False Prophet: ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?’

by Bob Jope

‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?’

With characteristically fastidious self-deprecation, TS Eliot’s Prufrock, in a poem alluded to – almost quoted from – by Dylan in ‘Desolation Row’, announces:

I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter

Dylan, by contrast, insists over and over, with an unPrufrockian defiance reaffirmed by a driving blues beat:

I ain’t no false prophet

The insistence draws attention to the telling epithet, ‘false’, as much as to the key word ‘prophet’, and there’s a typical ambivalence here, something that underscores the song and its possible meanings: by declaring that he’s not a ‘false prophet’ is the speaker here denying prophetic qualities or affirming that he’s not ‘false’ – ie he is prophet of sorts, and one we can trust, or should pay heed to? I’m very much inclined to the latter.

It’s a cliché to say that we live in an age of ‘fake news’, but like so many clichés (it’s how they become them) it contains a truth: we’re confronted and affronted everywhere by fakery and falsehood, by lying politicians and their sycophantic media cronies inventing ‘facts’. By insisting on not being a false prophet the voice of the poem is setting itself apart from and in opposition to fakery.

The claim to be a prophet is a large one, but it calls to mind William Blake (whose ‘Songs of Experience’ are referenced in ‘I Contain Multitudes’) and his vision of the poet as seer, possessing a wisdom, an ability to see what others are blind to, a prophet who speaks truth to the present day from the perspective of an outsider, even a voice in the wilderness, one, perhaps, who goes ‘where only the lonely can go’:

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future sees

Blake claims that Milton, for example, was ‘a true poet’ who regarded that kind of Energy ‘call’d Evil’ as the ‘only life’. Blake considers Energy to be opposed to Reason, the force which, he believes, restrains desire. He exalts the life of the passions over that of Reason and the true poet/seer/prophet should exalt passionate life and deny imprisoning restraint, the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ (in ‘London’) that chain us down. Comparably, Dylan’s prophet declares:

I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life

(Intriguingly, too, where Blake is the enemy of reason (mocked punningly as a god, Urizen) Dylan’s prophet – or seer – declares himself ‘the enemy of treason’.)

This elevation of Energy led Blake to believe that Milton in Paradise Lost was unconsciously on Satan’s side: the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790)

Dylan’s ‘enemy of the unlived meaningless life’ can appear to be something like an embodiment of that Blakean Energy and Passion as he declares with a kind of snarling swagger:

I’m first among equals - second to none
I’m last of the best - you can bury the rest

Don’t care what I drink - don’t care what I eat
I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet

The extravagant boasting culminates in a reference to Wumen Huikai  a Chinese Chán (in Japanese: Zen) master during China‘s Song period, apparently famed for the 48-koan collection The Gateless Barrier, including this:

You must carry the iron with no hole.
No trivial matter, this curse passes to descendants.
If you want to support the gate and sustain the house
You must climb a mountain of swords with bare feet.

The commands are knowingly absurd, the feats demanded hyperbolic. That’s their point. Dylan’s Prophet, though, will have us believe that he’s achieved at least one of them.

In fact, as elsewhere on this multitudinous album – ‘Key West’, for example, is a rich, mesmerising dramatic monologue – we find ourselves wondering about the voice we’re hearing, who we’re hearing, as Dylan again appears to be adopting a persona – and part of the challenge of engaging fully with the song’s meaning(s) is coming to terms with that persona, or in this song’s case, personae? After all, ‘I is another’: ‘I and I’.

The image accompanying the early-released single offers a cryptic clue. It’s a loaded pastiche of the cover image for The Shadow #96, featuring the stories ‘Death About Town’ and ‘North Woods Mystery’. (Death About Town, we also read, ‘stalks rich and poor alike’.) The skeletal figure is The Shadow himself:

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Every fan of old-time radio, the fruit of a “golden age” on the American airwaves which lasted from the 1920s until television took hold, can tell you the answer: The Shadow knows.


The Shadow knows the evil lurking in men’s hearts and here he (or a version of him) carries a syringe with an intention we can only guess at (poison or a vaccine?) while behind him the silhouette of a hanged man has a Trumplike forelock. Dylan’s speaker stalks the land, and like The Shadow, ‘I just know what I know’.

Then again, ‘It may be the Devil, it may be the Lord…’ The persona, the voice, swings from boasts and vengeful threats, like an Old Testament Jehovah (Blake’s ‘Nobodaddy’) ‘here to bring vengeance’, to inveigling seducer as oily as Satan – who can also, of course, come disguised ‘as a Man of Peace’ –  tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden:

What are you lookin’ at - there’s nothing to see
Just a cool breeze encircling me
Let’s walk in the garden - so far and so wide
We can sit in the shade by the fountain side…

Shade cast by the Tree of Knowledge, Blake’s ‘Poison Tree’?

Tracking the voice as it addresses us through the verses, we begin with a world-weary, even cynical note of resignation:

Another day without end - another ship going out
Another day of anger - bitterness and doubt

Shadows are falling but it’s a day without end, dragging towards eternity, ships ‘going out’, their journeys unnamed, unremarked upon. Days wearily repeat themselves, full of tellingly unspecified ‘anger’ and coloured by ‘bitterness and doubt’. The near-hopelessness, though, shifts to something closer to a worldly knowingness, the voice of a prophet looking back, one who’s seen it all, who saw, too, what was coming  – ‘I know how it happened – I saw it begin’ – but one who also suffered, martyr-like, in his truth-telling and in his searching, we later hear, for ‘the holy grail’:

I opened my heart to the world and the world came in

If you ‘open your heart’ to someone, you tell them truths, your real thoughts and feelings, because you trust them – but in doing that you’re at the same time rendering yourself vulnerable, opening yourself to another’s exploitation if that trusted person turns out to be anything but trustworthy: you can be taken advantage of, something that’s implied here by the embittered follow-on, sung with a tired sense of seen-it-all beforeness: ‘and the world came in’. You ‘open your heart’ to or confide in usually one person, not to ‘the world’, but the speaker’s naïve mistake was perhaps to have assumed that his audience would listen and respond with generosity of spirit rather than seizing an advantage, moving in and, as it were, setting up camp *. Perhaps that’s why the speaker now seeks refuge in isolation, the safety of being ‘where only the lonely can go’, the prophet’s wilderness…

(*There’s likely to be an autobiographical note here, of course: the world-addressing, world-admonishing proselytiser – ‘so much older then’ – found himself claimed, owned even, as a voice or ‘spokesman’, a mouthpiece for others and their causes.)

On the other hand, while he may go where ‘only the lonely can go’, he’s not unaccompanied:

Hello Mary Lou - Hello Miss Pearl
My fleet footed guides from the underworld
No stars in the sky shine brighter than you
You girls mean business and I do too

‘Hello Mary Lou’ is pretty harmless pop stuff but Jimmy Wages’ ‘Miss Pearl’ sounds more like trouble:

Miss Pearl, Miss Pearl
Daylight recalls you, hang your head, go home…

Whatever she gets up to at night in her ‘underworld’ before daylight ‘recalls her’ we can only guess –  the admonishing singer sounds desperate –  but Dylan’s False Prophet welcomes his Miss Pearl and Mary Lou as ‘guides from the underworld’, subterranean muses calling to mind Maggie who once came ‘fleet foot Face full of black soot’. Ready now to do business, the three form a threateningly unholy trio – that ‘I do too’ is added with sardonic relish. The Shadow and his ‘guides’ are, as Elvis sang, ‘Lookin’ for trouble’.

That troublesome ‘business’ is intimated in the next verse with its implied declaration of intent, listing the enemies, the targets to be taken on:

I’m the enemy of treason - the enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life

Another intriguing trio: treason, strife and life not fully lived.

Treason, an act of criminal disloyalty, typically to the state, is a crime that covers some of the more extreme acts against the nation (or its sovereign). It implies betrayal, and the voice here might well have in mind both personal experience (reminding us of the ‘world’ that ‘came in’ when he opened up his heart?) and something grander: a political leader (I can’t help but think again of that Trumpean silhouette)who betrays his own nation and all that it stands for. ‘Strife’ might well have a contemporary relevance, too, suggesting as it does, ‘angry or bitter disagreement over fundamental issues’, or ‘vigorous, bitter conflict’: a nation at war with itself – and with a leader at war with his own nation.

The lines, then, a condemn betrayal and destructive conflict, while, again, Blake comes to mind in the enmity towards ‘the unlived meaningless life’. Treason and strife are, by implication, life-denying, dark negatives, symptoms or products of the ‘Mind-forg’d manacles’ Blake hears in ‘London’, manacles that a lived, meaningful life would presumably be free of, the ‘chains’ that Rousseau and, later, Marx, saw as denying life and liberty. The speaker’s own freedom is expressed, in fact, in the triumphant separateness of the declaration that follows:

I’m first among equals - second to none
I’m last of the best *

(*Robert Currie’s Genius has a lot to say about this essentially Romantic concept, the creative artist as the One versus the Many, reaching something of an apotheosis in Nietzsche’s notion of ‘Man and Superman’: or ‘Man and The Shadow’?)

Michael Goldberg’s thoughts come to mind here:

The funny thing about ‘False Prophet’ is that when Dylan sings, “I ain’t no false prophet/ I just know what I know,” he could be indicating that he’s actually the real thing…In this new song he also sings,

“I’m the enemy of treason…
“Enemy of strife…
“Enemy of the unlived meaningless life.”

That final line is a theme of the Beats, as I was recently reminded when I read three books by the novelist/memoirist Joyce Johnson, who in her youth was Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend when On the Road, written in 1951, was finally published in 1957. “Enemy of the unlived meaningless life.” It’s as relevant today as a philosophy of life as it ever was.


The triumphant note is sustained in the next snarled insistence:

you can bury the rest
Bury ‘em naked with their silver and gold
Put ‘em six feet under and then pray for their souls

The implication seems to be that ‘the rest’ are those whose (‘unlived meaningless’) lives have been dedicated to – and wasted – on material, earthly pursuits, falling in love ‘with wealth itself’ (‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’). Wrong-footing us again, though, a sudden, challenging question, ‘what are you lookin’ at?’, turns into an ambiguous reassurance, ‘There’s nothin’ to see’: he’s invisible now, but, as I suggested earlier, there’s a possible dark undercurrent here, the invitation to ‘walk in the garden’ on the one hand possibly innocently meant but on the other calling to mind the wily serpent (hinted at in the wind’s winding movement, ‘encircling me’)in the Garden of Eden, not actually invisible but, of course, the Devil in disguise, something picked up on a few lines later:

You don’t know me darlin’ - you never would guess
I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest

Again we’re left wondering about the voice, its tone (Inviting? Reassuring? Deceitful? Boastful?) and its intention: who, exactly are we hearing and ‘What was it [he] wanted?’ Unsettling us still more, the swaggering shifts into vengeful mode again:

I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head

That ‘somebody’s head’ is particularly unnerving – somebody could be anybody – and the ‘ghostly appearance’ is now still more insubstantial, ‘nothin’ to hold’ where a hand should be. The threat of vengeance, on the other hand, is horribly actualised or particularised, stuffing with gold the mouth of the ‘poor Devil’ who can, perhaps, only look up and see, not ever reach or experience the City of God – the new Jerusalem, or Paradise: Paradise lost to Adam and Eve, corrupted by Satan – who himself was hurled out of Heaven:

Put out your hand - there’s nothin’ to hold
Open your mouth - I’ll stuff it with gold
Oh you poor Devil - look up if you will
The City of God is there on the hill

This already cryptic, allusive song (addressed by whom, and to whom?) concludes on yet another dense and enigmatic note, loaded with questions:

Hello stranger - Hello and goodbye
You rule the land but so do I
You lusty old mule - you got a poisoned brain
I’m gonna marry you to a ball and chain

You know darlin’ the kind of life that I live
When your smile meets my smile - something’s got to give
I ain’t no false prophet - I’m nobody’s bride
Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died

Ambiguities, uncertainties abound: the voice of a/the Devil, or a/the Devil addressed? Hello – and goodbye –  to a stranger who rules the (strange?) land –  ‘but so do I’? Once again: ‘I and I’? And that stranger is now a poison-brained ‘lusty old mule’ who’s threatened with marriage, but not a marriage to a wife, instead – vengeance again – an ironic, punishing  ‘ball and chain’, calling to mind, for me, Shakespeare’s Lucio who’s punished by, in his words, marriage to ‘a punk!’(By delightful chance, Cockney rhyming slang for ‘wife’ is not, of course, ‘ball and chain’ but ‘trouble and strife’,  while in Janis Joplin’s song, Love is the ‘ball and chain’ that drags her down.)

The voice, meanwhile , telling us again that he’s no false prophet, adds that he’s ‘nobody’s bride’ (not ‘Nobody’s Child’), whereas, we might remember (and Dylan reminds us in ‘The Groom’s Still Waiting’) the church is the ‘bride of Christ’ in John’s Gospel. Mischievously, too , the voice, the Prophet or Seer – Blake’s eternal Bard – not only can’t remember when he was born but, weirder still, ‘forgot when I died’.

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  1. ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?’

    Why the Shadow of course. Leroi Jones told us in his poem In Memory 0f Radio

    “Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of
    Lamont Cranston?
    (Only Jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me”)

    or you might want to check with the Charlatans (late of the Red Dog Saloon):

    The Shadow Knows

    You can hide down in the alley
    With your hat pulled over your eye
    You can wear a wig or moustache
    Or any old disguise
    You can change your name
    and your address
    Even change your style of clothes
    But the shadow knows
    The shadow knows

    You thought you had me baffled
    You thought I didn’t know
    But I know where you going
    Long before you go

    You can’t even snap your fingers
    Or wiggle you toes
    Without the shadow knows
    The shadow knows
    Baby, stop your jiving
    And your messing round
    Cause I know what you’re putting
    Long before you put it down

    You better mind your p’s and q’s
    And your m’s and n’s and o’s
    Because the shadow knows
    The shadow knows

  2. My view:
    The shade by the fountain side…

    The fountain represents the tears which the false prophet brings.
    Mary Lou and Pearl are his victims, not his co-perpetrators.
    See also the picture of the book Room At The Top by John Braine, also in this book are girls the victims of a lying male protagonist.
    The silhouette is not Trump, but the lover of the girl, also a victim of the false prophet. I see Tom Petty. See ‘Room At The Top’, not the book but the live video with a desperate Tom Petty.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, Bob – particularly the points you make about the apparent references to Eliot, Blake, Wumen Huikai, Miss Pearl, Janis Joplin and John’s gospel. They all seem plausible, although I’ll need time to relate them to an overall interpretation of the song.

    Not having read Wumen Hukai, I was a struck by the phrase ‘this curse passes to descendants’. It’s curious that it so obviously seems to reflect God’s retribution on humanity following the original sin. That might seem to suggest that the success Dylan’s narrator is claiming in supposedly having ‘climbed a mountain of swords’ is related in his mind to redemption. It’s interesting too that your Hukai quotation begins ‘No trivial matter’, this being similar to, and perhaps therefore the source for, Eliot’s ‘no great matter’.

    It occurs to me also that the reason ‘walk in the garden’ calls to mind the serpent might be that, before the fall, serpents walked – or so the directive ‘on your belly you shall go’ seems to imply (Genesis 3.14). Since God too walked in the garden, the identity of the walking companion is ambiguous between the two.

    Anyway, thanks for this. I’ll look forward to reading more by you.

  4. Peter there are over 10,000 comments on this site relating to nearly 2500 articles – so there are plenty of issues to pick up – and indeed many people are commenting on articles written a number of years back, and there’s nothing amiss with that.

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