"...a world of meaning under an apparently uncomplicated surface."

"Ripple": A Minor Excursus

By William C. Dowling
Professor of English, Rutgers University

A thematic essay for The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
(The opinions expressed are those of the author, not of the University of Colorado.)
Copyright notice; © 1997, William C. Dowling

The problem of "Ripple" is related to its tremendously compressed lyric simplicity: a world of meaning under an apparently uncomplicated surface. That meaning turns on a number of related paradoxes. They are woven together in the song. I separate them out for purposes of elucidation:

  1. Art (poetry, song), even though it takes the world as its subject, seems to come from "somewhere else." Its power to create the world anew derives from this. (This is the paradox that the ancient poets resolved with the notion of the singer's being inspired by a heavenly Muse -- a source of inspiration from a transcendent realm outside ordinary human existence.)

  2. Poetry is made of previously-used materials: rhyme and meter, such traditional forms as lyric and ode, such "standard" subjects as love and death and betrayal. So no poem or song is really "new." Yet every REAL poem or song makes the world new nonetheless.

  3. The way in which poetry and song make the world new gives us our closest relation to a world that exists outside ordinary life -- the realm inhabited by the Muses of ancient poetry, the realm that philosophers like Plato conceived of as "pure idea," the realm that religion sees as eternal while in our world everything is born, grows old, and dies, and, finally, the realm that psychologists like Jung (influenced by Eastern religion) have imagined as involving a sort of "collective unconscious" that persists through time while actual generations of human beings are born and die.

  4. BUT, since poetry and song have these limitations -- they are tied to the impermanent world they sing about, they are made out of "previously used" materials, etc. -- their really creative dimension lies in the way they are able to bring about a "rebirth of consciousness" in those who hear them, ponder them, and then awake to find they have been changed in an unexpected way by something they heard some while ago.

  5. Since poetry and song have this power to bring about "rebirth" at a later, unexpected time, they provide a kind of guidance through the wilderness of the world. They don't have the power to do this for everyone. Only those who so to speak "take the song to heart" will awaken later to find themselves changed. Such people are those who themselves possess what might be called a power of creative consciousness -- a power to see the world anew amidst the clutter of habit and the mindlessness of purely ordinary existence -- and it is poetry and song that nourishes this consciousness in these people.

  6. Finally, however, the guidance provided to such souls by poetry and song contains no ultimate secrets -- it is not like a religious code or set of ethical rules, but just a "way of seeing" that allows them to get through life in a way that is "higher" than the blind strugglings of the unfortunate many. And the sensitivity or "increased consciousness" brought about by their inward change may be dangerous: they may find themselves unable to live in the world without being overwhelmed by an inevitable sense of pain and despair that comes from seeing "too clearly."

  7. And, last of all, the sort of "rebirth of consciousness" brought about by taking poetry or song to heart holds out no promises of an entry into the transcendent after this life. Poetry or song may be our proof while we live that there is "something higher" than ordinary existence, but it begins and ends in that revelation. What the poet knows -- and what we know when we have taken the song to heart -- gives only the power to bring about a transfiguration of the commonplace. It is not a road to heaven, which remains as mysterious to the singer as to any other human being.

Now a line-by-line analysis:

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine And my tune were played on the harp unstring . . .
"If my song so succeeded in transfiguring the world that you thought, in hearing it, that you were actually only seeing the world -- that is, if you lost all sense of 'listening to a song' in hearing what I'm now singing . . ."
Would you hear my voice come through the music
"Would you understand that it was not just some miraculous transformation of the world you were witnessing, but ME -- the power of the individual singer to remake the world."
Would you hold it near as it were your own?
"As it were" is a compressed version of "as IF it were." The question is this: "Having recognized that it was a song, would you then store it in your consciousness such that with the passage of time it became part of your own thoughts, your own being?"
It's a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
"I admit that, being a song made of traditional materials -- language, rhyme, meter, musical form -- I in a sense have nothing new to say here. No work of art does, in that sense."
Perhaps they're better left unsung
"And, given the fact that poetry and song keep dwelling on the same old subjects, you could understand the argument that they should give up the project -- they're only repeating what's been said a million times."
I don't know, don't really care
"But I'm not going worry about philosophical arguments concerning 'the function of poetry' or whatever. I'm singing my song, I feel the world becoming new as I do so, and maybe you will too."
Let there be songs to fill the air
"And if I'm right about this, if a new song really does make the world new -- no matter how many times song has said these things before -- then the world is better off for having them."
Ripple in still water
"If you take my song to heart ('hold it near, as it were your own') there will come a day when you awaken and see the world differently. You won't know exactly why: your sense of a 'new reality' will in a way be as mysterious to you as would a ripple on a pond or lake when there was no physical cause"--
Where there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
--"but it will happen nonetheless."
Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
"Just as a thirsty person reaches out to fill a cup in a clear stream, you may reach out to songs like this one in times when you're feeling 'empty' and need spiritual nourishment from somewhere beyond the confusion of ordinary existence."
If your cup is full may it be again
"And even if things are going well for you externally right now -- you're happy, occupied, and you feel successful -- there will come a time when you need 'help form the outside': so listen now to my song and 'hold it near as it were your own' even if you don't see the present need of doing so."
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men
"For the power of this song to transform consciousness, to linger in your memory and make the world anew at some later time depends on a power outside ordinary existence. It is the 'fountain' from which singers and poets have always drawn the real source of their own inspiration, and it's here for you, now, listening to this."

[Minor annotation: the "fountain" is the fountain of poetic inspiration that ancient myth placed on Mount Helicon. The phrase "let it be known" is not meant to be oracular or prophetic: it is a signal of the singer's present dawning of realization, as he is singing these words, that his inspiration is coming from elsewhere.]

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
"Between our birth and our death there is a way of living that has the capacity to make us aware of the wonder of our existence. It is not the humdrum reality ("simple highway") of life as lived by most people, a blind round of habit, work, ordinary aspiration -- people who merely exist rather than living, as Thoreau said."
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone.
"And if you choose to live on this 'higher' plane of consciousness you may feel yourself lonely and confused: the mere fact of leaving the herd and striking out on your own exposes you both to heightened experience and the possibility of despair. Which will be the case depends on you, and to a degree on your luck: it is different for everyone who embarks on this path."
You who choose to lead must follow
"Those of you who strike off on this 'other path' are in a sense followers of those who have gone before you -- there have been poets and mystics and 'odd souls' from time immemorial who have gone this road you have chosen."
But if you fall you fall alone
"But they are no good to you on the 'other path' -- the real travellers of this road leave no guidebooks behind, so each new traveller begins again without direction or guidance."
If you should stand then who's to guide you?
"Even if you are not destroyed by striking off onto the 'other path,' even if you keep your feet and keep on moving forward, there will be no one there to help you find your way -- it is a lonely and strange voyage on which you have set out."
If I knew the way I would take you home.
"If it were as simple as the 'conventional' accounts of a higher reality make it out to be -- if all you had to do was adopt a certain set of religious beliefs, for instance, or study a certain philosophy, or observe a certain set of ethical rules -- then I'd be happy to tell you what the secret was and we could all go to heaven together. But it isn't that simple, alas. We're stranded here in this life to make what sense of it we can, and the help we find comes through song and poetry and the sense they give of 'coming from another place.' The only 'way' I know to help is to sing this song, and to hope that, having held it near and made it your own, it will cause a ripple in the stillness of your consciousness at some later time. May it then let you see the world anew."

Addendum: the way Garcia's melody echoes this in musical terms while adding an "estrangement effect" is another story, one worth a musicological analysis at least as extended as this one. The interaction between words and music is part of the nearly miraculous lyric compression of "Ripple" as a song.

First posted: February 18, 1997