Bob Dylan And Geoffrey Chaucer: The Death Of Pity

Please note, part one of this article is published as

by Larry Fyffe

Long before Frederich Nietzsche said that ‘God is dead’, and that Christianity killed Him by its ordaining Man to suffer in the here-and-now while waiting for happiness in the afterlife, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer complains that Pity – the feeling of sorrow for the misfortunes of others – is dead.

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan keeps Chaucer alive by paying tribute to The Canterbury Tales:

One the deadman’s shield to bear
Another with his spear high in the air
His Turkish bow the third one proud to hold
With quiver and with trim of burnished gold
(Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale)

Dylan carries the dead poet’s shield:

Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
Carryin’ a deadman’s shield
Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
Walkin’ with a toothache in my heel
(Dylan: Ain’t Talkin’)

Chaucer mourned the departure of Pity:

I am so hungry that I cannot sleep
I wish God had buried me deep
Then hunger would not creep into my gut
There’s nothing but bread I would rather cut
(Chaucer: The Monk’s Tale)

Bob Dylan hopes that Pity will return:

I’m listenin’ to the steel rails hum
Got both my eyes shut
Just sitting here trying to keep the hunger from
Creeping into my gut
(Dylan: Workingman’s Blues)

Geoffrey Chaucer believed Pity’s gone forever:

I’m pretty sure she’ll make me kill someone
Then I will be on the run
For I am a dangerous man
When I have a knife in my hand
(Chaucer: The Monk’s Tale)

Dylan likewise doubts that Eden and Pity can be restored after what Eve has done:

One of these days I’ll end up on the run
I’m pretty sure she’ll make me kill someone
I’m going inside, roll the shutter’s down
I just wanna say, ‘Hell’s my wife’s home town’
(Dylan: My Wife’s Home Town)

Adam has been drained of his vitality. But take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for your tears.

His socks were the same
No one called her anything but ‘Madam’
None hardy enough along the way
Who dared flirt with her, or play
(Chaucer: The Reeves Tale)

The times they are a-changing. Mercury, the God of Commerce, replaces Venus, the Goddess of Love:

It’s the first new day of a grand and glorious Autumn
The Queen of Love is comin’ across the grass
None dare call her anything but ‘Madam’
No one flirts with her or even makes a pass
(Dylan: Ain’t Talkin’ – alternate)

The Corrupt as usual regulate the Corrupt:

‘I’ve been’, the Friar said, ‘so insulted today
Down in your village. There’s no one of poorest pay
Who would put up with my treatment in your town
But nothing shocks me more than that old clown’
(Chaucer: The Summoners Tale)

And a new economic order is shaped by the Law:

Down by the river, Judge Simpson walkin’ around
Down by the river, Judge Simpson walkin’ around
Nothing shocks me more than that that old clown
(Dylan: Shake Shake Mama)

Time is taken over by Wealth, and by those who have it:

A fourth part of the day’s already gone
Now for the love of God, and of St. John
Let’s lose as little time now as we may
My lords, it’s time that wastes both night and day
(Chaucer: Sergeant-At-Law’s Tale)

Hope slips away for those who don’t:

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
(Dylan: I Feel A Change Comin’ On)

So bury the rag deep in your face; now’s the time for your Pity:

I pity the poor immigrant ….
Who eats but is not satisfied
Who hears but does not see
Who falls in love with wealth itself
And turns his back on me
(Dylan: I Pity The Poor Immigrant)

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 others.




  1. There is a name for that condition:

    Compasion fatique or BURNOUT

    Remember the god Atlas: You can´t carry the whole world on your shoulders

  2. Nietzsche says the ‘noble morality’ of Greece and Rome mythology was replaced by JudeoChristianity’s ‘slave morality’ with its concept of ‘pity’ while Chaucer sees pity as a virtue. Dylan presents a double-edged view of these conflicting moralities.

  3. I agree. There are truckloads of sorrow and compassion in ‘Ain’t Takin’ and the songs you referenced.
    Dylan has always reminded me of the Old Testament Prophets, who were not popular with their peers, who railed against the lack of pity and the corrupted state of society.

  4. Good Lord! You’re going way too fast for me, Larry. I spent the fourth part of the day looking for the ‘deadman’s shield’ in my copy of The Canterbury Tales and now you have going through Ulysses. I have to put you down for a while. lol.
    In my version of the Knight’s tale it says:
    “On these bore one who bore Arcita’s shield”.
    Arcita being dead, making his shield a dead man’s shield.
    So I spent the fifth part of the day searching for the original online and that goes:
    “Ther seten folk, of whiche oon baar his sheeld,”
    So I am wondering where you’ve read ‘deadman’s shield”, because that would be the version that Dylan has read. Can you help me?

    I’ve posted this also under your Joyce commentary

  5. Joost…you have my pity…I spent much time myself trying to pin down Scott Warmuth’s exact (deadman) Chaucer quote, as you have done….but couldn’t find it, so I took his word.
    Dosen’t change the fact that there are references to Chaucer in the song.

    Anyway I found so many many different ‘translations’ of Chaucer, some rhymed others not, that I tweaked a couple of lines myself to make them rhyme with no change to the meaning….since it’s been done by other modernizers.

    I also used a recent modern unrhymed translation in that other Chaucer piece that varies from Warmuth who provides very little information as where his got his quotes, ie ‘other course’, for ‘other thing’. I do not know not the exact ‘translation’ of Chaucer that Dylan used.

    What else was a poor boy to do?

  6. * sp: doesn’t

    PS Do you know whether or not ‘anal retentive’ is spelled with a hyphen? (lol)

  7. Then of course there’s the translations from the French poets…good luck with Rimbaud and Verlaine!

  8. *’ where he got his quote’….how come the autocorrect miscorrects but does not correct when you need it to!

  9. I had to look up “anal retentive” and Wiki tells me that my attention to detail has become an obsession and that I have become an annoyance.
    I also looked up Scott Warmuth and recognized his mug shot: he’s the one who provided those handsome translations of Ovid that match so nicely with Dylan’s lines in “Ain’t talkin'” and “Workingmans Blues”. I couldn’t find the source for those either. I am trying to befriend him on FB and see where he get’s his stuff from. For the good of the cause.
    I’ll get to Verlaine and Rimbaud after I finish Ulysses…

  10. Joos – Rest assured, an annoyance you’re not- the ‘hyphen’ remark is a joke on the meaning of the words, an obsession for getting things exact in every detail.

  11. One translation I’ve read goes:

    Each of these huge white horses had a rider
    One of them carrying the deadman’s shield (Knight’s Tale)

  12. Better translation:

    I am so hungry that I can not sleep
    I wish God would let me sleep forever
    Then hunger should not in my belly creep
    There’s nothing but bread I’d rather deliver
    (Monk’s Tale)

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