Love Minus Zero/No Limit (1965) part III: I love you, but you’re strange

by Jochen Markhorst


III         I love you, but you’re strange

My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire

At the other end of the spectrum is Hamburg punk band Abwärts: “Meine Liebe kommt mit Überschall – my love comes with ultrasound” (“Das Wort zum Sonntag”, 1982). Which, come to think of it, might be so deafening that it could make sense after all: my love she speaks like silence. The continuation, however, disrupts the comparison; the words are spoken by an aircraft bomb hurtling down, so “without ideals or violence” is a bit difficult to fit in.

Anyway, in a text full of antitheses, it is right from the start one of the most famous antitheses in the song (the success/failure antithesis from the second stanza is of course the most quoted). With a curious extra layer that is often missed.

Superficial listening leaves little doubt: a protagonist in love sings of the exceptional attractiveness of some lady. Like some Italian poet from the thirteenth century, say Petrarch, about Laura. Particular word choice may have been inspired by William Blake (speak silence with thy glimmering eyes, “To The Evening Star”) and Edmund Spenser (“My Love Is Like To Ice And I To Fire”), but given the vocabulary in general and the apparent clarity thereof, even more by Shakespeare and his love sonnets. After all, the lady is lovely and clearly more temperate, like the lady sung about in “Sonnet 18”, like Ol’ Bill says my love is like a fever, very Dylanesque and ambiguous in “Sonnet 147”, though at least Dylan’s lover seems more faithful than the my love from “Sonnet 138”;

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her though I know she lies

The sweetness of the melody and the somewhat archaic, Shakespearean tone of the lyrics conceal a layer that is usually much more obvious in Shakespeare: an ambiguity that leaves open the possibility of understanding exactly the opposite. This is already true of that famous opening line My love she speaks like silence. Analysts usually link this to a Madonna-like, mysterious aura in general, and to Sara Dylan’s aura in particular. Dylan indeed wrote the song sometime during the first, enamoured months of their relationship, and qualifications like “mysterious”, “good listener” and “shy and quiet” are used by every biographer. The bridge to “silence”, in short, is easily made.

The ambiguity of the metaphor is then ignored by the analysts. Still, “speaking like silence” is a somewhat dubious compliment to say the least. After all, silence equals not saying anything. Thus, “speaking like silence” would actually be a neutral, concealing way of saying: she speaks, but she does not say anything.

Equally dubious is the subsequent “compliment”: without ideals or violence. One may wonder whether that is such an admirable quality – no opinions and no passion is another way of saying the same thing. The more positive explanation is that the lady is detached, unaffected by worldly concerns such as – for example – social injustice or, say, racial issues. But then the image of a somewhat unworldly figure, almost like someone with an autism-related disorder, still prevails; when she talks she says nothing, she has no opinions and doesn’t care about anything – she is expressionless. If it is about Sara at all, it is in keeping with the image that emerges from a supposed “farewell-to-Sara” song Dylan writes twelve years later, from the brilliant “Abandoned Love”: I love you, but you’re strange.

Dylan – Abandoned Love (live at the Bitter End):

It is an attractive quality, the art of disguising ambiguity, of covering up a second, opposing layer. Dylan shares this quality with a master like Kafka, Dylan of course having the advantage of being a musician; he can use the music to lift one layer, and cover the other. Successfully, usually. Like “Every Grain Of Sand”: also the more serious analysts like Shelton and Paul Williams are fooled by the gorgeous melodies into thinking that Dylan is trying to express something like “sense of wonder or awe at the beauty of the natural world”, where Dylan explicitly stacks up eerie, gloomy, saddening images (a pool of tears, a dying voice, nocturnal sorrow, chill, pain, decay, despair, bitterness and so on).

The same goes for “Make You Feel My Love”. The song is heavily criticised in Dylan circles, both by fans on the forums and by “professional” Dylanologists, who then all stumble over the alleged cuteness of the lyrics. A text that, upon clinical analysis, is spoken by a stalking creep who lists all the things he will do “to make you feel my love” and meanwhile sketches nothing but abysmal misery. The rain hits her face, the whole world is nagging at her, tears, hunger, black and blue, storm and a “highway of regret”… hardly cute, all in all.

Once the doubts about the veracity of the immeasurable, infinite love of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” have been raised after those first two lines, the ambivalence of the third and fourth lines becomes noticeable as well;

She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire

“Not having to say you are faithful” is as dubious a compliment as being “without ideals”. Did the other women in the narrator’s life have to fulfil this requirement in order to dispel doubts about adultery? “Other women had to say they were faithful, but you don’t” – and yet she’s true. Which is apparently quite remarkable: despite not having to say it, she still is faithful. Strange enough, but not as strange as the metaphor the narrator chooses to express how “true” she is: like ice, like fire. The poet can choose hundreds of images to express something like the “purity”, the “uncomplicatedness” of her faithfulness. Spring water, puppies, mountain air, tears, the stars above or a rolling stone, for that matter. But he chooses ice and fire; two most unreliable phenomena that are both painful, dangerous and deadly.

It is probably no more than an echo of Edmund Spenser’s sonnet “My Love Is Like To Ice And I To Fire” (1594), a much more unambiguous, rather explanatory play with exactly the same antithesis – yes, Spenser is very much in love with his second wife Elizabeth Doyle, shouting his love from the rooftops and, he too, writes this sometime during the first, enamoured months of their relationship. But Dylan eschews unambiguity.

No, perhaps we must ask ourselves whether we should not be looking for the Shakespeare connection in the Dark Lady sequence of his sonnets, in Sonnets 127-152. For the Shakespeare who writes:

For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night

… again offering antithesis on antithesis, by the way.

The Walker Brothers – Love Minus Zero/No Limit: 


To be continued. Next up: Love Minus Zero/No Limit part IV: The Order of the Whirling Dervishes

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:





  1. Spenser, at least in his own mind, finds that the more he verbalizes his love for her, the more the Lady resists….perhaps it would have been better for him to ‘entreat’ less, and speak more through silence…the ‘element’ fire being associated in the proto -‘psychology’ of the day with the male, water with the female.

  2. I know nought of Blake and Spenser et al, but I find some of these comparisons ‘a step too far’. To me it doesn’t matter what influences the way Dylan writes and as importantly, delivers his songs.

    It, sometimes, can be interesting to hear other interpretations, both performance and review, but some seem almost only for the purpose of adding to the background noise.

    I am content with my, perhaps reactionary, responses to the democracy I see in Dylan’s craft.

    Reacting, that is, through my own condition… psychology, experience, emotional state, academia, vocabulary, self confidence, cognition et al… all of which is in a state of naturally evolving flux.

    I am aware enough not to confuse “MY REALITY” with “ACTUALITY”.

    The democracy I perceive is that Dylan writes with a measured degree of ambiguity, personal and generic definitions of situations and people and reactions.

    Dylan gives us a platform on which to express our personalities and build an internal response because the specificities of his motivations are mostly cryptic enough that so many differing analyses will be forever inspired.

    Each analyst so convincingly writing that he has cracked the Dylan Code.

    For me, the mark of great literature is it’s ability to tap the subjectivity that lies in all human individuality and spark demographic, racial, political, religious, generational, class and even gender based debate.

    Dylan’s craft is yet to be matched and I continue NOT to seek a successor as their task is surely insurmountable.

  3. Thanks for the response –
    I get your point, but no one, artists included, be beyond the influence of the ‘sea’ of culture in which s/he ‘swims’….Blake and Spenser’s works are known – at least, to most English-speaking artists, including Johnny Cash and especially Kris Krisofferson.

  4. Of course, Jochen always ‘steps too far” (lol)…he’ll get me for saying that.

    Dylan has no code to crack but he quotes from the works of other artists in a number of his song lyrics – often giving their themes a twist.

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