They’ve Got A Lotta Nerve: a rebuttal of those who say Dylan didn’t deserve the Nobel Prize


They’ve Got A Lotta Nerve

by Larry Fyffe

There are art critics who say that Bob Dylan is associated with folk music but not with literature and therefore he should not have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. However, these critics appear not to be aware of many of Dylan’s song lyrics that pay tribute to poets, both great and small.

Some examples:

Charles Baudelaire: those eaves illuminated by burning coal
(The Balcony)
Bob Dylan: those words rang true and glowed like burning coal
(Tangled Up In Blue)

William Blake: tiger, tiger burning bright in the forests of the night
(The Tiger)
Bob Dylan: with a neon burning bright, he felt the heat of the night
(Simple Twist Of Fate)

William Blake: and did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green
Bob Dylan: I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
(Every Grain Of Sand)

Robert Burns: my heart’s In the highlands, my heart is not here
(My Heart’s In The Highlands)
Bob Dylan: my heart’s in the highlands at the break of dawn

Geoffrey Chaucer: I’m your servant night and day
(Canterbury Tales)
Bob Dylan: remember this, I’m your servant both night and day
(Thunder On The Mountain)

Geoffrey Chaucer: I’m pretty sure she’ll make me kill someone
(Canterbury Tales)
Bob Dylan: I’m pretty sure she’ll make me kill someone
(My Wife’s Home Town)

Edward Cummings: the most who die, the more we live
(What If A Much Of A Which Of A Wind)
Bob Dylan: the more I die, the more I live
(Pay In Blood)

Emily Dickinson: there came a wind like a bugle
(There Came A Wind)
Bob Dylan: the morning breeze like a bugle blew
(Lay Down Your Weary Tune)

John Donne: therefore, do not send for whom the bell tolls
(For Whom The Bell Tolls)
Bob Dylan: for whom does the bell toll love

Thomas Eliot: in the room the women come and go
(The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock)
Bob Dylan: while all the women came and went
(All Along The Watchtower)

Robert Frost: the woods are lovely, dark and deep
(Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening)
Bob Dylan: the woods are dark, the town isn’t new
(Tell Ol’ Bill)

Omar Khayyam: the moving finger having writ moves on
(The Rubaiyat)
Bob Dylan: the moving finger is moving on
(Narrow Way)

Archibald MacLeish: and here face down in the sun
(You Andrew Marvell)
Bob Dylan: if you don’t mind sleeping with your face down in the sun
(Foot Of Pride)

John Milton: wherefore with thou came not all hell broke loose
(Paradise Lost)
Bob Dylan: and any minute now, I’m expecting all hell to break loose
(Things Have Changed)

Edgar Allan Poe: take this kiss upon the brow
(A Dream Within A Dream)
Bob Dylan: you trampled me as you passed, left the coldest kiss upon my brow
(Tell Ol’ Bill)

Edgar Allan Poe: and faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door
(The Raven)
Bob Dylan: red light glowing, blowing like she’s at my chamber door
(Duquesne Whistle)

Edgar Allan Poe: no more shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree
(To One In Paradise)
Bob Dylan: beneath the thunder-blasted trees, the words are ringin’
off your tongue
(Tell Ol’ Bill)

Percy Shelley: from the altar of dark ocean to the sapphire-tinted skies
(Lines Written Among Euganean Hills)
Bob Dylan: I’m looking up into sapphire-tinted skies
(Things Have Changed)

Edward Spenser: my love is like ice and I to fire
(My Love Is Like To Ice)
Bob Dylan: yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
(Love Minus Zero)

Alfred Tennyson: their’s but to do and die
(The Charge Of The Light Brigade)
Bob Dylan: that the hour has come to do or die
(Tell Ol’ Bill)

Henry Timrod: but still along yon dim Atlantic line
Bob Dylan: all along the dim Atlantic line
(‘Cross The Green Mountain)

Henry Timrod: and strove with logic frailer than the flowers
(A Rhapsody Of A Southern Winter Night)
Bob Dylan: more frailer than the flowers, these precious hours
(When The Deal Goes Down)

Henry Timrod: a childish dream is now a deathless need
(A Vision Of Poesy)
Bob Dylan: well, a childish dream is a deathless need
(Tweedle-Dum And Tweedle-Dee)

John Tolkien: all that is gold does not glitter
(All That Is Gold)
Bob Dylan: all that’s gold doesn’t shine
(Going, Going, Gone)

Walt Whitman: while they stand at the doorway, he is dead already
(Come Up From The Fields Father)
Bob Dylan: but he’ll never get better, he’s already dead
(‘Cross The Green Mountain)

John Whittier: the beggar crouching at the gate
(Chapel Of Hermits)
Bob Dylan: beggers crouched at the gate
(Scarlet Town)

John Whittier: the palm-leaf shadow for the hot noon hours
(To Avis Keene)
Bob Dylan: Scarlet Town in the hot noon hours
(Scarlet Town)

(William Yeats: black out; heaven blazing in my head
(Lapis Lazuli)
Bob Dylan: I slept by the stream, heaven blazing in my head
(‘Cross The Green Mountain)

In fact, it is Bob Dylan who did much to marry the music of modern pop culture to so-called ‘high-brow’ poetry.

What else is on the site

1: Over 480 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. I can’t argue with any of this but I have to say it’s not the fact that Dylan references the literary tradition that makes him a great writer (some people, after all, wrongly, have called that plagiarism.) No, it’s the new contexts, the juxtapositions and the new uses that he puts such borrowings and references to. He is part of the Pound and Elliot tradition in doing this, of course,

  2. Peter, I think that the many other articles that Larry has published here show those contexts – this is simply a reference point pulling the citations together in one piece.
    If you look at the pages which we link to from the heading at the top of each page on the site such as
    Bob Dylan’s Themes and
    Poets within Bob Dylan’s work
    You will find multiple articles that take the whole matter further.
    It is one of those things where, other than writing a book on the subject, one can’t cover everything at once.

  3. As always, I love this stuff Larry writes…. I been digging thru quite a few of the lyrics Larry mentioned here.
    But…. mmmm, I don’t know Larry, if this list is a convincing argument for a Nobel prize.
    Very likely there are many other poets and songwriters who have tried succesfully to borrow and put those references to words, lines and metaphores in ‘new contexts, juxtapositions and new uses’ – I think the reach of a work among any audience was never a criterion for the Nobel prize.
    oh, btw I think it is really fine he got the nobel prize, because it opens the door for other appreciations, think e.g. Willy Nelson, the country music legend, who will become the first songwriter to be inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters, one of the most prestigious literary organizations in the Lone Star State.
    The institute’s president, Steven L. Davis of Texas State University, gave the Dallas Morning News a fuller explanation. It turns out that songwriters weren’t always on the institute’s mind.
    “We began having discussions among the TIL council about quality writers whose works don’t always result in ‘books’ — playwrights, screenwriters, and, of course, songwriters,” Davis said. “The best writers in these genres are every bit as accomplished as authors of books — and yet the TIL has traditionally overlooked them, instead bestowing membership on authors of books.”

  4. Fair enough, but the list alone is not intended to be a convincing argument, but rather a piece of meat thrown to the mongrel dog ‘nay sayers’ nipping at Dylan’s bootheels, which the songs with near direct quotes from literary sources are used to deter.

    It’s the ideas of the great works of literature that Dylan liberates from the University classroom; that he went further than other songwriters in hitching the poems of literature and folklore(along with with his own creative twists) to popular music was an important factor to the Nobel decision-makers I would think.

  5. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature can be seen as a great honour for Dylan. Yet, there is also a risk of seeing the award as more important than it really is. Eighteen people judging his work on only one dimension of his art, a dimension that isn’t even tailored to the type of writing normally given the prize, doesn’t seem to do justice to what Dylan is doing and has achieved. In this sense, we might ask the question should the Nobel Prize matter very much to Dylan or us? On reflection, I’m not convinced that it should.

  6. my thoughts on Dylan getting it. I am not just a Dylan nut, but have a literature degree… so I feel a tiny bit qualified to have an opinion. I am 100% for it, and here is why.

    A great book has a great impact. I have many of them… hundreds on my shelves. Even the greatest and most impactful book… I don’t look at more than once a year at best.

    Dylan has the same caliber of writing, and his work touches me daily. There is seriously hardly a day that goes by that I don’t listen to Dylan. That can’t be said for Hemingway or Miller or other great writers. Dylan’s work (gets to) touch me daily.

    so why not? Who has had a bigger impact on my life? Dylan, on every level!

    *** btw, great site! Just found it yesterday.

    Denver, CO

  7. Thank you for commenting Kevin, and indeed for your kind comment at the end. As you may have noticed, we’re getting close to having reviewed every song of Dylan’s for which we can find a recording. Then I think we might have a party.

  8. I know you know this, but I thought I’d add some thoughts.

    As good as Dylan is at intertexuality – and I think he is very good at it – I don’t think that was the reasoning behind the Nobel Prize award. I suspect it was much more based on his work in the 1960s when he turned out some extraordinary word poems (and often underrated tunes to accompany them). Bob himself says that he could do something then that he can’t do now. He can still intertextualise with the best of them, so that’s not what he thinks of as his earlier gifts. Working Catullus or Keats into a modern masterpiece is truly art, and the ghost of electricity is definitely still at work, but I think that there would be no Nobel without the mid 60s work.

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