Bob Dylan: Paul Verlaine And Charles Perrault

By Larry Fyffe

Revealed only by ‘Untold Dylan’, here’s a bunch of stuff overlooked by other examiners of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics.

Like his fellow Symbolist poets – Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine draws inspiration from the wishing wells of Charles Perrault’s reworking of old fairy tales:

Sleeping Beauty dreams; Cinderella dozes
Blue Beard’s wife waits for her brothers
Tom Thumb, far from the fat ogre
Sits on the grass repeating his prayers ….
Donkeyskin returns; the birds beat a retreat
To Ricky Of The Tuft’s neighbouring estate
And we reach the old magic inn’s deep corner
Where the soup cooks and stirs itself while we wait

(Paul Verlaine: Sleeping Beauty Dreams)

These dark fairy tales usually have happy endings – Sleeping Beauty awakes from her deep sleep after being discovered by a prince; a lost slipper, found by a prince, fits Cinderella; two brothers ride to rescue their sister from the murderous Blue Beard; Little Tom Thumb steals an ogre’s magic boots and escapes though a trail of bread crumbs left for his brothers gets eaten up by birds; a beautiful cook disguises herself in a donkey skin, but a prince, having looked through her keyhole (he’s been diagnosed by a doctor to be sick with love) is able to find out who she after she bakes an expensive ring in a cake, made with salt, butter, and eggs; ugly Prince Tuft is transformed into a handsome prince by a fairy after he helps a pretty girl become intelligent.

Numerous songs by Bob Dylan have a fairy tale-like quality where from dire situations a hero escapes. A reworked version it is, but there’s a clear reference to ‘Little Tom Thumb’ fairy tale in the following verse:

And her silver-studded phantom cause
The grey flannel dwarf to scream
As he weeps to wicked birds of prey
Who pick up on his bread crumb sins

(Bob Dylan: Gates Of Eden)

Dylan mangles up fairy tales. In ‘Blue Beard’, Sister Anne stands in a tower to signal if she spots the two brothers approaching on horseback:

Outside in the distance
A wild cat did growl
Two riders were approaching
The wind began to howl

(Bob Dylan: All Along The Watchtower)

Anne’s brothers arrive just in time to save their other sister. The following lyrics make black-humoured reference to the ‘just in the nick of time’ endings of fairy tales read in order to frighten children –  like ‘Blue Beard’, ‘Little Tom Thumb’ and ‘Donkeyskin:

Now, if you see Saint Annie, please tell her, ‘Thanks a lot’

I can not move and my fingers are all in a knot
I do not have the strength to get up and take another shot
And my best friend, my doctor, won’t even say what it is I’ve got

Bob Dylan tells a not-so-happy fairy tale about ‘Cinderella’:

And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row

(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

A variant on Charles Perrault’s ‘Donkeyskin’ is detectable in the following lyrics:

You’ll start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she needs
But you’ll wind up peeking through her keyhole
Down upon your knees …..
She wears an Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks
She’s a hypnotist collector, you are a walking antique

(Bob Dylan: She Belongs To Me)

And in the lyrics below as well – with a dash of Ricky Tuft thrown in for good luck:

I woke I up this morning with butter and eggs in my bed
I ain’t got enough room to even raise my head ….
Come back, baby, say we never more will part
Don’t be a stranger with no brain and no heart

(Bob Dylan: The Levee’s Gonna Break)

In the song lyrics that follow, there’s an inversion of the other theme present in ‘Prince Ricky Of The Tuft’:

Well, I took me a woman late last night
I’s three-fourth drunk, she looked all right
‘Till she started peelin’ off her onion gook
She took off her wig, said ‘How do I look?”
I’s high flyin’, bare naked, out the window

You might also enjoy: The never ending story of becoming – Bob Dylan and Paul Verlaine

What else is on the site?

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to the 500+ songs reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.  It contains links to reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.

We also now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

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

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