Red River Shore (1997): VI  Misery is but the shadow of happiness

by Jochen Markhorst

VI         Misery is but the shadow of happiness

Well I’m wearing the cloak of misery
And I’ve tasted jilted love
And the frozen smile upon my face
Fits me like a glove
But I can’t escape from the memory
Of the one I’ll always adore
All those nights when I lay in the arms
Of the girl from the red river shore

In Overwatch, one of Blizzard Entertainment’s most successful multiplayer first-person shooter games, we hear it again, spoken by the Japanese fighting hero Hanzo: “If you sit by the river long enough, you will see the body of your enemy floating by.”

Presumably copied from the fairly successful crime thriller Rising Sun (1993), in which Sean Connery plays a former police captain, John Connor, expert on Japanese affairs. Throughout the film, “Connor-san” sprinkles ancient Japanese wisdom and proverbs, and towards the end of the film there is an appropriate moment to throw in the floating corpse aphorism. And the scriptwriter, in turn, presumably took it from James Clavell’s bestseller Shōgun (1975), where it is also presented as a “Japanese wisdom”.

Just as often it is attributed to – of course – Sun Tzu, to The Art Of War, and the Most Erudite Man of the Western World, Umberto Eco, muddies the already murky waters further in the Postscript to The Name Of The Rose (1980): “But there is an Indian proverb that goes, ‘Sit on the bank of a river and wait: your enemy’s corpse will soon float by’.”

Enough confusion, all in all, to drive Western sinologists in particular to a mild state of frenzy. Especially since the original Chinese – not Japanese – wisdom is a completely unsuccessful translation of Confucius; “The time is passing like a river running day and night,” is the best approximate translation – the Chinese characters for passing time can be understood as passed away, deceased, and from there a well-meaning, but slightly too creative translator went wrong. In any case, Confucius does not speak at all of floating corpses.

The beautiful metaphor wearing a cloak of misery has a similar life cycle. Throughout the centuries, it has been attributed to literary gifted journalists (New York Times reporter Paul Montgomery, 1968), to nineteenth-century Polish authorities warning against dziady, criminal beggars who swindle respectable citizens “under the cloak of misery”, to French composer Gabriel Fauré (“Je ne me sense plus qu’un affreux manteau de misère et de découragement sur les épaules – I feel that there is on my shoulders nothing more than a terrible cloak of misery and discouragement,” from a letter dated August 1903, discussing his encroaching deafness), and whatnot. And to Dylan, of course.

However, the source is as old as that floating corpse: Confucius’ colleague and contemporary Lao Tze. It may comfort the easily appalled sinologists that the quotation has survived more than twenty-five centuries undamaged:

Misery is but the shadow of happiness
Happiness is but the cloak of misery

… from the immortal Tao Te Ching, the most important writing of Taoism, The Book Of The Simple Way.

Still, it’s not very likely that the songwriter Dylan, leafing through the Tao Te Ching, put a tick in the margin here. This whole fourth verse seems, after three verses full of country and folk clichés, a deliberate attempt to leave the Simple Way, and to take a turn to the narrow, thorny path. So: not I’m feeling blue, but I’m wearing the cloak of misery. Not: my baby left me, but I’ve tasted jilted love. And not: I’ll remember you, but I can’t escape from the memory of the one I’ll always adore.

All right, that last line may have a vague echo of Hank Thompson’s “I Cast A Lonely Shadow”, which, not only because of its lyrics, but also because of its sound, could be a candidate for a place on Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind;

I sit and watch the candle and the flicker of the flame 
My writhing shadow twists and turns as though it is in pain  
I'm trying to escape the memory my mind recalls  
And I cast a lonesome shadow on these lonely, lonely walls

…and, of course, “jilted love” and variants with “jilted” can also be found in Dylan’s jukebox. In Freddie King’s “Woman Across The River”, for instance (1974, with a band, incidentally, consisting only of Dylan disciples: Jim Keltner, Leon Russel and Carl Radle). Or, to stay more in the Hank Thompson mood, Red Foley’s “Jilted” (also a hit for Teresa Brewer in 1954). Even more attractive, though, is the idea that Dylan was inspired by his art brother Heinrich Heine, one of the greatest Jewish poets of the 19th century;

Wenn dich ein Weib verraten hat, 
So liebe flink eine andre; 
Noch besser wär es, du ließest die Stadt 
Schnüre den Ranzen und wandre!

If by one woman thou'rt jilted, love
Another, and so forget her ;
To pack up thy knapsack, and straight remove
From the town will be stil better

The same goes for the Cole Porter-like the frozen smile upon my face fits me like a glove. Poetic and so visual, as Dylan would say, and not too hackneyed. The formidable Etta James snarls a frozen smile (in the funky “Power Play”), and Dylan may have made a mental note when listening to the overly ambitious “The Modern Adventures of Plato, Diogenes and Freud” that his faithful organist Al Kooper wrote for the debut album of Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1968;

And the clock on the wall is a bore
As you wander past the door
And find him lying on the floor
As he begs you for some more, 
you frozen smile

… where the poet Dylan will at least notice the unusual aaaab rhyme scheme, that he himself once used for “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word”. But the loudest association, and probably also a trigger for Dylan, is the evergreen “Behind A Painted Smile” (1968) by the indestructible Isley Brothers, who have now entered their eighth decade. With a protagonist who deals with adversity in a tougher way than Dylan’s protagonist does: “If I can’t have your love, I don’t need your sympathy.

However, too thin all of it, to be worthy of the honourable label “paraphrase”. And that cloak of misery is an absolutely unusual metaphor in the art of song. No, the song poet Dylan has now sat on the bank long enough, watching the river flow, has seen all kinds of wreckage float by, and now takes a turn to the narrow, thorny path.

To be continued. Next up: Red River Shore part 7: Please try to make it rhyme


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. Brings to mind:

    But the Mona Lisa must had the highway blues
    You can tell by the way she smiles
    See the primitive wallflower freeze

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