The Symbolism Of The Oak (Part II)


See also Bob Dylan and the Oak Tree

by Larry Fyffe

In the following poem, behind an allegorical oak tree, Eve-like Christabel encounters a female snake-demon in the night. Disguised in a white robe as the beautiful bejewelled Geraldine, the Lilith archetype is determined to break down the traditional roles assigned to women and men. She seduces the Christian belle:

She  folded her arms beneath her cloak
And stole to the other side of the oak
Who sees she there?
There she sees a damsel bright
Drest in a silken robe of white
That shadowy in the moonlight shone ...
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair
(Samuel Coleridge: Christabel)

Though Coleridge be essentially an orthodox Christian, the opium-addicted writer often puts a Gothic spin on his poetry. In the canonized Judeo-Christian Bible, the older word ‘Lilith’ gets replaced by the English word ‘screech owl’. Nor does the potential power possessed by women get good press by Coleridge:

The screech owl also shall rest there
And find herself a place to rest
(Isaiah 34:14)

The poem below unleashes the story of the rebellious Lilith – her sexual desires seen as a threat to male dominance:

Of Adam's first wife Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve)
That, ere the snake's, her sweet tongue could deceive
And her enchanted hair was the first gold
And still she sits, young while the earth is old
(Dante Rossetti: The Lady Lilith)

Though somewhat double-edged and ambiguous, the allegorical song lyrics below portray the cutting off of the enchanted hair of Lilith by patriarchal authority which is represented by Jupiter.  A messenger warns of the danger she poses to the morals of male youth, youth here represented by Apollo. The orthodox priest carries with him the image of a ‘dark nightingale’, a representation of Lilith, a warning that she’s as sexually seductive as the Whore of Babylon:

They shaved her head
She was drawn between Jupiter and Apollo
A messenger arrived with a dark nightingale
I seen her on the stairs, and could not help but follow
Follow her down past the fountain where they lifted her veil
(Bob Dylan: Changing Of The Guards)

The narrative poem lkabove is akin to the biblical story of Delilah, a Philistine women who seduces the Nazarite Samson into revealing the source of his strength. Best it would have been for Samson to stick with his own kind rather than getting mixed up with a stranger:

And she made him sleep upon her knees
And she called for a man to shave off the seven locks of his head
And she began to afflict him
And the strength went from him

Orthodox thought presents a figurative female figure like Lilith as being in league with the Devil. But, in the song below, the experience of life tells a different story:

Took an untrodden path once
Where the swift don't win the race
It goes to the worthy
Who can divide the word of truth
Took a stranger to teach me
To look into justice's beautiful face
And see an eye for an eye
And a tooth for a tooth
(Bob Dylan: I And I)

That is to say, to live in an oaken house that is overly restrictive in what is considered good, and what is considered evil, is bound to be broken, is bound to fall:

Gentlemen, he said
I don't need your organization, I've shined your shoes
I've moved your mountains, and marked your cards
But Eden is burning, either get ready for elimination
Or else your heart must have the courage for the changing of the guards
(Bob Dylan: Changing Of The Guards)


  1. Matthew Met Mary

    “I got a pheasant farm and I’ll take good care of him
    There’s a diamond spring and a big oak tree
    And he can climb on every limb
    A thousand doors couldn’t hold me back from you”

  2. For what it’s worth, Kahili Gibran speaks of the oak tree (America) and cedar tree (Lebanon) being separate trees as if to say Western religious thought differs from Eastern, suggesting perhaps that ‘never the twain shall meet.’

    Anyway, the western literary establishment dismisses the Lebanon-American prose–poet out of hand, but his thoughts infuse many of Bob Dylan song lyrics, I’d say, more than Dylan admits to.

  3. I wonder if that old oak tree is still standing
    That old oak tree, the one we used to climb
    (Duquesne Whistle)

  4. Gibran: ‘ The heart’s affections are like the branches of the cedar tree
    If the tree loses one strong branch …it will grow and fill the empty space

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