Storms are raging on the rolling sea
And on the highway of regret’

Presumably the ‘storms’ represents the turmoil in the narrator’s mind as he contemplates the course of his life – represented by the sea and the highway. Apparently the storms have resulted in his regretting his past behaviour and in an intention to change:

‘The winds of change are blowing wild and free’

The intention seems unfocused though (‘wild and free’) as if any change or series of changes will do. His boast:

‘You ain’t seen nothing like me yet’

shows that he fails to see that change is unlikely to be worthwhile if it’s not purposeful. It looks at best as if the narrator is just going to try out a series of personas, even to the extent of demeaning himself (by ‘crawling down the avenue’). The result will be not just that his lover hasn’t seen anything like him, but that she’s not going to.

At least, though, he recognises that fault might lie with him; there’s been little indication of that up till now.


Like other songs on the Time Out Of Mind album, but perhaps to a greater extent, Make You Feel My Love can only be fully appreciated in the context of the album as a whole. Phrases regularly draw attention to related phrases, and so to themes, dealt with in earlier songs. As a result we see the narrator imposing his own mental state on his lover, showing inconsistency regarding his prospects of reviving their relationship, and conceiving the relationship in terms incapable of doing justice to its at least potentially unified and eternal nature. As in other songs, our sympathy for him is tempered by his constant, and unconscious, revelation of flaws in his character.

Updated 29.10.2019

Cold Irons Bound

In the eighth song on Time Out Of Mind the narrator presents himself as distressed to the point of insanity. He remains as self-centred as on earlier songs, but now appears dangerous having become newly pre-occupied with destruction. Nevertheless, while dark thoughts predominate, one instance of his behaviour suggests he has not totally lost hope.


That he’s hearing voices doesn’t augur well for the narrator. In Million Miles he was more positive about them – they were ‘trying to be heard’. In condemning them there as ‘mind polluting’ he seemed to be treating them as no more than the misguided attempts of others to convince him of his mistakes. In the present song there’s a subtle difference. He’s no longer just irritated by the voices  but, because there’s no one around, he sees them as a symptom of illness, perhaps insanity. It’s as if the world is winning its battle against him.

The narrator’s pessimistic outlook is in evidence from the very start. Time is passing, but he interprets this negatively:

‘Now I’m all used up and the fields have turned brown’

This colour of the fields suggests that it’s the height of summer. However rather than being enthused, the narrator  shows only that he’s aware of life having dried up. And he’s thinking primarily of his own life – or, as he puts it, ‘I’m all used up’. In fact, given that the line begins with the expression which includes ‘ up’, one might have expected it to end with ‘down’ to reflect his state of mind. As it happens, the same effect is achieved by the use of the similarly sounding ‘brown’.

In one way, however, his outlook has become slightly more positive. In the previous song, Not Dark Yet, he bemoans not hearing the murmur of a prayer. Now he acts in a more spiritually positive way:

‘I went to church on Sunday and she passed by’

The result is that he’s rewarded for his effort in going to church by a glimpse of his lover, although the line immediately following shows he doesn’t seem to appreciate this. He doesn’t, for example, take advantage of the opportunity to speak to her. Instead, he just complains:

‘My love for her is taking such a long time to die’

The expression ‘passed by’ above reminds us how, in Till I Fell In Love With You, ‘the clouds passed by‘. There the narrator was bemoaning the lack of rain instead  of acknowledging what could be seen as a blessing. It’s occurrence here likewise suggests that things are not as bad as he likes to imagine – ‘nothing but clouds of blood’.

His pessimism continues. In going over in his mind people he’s known, he seems to exaggerate:

‘I thought some of ’em were friends of mine, I was wrong about ’em all’

Them ‘all’? That suggests he was wrong about those he thought were not his friends. If he’s wrong about them, then he’s wrong to assume everyone’s got him ‘pinned up against the fence’ as he puts it in Till I fell In Love With You. Even so, there are signs of progress in that he’s rarely been prepared before to admit that he was wrong, albeit that the admission here is based on a misjudgement.

There’s a further way in which his outlook has become more positive. In Million Miles the narrator believed he was a million miles from his lover. At least now he’s become far more realistic. He’s twenty miles from her – or at least from the town where he saw her on the Sunday.

Nevertheless he still retains his earlier excessively pessimistic outlook. This is apparent from the refrain and the title which it echoes. The expression ‘cold irons bound’ is ambiguous. It could refer to his intended destination, a place called Cold Irons. Or it could be telling us he’s in chains – bound in irons – and so incapable of moving anywhere. The fact that he’s already moved twenty miles suggests that the former describes his situation better. But the place name, and the use of ‘bound’, nevertheless indicate a perverse state of mind. Even though he’s clearly capable of making progress, he’s determined to convince himself that he isn’t. Exactly the same over pessimistic outlook is present in Not Dark Yet: ‘I know it looks like I’m moving’, he says ‘ but I’m standing still’.


‘The walls of pride are high and wide’

the narrator tells us, presumably accusing his lover of being so proud he’s unable to get through to her. The listener might well wonder, though, if it isn’t the narrator’s pride which is preventing him from admitting his own faults. That his pride is insulating him from necessary engagement with the world is perhaps suggested when he goes on to say:

‘But you can’t see in and it’s hard looking out’

This suggests that he, rather than she, is the one whose built up a wall of pride.

Pride is not the only sign of his being self-centred. He’s given little indication that he’s had the woman’s interests at heart. This is apparent when he suddenly says:

‘It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay’

While he might be referring to beauty generally or the beauty of the relationship, the context makes it seem at least as likely that he’s referring to his lover’s physical attractiveness. If her overriding attraction to him is her beauty, the line might indicate that his interest in resuming the relationship is likely to wane once her beauty has gone. To put it another way, he seems to appreciate her for her effect on him, rather than for herself.

Self interest again seems to be the underlying motivation when he says:

‘Well the fat’s in the fire and the water’s in the tank
The whiskey’s in the jar and the money’s in the bank’

It’s tempting to think that the lines are meaningless – that they’re an attempt by the narrator to convince himself he’s achieved things when he hasn’t. Alternatively they could be taken as an attempt to reassure himself that he’s got what it takes make a good partner – to provide security or ‘protect’ her, as he goes on to put it. But the choice of expression is open to a range of further interpretation. I’ll suggest just one for each half-line.

‘The fat’s in the fire’, a common enough expression, suggests he’s taking satisfaction in the impending disaster he sees his lover as having brought on herself by rejecting him.

‘The whiskey’s in the jar’, though perhaps a way of seeking sympathy by telling us he’s got the means of drowning his sorrows, reminds us of the Irish folk song of that name in which a highwayman misjudges his lover who betrays him to the authorities. The phrase therefore suggests the narrator is likewise guilty of misjudging his lover.

Given that he’s being seen in some sense as a highwayman, ‘the money’s in the bank’ might bev taken to suggest he’s at least glad to have extorted something from the relationship (though it’s unclear what), even though the other person has suffered in the process.

And ‘the water’s in the tank’ reminds us of how in Till I Fell In Love With You he said that his house was on fire. It implies he has the means to put out the fire – whether this stands for his lust or the end of the relationship – but equally that he’s not making the effort to use it.

What’s clear is that in each of his four phrases so interpreted the narrator is unconsciously putting himself in a bad light.

Preoccupation With Destruction

Whereas in Not Dark Yet the narrator’s pre-occupation was with his own approaching death, here the possibility of death is extended to other things. His solution to his problems seems to be to destroy what he sees as their causes. However, he realises that this is impossible:

‘There are some kind of things you never can kill’

 What these things are is unclear. It might be his lover’s present disdain for him, or it might be his ‘love’ which ‘is taking such a long time to die’. Or it might be his lover herself. That it’s his lover seems likely given that ‘kill’ is normally used for the ending of life.

Similarly murderous sounding is the line:

‘It’s harder still to feel your heart torn away’

which, though on one level it refers to the narrator’s broken heart, might also be interpreted as a threat to the lover.

The fact that many murderers hear voices just as he now is suggests that he might be more likely to commit murder than most people.*

A fourth reason for seeing his lover as a potential victim stems from his claim that:

‘Reality has always had too many heads’.

It seems that what he’d really like to do is decapitate it – chop at least some of its heads off. There are two obvious candidates for such destruction – his lover and the Chicago winds.

That his lover is an aspect of reality, and so something he’d like to destroy, is apparent from his seeing her as a world:

‘I found my world … in you’

His reason for destroying her is her having destroyed him – her having ‘torn‘ his heart away.

It’s in that the winds, in his eyes, have also attempted to destroy him that they too might be taken as an aspect of reality that needs destroying. As he puts it, they’ve:

‘… torn me to shreds’.

The use of the word ‘torn’ in connection with both the lover and the winds helps establish that the narrator sees them as equally threatening to him, and so equally in need of annihilation.** But the twofold nature of the task – and presumably the impossibility of taking revenge on the wind – puts him off. It becomes an excuse for not undertaking any of it, and so his lover survives.

That he finds an excuse for inaction is fortunate in that it results not only in the survival of his lover but perhaps of himself. Inaction won’t render his lover an ongoing threat since he’s only imagining that she’s destroying him – she isn’t in any literal sense tearing his heart away. But if he’s right in seeing her as a world of which he is a part, in destroying her he really would be destroying himself. The sense in which this would be so is that, as Donne famously puts it, ‘no man is an island’.

That destroying her would lead to his own destruction is reinforced when the repetition of ‘found my world’ in:

‘I’ve found my world, found my world in you’,

makes us link what he’s saying to another claim involving repetition:

‘It’s almost like, almost like I don’t exist’

Given the near identity of the narrator and his lover, destroying her would be tantamount to bringing about his own non-existence.

Identity With God

Not only does he identify his lover with reality, but also it would seem with God:

‘Looking at you and I’m on my bended knee’

– ‘bended knee’ having connotations of genuflection. This is reinforced by his pronouncement:

‘I’ve found my world, found my world in you’

which, though addressed to the lover, has a religious feel to it. It’s what a devout Christian might say in praying to God. To the extent that the lover is both reality (the world) and God, the world and God are identified. The narrator should therefore welcome being ‘swallowed’ by the world ( ‘universe’) because that will amount to becoming one with God. As it is, he’s too self-centred to relish losing his identity in God. He wants it back so that he can pursue his selfish interests.

That he needs to take a different approach is further indicated in his observation:

‘… the road is rocky and the hillside’s mud’.

‘Rocky’ suggests the foundations of the church (cf Matt 16:18), and ‘hillside’ suggests Calvary. There’s an implicit suggestion, then, that he needs to stop idolising his lover and adopt a more Christian approach to her – that is, having dealings with her for her own sake and not just his. His saying that he ‘went to church on Sunday’ may be an indication of the beginnings of a more positive outlook.


The differences in the narrator’s outlook from earlier songs on the album are subtle. He is still self-centred and pessimistic to the point of seeming to contemplate a violent solution to his problems. However he’s sufficiently in control to be aware of encroaching insanity, and that his destructive approach is self-defeating. Although the language used to present his thoughts suggests a way of resolving his problems, his going to church is as yet the only sign of his taking more positive action.

 * Of course most people who hear voices are neither insane nor potential murderers. Nevertheless that there’s some connection between them suggests that the narrator’s having a propensity for murder should at least be considered.

**The double use of ‘torn’ also makes us want to link the claim about the winds with the one about the heart in another way. The fact that the former is such an absurd exaggeration suggests that the latter might be too. It’s not obvious that having one’s heart broken is worse than another’s loss of beauty.

Not Dark Yet


The song presents the response of someone to the approach of death. Long vowel sounds mimic the slowness of age, and the negative language throughout indicates the narrator’s total loss of hope. He comes across as utterly resigned to dying as he lists the minimal achievements of his life (‘I’ve been to London, I’ve been to gay Paree’) and contemplates extinction (‘Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer’). He’s lost faith in humanity and no longer cares about others. He doesn’t want to die, but unlike the author’s namesake he has no energy to ‘rage at the dying of the light’.

It’s a staggeringly beautiful song, both poignant and disturbing because we recognise the narrator in ourselves – he is us, and his death is our death. Nevertheless, any apparent simplicity is misleading. It’s as much about spiritual death as physical, and hints at the possibility of spiritual salvation. Furthermore, the narrator is made to seem dimly aware of this possibility. The result is a detailed presentation of a troubled mind in conflict with itself.

In addition to presenting the narrator’s reaction to oncoming death, the song follows the others on the album in detailing the narrator’s all too human response to his lost love. He’s moved on slightly from his position in the previous song, but in a way which shows him to be even more depressed than before. At the same time he comes across as self-centred, pessimistic and cursed with a Hamlet-like lassitude, all of which would seem to contribute to his failed life.

Although Dylan’s poetic technique contributes hugely to the song’s impact, I will as usual concentrate on the meaning. For the former there is of course the excellent chapter on Not Dark Yet in Christopher Ricks’ Dylan’s Visions Of Sin.*

Developing Outlook

As the album progresses, some change in the narrator’s outlook becomes apparent. What seems clear is that instead of this being the result of his own doing, he’s just allowing events to take their course. His approach remains as unpurposeful as ever.

Nevertheless, that there’s been some change of outlook is apparent from the contrast between the final verse’s:

‘Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb’

and the opening line of ‘Till I Fell In Love With You’:

‘Well my nerves are exploding’.

Neither position seems to hold out much hope for him. At least in moving from one extreme nervous state to the other one feels there’s a chance he might end up in a more moderate position, but even so there’s little indication that this would be down to anything other than chance.

A similar change of outlook is apparent in the line:

‘I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal’.

Previously, in ‘Till I Fell In Love With You’, he’d been more upbeat:

‘Nothing can heal me but your touch’,

– the phrase ‘but your touch’ suggesting he hadn’t lost all hope. But now, the finality of the expression ‘didn’t heal’ implies he thinks all hope is gone. He’s now more miserable than ever.


One of the causes of the narrator’s failed relationship is almost certainly his self-centredness. This is reflected in his egotistical use of the word ‘I’ nineteen times over the space of twenty-four lines, and of ‘my’ or ‘me’ a further six times. By contrast the third-person pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’ occur a total of just four times. This egotism is still there – by way of assonance – in the lines concerning the lover:

‘… and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writing what was in her mind

And the ‘I’ sounds not only occur again in:

I‘ve been down to the bottom of a whirlpool of lies
I ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ in anyone’s eyes‘**

but, as Ricks observes, they seem to frame the lines as if nothing is being allowed to escape this ego. One feels that if the narrator focused less on himself and more on his lover, his lot would be much happier.

One effect of this self-centredness is a failure to give the lover her due. Immediately after telling us:

‘Well my sense of humanity has gone down the drain’

he says

‘Behind behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain’

While this might be taken to be a welcome recognition that she, too, has suffered, such a recognition wouldn’t explain his loss of a sense of humanity. Although the pain he has in mind could be hers, much more likely it’s his. If it’s his own suffering  he has in mind, the claim would be that it’s caused by what he considers inhumane treatment at the hands of a beautiful woman.

In fact just three lines after the comment about his humanity ‘going down the drain’ we’re told:

‘She put down in writing what was in her mind’

The repetition of the word ‘down’ – ‘down the drain’/’down in writing’ – makes us link the points. It’s as if we’re to think that his disenchantment with humanity has been caused of all things by her writing him a letter.

Immediately following the line ”Behind behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain’, the word ‘kind’ appears again:

‘She wrote me a letter, and she wrote it so kind

The effect is to reinforce the view that he’s too focused on himself. While what he says appears generous in acknowledging the effort she’s making, his previous use of ‘kind’ in ‘some kind of pain’ suggests that what he’s really focused on his own suffering – the ‘kind of pain’ she, or her letter, has given him.***


The repetitions of ‘down’ cited above can also be taken as a further indication of the narrator’s self-centredness. They suggest a determination to wallow in misery rather than take decisive action. This continues to occur when he complains:

‘I’ve been down to the bottom of a whirlpool of lies’

ironically seeming not to remember that at least some of the lies were his.****

That he considers himself at rock bottom is further apparent from the way we he keeps using the word ‘even’ for emphasis after negative words – ‘There’s not even room enough’, ‘I don’t see why I should even care’, ‘I can’t even remember’, ‘Don’t even hear’. The effect is to give the impression that things couldn’t be worse.*

A pessimistic outlook is apparent right from the start of the song.  In the first line the narrator focuses on shadows, but without acknowledging that shadows are themselves a result of a light source such as the sun. Similarly when he complains about its being too hot to sleep, he ignores the fact that it’s the sun which produces the heat. By focusing on the negative he fails to see the counter-balancing positives.

Religious Imagery

This excessively negative attitude towards the sun appears again half way through the opening verse. The significance is now moral. The narrator could have blamed his own inadequacy for the ‘scars’ he’s been left with, but rather than blaming himself he blames the sun:

‘I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal’

Obviously it’s absurd to blame the sun for not curing his depression. However what’s important is that the sun would be a physical cure. Since his suffering can be seen as the result of an inferior moral outlook, his refusal to engage with the concerns of his lover, his blaming the sun draws attention to his failure to go after the required spiritual cure.

This is perhaps hinted at further in the use of the word ‘sun’ since it can also be heard as ‘Son’. The role of the Son – Christ – was to make such spiritual regeneration possible. Even on this reading, though, the narrator’s complaint is inappropriate. It is no more the task of Christ to provide a moral or spiritual cure than it is the task of the sun. Therein, as Shakespeare says, the patient must minister to himself.

Other religious imagery pertains to the Old Testament. The narrator’s spiritual apathy leads him to declare:

‘Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb’

The line brings to mind the shame of Adam and Eve when on their dismissal from the Garden of Eden they first became aware of their nakedness (Genesis 3.7). Nakedness is the narrator’s punishment just as it was theirs. The comparison is also apt in that, like Adam and Eve, the narrator has difficulty admitting that what befalls him is the result of personal wrongdoing.

In another presumably unconscious use of biblical language the narrator exclaims:

‘Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear’

It’s interesting that he expresses his apparent plea for sympathy in words similar to Cain’s ‘My punishment is more than I can bear’ (Genesis 4.13). Since Cain was responsible for his own plight, the comparison with the narrator is ironically apt.*

Since Adam is the father of all men, the narrator’s association with Adam helps ensure we see the narrator as standing for us all. At the same time like Cain, – and like humanity generally which the narrator represents – he is the inheritor of Adam’s human weakness. In this sense his own failings show he’s right that ‘humanity has gone down the drain’. He needs then to take advantage of Christ’s having made humanity’s spiritual regeneration possible. In terms of the sun/Son imagery he needs to be the sun and so dispel the falling shadows. Since the sun is the Son, the narrator will then be the Son, a second Adam (cf 1Cor 15. 22 and 45) with a role in saving not just himself but humanity generally from ‘the drain’.

The Refrain: Death As Spiritual

If there’s a key line in the song, it’s the refrain:

‘It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there’

‘Dark’ may well refer to physical death which the narrator sees approaching. However, despite the narrator’s tendency to focus on the physical, and to make bleak observations like ‘Shadows are falling’, the allusion may also be to spiritual death. What suggests this is the expression ‘getting there’. Not only does this sound awkward but we’d expect the final word, following ‘getting’, to be a repetition of ‘dark’ –  ‘it’s getting dark’.* The substitution of ‘there’ is significant, perhaps, in that it draws attention to the repeated use of its opposite, ‘here’ – in ‘I’ve been here all day’, ‘I was born here, I’ll die here‘, and ‘what it was I came here to get away from’.  Since ‘here’ is vague, not seeming to pick out any particular place, it would seem to refer to refer to spatial existence generally. That would make the contrasting ‘there’ refer to eternity.  The use of a spatial term for eternity suggests that perhaps unconsciously the narrator sees eternity as something other than mere darkness. In other words he knows deep down that the end of an empty life has a negative significance which goes beyond mere extinction.


It’s in his failure to act that the narrator pays too little attention to his spiritual wellbeing, and the consequences for his lover’s happiness which follow from that.

He says:

‘I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from’

Although, obviously, we’re not told what it is he’s trying to escape, the context suggests it’s his depression.  Nevertheless, the phrase ‘get away’, in reminding us of its opposite ‘getting there’ in the refrain, suggests that getting away might be a matter of getting away from the eternal consequences of his failure to act.

If so, getting away amounts to running away. The narrator fails to act and then, absurdly, tries avoid the consequences by running away. It’s interesting that this is the very thing he accuses time of doing:

‘… time is running away’

While he’s not going so far as to accuse time of moral cowardice, his use of an expression just as applicable to himself suggests he has more self-knowledge than he’s prepared to admit. That, too, might be cause for hope.

Inactivity And Spiritual Death

That it is because of his failure to achieve, or act so as to resolve his problems, that the narrator is verging on spiritual death is made apparent in a number of ways.

Proudly he informs us:

‘I followed the river and I got to the sea’

This, however, is less creditable than might at first appear. Since rivers flow into the sea, following the river is more likely to be a matter of drifting along with it. All he does is go with the flow, never asserting himself or acting decisively.

This failure is emphasised in the lines:

‘I’ve still got the scars…’


‘I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still’

In the first quote the word ‘still’ has a temporal sense, implying that he hasn’t yet got rid of the scars. In the second ‘still’ tells us that he’s motionless. However, the full implications of the second quote are made clear if we take ‘still’ in the temporal sense it has in the first quote. In this way the phrase ‘I’m standing still’ will have the meaning of ‘I remain standing’ or ‘It’s still the case that I’m standing’. The point is that the narrator should realise from the fact that he’s still on his feet, that things aren’t as as bad as he’s inclined to believe. He has, then, no excuse for not setting about resolving his problems.

The narrator’s culpability in this respect is suggested by another play on words – the use of ‘here’ in the line:

‘I was born here, I’ll die here…’

taken in conjunction with the use of its homophone ‘hear’ in:

‘Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer’

He claims he’s permanently, and by implication pointlessly, ‘here‘, while being unable to ‘hear’ a prayer. The hearing of a prayer thus symbolises the spiritual renewal required to make just existing here pointless. Why, then does he not hear a prayer? He could do. All that’s required is that he say one himself. However, just as saying a prayer might symbolise spiritual renewal, so not saying one would symbolise the general inactivity which is bringing about his spiritual death.

That he’s failing to act in the required way also becomes apparent by his telling us what he’s already done: ‘I’ve been here all day’, ‘I’ve been to London, I’ve been to gay Paree’, ‘I’ve been down to the bottom’. What’s noticeable is the repeated use of ‘I’ve been…’. The use is significant. He’s ‘been’ so much, it seems, that he can no longer ‘be’. Accordingly he complains:

‘There’s not even room enough to be anywhere’

Why should all this ‘having been’ go hand in hand with there not being room enough to ‘be’? To be, to exist in a meaningful way in the present, requires having been usefully active in the past. That there’s no room to ‘be’, is because he’s done nothing hitherto to create such room. In other words, there’s no space to ‘be’ because up till now all he’s done is allowed himself to drift along. Since he cannot ‘be’, spiritually he’s as good as dead.

Final Thoughts

‘I’ve been here all day’ the narrator tells us right at the beginning. And as Ricks points out, the song comprises twenty-four lines – one for each hour of that day. Since the day seems to represent the narrator’s life, it’s clear that the song covers the span of that life as the narrator looks back over it.

While the tone is pessimistic throughout, the narrator finding only failure to comment on, there is nevertheless ground for hope. ‘It’s too hot to sleep,’ he complains, and since that sleep is death, it would seem that death is being put off for a little while. The title, too, is optimistic. ‘It’s not dark yet’, it proclaims, and leaves it there without the complementary negativity of the refrain’s ‘but it’s getting there’. The point is that death is not yet upon him; there’s still time for him to turn his life around. And if he manages that, he’ll have staved off spiritual death. Physical death, we must assume, will continue to take its course.

Last revised: 21.8.2016


*Ricks is largely concerned with similarities between Not Dark Yet and Keats’ Ode To A Nightingale, but makes a variety of independent points.  Where I’ve made use of these, and I’ve made no direct acknowledgment, they’re marked with a single asterisk.

**’ I ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ in anyone’s eyes’ is one of three lines in the song apparently borrowed from Dylan’s own Marchin’ To The City where it appears without the ‘I ain’t’. The others are the pair ‘Well, I’ve been to London, and to gay Paree/I followed the river and I got to the sea’. These appear as ‘Go over to London, maybe gay Paris/Follow the river you get to the sea’.

***He, by contrast, does not make a similar effort for her. This can reasonably be inferred from his saying ‘ I see nothing to be gained by any explanation’ in Standing In The Doorway, and ‘I’m tired of trying to explain’ in Till I Fell In Love With You.

****Again, in Standing In The Doorway he says ‘You told yourself a lie/That’s alright Mama, I told myself one too’.

Till I Fell In Love With You

In part the song presents the narrator’s own account of his mental and physical state in the wake of his loss. His inner turmoil is apparent from his sometimes addressing his lover, and then sometimes himself. He describes his feelings, makes judgments about what has happened to him and its causes, makes observations about his environment and his supposed expectations for the future. Much of what he says cannot be trusted, however. He’s contradictory,  he exaggerates the effect of his troubles, he’s inconsistent and he indulges in self-deception. He’s disingenuous too, and throughout he seems to be blaming his lover for the state he’s in. Nowhere is he self-critical about his treatment of her or about his chronic lack of action.


We see an instance of his unreliability as a judge of his own state in the second line of the refrain:

‘I was all right ’til I fell in love with you’

The problem is that this directly conflicts with what he says in Trying To Get To Heaven:

‘They tell me everything is gonna be all right
But I don’t know what ‘all right’ even means’

One of these claims has to be untrue. Only if he knows what ‘all right’ means is he in a position to say he was all right until he fell in love. The claims present his tendency to believe what it suits him to believe rather than what is actually the case.


Even though he feels frustrated, it’s clear that the narrator enjoys exaggerating the effects of his situation. He refers to his nerves ‘exploding’, and to feeling as if the whole world is against him, and claims to feel that his eyes are ‘falling off’ his face – none of which seems remotely plausible in a literal sense. Furthermore he follows up this last remark about his eyes by ‘I’m staring at the floor’ perhaps in order to give colour to the hopelessness of his situation while not realising how pathetic such pointless behaviour makes him seem. Presumably it’s this unnecessary ‘staring at the floor’ which is actually responsible for the pathological eye condition.

His parenthetical ‘If I’m still among the living’ also seems unduly melodramatic, as if he’s determined to indulge in self-pity.

That same self-pity is present in the line:

‘I’ve been hit too hard, I’ve seen too much’

Why ‘too hard’ and not just ‘hard’? And in what sense has he seen ‘too much’? We’re not told, and the claims are exaggerated perhaps so as to provide an excuse for saying:

‘Nothing can heal me now, but your touch’.

The vaguely religious language here (cf Matt 1.40-45) puts the narrator in the position of a leper hoping to be healed by Jesus. The leprosy idea recurs when he mentions feeling his eyes are falling from his face (itself reminiscent of the line in Standing In The Doorway where he anticipates ‘the flesh falling off of my face’). Since he’s not actually a leper, the reason only her touch will heal him (as he sees it) is perhaps that he recognises his position is that of a penitent in need of forgiveness. What’s noticeable is that he doesn’t admit he’s in need of forgiveness. And this is perhaps why he presents himself as a leper, who suffers through no fault of his own, instead of as a penitent.

Inconsistency and Self-Deception

‘Well, my house is on fire, burning to the sky
I thought it would rain but the clouds passed by’

Even though we can assume he doesn’t intend the fire reference to be taken literally, but perhaps as a metaphor for the ending of his relationship, there’s something ludicrous about the narrator’s dead-pan expression here. The same applies if we interpret it sexually – with the addition that it’s even less easy to feel sympathy for his loss if the main thing he misses is sex. Despite this a literal interpretation provides an accurate portrayal of his character in that, in the face of calamity, his reaction is to do nothing.

It also demonstrates a willingness to take up inconsistent positions. In Love Sick he moans that ‘the clouds are weeping’. But he would now welcome rain if it means he can avoid having to act to put out the fire. Just as he believes what it suits him to believe at a particular moment, so his attitude to rain is the one it suits him to take at a particular moment.

His claim that ‘sweat(‘s) falling down’ seems to be an attempt to deceive himself he’s  exerting himself when he isn’t. On the contrary, he’s allowing junk to pile up – the junk ‘taking up space’ in a way which perhaps mirrors the way his inactivity has wasted time.* While his declared intention is to be elsewhere by:

‘Tomorrow night before the sun goes down’

one wonders why it has to be ‘tomorrow night. Why not tonight? Again he’s deceiving himself he’s being purposeful when in fact he’s just procrastinating.

Inconsistency and self-deception seem to be combined when he implies that he’s made an effort to get across his point of view:

‘I’m tired of talking, I’m tired of trying to explain’

In Standing in The Doorway he’d said to the contrary ‘There’re things I could say but I don’t’. And even if he has been ‘talking’ the expression sounds suspiciously vague as if he was talking without any clear purpose in mind. And ‘trying to explain’ would be all very well if an explanation was what was required – rather than, say, an apology. He mentions ‘my attempts to please you’, but this too is vague. Given his normal inactivity one might wonder if the vagueness is designed to cover up their non-existence.


In lines adapted from Dylan’s Marching To The City the narrator wistfully observes:

‘Boys in the street beginning to play
Girls like birds flying away’

He doesn’t comment directly on this, but there are two things we can note. The first is that what he notices is perhaps a reflection of his own behaviour to his lover which may have been responsible for her ‘flying away’ from him. When birds fly away they tend to be doing so from what they perceive as danger.

The second thing to note is that he also seems to associate flying away with his own behaviour because he immediately follows up with:

‘When I’m gone you will remember my name’

Accordingly, to his discredit, his own character seems to encapsulate both the irresponsibility of the boys and the timidity of the girls.

Further disingenuousness is apparent when he appeals to God:

‘But I know God is my shield and he won’t lead me astray’

The relevance of God is not at all obvious  – until one realises that the comfort the narrator takes in God not leading him astray is no more than an excuse for continuing on his present path (doing nothing) on the unlikely ground that it’s sanctioned by God. The fact that in the previous line he says ‘I’m coming to the end of my way’ – implicitly contrasting himself with Christ (‘I am the way’,  John 14.6) also shows how unlikely his approach would be to meet with God’s approval.


This inclination to do nothing doesn’t just seem to be a result of his grief. It seems to characterise his life as a whole. This becomes apparent in the admonition:

‘When I’m gone, you will remember my name’

Why, one might ask, is it his name he singles out as what the lover will remember? Presumably because he has nothing else – no achievements – which he could be remembered by.

And when he tries to make himself seem an attractive proposition, he still manages to avoid any reference to genuine achievement:

‘I’m gonna win my way to wealth and fame’

Not only does this imply he’s got no intention of exerting himself, but he’s hardly likely to entice his lover back by dangling in front of her the prospect of mere uncertain future winnings. His judgment is poor – particularly since in Trying To Get To Heaven he was aware that being a gambler is unlikely to be fruitful (‘Some trains don’t pull no gamblers’).

The refrain too bears witness to the narrator’s chronic inactivity:

‘Still I don’t know what I’m gonna do’

He’s clearly got no intention of doing anything.


The narrator doesn’t seem to have moved forward either literally or psychologically since the previous song Trying To Get To Heaven. Instead there’s been a decline. There at least he repeatedly claimed to be ‘trying’. But that sense of purpose has now given way to utter listlessness, as borne out by the repeated ‘I just don’t know what I’m gonna do’. He’d claimed in the previous song that his lover’s memory was getting dimmer and was ceasing to haunt him. If so he’s clearly suffered a regression.

The fault clearly lies at his own door. In displaying a passivity to rival Hamlet’s, replacing action with a self-pitying exaggeration of his misery, he gives himself no chance. In fact he compounds his problems by failing to be self-critical and to accept any responsibility. For all that, our initial and perhaps abiding emotional response is one of pity. And this desire to temper criticism with compassion must be in part because in his failings we recognise our own.


*It’s noticeable that he blames the junk -‘Junk’s piling up’ – as if he is not responsible for it.

Trying To Get To Heaven

In this fifth song on ‘Time Out Of Mind’ the narrator again unintentionally provides us with an insight into the intricacies of his character as he continues to moan about his lot. He seems to be aware of some change for the better in his situation:

‘Every day your memory grows dimmer
It doesn’t haunt me like it did before’

Nevertheless the majority of the song presents the same pessimistic outlook as the earlier three. In the very opening lines he refers to ‘the heat rising in my eyes’ as if his problems are getting worse. The phrase ‘in my eyes’ is telling, perhaps suggesting that we’re being presented with a highly inaccurate, subjective view . That his account is biased becomes apparent later in his use of negative language, particularly the oft repeated word ‘down’. He’s going ‘down the road feeling bad’, ‘down the river’, and ‘down to New Orleans’. He’s intending to sleep ‘down in the parlour’, and he ‘shook the sugar down‘. It’s notable that the only use of ‘up’ in the song applies to the lover who he expects to ‘close up the book’. He persists in seeing himself as downtrodden by his lover.

The up/down imagery continues in the second and third verses where there’s a contrast between his outlook:

‘You broke a heart that loved you’

 and that of the people at the train station, whose hearts are like:

‘… pendulums swinging on chains’

The movement of a pendulum is from up to down to back up again. In other words the narrator seems to recognise that the normal state of affairs is for the heart to move from happiness to misery, and then back to happiness. The narrator can’t accept that he’ll ever be happy again, though. He sees his heart, far from swinging like a pendulum, as broken. To him his misery is permanent.

The pessimism continues:

‘When I was in Missouri, they would not let me be
I had to leave there in a hurry
I only saw what they let me see’

‘They’ are presumably those he’s close to who offer advice, advice which he spurns because they refuse to go along with his negative outlook.  But why did he only see what he was allowed to? Again, he seems determined to wallow in misery instead of taking control. It’s because he’s being so unduly pessimistic that it’s impossible for others to see things as he sees them, but rather than accept that they might be right he leaves. ‘I’ll close my eyes’, he says in the final verse, meaning it literally. The trouble is, though, that he’s already closed them metaphorically – refusing to allow himself to see things as they really are.

Another attempt to cheer him up meets with the same negative response:

‘They tell me everything is gonna be all right
But I don’t know what ‘all right’ even means’

While it’s probably true that:

‘When you think you’ve lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more’,

that just means things weren’t as bad as you thought they were. Rather than taking heart from this, the narrator instead seems to imply that he keeps going from bad to worse, continually losing more and more. But he’s given us no reason to suppose that that’s the case. From what he’s told us he’s had one loss and one loss only – his lover.

Part of the narrator’s problem, as in the earlier songs, is his inertness. Whereas he needs to take control of the situation, he gives up:

‘Gonna sleep down in the parlour, and relive my dreams
I close my eyes and I wonder, if everything is as hollow as it seems’

Sleeping is about the most inactive thing he could do. And ‘relive’ is the wrong word. It would be normal to relive a real-life experience when dreaming, but he has no worthwhile real-life experience to re-live. All he’s going to do is continue his wishful thinking. He’s left with reliving dreams because there’s nothing successful he’s done which he could re-live.

This inertness comes across again in his references to travel. Whereas other people are preparing to go somewhere – ‘waiting for the trains’, the narrator just complains:

‘Some trains don’t pull no gamblers
No midnight ramblers like they did before’

If he were really the ‘gambler’ and ‘midnight rambler’ he seems to characterise himself as, one would think he’d get on and take whatever opportunity presented itself. Proudly he announces:

‘I’ve been all around the world, boys’

but there’s no evidence of this. Again he seems to be indulging in wishful thinking. The ‘boys’ he’s addressing seem just to be in his mind. He wishes he could brag about something, further impress an admiring audience – ‘boys’ – but makes do with imagining doing it. In fact what he’s actually done seems to have been no more than ‘riding in a buggy with Miss Mary Jane’. He seems proud of it, yet it hardly seems an achievement to brag about. Since he refers to it as ‘a’ buggy, we can assume it wasn’t even his. The unnecessarily deferential use of ‘Miss’ suggests he’s unduly overawed by Miss Mary Jane, presumably due to what he sees as unusual success – having a buggy and a house in Baltimore. Since the reference to her house is soon followed by:

‘Gonna sleep down in the parlour…’

one assumes it’s her he’s expecting to put him up. That he hasn’t got a buggy or house of his own (and especially one with a parlour) seems to fit with his refusal to take control of his life. So does his being prepared to make a burden of himself.

The need to feel he’s achieved something occurs again at the end of the song where the tone becomes positive:

‘I’ve been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down’

While this might not be the exaggeration that having been all around the world was, it again doesn’t really seem to justify the bragging tone. If the reference is to LSD, the brag is of having succumbed to finding solace in drugs.*

This desire to be seen to be active shows the narrator is aware that he needs to take control of his life. He claims to be:

‘Trying to get to heaven before they close the door’

thus showing he knows time is short and if he doesn’t act he soon won’t be able to achieve his aim. That time running out is an issue for him is perhaps apparent too in the reference to clocks in the pendulum image.

‘Heaven’ is just one of a number of religious ideas used to map out the narrator’s life. Presumably he uses it to mean success in his love life. Nevertheless, his assumption that an unspecified ‘they’ are going to close the door on him is another instance of his refusal to take control. He should be making sure he gets into heaven. There should be no question of anyone shutting him out.  And, of course, one feels that the idea of being shut out of heaven is just an excuse for his expected failure to get there. He’s in the same pathetic mindset as when the woman (supposedly) shut the door on him to ‘leave him in the doorway crying’.

Another religious reference occurs in the line:

‘Now you can seal up the book and not write any more’

The words ‘seal up the book’ seem to be adapted from Daniel 12.4. There the prophet is told to keep his knowledge about the ‘end times’ secret – ‘shut up the words, and seal the book’. Here the wording seems to used by the narrator to give his pronouncement the appearance of authority, and perhaps to suggest that having broken his heart there’s nothing more his lover can do to harm him. At the same time it might also indicate a hope on the narrator’s part that his lover will forgo giving her side of the story, perhaps because it wouldn’t put him in a good light.

Another line:

‘I’ve been walking that lonesome valley’

ultimately derives from Psalm 23 – ‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil for you are with me’ – though Dylan’s line is more directly an adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s ‘I’m gonna walk that lonesome valley’. The effect of changing the psalm’s ‘darkest’ to ‘lonesome’ is to imply that the narrator (in each song) is in a state of absolute desolation. However, Guthrie’s use of the future tense suggests a determination which Dylan’s character doesn’t have. The latter’s use of the past tense just makes him seem excessively sorry for himself.

His refusal to acknowledge with the psalmist that he is not alone – people are willing to help him, but he ignores their advice – makes it all the more unlikely he will achieve his aim (‘get to heaven’ or achieve happiness) before it’s too late.

The song provides us with a fine picture of the subtleties and contradictions of human psychology. Although we have only the subject’s own words to go on, we’re able to piece together a much fuller and more accurate picture of his character than he himself is aware he’s providing, or is even aware of at all. The picture we’ve been given is of a complex, but pusillanimous character reacting to a painful loss. While his pain is understandable, it’s clear that he exaggerates his plight and blinds himself to possible solutions. In so doing he deceives himself that he’s doing more than he is. He clearly realises he needs to change his approach while refusing  to accept the help that’s available. Yet at the same time he seems unaware of the deficiencies in his character which underlie his apparent lethargy.


* Lee Hazlewood is quoted as giving the following account of the origin of his song  ‘Sugar Town’: “I was in a folk club in LA which had two levels. I could see these kids lining up sugar cubes and they had an eye-dropper and were putting something on them. I wasn’t a doper so I didn’t know what it was but I asked them. It was LSD and one of the kids said, ‘You know, it’s kinda Sugar Town.’ (Singsnap, accessed 1.8.16).

Million Miles

This again is a song which bears a close relation to other songs on the album. As with the first three our initial reaction is to empathise with the narrator in his clearly intense misery. But just as the first three go on to provide us with a deeper insight into the narrator’s character, so does this one. In it he comes across as self-centred, dishonest, indecisive and irresponsible.

The song  takes up the narrator’s claim in the previous song that the lover left him in the doorway crying. Here she’s told admonishingly:

‘You left me standing out in the cold’

But we find this to be somewhat dishonest because it turns out he was not left out in the cold at all, if this is taken to mean he had the door shut on him having been refused entry. The truth is that the woman left him:

‘Yes the last thing you said before you hit the street,
“Gonna  find me a janitor to sweep me off my feet”‘

Since she is the one who ‘hit the street’, the narrator seems to have been disingenuously appealing for sympathy – his own, or that of anyone listening to him – when he gets us to picture him standing out in the cold. Why bring in ‘the cold’ otherwise?  At the end of the song he implicitly appeals for sympathy again when he says:

‘I know plenty of people put me up for a day or two’

The intention is to make us think he’s downtrodden with nowhere to stay but prepared, nevertheless, to put a brave face on it. That we’re to think this is apparent from the phrase ‘plenty of people’ which implies he’s never going to be without help. But having given the impression we shouldn’t have to worry, he immediately takes this back and appeals for sympathy again by making it clear that the help on offer is limited – to ‘a day or two’.

As in the other songs, the narrator is hopelessly self-centred. ‘You took a part of me that I really miss’, he says. This is almost immediately followed up by ‘You took the silver, you took the gold’. In each case the focus is on him and what he’s lost, and he sees this loss in terms of material wealth. And when he’s not thinking of it as material, he may even be thinking of it- though not prepared to admit it in so many words – in terms of sex:

‘I need your love so bad, turn your lamp down low’

If it’s not sex, it’s romance he wants. Either way he’s failing to address the need to give which a successful relationship requires. His concern is himself – ‘I need’.

As in the earlier songs the narrator comes across as incompetent at dealing with the situation. After his lover’s janitor comment, which should have been a strong hint to him that he needs to give more, his own response – amazingly – is to tell her that it’s fine by him if she looks for someone else:

‘I said “That’s all right mama, you do what you gotta do”‘

So much for ‘trying to get closer’.

It’s ironic that he says:

‘Feel like talking to somebody, but I just don’t know who’

We’re left thinking that if he’d made the effort to talk to her, he wouldn’t be in this position. But, of course, such is his self centredness that he doesn’t even consider talking until it’s what he feels like doing. And when even now he has an opportunity to talk, on hearing ‘voices in the night trying to be heard’, he’s dismissive. The words are ‘mind polluting’. Presumably these voices are his conscience urging him to take appropriate action. But rather than facing up to what he’s being told, he ignores them.

Instead of being decisive, his approach is merely to wonder ‘how long it can go on like this’, and ‘what it’s all coming to’.  And even when he does act, he apparently acts in such a way as seems to confirm our view of him as indecisive and not taking control. We learn this from his admission that the things he did he ‘never did intend to do’.

Instead of taking action his tendency is to procrastinate:

‘Maybe in the next life I’ll be able to hear myself think’

Comforting himself in this way is just putting off the effort of thinking out a solution when the effort needs to be made now.  The religious language – ‘next life’ – perhaps widens the context so that we’re reminded that achieving salvation is a matter for this life. We can only be judged on what we achieve in the here and now.

In addition to being self-centred, dishonest and indecisive, the narrator is inclined to fool himself:

‘You told yourself a lie
That’s alright mama, I told myself one too’

He seems to be implying that his lover’s deception makes his deception alright. A propensity for what seems to be deliberate deceit is seen again in the contradiction between his claims that  he’s ‘drifting in and out of a dreamless sleep’ and ‘I don’t dare close my eyes and I don’t dare wink’.  Furthermore, and rather implausibly, he claims to need her love ‘for the places that I go’. But we’ve no evidence that he goes anywhere at all. He’s mentioned walking through streets and down a dirt road in previous songs, but no destinations have been mentioned. And even if the places he has in mind are those mentioned in later songs, it’s unclear how the woman’s love is relevant. The impression we get is that he’s just fooling himself that he’s making more effort than he is.

The penultimate verse is reminiscent of ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ in that in the repeated ‘Rock me’ he absurdly presents himself as a baby needing to be rocked to sleep. In doing so, he’s putting the onus for action onto his lover; he is the one who gets rocked. That his approach to life is back to front is clear from the way that it’s also the baby that’s doing the rocking:

‘Rock me pretty baby…’

The contrariness of his position is made apparent in the absurdity of wanting to be rocked ‘all at once’ – how’s that possible anyway? – and ‘for a little while’ and ‘for a couple of months’. Not only do the requests conflict with each other, but the final one involves  ludicrous exaggeration. It’s an exaggeration which reflects the exaggeration of the claim ‘I’m a million miles from you’. He isn’t. All that’s needed to close the gap is for him to make the appropriate effort.

Standing In The Doorway

Again the song starts with the narrator walking. And again it can only be metaphorical because in the second line we’re told the ‘jukebox is playing low’. One imagines he’d be unlikely to have a jukebox with him on his walk. In fact, since he’s ‘walking through the summer nights’, the suggestion might be not so much that’s he’s going anywhere, as that time is passing. He could easily be just stuck in a bar, say, doing nothing but drinking his sorrows away, aware of music in the background.

The song is a presentation of the narrator’s state of mind in his own words. From these words we gain a greater insight into his character than he would perhaps like us to have. He doesn’t come across favourably. While he seems wrapped up in the problems of his own love life, the song can also be seen to work as an allegory. It presents general human existential angst (or, less pompously, misery about the apparent pointlessness of it all), and suggests a response in terms of a more outward looking concern for others.

The Narrator’s State Of Mind

As in the preceding songs, the narrator is in a state of inner turmoil. One way this is represented is by his being unable to strike a balance between opposites. There’s the opposition between summer and night, perhaps representing what he believes life can offer and the despair into which he has sunk. The idea gets reinforced later by the reference to the ‘dark land of the sun’. His turmoil is again apparent when he tells us that:

‘All the laughter is just making me sad’

And there’s another opposition related to the speed of events:

‘Yesterday everything was going too fast
Today it’s moving too slow’

Here he’s trying to turn the blame away from himself. The ‘too fast’ and ‘too slow’ seem to represent respectively his perceived  inability to prevent  the events leading to his present state of mind, and the supposed reason for his failure to put matters right. The implication of ‘laughter’ and ‘summer’ in the earlier quotation, is that things are nowhere near as bad as they seem. In fact he seems to admit he’s in the wrong when he goes on to refer  to ‘riding a midnight train’ – ‘midnight’ representing the point of maximum darkness – and to suffering ‘like a fool’.

Whether or not things are as bad as he thinks, the narrator seems determined to wallow in misery. He tells us he’s ‘sick in the head’, that he’s ‘got nothing to go back to now’ and he’s ‘got no place left to turn’. This last claim seems a bit disingenuous since the word ‘left’ implies he’s been actively doing all he can to improve things and has exhausted all possibilities. In fact he seems to have simply  ignored the opportunities represented by summer and laughter.

Ambivalent Attitude

The weakness of the narrator’s character becomes even more apparent when we realise it’s not even clear he wants the relationship he’s lost to pick up again. Twice his uncertainty becomes clear:

‘I don’t know if I saw you if I’d kiss you or kill you’


‘I would be crazy if I took you back’

He seems unprepared to make any concessions. That he knows more is required of him becomes apparent from his admission that:

‘There’s things I could say, but don’t’

Why doesn’t he say them, one might wonder. Is it because he’s too bound up in his own concerns to be bothered with his lover’s? That he knows more is required of him again becomes apparent from his admission that:

‘I see nothing to be gained by any explanation
There are no words that need to be said’

The lines are ambiguous. We wonder if he’s kidding himself that he’s being magnanimous to the woman by not expecting an apology from her, or whether instead he’s reinforcing his earlier refusal to make concessions. If the latter, such a refusal puts his commitment to the relationship in doubt.

A couple of things might suggest that his behaviour is not totally negative, however. He tells us he danced with someone else which, though it did little good, nevertheless might be seen as the beginnings of an acceptance of reality. And although he pathetically keeps telling us he was left ‘standing in the doorway crying’, the fact that he is now ‘walking’ could imply that he has both literally and metaphorically moved on.

The Predicament As Spiritual

The words of the title, ‘Standing In The Doorway’  recur in the repeated line ‘You left me standing in the doorway crying’. ‘The doorway’ is open to a number of simultaneous interpretations. It could be the doorway to the narrator’s own house after his lover has gone off. It could be the doorway to her house after she refuses to let him in. And, looking ahead to the song Trying To Get To Heaven, it could be the threshold to spiritual salvation. In that song he wants to get to heaven before the door closes. Here he seems to believe it’s too late; he’s left outside once it’s been shut. While all three interpretations are plausible, there are quite a lot of reasons for accepting the third in particular.

A Need For God:

As the song progresses, the narrator seems to become more conscious of a need for God. Halfway through he says:

 ‘I know the mercy of God must be near’.

That the narrator now has a concern about redemption is then reinforced by his awareness of a church:

‘I can hear the church bells ringing in the yard
I wonder who they’re ringing for’

The implication of the line ‘I wonder who they’re ringing for’ is – as in Donne’s famous sermon – that they’re ringing for him, though the significance of this seems lost on him. The ringing should serve not just as a reminder about eventual death, but – because they’re church bells – as a warning of impending spiritual death.


That the door can be seen as the door to heaven, or salvation, is further supported by  a reference to fire in a response of the narrator to his predicament:

‘I got nothing left to burn’

There’s no indication that the narrator is aware of any spiritual significance. Presumably he just means that there’s nothing for him any more in life, and that there’s nothing else he can do to improve it. Thus on one level the line emphasises the earlier complaint that he’s ‘no place left to turn’. However, on another,  religious concerns are being re-introduced with an image of hell. The concision of the writing is deceptive, disguising  two possible consequences of imbuing the line with a religious significance.

First, the line suggests the narrator is in danger. There is in fact one thing ‘left to burn’ – himself. The narrator simply doesn’t realise that his spiritual existence is in jeopardy and that he needs to take decisive action.

Secondly, the line suggests hope. He thinks he’s got nothing left, but as yet he has – himself.

These consequences are linked, since if he takes decisive action, he restores the hope he’s lost. While on one level this might be simply  a hope of reviving the relationship, on another it might be a hope of dispelling a more general feeling that life is pointless – that once it’s over, it’s over:

‘When the last days of daylight go down,
Buddy you’ll roll no more’


Religious imagery occurs throughout the song. For example:

‘Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you.
It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow’

The narrator is now Judas addressing Christ. His kiss brings about Christ’s death – and as such there’s no distinction between kissing and killing. Of course, the narrator is just reflecting on the ambivalent nature of the relationship, and the woman’s indifference to him. It’s only the listener who sees him as Judas, and who is therefore aware of an implicit criticism of the narrator’s approach to the relationship.

Another possible reference to Christ comes with the mention of light:

‘The light in this place is so bad
Making me sick in the head’

In a sense it’s the absence of Christ which is represented by the poor light, since Christ famously said ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8.12). Again, there’s no reason to suppose the connection is made by the narrator. The complaint even seems unrelated to his main concern since it’s only if we remember similar wording in Love Sick – where he was ‘walking with you in my head‘ – that we’re likely to relate it to the erstwhile relationship.

A further unconscious reference to Christ might lie in his lament that he’s ‘in the dark land of the sun’ which can be interpreted as an expression of hope – ‘sun’ being read as ‘Son’. If only he realised it, there’s hope where he sees only blackness.

The narrator also likens himself to a leper:

‘And even if the flesh falls off of my face
I know someone will be there to care’

Presumably the leprosy here (as distinct from in ‘Til I Fell In Love With You’) represents the narrator’s misery or his more general spiritual malaise. But who will be there to care? At this point the only obvious candidate is the narrator himself. It’s up to him to cure himself. Nevertheless the leprosy image seems to invoke Christ who  went out of his way to care for those with leprosy (e.g. Matt 8.2-4). The significance is two-fold. First, straightforwardly, there’s the suggestion that the narrator could benefit from whatever it is Christ represents. Secondly, if Christ and the narrator are equally the person there to care for him, an identification between the two seems to be implied. In other words, by taking on the role of Christ, the narrator will at the same time be bringing about his own cure.

This idea is made more explicit in the final line of the song:

‘Blues wrapped around my head’

On one level this tells us he’s still wallowing in misery. But the expression ‘wrapped around my head’ also puts us in mind of the crown of thorns. No longer Judas, he has now become Christ. And as a result he can resolve his problem – in the terms of the song, the misery caused by the loss of his lover. But being Christ means accepting the need to sacrifice one’s own well-being for the sake of the needs and well-being of others. He can no longer stick his head in the sand.


The song, then works on two levels. On the surface level it’s a portrayal of the desolation experienced by someone when a relationship fails. We cannot help empathising with the character, despite recognising his all-too-human failings. On the deeper level it suggests how feelings of desolation are best dealt with. The central idea is that the narrator needs to stop focusing just on himself. In terms of the religious concepts employed, he needs to change from being Judas to being Christ. It’s noticeable in the song that he hardly ever considers the concerns of his lover. As he says:

‘It always means so much
Even the softest touch’

What he means is that even the softest touch means a lot to him. It’s sadly ironic that he fails to realise that others too would appreciate similar consideration. Nevertheless, by the end of the song he does seem to be some way towards achieving the Christian outlook which will both benefit his lover and be the means of dispelling his own misery.

Dirt Road Blues

This second song on ‘Time Out Of Mind’ takes up and advances the ideas of the first – as do most songs on the album. Walking, hoping to continue a relationship, shadows and clouds are again all present. So is the narrator’s lethargy. If walking represents trying to find a way back to the woman, he seems to opt for the easy way out – walking, he says:

‘… ’til someone lets me ride’

And if he’s unsuccessful, he’s:

‘… gonna run away and hide’

– again, pretty pathetic.

The impression that the narrator is pathetic continues into the second verse. ‘Pacing around the room’ is hardly going to achieve much; neither is merely ‘hoping she’ll come back’.

At this point the song takes up a theme barely hinted at in Love Sick.:

‘Well I been praying for salvation
Laying around in a one-room country shack’

The laying around is true to form, but why is it salvation he’s praying for rather than the solution to his problem? Presumably ‘praying’ and ‘salvation’ are both being used metaphorically by the narrator.  He means no more than that his hoping a resolution to his situation will come along. Nevertheless, salvation – being healed spiritually – is a religious notion, and the writer at least seems to be suggesting that the narrator is in need of such healing.

The narrator’s lack of commitment to finding a solution to his problem is again emphasised in the third verse:

‘Gon’ walk down that dirt road, until my eyes begin to bleed
Til there’s nothing left to see’

His behaviour seems ostrich-like – pretending there’s nothing to be aware of if he manages to make himself not see it. In Love Sick we learnt he had apparently blinded himself to his lover’s distress, though this was now starting to affect his conscience. Here he is continuing to delude himself.

He goes on to compare himself to a prisoner in chains, waiting helplessly:

‘Til the chains have been shattered and I’ve been freed’

It’s difficult to see how the prisoner metaphor might be appropriate, since (on the evidence of Love Sick) no one’s preventing him from taking positive action. In fact he just seems to be putting the blame elsewhere for his continuing misery. There’s no hint that he’s trying to escape from the chains.

As in ‘Love Sick’ his listlessness is represented in the fourth verse by shadow-watching. Again, it doesn’t immediately seem to be the positive action required. Here it’s his own shadow, though, so the suggestion might be that he’s at least beginning to achieve self-knowledge. Also the clouds which are weeping in the earlier song have become ‘colours up above’. This too suggests a more positive outlook,  suggesting the narrator is prepared to accept that there’s hope. The nature of the hope is unclear, but there’s a further hint at incipient salvation in the final verse which begins:

Lord, gonna walk down that dirt road…’

This seems more like a genuine apostrophising of God, as if the narrator is at last looking beyond just himself. No substantial progress is made until the third song, Standing In The Doorway however. Here the song ends with his putting  the onus for action on the woman as he waits for her  to ‘holler out my name’.


Minor adjustments 2.3.17