Gates Of Eden: VIII. When everyone’s super… no one will be

by Jochen Markhorst

VIII       When everyone’s super… no one will be

Relationships of ownership wait outside the wings
Of those condemned t act accordingly waiting for succeeding kings
An I try t harmonize with songs / the lonesome sparrow sings
All men are kings inside the gates of Eden  ____

Remarkably, it is an apocalyptic image to Jewish mystics, a solitary singing sparrow. And linked to the Garden of Eden, too. The Tree of Life is the tree whose blossom produces souls. The souls fall from the tree into the Guf, the “Treasury of Souls” in the Seventh Heaven, and Gabriel plucks from the Guf the souls that go down to a new embryo. Sparrows are the only creatures that can see this descent – and they start chirping happily every time they see one come down. But one day, the Tree of Life will bring forth its last soul. On that day, only one single lonely sparrow will sing – his last song, for when the last soul has descended, the Messiah will come and Judgement Day will dawn. The world will come to an end. The soundtrack of the Apocalypse, therefore, will not be a swan’s song, but a lonesome sparrow singing.

In the draft version of the sixth verse (fifth verse of the final album version), only this third verse line is completely unchanged. “Wait outside the wings” in the first line changes into they whisper in the wings. Hardly drastic, but both lyrically and poetically an improvement, indeed. Rhythmically, the fourteener’s iambus is restored (Relationships of ownership they whisper in the wings), with the poetic by-catch of assonance (ships – ship – whis – in – wings) and lyrically, whisper is stronger, has more expressiveness than wait. In the sketch version, “smile” is added (in brackets) over the word “wait” – apparently the poet feels a need to upgrade this phrase already in the draft phase.

Even more insignificant is the change in the second line; “of those” becomes to those, and “waiting’ becomes and wait – both merely adjustments to the shifted semantics. Radical, however, is the change of the last line, of the chorus line.

In fact, the young poet only changes two words. “All men are kings” becomes There are no kings. But in terms of content, of course, quite a lot happens: all the kings in Eden, all the men, lose their crown. It is a mass, collective abdication – or impeachment, who knows – quite unique in our cultural history.

The operation reveals a number of things. To begin with, the poet seems to regard the verses as closed tableaux. After all, for the transcending eloquence, for the power or impact of the lyrics as a whole, it makes no difference whether everyone in Eden is a king or no one is royal. And second, that Dylan does attach some importance to logic.

Somewhere in the months between conception in June and the live debut 31 October 1964, Dylan comes to a similar realisation as in “Who Killed Davey Moore?”, where everyone is guilty and so no one is guilty, a similar realisation as the vengeful Buddy a.k.a. “Syndrome” in Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004):

“When I’m old and I’ve had my fun, I’ll sell my inventions so that everyone can be superheroes. Everyone can be super! And when everyone’s super… [laughs maniacally]…no one will be!”

… Dylan recognises, in short, the levelling effect of the Tall Poppy Syndrome. If you elevate everyone to the status of king, as he does in the sketch, then no one is elevated anymore. For the status of the inhabitants of Eden, of course, it makes no difference whether everyone is a king or not – but apparently the poet is disturbed by the inherent contradiction, and chooses the safer, linguistically more logical “there are no kings”. That the analysts who are so keen to see political overtones in Dylan’s lyrics are now being handed a kind of plea for a classless society, he takes the rough with the smooth. Christian fans, on the other hand, will be less happy with the implication that there is no Supreme King in Eden either – which is rather at odds with the Bible.

Anyway, it’s a nice one-liner, there are no kings inside the gates of Eden – but not the most popular, not the most quoted from this verse; that still is the lonesome sparrow sings.

The sparrow is a spiteful bird

The sparrow has been a much-sung birdie throughout the ages. Precisely because of its unremarkable mediocrity, of course. “The sparrow with its simple notes,” as Walt Whitman says. Not much different with Dante, Baudelaire, Grimm, Blake, Shakespeare (“Something as trivial as a sparrow’s death,” Hamlet) or Villon; with all poets through all ages, a sparrow is used to illustrate “ordinary”, unspectacular. Heine, of course, then recognises some satirical potential, and uses sparrows to ridicule the bourgeois, trite art appreciation of Philistines:

They gaze, with glances that glisten,
On each romantic thing;
With ears like asses they listen
To hear the sparrows sing.

Only with the Ancient Greeks, with Homer and Aeschylus for example, do the sparrows have a more colourful symbolic meaning; there they symbolise something like “stupid and lust-driven”. And Chekhov has something against them too:

“The sparrow doesn’t matter, he’s a bad, spiteful bird. He is like a pickpocket in his ways. He doesn’t like man to be happy. When Christ was crucified it was the sparrow brought nails to the Jews, and called ‘alive! alive!’”
(A Day In The Country, 1886)

Dylan must have come across the little bird mainly in his jukebox, though. In each variation of “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” (“The Little Sparrow” by The Country Gentlemen, “Single Girl” by Peter, Paul And Mary, “Fair And Tender Ladies” by Anita Carter) Dylan sings along with

I wish I were some little sparrow
And I had wings and I could fly
I'd fly away to my false true lover
And when he'd speak, I would deny

 

… and no doubt the bard is familiar with the old gospel classic “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” (1905) too, which uses sparrow just like all those songs, poems, fables and heroic tales do:

Why should I feel disgrace and why should the shadows come
Why should my heart feel lonely and long for a heavenly home
When Jesus is my fortress and my constant frantisy
His eye is on the sparrow and I know he cares for me

… to represent, in other words, insignificance or mundanity. This also seems to be the intention here in “Gates of Eden”. It’s the first time a first person is given a supporting role in the song (a first person who only returns in the very last verse), and this I-person seems to be eager to stress his own insignificance. Dylan places him between “relationships of ownerships’, “succeeding kings” and again “kings in Eden”, and has him subordinate himself to a lonely sparrow – he tries to harmonize with the songs the lonesome sparrow sings.

It is a beautiful, humbling and, well alright, apocalyptic image. The correction of the last line, There are no kings inside the gates of Eden, is still appropriate in this context. “There are no souls inside the gates of Eden” would have been even nicer, perhaps. Well, more ominous anyway.

To be continued. Next up: Gates Of Eden part IX:

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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:

 

 

 

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