Shakespeare in the Alley

Desolation Row


desolation row

The opening verse surprises us with its final line in which the preposition is not "on" but "from":

They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They've got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they're restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Here Dylan is weaving images together from all kinds of sources, beginning with two grotesque realities: people really did sell postcards of lynchings during the 30's and 40s, at least once in Minnesota. And Jewish passports were "painted brown" by the Nazis so they could not flee Germany. Actually they were stamped with a large capital J in 1938, indicating their Jewishness. He proceeds to images which are less specific but highly evocative and ends the series with the line "as lady and I look out tonight from Desolation Row." It is Dylan and his lady who are on Desolation Row. The desolation derives from seeing these sites, the reality of this place. He's communicating with those of us who don't see this reality. Thus the final verse:

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the door knob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they're quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can't read too good
Don't send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

Again, note the preposition in the closing line: "Don't send me no more letters, no, not unless you mail them from Desolation Row." He sees the horror and just doesn't want to hear from us if we are blind to it.

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