Untold Dylan

Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word; Part VII: Now I understand

Previously in this series…

by Jochen Markhorst


Part VII: Now I understand

Though I never knew just what you meant
When you were speaking to your man
I can only think in terms of me
And now I understand
After waking enough times to think

In Writings & Drawings, in Lyrics and on the site, the fourth stanza is the last stanza. The poet himself seems to prefer a poetic, melancholy ending in which the matured narrator looks back on that short, shattering affair with a slightly cynical undertone, but mainly in resignation. In terms of narrative build-up, this may be less satisfying than Baez’s finale, with the fifth stanza leading to a sort of final showdown, but lyrically it is more successful; this fourth stanza actually closes the circle to the first stanza very nicely.

Stylistically, this stanza stands out because of an atypical, Shakespearean interlude in the centre;

I see
The Holy Kiss that’s supposed to last eternity
Blow up in smoke, its destiny
Falls on strangers, travels free

…in which the archaic, rather biblical Holy Kiss is, of course, the most eye- and ear-catching – especially on paper, as Dylan, evidently attaching great importance to it, writes it in capitals. In this context, however, quite inappropriate. There are five occurrences of the Holy Kiss in the Bible, but each one is a kind of brotherly kiss, exchanged by two men. Each time in the New Testament, each time at the end of a letter, so probably meant as part of a Eucharist celebration. In any case, this is how it is integrated into the early Christian Eucharist – after the opening prayer, the brothers greet each other with a Peace be with you and a kiss on the mouth; with a Holy Kiss, as they call it.

Absolutely no bearing, all in all, on the context of the expression in Dylan’s lyrics. Here it has the same context as with Shakespeare: it is a kiss to seal an amorous union between a man and a woman. “The Holy Kiss that’s supposed to last eternity”… so, a kind of marriage vow, really. Shakespeare first uses it in this sense in one of his earliest (and weakest) plays, in the comedy of errors The Two Gentlemen Of Verona:

When possibly I can, I will return.
If you turn not, you will return the sooner.
Keep this remembrance for thy Julia's sake.
[Giving a ring]
Why, then, we'll make exchange;
here, take you this.
And seal the bargain with a holy kiss.

For The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, the young Shakespeare has, as befits a master thief of thoughts, plundered extensively from world literature, including the work from which he would later copy even more lavishly, Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), and from this he may also have picked up this combination of kiss, love and vow;

Then Romeus in arms his lady 'gan to fold,
With friendly kiss, and ruthfully she 'gan her knight behold.
With solemn oath they both their sorrowful leave do take

The Bard from Stratford-upon-Avon will place a holy kiss only once more in his entire oeuvre. Again in Verona, again to make a kind of marriage vow, so again a kiss with amorous overtones – yes indeed, in Romeo And Juliet. Spoken by that poor schmuck Paris, who at that moment still thinks he will soon be a happily married man with Juliet:

Juliet, on Thursday early will I rouse ye.
[kisses her] Till then, adieu, and keep this holy kiss.

We all know how that ends, and the holy kiss referred to by the narrator in “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word” has the same supposed eternal value. This narrator, however, is already a plot development further than Proteus and Paris, and cynically concludes that such a holy kiss is as fleeting as smoke – with which the Bard from Manhattan-upon-Hudson again follows in the footsteps of Shakespeare and Romeo And Juliet: “Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs” (Act I, sc. 1). And with which we can also place the revenge fantasy of ten years later, in “Idiot Wind” (I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy) geographically even more accurately: Verona, that is.

Fortunately, the rising cynicism, the sour conclusion that such a holy kiss is as fleeting as smoke, like a butterfly traveling freely, and happy-go-luckily descending again on the next stranger, is softened again by the beautiful, resigned finale

Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me
And I do not really need to be
Assured that love is just a four-letter word

… words from a purified man, who has gone through the mourning stages of Denial, Bewilderment and Grief, and has now arrived at Acceptance. A beautiful ending to a beautiful lyric, as the poet seems to think when compiling Writings & Drawings (1972) – but by then the world has long been singing along with Baez’ version. And with one more Last Stanza.

To be continued. Next up: Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word part VIII: But it’s all over now

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

You can read about the writers who kindly contribute to Untold Dylan in our About the Authors page.   And you can keep an eye on our current series by checking the listings on the home page

You’ll also find, at the top of this page, and index to some of our series established over the years.  Series we are currently running include

  • The art work of Bob Dylan’s albums
  • The Never Ending Tour year by year with recordings
  • Beautiful Obscurity – the unexpected covers
  • All Directions at Once

You’ll find links to all of them on the home page of this site

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