by Jochen Markhorst
III He who is alone now, will long so remain
The walls of pride are high and wide Can’t see over to the other side It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay It’s sadder still to feel your heart torn away One look at you and I’m out of control Like the universe has swallowed me whole I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound
“The walls of pride” is not too remarkable an image; any given Sunday there must be a preacher somewhere in the world who reads from Ezekiel, Acts or Isaiah and then warns the congregation of the walls of pride. Dylan, as we know, is not necessarily averse to an evangelical connotation either – but in this context, in “Cold Irons Bound”, it is more likely that the slightly worn-out metaphor has surfaced in Dylan’s stream of consciousness via the heartbreaking “No Tomorrow In Sight”.
Willie Nelson – No Tomorrow in Sight:
In our efforts to break through The thick walls of pride With harsh words that burned to the core The walls still remain But the words broke inside And strengthened the walls even more
… on The Party’s Over and Other Great Willie Nelson Songs from 1967, from the time when Willie still had short hair and at least had one foot firmly planted in the Nashville clay. But also a record that demonstrates from start to finish what Dylan admires so much in Willie: “No one writes a bitter song like Willie Nelson” (Robert Hilburn interview, 1992). There is a line to “Cold Irons Bound” in there too, but still: too generic to put the “influential song” stamp on “No Tomorrow In Sight”.
All the more radiantly, after that clichéd opening, shines the most elegant aphorism of the song, and one of the most poignant of the album at all: It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay / It’s sadder still to feel your heart torn away.
Its perfection suggests that Dylan had the one-liner already up his sleeve. “It was hotel stationary, little scraps like from Norway, and from Belgium and from Brazil, you know places like that. And each little piece of paper had a line,” as Larry Charles reveals in 2014 about Dylan’s working methods in the 1990s.
The isolation of the line within this song seems to confirm this; in terms of content, the first part, the decaying beauty, does not match the emotions that the protagonist conveys. One look at you and I’m out of control he sighs after this, and at the end of the song looking at you and I’m on my bended knee… heartfelt sighs and choice of words that at least suggest that there is no question of decaying beauty, but quite on the contrary, of radiant beauty.
The line must have been inspired by Keats, by the indestructible A thing of beauty is a joy for ever from “Endymion” (1818), and presumably its continuation (its loveliness increases) also triggered Dylan. Keats’ opening line has gained proverbial status and is quoted all over the place – by Willy Wonka, by physicists admiring the elegance of a beautiful formula, in adverts, by Mary Poppins, in songs (ABC’s “Never More Than Now”, for example) and by Woody Harrelson in White Men Can’t Jump… by everyone and everything, actually. In an ironic way, often enough, but just as often to express genuine admiration.
Keats’ figurative meaning is clear, of course. The memory of beauty can provide lasting, for ever, happiness, comfort or poignancy – Keats does know and acknowledge that beauty in itself is impermanent, (as “Ode To A Nightingale”, the poem in which Professor Ricks sees the template for “Not Dark Yet”, demonstrates). In 1882, Oscar Wilde argued pretty much the same thing, in The English Renaissance Of Art (“Beauty is the only thing that time cannot harm”), and Wilde was no fool either, obviously. Yet, strictly speaking, all beauty is indeed perishable, indeed does decay – even the stars above eventually fade away, after all. Which is the root of all melancholy, and thus an inexhaustible source of inspiration.
Melancholy is probably, after Love, inspiration No. 1 in the Arts since Homer, and the combination, the melancholy caused by a lost love, has also animated poets and songwriters for centuries. Usually clichéd and superficial (“Bye Bye Love”, “I Still Miss Someone”), as the emotion itself is big and recognisable enough to communicate without much poetic artifice. Exceptional talents, such as Tim Buckley, do manage to deepen it, though…
So tell me darlin' if the feeling's wrong Don't waste another day Lord, the saddest thing I've ever known Was to watch it die away “Love from Room 109 at the Islander(On Pacific Coast Highway)”, 1969)
But the Very Greats know how to avoid every cliché and avoid all mushiness – and thus still manage to move with melancholy. The template being, obviously, François Villon’s “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” (Où sont les neiges d’antan? – “Where are the snows of yesteryear”, 1461). Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” on the same album is another perfect example, John Williams’ film music for Schindler’s List, De Chirico’s paintings, and a poetic masterpiece like Rilke’s “Herbsttag” (1902), with whom Dylan, not for the first time, demonstrates an artistic kinship;
Lord: it is time. The summer was immense. Lay your shadow on the sundials and let loose the wind in the fields. Bid the last fruits to be full; give them another two more southerly days, press them to ripeness, and chase the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
(transl. “Autumn Day” – Edward Snow)
… and to that list of extraordinary works of art belongs the sepia-coloured aphorism It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay / It’s sadder still to feel your heart torn away.
The second part of the aphorism, heart torn away, fits in well with the desperate tenor of the song, and is also in line with the famous second, last part of Rilke’s “Herbsttag”. (He who has no home now, will build one never / He who is alone now, will long so remain).
The beauty of Dylan’s aphorism shines through all the more strongly because of the relative weakness of the surrounding lines. The introduction, with its walls of pride, is not very spectacular. And the continuation, the varying “transition lines” to the refrain line I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound, again underpin the credibility of David Kemper’s testimony that Dylan dashes off the lyrics in ten minutes;
One look at you and I’m out of control Like the universe has swallowed me whole
… first a run-of-the-mill cliché, and then a sonorous, neatly rhymed, but in fact incomprehensible, inconclusive metaphor. Apparently, the poet wants to express something like “struck by lightning” or perhaps “on cloud nine”. The eloquence of “the universe has swallowed me”, however, is rather polluted by its absurdity – you don’t have to be too scientifically literate to realise that we are all already “in the universe”. To understand how you can be swallowed by something you are already in requires an imagination that even a Kafka or a Charlie Kaufman would not dare to presume in the audience.
Well, in his defence: the poet is out of control, after all.
To be continued. Next up: Cold Irons Bound part 4:
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:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978