Bob Dylan And Literary Allusions

Bob Dylan And Literary Allusions

By Larry Fyffe

Bob Dylan’s receives the Nobel Prize In Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

In his countless allusions to the themes of folk and blues songs as well as to works of literature from times past, Dylan perks up the ears of both producers and listeners in the entertainment industry, able to mass market its products through the innovations of electronic technology.

References to traditional folk and blues themes and to those of literary works increase within popular songs and rock ‘n’ roll as the wall between highbrow and lowbrow music comes tumbling down, cracked by the sounds of Dylan hammering away at his typewriter.

The culture of commercialism changes: simplistic songs of love, found or lost, now not the be-all and the end-all of the music industry.

Largely inspired by the works of Bob Dylan, here are some examples of literary allusions by popular singers and rock ‘n’ rollers:

But still the voices in my head
Are telling me that God is dead
The blood pours down
The the rain turns red
I don’t believe that God is dead
God is dead, God is dead
God Is dead
(Black Sabbath: God Is Dead)

Or do I?

Songsters’ boats drift farther away from the solid shore and farther into the foggy seas of nihilism:

I heard his best friend Frankie say, ‘He’s not
dead, he’s just asleep’
Then I saw the old man’s limousine head back
towards the grave
I guess he had to say one last goodbye to the son
that he could not save
(Bob Dylan: Joey)

Both the British Birmingham band and Dylan alluding to the following:

God is dead. God remains dead
And we have killed him
How shall we comfort ourselves, the
murderers of all murderers?
What was holiest and mightiest of all that
The world has yet owned has bled to death
under our knives
(Frederich Nietzsche: The Gay Science)

Another example of captain’s steering their ships of songs towards ambiguity and ambivalence; onto the rocks of jagged meaning:

I have kissed honey lips
Felt the healing in the the fingertips
It burned like fire
This burning desire
I spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
(U2: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For)

Could be the Lord or could be the Devil, but you have to serve someone:

You’re the one that I admire
Every time we meet together
My soul feels like it’s on fire
Nothing matters to me
And there’s nothing I desire
‘Cept you, yeah, you
(Bob Dylan: ‘Cept You)

God or girl?

Both alluding to the following poem:

And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold
Bring me my arrows of desire
Bring me my spear; Of, let the clouds unfold
Bring me my chariot of fire
(William Blake: And Did Those Feel in Ancient Time)

More nuggets from the same vein:

There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven ….
There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words
have two meanings
(Led Zeppelin: Stairway To Heaven)

Glittering too in the following tune:

Grama said, ‘Boy, go follow your heart
And you’ll be fine at the end of the line
All that’s gold doesn’t shine
Don’t you and your one true love ever part’
(Bob Dylan: Going, Going, Gone)

Love of writing or of a person?

Both songs, alluding to this poem:

All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not reached by the frost
From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the shadows shall spring
(JRR Tolkien: All That Is Gold)

A final example of how Bob Dylan broke the mould of the modern music industry:

Held within the pleasure dome
Decreed by Kubla Khan
To taste my bitter triumph
As a mad immortal man
Never more shall I return
Escape these caves of ice
For I have dined on honey dew
And drunk the milk of paradise
(Rush: Xanadu)

Expressing the oxymoronic effects of having fame, money, and access to all the girls, alcohol and hard drugs you want.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s quite unbelievable:

It’s undeniable what they’d have you to think
It’s indescribable, it can drive you to drink
They said it was the land of milk and honey
Now they say it’s the land of money
Who ever thought they could make that stick
It’s unbelievable that you can get this rich this quick
(Bob Dylan: Unbelievable)

Both the Canadian band and Dylan alluding to:

And all should cry, Beware, Beware
His flashing eyes, his floating hair
Weave a circle round him thrice
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey dew hath fed
And drank the milk of Paradise
(Samuel Coleridge: Kubla Khan)

What’s on the site

1: Over 400 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. Looking for sources is a dangerous game. You’ll often find that there’s a source behind the source, and another source behind that one, and that in the end it’s turtles all the way down, as the lady said. I don’t know who was the first to rhyme “fire” and “desire,” but I’m confident it wasn’t William Blake. And “All that is gold does not glitter” is not original to Tolkien, nor would he have claimed it was:
    “Non omne quod nitet aurum est.”–Latin proverb
    “Que tout n’est pas or c’on voit luire.”–Freire Cordelier
    “Hyt is not al golde that glareth.”–Chaucer
    “All that glisters is not gold.”–Shakespeare
    “Que no es oro todo lo que reluce”–Cervantes
    “Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
    And heedless hearts is lawful prize,
    Nor all, that glisters, gold.”–Thomas Gray

    The Rush lyrics are obviously cribbed from Coleridge. But Dylan has another land of milk and honey in mind:
    “And I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt unto the land of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.”–Exodus 3:17

  2. Frank, I completely agree with what you are saying, but I chose to use the most recent poetic sources known to be used by Dylan. Mentioned by me in other postings, ‘Can I Please Crawl Out Your Window’ appears to allude to the Gothic side of Coleridge( Christabel) though both he and Dylan are well-versed in the Bible. U2 makes other reference to Blake, and say so. And Edmund Spenser’s ‘My Love Is Like To Ice And I To Fire’ is likely sourced by William Blake, by Robert Frost, and believe it or not by Johnny Cash!

    That is, I do realize the sources I mention are not necessarily the only ones Dylan had in mind…’s turtles all the way down.

    And thanks for the informed response.

  3. ie, In previous April 7th article entitled ‘The Land Of Milk And Honey: Bob Dylan And Samuel Coleridge, I quote Exodus 3:8.

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