by Jochen Markhorst
Like the earlier compositions such as “Desolation Row” and “Where Are You Tonight?”, “Mississippi” can’t really be dealt with in one article. Too grand, too majestic, too monumental. And, of course, such an extraordinary masterpiece deserves more than one paltry article. As the master says (not about “Mississippi”, but about bluegrass, in the New York Times interview of June 2020): Its’s mysterious and deep rooted and you almost have to be born playing it. […] It’s harmonic and meditative, but it’s out for blood.
IX Abandon all hope
Walkin’ through the leaves, falling from the trees
Feelin’ like a stranger nobody sees
So many things that we never will undo
I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too
The opening line of this quatrain is deceptive. At first sight, the setting looks like a clichéd film scene. A melancholy protagonist, strolling in an autumnal forest over the rustling leaf. It is only at second glance one is struck by this atypical falling.
The narrator does not walk through fallen leaves, fallen from the trees, but through leaves, falling from the trees. Participium praesens, a present participle: the leaves are falling, while the protagonist walks through them – the protagonist who does feel like an invisible stranger here… suddenly this is very reminiscent of Dante.
“Canto III” from Dante’s Inferno is probably one of the best known. It is the song that tells how Dante and Virgil arrive at the Gates of Hell, at the cheerful welcome sign Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate – “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” – the closing words which will be re-used by Dylan in 2020 for “Crossing The Rubicon” (I painted my wagon, abandoned all hope and I crossed the Rubicon), just as further verses seem inspired by that same excerpt from the Divina Commedia:
You won’t find any happiness here No happiness or joy
Hell’s vestibule already is an ordeal to Dante. And here are still only the souls of those who have been neither good nor bad – but their screams, the “languages divers, orribili favelle, horrible words” and the “words of agony” frighten Dante. They have to make their way through though, to the “the dismal shore of the Acheron”, the muddy, black, bitter River of Suffering, where ferryman Charon will sail them to the other side, to the underworld.
Dante’s description of Charon, especially Charon’s eyes, suggests that Dylan has browsed the Inferno more than once and more than fleetingly. The first time the ferryman is described is in this song, in verse 82-99. The introduction ends with the remarks that the skipper has “wheels of fire around the eyes”, the title of one of Dylan’s Basement songs from 1967.
The second time is ten lines down:
The dæmon, with eyes like burning coal, - Charon – enrols them, for the passage bound And with his oar goads on each lingering soul
“Eyes like burning coal”, as Wordsworth translates con occhi di bragia seems to echo in “Tangled Up In Blue”:
Then she opened up a book of poems And handed it to me Written by an Italian poet From the thirteenth century And every one of them words rang true And glowed like burnin’ coal
Probably one of the most discussed verses in Dylan’s oeuvre, but on which a kind of consensus has gradually emerged. The obvious candidates for this “Italian poet from the thirteenth century” are the fourteenth-century poets Petrarch, Boccaccio and Dante, and the scales tip towards to Dante (although in ’78 Dylan clouded the waters by answering when asked: “Plutarch. Was that his name?”). However, the ease with which Dylan, in live performances, changes the reference in question to Baudelaire or to Jeremiah does give ground to the theory that the bard has no particular poet in mind at all, but in this verse line, as is often the case, chooses the sound.
Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy, then seems to provide decor, imagery and colour for this quatrain in “Mississippi”. In Chronicles, Dylan in any case parades his memory that he had the book in his hands:
“Sometimes I’d open up a book and see a handwritten note scribbled in the front, like in Machiavelli’s The Prince, there was written, “The spirit of the hustler.” “The cosmopolitan man” was written on the title page in Dante’s Inferno.”
This plays in one of his lodgings, with “Ray and Chloe”, in the time before Dylan recorded his first LP, so around 1960. It seems rather unlikely that the autobiographer Dylan remembers handwritten scribbles in other people’s books more than forty years later, but well alright. In this passage Dylan sums up a whole zip of antique and less antique writers, refers to works that do not exist and remembers fantasised titles – apparently Dylan is not so much striving for academic correctness, but still does feel a need to demonstrate that he is not entirely uneducated.
Anyway – Inferno. After that depressing vestibule Dante and Virgil approach the bank of the Acheron. Charon sees that Dante is still alive and therefore doesn’t want to take him with him, but is overruled by Virgil, who seems to have some authority, down here. Meanwhile, it gets busier and busier on the bank: the souls of the damned, who have to be taken to the other side.
As in the autumn-time the leaves fall off, First one and then another, till the branch Unto the earth surrenders all its spoils; In similar wise the evil seed of Adam Throw themselves from that margin one by one, At signals, as a bird unto its lure.
And thus, Dante is walking through the leaves, falling from the trees, through the wandering souls who can’t see him, to Charon’s ferry. He’s a stranger here, being the only one with a good soul, according to Virgil, among all those souls who never will undo their failed lives. Dante’s sorry. And they are sorry too.
Previously in this series
- The Mississippi-series, part 1; no polyrhythm here please
- The Mississippi-series, part 2: the line that never was.
- Mississippi- series, part 3: Belshazzar on the steppe
- The Mississippi-series, part 4: Bertolt, Bobby, Blind & Boy
- The Mississippi-series, part 5: Frost in the room, fire in the sky
- The Mississippi-series, part 6: Charades
- The Mississippi series: part 7: Dorsey Dixon
- The Mississippi-series, part 8: Pretty Maids All In A Row
To be continued. Next up: Mississippi part X: Eyesight To The Blind
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
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