Eternal Circle: the meaning of the lyrics and the music.

By Tony Attwood

In the eternal circle, life (or if not your life, then the universe, or maybe just life in general) repeats and repeats.  Round and round without end.  Time runs,  nothing starts, nothing ends.

The philosophy can be a simple one – time has not beginning nor an end – or a tragic one, in which we are all doomed to be of the same flux of the universe – free will is ultimately an illusion.  It is the opposite of the concept within most religions that we have the choice to be good and so go to heaven, or not, in which case it’s hell.  In the eternal circle neither exist.

It can however be allied to Taoism, the Way is eternal, you can either go with it, or try and fight against it, but such a fight is always doomed.

Dylan takes the concept and removes it from its linkage to all things, and instead fixes the notion into the setting of the singer on the stage.   It is still a song of deep sadness, but now it is a song of passing, of missed opportunity, of not being able to take your chances, of being trapped in one’s own world unable to escape.  It is a theme that dominates so much of Dylan’s music – the theme of moving on, not taking opportunities, not being able to take opportunities, just being on the road.  Just like Dylan in fact.  The never ending tour.

As such there are elements of Restless Farewell…

And the corner sign
Says it’s closing time
So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road

and elements of “Girl from the north country” where the singer can do no more than be asked to be remembered to the girl, and “Boots of Spanish Leather”

I got a letter on a lonesome day
It was from her ship a-sailin’
Saying I don’t know when I’ll be comin’ back again
It depends on how I’m a-feelin’

We are not masters of our own destiny.

“Only a pawn” does this is an utterly different context – but the feeling is the same – for all that we want, and all that we try to do to create a world that we want, we don’t get what we want.  We are only a pawn in the game, whatever the game.

Here, in this song, the singer is up on the stage looking as this wonderful lady in the audience.  He wants to reach out to her, but he can’t.  If it had been a movie, he could have left the stage and just walked to her, and the audience would have parted, and gasped, and looked in amazement, and then as he took her in his arms they would have cheered, and we’d have a romantic setting.  But Dylan is presenting a different sort of life, and in this life he can’t just stop, he has to finish the song, he has to stay on tour, and so she is gone, and he’s become … Bob Dylan.

Of itself, it is an ancient theme, as ancient as the Vikings certainly, with their three spinners who control everyone’s life, and the saying “Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel”  (“Fate goes ever as she shall.”)  It is not the western way, where we are taught that with hard and solid work, we can achieve, we can change the world, we can fulfil our destinies.  Here, our destiny is already set.  As Bernard Cornwall’s translation of the Norse reads, “Fate is inexorable”.

Later in the songs of this nature Dylan’s music took on a different approach – he takes control, he tells the woman to leave, or else blames her for making decisions.  “It ain’t me babe”, for example.  Or, “She acts like we never have met.”  He is critical, not fateful.

With Eternal Circle however there is a numbness to the song, a sense of resignation that recognises that he is stuck there, up on the stage and she is the one with the freedom to stay or leave.  She has more of a life than he has, he is the one who is trapped, and she is the one who is free.  The performer can’t escape the performance.  Only the audience can walk away.  Dylan, the star performer, is trapped through being a star.  We can turn up at the theatre, watch the show, say it was brilliant or “not one of is best” and walk away.  He however is trapped; he has to complete the show tonight, and then do it all again tomorrow.

He is trapped by circumstance, exactly as he was with Lay Down Your Weary Tune.    In each song the world is fixed and the individual can do nothing about it.  But the emphasis is different.  Here the singer is trapped by his poisition as a singer and his being the on stage.  In Lay Down, it is the world that is eternal and unchanging.  In Circle it is just the microcosm of the performer on the stage.

But there is more in Lay Down, for although there the world is unchanging, that constancy of the unchanging pattern is our salvation. If I may be allowed to quote myself, with Lay Down I said, “It suggests, I think, that we should set aside our own troubled world and instead take refuge in the natural world and draw strength from all that we see therein…”

However such a feeling is not here – the implication is that the singer will pick up his guitar and do it all again next time around.

Links are made by some writers between Eternal Circle and Tambourine Man, but in Tambourine Man there is change – although it is induced by vanishing into the smoke rings of the mind.  The music (and whatever else is on offer) takes the singer away – and he is willing to go, he promises to go wandering.  Change is on offer.

But in Eternal Circle there is no escape.

She called with her eyes
To the tune I’s a-playin’
But the song it was long
And I’d only begun

The offer is there, but he won’t accept it because it is the music that defines his time, not the opportunity to get up and leave with the girl.

With a long-distance look
Her eyes was on fire
But the song it was long
And there was more to be sung

And the point of Eternal Circle is that he doesn’t quite want to escape, for the eternal tour continues, whereas with the Tambourine Man he promises to go wandering…

I glanced at my guitar
And played it pretendin’
That of all the eyes out there
I could see none
As her thoughts pounded hard
Like the pierce of an arrow
But the song it was long
And it had to get done

In short, here in Eternal Circle it is the song and the whole essence of being the star on the stage that is in control, in Tambourine Man it is the Tambourine Man, the outside force, that is in control.   Now we might argue that there is an outside force in both songs – the girl in Eternal Circle, and the Tambourine Man in the later song.  So he goes with the Tambourine Man.  But that is the point, he can’t go with the girl, no matter how beautiful or alluring.

It is as if he says, “I’m sorry love, being a performer on the stage is what I am.  It is what I do  It is what defines me.”


It is a fascinating idea, the notion of the man at the centre of the never ending tour is the one who is trapped.

But the song it was long
And I’d only begun

The artist, trapped eternally by the drive to create more art.

The never ending tour.

All the songs reviewed on this site

The Dylan songs of the 1960s in chronological order.


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3 Responses to Eternal Circle: the meaning of the lyrics and the music.

  1. NYTown62 says:

    “Free will is ultimately an illusion.”
    Actually you prove Mr.Attwood that it is not:

    It is as if he says, “I’m sorry love, being a performer on the stage is what I am. It is what I do It is what defines me.”
    It is a fascinating idea, the notion of the man at the centre of the never ending tour is the one who is trapped.
    By choice… Trapped as you call it, Tour or tour endlessly that is a choice
    That is Freewill.

  2. TonyAttwood says:


    Thanks for your comment. I take your point, but then if, as BF Skinner argued, we are primarily responding to our environment, and although we think we are making decisions, actually we are not, then free will is an illusion. Of course I can’t prove anything on this – just speculation.

    Thanks for reading.


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