John Bauldie on Bob Dylan’s Isis

At a ‘Dylan Revisited’ conference held in Manchester in 1980, John Bauldie gave this bit of advice to assembled fans ‘It is surely up to the listener to investigate the song. Dylan, in writing songs, an art form that needs to be listened to, is offering the listener the opportunity to do this for themself. This is what art is about: an invitation to deduce something from it for yourself. What you find in it is up to you. Dylan puts it in the song for you to find. If you listen to “Isis” for example you might want to investigate vegetation rituals, an understanding of which is perhaps crucial to the understanding of the song itself.’ He expands on this in his book The Chameleon Poet. Here’s an extract on ‘Isis’ from his chapter about Desire.

The narrative takes place on a surreal, mythical plane, in a timeless landscape which combines elements of nineteenth-century Western America with ancient Egypt. (The song in one sense is broadly based on ‘On the Trail of the Buffalo’, which Dylan recorded informally in 1961.) It functions symbolically, presenting archetypal figures and situations. The ‘quest’ is symbolic of the process in the psyche which is seeking its own goal. Introduced in concert in 1975 as ‘a song about marriage’, ‘Isis’ can be related to the concept of the ‘sacred’ or ‘chemical’ marriage which is the central symbol of alchemy. The concept is that man, as a result of the loss of his original ‘Adamic’ state, is divided within himself. He regains his integral nature only when the two powers, whose discord has rendered him impotent, are again reconciled with one another. The regaining of the integral nature of man (expressed in alchemy by the symbol of the masculine-feminine androgyne) is the prerequisite of union with God. In psychological terms, these two poles of human nature resemble the conscious and the unconscious. The ‘chemical marriage’ may be simply interpreted as an ‘integration’ of the unconscious powers of the soul into the ego-consciousness, though such interpretation is not totally justifiable and as Titus Burckhardt points out:

It is quite vain to wish to describe psychologically the real essence of alchemy or the secret of the ‘chemical marriage’. The more one strives to dispense with symbols and to replace them with scientific concepts of one sort or another, the more rapidly does that spiritual presence vanish which is the very heart of the matter and which can only be transmitted by symbols.
Nevertheless, ‘Isis’ functions symbolically, combining the emblem of the sacred marriage with that of Isis, the Great Mother, and the song is structured around the concept of the quest. The myth of the quest is so pervasive that some scholars have argued that it determines virtually all mythic and literary patterns. According to Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the ‘monomyth’ can be reduced to a ‘formula represented by the rites of passage in separation – initiation – return’. ‘Isis’ begins with the ‘separation’:

I married Isis on the fifth day of May
But I could not hold on to her very long
So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away
For the wild unknown country
where I could not go wrong.
Both ‘I rode straight away’ and ‘I could not go wrong’ are neatly ambivalent. The separation seems to lead him to asceticism – the cutting off of his hair is indicative of this, as is his behaviour in the second stanza:

I came to a high place of darkness and light
The dividing line ran through the center of town
I hitched up my pony to a post on the right
Went into a laundry to wash my clothes down.
‘Washing down’ is also a part of the apparent cleansing process involved in the self-discipline of the would-be ascetic. The hitching of the pony to the ambivalent ‘right’ is also a significant response to the choice between darkness and light that confronts him, separated as they are by the central ‘dividing line’. In Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols, Jung is quoted on the significance of ‘right’ and ‘left’:

The right side is masculine, representing the rational, the conscious, the logical and the virile, the left representing the converse.
Following the marriage and separation, the song’s narrator rides off seeking and attempting to assert his identity as an independent being, having been defeated in his attempts to assert himself in his relationship with ‘Isis’ whom he ‘could not hold on to’. An opportunity for such self-assertion is presented almost immediately by the approach of a man who is perceived to be ‘not ordinary’ and by his suggestion of the expedition for which money ‘ain’t necessary’, which suggests that the quest does not have material treasure as its aim. But his question ‘Where are we goin’?’ as they set out ‘for the cold in the North’ is ignored, leaving the song’s narrator:

Thinkin’ about turquoise … thinkin’ about gold
Thinkin’ about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace.
As we’ll see, such thoughts are misguided.
 The journey takes place in a surreal landscape. The questers set out in darkness and travel through canyons in a ‘devilish’ cold. The thoughts of the narrator turn back to Isis, whose identity can be expressed in terms of the Eternal Feminine discussed in the previous chapter, encountered in ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, and recognised as the Woman in White in Renaldo and Clara.

She told me that one day we would meet up again
And things would be different the next time we wed.
She directly echoes the words of the ‘she’ in ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ who reminds him ‘we’ll meet again some day’ and anticipates not just reunion but remarriage. The thoughts about Isis neatly fill in the time it takes for the questers to reach what appears to be a goal: ‘the pyramids all embedded in ice’. The mysterious man then reveals that it is neither gold nor turquoise they have been in search of, but ‘a body’ he’s ‘tryin’ to find’ that has its own value. He dies before the tomb is penetrated, leaving the narrator to continue alone:

I broke into the tomb but the casket was empty
There was no jewels, no nothin’, I felt I’d been had.
All that’s left to do is tidy up before riding back ‘to find Isis’ once more:

I picked up his body and I dragged him inside
Threw him down in the hole and I put back the cover.
In mythic terms, the ‘quest’ symbolises the urge for spiritual renewal. It has its origins in nature rituals purported to bring about and celebrate the annual regeneration of the deity whose death is synonymous with winter. One can see how this myth has been incorporated into the song. The ‘body’ the man wishes to ‘carry out’ of the tomb that is ‘embedded in ice’ and reached in the very depths of cold and dark winter – ‘the wind it was howlin’ and the snow was outrageous’ – is that of the ‘deity’. Its carriage out of the tomb will ‘bring a good price’ because it will bring about the regeneration of nature and thus of life. The concept of spiritual renewal, as opposed to natural regeneration, is also incorporated into the song.

In alchemical symbolism, the ‘tomb’ has its own significance. ‘The grave in the great world corresponds to the womb in the less world – a place of renewal, not of destruction.’ The vessel in which the alchemical process takes place is the coffin of the impotent old king. It can also become the womb in which the new seed may develop and where resurrection can take place.

But the narrator doesn’t take anything from the tomb and instead places a body into it. Thus he has, though perhaps neither willingly nor indeed consciously, played his part in a regenerative process of which he is himself both benefactor and beneficiary. As he journeys back to Isis, he finds her ‘in the meadow’ – in a spring he has played his part in regenerating. Similarly he feels renewed:

I came in from the East with the sun in my eyes.

The East is symbolic of spiritual regeneration. The idea of having ‘the sun in my eyes’ means not, I think, that it is shining from the West, but that he actually brings the sun from the East, signifying renewal. There are two neat examples of wordplay in the song’s penultimate stanza, when he confronts Isis once again:

She said ‘You look different.’ I said ‘Well, I guess.’
She said ‘You been gone.’ I said ‘That’s only natural.’
The reunion with the ‘mystical’ Isis completes the regenerative process for the narrator, who announces his intention to ‘stay’ at the song’s conclusion.

The song’s significance with regard to Dylan’s search for self thus resides in the mythical operation of its symbolism. The artist seeks the immortal self buried deep in nature and wishes to reclaim it through his art. The pyramids in ice symbolise the eternal nature of self – the timeless frozen into permanence. But the journey to the pyramids is only the beginning of a quest that ends with the second mystical wedding with Isis, in which the artist completes his own nature through the symbolic marriage with his ‘other half’ of whom he is always in search and yet, paradoxically, towards whom he is destined to be continually impelled.

The narrator of ‘Isis’ is accompanied on his journey by the mysterious stranger whom he immediately and intuitively understands and with whom he enters into a spontaneous and reciprocal agreement to embark upon the quest: ‘I gave him my blanket, he gave me his word’.

What the narrator leaves behind in the casket is an aspect of himself that he has encountered and transcended. The tomb becomes the cradle of the new self – ‘you look different’ – who journeys back to Isis and fulfilment. The journey has thus taken him through the night to the dawn, through darkness to light, through winter to spring – symbolically through death to life.

Click here for more details on John Bauldie’s The Chameleon Poet: Bob Dylan’s Search For Self

‘An important reminder of Bauldie’s astonishing effort to shed light on Dylan as a major poet worthy of a Nobel Prize, and, after more than four decades since it was written, it still speaks directly, fresh and enlightening to every one interested in the words and lyrics of Bob Dylan’ Johnny Borgan

‘Bauldie proves to be one of the top Dylan writers. The nice thing is that Bauldie often knows how to surprise and comes up with insights, interpretations that I have not thought of or read about before. One of the most interesting books about Dylan the poet. The Chameleon Poet is a must read… a gem in the Dylan library.’ Tom Willems