|Bob Dylan – Every Grain of Sand Lyrics||6 years ago|
My comments are based on the assumptions that:
1 - Dylan was writing this song about himself
2 - He was genuine in the things that he wrote and sang during his 'Christian' phase
There is an allusion in this song to Jesus' parable of the sower and the seed - Dylan says his tears 'flood every newborn seed' - he kills the germination of the seed (the Word of God) with his own sins, regrets and failures. I think the 'dying voice within' is reference to Dylan looking back to the things he did before he was a Christian - he thought he had put the ways of the flesh to death, but he can't repress his desires - they are 'reaching out somewhere'. And it is this theme that runs through the song: looking back versus looking forwards, the way that the past influences the future, inner regret, temptation and one’s standing with God.
‘Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake’ — Do any of us? We’d much rather stick our heads in the sand and pretend we did nothing wrong! But we can’t, because the past influences the future: ‘Like Cain I now behold this chain of events that I must break’. Cain became jealous of his brother. God told him to stop his wicked reasonings. Cain refused and killed his brother ‘in the fury of the moment’. Dylan does not claim to receive direct revelation from God as did Cain, but he ‘can see the Master’s hand/In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand’. There is a constant reminder of his errors, his badness, his rotten inner feelings, the things he has done wrong in the past, and the future actions he intends to take — all of this is related to his standing before God.
In Jesus’ parable, thorns choke the word. For Dylan, ‘the weeds of yesteryear...have choked the breath of conscience’. His former course of worldly ‘indulgence’ is criminal: it creates feelings of guilt and worthlessness, not ‘good cheer’. So what must he do? Look forward, look to the future! It will surely ‘ease the pain of idleness [sitting around feeling blue] and the memory of decay [that dying voice within, those criminal flowers and weeds]’ to look ahead at the sunlit future steps.
‘The fury of the moment’ of verse 2, I don’t believe to be Dylan’s perception of God’s fury, but Dylan’s own fury. Hence, in verse 4, he now gazes ‘into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame’. Temptation! I would like to briefly digress here into Dylan’s personal experiences — the little that I know about them anyway... Dylan married his ‘mystical wife’ Sara Lownds in 1965. She had ‘prayers like rhymes’ and ‘gypsy hymns’. I recently read that Dylan looked to her for advice almost like one would look to a mystical sage — she always responded when he needed her help and gave him a map and a key to her door (See lyrics of Sad-Eyed Lady and Sara). When the marriage ended around 1975 (officially divorced in 1977), Dylan was lacking his soothsayer. Was it this emotional turmoil which propelled him full-speed into ‘Christianity’ in 1979? It appears to have been a ‘precious angel’ (possibly she was his ‘covenant woman’?) who showed him he was blinded, and a wave of highly devotional lyrics came spewing out of Dylan’s head. By 1981 and Shot of Love, Dylan is obviously having doubts about himself (see Heart of Mine lyrics) and about his Christian faith (he sings in Need a Woman (a Shot of Love outtake): ‘Searching for the truth the way God designed it/The truth is I might not be able to find it’ and ‘if you believe in something long enough you just naturally come to think it’s true’). So having gone round the houses, the point I am trying to build is that the temptation to which Dylan refers in this song is sex: he needs a woman, ‘somebody who can see me as I am/Somebody who just don’t give a damn’ (see Need a Woman lyrics). If Dylan has chosen to live by the Bible, he cannot have sex outside of a marriage union. Can he hold up to such a command? ‘Every time I pass that way I always hear my name.’
‘Onward in my journey I come to understand/That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand’. These grains of sand that reminded Dylan of his ‘Master’s hand’ — God’s power and presence — now remind him that God knows all things. He knows the number of hairs on our heads, so surely he knows what it feels like to be tempted! Ok, but does that make the temptation any easier to bear? If we believe that God understands and knows our every emotion, does that make us less likely to act on our desires? Dylan is ‘toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair’.
The 5th verse, referring entirely to the past is littered with negatives: sorrow, violence, chill, wintry, bitter, loneliness, broken, forgotten. Dylan views his rise to fame ‘from rags to riches’ as a bad experience. He has now reformed himself from his self-indulgent ways; there is nothing positive to look back on. Or is there?
The 6th verse clinches it: Dylan is doubting his faith. What has happened to the solid rock of which he can’t let go? He used to beg ‘Don’t let me drift too far/Keep me where you are/Where I will always be renewed’ because he believed. Now, ‘sometimes I turn there’s someone there, other times it’s only me’. It used to be so clear cut: ‘You gotta serve somebody/It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord’. Now he is ‘hanging in the balance’. He can ‘hear the ancient footsteps’ — the footsteps of Jesus, the commands of God. But then again, he can hear ‘the motion of the sea’. (Dylan will soon write yet another masterpiece, Jokerman, for whom ‘the book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy/The law of the jungle and the sea’ are teachers.)
One of the greatest lines of all-time: ‘I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man’. I am no philosopher, and I don’t think Dylan was/is either. But ‘reality of man’ captures so many philosophical ideas:
- What is consciousness?
- Is this life real?
- Is God real? Does he exist?
- What is matter?
- What is the difference between a man, a sparrow and a grain of sand?
Dylan, like every one of us, hangs in this balance.
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