Bob Dylan and William Yeats: Heaven blazing in my head

By Larry Fyffe

The poems of William Blake and Percy Shelley influence William Yeats, a Modernist latter-day Romantic poet.

Within the electric song lyrics of Bob Dylan, howl the ghosts of William Yeats’ Symbolist poetics:

All perform their tragic play
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia
(William Yeats: Lapis Luzuli)

Here comes her ghost again:

Now Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

Ophelia, where have you gone?

Through hollow lands, and hilly lands
I will find out where she has gone
And kiss her lips and take her hands
And walk among long dappled grass
(William Yeats: Song Of The Wandering Aengus)

The memory of a departed love who waves her hand from the tall grass:

You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know
But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the one I love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go
(Bob Dylan: You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go)

This William Yeats’ message of hopeful endurance echoes in the song lyrics of other artists as well:

Those veins must soon be dry
Live in a heavenly mansion
Not in some foul sty
(William Yeats: Crazy Jane)

Below, the rhyme ‘sky/dry’ replaces ‘sty/dry’:

Janie, don’t lose heart
‘Til every river, baby, it runs dry
Until the sun is torn from the sky
(Bruce Springsteen: Don’t Lose Heart)

The theme: human life is a tragic cycle that repeats itself:

All men have aimed at, found and lost
Black out; Heaven blazing in my head
Tragedy wrought to the uttermost
(William Yeats: Lapis Lazuli)

A theme of many a Dylan lyric:

I cross the Green Mountain
I sit by the stream
Heaven blazing in my head
I dreamed a monstrous dream
(Bob Dylan: ‘Cross The Green Mountain)

In the end, like the nursery rhyme says, we all fall down:

O mind your feet, O mind your feet
Keep dancing like a wave
And under every dancer
A dead man in his grave
(William Yeats: A Drunken Man’s Praise Of Sobriety)

Dylan’s songs express a message similar to the one above – that is, of making the best of a bad circumstance whereby stands the Eternal Footman holding your coat, and he snickers:

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the
circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep
beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow
(Bob Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man)

Likewise, the Blakean message of youthful innocence lost is let loose by Yeats:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
(William Yeats: The Second Coming)

A somber message that echoes in the lyrics of the songwriter:

Don’t fall apart on me tonight
I just don’t think I could handle it
Don’t fall apart on me tonight
Yesterday’s just a memory
Tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be
(Bob Dylan: Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight)

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.

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

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