This week, I’d like to talk about one of my all-time favorite songs, Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” and about how it uses different kinds of rhyme to reinforce its meaning.
First released on Dylan’s 1965 masterpiece album Highway 61 Revisited, “Queen Jane Approximately” seems to have a very straightforward rhyme scheme. It’s composed of five stanzas, each following an abaBB pattern, where the capital letters represent the refrain line (“Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?”). It’s a pattern only slightly removed from the classic ABXB pattern of the ballad, one of the fundamental forms in poetry and music.
However, the abaBB pattern only tells part of the story. The a rhymes all have stress placed on the second-to-last syllable, while the b rhymes have stress placed on the last syllable. For an example, let’s consider the first stanza:
When your mother sends back all your invitations
And your father to your sister he explains
That you’re tired of yourself and all of your creations
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane? (lines 1-5)
As you can see, Dylan alternates between these two kinds of rhymes, poly- and mono-syllabic. But what good does knowing that do us when it comes to analyzing the song?
To see how the rhyme in “Queen Jane Approximately” reinforces the meaning, I’m going to consider two ways of conceptualizing these sorts of rhymes. The first way is to think about them is in terms of the masculine/feminine distinction.
Masculine rhyme, in traditional English-language poetics, refers to a rhyme in which the stress falls on the last syllable. All monosyllabic rhyme pairs (e.g., “dog” / “blog”) are examples of masculine rhyme, but so are polysyllabic rhyme pairs like “deny” / “reply“—effectively, the actual rhyme there is “-ny” / “-ply.”
Feminine rhyme, on the other hand, refers to a rhyme in which the last syllable is unstressed, but the second-to-last syllable is stressed. The classic example is “sharing” / “caring.” (Note that something like “sharing” / “sing” would not be a true rhyme, because the stress patterns don’t match up: the former ends unstressed, the latter stressed.)
Now, the masculine/feminine distinction plays into a restrictive view of gender norms, in which masculinity is coded as strong and femininity as weak, which is why the terms are (slowly) falling out of favor. Yet that wouldn’t necessarily prevent the distinction from providing a useful framework for approaching the song. Indeed, I can imagine a song that alternates between feminine and masculine rhymes, as Dylan’s does, in order to encode the text of the poem as a dialogue: the “female” voice speaks, then the “male,” and so forth.
Alas, such dialogue encoding doesn’t really apply to “Queen Jane Approximately.” To start with the obvious: the song is wholly in the voice of the speaker, with Queen Jane as the addressee. In fact, Queen Jane doesn’t even have much of a voice in the speaker’s description of her. She is spoken to (“…all the bandits that you turn your other cheek to / All lay down their bandanas and complain” [16-17]) and she is spoken of (“…your father to your sister he explains / That you’re tired of yourself and all of your creations” [2-3]). But she doesn’t speak much herself, and when she does try to communicate with others, she is ignored (“…your mother sends back all your invitations” ).
You might argue that, by systematically inserting feminine rhymes into the song, Dylan can still imply a conversation between Queen Jane and the speaker. But it’s hardly clear that either Queen Jane or the speaker even wants to be part of a conversation. After all, in the final stanza the speaker pitches himself as “somebody you don’t have to speak to” (23). If Queen Jane and speaker ever get together, it will take the form of a one-way lecture—in other words, the exact thing they’re doing now.
Granted, this line of inquiry has helped to shed some light on the song, but only in how proposed framework doesn’t fit the situation. So rather than using the masculine/ feminine distinction, I would suggest we approach the rhyme in “Queen Jane Approximately” with a rising/falling framework instead.
At first, this proposal seems like a mere relabeling of terms: all masculine rhymes are rising rhymes (the meter of a line “rises” when it ends with a stressed syllable), and all feminine rhymes are falling rhymes (the meter “falls” with an unstressed syllable). However, these different terms have different implications. No longer are we think of the rhymes in terms of gender, and therefore people. Rather, we can think of the rhymes in terms of “direction,” where rising is positive and falling is negative.
Note that each stanza of “Queen Jane Approximately” follows the same, two-part syntactic structure: “1) When [X], 2) won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” The first part describes a series of conditions, and the second suggests a course of action in response to them. Let’s consider the both parts of that structure in turn.
When the speaker lists off the background conditions of Queen Jane’s life, it sounds thoroughly unpleasant. Given that she is always referred to as “Queen Jane,” we can safely say that she holds (or at least, believes that she holds) a high station in the world, yet she is being subjected to constant torment. This has all the makings of a declension story. When even “the flower ladies want back what they have lent you,” you have fallen from the heights (6).
As it happens, every stanza’s “when” clause contains both of its falling rhyme words. Queen Jane’s world is dominated by these weak, unstressed endings, which match her apparent fall. It is true that each “when” clause also contains a rising rhyme word, which could somewhat dampen that effect. But Dylan tends to pick words with negative connotations for that position (“vain,” “pain,” “complain”), so the semantics tend to drown out the sound.
But while Queen Jane, literally and aurally, spends most of each stanza in descent, the refrain offers the prospect of restoration. The line “Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” not only proposes a solution, it also ends emphatically: “Queen Jane” easily scans as a spondee (two stressed syllables). The refrain not only ends with a rising meter, it seemingly compensates for her previous declines.
Viewed in this light, “Queen Jane Approximately” is not merely another classic Dylan sneer-song, à la “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Positively 4th Street.” It becomes comforting, albeit a bit patronizing. No matter how far one falls, it’s still possible to rise for a strong finish.