The Stranger In Bob Dylan’s ‘I And I’


by Larry Fyffe

Frederich Nietzsche criticizes Judeo-Christian for its ‘slave morality’; for its messenger prophets who put prospects for a better life off into the distant future, whether here on Earth or somewhere in an otherworldly Heaven.

Western Gnosticism, rooted in Eastern mysticism, conceives the material world in a permanently fallen state that is remote and separate from the hidden Spirit of Oneness.

With cosmological visions like these, just how short-lived human individuals are supposed to cope with this physical world of woe becomes a point of contention.

Followers of the standard canon of Judeo-Christian Bible, like Lees de Graaf, interpret the song lyrics of singer Bob Dylan without taking into account the singer/songer’s awaress of Gnostic writings beyond those remnants found in the Holy Bible such as Eccesiastes, Proverbs, and Revelations – and even then the Gnostic bent in these three Books of the Bible are interepted to fit orthodox thinking. De Graaf considers ‘the stranger’ in “I and I” (below) to be Jesus though clearly referred to is the ‘strange woman’ that is in bed.

That Gnosticism’s search for cosmic order focuses on ‘ignorance’ rather than on ‘sin’ explains its appeal to nonconformist artists – its mystical version of history operates, not in a progressive linear manner, but rather in eternal cycles of darkness and light:

One generation passeth away
And another generation cometh
But the Earth abideth forever
The sun also ariseth
And the sun goes down
And hasteth to his place where he arose
(Book Of Eccesiastes I: 4,5)

Accordingly, Gnosticism projects, through analogy and allegory, a big picture of history that is rather static – fallen mankind changes for the better only for a time the social, economic, and political conditions on Earth:

I have seen all the works that are done under the sun
And behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit
That which is crooked cannot be made straight
And that which is wanting cannot be numbered
(Book Of Ecclesiastes 1: 14,15)

Still there is room for an imaginative artist to present a somewhat hopeful point of view:

To everything there is a season
And a time to every purpose under the heaven
(Book Of Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan flashes a Shelleyan mirror that reflects the light of springtime:

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slowest now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one will later be last
‘Cause the times they are a-changing
(Bob Dylan: The Times They Are A-Changing)

All hope is not lost for spirituality on Earth – there be sparks of light amidst the darkness:

A time to love, and a time to hate
A time of war, and a time of peace
(Book Of Ecclesiastes 3:8)

The journey in search of intuitive knowledge is the key to opening the the door to inward happiness.

Some artists find Gnosticism lacking the capacity to create collective action when it’s thought needed. Exercising poetic licence, a 8folk singer envisions bringing the vicious cycle of light and darkness to an optimistic end:

A time to love, a time to hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late
(Pete Seegar: Turn, Turn Turn)

Thereby avoiding the pessimistic side of the Gnostic equation – luck has a lot to do with obtaining individual happiness considering the certainty of physical death:

I returned, and saw under the sun
That the race is not to the swift
Nor the battle to the strong
Neither yet bread to the wise
Nor yet riches to men of understanding
Nor yet favour to men of skill
But time and chance happeneth to them all
(Ecclesiastes 9:11)

Bob Dylan, as the Jack of Hearts and riverboat gambler, flips the coin that has the ‘do unto others’ rule etched on its light side and the ‘eye for an eye’ rule on its dark side:

Took an untrodden path once
Where the swift don’t win the race
It goes to the worthy
Who can divide the word of truth
Took a stranger to teach me
To look into justice’s beautiful face
And see an eye for an eye
And a tooth for a tooth
(Bob Dylan: I And I)

The ‘stranger’ of the song lyrics is mentioned in the Old Testament:

To deliver thee from the the strange woman
Even from the stranger which flattereth with her words
Which forsake the guide of her youth
And forgetting the covenant of her God
For her house inclineth unto death
And her paths unto the dead
(Proverbs 2: 16-18)

While ‘justice’s beautiful face’ be the Lady of Wisdom noted below:

Wisdom is the principle thing
Therefore get wisdom
And with all thy getting get understanding
Exalt her, and she shall promote thee to honour
When thou shall embrace her
(Proverbs 4:5-8)

And standing in the doorway of the mirrored room are producer Jack Frost and poet Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
(Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken)

Just and fair – a coherent interpretation of Dylan’s songs that’s as good as any.

Dylan, aka Jack Frost, produced the albums/CDs “Under The Red Sky”, “Time Out Of Mind”, “Love And Theft,”Modern Times”, “Together Through Life”, and “Tempest”.

What else is on the site

1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews


  1. Another correction may be: ‘Lees de Graaf” should read ‘Kees de Graaf’. But more importantly the question to be resolved is this: Is the groundwork of Dylan’s lyricism based on the Gnostic concept of ignorance versus enlightenment or on the Biblical notion of sin versus redemption? There is overwhelming evidence that the Biblical notion of sin versus redemption is the ground pattern in Dylan’s lyrics. Not only from 1979 till 1981 but over his entire career. Redemption meant in a passive way as a gift from God- just like Dylan expressed in a 2012 Rolling Stone interview: “No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed”. This statement has nothing to do with Gnosticism and whether or not Dylan is aware of Gnosticism.

  2. Sorry about my accidental mispelling of Kees.

    You are right from your side, I from mine, ie Idiot Wind, for example.

    Dylan creates lots of parables that are double-edged.

  3. I never read Kees’ commentary on this passage. But, as a Christian, this verse probably means more to me than any other Dylan passage.

    Took a stranger to teach me
    To look into justice’s beautiful face
    And see an eye for an eye
    And a tooth for a tooth

    The stranger to me is definitely Jesus and “justice’s beautiful face” and “an eye for an eye” refer to the fact that we all have a sin debt to be paid. God is indeed merciful but, more importantly, he is completely just. Jesus paid the punishment required for our sins and gave us his righteousness, free and clear with nothing more needing to be added. God does not see sin in the believer. Romans 5: “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin”. Hebrews somewhere: “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more”. Dylan also ties into this when he quotes from Jeremiah 31 on the inside sleeve of Saved. The verse continues (although Bob did not quote the rest) that God “will remember their sins no more”.

    I particularly like this verse in I and I because even though his blatantly evangelical period is over he is still subtly declaring what he believes.

  4. That’s all well and good though my point is that Dylan does not come out and directly say it’s Jesus; his lyrics leave wriggle room for interpretation. A devout Christian sees Christ reflected in every window, but, in Dylan’s lyrics, I find various levels of metaphorical meaning.

    If I can’t go up to your level, you’ll have to come down to mine, or words to that effect, Dylan flippantly says in one of his songs.

  5. * interpreted to fit ….

    The Old Testament refers to King Solomon loving ‘strange women’ – that is, nonHebrews, black Africans, etc. – picked up on by Gnostic Rastafaranians to whom the phrase ‘I and I’ is related.

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