Charles Swinburne, Wallace Stevens, And The Jack Of Hearts

By Larry Fyffe

In a poker game called ‘poetry’, French Symbolists card-holders turn the rules of the Romantic Transcendentalist players upside down: the Queen of Spades is topped by the Jack of Arts. In other words, the organic works of Nature die, but made-made works of art are made of stronger stuff; they are things of beauty that can last forever.

For Symbolist poets, who are mostly male and are not interested in dead leaves, it is the sexual attraction of the human female, supposed by them to be closer to Nature, that serves as the Muse to awaken the creative spirit within the artist.

In the Modernist poetry of Wallace Stevens, of whom singer Bob Dylan says, “Not all great poets are great singers”, that spirit breathes on:

“Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment of our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths ….
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinguished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves”
(Wallace Stevens: Sunday Morning)

Dylan sings a similar  point of view:

“Winter would have no spring
Couldn’t hear the robin sing
I wouldn’t have a clue
Anyway it just wouldn’t ring true
If not for you”
(Bob Dylan: If Not For You)

Bought to mind is Robert Graves’ White Goddess, the Art Muse, the giver of birth to a world in which death has no dominion:

“She was the single artifier of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker”
(Wallace Stevens: The Idea Of Order At Key West)

Prudity rhymes with nudity, and Symbolist–influenced poet  Charles Swinburne reacts against prudish Victorian morality of his day for having corrupted the mother of beauty with  black-robed priests administering the poison; the sexual seductress now symbolized by the Virgin Mary:

“Cold  eyelids that hide like a jewel
Hard eyes that grow soft for an hour
The heavy white limbs, and the cruel
Red mouth like a venomous flower
When these are gone by with their glories
What shall rest of thee then, what remain
O mystic and sombre Delores
Our Lady of Pain?”
(Swinburne: Dolores)

Delores means ‘sadness’.

Song lyrics of Bob Dylan show the influence of Charles Swinburne and the Symbolists, with merchants bringing gifts of tribute to the mother of beauty, but of no avail; the Queen of Spades does not turn around; mercury and geraniums, symbols of poison:

“With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhyme
And your silver cross and your voice like chimes
Oh who among them do they think could bury you?……
The kings of Tyrus with their convict lists
Are waiting in line for their geranium kiss
And you wouldn’t know it would hapoen like this
But who among them really wants just to kiss you”
(Bob Dylan: Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands)

See Ricks’ ‘Visions Of Sin’.

Something’s not right, but not wanting to part with his boots of Spanish leather, Dylan thinks about leaving a tribute at her gate anyway: his drums and sunglasses:

“Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?”

He was standing by her doorway, looking just like the Jack of Arts.

What is on the site

1: Over 390 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this 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. High eyebrow: I agree those symbolists had a closed party at that time, not only because they were men – but because they mostly were gay men in the Victorian era.

    Low eyebrow: That is not the fact today. Today a gay man can show the whole world his dreams. eg. Festival of pride or in his music
    Queens: I want to break free

    Charles Swinburne: Dolores
    Dolor means pain in latin. He also writes “Our Lady of Pain”
    Transvestites tell they feel “pain”, because he/she feels like a women trapped in a mans body. Transvestites often use the name Dolores.

    I dont think the symbolists description of women are real women — but transvestites.
    Maybe Dylan has borrowed som tricks from their way of writing, – but it is not the same kind of woman they describe – not the same problems.

    In wikepedia you can read that Swinburne was a sado- masochist. I think maybe it is the explanation of “Dolores”, but my knowlege about that issue is below zero.

    Dylan problems was not the same as the symbolists problems as far as I know, so I cannot se the connection between “Sad lady of the lowland” and Swinburnes “Dolores”, but speak out Larry Fyffe. Dont be shy. I just can´t follow you until now.

  2. Political statement:
    Dont let gay men decide the fashion of women.
    They know nothing about the real female body and her challenges.
    They have destroyed many teen-agers.

  3. Here is an example of Bob Dylans dissociation from those kind of hermit munks, Sidesaddle on the Golden Calf:

    Bob Dylan: Gates of Eden

    “With a time-rusted compass blade
    Aladdin and his lamp
    Sits with Utopian hermit monks
    Sidesaddle on the Golden Calf
    And on their promises of paradise
    You will not hear a laugh
    All except inside the Gates of Eden.

    Read that song again and see how he rejects those dreams.
    “And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden”
    Exactly. There are not ONE BIG truth, you can find if you search long enough.

  4. Babette: Thanks for info….I was offline for a bit….My reference to Swinburne refers to his influence on Dylan’a style mostly and on content from a Dylan viewpoint and not a Swinburne one. I recall that Ricks’ book on Dylan drew my attention to the comparison.

    The point being the Symbolist influence continues on in modern poetic lyrics without any regard to the sexual orientation of the writers.

    It is the lyrical style that interests me and not the personal life of the writer unless the the piece being examined is obviously autobiographical.

  5. The one big truth is your individual mind (Eden) and it’s thoughts at one time of what is paradise for yourself may be changed with the passing of time and experiences….if you are not Alladdin with a magic lamp or a hermit monk hidden away from society.

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