Bob Dylan's "Not Dark Yet" - an analysis by Kees de Graaf - Part 1
Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” – an analysis by Kees de Graaf- Part 1.
Dr A.T. Bradford published a book in 2011 called: “Out of the Dark Woods – Dylan, Depression and Faith – (The Messages behind the Music of Bob Dylan)”. In this book Dr. Bradford stated that in the 1990ties- due to traumatic private circumstances- Dylan suffered from a severe reactive depression which was said to be responsible for the title of his next album of original songs “Time Out of Mind”. According to Dr. Bradford, “Time Out Of (my) Mind” summed up Dylan’s mental condition at the time and that all songs on the album show symptoms of moderate- severe reactive depression. On the face of it – and certainly for the song “Not Dark Yet”- this thought seems a very plausible thesis.
However, we feel that there are some compelling arguments against this thesis from Dr. Bradford. Take e.g. a song like “Make You Feel My Love” on the same album. “Make You Feel My Love” is a song full of tender love, comfort and compassion and hardly shows any symptoms of depression. And what to think of the album closing track “Highlands”? True, there is enough material in this song which may be classified as “depressive”. But look how the song ends: “The sun – “Sun“ may also be understood as “Son” in the sense of the “Son(of God)- is beginning to shine on me, but it's not like the sun that used to be”. The album closing song “Highlands" is not at all pessimistic and dark, on the contrary, in the end the windows get wide open for the Light to shine in!
The idea to classify “Not Dark Yet” as a pitch dark and depressive song, is fed by the thought- defended by the vast majority of Dylanologists - that this song is a one layered song dealing with mortality and suffering but only on a human level. And more specifically: suffering because of lost (romantic) love while the death bells already toll.
This idea is strengthened by the fact that there is an earlier outtake of “Not Dark Yet” (released on “Fragments” – The Bootleg Series volume 17 - which-from the third line of verse 2 - has quite different lyrics. E.g. a line in this first outtake like “Her lips were so tender, her skin was so soft” prompts you into the direction of the idea that this song is mainly about lost (romantic )love. Not only lyrically the song evolved but also musically. Musically the song evolved from an upbeat tempo of the first outtake to into a slow civil war balled – a death march- which ended up on the album. However, as we have seen so often in Dylan’s oeuvre, - “for all those who have eyes and for all those who have ears” - his songs are multi-layered. Apparently Dylan was not satisfied with the lyrics of the first outtake and subsequently took suffering and mortality to a more universal level.
Therefore, apart from the human suffering, there is another and deeper layer in the song which expresses divine suffering. And as we will see, this divine suffering must be the suffering of Christ. As we will also find out in the specific lyrics of the song, sometimes human suffering is meant and sometimes divine suffering or both. And of course, the suffering of Christ has both elements of suffering- the human and divine - blended into one. As far as human suffering is concerned, it will appear that the book of Job is of importance. Job’s suffering foreshadows some of the suffering of Christ. We conclude that if we take all these things into account we are far removed here from Dr. Bradford’s idea of a reactive depression.
The poet may have had good reasons to combine human suffering and divine suffering into one song. Romans 8:17 says that if we are to share in the glory of Christ, we must also share in His suffering. In this respect it is not without significance that “Not Dark Yet” was used as a sound track for Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of Christ”.
It is true, “Not Dark Yet“ portrays an immense suffering and amidst darkness, it looks as if the poet has come to the end of his trail and there seems to be no hope left. On this album, for the light to appear at the end of the tunnel, we have to wait till the final stanza of the closing song “Highlands”- which in itself is a metaphor for “Heaven”- and then the quest to find peace- expressed also later on in the album in the song “Trying to get to heaven”- will finally come to rest. But here - in this song -all focus is on mortality and suffering.
One other thing is not without significance. During the “Time out of Mind” recording sessions, Dylan first wrote and recorded the song “Marching to the City”. This song was abandoned and later released on “Tell Tale Signs” (The Bootleg Series Volume 8). A few lines from “Marching to the City” ended up on “Not Dark Yet” and on “Till I fell in love with You”. One could argue that “Marching to the City” was a first draft for “Not Dark Yet” and for “Till I fell in Love with You”. Comparing the context of some lines from “Marching to the City” with how they ended up on “Not Dark Yet” may help us to understand what was on the poet’s mind when he first wrote those lines.
Let us see how we can piece all these things together in the specific lyrics of the song.
When it says that “Shadows are falling” our attention is immediately drawn to the garden of Getsemane, the place where Jesus and his disciples stayed during the evening of his arrest. It is also the place where the suffering of Christ is growing in intensity (Matt. 26:36-46, Marc. 14:32-42 and Luke 22:39-46). We see a suffering in the darkness of the garden of Getsemane which will culminate the next day, the day of His crucifixion, during which we get to the point where - as Dylan calls it elsewhere -there was “Darkness at the break of noon” ( with reference to Matt.27:45, Marc.15:33 and Luke 23:44).
“Shadows are falling” is a sign that total darkness is approaching and at the same time that “It is not dark yet”. When it says: “I’ve been here all day” the poet may intend to give us a retrospection overviewing the whole life of Christ. His whole life can be characterized as a “day”(c.f. the “Day of the Lord” which is a standard expression) during which shadows are constantly falling and getting longer and thus a life in which suffering is a constant factor, a suffering which gets worse and worse as we draw near the end. More and more Jesus becomes what Dylan elsewhere calls “A Man of constant Sorrow”.
As “Shadows are falling” ,for Him, Jesus, “it’s too hot to sleep”. However, it’s too hot to sleep” must be seen here in contrast with the sleepy attitude of His disciples. In Luke 22:45 we read: “When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow”(NIV). Whereas his disciples, overwhelmed by sorrow, found some refuge in sleep, for Jesus there was no escape. He felt the increasing heat of Divine Judgement which made it impossible for Him to find a moment of rest. “Too hot to sleep” looks like an understatement because in Luke 22:44 we read: “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground”.(NIV). Sweating blood is called “hermatohidrosis” and may occur when individuals are suffering from extreme levels of stress.
“Time is running away” indicates that there is nothing Jesus can do - and wants to do for that matter- to stop time and to stop the sequence of events that now unfolds and which will irreversibly lead to the uttermost suffering on the Cross.
“Feel like my soul has turned into steel” reflects Matt. 26:38 (NLT): “He (Jesus) told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death”. His soul, always so full of compassion (Matt.14:14),has now become unfeeling and impenetrable. Grief has made His soul hard as steel and – as the poet calls it elsewhere in his song "Mississippi" “cold as the clay”. Jesus is now metaphorically “twenty miles out of town” and “Cold irons bound”.
When it says: “I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal” for the first time, the focus shifts from (divine) suffering of Jesus to human suffering. At first glance the word “sun” in “I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal” makes you think of the “sun” as celestial body. However, the word “sun” might very well be a homophone here. If you take the word “sun” here literally- in the sense of a celestial body -this does not make any sense, because the “sun” cannot heal scars, on the contrary, exposure to sunlight makes scars worse and more painful. Therefore, when the word “sun” is used here, we have to understand “Son”, in the sense of the “Son of God”, Jesus. We see the same phenomenon elsewhere in the album ‘s closing song “Highlands“ where it says: “The sun – “Sun“ is then to be understood as “Son”, Jesus- is beginning to shine on me, but it's not like the sun (the celestial body) that used to be”.
We conclude that “I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal” refers to human suffering and might refer to the apostle Paul who mentions these scars in Galatians 6:17 (NLT):“From now on, don’t let anyone trouble me with these things. For I bear on my body the scars that show I belong to Jesus”. Elsewhere (2 Corinthians 12:7,8) Paul refers to these scars as “a thorn in the flesh” which Jesus – the Son - did not heal and did not take away from him, not even after intense prayer.
“There’s not even room enough to be anywhere” looks like some contradiction in terminus because if one exists , there is always (enough) room “to be anywhere”. This phrase is reminiscent of a line in Dylan’s “Things have changed": “I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can” because “to get away from yourself” is equally impossible.
“There’s not even room enough to be anywhere” is basically the same as what Jesus says of Himself in Matt. 8:20 (NLT):”But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head”. It means that when Jesus appeared in the flesh and revealed Himself as the Son of God, he entered a hostile world where He was not welcome at all. He entered the world as a place where there is a resting place for all creatures except for Him “there is no place to turn, no place at all”, for Him “There’s not even room enough to be anywhere”.
Each of the four stanzas of the song ends with the refrain: “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”. It is as if the poet intends to make it clear that although it is not entirely dark yet, we will certainly get to the point where it will be entirely dark.
“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” summarises the whole process of ever intensifying suffering from Jesus Christ. It was already dark in the garden of Getsemane . Being in great anguish, His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:44). In the garden he felt the immense suffering that was coming. But it was “not dark yet” because dark as it may be in the Garden of Getsemane, yet there was some heavenly aid available .
We read of this heavenly aid in Luke 22:43: “Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him” (NLT). It would be quite different the next day, the day of His crucifixion. The next day it would be like Leonard Cohen wrote in his song “You Want it Darker”: “Vilified, crucified, In the human frame, a million candles burning, for the help that never came”. At noon that day, the darkness would be complete, the utter darkness was finally “getting there”: “At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock” (Mat. 27:45 NLT). But this time, there is no heavenly aid available because at the pinnacle of darkness we read:“At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”. (Mat. 27:46 NLT). The utter darkness and pain is reached when man is forsaken by God. It never happened to any creature here on earth, no matter how dark human suffering may be. It only happened to the Son of God of God, in His substitutionary suffering. Only for Him darkness was “getting there” so that the light could shine again upon humanity.
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