Dylan likes to play with the meaning of words. And he does this with the word “hard.” Hard can mean a surface that’s not soft or something complex.  One of the things I love about Dylan is where his words take me. And the road that leads me to thinking he means one sense of a word and then makes me start to think he means another is the poetic road worth my traveling.

He tried to explain about how “Hard Rain” is not about atomic or fallout rain, it’s just a hard rain, “an end that just has to happen.”  Well, hard rain also conjures images of missiles, weapon launches and catastrophic landings, twisted metal and steel shrapnel falling from the sky. But maybe he really meant hard as in complex; the hard rain that’s gonna fall perhaps is hard because after what we’ve done to our environment with pollution this will not be a simple rain–a hard to figure out what it is rain, or worse, what it will do, a rain based on “lies,” the poisoning of our minds.

Here’s the interview with Studs Terkel in which Bob talks about the song’s meaning (he sings it first and then talks about it around 11:00):


The words that rhyme with “hard” in “Life Is Hard” are all names of hard subjects,  except for the first one:

I’m always on my guard
Admitting life is hard

Schoolyards and boulevards are hard, concrete and blacktop abound in them.  And being locked and barred has a hardness to it to the touch.  But to be on guard is not hard yet it signifies a rigidness. All told the “hard” rhymes Dylan creates in the song have a nice range of feeling to how life is hard, the sensation of life’s hardness is conjured by the sensations of hard substances and how one feels when on guard.


Exasperation is the tone in “Narrow Way.”  The bridge underscores this:

It’s a long road, it’s a long and narrow way
If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday.

The narrow way is biblical, i.e., Matthew 7:14, “”For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Struggle to get somewhere, yes, but there’s in the song a resistance or an unwillingness to put up with the situation (whatever it is) being so difficult to achieve.  So the speaker holds the other accountable–if I can’t get there, you gotta meet me at least halfway.

Threats are present, too–this is not a voice of supplication or subservience–the terrific “hard“/”unscarred” rhyme is an example”

I’m armed to the hilt, and I’m struggling hard
You won’t get out, of here unscarred.

This is a lashing out against someone, maybe a some thing or even a deity.  It’s a Dylan whose bell still rings with its voice of revolt and invectives hurled in rhymes.

I discussed the “hard” rhymes recently in “Temporary Like Achilles,” in my “Guard” post.  “hard” pulsating the rhyming through the song certainly helps the a sexual connotations in the song, especially rubbing up next to the word “Temporary” in the title.  It is unusual for Dylan to use the “hard“/”guard” rhyme twice in the last two verses:
Just what do you think you have to guard?
You know I want your lovin’
Honey, but you’re so hard

How come you get someone like him to be your guard?
You know I want your lovin’
Honey, but you’re so hard

Maybe “hard” is a hard word to rhyme after all.  From Blonde on Blonde to Life is Hard is a long stretch without a “hard” rhyme.  May have to use the same rhyme twice when you’re trying so hard to rhyme words with “hard.”
Logical auto rhyme (word rhyming with itself) dominates “Obviously Five Believers” which make the full rhymes stand out.  “yard”/”hard” is one of those stand out rhymes in the song:
I got my black dog barkin’
Black dog barkin’
Yes it is now
Yes it is now
Outside my yard
Yes, I could tell you what he means
If I just didn’t have to try so hard

Funny thought that–how hard it is to tell what your dog’s barking means? Or does it? “Just let me in, will ya” could be the extent of the depth of meaning.  Yes, obvious, unless you try to hard.


Christopher Ricks in Dylan’s Visions of Sin talks about “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in the context of Hamlet’s Polonius giving advice to Laertes in “maxim-packed lines.” “SHB” is “maxim-packed,” full of advice for, as Ricks says, the more cynically inclined, but advice nonetheless. And advice can be hard to take (double-meaning intended), especially if its not what you want to hear, like that trying hard won’t necessarily give you any rewards:

Get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin’ to sell
Try hard, get barred

We love this song for its fantastic rhyming, and we may remember it mostly for its end of line rhymes, but the internal rhyming as in the above passage is so good it turns the song from being a “maxim gun,” as Ricks calls it, into a rhyming cannon, the first rap song, firing away the powerful sounds of rhyming.
Here’s a clip of Dylan singing the song used to display the speed of “Google Instant”–check it out and you’ll see and hear how easy it is to, as the Bastard says in Shakespeare’s King John,” “never [be] so bethumped with words”:
My Back Pages” is deep, “Foundationed deep” even, but it has bursts of incisive clarity what with moments like, “Rip down all hate,” bumper sticker slogans, but like many if not all abstractions they are easier said in theory, hard in practice, live by, or t0 fulfill.
Not hard is the self-awareness the song expresses,  not the least of which comes form the memorable refrain,

Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

The “hard” rhyme is internal, and appears with “guard” in the last verse:

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

“Quite clear, no doubt,” but to whom? Himself? Those abstract threats spoken of can deceive, with the line of thought going to “I had something to protect.” “Rip down all hate” might get you thinking you have something to protect, like your own hatred, admittedly, confessed, but that’s an older way of thinking that, better to be younger in mind, seeing ripping down all hatred as an invitation, not a threat.
Dylan, live in Glasgow, 1995, singing this cherished song:
I’m touched every time I watch No Direction Home and hear Allan Ginsberg confess that he wept the first time he heard “Hard Rain.” And it wasn’t for the song itself, but for poetic baton that he felt was being passed from his generation to Dylan’s. This was how powerfully the song struck him.
Of course, “hard” is all over the place in the song .  .  . correction–more accurately it appears five times at the end of all five verses. Five as in 5 Acts, and with all the dialogue it can be perceived as a play. It is great theater.
The only time “hard” is rhymed with another word is at the end of the first verse with “graveyard”:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

I think it’s a cue–the rhyme sets us up for the death imagery and harbinger of death that pervades over the whole song with its warnings and threats.
Here’s a version with full orchestra accompaniment. See if it makes you want to weep or pass a baton.