Crossing The Rubicon (2020) part 16: He stepped off the bridge


by Jochen Markhorst

XVI      He stepped off the bridge

I lit the torch and I looked to the east and I crossed the Rubicon

He only says it in the film version, Gandalf. “Look to my coming at first light on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the East.” In the book, Tolkien has him shouting at Aragorn and Éomer, “Keep well the Lord of the Mark, till I return. Await me at Helm’s Gate! Farewell!”, so no wind direction and no daytime, no “East” and no “at dawn”.

Also, there are plenty of torches lit in Lord Of The Rings, but it is still far from likely that the film is playing in Dylan’s mind when he writes this last line, these last links in the accumulatio. With a wonderful dynamic of their own, these final metaphors. In the previous eight verses, we have heard fifteen equivalents that all more or less close a gate;

– couplet 1: I painted my wagon – I abandoned all hope
– couplet 2: I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls
– couplet 3: I embraced my love put down my head
– couplet 4: I pawned my watch and I paid my debts
– couplet 5: I poured the cup and I passed it along
– couplet 6: I stood between heaven and earth and I crossed the Rubicon
– couplet 7: I strapped my belt and buttoned my coat and I crossed the Rubicon
– couplet 8: I turned the key and I broke it off and I crossed the Rubicon

Only the essentially strange, “I stood between heaven and earth” from verse 6 seems to escape that pattern of active, farewell-suggesting deeds, but in view of all the other closing lines it is probably also meant as an active act, so meaning something like “rose, got upright, placed myself between heaven and earth”. Which then suggests a descent, a step towards worldly concerns.

The last closing line has a different tone than all those earlier equivalents. “I lit the torch and I looked to the east” also announces a change of scene, but it is open-ended. And ambiguous enough to be understood as an optimistic turn. More future-oriented and open, in any case, than “I put down my head” or “I broke off the key”. After all, we associate looking east with sunrise, with a new day, with hope – as Jackson Browne puts it in “Looking East” (1996):

In the absence of light
And the deepening night
Where I wait for the sun
Looking east

And secondly, with the coming of the Three Kings, with the worldliness of the East Coast perhaps, or with Eastern Wisdom – but first and foremost with a New Day.

The same applies to I lit the torch: bringing light. Slightly different from the cliché, by the way. “Torch” is actually always used metaphorically in songwriting. “You’re only burning a torch you can’t lose”, for example (“Learnin’ The Blues”), “This torch that I found, It’s gotta be drowned”, from the Arlen/Mercer song that Dylan plundered from front to back in his career, “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” (Dylan quotes and paraphrases from this one song in at least six songs), “The Big Hurt”, the 1959 Toni Fisher hit, and which is kept alive by covers by Scott Walker, Del Shannon and others (“Lighting that torch and watching it burn”), not to mention the hundreds of songs in which the phrase carrying the torch is used.

The aggressive variant, in which a torch is the weapon used to start a fire, is rare. The best known is the Elton John song that closes his still special, The Band-like album Tumbleweed Connection (1970), the somewhat pompous “Burn Down The Mission”;

Everybody now bring your family down to the riverside
Look to the east to see where the fat stock hide
Behind four walls of stone the rich man sleeps
It's time we put the flame torch to their keep

Burn down the mission
If we're gonna stay alive
Watch the black smoke fly to heaven
See the red flame light the sky

… in which, coincidentally or not, Elton also sings the words look to the east in the same verse.

Dylan’s use of the torch is at most comparable to – amazingly enough – Duran Duran’s 1984 hit, “New Moon On Monday”, the single with the failed, über-pretentious video (still with Miss France 1980 Patricia Barzyk, though), but the song itself stands the test of time remarkably well;

I light my torch and wave it for the
New moon on Monday
And a fire dance through the night
I stayed the cold day
With a lonely satellite

Anyway, Dylan’s use of I lit the torch differs; here it is not so much a metaphor as a symbolic action. In this context, the testimony of a narrator who takes a radical step to leave behind a traumatising life episode, fairly simple symbolism, but no less effective for that. He leaves the darkness, apparently, and does so on willpower. Not passively waiting until the “dark period” is over, but deliberately bringing it to an end himself.

He paints California or bust on his wagon, abandoning the hope that things will work out. He does all the right things to end his present life neatly (pays his debts, says goodbye, transfers his current affairs and puts on his coat). Finally, he dispels the darkness and turns his face and his steps towards the rising sun. It almost seems like a happy ending. Although a more sinister scenario is still possible, a scenario like the one on the last page of the brilliant novel “De Uitvreter” (The Freeloader) by Nescio from 1911, one of the highlights of Dutch literature:

One summer morning around half past four, as the sun was rising beautifully, he stepped off the Waal bridge. The bridgekeeper noticed him too late. “Don’t worry, old chap,” Japi had said and then stepped off facing the North-East. You couldn’t call it jumping, the man had said, he just stepped off.

… with one of the most poetic suicides of the twentieth century. Whether Japi, the freeloader, lit a torch as well, history does not mention. Nescio’s style is much more sober, unaffected and down-to-earth than that of Nobel Prize winner Dylan. Still, the Waal is deeper and wider than the Rubicon. And two kilometres longer.


To be continued. Next up Crossing The Rubicon part 17:


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. And this:

    Have you not heard of the madman who lit a latern
    in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place,
    and cried incessantly, “I seek God, I seek God!”
    (Friedrich Nietzsche: The Gay Science)

  2. Nor is light of Romanticism extinguished in the lines below:

    The old that is strong does not whither
    Deep roots are not reached by the frost
    From the ashes a fire shall be woken
    A light from the shadows shall spring
    (JJR Tolkien: All That Is Gold)

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