I dreamed I Saw St Augustine: the meaning of the song

by Tony Attwood


Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.


What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.


Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.


These three quotations are just a selection from the quotes that come from St Augustine.  Not specifically chosen by me to make a point – but typical of the man.  And I put them here because I think they are relevant, in that no matter how I try to manipulate their meaning or the meaning of Dylan’s song, I can’t find the connection between St Augustine and this song.

Many have said before me that St Augustine was not put to death, but died a natural death – although at the time the Vandals were approaching his city.  So I come to the song in confusion.  But, fortunately, there is some sort of resolution to be had.  At least for me.

This song was recorded at the first John Wesley Harding session on October 17, 1967 – the session which set the scene for the whole album.  As far as we know from all reports available it is another of the songs to which Dylan wrote the lyrics, and then added the music later.

As we start to unravel the song, we are faced with two issues: one is, who is Dylan talking about here, the other is, what do we take from the origins of the song?  Both turn out to be confusing.  But not so much that we can’t take a pot shot at an answer.

St Augustine is an easily identifiable man: Augustine of Hippo, the man who helped set out the theory of original sin, and who was a pacifist who nonetheless developed the theory that there could be such a thing as a just war.

Because he is so well established as a clearly recorded historic person, we also know about his death.   We know he lived in Hippo (now in Algeria) and that Augustine spent his final days in prayer and repentance, requesting that the Psalms of David be hung on his walls so that he could read them. He directed that the library of the church in Hippo and all the books therein should be carefully preserved. And he died peacefully on 28 August 430.

And yet the dominant feeling I get from Dylan’s lyrics give over a sense of guilt, and betrayal.

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death

There is also the fact that although St Augustine is a revered saint of the Catholic Church it is an odd choice for Dylan who hasn’t had too much to say on original sin or the notion that there can be a just war up to this point.  Indeed in relation to the latter, we might well take it that Dylan was in the opposite camp.

Nor has Dylan anything to say on the issue of the filioque which, to non-Christians like me, can seem to be an argument over a point of detail but which is still fundamental to Christian belief, relating as it does to the “and the Son” bit of the creed when it speaks of the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified.

Thus we are in the world of the Holy Trinity, and I am not at all sure Dylan was contemplating this at this time any more than he was being particularly exercised over the issue of predestination which also flows from St Augustine’s teaching.

But then, I also have to ask, what do we make of the fact that this song is pretty similar to

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you or me
Says I, But Joe, you’re ten years dead
I never died, says he
I never died, says he

Compare and contrast with…

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive as you or me
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery
With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold.

Here’s Joe Hill, the famed trade union and workers’ rights leader…

So I’m confused here.  Nothing in the volume on St Augustine I’ve been looking through in preparation for this piece speaks to me of a solid gold coat – far from it. I get the picture of a devoted man who worked hard to deliver the message of the Lord as he understood it, and to interpret it further for others.

And Joe Hill?  He was considered a martyr to his cause of trade unionism, because of his stitched up conviction, which leads to the vision that Joe Hill never dies while working men are forced to strike for their rights to decent pay.  He also is reputed to have said, when he was convicted: “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize…”

Meanwhile in Chronicles Volume One Dylan wrote “Protest songs are difficult to write without making them come off as preachy and one-dimensional. You have to show people a side of themselves that they didn’t know is there. The song ‘Joe Hill’ doesn’t even come close.”

Stretching points a lot, I know, but maybe St Augustine was Dylan’s very solid and vibrant attempt to give Joe Hill more than one dimension, and indeed to remove the preaching – which is amusing given the context he gave to the song.

Joe Hill ain’t dead, he says to me
Joe Hill ain’t never died
Where working men are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side
Joe Hill is at their side

and later

From San Diego up to Maine
In every mine and mill
Where workers strike and organize
Says he, You’ll find Joe Hill
Says he, You’ll find Joe Hill

Now the simplest line here is that remembering the rhythm and beat of Joe Hill Dylan started to write Augustine in a similar vein, and just went on adding words to it, without any particular reference to either who Augustine was or the origins of the song in relation to Joe Hill.

But there is a real connection between the Joe Hill concept of standing up for the rights of the oppressed, and that vision which occurs in Christianity – although from my limited knowledge of St Augustine I am not sure this was at all his central concern.

So the lines

No martyr is among you now
Whom you can call your own
So go on your way accordingly
But know you’re not alone –

is as much Joe Hill as it is St Augustine.  Indeed when we get to

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death

I start to feel that St Augustine has become Joe Hill – the fiery breath is Joe’s ability to rouse the crowd to anger and action, and indeed Joe Hill was put to death – for a crime he certainly did not commit.

Now there are many interpretations that run along these lines…

St Augustine “could have viewed himself as being martyred in the sense of being killed by his own sins. In the dream revealed in the song, St. Augustine wears a coat of solid gold, which may signify either the worldly excesses of mankind and the Catholic Church or St. Augustine’s own spiritual wealth.He also carries a blanket, which may be a sign of asceticism or of his compassion.”

This is from the All Music Review, and of course it might be right.  But for me there are too many “could” and “may” clauses in there.  I start to wonder, why be so convoluted with a message that is actually quite simple?

My view, and I repeat, just my view, is that Dylan had the original song in his head, and the name St Augustine came to him, or maybe he had been reading of the life of the Saint, and then he just mingled them up.

I reach this view particularly because of the line “No martyr is among ye now,” which puzzles me because there never was a martyr in the story of Augustine.

We also have the view that “One interpretation of the song is that St. Augustine is a stand-in for Dylan himself, who had been viewed as a prophet or messiah, was nearly “martyred” in a motorcycle accident a few months before the song was written, but in any case had come too late since mankind (including himself) had already sold its soul to many temptations.”

OK, if that seems possible to you, but again it seems like too many linkages that are weak – Dylan as far as I know has never expressly discussed the motorbike accident, and some consider an accident yes, but not a major neck breaking, limb busting accident.   To turn that accident into a reference point of a song about martyrs seems pushing it too far, to me.  Dylan never liked being tied down to one vision, one protest group, one type of music – so how was he martyred?   Indeed for a man who at the time was oft to be found reading the Bible, to start claiming any association with the martyrs himself seems going too far.

All Music’s review speaks of a “deep-felt, if not quite understood, guilt and sadness,” and yes I feel that, but that does not mean that Dylan is feeling that any more than I feel the emotions of the characters in my novels.  As a creative writer, one invents characters and writes about them – something that few critics of Dylan seem to want to allow him to do despite the fact that here we have a man who has for years created character after character to populate his songs.

Peter Wrench, in 2013 in a blog, is closer to my view when he says, “We are left unsure just what we are supposed to glean from the apparent vision that the singer describes.”  However he continues, “But, as we shall see, its ambiguities and ambivalence are a key part of what the song has to say,” and I am not too sure I concur.

This entry was posted in John Wesley Harding. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to I dreamed I Saw St Augustine: the meaning of the song

  1. Tom Powell says:

    Its not what St Augustine is wearing its what he says: “There is no-one who is your martyr: so understand this and live your lives with this knowledge: oh and also you (“you” plural I presume, due to the previous word “souls”) are not alone in this fact: maybe no-one has ever had a martyr for them. ever.
    But anyway, putting aside the maybe’s, at least St Augustine is telling us that there is no-one who will (or maybe can) be our martyr from the living generation.
    hmmm. who ever could he be thinking of? Someone who couldn’t or wouldn’t be a martyr for the current generation? (clue: it aint meeeee babe, nah nah nah it aint meeee babe)
    But wait, the narrator helps puts this saint to death!
    When Bob wrote “the Times are a-Changin” lp he sure stacked up a lot of guilt.
    By writing this album and assuming the “voice of the generation” he assumed the mantle of Woodie Guthrie, and Joe Hill and probably Sacco and Venzetti as well.
    He “killed off” the saint whose message was that there would be no martyr by adopting the guise of the next martyr along the line.
    Then he looked in the mirror
    Then he cried
    Then he wrote “Another side of Bob Dylan”

  2. carl mosk says:

    Before he converted to Christianity, Augustine was a great sinner.
    Second, Augustine believed strongly in free will.
    The theme of redemption from a life of sin and the importance of taking responsibility for your choices runs through the album “John Wesley Harding.” Whether we are taking about the wicked messenger or the outcast thief or the sarcastic joker or the poor immigrant who cannot find a home we are dealing with the problem of coming to terms with choices made earlier, the hope for redemption now.

  3. andrew fritze says:

    it’s just a song .

  4. David Hylas says:

    Well. He dreamed he saw St. Augustine. Dreams do not have to be historically correct.

  5. dasher says:

    It doesn’t matter how Augustine died in real life. In the dream he is put to death, not necessary a martyr, but because the crowd didn’t like his message: he is telling us our souls have already been lost. It doesn’t matter how he dressed in real life, he is depicted in many painting wearing fancy robes and gold. In the dream, this is the Augustine that appeared to him and you can’t expect it to follow historical facts. You can’t even know how much of history Dylan knew at that time. He is a symbol, nothing more and certainly nothing less.

  6. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/269/I-Dreamed-I-Saw-St-Augustine (Additional Information)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *