Changing of the Gods

by Larry Fyffe

As opposed to the standard Christian interpretation often given to it, the song analyzed below can be viewed as a critique of social norms established by today’s religious and secular authorities.

An unusual source that singer/songwriter Bob Dylan uses is now revealed exclusively by the ‘Untold Dylan’ researchers to its readers:

In the month of May, namely on May Day in the morning, every man, except impediment, would walk into the sweet meadows and green woods, there  to rejoice their spirits with the beauty and savour of flowers, and with the harmony of birds, praising God in their kind ….

(John Stowe: A Survey Of London)

Bob Dylan deliberately drops a  clue to his listeners that the verse below is inspired by a playful play penned by William Shakespeare –  “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”:

She's smellin' sweet like the meadows where she was born
On midsumner's eve, near the tower

(Bob Dylan: Changing Of The Guard)

The Bard tells a tale of tension between Hermia who’s in love with Lysander, and her father who has chosen Demetrius for his daughter to marry. The Duke of Athens sides with the father in order to protect the tradition of patriarchal authority. The Duke warns Hermia that she will be punished if she does not obey her father.

In Greek/Roman mythology, Jupiter is the symbol of State authority while Apollo, the golden god of the sun, though he too be rational, has an emotional side; he likes to play music. Artemis, the virgin goddess of the silver moon, is Apollo’s sister. The father complains that Lysander has bewitched his daughter – “hast by moonlight at her window sung”.

The Duke warns Hermia she’ll be condemned to worship at the temple of Artemis (Diana) for the rest of her life should she ignore her father’s wishes:

Whether, if you yield not to your father's choice
You can endure the livery of a nun
For aye to be in shady cloistered mewed
To live a barren sister all your life
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon

(Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act I, sc.i)

Per usual, Dylan varies the story line of the Shakespearean play, but the ending of song is essentially the same –  true love triumphs over the established order – in the sunshine of dreamland if not in the darkness of the actual world:

They shaved her head
She was torn between
Jupiter and Apollo
A messenger arrived with a black nightingale
I seen her on the stairs, and I couldn't help but follow
Follow her down past the fountain where they lifted her veil

(Bob Dylan: Changing Of The Guards)

Ah, but the Blakean dream remains; in it, Apollo, the fiery sun-god, wins, not Zeus (Jupiter), the god of thunder:

She's beggin' to know what measures he will be taking
He's pullin' her down and she's
Clutching on to his long golden locks ....
Peace will come
With tranquillity and splendour on the wheels of fire

(Bob Dylan: Changing Of The Guards)

In the established socio-eonomic order of the non-dream world, it’s the god of thunder who usually triumphs:

If you wish to send anything to the King
I'm your servant both night and day

(Geoffrey Chaucer: The Sergeant-At-Law’s Tale)

In the song lyrics below that reality sets in, as hinted at by the “tower” clue in “The “Changing Of The Guards”:

Thunder on the mountain, rollin' like a drum
Gonna sleep over there where the music's comin' from
I don't need any guide, I already know the way
Remember this, I'm your servant both night and day

(Bob Dylan: Thunder On The Mountain)

Shakespeare’s play is influenced by Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” in which two knights are imprisoned in a tower by the Duke; they escape, and are commanded to fight for the hand of the lady they both are in love with. One prays to Mars, the god of war; the other to Venus, the goddess of love. The lady prays to Artemis, the virgin goddess of the moon. The  knight who prays to Mars wins, but gets thrown from his horse, and, on his deathbed gives the lady to the knight he beat. The lady does not get her wish to remain independent.

In an ironic tone expressed be the song lyrics below:

I've been sittin' down studying the art of love
I think it will fit me like a glove
I want some real good woman to do just what I say
Everybody got to wonder what's the matter with this cruel world today

(Bob Dylan: Thunder On The Mountain)

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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