Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts – Layers of Meaning

This post is a response to Tom’s comment on a previous post, where he asserts the following about the Dylan song Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts:

But I think it’s right to say that Dylan produces atmosphere but that’s about all isn’t it? So, I like the Virginia Woolf quote as well [‘It is, as a rule, when a critic does not wish to commit himself, or to trouble himself, that he speaks of atmosphere’]- it doesn’t apply to Chekhov, of course he’s more than atmosphere, but it applies to Dylan; not that there isn’t more to Dylan but often it seems to me that the atmosphere is the main thing – if you can explain to me what substance there is in Lily and the Jack of Hearts and Wotsisname then that would be great but I bet you can’t! It really IS just atmosphere…

But I propose that there’s lots to say about this song. For a start it’s a relatively long narrative in the ballad style, with a fully realised plot and storyline, which itself differentiates it from the majority of popular songs. So we can look closer at this narrative – the fact that it tells two parallel stories of thieving and robbery – the gang breaking into the safe next door to the cabaret, and the Jack of Hearts himself stealing Lily from Big Jim. We can then reflect that the Jack of Hearts, as Christopher Ricks points out, is a common signifier of the thief, as in the nursery rhyme and Alice in Wonderland.

Then we could study the symbolism. The Jack of Hearts isn’t the only character likened to a playing card. Big Jim is clearly the King of Diamonds:

Big Jim was no one’s fool, he owned the town’s only diamond mine…
It was known all around that Lily had Jim’s ring, And nothing would ever come between Lily and the king.

Rosemary slips into the side door, looking like ‘a queen without a crown’, and Lily and the girls are playing five-card stud by the stairs when the Jack of Hearts enters the cabaret. Later, Lily is referred to as a princess, so we have a full royal family as the cast of this drama – King Jim, Queen Rosemary, Princess Lily and the Jack of Hearts. Perhaps this card-playing metaphor suggests that the main theme of the story is gambling with fate, and its tragic consequences (much like Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen Of Spades).

And then there are the clear references to the Tarot, another fate motif. As Clinton Heylin points out, the Jack of Hearts shares the attributes of the magician or magus in AE Waite’s tarot pack. And when we read the profile of the magus, look what we find:

On the table in front of the Magician are the symbols of the four Tarot suits, signifying the elements of natural life, which lie like counters before the adept, and he adapts them as he wills. Beneath are roses and lilies, the flos campi and lilium convallium, changed into garden flowers, to shew the culture of aspiration.

In case you’re tempted to view this as mere coincidence, consider that the inner sleeve of Dylan’s next album, Desire, features a picture of the AE Waite tarot pack, surrounded by two flowers – a rose and a lily.

We could also look at the characterisation, particularly Lily, the butterfly, who has come from a broken home and had ‘lots of strange affairs’, and at the end appears to be parading multiple personalities as she takes off her dress, buries it away, and finally ‘washes the dye out of her hair’. There’s also the lyricism of many of the lines we could discuss, and even the rhyming schemes – here’s an extract from Christopher Ricks on Dylan’s use of rhyme in the song:

There is the tension, for instance that of a duel in the world of the Western:

But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the house lights did dim
And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him

Once ‘did dim’ has set the scene, the two of them stand there: Jim and him, simplicity themselves.

This just scratches the surface of a song which clearly presents more than one layer of meaning and offers far more than mere ‘atmosphere’.

Other posts on Culture Club about Bob Dylan:

13 responses to “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts – Layers of Meaning”

  1. I still think this just proves it’s atmosphere – the fact that the song uses tarot, card motifs etc doesn’t say anything about what the song is about; just that it uses a symbol system, but probably one that’s just circular, i.e. for its own purposes with no particular rationale beyond itself. In other words, the song is a game. Fine. I like games. I like the song. The only place, though, where you gesture at an actual reading is when you mention the notion of fate – but you do this only gesturally: I don’t see why the song should be about fate just because it uses the image of a pack of cards. So you’d need to do more to convince me there was something seriously going on here – but I would welcome that. So, all in all, I buy what you say about the cards etc (most of which was perfectly bloody obvious already by the way!) but I actually think it backs up my argument not yours, Tim – there are lots of great aesthetic effects (the hair etc, yes sure) but it’s not really about anything or doing anything really beyond itself, but is just productive of good atmosphere. So I stand by that. Fine – that’s no bad thing. It was what Dickens was good at too. And Dylan is good. Better than Kenny Rogers, but he ain’t Wordsworth is he (thank God).

  2. I think we’re playing with semantics again here. I would argue that the fact that this song has a clearly outlined plot, distinct characters, a fully worked symbolic language and allusions to overarching themes, makes it rise above a mere exercise in creating atmosphere. As to what this ‘means’, well many of the works we’ve looked at are difficult to define in those terms, and quite rightly. ‘Meaning’ with regards to a work of art is often much more complex than a clear single statement that sums it up. After all, what does The Seagull or Uncle Vanya mean? Or for that matter Hamlet or David Copperfield? It’s my fault – I should have avoided the term ‘meaning’ when engaging in this debate, as it opens a can of worms. I don’t think art has to ‘mean’ anything actually – as I discussed in an earlier post on TS Eliot and ‘meaning in poetry’. This is as bigger subject, which we should discuss at length at a future gathering, but in the meantime I still strongly contend that this Dylan song has more substance, and more to offer to the attentive listener/reader, than you’re suggesting.

  3. Unless the meaning of ‘atmosphere’ is different in Tom’s lexicon from the word has in common speech, it’s difficult to see how a detailed Western tale combining a love triangle with a bank robbery, with all the loose ends of the plot neatly tied at the conclusion, can be described as ‘just atmosphere’. Perhaps Tom would like a plot summary?

  4. Aside from the words, there’s the music. The guitar, drums, harmonica, and bass all lilt along in a sort of western hoedown beat.

    Then, completely out of place in the background, is an ominous sounding church organ droning out sustained chords.

    The church organ points to something higher, some higher power, orchestrating events in the background. God? Or just fate?

    Dylan used organs substantially throughout his records, but the instrumentation on “Blood on the Tracks” is overwhelmingly acoustic-based. The inclusion of the organ on this track is to make a point.

    The organ stops for merely one line; “Staring at the butterfly,” and then resumes.

    In the context of the plot, this seems to imply that there is a brief window of opportunity for us to make our own decisions, then fate steps back in and unfolds our future for us.

    And we must not forget the initial track on the album, the one that sets the tone for all that follow, is; “A Simple Twist of Fate.”

  5. I chuckle that everyone is looking for the meaning of life, the universe, and everything in the lyrics of a song. He had just played a supporting role in the 1973 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Two years later he released Blood on the Tracks. He was just in a western mood – the wind blew west so he went with it. Doesn’t diminish that it’s a great ballad.

  6. Ya I’m down with Tim on this one. If you want to call this atmosphere Tom then you may as well expand that to say all art, music, lit etc is atmosphere. As is this comment.

  7. big jim was killed with a penknife in the back[the harder they come the bigger they crack].could actually be made into a movie along with all the songs on desire

  8. I think Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts is every bit as complex as a number of the most frequently anthologized short stories of literature. It’s form is that of a short story, too–as Hemingway said, it’s what you leave out that counts.

    The song is like Shakespeare in miniature–complete with the entertainment within the entertainment (ala Hamlet), the royalty, the double meanings, the tragedy, and the symbolism.

    Because of the music and phrasing, I think it even rises above many of those short stories mentioned above as a work of art.

  9. If Lily’s burying her dress away, maybe she is the Jack of Hearts. That’s why Big Jim’s seen her/him before.

  10. An excellent discussion. I think the song is indeed highly atmospheric, extremely cinematographic and does tell an (almost) complete story which doesn’t insist or require that we search it for deeper meaning. However, it has a playful, teasing way of inviting us to do so and that is its singular charm. Its visual imagery is that of the clichéed western, more iconic that real. The characters, likewise, have the quality stereotype or allegory – and yet they also have sufficient real-world conviction to engage us. Surely it is impossible not to search the song for allegorical meaning, just as it is impossible to such a meaning off pat. (The song begins and ends in ways which, unlmike the p

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