Study Guide

All Along the Watchtower Stanza II

By Bob Dylan

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Stanza II

Line 5

"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,

  • The thief is the cool voice of reason in this conversation -- which is surprising, because you'd think the joker would be able to let the absurdities of life roll off his back.
  • But he can't, so here comes the thief to place a "kindly" and reassuring hand on the joker's shoulder and say, "Look, buddy, you gotta chill out a bit, don't take things so seriously, maybe get yourself a massage and a tall glass of iced tea."
  • He's about to explain why "there's no reason to get excited."
  • By the way, this is the first time that a pronoun indicating gender is used in the poem, so news flash: the thief is a dude.

Line 6

"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.

  • The thief describes what must be a common opinion in whatever strange land they're wandering through: that life is only a joke, an experience to be enjoyed for the momentary pleasure of its punch line, but one that is ultimately pointless.
  • But wait a minute, why is he telling this to a joker, who – apologies for pointing out the obvious – would probably be the person most likely to think that life is a joke.
  • Anyway, what's so bad about holding that opinion? It's certainly better than thinking that life is a parade of miseries or something like that.
  • Also, who exactly are the people the thief refers to as "among us"? We don't even know who the joker and thief are, let alone who they're with. At the very least, this group seems to include the businessmen, plowmen, and others "along the line."
  • The central mystery of this verse, however, remains: what does it mean to think that life is a joke?

Line 7

But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,

  • According to the thief, the "life-is-but-a-joke" philosophy is just a phase people go through and, if they're smart, leave behind.
  • Fortunately, the joker and the thief are a couple of savvy, mature gents, and they've been through the phase and decided, nah, it's not for me.
  • Nonetheless, the word "fate" is somewhat surprising. Okay, okay, it rhymes with "late" in the next verse, but Dylan isn't the kind of lyricist who uses a word just because it rhymes.
  • It's kind of strange to think of a particular belief of philosophy of life as a "fate," but the thief is using this word to suggest that many people don't ever move beyond the phase.
  • On a separate note, this verse is the first to imply that the joker and the thief are not just passing acquaintances but have known each other for some time. They're amigos.
  • The thief knows enough about the joker to say "we've been through that" and also to have some idea of what the joker's fate may or may not be.

Line 8

So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."

  • We're not even going to pretend to know what's going on with this verse, but it's a useful exercise to pinpoint what, exactly, is so confusing about it.
  • Let's start with the first word: "So . . ." A word used to logically connect two statements.
  • The problem is that there doesn't seem to be much of a connection between the warning "let us not talk falsely now" and what comes before.
  • Is the thief accusing (albeit ever-so-politely) the joker of talking falsely by complaining about his situation?
  • Or is he saying that the belief that life is a joke amounts to talking falsely?
  • Or, having explained why there's "no reason to get excited," is he just moving on to a new topic entirely?
  • The best answer might be, "All of the above."
  • Note that "talk falsely" is a very Dylan-esque turn of phrase because it combines older and newer patterns of speech. "Falsely" may remind us of the Biblical commandment not to "bear false witness," a.k.a. tell a lie, but "talk falsely" sounds a bit more contemporary and folksy than the Bible.
  • The thief gives the lateness of the hour as the reason not to talk falsely: there's no time for beating around the bush.
  • Of course, "the hour is getting late" has kind of an apocalyptic ring to it, as in we might be dealing with an hour of reckoning.
  • The whole verse makes us think of a stock situation from old Western films, when the sun is setting and the hero decides it wouldn't be such a great thing to be caught in that place after dark. Dylan loved images of the Old West, so this wouldn't be such a crazy association to have.

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