Beyond here lies nothing: Dylan and Ovid, Dylan and wandering

By Tony Attwood

If I had to cut everything down to one type of music and one concept that Dylan has spent his life being fascinated by I would not say “folk music” or “rock music” I’d say 100% the blues.  And I would not say love songs, or lost love, or civil rights or justice, but rather the Wanderer, the Exile, the Drifter the isolation of people from each other.  These are the characters who fascinate Dylan beyond all others – those who drift into one’s vision and then drift out again.

Indeed even when Dylan seems to be writing a love song (as in Beyond here lies nothing) he is in fact writing about the isolation of the two lovers from the rest of the world.

I was writing on this theme in the last review I did – “Red River Shore”  wherein I jumped back to earlier examples of the Wanderer, in Shelter from the Storm and Tell Ol Bill.

The Wanderer in Dylan can be himself walking off down the road and passing by (Shelter from the Storm, One too many mornings) or it can be an observed outsider like the Drifter in Drifter’s Escape, it can be the man who can’t find his love as in Red River or it can be two lovers so in love that there is no other world beyond themselves gazing at each other.

So hearing that “Beyond here lies nothin'” is based on a phrase from Ovid, makes sense, because Ovid suffered (or we think he suffered) from exile, and wrote about it (although these are not his famous poems, but something of an end-of-life afterthought).

Indeed every review you are ever likely to read about this song will start with the notion that the phrase comes from Ovid.


The clue that something is wrong in an analysis comes when you find that all the reviews use the same phrase, none of the reviews (or I should say none of the reviews I have seen) actually tell us which Ovid book the quote comes from, let alone quote the exact text.   And I think there is an important point here (other than the way most reviewers copy all the other reviewers and can’t be arsed to look things up), because we need to know, in reviewing Dylan, if this is an exact quote from a text he had read, or just a line someone else told him about.   It helps us understand.

We can believe there is some Ovid in here somewhere, because in latter day albums like Modern Times, Dylan does seem to be a reader of Ovid.  But that doesn’t prove he’s quoting the great man at this point.

And the ever excellent Expecting Rain web site has this quote from Ovid as a quote from Tristia.  “Here is the ultimate torture for me, exposed amid foes. What banished person lives more remote from home? Beyond here lies nothing but chillness, hostility, frozen waves of an ice-hard sea.”

So maybe that is right, but tantalisingly the writer did not give us a source for the translation, and it doesn’t say that in my copy!  Perhaps it is just a case of different translators.

Ovid was the ultimate exile (if his own story is to be believed – some contemporary writers claim the whole thing was a fiction, and of course there is nothing wrong with writing fiction).  He was one of the three great, great, overwhelming writers of Latin literature along with Virgil and Horace (a bit like some scholars of English would rank Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens as the three ultimate giants of the language, or Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were the giants of the classical romantic tradition).

But aged 50, in 8CE (or 8AD as we used to write it), Ovid was exiled to Tomis on the Black Sea by Emperor Augustus.  While there he wrote Ibis, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto: the poems of exile.

He wrote about the awful conditions in Tomis, about how he was old and sick and just wished to see his family again, and expressing his deep sincere regard for the emperor and how whatever it was that caused his exile was all just a silly mistake – a misunderstanding.

Although the works are considered very much the lower end of Ovid’s legacy to us, there are lines which 2000 years later still ring with us, like

“writing a poem you can read to no one
is like dancing in the dark.”

But there is no quote that I know (and please tell me exactly where it is if you know it cos it is driving me mad) that even approximates to Dylan’s phrase, Beyond Here Lies Nothing.

There are lines like

There’s nothing further than this, except frost and foes, and the sea closed by the binding cold.

And if I were wanting to take a line from these poems and express it as the core to a musical piece I’d use

there’s nothing sinful in my song

But not the title of the track.  I wonder then if there is an approximation translation which takes the essence of the poems and re-writes them into modern English.  I don’t know if there is – it is just a thought.  Tell me if you know.

In Beyond here lies nothin Dylan is with the woman he loves, the only woman he has truly loved, and is saying that there is nothing in the world beyond that love.  So “beyond here lies nothin'” is not a physical concept but a spiritual one. There is nothing except our love because without it I have nothing.  If Dylan is in exile, he’s in exile with his lover.

Beyond here lies nothin’
Nothin’ we can call our own

But the wreck of a society that Ovid describes on the Black Sea is here too, although in contemporary terms.

I’m movin’ after midnight
Down boulevards of broken cars

The world is wrecked, but we have each other…

Don’t know what to do without it
Without this love that we call ours
Beyond here lies nothin’
Nothin’ but the moon and stars

All we have is our memories…

Beyond here lies nothin’
But the mountains of the past

There is a reference perhaps to Ovid on the Black Sea but it is a fleeting glimpse

My ship is in the harbor
And the sails are spread

and we are reminded….

Beyond here lies nothin’
Nothin’ done and nothin’ said

Dylan obviously liked the song as he made it the opening of Together Through Life, and both his lyrics in the song and the Exile poems have a connection with that title – although it is tenuous in regards to Ovid because he was isolated from his family, and the pleasures of Rome.

It was also used within the final episode of the second season of True Blood – as much for its atmosphere and the resonance of that single line “Beyond here lies nothing”.

A link in the music has been shown with Otis Rush’s “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)”… but that is what you get with 12 bar blues.  Look hard enough and you’ll find a connection.

As for the music, it is 12 bar blues without the repeating of the first two lines, and in a minor key, which is much more unusual that the major key.   If the song were in the major it would have accompanying chords of A, D and E.  Here these are replaced by A minor, D minor and E.

But the song bounces so much that one hardly notices the minors as one normally would do.  A clever touch in the music.

But damn it, I wish I could resolve that Ovid quote stuff.

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  1. This nice but forgettable song does not get any better by connecting it to Ovid, yet it is interesting how you point out what is happening when critics get a hold of it without investigating its source.

  2. Beyond here lies nothing Ovid source:

    ‘Ovid The Poems of Exile Tristia and the Black Sea Letters’ translated with an introduction by Peter Green. University of California Press. 2005.
    Tristia Book II lines 192- 196: ‘ Although other men have been exiled by you for graver offences none was packed further off: beyond here lies nothing but chillness, hostility, frozen waves of an ice-hard sea’.

  3. Chandran thank you so much. I’ve been puzzling over this for days and days. This is now the first web site to give the actual origins of the phrase.

    Gold stars all round.


  4. The musical connection to “All Your Love ( I Miss Loving )” is obvious but not derivative. The original version of “Black Magic Woman” is also based on this same Otis Rush song. Though the lyrics of the 3 songs are quite different, each deals with a consuming love interest. As you point out,Dylan’s variation on a theme intensifies focus on how intense romance blocks out all other worldly concerns.

  5. This is why yours is my favorite Dylan blog. Another excellent piece! This song is now one of my favorite Dylan songs. And for years, since Together Through Life was released, up until the autumn 2014 tour, this song (and in fact none of the songs on that album) did nothing for me. Then I went to two shows on that fall tour last year and Bob’s live performance of the song was so bluesy, with his driving piano, and his vocal was so impassioned, that it had me dancing in my seat! And I had even heard this song live the summer before in 2013 and I was bored by the song then. But not by his performance in fall 2014. All of a sudden, with that performance, Bob had opened up the magnificence of this song. This is why Bob is such a special performer. And this is what people miss when they complain that “he gave the same set list” or “I saw him and he performed the songs differently” or whatever nonsense you hear people say.

    I had no idea about the Ovid reference, and I studied Latin in high school! This is wonderful to know now! “I’m sitting down studying that Art of Love, I think it will fit me like a glove.” Indeed.

  6. I started looking at it seriously, only recently once I realized bob is keeping it in the NET playlist for so long.
    I love the “Wanderer” concept, however, I think Dylan in recent years is more and more mocking, more and more bitter, and this evolution is well reflected in the NET playlist.
    What is he mocking about: mostly the human false self. The blindness and the lostness in being so far from truth – Dylan most yearned ideal.
    (e.g. Thing have changed: “I am trying to get as far as i can from myself”)
    so isolation yes, but in this song, illusion as well. Not only the lovers are isolated, but they are ludicrous as well. (and Disillusionment will be painful – old man’s wisdom!)
    Young Dylan had the prophet, and naturally a furious quality (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, “You´ll sink like a stone¨).
    in “Beyond Here” this is an old man observing younger, less experienced humans, with a bitter laugh.
    The big difference is that from an old man view there is no hope at all. And now pretentiousness or any motivation to act for a better world.
    (“I used to care, but thing have changed”).

    If you listen closely the way he sings “I love you pretty baby” live- you get the idea of Dylan’s bitter laugh, with the hopeless dead end he forecasts for a loving couple..
    19 different great versions in this playlist:

    I strongly believe, “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” is a great piece in a greater puzzle, which is what and who Bob is now.
    there are dozens of songs that are BHLN’s “siblings”.
    “Things have changed” is definitely formative of the new/current Dylan,
    Manifesting the old man’s evolved point of view.
    Few more to mention: “Working Men’s Blues #2”, “Long and wasted years”, and even “Pay In Blood” (more political, however driven by a similar sense of despair).
    Moreover, older songs (e.g. Tangled Up in Blue and Blowing in the wind) are sung differently in 2015 than in earlier times, reflecting this change in point of view.

  7. His true love finally has returned, and now they go together through life. And he experiences: beyond here lies nothing, nothing better than this.

    One of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, not only because of the lyrics – he did it! – it swings like crazy.

  8. Dylan makes use of Peter Green’s translation of Ovid’s “Tristia” in “Ain’t Talking”

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