Petrarch Or Shakespeare: Which Side Are You On?

By Larry Fyffe

The ‘Untold Dylan’ offices have been inundated with letters. Writers thereof are shocked and appalled at the assertion that Bob Dylan imitates the form of the English sonnet when structuring some song lyrics; most of these letters, many with an Italian stamp on them, contain the retort that, although blank verse is often used in translating, it’s the Petrarchan format that’s employed by the American singer/songwriter; not the Shakespearen pattern (as claimed in the article “Bob Dylan And Franciso Petrarch – Part III”). Many of the letters say that there be no hard and fast rule that a Petrarchan sonnet can’t end in a couplet.

A number of letters note that while admittedly the song below links up with William Shakespeare’s Sonnet XV – “Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay” -, the lyrics are easily reformulated as a sonnet having an octave and a sestet.

First the octave:

It's been such a long, long time
Since we loved each other
And our hearts were true
One time, for one brief day, I was just the man for you
Last night, I heard you talkin' in your sleep
Sayin' things you shouldn't say
Ooh, baby
You just might have to go to jail someday

Then the sestet:

Is there anywhere
We can go
Is there anybody
We can see?
Ah, maybe
It's the same for you as it is for me
(Bob Dylan: Long And Wasted Years)

A number of writers note that this song is really three Petrarchan sonnets set in a row:

I ain't seen my family in twenty years
That ain't easy to understand
They may be dead by now
I lost track of them after they lost their land
Shake it up baby, twist and shout
You know what it's all about
What are you doin' out there in the sun anyway
Don't you know the sun can burn your brains right out?

My enemy crashed into dust
Dropped in his tracks, and lost his lust
He was run down hard, and broke apart
He died in shame, he had an iron heart
I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes
There are secrets in them that I can't disguise

(Bob Dylan: Long And Wasted Years)

And the final Petrarchan:

Come back baby, if I hurt your feelings I apologize
Two trains runnin' side by side
Forty miles wide
Down the eastern line
You don't have to go
I just came to see you 'cause you're a friend of mine
I think that when my back was turned
The whole world behind me burned

It's been a while
Since we walked down that long, long aisle
We cried on a cold and frosty morn
We cried because our souls were torn
So much for tears
So much for them long and wasted years

(Bob Dylan: Long And Wasted Years)

Pointed out by some writers is that the following song differs from the Shakespearean sonnet in that the couplet is part and parcel of the sestet rather than it being a concise statement about a change in perspective.

As illustrated by:

She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car a far as we could
Abandoned it out west
Split up on a dark and sad night
Agreeing it was best

She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin' away
I heard her say over my shoulder
We'll meet again some day
On the avenue
Tangled up in blue

(Bob Dylan: Tangled Up In Blue)

Don’t send no more letters – no …….if any song by Bob Dylan fits into a foureen-line format, let’s just call it a “Dylanesque sonnet”.

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  1. Intriguing article, Larry. It seems the sonnet form gives shape to some of these songs without the listener knowing. But it doesn’t matter if we know or not, as the form is satisfying at an unconscious level. The sonnet is a remarkably durable poetic form in all its variations – what is it, I wonder, that makes fourteen lines so attractive to the aesthetic sense?

  2. Yes, I was wondering exactly that myself when I wrote the piece ….perhaps the durability of the sonnet form has something to do with the ‘attention span’ of the human brain -its ability to grasp something that’s not simplistic without becoming confused and fatigued by too many ‘ands’, ‘ifs’, and ‘buts’.

  3. Mike, after many long and wasted years, I finally came up with this good line for a poem:

    “This hermit wasted a lifetime snoozing in the grass”

    Any ideas on how I might finish it?

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