An Examination of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” by Bob Dylan.

© Dr Koshy AV

I should be working but feel forced to write on Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

As a point of entry let us take what people call poetry which draws them to it like women draw men, in droves. What people mean by poetry, what women swoon over in reading Neruda is imagery and here we have a few lines that equal Neruda.

“…your flesh like silk…

and…your face like glass…”

But she is a “sad-eyed lady” and “of the lowlands” where no man comes.

Yet, all men are after her.

Who is she?

“With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims,”

Uff!

I hear the women go ‘uff! If only someone’d write about me too like that!’ Uff, uff, uff.

I remember Pater on Mona Lisa.

“The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all ‘the ends of the world are come,’ and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.

This extract is taken from Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (Oxford: University Press, 2012). Pater referenced 1 Corinthians 10:11

Dylan has created a ‘character’ that rivals Mona Lisa, and Cat Stevens’ Lisa, Lisa, sad Lisa, Lisa… who “hangs her head and cries on (his) shoulder.” A ‘character’ who makes even Dylan, the artist who knew he was great write “my warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums, should I leave them at the gate, O sad-eyed lady, should I wait?”

It is difficult to analyse poetry at its best and explain why it moves us so intensely.
As in here. Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place supposedly to start.
She has “a mercury mouth”. Does the world slide towards mercurial or does one think of mercury rising in the mouth of the meter on the wall to show the heat increasing? In the missionary times? A veiled reference to her being a Playboy model once if this is Sara and to the missionary position or her chastity and purity in the face of the odd paradox that she makes men become like bitches, in/on heat. A mouth too can bring down kingdoms.

Eyes… that smoke and prayers that rhyme, a silver cross on the end of the chain and a voice that is like wind-chimes, she is ethereal like the skylark, whether Shelley’s or Wordsworth’s. Also American or Mexican or Spanish, with smoking hot eyes, and that cross, and those prayers…

No more someone who can be buried. No more poor having met the bard. Worthy of being carried in a palanquin, no longer fit to travel in a streetcar (un-)like Blanche in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, having become revealed as a queen but who fit enough to carry the four ends of that palanquin? None.

No man bold enough to approach her. She comes from the depths. Only the prophet, sad-eyed like her, and the poet but even he may have to set aside his pecuniary fiscal eyes and esoteric music, his gifts or valuables, and have to wait.

A virtuous woman whose bed-sheets are like metal and belt like lace, whose deck of cards – dictating her life or with which she gambles away her life – have the king and the joker but not the jack or the ace, still having traces about her of her genteel previous poverty and its hollowness shown in her face, who is street-smart, she is, this sad-eyed one, or swan. She has gypsy blood in her and her songs are flimsy like matchbooks, but her sunlight dimmed silhouette when the moonlight swims in her eyes is either so much a sight to make one stop, stand and stare or so much one that puts you off that no one will try to impress her. Scared. Irresistible.

Not the kings of Tyre, who wait as do the suitors of Portia, for a “geranium kiss,” and with their lists of their prisoners, who want sex with her and not just a loving real kiss. She was forced to compromise, but the voice who sings this poem asks why. Haunting us. “And you wouldn’t know it would happen like this!”

As a child she had flames on her midnight rug, not of boys, but of arson, and as she grew up she kept curfew, and took the same medicines her mother took as well as had Spanish manners and that mouth that suited cowboys better, than women, being mercurial. Who can resist someone like that?

The rich and the poor – the farmers and the businessmen – wanted her on their side but how did they not understand that she was beyond all ‘sides’, transcendental, with flaws – a phoney false alarm, being the true one – , yet able to fall in love with the child of a hoodlum, having the sea at her feet like woman in Apocalypse/Revelation, and not drawn to or by dead angels hiding in the closets of the rich and the poor. Blameless. Not to be persuaded.

Only one could persuade her. Not her husband. Not her past. No one fit enough to employ her. “And your gentleness now, which you just can’t help but show,” not being the kind of achievement we can put on a CV to get hired.

“Now you stand with your thief, you’re on his parole
With your holy medallion which your fingertips fold,
And your saint-like face and your ghost-like soul,
Oh, who among them do you think could destroy you?

We come to the crux of the poem. She is not Pater’s Mona Lisa, she is the Bride, as Dylan envisages her, American, gypsy, Spanish and implicitly Mexican, but also Beatrice, Dantescan and an Italian breeze, virgin Mary and fallen Magdalene, and even the prophet and poet, the singer or bard, the wandering minstrel, the troubadour, the thief – which one of the two on the cross? – and not the joker, who she is ready to share the parole of, the child of the hoodlum, is forced despite his courage and foolhardiness to ask her, therefore:

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?

Even he is treading softly, as he does not want to tread on her dreams.

I never saw the lesser poetic vehicles, poetic tropes, of the simile, questions and anaphora (repetition) used redundantly but redeemed so well as in this poem. Call me Ishmael or Queegeeg or even Quinn the Eskimo, but this poem or song is serious, sad, romantic, melancholy and leaves one unable to leave it behind. Makes you search and search desperately for a sad-eyed lady to whom you can ask, should I leave my gifts by your gate, O(r) Sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

The one you know you will never find or if you find you will always lose or have already lost before you met and can never get to keep. Unless you are like Dylan who can write a song on her to keep her forever in it like a leaf pressed in a book, dead or alive.

Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

Bob Dylan

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,
Who do they think could bury you?

With your pockets well protected at last,
And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass,
And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass,
Who could they get to ever carry you?

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

With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace,
And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace,
And your basement clothes and your hollow face,
Who among them can think he could outguess you?

With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims,
And your match-book songs and your gypsy hymns,
Who among them would try to impress you?

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

The kings of Tyrus with their convict list
Are waiting in line for their geranium kiss,
And you wouldn’t know it would happen like this,
But who among them really wants just to kiss you?

With your childhood flames on your midnight rug,
And your Spanish manners and your mother’s drugs,
And your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs,
Who among them do you think could resist you?

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?

Oh, the farmers and the businessmen, they all did decide
To show you the dead angels that they used to hide.
But why did they pick you to sympathise with their side?
Oh, how could they ever mistake you?

They wished you’d accepted the blame for the farm,
But with the sea at your feet and the phoney false alarm,
And with the child of a hoodlum wrapped up in your arms,
How could they ever, ever persuade you?

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?

With your sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row,
And your magazine-husband who one day just had to go,
And your gentleness now, which you just can’t help but show,
Who among them do you think would employ you?

Now you stand with your thief, you’re on his parole
With your holy medallion which your fingertips fold,
And your saintlike face and your ghost-like soul,
Oh, who among them do you think could destroy you?

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?

Songwriter: Bob Dylan. from Blonde on Blonde.

Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands lyrics © Audiam, Inc

I could write more on this as poem and music, talking of alliteration, rhyme, the keyboards, drums, the acoustic guitar, his signature voice and singing style, the bass, the versions, the covers, the imagery, the references and allusions, and inter-textuality, the frame, the contexts, the significance or importance of the song in the album and its influence on others, the figures of speech and so many other things, but it would make it boring and so leave the rest of the essay for all of you, my dear friends, to create in your minds for yourself…

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About terrestrian@gmail.com

Dr A.V. Koshy is presently working as Assistant Professor in Dept. of English, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Jazan University, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has authored or co-authored seven or eight books of poetry, theory and criticism. He is an editor and anthologist. He is also a distinguished teacher of the English language and literature and a critic, with a Ph.D in modern poetry, specifically Samuel Beckett's poems in English. He was a Pushcart Prize nominee for poetry in 2012 and his book Art of Poetry was selected as Best Reads 2012 by Butterfly and the Bee. He has been editor's pick on Camel Saloon thrice and poet of the month thrice in Destiny Poets UK besides often having his poems appear in the highly selected category. Has other international awards, diplomas and certificates to his credit too.

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