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The Mississippi-series, part 12
by Jochen Markhorst
Like earlier “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.
XII Roses Of Yesterday
Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinkin’ fast
I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free
I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me
For many fans of the song, the favourite quatrain. The opening accumulatio indeed has a crushing, pleasantly archaic and terrifying visual power (plus a cheap, yet irresistible alliteration in split to splinters) – but the exceptional beauty of these four lines is due to the contrast, to the completely unexpected and beautifully poetic change to gentleness and bonhomie in the third line.
“Willkommen und Abschied” (Welcome and Farewell) is the best known of Goethe’s so-called Sesenheimer Lieder, a collection of poems to which Goethe contributes around the age of twenty-one. The young law student then lives in Strasbourg and befriends the theologian and art theorist Herder. Johann Gottfried Herder is only five years older, but he becomes Goethe’s literary mentor, teaches him Rousseau, Shakespeare and Homer and opens his eyes to the beauty of Volkslieder, of folk songs. Goethe already had some literary ambition – and now it’s taking shape. The inspiration, lastly, lives forty kilometres away, in the Alsace village of Sessenheim: the eighteen-year-old minister’s daughter Friederike Brion.
The two portraits that exist of Friederike do not really reveal her attraction, but apparently there is something about her – after Goethe has left Friederike, the young poet Jakob Lenz, who is just as madly in love, reports for duty. Lenz will write the remaining Sesenheimer Lieder.
Goethe’s genius awakes here and now, in the poems he writes being in love with Friederike. In “Willkommen und Abschied“, the young Sturm & Drang poet lyrically recounts how he does not think, but rather acts, on a whim, jumping on his horse late at night and galloping out of town, through the dark forest, the forty kilometres to Friederike. The second verse reveals his affinity with the narrator of “Mississippi”:
From out a hill of clouds the moon
Mournful gaze through the mist:
The winds their soft wings flutter’d soon,
And in my ear horribly hissed;
The night a thousand ghouls had made,
Yet fresh and joyous was my mind;
What fire within my veins then play’d!
What glow was in my heart shrin’d!
Darkness and horror, yet fresh and joyous was my mind. The secret of this untouched, uncluttered mind is clear: the narrator is in love, is wearing his rose-coloured glasses, is on his way to his lover – by whom he is indeed welcomed “with tenderness” in the next verse.
At Dylan’s protagonist, the source of his “light and free heart” is less unambiguous. If this verse had stood alone, it would unmistakably be a death scene. “My ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinkin’ fast” would then be something like “my life is done” or “my mind is leaving me”, just as the Dantesque “drowning in the poison” evokes a life farewell rather than an “ordinary” gloomy, pessimistic state of mind.
Appropriate then is the closing line, in which the narrator speaks mild, resigned and summarizing deathbed words: “I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me”.
Only the beautiful, aphoristic got no future, got no past fits less supple in such an interpretation. It seems to derive from that corny inspirational quote, which gets new life thanks to Kung Fu Panda (2008). It is the aphorism the old Master Oogway, the guru-like turtle, shares with Panda Po in the face of his approaching death:
Yesterday is history,
Tomorrow is a mystery,
Today is a gift –
That’s why we call it the present
Corny enough to brighten up kitchen tiles, calligraphed wall posters and Facebook statuses of unimaginative house mothers, and does indeed approximate something like no future, no past. By the way, it is attributed rather stubbornly to Alice Morse Earle, the American historian and writer, and would then have come from her fascinating study Sun-Dials and Roses of Yesterday (1902), but really cannot be found therein.
More obvious is that the poet Dylan incorporates an echo of his Bible studies, the same notion he already incorporated in “Born In Time”: that God and Jesus were always there, “outside of time”, and Jesus is born in time only for those few earthly years. God, as Dylan learned at the Bible study, is an Eternal Being – He has no past and no future, being “outside of time”.
However, to extend the impact of these words to “Mississippi” goes far too far; it would imply that the I-person, who with these words places himself outside of Time, imagines himself divine. No, this verse fragment is probably another example of “words that just come up”, as Dylan often says about his own song writing. Like in the conversation with Happy Traum:
“There are times you just pick up an instrument – something will come, like a tune or some kind of wild line will come into your head and you’ll develop that. If it’s a tune on a piano or guitar – you’ll just uuuuuuhhhh [humming] whatever it brings out in the voice, you’ll write those words down. And they might not mean anything to you at all, and you just go on, and that will be what happens.”
That’s what Dylan says in 1968, and almost half a century later he repeats it in slightly different words in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
“I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means.”
And somewhere in between, between 1968 and 2016, he records “Mississippi”, in which he also writes all kinds of things. Like got no future, got no past.
“I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.”
To be continued. Next up: Mississippi part XIII: Down In The Groove
The Mississippi series
- The Mississippi-series, part 1; no polyrhythm here please
- The Mississippi-series, part 2: the line that never was.
- The 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
- The Mississippi-series, part 9: Abandon all hope
- The Mississippi-series, part 10: Eyesight To The Blind
- The Mississippi-series part 11: Bonnie Blue
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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