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Ripple -- Robert Hunter

Martin's off on vacation, so I'm taking over for him... I'll start with a poem
from a most un-Martinish source: The Grateful Dead's
(Poem #292) Ripple
If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

It's a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they're better left unsung
I don't know, don't really care
Let there be songs to fill the air

     Ripple in still water
     When there is no pebble tossed
     Nor wind to blow

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

     Ripple in still water
     When there is no pebble tossed
     Nor wind to blow

You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home
-- Robert Hunter
from the album 'American Beauty', 1970.

[Analysis]

The first verse, addressing the listener, is about song, about listening to the
song and making it your own. Hunter begins the verse by invoking the elements of
song: words and tune, so that the listener is prepared to think about the song.
The poet expresses concern that the song be sung by other people, opening up a
discussion of the relationship between the singer and the listener, who will
also, it is hoped, come to be the singer, in turn. So the relationship between
poet and reader is unity; they are both the poet. In this way, the original poet
breaks out of mortality, since his thoughts will continue to generate new
thoughts.

The next verse continues this theme, but points out that the identification
between singer and listener can never be total, since it is questionable whether
any of the original poet's thoughts will actually occur to the person who is now
singing the song. But the poet concludes that even though 'the thoughts are
broken,' it is worthwhile to have songs.

The chorus is the main puzzle of the song, as highlighted by the title. It is
set apart formally from the rest of the song, being a seventeen-syllable haiku.
Following the first two verses, it suggests that thought is like a ripple, not
caused by anything, and doomed to be fleeting, not to be held. Hunter chose an
Asian verse form to express this idea, which is contrary to Western
civilization's principle of logical, rational thought: it is not worthwhile to
believe that reason can be imposed on thinking, or that anything reasonable can
come from thinking, since communication of thought will always be flawed.

The next two verses introduce new themes. The first contains a benediction,
wishing the listener a "full cup," or a happy life. This cup, moreover, can be
refilled at a fountain which, since it was not made by human hands, represents a
cosmic or universal level of being. The next verse takes the song from the
universal back to the individual. The path between dawn (birth) and dark (death)
is a metaphor for life, each life being individual.

The chorus follows, and in this context the ripple has become a symbol of an
individual life, caused by nothing a disappearing back into still water, back
into the fountain not made by people. A life is a ripple. All life is still
water. The chorus, then, is interpreted differently each time. The first time a
ripple is a thought in an individual mind; the second time a ripple is an
individual life in the pool of universal life.

The final verse conveys optimistic hopelessness. The poet is compassionate, as
shown by the last line, but wants us to realize that there are no guarantees
about life.

    -- David Dodd, [broken link] http://arts.ucsc.edu/GDead/AGDL/ripple.html

[Notes]

'still water' and 'if your cup be empty' both seem to be references
to Psalm 23, poem #218

'You who choose to lead must follow'
cf. Mark, Chapter 10, vv. 43 and 44:
    "...and whosoever would be first among you must be slave of all."
and also a passage from the Tao te Ching:
    "Therefore, desiring to rule over the people,
    One must in one's words humble oneself before them
    And, desiring to lead the people,
    One must, in one's person, follow behind them."

'that path is for your steps alone'
compare with this quote from Whitman's "Song of Myself" (46):
    "Not I--not anyone else, can travel that road for you,
    You must travel it for yourself."

[Links]

Psalm 23: poem #218

An _extremely_ detailed essay on 'Ripple', with line-by-line annotations, can be
found at [broken link] http://arts.ucsc.edu/GDead/AGDL/dowling.html

David Dodd maintains the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics page at
http://arts.ucsc.edu/gdead/agdl/gdhome.html

488 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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Busana Muslim said...

in this case, the enchantment of the night. (This takes a page
from Jacques Derrida's postmodernist playbook.) And yet we keep trying,
as the poem so wonderfully points out.

Jasa Penerjemah Tersumpah | Jasa Penerjemah | Penerjemah Resmi said...

in this case, the enchantment of the night. (This takes a page
from Jacques Derrida's postmodernist playbook.) And yet we keep trying,
as the poem so wonderfully points out.

อ่านเรื่องเล่าประสบการณ์เสียว said...

The next verse continues this theme, but points out that the identification
between singer and listener can never be total, since it is questionable whether
any of the original poet's thoughts will actually occur to the person who is now
singing the song. But the poet concludes that even though 'the thoughts are
broken,' it is worthwhile to have songs.

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