by Larry Fyffe
Though the line of demarcation is a fuzzy one, the images contained within Bob Dylan’s song lyrics, like those in the poems of William Blake, oscillate between those that are Romantic – ie, humans possess an inherently dark nature reflected in their social institutions -, and images that are Transcendental – ie, Nature is infused with a Spirit of light which every individual has the potential of getting in touch with.
In the song below, there’s an image of the all-pervading light that’s glimpsed at times:
If not for you
Babe, I’d lay awake all night
Wait for the mornin’ light
To shine in through
But it would not be new
If not for you
(Bob Dylan: If Not For You)
But not glimpsed all of the time:
Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve got the scars that the sun didn’t heel
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
(Bob Dylan: Not Dark Yet)
In the following song, the face of the Blakean Universe – one side light and the other dark – serves as an oppressive image with eyes as black as coal:
Hot chili peppers in the blistering sun
Dust on my face and on my cape
Me and Magdalena on the run
I think this time we shall escape …..
The way is long and the end is near
Already the fiesta has begun
The face of God will appear
With his serpent eyes of obsidian
(Bob Dylan: Romance In Durango)
It’s an artistic recreation of another story that ends rather badly for a rebel:
And many women were there ….
Which followed Jesus from Galilee
Ministering unto him
Among them was Mary Magdalene
(Book Of Matthew 27: 55-56)
In the following song, the dark imagery of the Romantic poets and the light imagery of the Transcendentalist poets entangle, along with the Mary Magdalene archetype:
Scarlet Town in the month of May
Sweet William Holme on his death bed lay
Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissing his his face, heaping prayers on his head ….
If love is a sin, then beauty is a crime
All things are beautiful in their time
The black and white, the yellow and brown
It’s all right there for ya in Scarlet Town
(Bob Dyan: Scarlet Town)
Lieutenant William Holmes, a subordinate of Miles Standish, leads the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims in a war against the Pequot Indians, essentially wiping them out. On one level of meaning in the above version of the song, Dylan shows how history is whitewashed by romantic legends of writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
On the other hand, there are writers more critical of past times. The setting of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel ‘The Scarlet Letter’ (1850)is the Massachusetts Bay Colony established by the Pilgrims. The story is about a woman who has a child by a Puritan minister and her punishment for this at the hands of the colonists; she refuses to tell them who the father is.
A theme not unlike that found in the following song:
They wished you’d accepted the blame for the farm
But with the sea at your feet and the phony false alarm
And the child of a hoodlum wrapped up in your arms
How could they ever have persuaded you?
(Bob Dylan: Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands)
The sunlight of from the poetry of the Romantic Transcendentalists, albeit dimmed by the dark clouds of the Modernists, still shines at times in the songs of Bob Dylan:
Ye who believe in affection that hopes, and
endures, and is patient
Ye who believe in the beauty and strength
of woman’s devotion
List to the mournful tradition, still sung by
pines of the forest
(Henry Longfellow: Evangeline)
You may also be interested in
- Bob Dylan And Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Desire (Part I)
- Bob Dylan And Henry Longfellow: Desire (Part II)
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.
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