Where are you tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat): Chanson d’automne

By Jochen Markhorst

1          Chanson d’automne

I           The Longest Day

The card-playing General Von Salmuth (Ernst Schröder), the commander of the 15. Armee, looks satisfied at the hand that has just been dealt to him. “My best hand tonight,” he beams. But that’s where Oberstleutnant Kurt Meyer (Heinz Spitzner) enters and disturbs the peaceful card scene in the Chateau’s cozy, richly decorated smoking lounge just outside Tourcoing. The Lieutenant Colonel is excited.

“Verzeihung. Herr Generaloberst Von Salmuth: Es ist da!”.
“Was ist da?”
“Der zweite Teil des Funkspruchs! Der zweite Vers! Verwunden mein Herz mit eintöniger Mattigkeit!

“Excuse me. General Von Salmuth: It is here! ”.
“What is here?”
“The second part of the radio message! The second verse! My heart is drowned in the slow sound, languorous and long!”

Alarmed, Herr Generaloberst looks up, and gravely, his lieutenant repeats the line of poetry from the intercepted radio message. Verwunden mein Herz mit eintöniger Mattigkeit. The effect of the words is somewhat disappointing to him – the General now seems a little annoyed, annoyed that he is being interrupted at this crucial point in his card night. His gaze drifts to his left hand again, with his right he sorts.

Herr Generaloberst,” Meyer sputters, “we can expect the invasion within the next twenty-four hours!”

Uninterested, Von Salmuth orders: “Put the Fifteenth Army on alert.”

A rather empty measure. One could be tempted to think it is a too free interpretation of what is going on at the headquarters of the SS general on June 5. However, just like the major part of the monumental war film The Longest Day (1962) lives up to the qualification “docudrama”, it seems to have really happened that way.

Likewise, the intercepted code message is real, is historically correct. It is the second half of the opening verse of Paul Verlaine’s 1866 “Chanson d’automne”, one of the most famous poems in French literature: 

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte

The first half of the code message, Les sanglots lons / Des violons / De l’automne, was broadcast on 1 June and was intended to warn the French resistance that D-Day is coming. After the broadcast of the second part, the invasion will start within twenty-four hours, informing the resistance they must start their sabotage actions now.

The poem is indeed a dazzling work of art by a brilliant poet with a perfect mastery of language; it consists of three relatively short sextets that approach perfection in terms of content, rhythm and rhyme, with the bonus of Verlaine’s characteristic play with timbre, onomatopoetic effects and musicality. For a century and a half, ambitious and brave translators have had quite a nut to crack finding a perfect translation, and Dylan is probably familiar with the – very clever – translation by Arthur Symons (1902), “Autumn Song”:

When a sighing begins
In the violins
Of the autumn-song,
My heart is drowned
In the slow sound
Languorous and long

Pale as with pain,
Breath fails me when
The hours tolls deep.
My thoughts recover
The days that are over
And I weep.

And I go
Where the winds know,
Broken and brief,
To and fro,
As the winds blow
A dead leaf

Echoes of Verlaine’s oeuvre can be heard across Dylan’s catalogue, from “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Gates Of Eden” from 1965 to “Ain’t Talkin’” from 2006. Verlaine gets a name check in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and in interviews, Dylan cites the Frenchman’s work as an example of the poetry he absorbed in those early, formative years in New York;

“I stayed at a lot of people’s houses which had poetry books and poetry volumes and I’d read what I found… I found Verlaine poems or Rimbaud.”

(Jeff Rosen interviews; No Direction Home, 2005)

Translator Symons is forced to abandon the brilliance and musicality of specific French phrases – the deadness of feuille morte simply cannot be matched with a correct translation of the term, just as English violins simply has a different timbre from the French, resonating violons. Symons rightly chooses to at least maintain the rhythm and especially the rhyme scheme, the aabccb rhyme scheme, which is quite popular with the French.

II          Little Miss Sue

In French literature, the form has been loved since the sixteenth century, since Ronsard. Victor Hugo writes many poems in these so-called Spanish sestets, Charles Leconte de Lisle is a fan and Verlaine does choose the Spanish sestets quite often. Beyond that, outside of French literature, the aabccb sextets are barely penetrating.

The English apparently find it more suitable for nursery rhymes, for children’s verses. Like the antique classic “Little Miss Muffet” (better known as “Along Came A Spider”) from the seventeenth or eighteenth century:

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
There came a big spider.
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away

With a few exceptions – Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” from 1906, for example – it takes until 1969 for the form to surface again. Johnny Cash’s worldwide hit “A Boy Named Sue”, written by Shel Silverstein, consists of ten “Spanish sestets” (the English call it “tail-rhyme stanza”):

And he said, “Son, this world is rough
And if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough
And I know I wouldn’t be there to help ya along
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you’d have to get tough or die
And it’s the name that helped to make you strong”

Established status in song culture the tail-rhyme stanza finally attains after 1984, when Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” begins to penetrate the canon. For the song, which Cohen says he has never been able to complete, the Canadian bard writes over eighty stanzas – all of them Spanish sestets.

In between, in 1978, Dylan writes his masterful finale for Street Legal, the underrated “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)”. The official release of the lyrics, in Lyrics and on the site, conceals the “true” form of the lyrics:

There’s a long-distance train rolling through the rain
Tears on the letter I write
There’s a woman I long to touch and I miss her so much
But she’s drifting like a satellite

But the recital unveils:

There’s a long-distance train
rolling through the rain
Tears on the letter I write
There’s a woman I long to touch
And I miss her so much
But she’s drifting like a satellite

… the same form as Verlaine’s “Chanson d’Automne”, as “Little Miss Muffet” and as “A Boy Named Sue”. Six-line stanza, rhyme scheme aabccb – tail-rhyme stanza. The same “reformation” can be applied to any of the ten verses; they are really Spanish sestets.

III         There’s a train

Why Dylan the Poet obscures that classical form by formatting the text differently from what the recital reveals is unclear at first. He does it more often, anyway; on this album with “No Time To Think” for example – and there he seems to copy T.S. Eliot; both the structure and the “concealing” layout.

It is clear that the poet uses the rather strict form to suggest a unity. In addition to the ten sextets, the three chorus-like bridges also keep a same tight form: five-line stanzas, rhyme scheme aaabb, the last word always being tonight. To underline that suggestion of unity, the accompanying music is also clamped in a tight, unadventurous chord progression. Two chords only (C and F) under the sextets, an ordinary blues scheme (G-C-F) under the three “choruses”, embellished with a smoothly descending chord progression (F-Em-Dm-C), very fittingly under “and she winds back the clock” and “as her beauty fades”. Incidentally, the same chord progression as in “Like A Rolling Stone” (“now you don’t talk so loud”).

There is only a vague unity in content; in the first sestets veiled observations about a she are shared, in the last three sestets the narrative perspective shifts and the she (presumably) is addressed directly and thus becomes a you.

Dylan the Narrator opts for a mosaic-like structure, similar to songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Desolation Row”. Quite emphatically even: eight lines of verse start with “There’s a…”, so with the formula with which a witness reports on his observations. And with the epic suggesting tricks we already know from songs like “Shelter From The Storm” and “Visions Of Johanna”. In this case, through the cinematic opening, the wide-shot that promises a film-noir-like story:

There’s a long-distance train rolling through the rain
Tears on the letter I write.

Footnote from Tony

If you are a regular reader of Jochen’s reviews you will know that he invariably ends with his pick of the cover versions… and no I haven’t edited them out, for this time Jochen’s text contained links to no covers.  So on setting the article for publication I sent over a quick note to ask if the covers section had been missed off.  To which he replied, “there are ab-so-lu-te-ly no cover versions. At least, no cover versions worthy enough. But if you do manage to find one – please add.”

Quite a challenge, especially when we note that after playing the song on tour in the latter part of 1978 Dylan abandoned it.  Forever.

I’ve searched, and I’ve found a few, but by and large, Jochen is right, they are chronic.  I’m not going to reference any of them here because they are, in my opinion, and seemingly in Jochen’s too, too poor to be listed.

Except… this version by Windillion.

Now unlike all the other cover versions, we have noted, this one is very close to the original.  And that requires a mention and a merit sticker because this is a bugger of a song to perform on stage.  They do it straight, they do a cut-down version, but they get it right.

And what is particularly interesting is that they don’t attempt to sing the whole song – it is in fact about half of it.   But then as they are German band performing in Germany, it is possible that the nuances of the language are not going to make it through.

And if you leave the video running, you’ll find either a live Dylan version or a version by another band (it seems to change from time to time), giving us a chance to compare Windillion’s live version with others, and each time I’ve done this I prefer Windillion, even over Bob’s live version.  Which was what finally persuaded me to put it in, and write this little epilogue.

What else is on the site?

We have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 3600 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 599 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, or indeed have an idea for a series of articles that the regular writers might want to have a go at, please do drop a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article to Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note our friends at  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, plus links back to our reviews (which we do appreciate).


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