Aidan Day’s book Jokerman: Reading The Lyrics Of Bob Dylan provides some of the best analysis of Dylan’s work I’ve read (coincidentally, the same Aidan Day is also the editor of my Penguin edition of the Selected Poems of Tennyson).
Day sees Tangled Up In Blue and Shelter From The Storm as of a type with certain other Dylan songs, such as Mr Tambourine Man (from Bringing It All Back Home) and Isis (from Desire), in its focus on the theme of ‘identity’ (another mild coincidence, as ‘identity’ was my pitch for the next Culture Club theme). Day sees the range of character(s) in these songs as representative of aspects of the artist’s psyche. The lost loved one in Tangled Up In Blue, for example, can be seen as a spiritual archetype, an ideal pattern of the speaker’s own deepest identity.
As a figure of a mystical dimension of identity surpassing the boundaries of the self-conscious self, she assumes atemporal possibilities, eluding fixture in narrative detail. It is an atemporality which the shattering of linear continuity in the narrative of the lyric conspires to expose. The order of events recounted in the first six stanzas of the lyric is irrelevant to the archetypal figure of the lost love.
Day sees the reference in the lyric to a poet from the 13th century as supportive of this view:
If this is an allusion to Dante it could hardly be more appropriate. Dante the composer of the sonnets of the Vita Nuova, where the beloved Beatrice stands as one of the most potent figurative concentrations of a poet-speaker’s own spiritual being (not so much an ‘autobiography’ as an ‘autopsychology’, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti put it).
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you…
Once again, that switch in the last line, from he/she to me/you, is typical of the ambiguity of identity throughout the song. And even this may not be a straightforward change of perspective – Day quotes Dylan, from an interview in 1985: ‘Sometimes the “you” in my songs is me talking to me. The “I”, like in “I and I” [from the album Infidels], also changes. It could be I or it could be the “I” who created me.’ This would also explain why Dylan often changes the personal pronouns of the lines in Tangled Up In Blue during different recordings and performances of the song – for example, the version released on Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 starts the first stanza ‘Early one morning the sun was shinin’, He was lyin’ in bed,’ and in some live performances he even sings ‘She was lyin’ in bed’ (see embedded video below). By Aidan Day’s interpretation, this is because they are all aspects of the artist’s identity.
Shelter From The Storm is also identified by Day as a song which relates a special kind of meeting with ‘another’, but this time through images of ‘redemption and isolation, of disorder and depletion.’ Like Tangled Up In Blue, the linear narrative is disrupted – the ‘coming in from the wilderness’ of the first stanza is not necessarily the same as those described in stanzas three and five:
Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved
Everything up to that point had been left unresolved.
Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm.
’Come in’, she said,
’I’ll give you shelter from the storm’.
Suddenly I turned around and she was standin’ there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair.
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns.
’Come in,’ she said,
’I’ll give you shelter from the storm.’
Throughout the song there is an insistent repetition, of separation and journey into wilderness, with a reciprocal offer of unity and shelter, which is a signifier for the fragmented psyche.
This shelter images a union of self with archetype that lies outside language and time. It is an image of that undivided state the loss of which is immediately mourned by the newly differentiated human subject, the wailing of the new born babe [‘I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’ like a mournin’ dove’].
Where Dylan describes a ‘beauty that walks a razor’s edge’ he is referencing a transcendence of this division. This transcendence has yet to be achieved, but it is a unity of the psyche that the narrator is determined to reach – ‘one day I’ll make it mine’.
I’m living in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine.
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.
‘Come in,’ she said,
‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm’.
I found this passage in Le Grand Meaulnes, where Meaulnes first sees his loved one, as possibly covering similar ground as the Dylan examples cited above – ie loved one as fragmented version of the protagonist’s psyche:
Meanwhile, the two women passed close to him, and he stood watching the girl. Often afterwards, when he had gone to sleep after trying desperately to recapture that beautiful image, he saw in his dreams a procession of young women who resembled her. One wore a hat like hers; one leaned slightly forward as she did; one had her innocent expression, another her slim waist, another her blue eyes – but not one of them was this tall slender girl.
In summary: Is the theme of lost love at a deeper level an exploration of the artist’s own identity?