MacHeath, Macavity, And The Lamp Post

by Larry Fyffe

Singer/songwriter/ musician Bob Dylan drinks from the artistic well of both the Marxist-oriented Threepenny Opera, starring MacHeath, and the conservative satire of Thomas Eliot’s poetry, featuring Macavity.

Many an artist of these recent times, due to the two terrible world wars, depict a world that’s gone morally bankrupt in which God stands amorally by, and merely watches what’s goin’ on.

The singer/singerwriter, in the following lyrics, observes that the robes of religion are in tatters, and in need of mending:

By the marble slabs, and in fields of stone
You made your humble wishes known
I touched the garment, but the hem was torn
In Scarlet Town, where I was born

(Bob Dylan: Scarlet Town)

In the lyrics below, given the institution of slavery, a Quaker poet of yesteryear has doubts about whether or not there exists a perfect, seamless God:

I pondered over the sacred word
I read the record of our Lord
And, weak and troubled, envy them
Who touched His seamless garment's hem

(John Whittier: The Chapel Of Hermits)

Unlike the Holy Bible wherein a woman “diseased with an issue of blood twelve years” believes that Jesus Christ is a faith-healer:

For she said within herself
"If I may touch His garment
I shall be whole"

(Matthew 9: 21)

In many a modern poem, the imagery of earth-based gas and electric light replaces that of the holy Light emanating from Heaven – from God’s vestments, so to speak.

In the verse that follows, a street lamp flutters like a flustered preacher faced  with the nihilistic outlook of a society that’s fallen away from orthodox religion:

The street lamp sputtered
The street lamp muttered
The street lamp said, "Regard that woman
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the doorway
Which opens on her like a grin
You see the border of her dress
Is torn, and stained with sand"

(TS Eliot: Rhapsody On A Windy Night)

From the stage of a music theatre,  street lamps send out warnings that time’s running out – it’s getting close to being too late for wo/men (represented by Eliot’s  ‘Cats’) to  amend their ways:

Every street lamp seems to beat
A fatalistic warning
Someone mutters
And the street lamp gutters
And soon it will be morning

(Elaine Paige: Memory ~ T Nunn, et al)

The poor, aged, and neglected cat Grizabella makes an appearance upon the stage:

She's all the time in my neighbourhood
She cries both day and night
I know 'cause it was there
It's a milestone, but she's down on her luck

(Bob Dylan: I’m Not There)

In the song that follows, a lamp-post guards the sealed gates of paradise; babies cry outside. If God’s in His Heaven, He’s rather complacent about what’s going on down on Earth:

The lamp post stands with folded arms
Its iron claws attached
To curbs 'neath holes where babies wail
Though it shadows metal badge
All in all can only fall
With a crashing, but meaningless blow

(Bob Dylan: Gates Of Eden

Maavity, Eliot’s ‘mystery cat’, is another stand-in for a stand-offish God:

Like I said, "Carry on"
I wish I was there to help her
But I'm not there, I'm gone

(Bob Dylan: I’m Not There )

According to a number of modern-day neo-Romantic artists, the pages of yesterday’s civil code of moral values fade away like dead flowers. Morals disappear one after the other under the weight of the technology of modern warfare:

Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes the dead geranium

(TS Eliot: Rhapsody On A Windy Night)

The same flower symbolizes decaying morality in the song following:

The kings of Tyrus with their convict list
Are waiting in line for their geranium kiss
And you wouldn't know it would happen like this
But who among them really wants just to kiss you

(Bob Dylan: Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands)

Apparently, it’s a theme, image, and a rhyme – all in one – that’s worth messing around with:

The street lamp said
"Remark the cat which flattens itself in the gutter
Slips out its tongue
And devours a morsel of rancid butter"

(TS Eliot: Rhapsody On A Windy Night)

And so it goes:

Just how much abuse will you be able to take
Well, there's nothing to tell by that first kiss
What's a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?

(Bob Dylan: Sweetheart Like You)

Gothic imagery everywhere:

The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things
A twisted branch upon a beach
Eaten smooth, and polished
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton

(TS Eliot: Rhapsody On A Windy Night)

Poetic imagery that’s given tribute in the song below:

And take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow

(Bob Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man)





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