Bob Dylan And The Symbolism Of The Cypress Tree


by Larry Fyffe

In ancient Roman/Greek mythology the cypress tree becomes a symbol of permanent mourning.

Apollo, the sun-god, the twin of the moon goddess Artemis (Diana), gives a beloved boy a gift of a stag. The lad accidentally kills the deer, and the grief-stricken youth is turned into a cypress tree by Apollo.

The cypress tree be an objective correlative that represents persons who are unable to rise above their sorrows. The oak tree, on the other hand, symbolizes the strength of Apollo’s father Zeus, the God of Thunder:

And the oak tree, and the cypress
Grow not in each other's shadow
(Kahlil Gibran: The Prophet)

In the following song lyrics, the figurative oak tree suffers, but heals itself, and carries on coping with life’s ups and downs:

The sharp hills are rising from
The yellow fields with twisted oaks that grow
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight all alone?
(Bob Dylan: Moonlight)

Fast forward ahead in time, and John Greenleaf Whittier, an associate of the American Transcendentalist Movement, seeks to follow the Spirit of the loving God that pervades all of Nature by supporting the abolitionist movement, but he’s against the violence of war, and so attempts to do so by non-violent means.

Whittier chastises those who just sit around and do nothing when they’re aware of wrong-doing:

They sat in silent watchfulness
The sacred cypress tree about
And, from beneath old wrinkled brows
Their failing eyes looked out
(John Whittier: The Cypress Tree Of Ceylon)

Modifying Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s aphorism ‘do or die’, Whittier declares, “Our hearts can do and dare.” The horrors wrought by the  American Civil War give the American poet pause for thought.

On the microlevel of personal struggles with a love relationship, the following mournful message is transmitted:

I waited for you on the running boards
Near the cypress trees, while the springtime turned
Slowly into autumn
(Bob Dylan: Idiot Wind)

Even in the summertime, things can be said or done that be too late to do any good:

Scarlet Town, in the hot noon hours
There's palm-leaf shadows, and scattered flowers
Beggars crouching by the gate
Help comes, but it comes too late
(Scarlet Town: Bob Dylan)

In mythology, to Apollo’s twin sister Artemis (Diana/Selene), the cypress is a sacred tree.
In the poem below by a sad-eyed poet, Artemis weeps for the melancholic poet John Keats who yearns for everlasting beauty:

At midnight when the moonlit cypress trees
Have woven round his grave a magic shade ....
Selene weeps while all the tides are stayed
And the swaying seas are darkened into peace
(Sara Teasdale: For The Anniversary Of John Keats' Death)

In the song lyrics below, the narrator, Apollo-like, proffers that it’s better to say or do something before the desolation of winter, oft envisioned by writers as a correlative for death, sets in.

The boulevards of cypress trees
The masquerades of birds and bees
The petals, pink and white, the winds have blown
Won't you meet me in the moonlight all alone?
(Bob Dylan: Moonlight)

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 594 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

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