Bob Dylan And Omar Khayyam. Not to mention East Orange.


By Larry Fyffe

There’s information here provided by Untold for our readers concerning Bob Dylan song lyrics that will be found nowhere else.

For example:

Well, I got the fever down in my pockets
The Persian drunkard, he follows me
Yes, I can take him to your house, but I can’t unlock it
You see, you forgot to leave me with the key
(Bob Dylan: Absolutely Sweet Marie)

The ‘Persian drunkard’ alludes to the Persian poet Omar Khayyam (translated by Edward FitzGerald) who writes:

There was a door to which I found no key
There was a veil past which I could not see
(Omar Khayyam: The Rubaiyat)

A Dylanesque technique, discovered by this writer, which is demonstrated in a number of Untold articles, tips off the alert listener who the poet is that Dylan pays tribute to, ie, the rhyming of ‘key’ and ‘see’ in the song as also in the translated poem.

Known is that Woody Guthie, a mentor of Bob Dylan, sings ‘The Rubaiyat’, a song in which Guthie extensively borrows from Khayyam’s poem, and that the poem is also quoted in a western movie, ‘Duel In The Sun’, starring Gregor Peck, an actor admired by Dylan (listen to: Brownsville Girl).

The Grateful Dead, a band associated with Dylan, shows Khayyam’s influence:

I came like the water
And like the wind I go
(Khayyam: The Rubaiyat, trans: Fitzerald)


Like the morning sun you come
And like the wind you go
(Grateful Dead: Uncle John’s Band)

Chessplayer John De Soyres came to Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, from England to minister for the Church of England; his father was married to the Edward FitzGerald’s sister:

But helpless pieces of the games he plays
Upon the checkerboard of nights and days
Hither and thither moves and checks, and slays
And one by one back in the closet lays
(Khayyam: The Rubaiyat, trans: FitzGerald)

TS Eliot, a poetic influence on Dylan, uses Khayyam’s game of chess analogy for life’s trials and tribulations:
And if it rains, a closed car at four
And we shall play a game of chess
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a
Knock upon the door
(TS Eliot: The Wasteland)

Likewise, singer Bob Dylan makes use of Khayyam’s analogy for the passing of time:

As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices they were few and the thought never hit
That the one road we travelled would ever shatter and split
(Dylan: Bob Dylan’s Dream)

And here below in another of Dylan’s songs about the passing of love and life:

And so it did happen, like it could have been foreseen
The timeless explosion of fantasy’s dream
At the peak of the night, the king and the queen
Tumbled all down into pieces
(Dylan: Ballad In Plain D)

Even in this song of political protest:

That the laws are with him to protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
(Dylan: Only A Pawn In Their Game)

Because women are not well-known for playing the crushing game, it seems they be not as gloomy:

In the ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge
(Dylan: Love Minus Zero)

Fair damsels who seldom come face-to-face with the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian Defence likewise need to be seldom rescued by white knights in shining armour:

Ding doing daddy
You’re coming up short
Gonna put you on trial
In a Sicilian court
(Dylan: Early Roman Kings)

Indeed, the game, like the American Dream, is enough to drive Bob Dylan to drink:

I say, ‘Can I have a pint’
He asks me for the money
I give him my king and queen
I’ll be damned, he took the king and queen
Threw it under the counter
And brought me out four pawns
Two bishops and a rook for change
(Bob Dylan: The Story Of East Orange)


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


  1. Untold: What did you learn in East Orange today Bob?

    BOB: Uhh uhh – – – I did not learn anything . I left.

    Untold: But did you not have a dream???

    BOB: Uhh uhh. – – – oh yes – – – Tonight I had the strangest dream. They took my kingdom, captured me in a tower with two mindblowing bishops and four pawns only gave me water.

    Untold: Do you have the key to understand that dream?

    BOB: You see – it is just a chessgame. Nothing else.

  2. ‘You see it is just a chess game analogy. Nothing else’ is more likely what Bob would say in a serious moment.

  3. The 4 chess pieces known in English as a ‘rook’ is called ‘tour’ in French, which in English translates to ‘tower’.

  4. “A book of verses underneath the bough
    A drink of wine, a loaf of bread – and thou”
    (The Rubaiyat: trans: E. Fitzgerald)

    is tributed by:

    You went and lost your lovely head
    For a drink of wine and a crust of bread
    (Bob Dylan: Narrow Way)

    PS: James Narraway was another famous chessplayer from Saint John, NB, who knew DeSoyres who was Fitzgerald’s nephew, Fitgerald having translated ‘The Rubaiyat’ – which has absolutely nothing to do with price of tea in China.

  5. Charles Stubbs publishes a a chess column in the St, John Globe during the days of DeSoyres, and “Canadian Chess Problems” which contains a three-move mate by Montrealer William Atkinson that appears in recent The Queen’s Gambit TV movie series – the solution ‘key’ is 1. Kd7…. .

  6. Just noticed that the phrase they liveliest and the best’, used by Dylan in the title song on Tempest, comes from the Rubaiyat.

    ‘When the Reaper’s task had ended,
    Sixteen hundred had gone to rest,
    The good, the bad, the rich, the poor,
    The loveliest and the best.’

    ‘For some we loved, the loveliest and the best
    That from his Vintage rolling Time hath prest,
    Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before
    And one by one crept silently to rest.’

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