Bob Dylan: Which Side Are You On?

By Larry Fyffe

It can be interepted that in ‘Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts’, Bob Dylan uses the symbol of the rose(mary) to represent historical nothern Israel/Sumaria and the lily to represent southern Judea/Jerusalem.

As he so often does, Dylan mixes the sunshine and moonlit poetry of the Romantics with dark verses from the Judeo-Christian Bible:

I see the lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever-dew
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too
(John Keats: La Belle Dame Sans Merci)

Keats picks up the symbolism from another Romantic poet:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold …..
And there lay the rider distorted and pale
With the dew on his brow, and rust on his mail
(Lord Byron: The Destruction Of Sennacherib)

According to the Holy Bible, the Assyrians conquer northern Israel and it’s capital Sumaria though they only manage to lay seige to Jerusalem, the capital of Judea:

And the king of Assyria did carry away Israel unto Assyria
Because they obeyed not the voice of the Lord their God
(Kings ll: 18: 11,12)

The Judeans, on the other hand, are rewarded for remaining loyal to Yahweh, and finally drive away the Assyrian army:

That which thou hast prayed to me
Against Sennacherib king of Assyria
I have heard
(Kings II, 19: 20)

With his artistic interweaving of Biblical and Romantic imagery, Dylan seeks Wordsworthian solace away from the woes of the world:

You trampled on me as you passed
Left the coldest kiss upon my brow
All my doubts and fears have gone at last
I’ve nothing more to tell you now
I walk by tranquil lakes and streams
As each new season’s dawn awakes
I lay awake at night with troubled dreams
The enemy is at the gate
(Bob Dylan: Tell Ol Bill)

Metaphorically speaking, the song says that though the Almighty tramples down the singer/songwriter or his persona at times, Yahweh will come through for the individual who does not give up on Him:

All the world I would defy
Let me make it plain as day
I look at you now and I sigh
How could it be any other way?
(Bob Dylan: Tell Ol Bill)

Dylan does not travel down the Apocalyptic path, as many analysts of his songs lyrics declare; these critics do not examine his artistic vision in its entirety.

Chooses Dylan instead to walk down the Romantic path with Shakespeare, though sometimes it can get dark:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by
And that has made all the difference
(Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken)

Dylan’s ‘troubled dreams” are often absurdist, surreal, and, at times, burlesque:

The ghost of Belle Starr, she hands down her wits
To Jezebel the nun, she violently knits
A bald wig for Jack the Ripper, who sits
At the head of the Chamber of Commerce
(Bob Dylan: Tombstone Blues)

Mixed in the songwriter’s alchemist pot, filled with Romantic and Gothic images, is a good batch of biblical symbols – i.e., Jezebel and her husband Ahab, a king of northern Israel, both of whom worship the god Baal of the Assyrians – she gets what she deserves and is done away with by a follower of Yahweh:

And he lifted up his face to the window
And said, “Who is on my side – who?”
And there looked out to him two or three eunuchs
And he said, “Throw her down”; so they threw her down
And some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall
And on the horses; and he trod her underfoot
(Kings II: 9, 32, 33)

Then it’s another spin of the roulette wheel:

They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers
They buy and they sell
They destroyed your city
They’re destroy you as well ….
Sluggers and muggers
Wearing fancy gold rings
All the woman goin’ crazy
For the early Roman kings ….
Bring down my fiddle
Tune up my strings
I’m gonna break it wide open
Like the early Roman kings
(Bob Dylan: Early Roman Kings)

Which brings it all back home to the Roman emperor who fiddles while Rome burns; to Neptune, the mythological Lord of the Sea; and to the ‘unsinkable’ ship:

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?”
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

What else is on the site

1: Over 460 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 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 produced 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 our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

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


  1. Jezebel is from Tyre – ‘the kings of Tyrus with their convict list’ -referenced in Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands, the latter lady being (southern) Judea to whom no prophet comes.

    All is revealed in the upcoming ‘Bob Dylan As Isaiah’.

Leave a Reply

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