Bob Dylan And Francesco Petrarch

by Larry Fyffe

For the pleasure of the readers of ‘Untold Dylan’, take heed that ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’ is a Dylan song that’s loosely based on Shelley’s poem ‘The Revolt Of Islam’.

The Renaissance humanist poet Francesco Petrarch looks back fondly on the artistic achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans as a ‘Golden Age’ of culture that darkens with the rise of Christianity after the fall of the the Roman Empire:

To make a graceful act of revenge
And punish a thousand wrongs in a single day
Love secretly took up his bow again
Like a man who waits for the time and place to strike

(Francesco Petrarch: To Make A Graceful Act Of Revenge

Like William Blake later on down the line, Petrarch presents himself as the archer and musician Apollo. Petrarch’s up against a religious establishment that’s very powerful, akin to the mythological Jupiter,  and so the poet resorts to stealth – to figurative assassination. A former priest, he anguishes over the unrequited desire for Laura, a beautiful woman.

The imagery in many of the Gothic Romantic poems by Percy Shelley reveals the influence of this Italian poet from the fourteenth century.  The Shelleys be Gnostics bound to a rock, in their spiritual, anti-establishment beliefs – Shelley’s wife Mary pens the novel “Frankenstein, Or Prometheus Unbound”.

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan picks up on this Petrarchan dark versus light imagery:

There's a woman on my lap, and she's drinkin' champagne
Got white skin, got assassin's eyes
I'm looking into sapphire-tinted skies
I'll well dressed, waitin' for the last train

(Bob Dylan: Things Have Changed)

Beware, beware! The last train comin’ slowly up around the bend is carrying feminist assassins seeking revenge against males for derailing their revolution like the tyrannical Sultan smashed rebellions in the Ottoman Empire.

In a number of Dylan’s songs, though seldom noted by the oft Christian-fixated examiners of his lyrics, there are lots of Shelleyan images that reflect the desire for democratic values:

That night we anchored in a woody bay
And sleep no more around us dared to hover
Than, when all doubt and fear has passed away

It shades the couch of some unresting lover

(Percy Shelley: The Revolt Of Islam)

Bob Dylan borrows from Percy Shelley’s image of an unknowable Universal Spirit – below – manifested in terms of a female tiger:

You trampled on me as you passed
Left the coldest kiss upon my brow
All my doubts and fears are gone at last
I've nothing more to tell you now .....
Tell ol' Bill when he comes home
Anything is worth a try
Tell him I'm not alone
The hour has come to do or die

(Bob Dylan: Tell Ol’ Bill)

Cyntha, another name for Apollo’s twin sister, rides her steed to join Laon burning at the stake:

Fled tameless, as the brazen rein she flung
Upon his neck, and kissed his mooned brow
A piteous sight, that one so fair and young
The clasp of such a fearful death should woo
With smiles of tender joy as beamed from Cyntha now ....
'For me that world is grown too void and cold
Since hope pursues immortal destiny
With steps thus slow - therefore shall ye behold
How those who love, yet fear not, dare to die'

(Percy Shelley: The Revolt Of Islam)

Note the alliterative ‘do or die’/”dare to die’, and the ‘Dylanesque rhyme twist’ ~ ‘brow’/’now’. Dylan condenses Shelley’s long poem into a short postmodern can of soup.

Stealing the alchemic diction of William Blake, the ‘infidel’ Shelley writes:

And before that chasm of light
As within a furnace bright
Column, tower, dome, and spire
Shine like obelisks of fire
Pointing with inconstant motion
From the altar of dark ocean
To the sapphire-tinted skies

(Percy Shelley: Euganean Hills)

Prometheus of Greek mythology steals the fire of creativity from the gods, and gives it to humans. Likewise, artists, professionals ones, dare to steal from the greats who have shone before them:

Tiger, Tiger,  burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes
On what wings dare he aspire
What the hand dare seize the fire?

(Wiliam Blake: The Tiger)

Bob Dylan dares.

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