Bob Dylan and Stephen Crane


By Larry Fyffe

The poetry of Stephen Crane presents in allegorical form the theme that the purpose of human existence is meaningless and futile. Build as mankind will mighty edifices, up high in the sky, to his ideals and beliefs, cruel reality turns sacred symbols into sanctifications of destruction in the valley below – as surely as life turns into death:

Many workman
Built a huge ball of masonry
Upon a mountaintop
Then they went to the valley below
And turned to behold their work
‘It’s grand’, they said
They loved the thing
Of a sudden, it moved
It came upon them swiftly
It crushed them all to blood
(Stephen Crane: Many Workmen)

Frederich Nietzsche, in his writings, asserts that the eventual adoption of the slaves’ Christianity by the masters spread a herd-like mentality that undermines the life-affirming teaching of the individualistic thinker Jesus; canonized Christianity turns hope and aspirations into blood, offering reward and salvation in a supposed ‘afterlife.’

That there be heavenly afterlife is not at all made clear in the Jewish religion. At times, singer/songwriter Bob Dylan portrays mainstream religion’s focus on an other world as being similar to spirits seen by a fortune teller. Such other-worldly speculations isolate individuals from each other and from existential social reality – in effect, fencing everyone off in a ‘lonely crowd’:

But I don’t sense affection
No gratitude or love
Your loyality is not to me
But to the stars above
One more cup of coffee for the road
One more cup of coffee before I go
To the valley below
(Bob Dylan: One More Cup Of Coffee)

Crane’s poetry suggests that most Christians are subjected to teachings that have been bent out of shape by society’s pliers to fit the chaotic conditions of social reality; red drops of blood continue to fall:

God lay dead in heaven
Angels sang the hymn of the end
Purple winds went moaning
Their wings dripping
With blood
That fell upon the earth ….
But of all sadness this was sad –
A woman’s arm tried to shield
The head of a sleeping man
From the jaws of the final beast
(Stephen Crane: God Lay Dead)

Against the dark, and apocalyptic images of Stephen Crane’s poetry, Bob Dylan rebels, and takes a sip from the fresh water fountains of the Romantic Transcendentalists. He finds love and solace, his Mary Magdalene, in the valley below – sometimes, if not all of the time:

Beyond the horizon, in the springtime or the fall
Love waits forever, for me and for all
Beyond the horizon, across the divide
Down in the valley, the water runs cold
Beyond the horizon someone prayed for my soul
My wretched heart is pounding
I felt an angel’s kiss
My memories are drowning
In mortal bliss
(Bob Dylan: Beyond The Horizon)

Instead, Stephen Crane’s presents to his readers ironic visions of Sisyphusian futility:

There was set before me a mighty hill
And long days I climbed
Through regions of snow
When I had before me the summit view
It seemed that my labour
Had been to see gardens
Lying at impossible distances
(Stephen Crane: There Was Set Before Me)

Bob Dylan shies not away from the extentionalist angst brought on by there being no objective truths:

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempt to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true
And there are no truths outside the gates of Eden
(Bob Dylan: Gates Of Eden)


What else is on the site

1: 500+ 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. You’re a good writer, but please stop comparing Dylan’s song lyrics to other people’s poems. That’s an academic dead end. If you want to post something instructive, apply lived experience — not reading — to your analytical methods. Take a giant step outside your mind.

  2. But Sax, it is (if I may be so bold as to say) you that is in the dead end. By telling a writer not to write about something, no matter what, is to restrict debate and opportunity. Of course you may not want to read what is here – and although a considerable number of people do (many coming back time and time again), it is all a matter of choice. There are a million Dylan sites out there, and you can take your pick.

    Or indeed, given that anyone can set up a blog for free, you could do your own writing and invite others to join you on your blog. That is what happened here – I just decided to start it, was encouraged to keep going, and we’re heading for 1 million page views this year.

    But to suggest that one should not write something – that seems to me to be completely against the whole basis of exploration and research. Surely it would be much better for you, and possibly all of us, if you wrote articles of the type you suggest, to help us all understand your point of view. I would certainly be willing to consider them for publication here, or as I say you could start your own blog, or submit elsewhere.

    However to suggest that someone should not write about a subject… that is truly worrying for an open and democratic world. Why would anyone ever want to restrict what is written and published? That seems to take us back to the Christian churches of the 18th century and before.

  3. Academic dead end? You do not explain how so.

    But anyway I’ll take you off my ‘required reading’ list (lol).

    Though you said ‘please’, I’m likely to continue. I’d do some articles on Shakespeare but, as you are aware, his plays have turned out to be an ‘academic deadend’. I feel so sad for poor Billy.

  4. I have the American library volume of Crane with the complete works of his tragically short life. I focused on the stories, but the poetry is there and I’ll give it a try. I just wanted to mention though, that I have thought about Crane at times listening to “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”.

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