The Symbolism of Nature in Mr. Tambourine Man
How it works
When a place considered natural, such as a forest, appears in an artistic work, its presence is rarely neutral. Nature is often used to represent something or is associated with certain connotations. These portrayals often expose the artist’s way of viewing nature, or his or her culture’s way of viewing it. One example of such a work is “Mr. Tambourine Man”, a 1965 folk song by the well-known singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan. The song’s only instruments, other than Dylan’s voice, are an acoustic guitar and a more lightly used electric guitar.
Musically, the song has a quiet, calm sound. Like many other Bob Dylan songs, “Mr. Tambourine Man” has many lyrics; it has four verses and is about five and a half minutes long. In the lyrics, the narrator addresses a mysterious character, the eponymous Mr. Tambourine Man, and asks him to play a song. The narrator describes the fantastical adventures that he imagines having while following the Tambourine Man and listening to his song. The song includes mentions of natural landscapes that portray nature in a romanticized, escapist way.
In the first verse of “Mr. Tambourine Man”, the narrator says that “these ancient empty streets” are “too dead for dreaming”. This shows that he is in a city or town – a place of human civilization – and finds it unsatisfactory. The phrase “too dead for dreaming” is a clear indication that the narrator views this man-made place as lifeless and uninspiring, which foreshadows him finding more meaning in nature as the song goes on. The lyrics indeed touch on nature mainly in the later part of the song. This begins in the third verse, with the line, “and but for the sky there are no fences facing.” Since fences are man-made but the sky is natural, this line seems to indicate that the narrator and the Tambourine Man have escaped from the streets and gone to somewhere more natural. The line seems to draw a contrast between the man-made and the natural, as civilization is associated here with “fences”, which are limiting boundaries. The place evoked in this line – presumably a natural one – is expansive and free. In the eyes of the narrator, the natural world allows endless exploring and possibilities, which is certainly a romantic view of nature.
However, it is in the fourth verse that natural imagery appears most clearly, as the verse describes the narrator and the Tambourine Man going through a forest and to a beach. In it, the narrator asks the Tambourine Man to take him “down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves”. Nature is often associated with the past and timelessness, and this seems to be done here. By walking past the leaves of this forest, the narrator imagines he is traveling back in time, as he sees this natural location as fixed and always having been this way. The mention that the leaves are “frozen”, if it does not just mean that the leaves are cold, may be a statement of this association; it could mean that the forest is unchanging, thus its leaves are “frozen” in time.
Next, the narrator refers to “the haunted, frightened trees”, which is one of the more ambiguous lines. One possibility is that it expresses the vulnerability of the natural forest, threatened by human activity. This makes the trees metaphorically fearful for their forest, perhaps implying an environmentalist viewpoint. The narrator then asks the Tambourine Man to take him “out to the windy beach, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrows”. The beach here seems to be the landscape that the narrator romanticizes the most. The “crazy sorrows” line clearly shows that he views this (presumably natural) beach as a place free from suffering, expressing an escapist view of nature. Furthermore, this line reinforces the stereotype of the nature-culture binary suggesting that human strife occurs within society’s confines while nature, by contrast, is pristine and induces solely positive feelings. Even the word “out” before “to the windy beach” carries
connotations, characterizing the beach by its remoteness from human society. The narrator seems to associate this remoteness with his conception of the beach as a pure and untainted oasis.
The narrator reveals his intentions for the beach visit next: “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea”, portraying the beach as bestowing a sense of unrestrained liberation. This liberating image recalls the “no fences facing” line in the third verse, associating nature with freedom as well as joy. The phrase “diamond sky” suggests that the sky at this location offers immense beauty and value. The reference to being “silhouetted by the sea” echoes a common trope in naturalistic art: the contemplation of human insignificance against a vast panorama, often used to associate nature with awe and wonder. Subsequently, the narrator plans to be “circled by the circus sands”. The sand’s comparison to a circus might seem ambiguous and unexpected amongst the verse’s otherwise tranquil language. However, it likely implies that the narrator regards the beach’s sand as a domain for jubilant expression, comparing his euphoria to the clamorous delight of a circus show.
After this, the narrator says that “all memory and fate” will be “driven deep beneath the waves”. If the waves of the ocean represent nature here, the line probably expresses the romantic view that nature is powerful. In this place, nature’s power and vastness overshadow everything, specifically the past (“memory”) and the future (“fate”). This indicates that the past and the future do not really matter on this beach, again implying that nature is timeless and changeless. The song’s final line, other than the last repetition of the chorus, is “let me forget about today until tomorrow”. When combined with the forest and beach imagery throughout the verse, this line seems to express an escapist view of nature, making natural locations seem like places without cares. It reinforces the nature-culture binary implied in the song; when the narrator is in society, he cannot “forget about the day-to-day difficulties of life”, but by traveling with the Tambourine Man through the forest and to the beach, he is able to let go of these superficial worries and lose himself in something more beautiful and transcendent. Overall, the lyrics to “Mr. Tambourine Man” paint a striking contrast between the “streets” of the first verse and the “forest” and “sky” of the fourth verse; the former are sad and meaningless, while the latter are expansive, timeless, serene, and pure—an escape from the troubles of life. Since the streets seem to represent society and humans in general, while the forest and beach seem to represent nature, the song reinforces the nature-culture or nature-human binary.
There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground; no place that has both natural and man-made elements is mentioned in the song, despite the abundance of such land in the real world. Throughout the song, nature could be said to represent many things, all of them positive: beauty, wonder, meaning, freedom, possibility, power, permanence, and simply happiness. Nature, and all its associations, are used to further the idea that the narrator is experiencing something meaningful – something outside and above the domain of everyday human experience – on his trip with the Tambourine Man. The song has a positive and emotionally-based view of nature-human entanglements, as the human narrator’s interaction with nature brings him respite (from strife and the sadness of the “streets”), inspiration (especially due to his belief that the landscape transcends time), and emotional liberation (shown by the dancing). Essentially, nature is used only as a romantic, symbolic backdrop for human emotions; aside from possibly the “haunted, frightened trees” line (which cannot even be interpreted with certainty), the issues that natural ecosystems themselves face are not alluded to.
Together, the references to natural landscapes in “Mr. Tambourine Man” celebrate nature and paint a very romanticized, idealistic picture of it. For the purposes of creating a good song, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is certainly not wrong to appreciate natural ecosystems and hold them in high esteem. In fact, it is arguably a good thing, as humans need the services that ecosystems provide. Also, taking a romantic view of nature in a song or poem may enhance its aesthetic and emotional quality, as is the case in “Mr. Tambourine Man”. However, it is important to recognize that such one-sided, stereotypical conceptions of nature are not the whole truth at all. In reality, being in a natural location does not guarantee freedom. Natural environments change over time due to various factors and are not timeless, and of course, they do not necessarily exist apart from suffering. These environments also face issues and threats that romanticized portrayals often gloss over. Nature – itself an ambiguous word – is actually more complex than the simplistic depictions of it in art and culture, and this should be kept in mind when dealing with nature in the real world.