Crossing the Rubicon

“Crossing the Rubicon” means to have passed the point of no return. Once past, there’s no going back. Our narrator is ready to go, he has “painted his wagon.”

Historically, the term crossing the Rubicon refers to Julius Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon River with his army, thereby entering Italian territory and kicking off a big-time civil war. The crossing of the river was an act of war; there was no going back once his army crossed.

The lyrics refer to the Rubicon as the “Red River”. The Latin word Rubico comes from the adjective rubeus, meaning “red”. The water of the river were (are?) a shade of red due to the composition of the soil.

There are some similarities with Isis, a song from Desire that also describes a quest of some sort. The narrator marries Isis “on the 5th day of May.” In this song, he crosses the Rubicon on the 14th of March, perhaps referring to the Ides of March, which usually falls between the 13th and 15th.

The quest seems to be – in part – to win back the love of “Mona”. This is not the first time a Mona has appeared in a Dylan song. I Wanna Be Your Lover, Visions of Johanna, and Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again each feature a Mona character. That’s a curious number of Mona’s.

Like in both Mother of Muses and False Prophet, there are references to mythology. In this case, Eos, the Goddess of the Dawn. According to legends, Eros rose into the sky from the river Okeanos at the start of each day, and with her rays, the creepy mist of the night was dispersed.

As always, we have some biblical references – “pray to the cross” – “abandon all hope”.

And “the Holy Spirit” – a confusing and controversial term.

The lines below are some of the more thought provoking on the album.

I feel the Holy Spirit inside and see the light that freedom gives

I believe it’s within the reach of every man who lives

Perhaps Dylan is remembering Baudelaire’s Overcast with the phrase “killing frost”.

Are they blue, gray or green? Mysterious eyes
(as if in fact you were looking through a mist)
in alternation tender, dreamy, grim
to match the shiftless pallor of the sky.

That's what you're like- these warm white afternoons
which make the ravished heart dissolve in tears,
the nerves, inexplicably overwrought,
outrage the dozing mind.

Not always, though-sometimes
you're like the horizon when the sun
ignites our cloudy autumn-how you glow!
A sodden countryside in sudden rout,
turned incandescent by a changing wind.

Dangerous woman-demoralizing days!
Will I adore your killing frost as much,
and in that implacable winter, when it comes,
discover pleasures sharper than iron and ice?

The phrase “darkest ‘fore the dawn” is a slight modification of a quote often attributed to Thomas Fuller.

It is always darkest just before the Day dawneth.

Finally, our narrator lights a torch – the torch being a symbol of enlightenment – and then faces east, to presumably to pray (another similarity with Isis – “said a quick prayer”) – and then crosses his Rubicon, his fate hopeful but unknown.

I love the sound of this song.


I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day of the most dangerous month of the year
At the worst time at the worst place – that’s all I seem to hear
I got up early so I could greet the Goddess of the Dawn
I painted my wagon – I abandoned all hope and I crossed the Rubicon

The Rubicon is the Red River, going gently as she flows
Redder then your ruby lips and the blood that flows from the rose
Three miles north of purgatory – one step from the great beyond
I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls and I crossed the Rubicon

What are these dark days I see in this world so badly bent
How can I redeem the time – the time so idly spent
How much longer can it last – how long can this go on
I embraced my love put down my head and I crossed the Rubicon

I feel the bones beneath my skin and they’re tremblin’ with rage
I’ll make your wife a widow – you’ll never see old age
Show me one good man in sight that the sun shines down upon
I pawned my watch and I paid my debts and I crossed the Rubicon

Put my heart upon the hill where some happiness I’ll find
If I survive then let me love – let the hour be mine
Take the high road – take the low, take the one you’re on
I poured the cup and I passed it along and I crossed the Rubicon

You defiled the most lovely flower in all of womanhood
Others can be tolerant – others can be good
I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife and I’ll miss you when you’re gone
I stood between heaven and earth and I crossed the Rubicon

You won’t find any happiness here – no happiness or joy
Go back to the gutter and try your luck – find you some nice young pretty boy
Tell me how many men I need and who I can count upon
I strapped my belt and buttoned my coat and I crossed the Rubicon

I feel the Holy Spirit inside and see the light that freedom gives
I believe it’s within the reach of every man who lives
Keep as far away as possible – it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn
I turned the key and I broke it off and I crossed the Rubicon

Mona Baby, are you still in my mind – I truly believe that you are
Couldn’t be anybody else but you who’s come with me this far
The killing frost is on the ground and the autumn leaves are gone
I lit the torch and I looked to the east and I crossed the Rubicon

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