(It’s a long song, so I’ve put the full lyrics at the end of the post, under a cut, along with the audio. I’ll be pulling up lines from it as I go.)
First, my interpretation of the song is based on little more than having listened to it many, many times since I was about fifteen years old — and many of those many times while I was lying on the floor feeling melancholy over everything or nothing in particular. I bring to the interpretation my own literary sensibilities, as well as a penchant for Catholic iconography and ritual.
Which is in part why Edvard Munch’s Madonna is my image for the song.
I have come to see Dylan’s conception of the Lady as a kind of assemblage of holy and luxurious objects as the temporal masculine understanding of the atavistic feminine. She exists as a metaphor — and literal metaphors (in the form of similes) are the only way Dylan describes the Lady. The first verse is typical:
With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,
Oh, do they think could bury you?
With your pockets well protected at last,
And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass,
And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass,
Who could they get to carry you?
Each verse has this same construction — the fourth and eighth lines are questions the speaker asks the Lady, but the Lady herself remains silent, a kind of holy mystery. In this verse, the speaker asks about the Lady being buried — as if in a grave — and carried — as if a statue of a saint at the head of a procession.
The allusion to death and resurrection is clear, and the Lady’s essential, divine nature is further reinforced with the imagery of “smoke” (such as from incense or candles), the “silver cross,” “chimes” (such as the bells that the altar boy rings to mark transubstantiation), silk (such as the material of altar cloths), and glass (such as the stained glass of a cathedral). The last verse of the song adds the Lady’s “holy medallion,” “saintlike face,” and “ghostlike soul.”
Further, the reference to the “missionary times” marks the passage of time on something more than a human scale. The Lady is immortal, perhaps, or ancient, or at least long-lived. Being from California, I think of “missionary times” as 1697 through 1821, during Spanish rule and the construction of the Missions. (Further in the song, the speaker references the Lady’s “Spanish manners” and, strengthening the California imagery, “Cannery Row,” which is in Monterey.)
The stories of the writing and recording of “The Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” also speak in their own way to the unknowability of the Lady. Dylan stated, “I just started writing and I couldn’t stop. After a period of time, I forgot what it was all about, and I started trying to get back to the beginning.”
When it came time to record the song, the studio musicians learned the music for the repetition of the verse and refrain, but didn’t know just how many verses there are. (There are five, and the song is more than 11 minutes long.) The drummer Kenny Buttrey recalled,
“If you notice that record, that thing after like the second chorus starts building and building like crazy, and everybody’s just peaking it up ‘cause we thought, Man, this is it…This is gonna be the last chorus and we’ve gotta put everything into it we can. And he played another harmonica solo and went back down to another verse and the dynamics had to drop back down to a verse kind of feel…After about ten minutes of this thing we’re cracking up at each other, at what we were doing. I mean, we peaked five minutes ago.”
This is the Lady: She confounds men, leading them into a labyrinthine, disorienting world where she holds the power. Indeed, the refrain of the song says the Lowlands — of which she is the Lady — is “where no man comes.” The Lady’s domain is a purely feminine one, and her power is to deny them access to her.
The speaker highlights this in the refrain, presenting himself as a worshipper who leaves tribute (his “warehouse eyes” and "Arabian drums”) but cannot approach the Lady without her permission: “Shall I place them by your gate, or sad-eyed lady, should I wait?”
The rhetorical questions in the verses show what is being asked of the Lady and what she will not grant:
“Oh, do they think could bury you?” They THOUGHT, but they can’t.
“Who could they get to carry you?” No one. I will not be carried at the head of their procession. I am not their figurehead.
A series of “Who among them…?” questions follow:
“…can think he could outguess you?”
“…would try to impress you?”
“…really wants just to kiss you?”
“…do you think could resist you?”
“…do you think would employ you?”
“…do you think could destroy you?”
The Lady doesn’t need to speak for us to know her answer: “Who indeed?”
The fourth verse differs from the others in the construction of its characters. There are three questions rather than two, and they don’t begin with “Who among them.” The first is asks of “the farmers and the businessmen,” “Why did they pick you to sympathize with their side?” and “how could they ever mistake you?” and “how could they ever persuade you?”
The speaker’s tone in this verse is one of astonishment — it is obvious to him that she is beyond their influence, and yet they still will try to win her over. But her power invites it — men will try to win her favor, and through her favor control her, but they will fail at every turn.