Bob Dylan And John Keats

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by Larry Fyffe

See also: Blake, Keats, And Spots Of Ink

Many of the poems of John Keats centre on the search by human beings for an ideal eternal home in a world of transient time – a theme singer/songwriter Bob Dylan expresses in many of his song lyrics.

Statues made of stone and such are symbols of this psychological urge to have time stand still:

Of marble men and maidens overwrought
With forest branches and the trodden weed
Thou, silent form, doth tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral
When old age shall this generation waste
Thou shalt remain, in the mist of other woes

(John Keats: Ode To A Grecian Urn)

Like Keats, Bob Dylan admires historical figures, including music and poetic icons of the past. But, again like Keats, he knows that the calling of a real artist is to keep truth and beauty moving onward; not a-standing still like a statue. Admonish he does political and religious activists, artists, and performers who pour themselves in a mould –  the lyrics below, perhaps alluding to Beat writer William Burroughs:

I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill
I would set him in chains at the top of the hill
Then send out for some pillars and Cecile B. DeMille
He could die happily ever after

(Bob Dylan: Tombstone Blues)

That it’s not a good idea to unwaveringly follow the footsteps of Jesus Christ might be a message as well. Dylan almost always leaves some room for listener participation in interpreting the lyrics of his songs.

The singer/songwriter criticizes himself too – in the following lyrics, perhaps for sticking to political protests for a bit too long; a two-edged sword it be – getting comfort there for sure, but also typecast:

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can come back, but you can’t come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

(Bob Dylan: Mississippi)

John Keats makes the point that an artist ought to refrain from becoming  out-of-touch with reality by forever writing sweet love songs in a world of woe:

More happy love! more happy happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoyed
For ever panting, and for ever young
All breathing human passion far above
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed
A burning forehead and a parching tongue

(John Keats: Ode To A Grecian Urn)

Bob Dylan finds Keats’ poetry a little too dark. The singer/songwriter recognizes the psychological reality that  human beings yearn for permanent bliss in the world such as it is:

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see lights surrounding you

(Bob Dylan: Forever Young)

At the same time, Bob Dylan recognizes that any hoped-for ideal and permanency in a transient world is all but a dream:

Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like a mirror
But she makes it all to concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here

(Bob Dylan: Visions Of Johanna)

Thusly, Keats’ poetry tends to be overly melancholic:

My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains
My senses, as though of hemlock I had drunk
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

(Keats: Ode To A Nightingale)

On top of everything else, Dr. Death lurks around the corner:

It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Well my sense of humanity is going down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain

(Bob Dylan: It’s Not Dark Yet)

Everybody knows that’s how it goes:

Flowers on the hillside blooming crazy
Crickets talking back and forth in rhyme
Blue river running slow and lazy
I could stay with you forever
And never realize the time

(Bob Dylan: You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go)

A Romantic to the end, Bob Dylan reminds everybody that Mother Nature will take care of you.

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6 Responses to Bob Dylan And John Keats

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    * “in midst of other woe”

  2. Bob says:

    Ricks’ closely analysed comparison of ‘It’s Not Dark Yet’ with ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is worth a visit – or a revisit…

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    For some, it gets dark way too soon:

    We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung
    And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth
    God help us, for we knew the worst too young
    ( Rudyard Kipling: Gentleman-Rankers)

  4. Larry fyffe says:

    *Ode On A Grecian Urn

  5. Larry fyffe says:

    The cypress tree for Dylan is a symbol of endurance as it for French poet Charles Baudelaire – somewhat akin to the Romantic Transcendentalist ‘Absolute’, but darker:

    The boulevards of cypress trees
    The masquerades of birds and bees
    The petals, pink and white, the winds have blown
    Won’t you meet me in the moonlight all alone?
    Bob Dylan: Moonlight)

  6. Larry fyffe says:

    *as it is for

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