Bob Dylan And Charles Baudelaire (Part III)


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By Larry Fyffe

The Gnostic-like themes and dark images (images be words that evoke the sensations of smell, sight, touch, taste, and hearing in the listener or reader’s mind) found in the  poems of Charles Baudelaire impact the songs of Bob Dylan:

But behold as we passed, hugging the shore
So that we disturbed the sea-birds with our white sails
We saw it was a gallows with three arms
Outlined in black like a cypress against the sky
Ferocious birds perched on their feast were savagely
Destroying the ripe corpse of a hanged man

(Baudelaire: A Voyage To Cythera)

The Greek island, to the Symbolist poet, is not the paradise it’s imagined to be –  there’s a gallows mistaken for a cypress tree. According to Dylan, nor is the cowboy vision of America as the Promised Land.

In the song lyrics below, the singer/ songwriter opts to lighten up the dark image above by throwing some bread crumbs in with the ‘arms’ and ‘sails’ – perhaps burlesque on the ‘sin’ of feeding pigeons:

The cowboy angel rides
With his candle lit into the sun
Though its glow is waxed in black ….
The lampost stands with folded arms
It’s iron claws attached ….
Upon the beach where hound dogs bay
At ships with tattooed sails ….
As he weeps to wicked birds of prey
Who pick up on his bread crumb sins

(Bob Dylan: Gates Of Eden)

In any event, according to both Baudelaire and Dylan, the inhabitants of neither earthly site pass the tough test set down by Jesus, the Christian prophet:

If thy whole body therefore be full of light
Having no part dark
The whole shall be full of light
As when the bright shining of a candle
Doth give thee light

(Luke 11:13)

The cypress tree, for both Dylan and Baudelaire, though somewhat less so than a stone church building, is a symbol, an objective co-relative, of the emotional search for an enduring world, a place where life and love lasts:

Your branches strive to get closer to the sun
Will you always grow, tall tree, more hardy than the cypress?
None the less, we have carefully gathered
A few sketches for your voracious album
Brother who thinks lovely all that comes from afar

(Baudelaire: The Voyage)

Likewise Dylan – only an idiot imagines that there’s an eternal love a-waiting; why you might as well believe that a poster of Brigette Bardot up on the wall will come alive ….you’re gonna wait a long time:

The priest wore black on the seventh day
And sat stone-faced while the building burned
I waited for you on the running boards
Near the cypress trees, while the spring time turned
Slowly into autumn

(Bob Dylan: Idiot Wind)

In short, by death or other circumstance, relationships don’t last forever in the real world:

Window wide open, African trees
Bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze
Not a word of good-bye, not even a note
She gone with the man in the long black coat.

(Bob Dylan: The Man In The Long Black Coat)

A poet influenced by Baudelaire notes that not even concrete man-made objects of Art last:

The roses as then still trembled
The tall proud lilies rocked in the wind
I knew every lark there, coming and going
I found the statue of Flora standing yet
At the end of the avenue, its plaster flaking
Weathered by the bland scents of mignonette

(Paul Verlaine: After Three Years)

The singer/ songwriter goes hyperbolic over the matter:

Broken bottles, broken plates
Broken switches, broken gates
Broke dishes, broken parts
Sheets are filled with broken hearts
Broken words never meant to be spoken
Everything is broken

(Bob Dylan: Everything Is Broken)

Bob Dylan knows an objective co-relative when he sees one:

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
About the time the doorknob broke
When you asked me how I was doing

Was that some kind of joke?

(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

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One comment

  1. Is it possible that Desolation Row’s incipit “They’re selling postcards of the hanging” was also inspired by Baudelaire and his poem “The Rope” ? In this prose poem, a mother takes back the rope with which her son hanged himself to sell it to neighbors. Dylan’s image looks pretty similar to Baudelaire’s one !

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