Sad-Eyed Lady and the literary tradition

Here’s the second post about “Sad-Eyed Lady” from my book “Understanding Bob Dylan”. Who knew that it fits sweetly into an age old tradition about writing on women’s bodies. For those of you interested in the meaning of this song, read on….


Perhaps “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” isn’t drivel after all!!! And, as it turns out, the song fits sweetly into a long tradition of “love” poems known as “blason”, which Belknap defines as[1]:

a poetic genre dedicated to the praise of the female by the particularization of her attributes. This technique conventionally allowed the poet to describe or metaphorically elaborate one feature per line, creating a vertical compilation whose constituents are thematically continuous but linearly independent.

Basically, a poem about different parts of the female body. Belknap gives an example of traditional blason from Bartholomew Griffin, the 16th century English poet:

My Lady’s hair is threads of beaten gold,/Her front the purest Chrystal eye hath seen:/Her eyes the brightest stars the heavens hold,/Her cheeks red roses such as seld have been….

Belknap writes:[2]

As convention the blason typically presented the mistress’s features in a fixed sequence, and as a convention it typically invited talented writers to challenge its principles, to dazzle, and to create lasting art…In its listing of attributes, the blason provides a sequence that is voyeuristically followed by the reader. Poets arranged the individual features to guide the reader through a particular way of seeing the beloved. By convention, it usually followed a head-to-toe sequence, but often it is not so much the contents of the sequence but the arrangement and manipulation (where does it start, where does it end) that reveal its underlying purpose. In a head-to-toe description, it is nearly impossible to develop an emotional climax peeking at the beloved’s feet. Recognizing this, poets have manipulated the form by arranging its components for more satisfactory results. Some poems may linger on specific elements, shifting the emphasis or abandoning the convention. Some may abbreviate the enumeration by leaving off at strategically suggestive locations. Still others may use the sequence of comparisons to progress not in a direction of physical observation but into a different dimension altogether: away from corporeal loveliness toward a transcending spiritual beauty.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is a favourite example:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;/Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;/If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;/If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head./I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,/But no such roses see I in her cheeks;/And in some perfumes is there more delight/Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks./I love to hear her speak, yet well I know/That music hath a far more pleasing sound;/I grant I never saw a goddess go;/My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:/And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/As any she belied with false compare.

Was Dylan aware of this tradition? Who knows, but “Sad-Eyed Lady” follows the traditional blason progression, starting like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 with the eyes and mouth:

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times

And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes

Proceeding downwards, to the well protected pockets and the belt like lace, to the feet:

They wished you’d accepted the blame for the farm,
But with the sea at your feet and the phony false alarm

And, at the final end, returning to that “hollow” face and progressing to a transcending beauty, but an empty spirituality:

And your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul

So Ricks is right to draw the comparison between “Sad- Eyed Lady” and Swinburne’s “Dolores”, because both list the venomously attractive properties of women one by one as part of the blason tradition. When we hear “Sad-Eyed Lady” we hear as well echoes of the ambivalence of men writing through the ages about the temptations of women.

“I Shall Be Free”, released three years before “Sad-Eyed Lady”, is an early attempt at a blason:

Well, I took me a woman late last night,
I’s three-fourths drunk, she looked uptight.
She took off her wheel, took off her bell,
Took off her wig, said, “How do I smell?”
I hot-footed it . . . bare-naked . . .
Out the window![3]

“Sad-Eyed Lady” is closer to an anti-blason, with a high level of ambivalence concerning the object of attention. Dylan summarizes this ambivalence in exquisitely ambiguous writing:

And your magazine husband who one day just had to go

Did he have to go in the sense of “I just had to get rid of him” or “those old chairs just had to go because I couldn’t stand them any longer”? Or did he just have to go because he could no longer stand being with her? The phrase “just had to go” (“just” being another of those words that is repeated many times on “Blonde and Blonde”, including twice on “Visions of Johanna”, and of course on “Just Like a Woman”) means we will never know. Similarly the next line:

And your gentleness now, which you just can’t help but show

That same ambivalence hinging on the word “just”; she just can’t help showing her gentleness, making this a back-handed compliment at best.

“Sad-Eyed Lady” reads like a list of attributes, and because it’s a list, nouns are predominant. This means an absence of verbs, and that the sad-eyed lady hardly does anything – ok, she places her street car visions on the grass, can’t help but show her gentleness, and her fingertips fold around the holy medallion, but that’s about it. As Krein and Levin have noted, women in Dylan’s songs don’t tend to be agents, they are more often represented as passive objects.[4]

The use of nouns is interesting. Because in the same way that Dylan has used adverbs as adjectives in the titles of some of the songs on “Blonde on Blonde” (“Temporary Like Achilles”, “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, “Obviously Five Believers”), in “Sad-Eyed Lady” he uses nouns as adjectives in a way that challenges the listener to figure out if this combination makes any sense. Are we in the midst of a stream of consciousness, where words are interchangeable as long as they sound good, about which I write more in the next chapter?

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times

You could have “sweet mouth”, “hard mouth” or “silver mouth”, you could have good times or bad times, but in English you can’t have a mercury mouth and missionary times. “Blonde on Blonde” is an apt title for an album where so many nouns are joined together.

Not only that, but the nouns he uses just don’t fit together in any way that makes sense other than through word association. The words are so vague that they could have multiple – or no – meanings. And that’s the beauty of the song, we are left to figure for ourselves what these word associations mean. Belknap writes on the use of nouns in poetic lists[5]:

The list is a device that writers have frequently employed to display the pleasurable infinitude of language.The stacked lines of a verse provide virtual ledger entries in which the poet can itemize, registering and elaborating a certain number of items per line…. This loose framework lets the poet enumerate or accumulate, amplify or distribute, mount or diminish, suggest completion or unending plenitude, according to a custom-made formula.This is to say that usually nouns are compiled, whether persons, found objects, store inventories, features of an individual, or the days of the year. This is particularly true of non-literary compilations – for example, where a record is kept of units of currency or particular events. But in the literary sphere to list nouns is to more than record; it is to display, to lay out, to arrange – to create reality – whether that be to represent a moment of complete awareness of the world or just to experiment, to conjure by naming.

[1] Belknap, R. (2004) The List. The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing. New Haven: Yale University Press,

[2] pp. 24-5.

[3] On “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” Dylan sings:

Well, I took me a woman late last night,
I’s three-fourths drunk, she looked allright.
Till she started peeling off her onion gook
Took off her wig, said, “How do I look?”
I hot-footed it . . . bare-naked . . .
Out the window

[4] Krein, K. and A. Levin (2006 ) “Just Like a Woman: Dylan, Authenticity, and the Second Sex.” In P. Vernezzee and C. Porter Bob Dylan and Philosophy Chicago: Open Court, 53-65.

[5] Pp. 2, 15, 19-20.


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