With Bob Dylan turning 80 last month, when I thought of a song to revisit, my mind went almost immediately to the title track on his penultimate album of original music, Tempest (2012). The song charts the sinking of the Titanic a century earlier in April 1912, and is based on a ballad by The Carter Family.
He captures a sense of the inevitability of the tragedy: “the promised hour was near,” he sings. It is the prophetic figure of the watchman who first intuits that something is wrong, while Leo (a painter), sees “water on the quarterdeck,/ Already three foot deep.” The force of the sinking then overwhelms the story.” With great narrative economy and elegance, we are told simply:
The engines then explodedBob Dylan, ‘Tempest’, (Tempest, 2012)
Propellers they failed to start
The boilers overloaded
The ship’s bow split apart.
They tried to understand:
Into this well-known story of terrible destruction, Dylan introduces a series of mainly fictional characters who seem to represent by turns heroism, innocence, self-preservation. In this way, the song presents a kind of Blakean vision of the disaster, marked by intense visual imagery.
Dylan introduces Wellington, whom he describes as valiant, the bishop (“turned his eyes up to the heavens,/ Said the poor are yours to feed”), and Jim Dandy who gives up his seat to a “little crippled child” – suggesting a sense of transcendent grace in these acts of self-sacrifice. This is reinforced by the idea of innocence: “Mothers and their daughters/ Descending down the stairs/ Jumped into the icy waters / Love and pity sent their prayers.”
Where Dylan describes acts of panic or violence, they tend to be associated not with individuals, but whole groups of people and perhaps function on a more archetypal level: “Brother rose up against brother/ In every circumstance…”; “There were traitors, there were turncoats/ Broken backs and broken necks.” There’s a clear focus on the horror of the event, but he also suggests the selflessness or desperation of loved ones clinging to each other in the freezing water.
…But there is no understanding:
He also makes careful use of ambiguity. For example, the brothel-keeper, Davey, “came out dismissed his girls/ Saw the water getting deeper,/ Saw the changing of his world.” Aside from the surreal image of a brothel on board a luxury Edwardian liner, Dylan does not say what this transformation entails: on one level, it seems to be a kind of Sodom & Gomorrah-moment (worldly lust swept aside by approaching death), but into this silence could move other possibilities. Dylan also reserves comment on “the rich man, Mr Astor,” except to say that he “kissed his darling wife,” a moving image of a protective, uxorious man. Accounts record that J. J. Astor, the richest man on board, asked to remain in the lifeboat with his (much younger, pregnant) second wife, Madeleine, but was declined. According to witnesses, he was last seen smoking on the starboard bridge with another man – contemporary writer, Jacques Futrelle). Astor’s wife survived the sinking.
Others were not so lucky: “They drowned upon the staircase,/ Of brass and polished gold.”
Finally, Dylan describes three men: “Calvin, Blake and Wilson,/ Gambled in the dark,” a brilliant image which conjures their hands and the playing cards without so much as mentioning either. Again, this line has the ring of the richly symbolic about it. It also typifies Dylan’s lyrical style in this song, one characterised by chiaroscuro – the play of dark and light. For example, when Jim Dandy gives his seat to the disabled boy, we are told: “he saw the star light shining/ Streaming from the east…” which lifts the song with a sense of mysticism – perhaps suggesting the stars seen through his tears or even the bending of time itself. Dylan weaves these patterns of religious or visionary language throughout the ballad; the angels turning aside at the beginning of the song; at the end, the Captain is described:
In the dark illumination‘Tempest’ – Dylan’s Blakean vision of the tragedy.
He remembered bygone years
He read the book of Revelations
And he filled his cup with tears
The song is more or less in twelve-eight time, with a melody both jaunty and mournful. Within this, Dylan uses a steady poetic trimetre (“The pale moon rose in its glory…”), fitting for a ballad. Interestingly, Thomas Hardy uses the same metre with three prominent stresses in his poem written just after the tragedy, ‘The Convergence of the Twain.’ Both suggest what, in retrospect, seems like the inevitability of a catastrophe that has already happened. Layered over this, the violin and accordion in ‘Tempest’ suggest both tragedy and the slightly comforting distance of the ballad’s narrative form – ‘a sad sad story.’ In this way the song could be seen as a romantic view of the tragedy, a story of horror and emptiness, or a religious parable about redemption, not to say the now-standard readings of the disaster (one of social injustice and human arrogance). What should we make of the penultimate verse, for example? “News came over the wires,/ And struck with deadly force,/ Love had lost its fires,/ All things had run their course”?
However we receive the song, Dylan seems to descend into the wreckage of the ship’s final hours in a way that resurrects the awful lived-moment of the sinking within the consoling warmth of a song altogether lit from within.
Lyrics available at: Bobdylan.com/songs/tempest, © 2012 by Special Rider Music
I previously wrote about the songs Key West and Murder Most Foul from Bob Dylan’s most recent album, Rough & Rowdy Ways (links below).
A big thank you to the editors at Expecting Rain for re-posting my article on Key West this month (17/06/21).
Featured image: Pexel free photos.
Content: © Benedict Gilbert 2021