Bob Dylan: Endings

Endings are a very important part of Dylan’s art, and I want to talk about endings particularly in relation to rhymes. You’ll remember the stroke of genius that makes the line, “Oh, Mama, can this really be the end?” be the antepenultimate line of the song in which it regularly appears.

by Christopher Ricks

I want to talk1 about endings. I’m interested in questions of tech­nique, under the aegis of T. S. Eliot’s remark that we cannot say at what point technique begins or where it ends. Endings are a very important part of Dylan’s art, and I want to talk about endings particularly in relation to rhymes. You’ll remember the stroke of genius that makes the line, “Oh, Mama, can this really be the end?” be the antepenultimate line of the song in which it regularly appears. It’s a question that you keep asking yourself in the course of that song, what is really going to be the end of this song? And the rhyme in that refrain is beautifully metaphorical, because it’s a rhyme of the word “end” with the word “again”: “Oh, Mama, can this really be the end / To be stuck inside of Mobile / With the Memphis blues again.” “End” and “again” are metaphorically a rhyme because every rhyme is both an endness and an again-ness. That’s what a rhyme is, intrinsically, a form of again, and a form of an ending.

Dylan’s always been fascinated with the question of how you end a song-book, how you end a concert, how you end an interview, how you end an album. And therefore fascinated by the unending. There’s a moment early in his immensely long film Renaldo and Clara, when you hear the man on the radio who is warning drivers about the wet road and saying, “Hydroplaning can seriously impair your stopping ability.” And meanwhile something happens to the music in the background. Dylan is interested in “stopping ability.” A key thing again and again in his songs, and I think it’s one of the reasons his recent songs have not been as good, his having lost this (perhaps he’ll recover it2), is the question how long can you go on doing something? That is, a characteristic Dylan song may be assuring someone: “All I really want to do / Is, baby, be friends with you.” Now, how long can you go on saying that? I mean, you can say it a few times, but there’s a point at which it wears thin, or sounds demented. How long can you go on urging somebody, “Don’t think twice, it’s all right”? You can say it more than twice, but can you tell somebody fifty times not to think twice?

There are some words of his which don’t get printed in the songbooks or in the book of words, and that’s where the women in “New Pony” sing in chorus all the time, “How much longer?” “How much longer?” they keep singing. This is a question partly about how much longer you will be satisfied with your new pony-woman and not have to shoot her to put her out of her misery and get some other new pony. But the words also mean how much longer is the song going to go on? How much longer? This is the question all the time.

Philip Larkin was to record his poems and the publishers sent round a slip asking you to buy it. It had a statement from the poet, encouraging you. Philip Larkin was insisting, with that great lugubrious relish of his, “The proper place for my poems is the printed page,” and he warned you how much you would lose if you listened to them. “Think of all the mis-hearings, the their / there confusions, the submergence of rhyme, the disappearance of stanza shape, even the comfort of knowing how far you are from the end.” When you read a poem, when you see it on the page, you register—whether con­sciously or not—that this is a poem in three stanzas: I’ve read one; I’m now reading the second; one to go. This is the feeling as you read it, and it’s a terri­ble collapse when you turn the page and find, “Oh, that was the end. How curious.” Larkin’s own endings are consummate. And what he knows is that your ear cannot hear the end approaching as your eye—the organ which allows you to read—sees the end of the poem approaching. This makes the relationship of an artist like Dylan to song and ending quite different from the relation of an artist like Donne or Larkin to ending. The eye sees that it is approaching its ending, as Jane Austen can make jokes about your knowing that you’re hastening towards perfect felicity because there are only a few pages left of the novel. The novel physically tells you that it is about to come to an end. The French Lieutenant’s Woman didn’t work, because you knew perfectly well that since it wasn’t by Idries Shah there was going to be print on the last hundred pages. So it couldn’t be about to end, isn’t that right? because this chunk of it was still there, to come.

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Think back to early days with endings, and to how Dylan chose to end “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” What makes the end of that feel truly an ending? The last two lines, remember: “I’m going back to New York City / I do be­lieve I’ve had enough.” End of song. Now this feels like an ending for the per­fectly simple stroke that all the lines in that stanza rhyme, which is not true of any previous stanza in the song. You don’t have to be conscious of it, but it works on your ear to tell you there’s something different about this stanza; all its lines are rhyming. Whether you consciously record this, you register it. It’s this that makes the last stanza feel truly an ending and not just the stop­ping of the song. And (“going back to New York City” ) it has an allusive comic relation to the first song on his first album, “Talking New York,” the end of which, again you’ll remember, is “So long, New York. / Howdy, East Orange.” Now, why is that such a wonderful ending? Because of the comic relationship of an apple to an orange. That is, it depends upon what New York is known as, apple-wise, and so there’s a curious subterranean semantic rhyming going on. But it depends, too, upon the fact that “orange” famously is a word that does not have a rhyme in English. Dylan was asked about this on one occasion in an interview. Somebody kept harassing him in 1968, “Do you have a rhyme for orange?” And he kept saying, “Ah yeah, rhyme for orange, fine,” you know, “I’ll tell you the rhyme in a minute,” and so on. It goes on, and he doesn’t produce a rhyme for orange, whereas apple is very easy to rhyme with. Dylan uses the curious feeling in that particular part of such a blues song, where the last moment doesn’t rhyme—stanzas rhyme, don’t they?—and instead there is this curious sidling movement, “Howdy, East Orange,” which doesn’t rhyme. The reason why Marvell’s line about the orange is so beautiful is that the inversion is justified: “He hangs in shades the orange bright, / Like golden lamps in a green night.” The inversion of “orange bright” is justified by the fact that there isn’t a rhyme for orange anyway, and if he’d said “He hangs in shades the bright orange,” he’d have had to have recourse to a mountain range in Wales called Blorenge. Even the later, greater rhymester Robert Browning didn’t have a satisfactory rhyme for orange. There’s a kind of comedy which wants to use the fact that some words do and other words don’t rhyme.

If you take the other one of Dylan’s own songs on the first album, which is “Song for Woody,” it raises the question about how you end a gratitude song. Dylan has always been a genius in gratitude, a virtue very underrated in human affairs and extremely difficult to take into art.The song has to cease, ultimately, but it must not just stop being grateful. Let me remind you how it ends. “I’m a-leaving tomorrow, but I could leave today, / Somewhere down the road someday. / The very last thing that I’d want to do / Is to say I’ve been hittin’ some hard travelin’ too.” The very last thing I’d want to do, in my respect for you, is to lay claim to the kind of authority and experience that you’ve got.

The rhymes in this stanza are completely different from the rhymes in the previous ones, first because it rhymes “day” with “day,” and second because it then rhymes “do” with “too,” which is the only rhyme in the song which comes back. There’s a lovely stroke which simply takes advantage of the idiom, “The very last thing that I’d want to do.” Now that’s not the last line in the song—it is the penultimate line—but it begins the last sentence of the song. It hits hard with very strong internal rhyming: “The very last thing that I’d want to do is to say… too.’’There’s a conviction in the thoughts being plaited together at the end through the very sounds.

He’s always been wonderful with rhymes, and it’s quite right for him to give “Byron” as a name to one of his children. People have objected. Ellen Willis: “He relies too much on rhyme.” It’s like some awful school report: you’re allowed to rely on rhyme 78 percent but Master Dylan relies on rhyme 81 percent. Ian Hamilton said of Dylan—grudgingly but well said—about “All I Really Want To Do”: “Many of Dylan’s love songs are a kind of verbal wife­battering: she will be rhymed into submission.” I think it is true that the women are rhymed into submission, but that isn’t the same as battering. Ginsberg, you remember, writing to Dylan about “Idiot Wind,” “Blowing like a circle round my skull, / From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol”—Ginsberg says, “It is the great disillusioned national rhyme.” Rolling Stone reported it. “No one else, Dylan writes Ginsberg, had noticed that rhyme, a rhyme which is very dear to Dylan. Ginsberg’s tribute to that rhyme is one of the reasons he’s here”: that is, on the Rolling Thunder Review and then Renaldo and Clara. And it’s a great rhyme because of the metaphorical relationship of skull to Capitol. (You can see that more clearly on my bald head than you can on every head.) Dylan adapts what is the Capitol there to the White House elsewhere, in this which is from “11 Outlined Epitaphs”: “how many votes will it take / for a new set of teeth / in the congress mouths?/ how many hands have t’ be raised / before hair will grow back / on the white house head ? ” Somebody accused Dylan of baldism—my word, but that’s what was meant—and he said, “I didn’t mean bald heads, I meant bald minds.” But he didn’t, he meant bald heads, and there’s a generational point there. It’s a true rhyme because of what the head of the state is, and the body politic, and the relationship of the Capitol to the skull, with which it so felicitously rhymes.

Woody Guthrie told me once that songs don’t have to rhyme, that they don’t have to do anything like that, but it’s not true.” That was in New York, 1964. “The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense. / Take what you have gathered from coincidence.” One of the best rhymes, that. All rhymes are coincidences of sense. It is a pure coincidence that “sense” rhymes with “coincidence,” and from it you gather something. And it is risky, for gamblers. (Better, you see.) Dylan uses his sense.

Arthur Hallam, Tennyson’s friend for whom he wrote “In Memoriam,” referred—with a fine paradox—to rhyme as “the recurrence of termination.” If it’s termination, how can it recur? Can this really be the end when there is a rhyme? The great rhymes in Dylan: everybody would have their own. Mine include these. The rhyme of “ouch” with “psychiatric couch.” The rhyme of “nonchalant” with “it’s your mind that I want” (“Rita May, Rita May, / You got your body in the way. / You’re so damn nonchalant / It’s your mind that I want.”) You don’t have to believe him, but “nonchalant” and “want” is a delicious rhyme, because nonchalant is so undesiring of her, it’s so cold. We don’t even know for sure how to say it, it’s a word you read again and again but don’t much hear. It feels very affected to say “Nawn-shalawn(n’est-ce pas?). “Nonchalant” doesn’t really feel like an English or an American word. Then there’s the rhyme of “Mozambique” with “cheek to cheek”: there’s always something strange about place names, or person’s names, rhyming, because they don’t really seem to be words. My favorite is the rhyme of “Utah” with “Me Pa,” as if “U-” in Utah were spelled “You-.” “Build me a cabin in Utah, / Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout, / Have a bunch of kids who call me ‘Pa,’ / That must be what it’s all about.” That’s not a rhyme of “-tah” and “Pa,” it’s a rhyme of “Utah” and “Me Pa,” like “Me Tarzan, You Jane.” How comically the rhyme is worked there.

Back to Arthur Hallam. “Rhyme has been said to contain in itself a con­stant appeal to memory and hope.” Rhyme contains this because when you have the first rhyme you hope for the later one, and when you have the later one you remember the previous one. So rhyme is intimately involved with lyric, and there are particularly few good unrhymed lyrics of any kind be­cause of the relationship between lyricism and memory and hope. Dylan therefore loves rhyming on the word “memory.” “With your sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row” works because of the memory within the song that takes you back to the “your sheets like metal” earlier, and because of the curious undulation which is in “memory” and “cannery.” And, in “Mr.Tam­bourine Man,” rhyming “free” with “memory.” What you find is that the word “free” is not really free, because it’s got a bonded relationship to another word; and the word “memory” is made real to you because you have to re­member, whether consciously or not, the previous element of the rhyme. Or you can rhyme on the word “rhyme.” The beginning of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is supreme in what it does with its three rhyme-words: “With your mercury mouth in the missionary times, / And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes, / And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes, / Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?” “Times,” “rhymes,” and “chimes” rhyme only because they come several times, and they chime.

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Bob Dylan: Playboy Interview (1966)

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Dylan understands not only the comedy but the tragedy which can be instinct in rhyming, in sounding. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” began for him in the coinciding of a newspaper item with a cadence. William Zanzinger, Hattie Carroll. The thing about those names—you can say this starts as purely technical—is their endings. What the killer and the killed have in common is that they’ve got feminine endings, both in their first names and in their sur­names. She’s Hattie Carroll, where the first syllable is stressed and the second unstressed; and he’s William Zanzinger. Dylan hears this, and the whole of the song is based on the particular cadence of their names. Hattie Carroll has her persistent enslaved rhyming to “the table…the table…the table.” Her name is very powerful—it ends the first line of the song; the second stanza is a William Zanzinger stanza; the third stanza is a Hattie Carroll stanza, which comes back to William Zanzinger at the end, and so on. And then neither of them is named in the last stanza, where he is “the person”—Zanzinger be­comes “the person who killed for no reason.” She never appears in the last stanza. But she is still there, because when the stanza begins with “In the courtroom of honor the judge pounded his gavel / To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level,” you’re not only back to the word “level” from before (“And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level”), but you’re back to everything which sounds as “Carroll,” “table,” “table,” “level”… That’s her sound. And it goes with the “gentle”: Zanzinger was “doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle.”

The challenge known clearly to the song was how to save it from melodrama and from sentimentality. Dylan knows what he does in adopting that par­ticular cadence with the feminine ending. For one thing about the feminine ending is that it is always related either to a dying fall or to some act of courage in the face of death, or of something that falls away. It can be heard in two lines of Wordsworth: “The thought of death sits easy on the man / Who has been born and lived among the mountains.” The mountains. And it’s impera­tive that it not be on the man who has been born and lived among the hills, rocks, crags, or any of those words. It’s the play of the masculine ending (“man”) against the feminine ending (“mountains”)—and what the voice has to do is hold out that second syllable like a flag, which is either limp or, as it were, patriotically out. It will fall away, that cadence, unless the voice holds it out. You haven’t got a direction, you’ve got—as always—an axis, there in the feminine ending.

That is what Dylan hears from the beginning: “William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll / With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger / At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’. / And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him.” And that last is a beautiful one because it brings out that the feminine ending doesn’t have to do with how many sylla­bles there are in the word. It’s not “took from him,” it’s “took from him.” So that “him,” although it’s a monosyllable, is a feminine ending. There is only one moment in the song when this cadence is broken, and it’s when he kills her. “Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane”—not “killed by a blow, lay slain by a truncheon”—“Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane / That sailed through the air and came down through the room”—not “came down through the ballroom,” or “came down through the chamber.” What hap­pens is there’s an amputation there, which is exactly understated yet you register it. Something is cut short at that moment, and this without the song’s having to melodramatize it.

It’s like what he does later in the song, when he puts in the tiniest pause after the word “a,” lengthens the word to “a” (as in “say”): “Handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance, / William Zanzinger with a… six month sentence.” And he doesn’t sing: “With a—[pause: for Jesus Christ! Is this adequate?]—six month sentence?!” All he does is just lengthen “a” to “a,” and put in this microsecond pause of indignation. Indignation, a very good servant, and a very bad master. The song understands that indignation must be curbed, all the way through.

It is a matter of this cadence which is there all the time, running through the whole sound of the song. It’s there in the internal rhyme, the way in which “Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane,” comes back as “He spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished.” That’s the only other moment where you’ve got a line which has that kind of internal rhyme, and it’s the moment when the judge had better remember that somebody “lay slain by a cane” (there’s very strong assonance there as well—lay/slain/cane). Dylan crucially pivots a line ending into an immediate internal rhyme: “That sailed through the air and came down through the room, / Doomed… ” It’s a penetrating move from the end of that line to the beginning of the next line. Of course you think at first it’s Hattie Carroll who’s doomed, but it isn’t, it’s Zanzinger. “…Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle.” In some terrible way, Zanzinger too is doomed, isn’t in control of himself either. Yet part of the feeling in the word “determined” is that he wills it. It’s Freud’s “antithetical sense of primal words.” “Determined” means either that you didn’t have any choice in the matter (determinism); or, on the contrary, that you’ve chosen— determined—to destroy all the gentle.

Or there is the turn within the refrain, or the wheel, whatever you’re going to call it: that’s all masculine endings. Disgrace/fears/face/tears. “Disgrace” is a dissyllable, but it is not disgrace, it’s disgrace. So the stanzas all the way through have feminine line endings, but there’s a refrain which does not— a refrain which begins with the effect of a turret turning in accusation. “But you who…” That “you who” reminds me—and I’m not talking about allu­sion, or anything like that—it reminds me of what Shakespeare does at the beginning of Richard III, when Richard has gone through all those vexing things and then says, “Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace…” Why, I. Again it’s very threatening, like a tank turret turning: “you who,” that’s the leveled gaze in it.

Staving off sentimentality: for instance, the way “poor” is saved from senti­mentality because it’s economic fact. “William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll” is compassion for her, but the reality of it is that she is poor. He is not poor; he has “rich wealthy parents.” They’re not just rich, and they’re not just wealthy; they’re “rich wealthy.” He has a tobacco farm; she empties the ashtrays. He has parents; she gave birth to ten children. “Gave birth to” is piercing (how many lived?). It just reminds you that if you’re poor the infant mortality rate is lethal—and of course if you’re black. The song never says she’s black, and it’s his best civil rights song because it never says she’s black. Everybody knows she’s black and it has nothing to do with knowing the news­paper. You just know that she must have been black. It’s a terrible thing that you know this from the story, and you know it from the light prison sentence, and the song never says so. It’s white against black, it’s young against old, it’s rich against poor, but “poor” is saved from easy pity at the beginning by that hard fact.

There are these precisions all the way through. “Rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him.” Now, we think of parents as providing for you. No, no: his parents didn’t provide for him, they provided him. Some people say, well, that’s just because Dylan couldn’t get the word “for” in.The fact is, Dylan could get five hundred words into any line, if he wanted to. He has this amazing ability to get in as many words as necessary. Talk about Hopkins’s sprung rhythm—this is more than sprung, it’s hypersprung. He means they “provide him.” It’s related to transitive and intransitive verbs. “Stared at the person who killed for no reason.” One of the horrible things in that line is that Dylan doesn’t say “Who killed Hattie Carroll,” it’s just “who killed.” It’s become an intransitive verb, flat, hideous, indifferent.

Or there is the way in which nouns are seen as property. “William Zan­zinger killed poor Hattie Carroll / With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger.” It’s not that he had a finger which had a diamond ring on it; he had a diamond-ring-finger. He probably therefore also had an amethyst­ring-finger, an opal-ring-finger, and a ruby-ring-finger. His diamond ring finger has this extraordinary feeling of affluent agglomeration. “At a Balti­more hotel society gath’rin’.” Bank up the nouns like that and you’re really propertied. Nouns are items, and you can possess them, you can own them. It’s partly the reminder of a newspaper headline, yes, “Baltimore Hotel Society Gathering,” but it’s also the way in which the nouns bank up so very, very powerfully.

But I want above all to point out the effects of rhyme and the internal rhym­ing. So I draw your attention to two things that change in the last stanza. One is the extremely sardonic rhyme of “caught ’em” and “bottom.” You haven’t had anything like that. It’s basically an unrhyming song, except in the refrain. But when you get “caught ’em” and “bottom,” something is happening, and there is a curious Byronic, sardonic feeling about that rhyme. Then you end the song with the one and only full end-rhyme, “Handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance, / William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.” And “sentence” and “repentance” had better be what this is going to be about. They are an ancient rhyme. As with a prison sentence, there’s a point of timing, of punctuation. The old nineteenth-century book Punctuation Personified says of a full stop: “Which always ends the perfect sentence / As crime is fol­lowed by repentance.” Would that this were not just a true rhyme but true. But there’s no reason to suppose that Zanzinger was or is in any way repentant. If you follow the Dylan magazines, you can find out how successful Zanzinger currently is in real estate. “Concerned Citizens” for something or other, his real estate firm; he really exists, except he has a “t” in his name as well as a “z.”

I always see this as an instance of the difference between writing a political song, and writing a song politically—the way in which Eliot would think of the difference between writing religious poems, and writing poems religiously. It is good to be able to write religious poems, but the great thing is being able to write poems religiously, to have religion not be the subject of the poem, but be the element. And this, I think, is one of Dylan’s greatest political songs not because it has a political subject but because everything in it is seen under the aspect of politics.

He cannot reperform the song. He unfortunately still does. There is no other way of singing this song than the way in which he sings on The Times They Are A-Changin’. If he sings it any more gently, he sentimentalizes it. If he sings it any more ungently, he allies himself with Zanzinger. The 1988 perform­ance, like the 1974 one, allies him with Zanzinger, because he’s sneering— “And swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was snarling.” True, Dylan is one of the great tongue snariers of all times, but above all in this song he must not do that. He must have this extraordinary feeling of being very strong but very gentle all the way through. “In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking.” A wonderful turn of the ordinary, walked out on bail. He didn’t just walk out on bail: “In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking.” That is leisure and freedom and amplitude. And contrast a “matter of minutes” with “a six month sentence”—the whole way in which those numbers are used all the way through. That, and the scale of the stanzas; they build up. The third stanza and the fourth stanza are exactly the same length. You start off with six and then seven lines plus the refrain and you build up and they get gradually longer. But then they stay the same length. That last stanza must be equipollent with the third one. Nothing must trump what happened.

It’s very brave not to mention her at the end. It’s not indifference but the fact that it’s too late, that now is the time for your tears. Or as he sings, “For now’s the time…” If I’d had the genius to come up with the song, having sung “Now ain’t” all the way through, I would have sung “now is.” He never sings “now is,” he sings “now’s.” The contraction at the end, again, quietly takes out anything easily hortatory.

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“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” asks, about oppression, “How long, O Lord—.” There, “how much longer” is the tragedy of unjust power. Elsewhere in a Dylan song it can be a comedy of command. “Lay, Lady, Lay.” The old question is how long you can go on saying something. Here it’s how long you can go on asking somebody to lay or lie across your big brass bed. There’s a certain point at which she either does lie across your big brass bed, or she does not. You would seem a total turkey if into the small hours you continued to say “Lay, lady, lay.” The repetition is there very, very strongly from the beginning, but there’s a real problem about how, with dignity, you extricate yourself once you’ve issued this injunction. So the rhyming becomes a very important part of that, and clearly rhyming is going to be important in any song that begins “Lay, lady, lay.” What happens is that “lady” seems to be simply a happily languorous and expansive and open version of “lay.” I’ll leave aside all the puns on “lay” which there are, and which American English makes plausible. If you say “Lie, lady, lie”—you’re John Simon and you must use the language accurately—that would open up the possibility, “Lie, lady, lie…you usually do on these occasions” and so on. You’d be into the other, mendacious sense of the word “lie.” But “Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed”: he sings the word “bed” kingsizedly. It’s not a monosyllable when he sings it, something happens to it by which it becomes extraordinarily wide. It isn’t quite a disyllable. What he does with it is like the way Tennyson says you should register the word “tired,” in “The Lotos-Eaters”: “Music that gentlier on the spirit lies, / Than tir’d eyelids upon tir’d eyes.” Tennyson says that it’s neither one syllable nor two, “but a dreamy child of the two.” You are to imagine something which isn’t quite “tyr’d” and isn’t quite “tiy-erd,” but is just hovering, undulating, between the contracted and the expanded. That’s what Dylan does with the word “bed.”

One crucial effect in the song’s rhyming is that there are, as you will have noticed whether consciously or not, two lines that don’t rhyme. This matters very much in a love song, particularly since the one of those two that matters more is the word “love.” He pairs them syntactically so that you’ll pick up on them. “Why wait any longer for the world to begin,” and “Why wait any longer for the one you love.” They’re clearly a pair of lines. The first one has some relation, in the sound of “begin,” to the rhyme of “clean” and “seen” as Dylan sings it in the previous stanza. Nevertheless, there isn’t a word which completes the rhyme begun with the word “begin.” That is, “begin” doesn’t fully rhyme with anything. And nor does “love.” The song intimates—urges— that the rhyme would not be any word or any sound: it would be an action. That is, the act of love, if she will lie across his big brass bed. That would be the answer to the question, “Why wait any longer for the one you love,” which isn’t really a question after all (Dylan doesn’t sing it or print it with a question-mark), but an invitation. “Love” doesn’t rhyme there. Yet it’s comic and perfectly happy, because it trusts that the rhyme will be consummated by behavior—by love and acquiescence.

* * *

“Señor” too is very much a “how long” song. You can hear it all through. “How long are we gonna be ridin’? / How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?” “Can’t stand the suspense anymore.” “Give me a minute, let me get it together.” “I’m ready when you are.” The whole song has this feeling of suspense, of an endless waiting for some sort of shoot-out. “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power).” It begins with the end (the war to end wars), in theByronic sardonic rhyme of “headin’” and “Armageddon.” And it ends with an unob­trusive feat of straight rhyming, the recurrence of termination: “This place don’t make no sense to me, no more. / Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?” And that’s the only occasion, throughout the song, where what you get is a double rhyme. It’s not simply that “señor” rhymes with “more,” it’s that what you’ve got is “for” rhyming with “no more,” and then “señor” rhyming with them both. If you look back to the previous stanzas, they’re “before” / “señor,” “anymore” / “señor” and “floor” / “señor.” But here it’s “This place don’t make sense to me no more. / Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?” That rhyme is conclusive. It’s related to the way in which rhymes exert power (Yankee and other), and especially to the necessarily arbitrary acts of power at the ends of poems and songs. You remember Marvell ending the “Horatian Ode”: “The same arts that did gain / A power must it maintain.” That’s not the rhyme of “gain” against “-tain”; it’s the doubled rhyme of “gain” against “main-tain.” There isn’t another rhyme in the poem that’s like that. It’s as if there are two turns of the lock at the end there. The rhyme is clamped into place. Although Dylan is talking at the end of his song about disconnecting cables, what you get at the end is a doubling of the cables of rhyming: “This place don’t make sense to me no more. / Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?”

“Señor” is about God’s power and man’s, God’s empire and the Yankee one. “What Can I Do for You?” is about a Christian’s sense of all-but-impotence. I think the Christian songs are wonderful, and that the opposition to them is very unfortunate. It is often extremely bigoted, with a certain kind of libera! bigotry against Christianity; and often a mask for anti-Semitism. “Something is happening, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jew?” That was offered as a remark about Dylan’s having become a Christian, but it seemed to me to be availing itself of a rather ugly streak within some Christianity itself.

“What Can I Do for You?” is a song about reciprocity. The question is a truly Dylanesque one, because the answer is from one point of view nothing, and from another point of view everything. Dylan has always loved questions that have to be answered yes and no. “Are you ready?” You cannot answer it yes, and you cannot answer it no. You can answer it only by saying, as Dylan sings in “Are You Ready?”: “I hope I’m ready.” And “How does it feel?” is a question that has to be answered by terrible, and wonderful. It is wonderful to be “on your own, with no direction home, like a rolling stone,” but it is also terrible at the same time. “What Can I Do for You?” craves reciprocity with God, which is inconceivable. “You have given everything to me. / What can I do for You?” Now those won’t meet; the activities won’t meet. All the way through there’s an impetuosity that longs for a perfect fit. It’s near a fit in the one but last stanza. “You have given all there is to give. / What can I give to You?” (So Dylan sang it on Saved; he printed it “do for.”) The song moves away here from “What can I do for You” to “What can I give to You.” That’s a certain kind of reciprocity, but it’s unsatisfactory. It then makes this supreme turn in the whole feeling of the song, into “You have given me life to live. / How can I live for You?” It ceases to be a “what” answer; the answer becomes a “how.” It isn’t any longer “What can I do,” “What can I do,” “What can I give”; it’s “how.” That is, the whole terms of the question have to be changed.

* * *

Before I end, I need to show that I’m not besotted with the man, so let me take a song which actually has something wrong with it: “Love Minus Zero / No Limit.” It’s simultaneously something that’s wrong with the rhyming, and something that’s wrong with the whole impulse of the song, though the song is an astonishing one. I think something ugly happens at the end, which is masked by the great beauty of his voice and of the tune. In the first stanza, lines one and two rhyme: “My love she speaks like silence, / Without ideals or violence.” “Silence” and “violence” is a deep rhyme, for all kinds of rea­sons. Rhyming on the word “silence” is always in a way comical, because a rhyme is a sound; there’s something odd about the criss-cross of the meaning of the word and the fact that you’re using it for a sound effect. Silence/violence: it’s not really a violent rhyme, and you can hear that it isn’t a perfect rhyme either. So the question of violence is brought up at the very beginning, but it sort of fits. Lines one and two rhyme; and four and eight rhyme—that is, “fire” and “buy her”; and lines six and seven rhyme—“hours” and “flowers.” And three and five don’t. It’s a funny, intricate little stanza. It’s set up that way: nothing rhymes with “faithful,” and nothing rhymes with “roses.” You’re therefore asked to bring into relationship not only the lines that do rhyme, but the ones that don’t. The point is that her being faithful doesn’t have anything to do with roses. People carry roses, but it isn’t because people bring roses that she’s faithful. It doesn’t turn on that. Apart from the mean­ing that nothing in her wants roses to rhyme, nothing wants faithful to rhyme. An end in itself, in herself.

Now in the last verse what you get is this curious rounding on the woman. She has been described in a way that seems to me completely incompatible with her being like “some raven with a broken wing.” Why is she like “some raven with a broken wing?” Because Dylan just hit her with a hammer. It’s a terrible thing that happens at the end of the song. It’s a song which turns out to be saying that “What I like about her is that she is so wonderfully indepen­dent of me, she doesn’t really need me, other people do this and that… come to think of it, that isn’t what I like about her… and I mean to smash her with a hammer, and convert her into some raven with a broken wing.” She’s abso­lutely nothing like that. She’s so little like some raven with a broken wing that Michael Gray, writing a book about Dylan, has to have recourse to Blake’s tiger. Now that’s a pretty desperate move by a man. I mean, she’s even less like Blake’s tiger than she is like some raven with a broken wing. What is hap­pening here? There’s something ugly in “The wind howls like a hammer, / The night blows rainy.” It silently invokes raining blows on somebody with a hammer. That’s really the thing holding it together. What happens is that when “rain” and “blows” and “hammer” go together, “perfection” meets “hammer,” as the unrhymed things in this last stanza. And her perfection is smashed by the hammer of his obduracy. He sings it so sweetly. I’m not say­ing it’s misogynistic—it needn’t matter which way round the sexes go, or the genders go. What happens is that you believe that you love somebody for his or her curious independence of your wishes and needs, and then in the end you turn on your love so that she’s like “some raven with a broken wing” and needy.

It’s in a way an extremely mild brutality, smashing the word “perfection” with the word “hammer.” And it is so different from the relation of “faith­ful” to “roses,” or from the unique and delicate unrhymedness of “softly.” In the last stanza Dylan has had lots of shots at that line “The night blows rainy.” You can hear him sing “The rain blows cold.” But then “cold” has no rhyme at all—it has an extraordinarily chilling effect if you do that—you really break the whole sense of the stanza. You can hear him sing “The night blows cold and rainy.” When he does that, he separates the word “blows” from the word “rain(y).” If you put in “cold and” (as printed by Dylan), you’ve opened up some cordon sanitaire between “rain” and “blows.” In a sense, you’ve done something to mitigate the violence. But these changes in the words sung don’t really deal with this odd, I think undramatized, change of feeling. It feels to me like some Donne poems, in that it is wonderful, but very ugly at the end. Something happens to the spirit of the song, which is disguised by the way he sings it. “Even the pawn must hold a grudge.” Even the king. Even Dylan, whom I ungrudgingly admire.

You see what I mean about the problem about how you end. I have that problem too.


1. Literally. This was originally delivered as a talk in a lecture series sponsored by The Threepenny Review, and was subsequently published in the magazine. (Ed.)

2. He has. Oh Mercy (September 1989) is alive again to this; such a question haunts, for instance, “Most of the Time.”


3 thoughts on “Bob Dylan: Endings”

  1. David Lewis

    A wonderful essay. I think I actually heard him deliver an early version of this in Cambridge in 1980 when I was a student… so good to read it again.

    1. Adrian Everitt

      Likewise. I heard it, too, probably about 1978. Of course, as you’ll well know, ‘experienced it’ would be a better way to put it! Just the extraordinary energy in Ricks’ delivery was something to behold, wasn’t it? You know, I once saw him in a small post office in Cambridge: bought a stamp, licked the stamp, put the stamp on his envelope, deposited the envelope in the post box in the corner of the room, and swept out the door. All in what seemed like a single, unstoppable motion. Still remember it!

  2. If there is merit in a scholar’s exegesis of pop song lyrics, or any type of song, wouldn’t it follow that one cares, too, how a concert sounds to an acoustic engineer? The corpus of Bob Dylan’s work is host to many profiteers; their derivations, in turn, profit but a precious few.

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