Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

Here’s a post from the beginning of chapter two of “Understanding Bob Dylan”. which starts with an analysis of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, the beautiful but puzzling song that ends “Blonde on Blonde”. The chapter looks at how Dylan writes about those subjects that have been an endless preoccupation of modern western writers: love, sex and money, focusing on “Sad-Eyed Lady” and the rest of “Blonde on Blonde”, “Love minus zero”, “Simple Twist of Fate” (see the post below) and a few other Dylan favorites.

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,
Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?

So begins the puzzling, evocative, mesmeric “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, the last track of “Blonde on Blonde” which Dylan released in 1966, a song that has caught many Dylanists in its headlights. “Puzzling” –  some would say meaningless –  because this song contains weirdly complex imagery. “With your mercury mouth in the missionary times” – good luck working that one out. It’s a song that has elicited fundamentally different views from admirers and critics – and sometimes the same person. Dylan encyclopaedist, and author of “Song and Dance Man” Michael Gray, hated the song, then loved it. First he wrote a damning two page criticism which concluded:

In the end, whatever the song’s attractions and clever touches, they have been bundled together, and perhaps a bit complacently, without the unity either of a clear and real theme or of cohesive artistic discipline.

Later Gray recanted:

When I read this assessment now, I simply feel embarrassed at what a little snob I was when I wrote it. In contrast (and paradoxically), when I go back and listen, after a long gap, to Dylan’s recording, every ardent, true feeling I ever had comes back to me. Decades of detritus drop away and I feel back in communion with my best self and my soul. Whatever the shortcomings of the lyric, the recording itself, capturing at its absolute peak Dylan’s incomparable capacity for intensity of communication, is a masterpiece if ever there was one. It isn’t like listening to a record: it enfolds you, to use a word from the song itself, in a whole universe.

Good for you, honest Michael! And that such an insightful critic can have such a different perspective on the same song shows how complex it is.  Clive James denigrates[1]:

Dylan’s unstable sense of organization is most readily noticeable in the long songs that don’t justify their length. “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is too obvious a case to bear examination – it would be a dunce indeed who imagined that in purchasing Blonde on Blonde he had got hold of much more than one and half LPs.

Marshall vilifies:

The lyrics to “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” are vague and imprecise, with the potential to be dismissed as some of the worst excesses of Dylan’s symbolist pretensions.[2]

Bangs disparages (who knew there were so many negative words out there?):

Another thing that might occur to you if you’re willing to go this far into cynicism is that, if in the sixties we really were ready to accept absolutely any drivel that dropped out of his mouth – a mercury mouth in the missionary times, say…[3]

But Gray’s reversal, and similarly strong opinions don’t get us any nearer to the meaning of the song – if it has one. What might take us there is “Sad-Eyed Lady’s” place on “Blonde on Blonde”, and how it completes and refers back to many of the themes on that album, and more widely to a central common poetic denominator of modern western literature. “Blonde on Blonde” is an album about, among other things, waiting, jealous love, sexual longing, and the threat of women’s sexuality, and “Sad-Eyed Lady” has something to say about all of these. The song also follows a particular tradition of love poems, which helps us understand it in the context of the many writers who have dwelt on similar themes.  So when we hear “Sad-Eyed Lady”, we don’t just hear this song, we hear as well echoed in the song the many women on “Blonde on Blonde” and in literary history.

Let’s start with “Sad-Eyed Lady’s” obscure chorus:

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I leave them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

That final evocative couplet begins to pull the album together by taking us back to earlier songs on the album and echoing other gates and waiting. In  “I Want You”, the rhyme is internal and it’s someone else doing the waiting:

The drunken politician leaps
Upon the street where mothers weep
And the saviors who are fast asleep,
They wait for you.
And I wait for them to interrupt
Me drinkin’ from my broken cup
And ask me to
Open up the gate for you.

In a third song, “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, the rhyme is more deeply hidden, and both the singer and everybody else are waiting:

Well, your railroad gate, you know I just can’t jump it
Sometimes it gets so hard, you see….

Well, I waited for you when I was half sick
Yes, I waited for you when you hated me
Well, I waited for you inside of the frozen traffic

Well, I don’t know how it happened
But the river-boat captain, he knows my fate
But ev’rybody else, even yourself
They’re just gonna have to wait. [4]

So when we get to the “gate/wait” rhyme on “Sad-Eyed Lady” it sends us back to these two other songs. Dylan is still waiting at the gate thirty or so years later when he returned to this rhyme in “Can’t Wait” from “Time out of Mind”, released in 1997, still trying to figure out if he should be waiting or not:

I’m breathing hard, standing at the gate
But I don’t know how much longer I can wait.[5]

Or perhaps when he came to the end of “Sad-Eyed Lady” Dylan had other meanings of the word “wait” in mind. As an intransitive verb wait means to be waiting for someone, the most obvious meaning here, but also to attend with ceremony and respect (to wait on you). As a transitive verb, wait means to serenade in the early morning or late at night, and “Sad-Eyed Lady” certainly has something of the serenade about it.

On “Blonde on Blonde” the gate image is a barrier, to the sad-eyed lady, to Sweet Marie, and to the wanted woman  – and in all cases perhaps a barrier to sex. When Dylan wrote about gates, he had exclusion on his mind, not only in these songs, but also on “Temporary Like Achilles”:

Just what do you think you have to guard?

How come you send someone out to have me barred?

Achilles is in your alleyway,
He don’t want me here,
He does brag.
He’s pointing to the sky
And he’s hungry, like a man in drag.[6]
How come you get someone like him to be your guard?
You know I want your lovin’,
Honey, but you’re so hard.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s someone saying “no man comes” at the end of the last track of “Blonde on Blonde”. And as we’ll see in Chapter 4, gates and barred entries are themes that have fascinated Dylan throughout his career.

[1] James, C. (2004) “Bringing Some of it All Back Home.” In B. Hedin (ed) The Bob Dylan Reader. Studio A. New York: Norton, p. 106.

[2] Marshall, L. (2009) “Bob Dylan and the Academy”. In Kevin  Dettmar (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 100

[3] Bangs, L. (2004) “Love of Confusion.” In B. Hedin (ed) The Bob Dylan Reader. Studio A. New York: Norton, p. 156.

[4] Waiting is peculiar to “Blonde on Blonde” as we’ll see in the last chapter of this book.

[5] Gray (p. 828) points to the Guthrie song “Waiting at the Gate” as a potential source for this rhyme. Dylan may have been thinking about “Blonde on Blonde” when he wrote “Time out of Mind”. Several commentators have pointed out that “Highlands” refers back to “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, and “Highlands” includes the line: “Wouldn’t know the difference between a real blonde and a fake”.

[6] Why a man in drag? Is it just a handy rhyme with “brag”. According to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”. Achilles did get dressed up in drag one time. “Knowing her son was destined to die if he went to fight in the Trojan war, Thethis, a sea nymph, disguised Achilles as a woman and entrusted him to King Lycomedes, in whose palace on the isle of Scyros he lived among the king’s daughters. Odysseus and other Greek chieftains were sent to fetch Achilles. They cunningly laid a heap of gifts before the girls – jewellery, clothes and other finery, but among them a sword, spear and shield. When a trumpet was sounded, Achilles instinctively snatched up the weapons and thus betrayed his identity.”  See the painting “The Discovery of Achilles among the Daughters of Lycomedes” But why a man in drag should be hungry, I have no idea. We come back to the same theme with five believers dressed like men on “Obviously Five Believers”.


7 responses to “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

  1. I want my B.O.B. album back!

  2. Regarding the “hungry like a man in drag line”: around the time of recording Blonde on Blonde, Dylan appeared on WBAI’s radio show, taking calls from listeners, and in some sort of a drugged-out mumble he randomly said “Are you as hungry as a man in drag?”. He just later would use it in the song so I guess he liked it, but unlike “helpless like a rich man’s child” doesn’t mean much.

  3. ‘My warehouse eyes’ likely refers to Dylan’s sunglasses of which he wonders should he leave them at Low..ndes gate, and so is likely not a pun on ‘whore house’ eyes as suggested by Ricks. It’s tough leaving your eyes behind. Also
    the literary allusion is to “Twelfth Night: ” Act 1 sc 5 : “Make me a willow cabin at your gate/And…../Write loyal cantons of contemnrd love/…
    “My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,/
    Should I leave them by your gate?

  4. I always interpreted warehouse as a large and empty or full building.
    In this case, empty. His hope and vision for his love, empty and large, rather than full, rich and requited. Sometimes, we don’t know why we use certain words. I’d argue Dylan, may feel the same way. These words , like language, are multifaceted and change hue.

  5. A warehouse would be a house where you could find wares, and where people in them might even wear them, or maybe not. Eyes looking at that would be looking for The Sad Eyed Lady maybe. Arabian drums, are kept inside the warehouse, til used, if ever. So, I, and everyone else of you are just Probably gonna have to wait. Thanks for the stimulating discussion.

  6. I think it’s more personal Han you would guess.

  7. mark lindenbaum

    this epic poem is far from gibberish. it is about the yearning love of a saintly woman whom Dylan perceives as unapproachable, untouchable and above and beyond the human scope of his capacities, capabilities and his ethnic background. the prose is equal to that of T.S Elliot, who had a severe and profound influence on Dylan’s writings. instead of picking apart each and every line, one has to conceptualize the ENTIRE writing as a conglomeration of deep personal feelings as well as the ultimate release of extremely gifted and artistic self expressionism. mark lindenbaum

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