Bob Dylan and James Joyce: making the old new again

Bob Dylan And James Joyce

by Larry Lyffe

Before James Joyce reacts against the idealized love expressed in Elizabethan poetry and prose , as well as against the prudishness of Victorian writers, he first pays a young man’s tribute to Romantic love poetry, with its themes focused on Nature, with its elements of earth, air, fire, and water.

Joyce makes the old new again by utilizing modern English. He gets to know traditional literature well before he starts writing in the many-layered meaning and ironic tone of the literary period known as Modernism:

Strings in the earth and air
Make music sweet
Strings by the river where
The willows meet

Love can bring dark sorrow as well as bright joy is the message:

There’s music along the river
For Love wanders there
Pale flowers on his mantle
Dark leaves on his hair
(James Joyce: Strings In The Earth And Air)

Likewise, Bob Dylan makes sure he knows well the traditional forms and themes of poetry and song before he starts singing:

Lay down your weary tune, lay down
Lay down the song you strum
And rest yourself ‘neath the strength of strings
No voice can hope to hum

Alliterative sound abounds, sadness surrounds:

The last of leaves fell from the trees
And clung to a new love’s breast
The branches bare like a banjo moan
To the winds that listen the best
(Bob Dylan: Lay Down Your Weary Tune)

The Elizabethan Bard expresses the theme of how difficult it is to describe feelings elicited by love in mere words:

The throttle with his note so true
The wren with little quill
The finch, the sparrow, and the lark
The plain-song cuckoo gray
Whose note many a man does mark
And dares not answer, nay
(Shakespeare: Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Wording that sounds musical along with a creative imagination that reaches out into the external world for an objective correlative assist the artist in the endeavour:

Hear yourself amid the drowsy even
One who is singing by your gate
His song is softer than the dew
And he has come to visit you
(James Joyce: Hear Yourself Amid The Drowsy Even)

As with Joyce, so with Dylan:

My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I put them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady should I wait?
(Bob Dylan: Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands)

William Shakespeare, Joyce and Dylan’s master:

Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night
(Shakespeare: Twelf0th Night)

James Joyce reacts to these idealized depictions of love, often unrequited, by mixing together romantic and very sexually explicit language (not repeated here) at the ending of his Modernist novel:

I was the flower of the mountain …yes, when I put a rose
in my hair ……. and I thought …well … as well him as another
and then I asked him, with my eyes, to ask again … yes …and
then he asked me, would I.. .yes… to say, yes, my mountain
(James Joyce: Ulysses)

We know Joyce was by Dylan read, and we know for sure that Robert Hunter, the co-author of the following song, that even mentions the Modernist writer by name, be a James Joyce fanatic:

You are as whorish as ever
Baby, you could start a fire
I must be losing my mind
You’re the object of my desire

The lyrics mix together the language of unrequited romantic love with the diction of pent up physical lust:

Everyone got all the flowers
I don’t have one single rose
(Bob Dylan: I Feel A Change Coming On)

The singer Billy Joel, a reader of William Blake’s preRomantic poetry, as be Bob Dylan himself, expresses a similar theme while also using the poet’s famous ‘arrows of desire” and ” chariot of fire” rhyme:

You will never quench the fire
You’ll give in to your desire
(Billy Joel: The Stranger)

Dylan goes one step further and mixes James Joyce’s words from the end of “Ulysses” with the vocabulary of a religious preacher:

You can mislead a man
You can take a hold of his heart with your eyes
But there’s only one authority
And that’s the authority on high
(Bob Dylan: Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking)

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


  1. 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’ll post this reaction also under your Chaucer article.

  2. As does Dylan himself to his own lyrics, there a number of variations on Chaucer’s works and Khayyam’s too(see Chaucer articles).

  3. ie” Each of these huge white horses had a
    One of them carrying the deadman’s shield”
    (Wright – pointed out by Warmuth)

  4. Suzanne: L Cohen

    And you want to travel with her …
    For you touched her perfect body
    with your mind

    Tales of Brave Ulysses: M Sharp

    You want to take her with you …
    For you touched the distant sands
    with the tales of brave Ulysses

  5. From unused scratchy notes:

    High water rising, coming like a whirlwind, trying to suck me in
    James Joyce just walked in the door …. like Huckleberry Finn
    (Bob Dylan: Highwater)

    Humorously associating the narrator (with Mark Twain’s teenager named Finn who decides to help a slave escape down the river) with a straw-hatted fumble-bum song and dance cartoon character named Huckleberry Hound:

    He said, got to get out ahead of the hound
    Get my pistols off of the shelf

    (Highwater: Bob Dylan)

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