Crossing The Rubicon (2020) part 17: A song is a prismatic thing

Mississippi, Desolation Row, Where Are You Tonight, Tombstone Blues… every now and then I get so carried away by a song that I almost drown in it.

Granted, the Ravages of Time have not yet had the chance to do their work, but I’m fairly sure that Crossing The Rubicon will withstand them too.

Wonderful, wonderful song. Deserves its own book(let).
(also available in German and in Dutch)


by Jochen Markhorst

XVII     A song is a prismatic thing

 On the occasion of his painting exhibition The Asia Series, Dylan is interviewed by the former Chief Curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, John Elderfield. They have spoken to each other before, and Elderfield has also written about Dylan’s paintings before, on the occasion of the so-called Brazil Series, and that has paved the way for pleasant, substantive conversations, in which a sharp and apparently relaxed Dylan feels an inclination to not only make statements about his artistic conception in general, but also to reflect on his own songwriting in particular. Including statements that some Dylanologists prefer to ignore, by the way:

“A song is a prismatic thing, nonlinear. Writing songs, you are looking for rhymes that feel right—things that come to you even as you are singing. They come to you quick-like. Sometimes even in a scatological way. You don’t have time to distil meanings or ideological fallout. You want to make sure that the feeling is there, but you can create feeling out of tone, texture, and phrasing, not only words. You want to make sure that there’s camaraderie between the lyric and the rhythm. That just has to be, or you wouldn’t have much of a song. All that profound meaning stuff—that comes later. And truthfully, that’s for other people to experience. Believe me, the songwriter isn’t thinking of any of those things.”

… in which Dylan once again expresses his opinion that semantics is often secondary – something he declares at almost every stage of his career (“I’m sick of people asking what does it mean. It means nothing,” Royal Albert Hall 1966, for example, and “It’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it,” Playboy interview 1966). Here, in this Elderfield interview, he expresses the same thing even less elegantly than in his Nobel Prize speech (“I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means”): “All that profound meaning stuff – that comes later.” Plus, it’s “other people” who put all that “profound meaning stuff” into it – he himself, as he implicitly says, is not that familiar with this reflex.

What is elegant, though, and to some extent enlightening, is the beginning of Dylan’s answer (remarkably, at a point in the interview when Elderfield actually tries to direct the conversation towards Dylan’s painting): “A song is a prismatic thing, nonlinear.”

Faceted and not strictly chronological, Dylan seems to mean. His substantiation is not too strong, unfortunately. Interviewer Elderfield looks for a parallel between the paintings and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”. “That particular song is a one-person narrative,” says Dylan, unlike a song like “Frankie And Johnny” with all its changing narrative perspectives and time shifts. Frankie says something, Johnny says something, the bartender says something… “prismatic”. Great word, but unnecessarily complicating; the narrative perspective of “Frankie And Johnny” is rather banal; it is really nothing more than the perspective of an omniscient narrator. The camera is at a fixed point for almost the entire song, filming wide open from somewhere in an upper corner, as it were. The time shifts are jerky, but still simply chronological. There are much better examples to be found in his own oeuvre, which Dylan presumably does not mention out of modesty (“Tangled Up In Blue”, for example, with its shift from an I-person perspective to an omniscient narrator, and its non-chronological narrative structure).

Anyway, “prismatic” is an excellent, all-encompassing qualification for a considerable number of songs in Dylan’s oeuvre, and “Crossing The Rubicon” can bear that label as well. “Prismatic” in a particularly attractive variant, even; at first hearing there is only one narrative perspective, for example (each verse has the I perspective). However, at second glance, the “I” turns out to be not one person, but at least two and maybe more – multitudes contain I, as it were. The anachronistic multiplicity of references (Dante, Caesar, Wild West, Matthew and 20th century blues, to name but a few) and setting choices (winter, summer, autumn and “most dangerous month”) is another quality that can be summed up by “prismatic”, a third is the rollercoaster of emotions demonstrated by the various first-person narrators, and the many suggested narratives a final one.

In other words, there is little left of Aristotle’s age-old laws of theatre, of the prescribed and tested unities of Time, Place and Action, the principles to which we have remained reasonably faithful for almost two thousand years now. At the most, Aristotle’s functional requirement “catharsis” can, with some tolerance, be distilled from the ending, from the melancholic “Mona-couplet”, but even that would probably not qualify as a real catharsis, by the standards of the old philosopher.

No, an art historian specialising in Low Countries painters like Rubens, Breughel and Bosch probably understands “Crossing The Rubicon” better than the literary critic. “I suppose the song is like a Rubens painting – maybe Massacre of the Innocents or something – only difference is you hear it instead of see it,” says Dylan in the catalogue to that earlier painting series, The Brazil Series (2010) about “Tangled Up In Blue”. “Crossing The Rubicon” would bear a similar mirroring with a work like, say, The Garden of Earthly Delights by Early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch (painted around 1500) or Breughel’s Triumph Of Death (1562); overflowing paintings with a multitude of diverse scenes, a range of emotions and dizzying synchronicity.

“It reminded me of the Hank Williams song You Win Again,” says Dylan about one of his own paintings, Skull And Bones from The Brazil Series. Conversely, all the verses of “Crossing The Rubicon” recall scenes from the old Flemish and Dutch masters. In the right-hand panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights, the damned cross a red, bloody river; in the left-hand panel, the Goddess of Dawn colours the morning sky rosy. Dark skies span worlds badly bent, both in Breughel’s Triumph of Death, where Death stabs his victims with a crooked knife, and in Bosch’s Hell, as in Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents. On Bosch’s middle panel, the Holy Spirit has descended and we see happiness on the hills. One finds oneself between heaven and earth, we see broken keys, buttoned coats and strapped belts, torches lit and looking to the east, we see bowed heads and prayers to the cross, Breughel paints a wagon and everywhere, with Breughel, Bosch and Rubens, all hope has been abandoned, most succinctly in the deep and lurid darkness in Bosch’s upper right.

“I would like to try my hand at marquetry,” says Dylan at the end of the interview with art historian Elderfield, “I’ve never done that. I can definitely see myself creating panels of elaborate scrolling – doing high-style inlaying work – wood mosaics, stuff like that.” This is 2011. Nine years later, Dylan records “Crossing The Rubicon”. Creating panels of elaborate scrolling and high-style inlaying work. Like a medieval altarpiece by Hieronymus Bosch.

Packed with profound meaning stuff.


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. Semantics is often secondary …no, Dylan is not saying that at all…says meaning is largely left for the listener/reader to gather.

    The Sound School of Dylanology misses a very important point that Humpty Dumpty does not….that word-structure, and how the lyrics are elocuted, scrambled up or not, contain meaning.

  2. Even when individuals read a poem or whatever ‘silently’ to the self, s/he ‘hears’ the words ‘spoken’ in their head – language is the very essence of being human.

  3. Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
    All mimsy were the borogoves
    And the mome raths out gabe

  4. Though at first just a pleasing ‘sound” to the ear, the human mind, recognizing the structure of the language, searches for meaning in the lines of the poem –
    “chortled”[blend coined by Lewis Carroll, prob. from CHUCKLE +SNORT] ,
    a ‘word’ that appears later in the poem, is now accepted as standard English.

  5. First: Wow!

    Second: this reminded me of one of my favorite poems, “Winter’s Landscape” by John Berryman, which, like a poem by William Carlos Williams, was based on Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.” You might enjoy the syllabus of the class A Poet Looks at Art, which is all about poems based on artwork -

    Last: I do believe that knowledge of cubist, Dadaist, surrealist, impressionist and pop art aesthetics – the movements that would have been considered “modern” in New York City in 1962 – really aids one in appreciating Bob’s lyrics, at all points in his career. I especially think that his 21st century work shares much in common with Joseph Cornell ‘s boxes.

  6. Poets (ie, Williams) and singers do indeed make paintings speak since they can’t
    themselves (Allen Ginsberg: Cezanne’s Ports).

    A word-picture is “like” a painting, but not “is” a painting.

    Cornell uses real objects to draw in the observer, but what the ‘boxes’ might represent requires the use of words.

    Not saying there isn’t one by any means, but the suggested analogy between Dylan and Cornell requires further explanation

    ….for us dummies (lol).

    An article about the link between the two would be interesting I’m sure.

  7. Merci Mark, that’s a wonderful labour of love and a real treasure trove (the poems/paintings page, I mean).
    I must confess I never heard of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. I’m looking at the images now – I see what you mean. Looks like the objet trouvé, version of Dylan’s famous, mythical “very ornate beautiful box”, the box in which he keeps hundreds of scraps of paper with hundreds of one-liners, ideas, short rhymes and aphorisms.

  8. I compare Cornell’s boxes to Dylan’s 21st century songs for at least 3 reasons. First, the shared use of assemblage in constructing the work – objects, in the case of Cornell, allusions and passages in the case of the songs. Second, the absence, on first encounter, of any overarching, conventional meaning to the work, taken as a whole. Last, the strong sense of nostalgia that the works produce; not simple “oldies” nostalgia, but the consciousness that, while the items assembled have been preserved, the era which generated them, and the way humanity lived, loved, cared, spoke, struggled in that era, have faded away with time.

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