The Hart Of The Matter: It’s not purple yet, but it’s getting there. Dylan and Hart Crane

The Hart Of The Matter

By Larry Fyffe

In my endeavour to demonstrate why singer Bob Dylan merits the Nobel Prize In Literature, I concentrate on his work as a whole rather than on any particular song as most are deliberately left open to interpretation to get the listener involved. General themes in his songs, such as those involving life’s journey to love and death, hark way back to Greek and Roman mythology. .

For example, I put forth the proposition that one of Bob Dylan’s enduring personas is that of Aeneas taken from classical Roman literature. Singer/songwriter Joan Baez, former lover of Dylan, does likewise:

Temporarily lost at sea
The Madonna was yours for free
Yes, the girl on the half-shell
Would keep you from harm
(Baez: Diamonds And Rust)

Queen Dido gives Aeneas temporary shelter from the storm, but the top god Zeus sees to it that the Trojan does not forget that his mission is to establish a city anew. Venus, on the half-shell, the mother of Aeneas, endeavours always to protect her son, and gives him a shield decorated with a wild goose that sounded the alarm of approaching danger.

The true artist is a messenger of a god beyond, so to speak, but the artist is not himself the tireless god. Staying forever young just ain’t easy, and coming down from Mount Ida, up where the Muses dwell, is the smart thing to do. Since the call to art echoes and re-echoes in the mountains, art for art’s sake becomes a repose.

The pro-Romanicist and anti-Modernist poems of Hart Crane, like those of Wallace Stevens, feature an ornate manipulation of words: ‘purple poetry”, that for many readers distracts from the personal and emotional message contained therein by the piling on of too much literary firewood: alliteration, allusion, apostrophe, hyperbolism, metaphor, oxymoron, personification, simile, sexual Freudian symbolism, flowery Ophelian imagery, and so forth.

By Crane Hart below, a William Blake ‘To see the world in a grain of sand/And heaven in a wild flower’-inspired poem that compares the confines of Mother Nature to a cruel sea that gives her offspring so little chance to act out innate desires:

Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours
And hasten while her penniless rich palms
Pass superscription of bent foam and wave
Hasten, while they be true, – sleep, death, desire
Close round one instant in one floating flower
(Hart Crane: Voyages)

Dylan’s singing persona expresses Hart’s theme that haste is necessary because there’s not much time to find a love that satisfies (one floating flower/ one single rose), and even then it’s often crushed by authorities, by society’s pliars:

Everybody got all the money
Everybody got all the beautiful clothes
Everybody got all the flowers
I don’t have one single rose
I feel a change comin’ on
And the fourth part of the day’s already gone
(Bob Dylan: I Feel A Change Comin’ On)

Hyperbolic the above lyrics are, but there be not entangled tropes to deal with.
“It all depends on how you define ‘chaos’,” as some wit said . Excessive purple fat Dylan trims from the meat of the song.

Some of the time, but not all of the time.

There are Dylan songs where mixing metaphors and playing on words are undertaken by the artist for its own sake, or at least in order to strongly emphasize emotions felt:

The walls of pride are wide and high
Can’t see over to the other side
It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay
It’s sadder still to feel your heart torn away
One look at you and I’m out of control
Like the Universe has swallowed me whole
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound
(Bob Dylan: Cold Irons Bound)

It’s not purple yet, but it’s getting there.

Not all of the time but sometimes the poet Hart Crane implants double-edged meanings in simpler language without drowning himself in the dephs of purple diction. In the poem below, he mixes organic and mechanical imagery to depict a dream of perhaps escaping from the cold chains of authority by which he is bound:

As though the waters breathed that you might know
‘Memphis Johnny’, ‘Steamboat Bill’, ‘Missouri Joe’
Oh, lean from the window, if the train slows down
As though you touched hands with some ancient clown
– A little while gaze absently below
And hum ‘Deep River’ with them while they go
Yes, turn again and sniff once more – look see
O Sheriff, Brakeman and Authority
(Hart Crane: The River)

Likewise, does Dylan in the following sexually suggestive song lyrics:

Well, I ride a mail train, baby, can’t buy a thrill
Well, I been up all night leanin’ on the window sill
Well, if I die on top of the hill
And, if I don’t make it, you know my baby will
Don’t the moon look good, mama, shinin’ through the trees
Don’t the brakeman look good flaggin’ down the ‘Double-E’
Don’t the sun look good goin’ down over the sea
But don’t my gal look fine when she’s comin’ after me
(Bob Dylan: It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry)

What is on the site

1: Over 400 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.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that 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. In the last song mentioned, Dylan borrows from himself:

    Don’t the clouds look lonesome shining across the sea
    Don’t my gal look good
    When she’s comin ‘ after me?
    (Bob Dyan: Rocks And Gravel)

  2. i sort of followed this until you pointed out ‘It Takes a Lot To Laugh….’ or, rather that verse, is sexually suggestive and i laughed.. either you have sex on the brain or have not had a true love relationship. what a silly notion. i do not know how someone can portend to explain the meanings of unknown territories. Romance is dead. The word ‘lover’ is as close as you can get to sex there, and that is really pushing it. Many people are lovers until they get married and never have sex until then.
    Life experience is key. if one has never had many many sexual liaisons, one is confused by it.
    you would have done better to ask why did Hart Crane take off his jacket and hang it neatly before he jumped off the side of the ship to his death?

  3. That Dylan refers to riding a train or a horse to having sex is not an original observation by me, that’s for sure. Of course the song is open to different levels of meaning, including Freudian ones, as many of Dylan’s lyrics are.

    And it is well known, Mr. Jones, that Hart Crane was gay in the days when it was condemned by religious authorites even more than it is today. His poetry reveals the psychological pain he suffered as a consequence.

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