Bob Dylan And Emily Dickinson

Bob Dylan And Emily Dickinson

by Larry Fyffe

Although surrounded by a culture steeped in the tenets of the Calvinist religion, poet Emily Dickinson distances herself from organized religion. She particularly detests the dogma of ‘original sin’ that church leaders send nipping at the heels of parishioners.

Dickinson sides with the serpent of Eden who gives Adam’s wife Eve a book of Romantic Transcendentalist poetry that he’s written concerning the trees in Eden – with its focus on the tree growing in the midst of the Garden:

And the serpent said unto the woman

"Ye shall not surely die"
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof
Then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods
Knowing good and evil
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food
And that it was pleasant for the eyes
And a tree to be desired to make one wise
She took of the fruit thereof, and did eat 
And gave also unto her husband with her
And he did eat

(Genesis 3:4,5,6)

The Holy Bible tells a different story, however;  God banishes Adam and Eve from Paradise for disobeying Him. From that day on, the sight of a snake makes the senuous poetess nervous:

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides ....
But never met this fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And zero at the bone

(Emily Dickinson: A Narrow Fellow In The Grass)

On the other hand, a Modernist poet highly praises Dickinson for her daring to be different:

I saw a young snake glide
Out of the mottled shade ....
It quickened and was gone
I felt my slow blood warm
I longed to be that thing
The purely sensuous form

(Theodore Roethke: Snake) 

Given the culture in which he lives, singer/songwriter Bob Dylan alludes to the biblical serpent without feeling the need to mention it:

He saw an animal as smooth as glass
Slithering his way through the grass
Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake
["Ah, think I'll call it a snake"]

(Bob Dylan: Man Gave Names To All The Animals)

Emily Dickinson’s Romantic Transcendentalist sense of goodness in Nature is tempered by her awareness of the dark Puritan belief that evil lies therein:

There came a wind like a bugle
It quivered through the grass
And a green chill upon the heart
So ominous did pass

(Emily Dickinson: There Came A Wind Like A Bugle)


A sunlit symphony is the pantheistic picture of Nature that’s presented in the lyrics below, but drums and bugles are associated with war:

Struck by the sounds before the sun
I knew the night had gone
The morning breeze like a bugle blew
Against the drums of dawn

(Bob Dylan: Lay Down Your Weary Tune)

It’s not all good. Death, the Eternal Footman, he waits for you – he wants you so bad:

One dignity delays for all
One mitered afternoon
None can avoid this purple
None evade this crown
Coach, it insures, and footman 
Chamber, and state, and throng
Bells also in the village
As we ride grand along

(Emily Dickinson: One Dignity Delays For All)

Bob Dylan raises his hat to Emily Dickinson:

The guilty undertaker sighs
The lonesome organ grinder cries ....
And the saviours who are fast asleep, they wait for you
And I wait for them to interrupt
Me drinkin' from my broken cup
And ask me to open up the gate for you

(Bob Dylan: I Want You)

The last hiss, the snake gets:

So many roads, so much at stake
Too many dead ends, I'm at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it's gonna take
To find dignity

(Bob Dylan: Dignity)

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