Not Dark Yet: Bob Dylan as 20th century Keats, and the memories that still linger

by Tony Attwood.  Revised April 2018, with links to recordings by Dylan and other artists.


“I try to live within that line between despondency and hope.”  Bob Dylan 1997.


Not Dark Yet is one of the triumphs of Dylan’s later work – a pivotal point on the album, the darkest moment (despite the title) which then leads the way towards light.

It is a song that manages to create a dreamlike quality of drifting in and out of sleep, while considering the past, and waiting for the end.

And as such it is in many ways a return to the Taoist concept of “Darkness within Darkness, the way to all understanding” – not least achieved by the way the song stretches itself out, with the unexpected additional beat between bars, and the lack of any instrumental lead during the non-vocal verse.

From the “Shadows are falling” line, we find the simple link between the end of the individual’s life, and the end of the day, to be as one.

Shadows of course don’t fall – they creep across the garden, the walls, the beach, the road.  And that’s the point. There is nothing literal, because what happens next, when life is ended, is not real, not in any sense that we can understand at least.

But for the moment time and life are united in a situation – it is autumn, the elderly man stares at the sunset, ready to take his leave but knowing that the time has not yet quite come. Wondering why he has to continue with memories, achieving nothing new, just being.

There are no regrets here, no sadness, not really a desire for it all to end – just an acceptance that this is how it is although at the same time somehow not quite sure why this is how it has to be.

I’ve always had the feeling since I first heard the song that it is hard to understand it unless you have known an elderly relative or friend who is living alone, or in a home, finishing their days with less fun and enthusiasm than you would have liked them to have. The song captures every element of that reality of the experience and the song itself become entangled totally in life. All that is left are memories: “I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal.”

I am of course by no means the first to contemplate whether the source of the idea was: Ode to a Nightingale (John Keats, 1819).  Larry has already considered Dylan and Keats, and one might remember the New York Times fascinating headline “Keats with a guitar”.

This isn’t the place to rework the argument, but in case you don’t know it here is the first verse (of eight) of Ode to a Nightingale…

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
         My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
         One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
         But being too happy in thine happiness,—
                That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
                        In some melodious plot
         Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
                Singest of summer in full-throated ease.


I could continue across page after page writing about all this song means to me and how it brings back the memories of sitting at my mother’s bedside, just her and me, as she lay dying.  I could, but no I can’t.  It’s still, so many years later, far too much.

The official video is here

And a live performance

Robyn Hitchcock’s re-interpretation

Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer – this is the performance which still sends additional shivers down my spine, even after knowing this song for so many years.

What else is on the site

1: 500+ reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews


  1. Another nice read. Just as an aside, the opening line of the song, “shadows are falling” is the same as the opening line from Warren Zevon’s “Keep me in your heart”, written several years later. It may just be coincidence, or it might be homage. Of course, it’s often suggested that Dylan took the title for Time out of Mind from a lyric in Zevon’s “Accidentally like a martyr”. Just food for thought. Clearly, there was a great mutual respect between these men.

  2. I can’t say why but I allways considerd Not dark yet as a song who gives you hope and strength to go on and move further.Maby because it leads you to a point that is so low in a way that the only way remain is going up.Any how it is an inspiring masterpiece.

  3. Tony Attwood does an excellant job relating the music to the lyrics of Dylan’s songs, but I think he underestimates the influence of poet John Keats though which Dylan drapes his songs in a melancholic mood:
    “My heart aches and a drowsy numbess pains/
    My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk/
    Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains/
    ….Where but to think is to be full of sorrow/
    And leadened- eyed despairs/
    Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes”
    (Keats: Ode To A Nightingale)

    Now compare ‘Not Dark Yet’ which Christopher Ricks does also:
    “Well my sense of humanity is going down the drain/
    Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain/
    ….Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb/
    ….It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”
    (Dylan: Not Dark Yet)

    Keats, being sickly, knows how it feels to be on your own.

  4. The ghost of American poet Edna Millay
    is howling too:

    “So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been,
    time out of mind: /Into the darkness, they go, the
    wise and the lovely”
    (Millay: Dirge Without Music)

  5. “Katie’s been gone since the spring time” may not qualify for Mr. Attwood’s Dylan opening lines under “K”, but the lyrics demonstrate Zimmerman and the Band are seemingly well aware of Keats ‘La Belle Sans Merci”:

    “And this is why I sojourn here/
    Alone and palely loitering/
    Though the sedge is withered from the lake/
    And no birds sing”

    “Dear Katie, if I’m the only one/
    How much longer will you be gone/
    Oh won’t you tell me straight/
    How much longer do I have to wait?”
    (Katie’s Been Gone)

  6. Ode To A Grecian Urn: John Keats

    “For ever warm and still to be enjoyed/
    For ever panting and forever young,”

  7. La Belle Dame Sans Merci: Keats

    “I see a lily on thy brow”

    Dylan: Tell Ol’ Bill:

    “Left the coldest kiss upon my brow”

  8. Dylan: Forever Young:

    “May your heart always be joyful/
    May your song always be sung/
    And may you stay/Forever young”.

  9. Millay alluding to Shakespeare:

    “Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
    Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub
    Time out o’ mind the fairie’s coachmaker”
    (Romeo And Juliet, Act 1, sc 1)

  10. For almost 20 years now, Not Dark Yet has been my #1 Dylan song. In fact, possibly the greatest piece of recorded music ever. Beautifully written, wonderful production, the band nails it and Dylan’s vocal is perfect.
    A masterpiece, it still gets to me every time I hear it. Thanks Bob…..

  11. I’m pretty sure, Edgar Allen Poe was the one who came up with the phrase, “Time out of Mind”.

  12. Poe uses the phrase Time Out Of Mind in ‘Eureka’, but the phrase goes back much further in history – to time out of mind, almost!

  13. I had always assumed that Dylan got “Time Out of Mind” from Whitman’s “Song of the Broad-Axe”

  14. I’m sure I read recently that there is a connection between the phrase ‘time out of mind’ and ‘Moby Dick’ – a novel highlighted by Dylan in his Nobel Prize speech as having a profound effect on him as a boy. Someone might be able to confirm?

  15. The expression itself can indeed be found in Moby Dick (“Time out of mind the piratical proas of the Malays, lurking among the low shaded coves and islets of Sumatra, have sallied out upon the vessels sailing through the straits, fiercely demanding tribute at the point of their spears.” – Chapter 87), but I ‘m afraid it’s hardly significant.
    The expression can also be found with Shakespeare, for example (Romeo & Juliet, Act I, sc.4) and with Walt Whitman (Song Of The Broad-Axe), with Edgar Allan Poe, who uses it quite frequently and with other authors who can also be found in Dylan’s bookcase.

  16. ‘She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind’
    She = darkness, he still has the scars. Or will it be possible to turn the key?

  17. One of my favourite Dylan songs. I think you are on the right lines when you say that to fully appreciate this song you need to know someone who is old and lives alone. But I would add that knowing close friends who are terminally ill or being old ourselves also gets us close. I’m 70 with a chronic health condition (but don’t live alone) and this song really speaks to me. Also, as an elderly gay man, I experienced the horrors of the 1980s when the AIDS pandemic was at its height and as well as helping care for terminally ill people, I also had friends who died far too young, often rejected by their families, by their employers and by their faith leaders.

    Talking of faith, the final couplet is interesting in terms of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity in 1979: “Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer/It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there”. One of my other of many favourite Dylan songs is “Every Grain of Sand” which, among much else, looks at the relationship between faith and doubt (I am a Christian, but of the left-wing liberation theology type). Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith: the two are inextricably linked and any person of faith who is honest will admit to many moments – even sometimes years – of doubt. In “Every Grain of Sand”, Dylan writes: “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea/Sometimes I turn there’s someone there, other times it’s only me”. This, like the ending of “Not Dark Yet”, shows the power of doubt.

    Finally I have read quite a few of your reviews, and always enjoy them, even when on occasions I might disagree with you.

  18. Kevin, thank you for writing, and I am sorry to hear of your state of health. The aim of Untold has always been to open up ideas about Dylan’s music and explore them, without any demand that one view is superior to the other. When I heard that we have given some enjoyment along the way, it makes me sure it was all worth while.

  19. “You forgot what you came here to forget?”
    (Beau Hunks ~ Laurel and Hardy movie)

  20. Wondered if the scars that sun didn’t heal…are really meant to be scars that the Son didn’t heal.

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