Bob Dylan And Oscar Wilde (Part III)

By Larry Fyffe

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Seasons change. Spring turns to Summer, Summer to Autumn, Autumn to Winter. Childhood turns to Youth, Youth to Adulthood, Adulthood to Old Age. Realistic images are often taken by artists – who be themselves Romantically inclined – from the external seasons to serve as ‘objective correlatives’ that re-enforce the spiritual mood of the characters portrayed whether happy or sad; or indeed to emphasise the actual physical state of characters present in a particular work of art.

Artists wishing that time would stand still at a certain point in the ageing process turn not to Nature, but to man-made objects of art for corresponding images that remain, at least in relative terms, permanently fixed the same forever – as symbolized, for example, by a picture on an ancient urn:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu
And, happy melodies, unwearied
Forever piping songs for ever new
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm, and still to be enjoyed
For ever panting, and for ever young
(John Keats: Ode On A Grecian Urn)

Wistful thinking on Keats’ part for sure. Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan settles for the hope of keeping a youthful spirit in spite of the inevitable process of physical aging:

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
(Bob Dylan: Forever Young)

Influenced by John Keats, satirist Oscar Wilde writes a story about a picture of a person named Dorian Gray in which the painted portrait of Gray ages; in real life, however, Gray remains forever young. Dorian goes on to lead a bad life; he stabs the artist to death who did the portrait because he blames him for causing the picture of Gray to become more and more hideous over time.

Not to be outdone, Bob Dylan claims, in a song, that he’s accused of shooting a man named Gray to death. Being a practical artist, Dylan then keeps a number of his own songs forever young by revising, to varying degrees, the lyrics of songs that he continues to perform.

An extreme case –  the lyrics of ‘Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking’ at first speak of a possible permanence. Though the gates of Eden are guarded forever by a flaming sword, after the physical death of an individual on earth, a new spiritual life of happiness awaits him or her in Heaven if they’re  lucky – the orthodox religious belief that Frederich Nietzsche calls the ‘morality of slaves’:

There's a kingdom called Heaven
A place where there is no pain of birth
Well the Lord created it, mister
About the time He made the earth

Then in a later version of the song, the lyrics speak of a time a-changing, and of a betrayal, not by a sword, but by a Judas kiss:

Jesus is calling, He's coming back to pick up his jewels
We're living by the golden rule, whoever got the gold rules ....
A brave man will kill you with a sword, a coward with a kiss
(Bob Dylan: Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking)

The latter version can easily be interpreted as rather cynical, and double-edged. Quoting  as he does directly from Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad From Reading Gaol”, Dylan questions with dark humour the hypocritical direction taken by the gold-seeking Christian churches of modern times as Geoffrey Chaucer does in his time, and Wilde in his day.

Done by their adding on many a supposition, true believers in church dogma (itself added to biblical scripture by various Judeo-Christian theologians over time) find assuredly that there’s  little change in the meanings between the two versions of the song by Dylan ~ see: Kees de Gaaf, for example.

Below, however, is an imaginative word-picture painted by the Wilde Decadent, its mood correlated to realistic objects in external Nature akin to the style of the antiDeistic Transcendentalist Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Walt Whitman than to that of the gloomy Gothic Romantics like Keats:

A delicate odour is borne on the wing in the morning breeze
The odour of leaves, and of grass, and of newly upturned earth
The birds are singing for joy of the Spring's glad birth
Hopping from branch to branch on the rocking trees
(Oscar Wilde: Magdalen Walks)

‘Magdalen’ being the name of a college that Oscar attended.

Bringing to mind a Transcendalist vision in song lyrics presented by the singer/songwriter, but a viewpoint that comes from the internal Imagination of the human Mind of the beholder rather than from some manifested guiding Absolute Spirit out there somewhere both within and without the physical Universe:

If not for you, the winter would hold no spring
Couldn't hear a robin sing
I wouldn't have a clue
If not for you
(Bob Dylan: If Not For You)

So it seems that man-made art can be a thing of beauty that lasts forever while some of it keeps its vitality everlasting by continuing to change.

Now that that’s all straightened out ….

What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about 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.

The index to all the 590 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

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And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews

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