Bob Dylan And Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Desire (Part I)


by Larry Fyffe

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, under the influence of the the modernist Surrealistc poets, focuses on human nature rather than on external Nature which is envisioned by Wordsworthian poets to be infused with God’s presence.

As far as the English Romantics go, Dylan relates more to William Blake and John Keats who recognize both the bright and dark side in the hearts of Man.

Nonetheless, Dylan is well aware of the vivid and romantic imagery of earlier America times as depicted in the common-rhymed poems of Henry Longfellow, an American Transcendentalist who detects a youthful spirit pervading the natural beauty of the New Frontier (in contrast to the sordid pursuit of material gain):

The longing for ignoble things
The strife for triumph more than truth
The hardening of the head that brings
Irreverence for the dreams of youth
(Longfellow: The Ladder Of St. Augustine)

In the poems of Longfellow, the stoic outlook of Puritanism gives way to the Romantic vision of a better future even with the passing of a loved one:

The shadow of the linden trees
Lay moving on the grass
Between them and the moving boughs
A shadow, thou, didst pass
(Longfellow: A Glean Of Sunshine)

The poet’s sunshiny optimism differs from the Puritan outlook that is overly concerned with thàt long fellow slithering in the grass:

There came a wind like a bugle
It quivered through the grass
And a green chill upon the heat
So ominous did pass
(Emily Dickinson: There Came A Wind Like A Bugle)

Adding the ominous sounds of distant drums in the sunshine of a new day, the singer/songwriter Bob Dylan splits the difference between the two visions in the following song lyrics:

Struck by the sounds before the sun
I knew the night had gone
The morning breeze like a bugle blew
Against the drums of dawn
(Bob Dylan: Lay Down Your Weary Tune)

In the following poem, there is the positive imagery of a furnace bright that’s creating something new:

The children coming home from school
Look in the open door
They love to see the flaming forge
And hear the bellows roar
And catch the flaming sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing floor
(Longfellow: The Village Blacksmith)

In the song lyrics below, the fiery image is painted in a tone closer to William Blake’s original vision – the portrayal of a wrathful God that serves the interests of those in authority by instilling in everyone guilt, and puritanical values:

I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way, I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey, I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand
(Bob Dylan: Every Grain Of Sand)

The Romantic poet Longfellow cheerfully celebrates the founding of a new Promised Land in America:

The fate of a nation was riding that night
And the spark struck out by that steed in his flight
Kindled the land into a flame with its heat
(Longfellow: Paul Revere’s Ride)

The singer/songwriter tempers the optimism of Longfellow, and satirizes the complacency of modern times:

The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
The city father’s they’re trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse
But the town has no need to be nervous
(Bob Dylan: Tombstone Blues)

Any prospect of a Paradise regained is put asunder by the cold-hearted rationalism and materialism of a modern Babylon:

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death
(Bob Dylan: I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine)

In a narrative poem by Henry Longfellow, the duty-bound Indian-fighter Miles Standish of the new English settlement at Plymouth Rock loses his marriage object to a principled yet more emotion-revealing rival; stand-offish Miles comes to understand why that happens and redeems himself:

Wishing her joy of her wedding and lauding her husband
Then he said with a smile, I should have remembered the adage
‘If you would be well served, you must serve yourself’
(Longfellow: The Courtship Of Miles Standish)

Bob Dylan pays tribute to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his Romantic vision of America:

Romance is taking over …
Can ya not feel the weight of oblivion
And the songs of redemption …
We surface alongside Miles Standish
And take the Rock
(Liner notes: ‘Desire’ album)

Reaping the gold of sunshine, Bob Dylan sings:

I got a house on the hill, I got pigs out lying in the mud
I got a long-haired woman, she got royal Indian blood
(Bob Dylan: Summer Days)

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

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *