Bob Dylan's "Mississippi" - an analysis by Kees de Graaf - Part 3
Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinking fast
I’m drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free
I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me.
The beautiful ‘s’ alliteration in the first line is noteworthy. This ‘s’ alliteration in the first line combined with the use of ‘s’ in ‘poison’’, the ‘s’ like sound in ‘future’ and the ‘s’ in ‘past’ turns these first lines into a compact statement which very much expresses an atmosphere of mental alienation. It is the same feeling of alienation which is so emphatically present on the album “Time out of Mind” for which this song was originally composed in 1997. When you hear the words ”Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinking fast, and I’m drowning in the poison” you can imagine some lonesome pilgrim “going down the (Mississippi) river, down to New Orleans” (Trying to get to Heaven). Well, his ship has been split to splinters and it has sunk and now he is “ wading through the high muddy water with the heat rising in his eyes”. The words from ‘Standing in the Doorway’ echo: I “got no place left to turn, I got nothing left to burn”.
The poet adds: “got no future, got no past”. When the future looks harsh, grim and unpromising, one may say that a person has no future to look forward to. But it is much harder imagining a person with “no past”, no matter how dreadful this past may have been. Every living soul- more or less- has a past. When a person says that he has “no past” he intends to say that does not have past on which he can be proud. However, “got no future, got no past” is usually said of God and if this is intended, it may add a spiritual connotation to this stanza. Only God is said to have no future or past. To have a future or a past is to be temporally contingent. God is said to live in an eternal present. Here one may bring in a Christ like reference. Because, what can be said of God, can be said of Jesus too. He is God too (Phil. 2:6) and like of God the Father, Jesus, the Son of God, has no future or past. If we follow this track this whole stanza may tell us something of what Jesus once experienced. Jesus who – as Dylan hints at in ‘Not Dark Yet’ - had “not even room enough to be anywhere” (Luke 9:58) and was outlawed and bereft of everything. Therefore from a human point of view one may say that Jesus’ “ship has been split to splinters and it’s sinking fast” and, Jesus, constantly harassed by the Pharisees and falsely accused by the Sanhedrin, was “drowning in the poison” all around him.
The words “But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free, I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me” are the first words in the song that -amidst all darkness- strike a positive note. The words may again hint at this lonesome pilgrim, who going down the Mississippi, down to New Orleans, who, amidst all hardships, has a free conscience and feels sympathetic towards all his fellow travellers who endure the same problems on this journey. If you continue following the spiritual train of thought, the words: “But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free, I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me” can also make good spiritual sense. In the revised lyrics of ‘Pay in Blood’ Dylan now says: “My conscience is free, what about you?”. The poet’s free heart, his free conscience, has everything to do with the theme of the song ‘Pay in Blood’. Jesus voluntarily paid with his blood on the poet’s behalf which enabled Jesus to set the poet free and give him a free conscience. Jesus’ lightness and freedom became the poet’s lightness and freedom. Jesus took over his weariness and now the poet’s heart is no longer weary. Moreover, as a result of all this, there is now room in the poet’s heart for others, there is room for affection towards all of his fellow travellers: I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me”. Redemption leads to love for all those who are on the same road that leads to a bright future. Redemption leads to a strong brotherhood, to mutual love and affection, just like Dylan wrote in his song “Ain’t Talking”: “All my loyal and much-loved companions, they approve of me and share my code”.
Everybody moving, if they ain’t already there
Everybody got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now
In the introductive lines above, we wrote that there is quite a lot of ‘destiny’ in this song. The words “Everybody moving, if they ain’t already there, everybody got to move somewhere” are exemplary for this destiny. This is a phenomenon we often see in Dylan’s work. The camera zooms out and we get a sort of helicopter view. You start to see things from a distance, a sort of heavenly time lapse in which you see all people of all ages move to their ultimate destiny. Likewise the poet says in “Cant Wait” that “ there are people all around, some on their way up, some on their way down”. The words “Everybody moving, if they ain’t already there, everybody got to move somewhere” express this idea of eternal separation we spoke about earlier. We give a few more examples to demonstrate this concept of eternal separation. In his song “Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine”) it says: “Then time will tell just who fell , and who’s been left behind, when you go your way and I go mine”. Or more recently from the song ”Tempest”: ‘’All the lords and ladies, heading for their eternal home”. Dylan sees this process of eternal separation occur as a result of the absolute distance there is between right and wrong. Ultimately the poet sees the Apocalyptic view of “the few who will judge the many” (1 Cor. 6:2) (“Ring them Bells”). “Everybody moving”, that is, some of the living are on their way to this judgement, “if they ain’t already there” that is, some have already died and are awaiting this judgement on the Latter Day. ”Everybody got to move somewhere” may mean that ultimately all will be judged and go to their eternal home. Does this whole process wipe out human moral responsibility?. No it doesn’t. But in the human mind there is always tension between divine predestination and human responsibility. The interaction between predestination and human responsibility is not transparent for the human mind, the human mind simply misses a dimension to see through all this, only God can see through all this. This makes this whole process of pre-destination and human responsibility not less interesting, on the contrary. It may be the reason why the poet goes on to say: “Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow, things should start to get interesting right about now”. It is true, in his song “High Water(for Charley Patton)”, Dylan- dealing with Charles Darwin- has George Lewis say “don’t open up your mind boys to every conceivable point of view”. But here it is as if the poet encourages and begs his fellow companion to open up her mind: “Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow” which means “stick with me”, don’t give up on me, now that things get not only complicated but also very interesting. The stakes are high here. “Things should start to get interesting right about now”, interesting things happen at the very moment when human decision and God’s predestination coincide, when you are on the cross roads of life and big decisions are made which way to go. Once you have made this decision, there is no turning back and the poet begs his companion not to leave him and go in an opposite direction even now when the poet is in a jam. The next verse speaks of the jam the poet is in.
Verse 11 and third bridge.
My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in
I know that fortune is waiting to be kind
So give me your hand and say you’ll be mine.
When it says here: “My clothes are wet, tight on my skin” the metaphor applied in verse 9 of a sinking ship that has been split to splinters, is continued in this verse. The poet metaphorically survived the shipwreck and had to swim for his life. He made it to the shore but now he is wet to the skin. Basically the same idea as expressed in the first bridge of the song is expressed here: “Got nothing for you, I had nothing before, don’t even have anything for myself anymore”, albeit, his soaked clothes are apparently the only thing he has left. “My clothes are wet, tight on my skin” may have something passive in it . In a way destiny brought the ship down and there is nothing he could do to stop it from sinking and the result is that “My clothes are wet, tight on my skin”. But the next line: “Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in” is more active than passive. Personal responsibility for painting himself in a corner cannot be wiped out. “To paint oneself in a corner” is usually understood of a person who has got oneself into a difficulty from which one cannot extricate oneself, or according to Wiktionary it derives “From the idea that a person painting the floor of a room may inadvertently apply the paint everywhere except the corner that the person is standing in, so that to leave the room the person has no choice but to step on the freshly painted floor and damage it”. “Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in” may say something about the human condition. Man’s disobedience led to his downfall and now man is unable to extricate himself from the precarious situation he is in. Man has painted himself in a corner, man is in a jam, and now the only thing that can save him is redemption. Elsewhere (Ain’t Talking) the poet hints at this redemption when he says: “Who says I can’t get heavenly aid”. In other words: heavenly aid is available, no matter what people think. Redemption may enable him to escape from the tight corner the poet has painted himself in. This is good news of which the next two lines testify: “I know that fortune is waiting to be kind, so give me your hand and say you’ll be mine”. Hope shimmers through in these words and the poet feels certain that whatever is in store for him will be materialized. “Fortune” here does not primarily mean “chance” or “good luck” and the way it effects one’s life. It seems to us that here “Fortune” much more stands for “Peace and harmony and the blessings of tranquillity” of Dylan’s song “Moonlight”. “Fortune is waiting to be kind” may mean that this peace, harmony and tranquillity has been in store for him all along and is now waiting to be unpacked. much in the same way as a bride anxiously waits for the arrival of the groom on the day of her wedding.
“I know that fortune is waiting to be kind” may lift your weary heart to contemplate how it will be in heaven, in the same way as Dylan says in “Ain’t Talking”: “It’s bright in the heavens and the wheels are flying ,fame and honour (fortune) never seem to fade, the fire’s gone out but the light is never dying”.
The main characteristic of a really exquisite thing is, that it always invites others to join in. So when the poet adds “give me your hand and say you’ll be mine”, the poet knows that the best is still to come and he invites his lover or companion to join in and to surrender to him. “Give me your hand and say you’ll be mine”, echoes Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”. In Act 5, Scene 1 Duke Vincentio says:
“If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardon’d; and, for your lovely sake,
Give me your hand and say you will be mine”.
A Christ like interpretation of “give me your hand and say you’ll be mine” is also possible. This is a phenomenon not at all unusual in the poetry of Dylan. Dylan’s “Make you feel My Love” is a classic example of this. One may say that in “Make you feel My Love” references to Christ are more explicit. For more details see my analysis of this song elsewhere on this website. Here in this song you have to read references to Christ between the lines and if you do, it can make good sense. Jesus compares his upcoming Kingdom of Heaven often with a treasure, a fortune, (Mat. 13,44-46), an imperishable, undefiled and unfading heritage which is kept in heaven (1 Peter1:4) and is waiting to be unpacked “for all those who sailed with me”. It is as if Jesus says: “I know that fortune is waiting to be kind, surrender to me, we go together through life to our destination, give me your hand ,I will protect and guide you, you are my property and I’m waiting for you to say that you’ll be mine”.
Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long
Dylan here follows the style of the Biblical prophets who intersperse promises of future glory and fortune with threats for those who rebel. (compare e.g. Isaiah 66: 18-23 with Isaiah 66:24).Therefore, it is not unusual that promising words like “I know that fortune is waiting to be kind” are immediately followed by gloomy words like “Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay”. The double alliteration in this line is striking and- again like in verse 9- renders this line into a compact statement. “The emptiness is endless” makes you think of an endless, lonesome, desolate and also hostile universe where no living creature can survive. This emptiness is said to be “cold as the clay”. The words “Cold as the clay” may be inspired by a book from Alvin Schwartz called ‘Scary stories to tell in the dark’ . In story eight called ‘Cold as Clay’, a farmer’s daughter put her hand on her lover’s forehead -named Jim - and says: “Why are you cold as clay”. “I hope you are not ill” and she wrapped her handkerchief around his head. Later on, her lover Jim died and was buried. For some reason they opened Jim’s grave and found her handkerchief around his head.
However, it seems more likely that the words “Cold as the clay” refer to a traditional Western cowboy ballad called ‘The Streets of Laredo” also known as the ”Cowboy’s Lament”. This song was also recorded by Johnny Cash. In this ballad a dying cowboy tells his story to a living one. The lyrics start with: “As I walked out on the streets of Laredo - As I walked out on Laredo one day, I spied a poor cowboy wrapped in white linen, wrapped in white linen as cold as the clay” And onwards we read: “The streets of Laredo grew cold as the clay”. Both Alvin Schwartz’s book and the ballad ‘The streets of Laredo ’have this in common that they both deal with death. For that reason, it is possible to interpret the words “the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay” as belonging to a permanent status after death for which there is no turning back. Some people say that hell is a metaphor for a place where God is not present and has withdrawn, resulting in an extremist emptiness and loneliness. One may also say that the words “the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay” represent the polar opposite of words like ‘a place where it’s always safe and warm’ from Dylan’s ‘Shelter from the Storm’.
So, the words “the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay” may speak of an eternal and dreadful status quo after death, however, the promising and reassuring words that follow: “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way” are addressed not to those who are dead but to those who are still among the living. It is possible to interpret the words “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way” in a secular way as words directed to a lover with whom he apparently had a fallen out. Now he is ready to make it up with her and says “you can always come back”. However, whenever you have had a serious break-up, you suffer damage and the scars caused by this break-up remain and still cause pain, even when you have become reconciled. It is the reason why the poet adds: “but you can’t come back all the way”. Here you may find the same mood as in Dylan’s song ‘Never gonna be the Same Again” where it says: “Now, I can’t go back to what was, baby, I can’t unring the bell”. “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way” can also be understood spiritually, in a Christ like way. If so, it is as if Christ says: “You need not end up in this endless emptiness, because as long as you are alive you can always come back to me; I’m always there and ready to forgive you, I paid in blood for you. However, in this life- although I have forgiven you - I cannot wipe out all the consequences of sin done the past and in this sense “you can’t come back all the way”. The words “ you can’t come back all the way” come close to what it says in ‘Not Dark Yet’: “I’ve still got the scars that the sun (or Son) didn’t heal”. Some have argued that the ‘sun’ cannot heal scars, in fact exposure of scars to the sun makes the scars worse, therefore when Dylan writes ‘sun’ here, he must have meant ‘Son’ in the sense of the Son of God, Jesus. When we apply this meaning here it is as if Jesus says: “You can always come back”, I’m ready to take you back and accept you because I have forgiven you, but I cannot take away the scars which sin has caused yet so “you can’t come back all the way”.
Then for the third and last time in the song the refrain follows: “Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long”. We already explored the possible meaning of this refrain above under the first and second refrain, here we wrap things up by outlining the restriction which the refrain offers on the line immediately leading up to each of the three refrains.
The first refrain follows the words: “All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime, could never do you justice in reason or rhyme”. One could conclude that because the poet stayed in Mississippi a day too long, he has become unable to do justice in reason or rhyme to his creator. Sin- staying on too long – bereft the poet of this capacity to do justice to his Creator.
The second refrain follows the words: “Well I got here following the southern star, I crossed that river just to be where you are”. One may conclude that because the poet stayed in Mississippi a day too long, redemption was necessary to bring relief. And relief came. It happened when the river was “crossed”. Some say that “crossed” may be a covered reference to the cross at Cavalry. We think this is farfetched. On the other hand, one may say that the ultimate goal of redemption is that God will dwell with men, just like Dylan’s favourite Bible book The Revelation of St. John says in Chapter 21:3 “Behold the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people”. God wants to be “just where you are”.
The third refrain follows the words: “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way”.
One may conclude that because the poet stayed in Mississippi a day too long, he constantly needs to come back and is in need of redemption as long as he is here on this earth. However, because he stayed in Mississippi a day too long, he “can’t come back all the way” the consequences of sin cannot be wiped out and as long as you live and the scars remain.
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