Part II: The Three Penny Opera: Bob Dylan And WH Auden

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And now…

Part II: The Three Penny Opera: Bob Dylan And WH Auden

By Larry Fyffe

Says the Bible:

“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female, created He them”
(Genesis 1:27)

In other words, what makes God and Man both the same in character, though different from all the other creatures He invents, is the two have a desire for vengeance:

“To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense; their foot shall slide in due time; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste”
(Deuteronomy 32:35)

The Anti-Romantic Modernist poet WH Auden deals with this issue of vengeance:

“Anna was sitting at table
Drawing cards from the pack
Anna was sitting at the table
Waiting for her husband to come back”
(WH Auden: Victor)

Bob Dylan, much influenced by the poem, deals too with the human urge for revenge, as does the Modernist parody play ‘The Three Penny Opera’:

“Backstage the girls were playin’ five
card stud by the stairs
Lily had two queens, she was hopin’ for
a third to match her pair
….Lily called another bet and drew up the Jack Of Hearts”
(Bob Dylan: Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts)

The sardonic poem continues the symbolism of the playing card motif:

“It wasn’t the Jack Of Diamonds
Nor the Joker she drew first
It wasn’t the King of Queen Of Hearts
But Ace Of Spades reversed”

Dylan’s lyrics likewise:

“Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town
She slipped in through the side door lookin’ like a queen without a crown
‘Sorry darlin’, that I’m late’, but he didn’t seem to hear
He was starin’ into space over at the Jack Of Hearts”
(Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts)

Auden’s poem centres on the Ace Of Spades:

“Victor stood in the doorway
He didn’t utter a word
She said, ‘What’s the matter, darling?”
He behaved as if he hadn’t heard”

Dylan’s song lyrics on the Jack Of Hearts:

“The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down
Anyone with any sense had already left town
He was standing in the doorway lookin’
like the Jack Of Hearts”
(Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts)

Auden’s Modernist Anti-Romantic poem ‘Victor’ is akin to the Three Penny Opera where, in both, family honour is at stake. Womanizer Mack The Knife gets away unscathed in the parody, but Anna, Victor’s wife, in the poem, is knifed by her religious-bound husband simply because he believes her unfaithful.

The Auden poem’s influence on Dylan is obvious, but the lyrics of his song are obscure in the Post Modern mode.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not at all clear who the legal wife of unfaithful Big Diamond Jim actually is: Lily who “has Big Jim’s ring”, or Rosemary who is “tired of playing the role of Big Jim’s wife”.

Certainly it is not clear as to which character knifes Big Jim in the back, including the Jack Of Hearts.

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What is on the site

1: Over 360 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.


  1. As I Went Out One Evening
    W. H. Auden

    As I walked out one evening,
    Walking down Bristol Street,
    The crowds upon the pavement
    Were fields of harvest wheat.

    And down by the brimming river
    I heard a lover sing
    Under an arch of the railway:
    “Love has no ending.

    “I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
    Till China and Africa meet,
    And the river jumps over the mountain
    And the salmon sing in the street,

    “I’ll love you till the ocean
    Is folded and hung up to dry
    And the seven stars go squawking
    Like geese about the sky.

    “The years shall run like rabbits,
    For in my arms I hold
    The Flower of the Ages,
    And the first love of the world.”

    But all the clocks in the city
    Began to whirr and chime:
    “O let not Time deceive you,
    You cannot conquer Time.”

    As I Went Out One Morning
    Bob Dylan

    As I went out one morning
    To breathe the air around Tom Paine’s
    I spied the fairest damsel
    That ever did walk in chains.

    I offered her my hand
    She took me by the arm
    I knew that very instant
    She meant to do me harm.

    “Depart from me this moment,”
    I told her with my voice
    Said she, “But I don’t wish to,”
    Said I, “But you have no choice.”

    “I beg you, sir,” she pleaded
    From the corners of her mouth
    “I will secretly accept you
    And together we’ll fly south.”

    Just then Tom Paine, himself
    Came running from across the field
    Shouting at this lovely girl
    And commanding her to yield.

    And as she was letting go her grip
    Up Tom Paine did run
    “I’m sorry, sir,” he said to me.
    “I’m sorry for what she’s done.”

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