Bob Dylan’s Forgetful heart: if indeed there ever was a door.

by Tony Attwood

Forgetful Heart by Bob Dylan and Robert Hunter is clearly a favourite of Bob’s – he’s played 234 times (as of August 2017) on stage.

It is a 12 bar blues in the minor key with some variant chords added, and without the repeated first line of the lyrics that many traditional blues songs have.

In terms of the lyrics I’ve read a commentary that one line comes from “The Summoner’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the first great work of English Literature, but I can’t see it myself, either in terms of the line quoted in modern translation, nor anything in the song that seems to lift the line.  Maybe I’m just not looking in the right place.  If you spot it, do say.

Anyway, that should not detract from what I feel is one of the great enigmatic Dylan couplets right at the end:

I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed forevermore
If indeed there ever was a door

It is as if we are halfway between the Visions of Johanna and Not Dark Yet.  Now there’s a thought and a half.

The notion of the woman having loved the man, expressed all her love, and then being very close to acting “like we never have met” is self-evidently a theme that Dylan has utilised through his career.

Compare

Though we kissed through the wild blazing nighttime
She said she would never forget
But now mornin’ is clear
It’s like I ain’t here
She just acts like we never have met

With

Forgetful heart
We loved with all the love that life can give
What can I say
Without you it’s so hard to live
Can’t take much more
Why can’t we love like we did before

The energy of youth in the former written in 1964 and the wistfulness of old age in the latter in 2008 or 2009 is so clearly expressed in the lyrics – and then backed up totally in the music.  The former has lots of youthful bounce, the latter really is the blue blues of the old man.

And we also have bits of Not Dark Yet, not least with that extraordinary ending, which is worth quoting again…

I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed forevermore
If indeed there ever was a door

If we want to be absolutely clear about this, just compare with

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

So just how dark is this?  Actually it is very dark because “I’ve lost my greatest love” is not nearly so deep and dark as “maybe I never had her”.  In the latter case one loses track of oneself, a far more frightening concept than simple loss of what one remembers.

There is, as others have noted before me, a touch of Hamlet about all this, as when “Let the doors be shut upon him that he may play the fool nowhere but in’s own house.”  Hamlet was talking literally, wanting to stop Polonius from spying on Ophelia, but it makes a good line within Dylan’s context too.

Unless, unless…

It is however also possible to see this not as a conventional song to a lover who has moved on in the style of “I don’t believe you,” but rather a remonstration by the singer against his own heart, against his own inability to feel any more.  If that is the case then we really, really are in the land of Not Dark Yet.

This then turns

I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed forevermore
If indeed there ever was a door

into a questioning of whether he, not her, actually was ever capable of love.  He can’t open the doorway to love now that he is this old.  But could he ever?  Did he ever really find and understand the notion of true, absolute, all-consuming, all-powerful love?

I’m drawn to the notion of the two composers criticising themselves as old men, and not a past lover, in this song because that ending couplet

The door has closed forevermore
If indeed there ever was a door

rings so utterly in line with the opening song of the album: Beyond here lies nothing– that extraordinary phrase of Ovid which suggests that this is not just the edge of the world, but also the end of all things.

And that it really, really is getting dark.

Forgetful heart
Like a walking shadow in my brain
All night long
I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed forevermore
If indeed there ever was a door

What else is on the site

  • 1: Over 400 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 all 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 recently started to produce 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.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that 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 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

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2 Responses to Bob Dylan’s Forgetful heart: if indeed there ever was a door.

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    The Chaucer line is in ‘Shake Shake Mama’, not ‘Forgetful Heart’:

    Down by the river Judge Simpson walkin’ around
    Nothing shocks me more that that old clown

  2. Wonderful and inspiring commentary, Tony. You have pick up Chaucer again as well as Hamlet… Dylan can sometimes be very tiresome…

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