Looking down on empty streets, all she can see
Are the dreams all made solid
Are the dreams made real
All of the buildings, all of the cars
Were once just a dream
In somebody's head
She pictures the broken glass, pictures the steam
She pictures a soul
With no leak at the seam

Let's take the boat out
Wait until darkness
Let's take the boat out
Wait until darkness comes

Nowhere in the corridors of pale green and grey
Nowhere in the suburbs
In the cold light of day
There in the midst of it, so alive and alone
Words support like bone

Dreaming of Mercy Street
Where you're inside out
Dreaming of Mercy
In your daddy's arms again
Dreaming of Mercy Street
Swear they moved that sign
Dreaming of Mercy
In your daddy's arms

Pulling out the papers from drawers that slide smooth
Tugging at the darkness, word upon word
Confessing all the secret things in the warm velvet box
To the priest, he's the doctor
He can handle the shocks
Dreaming of the tenderness, the tremble in the hips
Of kissing Mary's lips

Dreaming of Mercy Street
Where you're inside out
Dreaming of Mercy
In your daddy's arms again
Dreaming of Mercy Street
Swear they moved that sign
Looking for mercy
In your daddy's arms

Mercy, Mercy, looking for Mercy Street
Looking for Mercy
Mercy, looking for Mercy
Looking for Mercy
Looking for Mercy
Oh, Mercy
Looking for mercy

I'm with the father, is out in the boat
Riding the water
Riding the waves on the sea


Lyrics submitted by fez

Mercy Street Lyrics as written by Peter Gabriel

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Lyrics powered by LyricFind

Mercy Street song meanings
Add Your Thoughts

35 Comments

sort form View by:
  • +6
    General Comment

    The poetry references are well done. I agree with pretty much everything there. But, though I appreciate the input of Miranda, she is wildly misinformed. "Anne Sexton was sexually abused by her parents." This has actually been denied by every member of Anne's family. Even Anne's own psychiatrist believes that she made up the fact that her father sexually abused her, though it's been included in her biography because her therapist thought it was "real to Anne." "When she was in her 20's she tried committing suicide with a piece of "broken glass" and went to see a psychiartist not long after." Actually, this couldn't be more wrong. Yes, she did attempt suicide, but with pills after she gave birth to Linda and not a "piece of broken glass." The broken glass is more likely a reference to the dreams she sees that are now broken. "I think I read somewhere that her parents died while on vaction. Their boat tipped over and they drowned..."let's take the boat out, wait until darkness."- Ummm... whoever wrote that needs to be smacked. That couldn't be farther from the truth. Anne Sexton's parents deaths are well documented in her poetry. Her mother died of breast cancer- and her father died from... something wrong with his brain not too long after if I remember correctly what she said in her poems. "Nowhere in the corridors of pale green and grey" refers to her looking for mercy in her house in the "suburbs." -I see this as more of a reference to institutions. "It said in the biography that I took from the library that her parents urged her not to tell anyone about the things that happened at home. After they died, she felt like she could finally let everything out." -What biography did you read?! This is insanely inaccurate- not even close. "She went to a church and confessed to a "a priest--he's the doctor, he can handle the shocks." The shocks are referring to the cruel things her parents did to her." -Actually this is a dual reference: to shock treatment and to the poem "The Kiss" in which she likens sex to ECTs, which makes sense. She told her shrink that the only good thing she could do with her life was to become a prostitute and make men feel powerful. The priest reference is a reference to how much faith she put into the practice of psychiatry. "Dreaming of the tenderness, the tremble in the hips, of kissing Mary's lips"...Mary is Anne Sexton's mother. -While yes, this is true, this is most likely a reference to the virgin Mary. Anne, as she grew older, became increasingly more religious, even writing letters to a clergy man who fell in love with her. Sorry, I just needed to clear that up...

    As for my personal interpretation, I think this is probably documenting what happened right before Anne died. After she divorced her husband, who was a large part of her life, she realized that she was alone, one of her biggest fears. "looking down on empty streets, all she can see are the dreams all made solid are the dreams all made real" She is looking back on what she used to have... looking back on what she tried desperately to create. Still yearning for Mercy Street, a place that she thinks she can find only in death. So, she kills herself and finally ends that "Awful Rowing Toward God" by joining her father who was abusive, yes but not sexually, emotionally (she had an acute case of acne growing up and he often expressed disgust at her appearance), but who she wanted to love her.

    patquinnchinon May 03, 2007   Link
  • +4
    General Comment

    Reading these comments has been a fascinating journey. I'd read little or none of Sexton's poetry beforehand, and I'd made casual attempts to understand lines of this song as I heard it play. It was a revelation to find that it was based on her life, and to begin to look into them.

    There is a major piece of the puzzling missing in the comments so far: While Sexton wrote a poem called "45 Mercy Street" and Gabriel's lyrics obviously refer to it, there was also a play that Sexton wrote called "Mercy Street" (identical to Gabriel's song) and nobody has so far mentioned it.

    The play is set in a hospital during the Civil War, and the female lead is named Mary who begins a relationship with a doctor named Jed. Given that Gabriel's lyrics have the same title, refer to a hospital, and mention a Mary, that's likely the Sexton work most relevant to the lyrics – though they aren't the only work; again, "45 Mercy Street" is certainly relevant.

    A third Sexton work almost certainly key to understanding the lyrics is her poem, published posthumously, "Rowing Towards God." This poem uses a boat voyage towards an island as a metaphor for death, and it was among her final works before she committed suicide.

    Given this (but now, we see, we could do a masters degree in literature trying to break all of this down), I'd explain the poem this way:

    As an adult, Sexton, as recounted in "45 Mercy Street," searched the neighborhood of her childhood, trying to find her former house. Her search for the physical house failed, as did her spiritual search for something peaceful and calming to orient her. Her present life offers her psychological torment, and she can only dream of mercy – for someone to show her mercy is what she needs and will not receive. Ambiguously, she dreams of mercy and being in her father's arms again as she was as a girl, but Sexton's memories of being in her father's arms are not of mercy but abuse. This is something the song alone wouldn't convey to someone who didn't know Sexton's story.

    When Gabriel mentions the corridors of pale green and gray, he may be referring both to the hospital in the play "Mercy Street" and the places where Sexton received psychological treatment. Of course, Gabriel aside, we might ask why she used such similar titles for two of her works with, on the surface, different settings, and it seems like a good guess that she is using the physical horrors of a war hospital as a metaphor for the psychological horrors of her condition (just as her physical search for a house was also a spiritual search for "mercy" – "looking for mercy… Mercy Street"), and Gabriel is probably playing both sides of that ambiguity as well. The "Mary" in the lyrics, mentioned along with a hospital, is probably the one from the play, who is kissed by Jed, and this Mary is probably an avatar for Sexton herself, not the Virgin Mary (as in "The Kiss") nor Sexton's mother.

    Finally, taking the boat out "on the sea" is Anne's suicide, and she is "with her father" in the sense that he preceded her in death and that the abuse that Anne remembers was one horrible part of the tormented life that led Anne to take that final journey.

    I think a person could take weeks reading Sexton's works, trying to be sure that Gabriel wasn't making an important reference to one poem or another and I haven't taken that time. But I feel sure that three important works are the poems "45 Mercy Street" and "Rowing Towards God" and the play "Mercy Street," which seem to cover the great majority of Gabriel's references.

    It's darkly edifying to have listened to this song and casually mused over the lyrics, then find this larger, dark world connected to it. I'd imagined Gabriel's song – quite as "45 Mercy Street" spells out in more detail, as an older woman trying to remember an earlier childhood before her life became so disappointing. It's heartbreaking to know that the story was real and that it's far too late for it to turn out better.

    rikdad101@yahoo.comon April 17, 2017   Link
  • +3
    General Comment

    Just to clear up any misunderstandings, this song was inspired by the poet Anne Sexton. This is a great song, and on the Growing Up tour, the 4 part harmony is incredible at the beginning!

    classicrockman1on May 29, 2004   Link
  • +3
    General Comment

    This is one of the most powerful songs I've ever heard. I listened to it for a long time, and I had no clue what it was. I looked it up on the web about a month ago because it was bugging the crap out of me. Yes, it is for/about Anne Sexton. This is what I got from it:

    Anne Sexton was sexually abused by her parents. She was unstable as a child and it only got worse as she grew up. "The dreams made solid and the dreams made real", "all of the buildings and all of the cars were once just a dream in somebody's head" refers to her feeling like her dreams will never come true. When she was in her 20's she tried committing suicide with a piece of "broken glass" and went to see a psychiartist not long after. "She pictures the soul with no leak at the seam" refers to her feeling like there was something missing in her life. I think I read somewhere that her parents died while on vaction. Their boat tipped over and they drowned..."let's take the boat out, wait until darkness." "Nowhere in the corridors of pale green and grey" refers to her looking for mercy in her house in the "suburbs." her psychiatrist encouraged her to write poems to get her anger and sadness out o her system, and it turned out to be what really kept her going in life. The words of her poem "support like bone" in the midst of all the pain in her life. She said in her poem Mercy Street 45 that she was always looking for the street sign... " 'Swear they moved that sign." "Pulling out the papers from the drawers that slide mooth, tugging at the darkness, word upon word"... she is shuffling through her papers trying to find a black sheet, and she jots down her dark feelings. It said in the biography that I took at from the library that her parents urged her not to tell anyone about the things that happened at home. After they died, she felt like she could finally let everything out. She went to a church and confessed to a "a priest--he's the doctor, he can handle the shocks." The shocks are referring to the cruel things her parents did to her. "Dreaming of the tenderness, the tremble in the hips, of kissing Mary's lips"...Mary is Anne Sexton's mother. The biography said that she was always afraid of her parents abandonning her, so she would always shake... "the tremble in the hips." In the second verse, Peter mentions "the steam." After her thrid suicide attempt, Anne finally died. She was killed by carbon monoxide in her home. Carbon monoxide is invisible to the naked eye, but steam and carbon monoxide are both gases.

    Well, that is what I think the story is about.

    -Miranda

    musicfreak_12on February 17, 2005   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    I agree with everything but I feel very strongly that the corridors of pale green and gray refer to an institution. Anne Sexton spent alot of time in first a boarding school, then as an adult, a mental institution. The first time I really listened to the lyrics I felt the priest, he's the doctor he can handle the shocks...had to do with the practice of electroshock therapy. Back in those days I wouldn't be surprised if they combined the 2, thinking the devil was the cause of the mental illness/depression. I think in your daddys arms again is refering to her desire to be reunited with her father. I don't often refer to God as my daddy. Additionally, after reading a bio, I forget where, they mentioned the rumored affair with Sylvia Plath, and I wondered if the tenderness, the tremble in the hips and kissing Marys lips was refering to sexual acts between her and a lover. Maybe tying back to the "shocks." she would confess. After reading the posts, one lyric now has taken on new meaning; she pictures a soul with no leaks at the seam...I can definitely see what musicfreak was talking about feeling like something is missing, but perhaps she is also refering to always feeling empty, no matter who is loves, how many children she has, how many poems she writes (which incidentally began as part of her therapy), nothing repairs that seam. Just my 2 cents.

    gsboo77on December 18, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    One of the greatest songs ever written, seriously. Its surreal enough to be open to interpretation, although I think the probable intended meaning is pretty clear -losing one's father in a car wreck. at least, thats what it seems to me. If you havent listened to this song, you really need to.

    Ange*Gaucheon May 11, 2002   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    I studied many of Anne Sexton's poems and though I have fogotten many of the references of this song I do remember a few.

    The title itself is taken from Anne's poem "45 Mercy Street" which is a poem about Anne looking for this address yet she cannot find it. It is debatable who is seeking mercy, her or her abusing family. In this poem she also mentions her father who I believe the "daddy" in the chorus refers to.

    The line "Pulling the paper..." could be taken from a poem (I'm sorry I've totally forgotten the title) about her looking through a family album while cleaning her dead parents' house.

    The corridors or green and grey are definitly a reference to her many stays in mental instututions as she was suicidal.

    As for "The kiss on Mary's lips" this is taken from Anne's poem "The Kiss" which has a very similar line. The poem, I believe, is about Anne's loss of virginity. Some people believe it is about childbirth. Either way that is where Peter took this line from haha.

    Lastly, the lines about rowing come from Anne's poem "Rowing". This is one of her last poems. As she matured she became more and more religious and that poem is about her rowing to God, yet she never is able to reach him in the poem. Peter knew that Anne eventually succeeded in killing herself and by writing she's with her father out in the boat he is finishing her poem by finally letting her reach God after a life of torment and mental disease.

    I'm sorry I dont remember which poems the line about the doctor and socks comes from I remmeber there was one where she describes the doctors as someone with extreme reverance from the patients so I think it may come from that.

    All in all, this song is based on a compilation of poems by Anne Sexton as well as some parts of her life.

    I think we can all agree it is a beautiful song!

    tikimingon December 31, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    This song is about finding/dreaming of relief from suffering-mercy. Mercy, according to this song is suicide or finding daddy's arms/mercy street. She is looking for mercy, but doesn't find it. Not in an institution-corridors, in the normal life of the suburbs, or in life/the day. There is some relief in writing-words, but she wants to die/take the boat out. Her father says wait until it's time, but still she dreams/looks for an end to her suffering.

    At the song's end, she is dead, with her father/God, riding the water/land of dreams/the source of life.

    Arcadiandjon January 01, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General Comment

    peter gabriel is mostly remembered for his groundbreaking videos and quirky new wave hits, but his best kept secrets were gems like this choon.

    i think this song was either written about or for Anne Sexton. i would have to look it up.

    but Ange's interpretation certainly seems plausible!

    roger wilcoon June 14, 2002   Link
  • 0
    General Comment

    i don't think this song is about losing one's father nessecarily. i think it's about the distance that grows between a father and his daughter when she grows to be a woman and does things he doesn't wnt her to do

    catycali83on August 27, 2002   Link

Add your thoughts

Log in now to tell us what you think this song means.

Don’t have an account? Create an account with SongMeanings to post comments, submit lyrics, and more. It’s super easy, we promise!

More Featured Meanings

Album art
The Night We Met
Lord Huron
This is a hauntingly beautiful song about introspection, specifically about looking back at a relationship that started bad and ended so poorly, that the narrator wants to go back to the very beginning and tell himself to not even travel down that road. I believe that the relationship started poorly because of the lines: "Take me back to the night we met:When the night was full of terrors: And your eyes were filled with tears: When you had not touched me yet" So, the first night was not a great start, but the narrator pursued the relationship and eventually both overcame the rough start to fall in love with each other: "I had all and then most of you" Like many relationships that turn sour, it was not a quick decline, but a gradual one where the narrator and their partner fall out of love and gradually grow apart "Some and now none of you" Losing someone who was once everything in your world, who you could confide in, tell your secrets to, share all the most intimate parts of your life, to being strangers with that person is probably one of the most painful experiences a person can go through. So Painful, the narrator wants to go back in time and tell himself to not even pursue the relationship. This was the perfect song for "13 Reasons Why"
Album art
Mountain Song
Jane's Addiction
Jane's Addiction vocalist Perry Farrell gives Adam Reader some heartfelt insight into Jane’s Addiction's hard rock manifesto "Mountain Song", which was the second single from their revolutionary album Nothing's Shocking. Mountain song was first recorded in 1986 and appeared on the soundtrack to the film Dudes starring Jon Cryer. The version on Nothing's Shocking was re-recorded in 1988. "'Mountain Song' was actually about... I hate to say it but... drugs. Climbing this mountain and getting as high as you can, and then coming down that mountain," reveals Farrell. "What it feels to descend from the mountain top... not easy at all. The ascension is tough but exhilarating. Getting down is... it's a real bummer. Drugs is not for everybody obviously. For me, I wanted to experience the heights, and the lows come along with it." "There's a part - 'Cash in now honey, cash in Miss Smith.' Miss Smith is my Mother; our last name was Smith. Cashing in when she cashed in her life. So... she decided that, to her... at that time, she was desperate. Life wasn't worth it for her, that was her opinion. Some people think, never take your life, and some people find that their life isn't worth living. She was in love with my Dad, and my Dad was not faithful to her, and it broke her heart. She was very desperate and she did something that I know she regrets."
Album art
Just A Little Lovin'
Dusty Springfield
I don't think it's necessarily about sex. It's about wanting to start the day with some love and affection. Maybe a warm cuddle. I'm not alone in interpreting it that way! For example: "'Just a Little Lovin’ is a timeless country song originally recorded by Eddy Arnold in 1954. The song, written by Eddie Miller and Jimmy Campbell, explores the delicate nuances of love and showcases Arnold’s emotive vocals. It delves into the universal theme of love and how even the smallest gesture of affection can have a profound impact on our lives." https://oldtimemusic.com/the-meaning-behind-the-song-just-a-little-lovin-by-eddy-arnold/
Album art
Plastic Bag
Ed Sheeran
“Plastic Bag” is a song about searching for an escape from personal problems and hoping to find it in the lively atmosphere of a Saturday night party. Ed Sheeran tells the story of his friend and the myriad of troubles he is going through. Unable to find any solutions, this friend seeks a last resort in a party and the vanity that comes with it. “I overthink and have trouble sleepin’ / All purpose gone and don’t have a reason / And there’s no doctor to stop this bleedin’ / So I left home and jumped in the deep end,” Ed Sheeran sings in verse one. He continues by adding that this person is feeling the weight of having disappointed his father and doesn’t have any friends to rely on in this difficult moment. In the second verse, Ed sings about the role of grief in his friend’s plight and his dwindling faith in prayer. “Saturday night is givin’ me a reason to rely on the strobe lights / The lifeline of a promise in a shot glass, and I’ll take that / If you’re givin’ out love from a plastic bag,” Ed sings on the chorus, as his friend turns to new vices in hopes of feeling better.
Album art
Plastic Bag
Ed Sheeran
“Plastic Bag” is a song about searching for an escape from personal problems and hoping to find it in the lively atmosphere of a Saturday night party. Ed Sheeran tells the story of his friend and the myriad of troubles he is going through. Unable to find any solutions, this friend seeks a last resort in a party and the vanity that comes with it. “I overthink and have trouble sleepin’ / All purpose gone and don’t have a reason / And there’s no doctor to stop this bleedin’ / So I left home and jumped in the deep end,” Ed Sheeran sings in verse one. He continues by adding that this person is feeling the weight of having disappointed his father and doesn’t have any friends to rely on in this difficult moment. In the second verse, Ed sings about the role of grief in his friend’s plight and his dwindling faith in prayer. “Saturday night is givin’ me a reason to rely on the strobe lights / The lifeline of a promise in a shot glass, and I’ll take that / If you’re givin’ out love from a plastic bag,” Ed sings on the chorus, as his friend turns to new vices in hopes of feeling better.