Crossing The Rubicon (2020) part 15: Today and tomorrow and yesterday too

by Jochen Markhorst

XV       Today and tomorrow and yesterday too

The killing frost is on the ground and the autumn leaves are gone
I lit the torch and I looked to the east and I crossed the Rubicon

Rilke is an exceptional poet who has produced exceptional poems, and a Top 10 is actually impossible to compile reasonably. But everyone will agree that “Herbsttag” (Autumn Day, 1902) belongs somewhere at the top of every Top 10. The short piece (87 words) is Rilke’s Mondscheinsonate; perfect from beginning to end – from the crushing opening line Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß (“Lord: the time has come. The summer was great”) and the heartbreaking melancholy of the second stanza (“Command the last fruits to be full”) through to the famous final couplet with its acclaimed opening line:


Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blatter treiben.

He who hasn’t built a home by now, will never build one.
He who is alone now will remain so for a long time,
will wake, read, write long letters
and will wander to and fro in the avenues
restlessly, while the leaves are drifting.

… the biblical undertones, the elegance, the musicality (of the German source text), the irrevocability and the melancholy that fellow Dylan emulates just under a century later, first in “Not Dark Yet” and almost a quarter of a century thereafter in the final verse of “Crossing The Rubicon”.

“Autumn” in itself is, of course, not a brilliantly chosen metaphor to express something like “end of life” or to communicate melancholy – we have known and used its symbolic power since we were able to write. Dylan himself, for example, at the time of writing this line, has already sung “Autumn Leaves” 235 times, the immigrant top hit from the American Songbook (the song is a translation of the French “Les feuilles mortes”, hence immigrant). Wonderful song, but literary less strong; like most artists who choose “autumn” as a setting or metaphor, the symbolism is laid on thick. Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle / Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi sang Yves Montand at the time (“The dead leaves are picked up with a shovel / As are my memories and regrets”), and translator Johnny Mercer is not too subtle either: “But I miss you most of all my darling / When autumn leaves start to fall.”

The distinctive quality of masters such as Rilke and Dylan is the unobtrusiveness, the casual naturalness with which autumnal colour is applied. In Rilke’s Autumn Day, for instance, the word “autumn” does not even appear. Dylan, similarly, manages to deepen the classic artifice as well. After his textual change in the fourth verse, he chooses to use the symbolic power of “seasons” as the bearer of the overriding theme of the album Rough And Rowdy Ways: time is an illusion.

That apparently well-thought-out lyric change in the fourth stanza, “The summer meadows turned to gold, and the winter chill was gone” is in itself schizophrenic – it suggests both autumn and spring, after all. The opening “most dangerous month” is just as foggy, as are the other text adaptations, which add “evening sun” and “dying sun going down” respectively – moving the scene from morning (first stanza; “greet the Goddess of the dawn”) to evening. It supports, all in all, a guiding motif of the album that is already introduced in the very first line of the very first song: “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too”.

Time as an elusive, illusionary unit has been a motif in Dylan’s oeuvre since the early 1960s anyway, but it is more prominent than ever in this late work. In almost every song, the poet Dylan juggles with Time, with when. After the opening line of the opening song “I Contain Multitudes”, the following “False Prophet” opens with “Another day that don’t end”, and closes with “Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died”. Track 3, “My Own Version Of You”, opens with the confusing “All through the summers into January”; the I-person from “Mother Of Muses” is already outside of time (“I’ve already outlived my life by far”); “If there ever was a time, then let it be now,” the narrator begs in “Black Rider”; “Key West” grants immortality; “Murder Most Foul” hopscotches through the twentieth century, and is, for all its jumpiness, still the most time-bound song on the album.

“Crossing The Rubicon” is the standard-bearer thereof, of this Elusive Time motif. The narrator greets the morning sun, it is darkest ‘fore dawn and he sees the evening sun die, it is a dangerous month, it is late summer, spring and autumn, and now, in these last lines, it is winter – whereby it is each time ambiguous whether the poet gives stage directions or uses the time indication only metaphorically. The latter option, metaphorical use, seems obvious in this brilliant finale: The killing frost is on the ground and the autumn leaves are gone is heartbreakingly poetic.

Its particular beauty is undoubtedly due in large part to, as Dylan puts it, “a strong foundation, and subliminally that’s what people are hearing” (New York Times, 28 September 1997) – and the unusual killing frost on the ground illustrates that statement perfectly. The foundation has been laid by – of course – Shakespeare, in Henry VIII (“The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,” Act 3, Sc. 2), reinforced by Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal, in the hallucinatory poem “Ciel brouillé” (Overcast);

Dangerous woman-demoralizing days!
Will I adore your killing frost as much,
and in that implacable winter, when it comes,
discover pleasures sharper than iron and ice?

…but “subliminally”, killing frost on the ground draws us via one of the stepfathers of “Crossing The Rubicon”, via Howlin’ Wolf’s immortal “Killing Floor” (1964), to its progenitor Skip James’ “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” from 1931, a blues bedrock so successfully reanimated by Chris Thomas King in 2000 in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (“I was delighted with this album,” says Dylan in 2001 about its soundtrack). It is an almost inescapable, subliminal, associative leap, especially for a bluesman like Dylan, the leap from Skip James’

People, if I ever can get up off of this old hard killin' floor
Lord, I'll never get down this low no more


… to Howlin’ Wolf’s

I shoulda went on, when my friend come from Mexico at me
But no, I was foolin' with ya, baby, I let ya put me on the killin' floor
Lord knows, I shoulda been gone
And I wouldn't have been here, down on the killin' floor

… to Dylan’s killing frost on the ground. “My songs,” Dylan says, “what makes them different is that there’s a foundation to them. That’s why they’re still around, that’s why my songs are still being performed.”

To be continued. Next up Crossing The Rubicon part 16: He stepped off the bridge


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. Before Rilike there is Shelley:

    Old wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
    Thou, from whose unseen presense the leaves dead
    Are driven, like ghosts from some enchanter fleeing

    Like Rilke, Dylan manages to cling to Romantic ideals despite Nietzsche.

    Art is just not Art for Art’s Sake , but for the artist’s sake too, and
    for the sake of his audience – there to revitalize the human spirit in dark times.

    And whether you’re Nat King Cole, Bing, Sinatra, or Dylan, you don’t mess around with the lyrics and music when singing the lament Autumn Leaves”.

  2. The song sufficiently known enough that Roger Williams could have a big piano hit with ‘Autumn Leaves” without lyrics.

  3. In some renditions ” the autumn leaves are gone” is changed to “the early days are gone”

  4. So Dylan could have changed ‘Autumn Leaves” a bit more:

    Since you went away the days grow long
    And then I hear old winter’s song
    But I’ll miss you most of all, my darling
    When the early days are gone

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