Bob Dylan And Theodore Roethke

By Larry Fyffe

A good number of the writers of the Age of Enlightenment appeal to man’s ability to reason in an effort to reduce the social, political, and economic conflict that they observe in the world around them; the ‘God’ of the religious establishment is tossed outside the workings of the Universe as He no longer seems to want to get involved anyway. 

Romantic writers of the day opt for intuition, rather than reason, as the right path to follow in the quest for knowledge – they look to external nature to gain insight through the senses by experiencing things that are  blissful, and things that are Gothic-like.

Romantic Transcendentalist writers attempt to merge transcendentalism and romanticism together – they claim to sense a spiritual goodness emanating from the distant Creator that permanently pervades the physical world.

Taking their cue from the Gothic Romantics, Symbolist poets go out of their way to derange their senses, and peek into the irrational recesses of the human mind that includes a night-time place wherein lies a land of dark dreams.

The Modernist American poet Theodore Roethke takes an individualistic, Existentialist view; he sweeps the style and content of previous artists into the vortex of a figurative whirlwind in a bid to make poetry anew. Roethke calls on poets who employ concrete ‘objective correlatives’ to express emotion – William Blake, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams:

In a dark time, the eye begins to see
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade
I hear my echo in the echoing wood 
A lord of nature weeping to a tree
I live between the heron and the wren
Beasts of the hill, and serpents of the den

(Theodore Roethke: In A Dark Time)

Down the road between Paradise and Hell also travels Bob Dylan, and, like Roethke, the singer/songwriter pulls himself out of the ditch of darkness and despair at the last moment:

Shadows are fallin', and I've been here all day
It's too hot to sleep, and time is runnin' away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun didn't heal ....
I've been down on the bottom of a whirlpool of lies
I ain't lookin' for nothin' in anyone's eyes
Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
It's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there

(Bob Dylan: Not Dark Yet)

A college-educated country songwriter/singer rejects both Roethke and Dylan’s existentialist angst-ridden outlook – in fact, turns matters completely upside down with a dose of sincere Christian altruistic concern:

And you start to think
About settling down
The things that would have been lost on you
Are now clear as a bell 
And you find yourself ....
When you meet the one
You've been waiting for
And she's everything 
That you want, and more

(Brad Paisley: Find Yourself)

Not filled with selfless light are the following earlier-written song lyrics that are instead filled to the brim with self-serving cynicism:

Oh find me, I'm under your wing
Find me, you are my whirlwind ....
I'll be your lover, and you'll meet me there
Or maybe do whatever you want me to do
Find me, a running bell
Find me, I wish you all well
Baby, you are my everything

(Bob Dylan: Find Me)

In the poem below, the shortness of an individual’s life is compared to being entangled with existential responsibility when awake – the longness of death is compared to being asleep:

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear
I learn by going where I have to go
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow

(Theodore Roethke: The Awaking)

Somewhat similarly, the following song lyrics are easily interpreted to mean that, even if an individual thinks him/herself to be sincerely religious, the time to act on, and to strengthen one’s moral values, is in the here and now when alive rather than standing around, and waiting – relying on faith alone – to be judged by God in an afterlife:

God don't make promises that He don't keep
You got some big dreams, baby, but in order to dream you
gotta still be asleep
When you gonna wake up, when you gonna wake up
When you gonna wake up, and strengthen the things that remain?

(Bob Dylan: When You Gonna Wake Up)

The song ends on a sardonic note: “Believe in His power that’s about all you have to do.”

In the end, Bob Dylan brings in all back to the shelter inside of which Theodore Roethke’s solitary individual resides :

Well, you're on your own, you always were
In the land of wolves and the thieves
Don't put your hope in ungodly man
Or be a slave to what somebody else believes

(Bob Dylan: Trust Yourself)

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.

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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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