Crossing The Rubicon (2020) part 5

by Jochen Markhorst

V          One step from the Shadow Kingdom

The Rubicon is the Red River, going gently as she flows
Redder then your ruby lips and the blood that flows from the rose
Three miles north of purgatory - one step from the great beyond
I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls and I crossed the Rubicon

Dante, whom we can trust as a guide after that abandon all hope quote in the first stanza, explains quite precisely where the Mount of Purgatory is located. On an island in the Pacific. Even more precisely: right under Jerusalem – the island in question is Jerusalem’s antipode. Not coincidentally; the island came into being as a result of Lucifer’s fall from heaven. The rebellious angel was thrown out of heaven with such force that his landing near Jerusalem caused a crater right down to the centre of the earth, where hell is now. The rock that was displaced, pushed a mountain out of the ocean on the other side of the earth: the Mount of Purgatory. Thanks to Google Earth, we can now see it with our own eyes, but that turns out to be a bit of a disappointment.

Jerusalem lies at 31° 47′ N, 35° 13′ E, so Purgatorio should be visible at 31° 47′ S, 144°87′ W. But alas: water, water, water. Nor does Dylan’s specification, “three miles north of purgatory”, bring any land in sight; the nearest island, Rapa Iti, the only inhabited island of the Bass Islands in French Polynesia, is about 280 miles north.

Thus, Dante is no longer a reliable guide.

The alternative location of the Mountain and its purgatorial fire produces a more spectacular, and puzzling, result. A century and a half before Dante’s geolocation in Purgatorio, the second part of La Divina Commedia, we thought we knew the location fairly precisely thanks to the Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii (written around 1180): Station Island or St Patrick’s Purgatory in the lake of Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland. The treatise was written by a monk and tells of the journey of the Irish knight Owein to paradise via Purgatory. More satisfying than Dante’s location, in any case, as Station Island does exist. It is really in Lough Derg, in the current Republic of Ireland, near the border with Northern Ireland, Van Morrison’s native country. And that’s where it gets a bit weird: Dylan’s treasure map-like addition “three miles north” is exactly, to the metre, the border with the United Kingdom. Dylan’s next addition “one step from the great beyond” would therefore mean: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is equivalent to “the great beyond”.

Weird. Too weird even, so let’s just attribute it to a strange coincidence. It’s not likely, anyway, that Dylan would have been fooling around on his laptop with Google Maps’ distance-measuring function to find out the exact distance from Station Island to the Irish/Northern Irish border. And even more unlikely is that Dylan feels a poetic need to use cryptic clues to lead us to the politically sensitive border of the European Union with post-Brexit United Kingdom.

Just before that, we get a first clue as to what drives the narrator, and with it a hint of an underlying plot. “Redder then your ruby lips” at the very least suggests that he has a love story to deal with – whereby his immediately following association, “blood that flows from the rose”, is a little disconcerting. Uncomfortably brooding like, say, Shutter Island or, to stay with the rivers, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River. And a little less ambiguous than metaphors like “crossing the Rubicon” or “the most dangerous month”. But not completely unambiguous. Blood + rose… traditionally, it symbolises defloration – but given the quite violent continuation in the next stanzas, it seems to be a build-up to love and crime, to the two strongest, indestructible themes through the ages: sex and murder.


The combination really is indestructible. The Oedipus myth, whose plot is driven by sex (with the mother) and murder (of the father), is already mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, so we have been telling each other this story for about thirty centuries now. Centuries before that, in the very oldest stories we have, the Gilgamesh, the storyteller also recognises the attention-grabbing power of sex and murder, and that does not change in the centuries that follow. The oldest Babylonian stories, Canaanite folk tales institutionalising temple prostitution and child sacrifice, Greek and Roman mythology, the Old Testament, the Nibelungenlied up to and including Shakespeare: sex and murder. And if it is not explicit already, then scientists like Freud and Bruno Bettelheim prove from the nineteenth century onwards that all those old stories like Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are also “actually” about sex and murder.

Especially in his later oeuvre, Dylan seems to succumb to the magnetic attraction of that golden combination as well. Quite structurally even, approximately from “Man In The Long Black Coat” (Oh Mercy, 1989) onwards. Before that, in songs like “New Pony” (Street-Legal, 1978), the first verse of “Idiot Wind” and in “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” (Blood On The Tracks, 1975), it comes up occasionally as a plot-driving theme, but from Oh Mercy onwards it seems to become a regular feature of Dylan’s output. With the emphasis on seems – many of Dylan’s later songs insinuate sex and murder, but remain nebulous enough to see other, more innocent, plots. On Time Out Of Mind (1997) in songs like “Dirt Road Blues”, “Cold Irons Bound” and “Million Miles”, the narrator alarms us through small, ambiguous hints like the last thing you said and that girl who won’t be back no more, and it doesn’t stop there.

In the twenty-first century, these veiled hints of underlying sex and murder, develop into a stylistic feature. Though they do get in more and more explicitly too, by the way. Tempest‘s “Tin Angel” (2012) is an old-fashioned, full-blooded sex-and-murder ballad. Just like other songs contain increasingly more explicit wording. I’m gonna ring your neck in “Someday Baby”, for example, “Early Roman Kings” and “Pay In Blood”, and They’re lying there dying in their blood in “Soon After Midnight”. But just as often it remains subcutaneous, as in “Moonlight” and in “Red River Shore” – the theme, explicit or subcutaneous, has now made it into the Top 3 Most Used Themes. And when Dylan rewrites an oldie from his catalogue – 1969’s “To Be Alone With You” for his corona surprise Shadow Kingdom, 2021 – the fairly simple-minded, cloudless song suddenly becomes a menacing, homicidal, murder insinuating thriller about a sinister protagonist intent on luring his victim to a castle high in a gothic, nineteenth-century shadowy kingdom setting.

At the same crossroads now stands the narrator in “Crossing The Rubicon”. The closing line of this second verse continues the accumulation from the first couplet. After I painted my wagon and abondoned all hope, the narrator now says I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls. Symbolic, farewell-suggesting actions of a protagonist who is on the verge of a life-changing, irrevocable action – who is about to cross the Rubicon.


To be continued. Next up Crossing The Rubicon part 6: I got my head on straight


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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