Ain’t talkin’ / Bob Dylan – like Ovid – in exile

Ain’t talkin’ / Bob Dylan – like Ovid – in exile

By Joost Nillissen

Ain’t talking reminds me of my father’s house that has many mansions, plenty of room for all souls, but no one wants to live there. No one – at least on this site – has burned his fingers yet trying to comment on the song. I accepted the challenge. And did the research.

It is commonly known, among the aficionados, that Dylan nicked quite a few lines in this song from Ovid. So I went to the source.  

In the foggy ruins of my past I must have translated parts of Metamorphoses by Publius Ovidius Naso at school, I’m certain, but I can’t remember a thing. So I looked him up. Ovid was born in 43 BCE in Italy and died almost exactly 2000 years ago in the year 17 or 18 in exile. He was a tremendously popular poet, the Bob Dylan of his day, until one day he fell out of grace and emperor August had him exiled to Pontus on the Black Sea which Ovid calls: “the last outback at the world’s end.”

That’s where he wrote Tristia. The book contains letters to his wife, his friends, both the true and the false, bewailing his fate. He also writes to the Emperor, stating his case and begging forgiveness. All the endless lamentations are in vain.

There can be no doubt that Dylan has read Ovid’s book. Unfortunately, I was unable to find on line the English translation that Dylan read. The translation of A.S. Kline comes close, though. And I checked it with the Latin original, only to find out that I should have paid better attention at school…

So here we have Dylan bewailing his fate, all alone, as if he were in exile. Some lowlife, a coward, has hit him from behind and now he his walking through this weary world of woe. No one to talk to while his heart is burnin’, still yearnin’ for the days gone by, his wife, his friends. It feels like exile.

He has tried prayer as a healing power, like his mother taught him, and he is doing his best to do good unto others and love his neighbor, but ‘Mother, things ain’t going well.’

Spitefully he allows feelings of revenge to take precedence: he burns bridges, has no mercy for the losers, he’ll slaughter them where they lie, even though he is all worn down by weeping, his eyes are filled with tears and his lips are dry. Nobody to talk to, just yearnin’ and walkin’ through a world mysterious and vague where the cities have been touched by the plague.  

Like Ovid, Dylan knows everybody in the whole wide world is speculating about him and his whereabouts, and they tear him away from contemplation and they’ll jump on his misfortune.

In Book 7 of Tristia Ovid says it as follows:

sic animum tempusque traho, sic meque reduco

a contemplatu summoveoque mali.

In Book 8: … Curve

casibus insultas quos potes ipse pati?

Tony Kline translates:   

Book 7 So I drag out my life, and time, so I retreat from

                                  and banish the contemplation of my troubles.

Book 8 Why exult in misfortunes you yourself might suffer?

Among the barbarians Dylan continues his walking, not talking, eating horrible foreign food in foreign places and tries to convince himself they’ll all be pleased to have him back one day. Ovid’s friends send him letters telling him he is still popular at home and he is thankful for that, but Dylan realizes he could crack every waking moment under the weight of wealth and power. He will have to make the most of one last hour.

Ovid says in Book I numquam ortasse licebit

amplius, in lucro est quae datur hora mihi

Kline translates I’ll hug you while I can. Perhaps I’ll never be allowed to,

This hour given me is so much gained.

In his despair Dylan promises to avenge his father’s death. Then he’ll step back. Does he identify with Hamlet? I don’t know. Crazier things have been said and done, when all is misery.  

But he continues this sorrowful hike through the wasteland of his mind. ‘Give me a cane.’ His heart goes out to his loyal and much loved companions, so far away, he yearns for them and can’t get them out of his miserable brain. They approved of him and they shared to same code. He’s practising a faith long forgotten.

Ovid says in Book 1 quosque ego dilexi fraterno more sodales,

Kline: and the friends that I’ve loved like brothers

Ovid says in Book 7 ne tamen Ausoniae perdam commercia lingua

Kline: I speak to myself, using forgotten phrases,

Just as he is losing his tongue, because he’s been away too long, in exile he has to speak foreign languages, Ovid compares himself to a horse that’s been too long in the stable. It will not win the race.

Dylan’s horse is blind, his mule is sick. And like Ovid he misses the wife he’s left behind. She writes him letters and tells him his fame and honor never faded, the heavens are still bright and clear, but Dylan is not consoled. He wants heavenly aid. (That, too, is a line from Ovid, but I made my point, so I will stop quoting and translating).

As Dylan continues on this dreadful journey, he picks up a shield, an obviously useless means of protection, as it did not protect the previous owner, who is dead. Dylan now also suffers physically with a toothache in his heel. The suffering is unending and like in the house of Ovid ‘every nook and granny has its tears’.

Just when you’re thinking Bob is overdoing it a bit and you want to tell him to get a grip on himself, he assures you that he is not pretending, not playing. His pain is real. He is not nursin’ any superfluous fears. All night he has been walking, he plans to walk clean out of sight. The sun comes up and it’s a hot summer day. There’s no one here, ma’am, the gardener is gone, ‘in the last outback at the world’s end.’

You wonder who’s the ma’am, who is the gardener, and who is addressing whom? Well, these questions are just a few more rooms in my fathers’ mansion. You can’t get much sadder than this, I guess.

What else 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 Metamorphoses, Ovid gives a description by one of a number of Ulysses’ men who are turned into hogs by the witch Circe:

    “As soon as I had drained it, thirstily, with parched lips …
    My voice deserted me; all the words I could utter were snorting grunts…I was shut in a sty with others in the same state” (Book 14)

    Ulysses escapes that fate, but Dylan does talk about “Eatin’ hog-eyed grease in a hog-eyed town”(Ain’t Talkin’)

    Surely it’s my civic duty to report this dreadful omission on your part to our Great Leader, the editor-in-chief (lol)

  2. Quid pro quo, I get it. For the meaning of hog-eye I have found numerous explanations on the Internet, one of them was ‘vagina’ in a Civil War song. This one of Ovid in Metamorphoses I missed. Thank you for pointing that one out to me. Much obliged. Let’s not trouble the man at the helm.

  3. I had a bout of plantar fasciitis (policeman’s heel) and can tell you it felt at times exactly like ‘a toothache in my heel’.
    In Australian parts of the outback do resemble the world’s end. I know, I’ve been there. Scary!
    The gardener could be God but I’m inclined to believe the gardener is us. We have disappeared from a world we abused and ultimately destroyed.

  4. Dylan’s having a bit of sport with John 20:15

    Jesus saith until her (Mary Magdalene), Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, ‘Sir, if thou have borne him hence , tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.

  5. What you are looking for is Peter Green’s translation of Tristia and the Black Sea Letters. Dylan was clearly reading Green’s translation when he pulled his lines. Reading through Green’s translations, you will find lines Dylan pulled for Spirit on the Water, Someday Baby, Workingman Blues #2, The Levee’s Gonna Break, Ain’t Talkin, Beyond Here Lies Nothin, And Pay in Blood. Ovid’s lines are most prominent in Workingman Blues #2 and Ain’t Talkin.

  6. A country dance was being held in the garden
    I felt a bump, and heard an ‘Oh, I beg your pardon”
    (Frank Sinatra: Polka Dots And Moonbeams ~ Burke/Van Heusen)

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