Gates Of Eden part X: Domus ad orientem solem

The story so far…

by Jochen Markhorst

X          Domus ad orientem solem

The foreign sun / it rises / on a house that is not mine
As friends an other strangers from their fates try to resign
Leaving men wholly, total free t do anything they wish but die
And there’s nowhere t hide inside the gates of Eden

The finest Dave Van Ronk compilation is – of course – made by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and is called Down In Washington Square (2005). It is a 3-CD set with a representative sample of Van Ronk’s best recordings between 1958 and 2001, embellished with well-chosen previously unreleased material. Dave’s cover of Dylan’s “Buckets Of Rain”, for instance, and a beautiful version of the time-honoured “St. James Infirmary” (which Dylan used as a template for “Blind Willie McTell”). And with the infamous arrangement Dylan so uncollegially nicked from the “Mayor of MacDougal Street” for his first album in 1961. As might be expected this story is told again in the excellent liner notes, a beautiful booklet of forty pages:

“Van Ronk recalled that after Bob Dylan had learned Dave’s version of “House of the Rising Sun,” Dylan approached him and asked if he could record it for his first album. Van Ronk replied, “I’d rather you not, I’m planning on recording it soon myself.” Dylan said “uh oh.” Van Ronk had to stop performing it because everyone accused him of getting it from Dylan. However, Dylan himself had to stop playing it when the Animals made a top hit out of it, and people accused him of getting it from them (from the film No Direction Home). Dave learned “House of the Rising Sun” from a recording by Hally Wood.”

Dylan may have felt some remorse, as evidenced by that “uh-oh”, but it doesn’t go too deep. Forty years later, when he publishes his memoir Chronicles, the autobiographer spends a lot of admiring and respectful words on Dave Van Ronk, and also readily admits that he copied him at the time:

“I was greatly influenced by Dave. Later, when I would record my first album, half the cuts on it were renditions of songs that Van Ronk did. It’s not like I planned that, it just happened. Unconsciously I trusted his stuff more than I did mine.”

In June 1964, when Dylan in an inspired flash dashes off the lyrics for “Gates Of Eden”, the song apparently still reverberates obtrusively in the back of his mind. Or he is in a bit of a vicious mood, that is also possible. The eighth verse of the draft version opens with a perfect fourteener, and is not too cryptic: “The foreign sun it rises on a house that is not mine”… intended or unintended, it can only be understood as a stab to Van Ronk and the “House Of The Rising Sun”-controversy. No, that’s going too far, the bard thinks in the following weeks, and he changes it after all.

The rewritten opening line is successful: “The foreign sun, it squints upon a bed that is never mine.” The foreign sun is an age-old, but not yet worn out image with a simple, appealing metaphorical power. Archibald MacLeish, so admired by Dylan (one of the “gigantic figures who had defined the landscape of twentieth-century America”, “the poet of night stones and the quick earth” and who “put everything in perspective”, Chronicles) chooses it in Immortal Autumn (“Now no more the foreign sun does meddle at our earth”). And in this same year 1964, The Priest, Dylan’s role model William Burroughs, uses it twice in Nova Express. Weirdly, of course: “this foreign sun in your brain,” for instance.

For the academic fan, however, Horace is the most attractive source:

Quid terras alio calentes
Sole mutamus? Patria quis exul
Se quoque fugit?

… which, while retaining its poetic force, can be translated as

Why do we leave for lands warmed 
by a foreign sun? What exiled fugitive 
can flee from himself?
                                (Horace Odes 2:16)

All the more attractive, because it fits so well with Dylan’s next verse, with as friends and other strangers from their fates try to resign. A coincidence, probably, but still a nice coincidence. And with the continuation of the opening line, it squints upon a bed that is never mine, the poet in any case smuggles in a pleasant interior rhyme (foreign sun – squints upon), and expresses the suggestion of an erotic intermezzo more subtly than with that reference to the most famous brothel in history.

Anyway, the foreign sun and the stranger’s bed (or, originally, the unfamiliar house) set the tone for the apparent theme of this verse, for detachment and alienation. “Friends and other strangers” is a beautiful poetic find with a charged, sad inner contradiction to express deep loneliness. And it seems to be a Dylan original; before “Gates Of Eden”, we don’t really know this loaded word combination. It hits home. The expression, and variants of it, is used in cinema, literature, songwriting, and also outside the arts, in science. Chapter 2 of the wonderful Benjamin Franklin biography, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (H.W. Brands, 2000), for example, is called “Friends and Other Strangers”, as is a 1995 DC Comics Star Trek: The Next Generation and an episode of the TV series Notorious. The latest episode of the hit series Roseanna is called “Daughters and Other Strangers”, an episode of the equally successful Golden Girls “Sisters and Other Strangers”, Husbands, Family, My Mother, Neighbors… the ironic addition of “and other strangers” has certainly proved to be a popular inspiration.

The not too coherent “from their fates try to resign” tries to express something like “not being able to escape your destiny” and gets a not unattractive, Jewish-mystic colour by the Yoda-like sentence structure, but is above all a bridge to one of the song’s most shining verses, to “Leaving men wholly, totally free to do anything they wish to do but die” – probably spending their lives in sin and misery, in other words. Which has been the ruin of many a poor boy, as we all know.

To be continued. Next up: Gates Of Eden part XI: Forever Young

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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One comment

  1. Don’t forget you the wonderful option of also spending your ‘afterife’ in the misery of Hell because of your lust-based ‘sins’, or should ‘organized religion’ consider you ‘pure’ enough, then in the sexless ‘paradise’ known as the “Heaven of the Rising Son”. There is no escape therefrom, not even death.

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