Crossing The Rubicon (2020) part 3: So many things that we never will undo

by Jochen Markhorst

III         So many things that we never will undo

I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day of the most 
         dangerous month of the year
At the worst time at the worst place - that’s all I seem to hear
I got up early so I could greet the Goddess of the Dawn
I painted my wagon, abandoned all hope and I crossed the Rubicon

 A leading candidate for the crushing artist in “Tangled Up In Blue”, that Italian poet from the thirteenth century, is Boccaccio, the poet who lived at the worst time at the worst place. Which is, obviously, yet again a vague place and time designation, as ambiguous as “the most dangerous month”, but in our history few focal points are worse than Italy in 1347, when the Black Death enters the port of Messina. On board a Genoese merchant ship is Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that is estimated having wiped out about 60% of Europe before it had run its course. So: if we were to ignore poetic license and take imagery literally, we would have to set the scene, the where and when of Dylan’s “Crossing The Rubicon” on Northern Italy, 14 April 1348. Just before the plague reaches Florence, becoming Boccaccio’s instigator for the Decamerone.

Still – the premise that we then take both “Rubicon” and “the 14th day of the most dangerous month” and “at the worst time at the worst place” as factual indications is of course quite shaky. And is definitely knocked down when we get to verse 3. He greets the “Goddess of Dawn”? Right, it is a poem – it doesn’t say what it says.

No, after the brilliant opening line, the promise of a narrative is not yet fulfilled. Indeed, the foggy who-where-when of the opening line is only made foggier. So the narrator reports, again only seemingly informatively, that it was the “worst time” and the “worst place”. And he had apparently to be told so by others (“that’s all I seem to hear”) – which may explain the clichéd nature of the choice of words.

In any case, in songwriting there are quite a few variants of worst time, worst place that express approximately the same thing. Dr John’s “Right Time, Wrong Place”, for example, and the response of English post-punkers The Fall (“Wrong Place, Right Time”, 1988), “Could be the right time, but it sure is the wrong place,” sing Mike + The Mechanics (“I Get The Feeling”, 1985), and the best of them all, Gene Clark’s brilliant “Train Leaves Here This Morning”. Which we all know in the Eagles’ brilliant rendition on their 1972 self-titled debut album, but the 1968 Dillard & Clark original has Gene Clark, so there’s that.

I lost ten points just for being in the right place 
At exactly the wrong time 
I looked right at the facts there, but I may as well have 
Been completely blind

And although the word combination right time / wrong place (or vice versa) has an attractive inner tension, and thus more dramatic power, there are at least as many, and probably more, songs that choose exactly the same words as Dylan’s narrator: the double negative. U2’s “The Refugee”, Neneh Cherry’s “Heart”, Depeche Mode’s “Wrong” (okay, everything is wrong in that song), Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bryan Ferry, Donna Summer, Iron Maiden… you can find songs with this wrong time / wrong place word combination in every corner of the record shop. And even the greats are not ashamed of its cliché – already in 1953 Cole Porter wrote one of his Very Great Songs, “It’s All Right With Me”, for the musical Can-Can:

It's the wrong time and the wrong place
Though your face is charming, it's the wrong face
It's not her face, but such a charming face
That it's all right with me

A monument that has been polished by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Brenda Lee, Oleta Adams and all them other giants – but seldom as idiosyncratically as by the indestructible Tom Waits (for Red, Hot + Blue, 1990).

After these two lines of verse with a much-suggesting, but ultimately nondescript depiction of the scenery, plus the small bridge in the third line in which the narrator poetically declares that he has risen before dawn, it is clear that this is the work of a lyrical song poet. After all, the sound trumps the content. Repetitio (at the worst-at the worst), vowel harmony (seem-hear), alliteration (got-greet-Godess), assonance (crossed-Rubicon-on-of-month-of)… this is a poet who uses all the stylistic devices in the handbook to achieve euphony. And in fact tells not much more than I woke up this morning and dusted my broom.

In that spirit, the beautiful, enigmatic, purely poetic closing line of this quatrain may be understood. I painted my wagon, abandoned all hope and I crossed the Rubicon… melodiousness by inner rhyme (wagon-bandon) and assonant o-sounds, and loaded, archaic metaphors transcending the centuries by combining them. No less than twenty centuries; “painting the wagon” does indeed come up once in Fagles’ translation of the Odyssey (in Book VI, the Nausicaa episode; “Folding the clothes, she packed them into her painted wagon”), but proverbial status, or at least metaphorical quality, was only given to the expression in the nineteenth century, courtesy of the settlers of the Wild West. At least, that’s how Alan J. Lerner, the writer of the hit musical Paint Your Wagon (the one with the singing Clint Eastwood), explains the meaning – according to Lerner, it refers to the practice of settlers to paint phrases like “California or Bust” on the sides of their wagons when heading out West.

In line with the Dante quote abandon all hope – after all, that is the last thing you read when your soul leaves this world. And in line with both the metaphorical and literal meaning of Julius Caesar’s action of crossing that shallow, insignificant river in north-eastern Italy; taking a drastic, irrevocable step.

The poet Dylan thus explores the beauty and eloquence of the accumulatio, the enumeration of equivalents, his own variant of the “list-song”. List-songs Dylan writes often enough, of course – lyrics that rely on the power of repetition. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “Forever Young”, “Everything Is Broken”, “Blowin’ In The Wind”, just to name a few of the better known. But it is to the related accumulatio that he increasingly turns in the later stages of his career. A first variant is explored in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (with that accumulation of short imperatives), in some songs, like “Idiot Wind”, Dylan piles up antitheses, which you could call with some good will a kind of accumulatio, but later it does become more explicit. “Cold Irons Bound”, with all those misty expressions that seem to want to articulate “goodbye to life”, is already a better example, and, by the way, very similar to “Crossing The Rubicon” in this respect too. But “Mississippi” is perhaps the best example (well, at least the best song, arguably), in which Dylan chooses to fill a verse with accumulatio three times.

Not coincidentally, perhaps, also a narrator crossing the river. And who also already has made an irrevocable decision in an Inferno-like setting, and all hope seems to have been abandoned as well; “So many things that we never will undo / I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too.

To be continued. Next up Crossing The Rubicon part 4: Red River Shore 2: The Guy Strikes Back


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. As I been pointing out, Dylan’s songs like the Rubicon (Red River) be a remake
    (and a fine one) of songs by the wing-bearing apollonian gods from the Maritimes:

    Wilf Carter was born in Hilford, Nova Scotia:

    Won’t you ever come back to the valley
    To a half-breed that’s lonely and blue …
    Seems I can still see the old covered wagon
    And the first day I ever met you
    (Red River Valley Blues)

    Further details after I finish my novel, but I’ve only come of with the first couple of lines so far:

    “It was the best of times
    It was the worst of times”
    (Not bad, eh?)

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