Bob Dylan And The Arcane Metaphor

by Larry Fyffe

Things have changed once the over-zealous creed on strictness in sexual matters (brought to the Promised Land of America by the Puritans) became fodder for serious criticism by open-minded artists as well as by artists who favour burlesque – satire through poetry and song that mocks the instructive prescriptions of puritanical morality, or satire through the suggestive movements of dancers on stage that imitate actual sexual activity.

Standing in the way of these artists – the “morality police”, leftovers from the days of Puritan America. In the heyday of the American Romantic Transcendentalist writer sex is considered a vitalistic force operating quite unbounded throughout Nature, but they find it’s hidden behind closed doors in human social structures. Necessary for them be a secret code.

Some of these writers depict God Himself as pantheistic and sexual, and express this vision through double-edged diction such in the image of a hanging jewel:

The young men float on their backs, 
   their white bellies bulge to the sun
They do not ask who seizes fast to them
They don't know who puffs, and declines 
   with pendant and bending arch
They don't think whom they souse with spray
(Walt Whitman: Song Of Myself)

A latter-day follower of Whitman double-downs on these sexually-oriented neo-Transcendentalists  by burlesquing them through the burlesquing of the boom/boom movements of the burlesque dancer while making use of arcane metaphors rather than those that are quite obviously meant to be sexual:

And white legs waken salads in the the brain
You pick your blonde out neatly through the smoke
Always you wait for someone else though, always
(Then rush to the nearest exist through the smoke)
(Hart Crane: National Winter Garden)

A British music group of progressive rockers produce the following lyrics, double-edged the lyrics be in that the title of a record album of theirs is referenced therein:

Brain Salad Surgery
It will murder you, it murdered me
Made it for our enemy
Brain Salad Surgery

(Emerson, Lake, And Palmer: Brain Salad Surgery~ Emerson/Lake/Sinfield)

The lyrics of the poem ‘National Winter Garden’ could well be the source of  ‘brain salad surgery”, an arcane metaphor for sure, a stand-in for the sexual act of fellatio – though it’s claimed  by others that the term originates from the lyrics below:

I been running trying to get hung up in my mind
Got to give myself a good talking to this time
Just need a little brain salad surgery
Got to cure my insecurity

(Dr. John: Right Place Wrong Time)

A contributor to the song above journeys down the same shadowy road, but he’s deliberately careful with the kind of diction that he chooses – “I’m on the right trip/But in the wrong car” – as well as with the words he uses below:

There's a woman on my lap, and she's drinking champagne
Got white skin, got assassin's eyes ....
This place ain't doing me any good
I'm in the wrong town, I should be in Hollywood ....
Ain't no shortcuts, gonna dress in drag
All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie
I'm in love with a woman who don't even appeal to me
(Bob Dylan: Things Have Changed)

The singer/songwriter’s persona above takes on a double disguise. At other times, as in the lyrics below, it’s more blatant what the pen is talking about:

Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you, and then he kneels
He crosses himself, and then he clicks his high heels
And without further notice, he asks you how it feels
And he says, "Here's your throat back, thanks for the loan"
And you know something is happening
But you don't what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?
(Bob Dylan: Ballad Of A Thin Man)

Arcane, the following lyrics are surely not:

Saddle me up my big white goose
Tie me on'er, turn her loose
Oh me, oh my
Love that country pie
(Bob Dylan: Country Pie)

What else is on the site?

We have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 3330 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 

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site.  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 597 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

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.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, or indeed have an idea for a series of articles that the regular writers might want to have a go at, please do drop a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article to

And please do note our friends at  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, plus links back to our reviews (which we do appreciate).


  1. I probably shouldn’t touch this but I decided to chime in. Wether arcane or not so arcane, Bob’s songs are highly sensual and sexual too! There is more going on with country pie than the goose it is actually a very promiscuous piece (pun intended). My pint being that it is not that subtle but actually quite overt. I say this if you if you have conversed with many men and heard what they say to one another. Or if you have brothers who lack filter. Lol Anyway for the most part Bob is very sensual in the broadest of terms as well! That is poetry! I am thankful that he is such a wordsmith that he never relies on vulgarity or crudeness you convey his desires or love of the opposite sex. His words are layered and nuanced with class to which I am grateful. He is strong but delicate about his manhood! He doesn’t make your skin crawl but he doesn’t whitewash human sexuality and desire either. He stands as a good model of conversation and conduct I think. Good article; as a springboard to making waves in overly puritanical waters

  2. Thank you Larry Fyffe,
    I usually steer clear of sexual and gender related topics at least in writing but your article made me think I could do it here. I only wish I could fix those couple of typos! LOL!
    One of the main things I also wish I could have said but will take opportunity with now is in the comparison to the other artist you mentioned. Although they serve as examples of breaking with moral codes of conduct they are more to be contrasted with Bob than compared. I say this with regard to what I have already written about Bob Dylan and his decorum in addressing things sexual and sensual. To me Bob elevates and never degrades as part of his own compass in life. He is fearless but not tasteless, real but not rude. Very thought provoking and rare ground breaking subject you have addressed so thank you! nissi

  3. Love you guys & your Arcane/Arcane “Word Salad…Brain Salad…Man Did I ever stumble into a wonderful site to “duck & cover during the Apocalypse”…Will we or wont’ we??…Survive??….Just a Yank (wanker Mate(s)…Hail fro Dylan’s Homeland & New York State…Saranac Lake NY12983…USA Thanks for everything…ie…Shakespeare…Hawking…Dylan Thomas??
    ….i just jest ps Boris & Donald… we’re dying over here… Grew up on Monty Python/BennieHill/You Guys….are Fuckin’Hilarous…spent several weeks in the Fens working/just after 911…I thank-You my country Thanks You …Dylan thanks you for treating every word/lyric/piece of poetry so supercharged with youthful highjinks/desire/bloodletting/…ah You Know???by the way Straight/Not Gay but I’m ok with anybody except …TRUMP////Anybody doing Hits to make ends meet?? We got an Orange/Blob/Cruel/Stupid/Moron who requires some not at all subtle “Brain Salad Surgery”…Please Help This Virus has inundated/sexually/lombotomized most of the Christian Right(Who are Always Wrong) Bernie2020Blue…!!!

  4. Point taken, but to me the distinction between comparing and contrasting is not that great – both involve examining similarities and differences ; we are saying much the same thing about Dylan as far as I’m concerned when I read your comments.

    BTW: I noticed no others analysts referencing Crane’s ‘salads in the brain”.

    Thanks for comments … it’s always good to find that I’m getting my intended message across to one degree or another….one never knows for sure.

  5. Ronald Lee I am not quite sure I follow all, or indeed any, of your commentary, but I suspect that buried within it is the assumption that the writer is a citizen of the United Kingdom, which if it is your assumption, is completely untrue.

  6. Seriously though I think that the poster Lee considers that the time machine of the whole world has stopped functioning with the election of tweeter Trump to office in the United States, and that nonAmericans should be as concerned as he is about the dire consequences thereof, and therefore ought not bother with examining such trivial matters as the evolution over time of Dylan’s artistic creativity.

    That said, the poster then goes riding off in all directions, a-waving his cowboy hat, pistons a-popping, and smoke a-spewing.

  7. Indeed Larry,
    Thank you and yes you are right and I think I need to seriously brush up on my comparison and contrast strategies. I have become far to accustomed to writing in a bit of a flash! I guess I’m a little lazy and with a bit of a spontaneous mindset. The thing is if I take much time to process I get busy with other things and am unlikely to make any comment at all. I am willing to forgo commenting if it does not make any sense or is entirely wrong. If I should continue commenting when I can then there are choices to be made by myself and the writers of articles I comment on.
    Such as:
    I can try to be more disciplined in my approach and writing or you can accept me as I can present my opinions and ideas in withing the time I have to offer? For me though neither one of these choices are ideal. I love to be diligent enough that I think things through and perhaps research instead of relying primarily on my inner storehouse. Even then, I hope that you would not expect me to be able to write even close to what writers on this website do. I do apologize though if I seem cavalier about it all because I am not. I really do appreciate this website and all the writers here.

    My comments are merely a bit of insight and ideas that come to me. I am often a little rushed as well. So what are we left with then LOL! Not a heck of a lot if you ask me, which I am not sure you did; I am a bit of a volunteer. I am no professional writer! I am prone to typos even if I re read something and I also think my punctuation is incorrect most times. I tend to need quite a bit of comic relief or I start to feel crazy. I am not sure my references are not standard ones and I am far too verbose! So I guess it comes down to take it or leave it but qualifying it with I will try to be more disciplined, brush up where I can and read your articles more carefully with hope that I will improve organically from practice. I do want to participate but I do not have the base of knowledge, writing skill or point of references that writers here have. At this point I am quite tired of myself so I am at a crossroad. I love to swim and deep but these waters have bigger fish than me and are dark and intimidating at best so throw me a lifeline will you!

    Plodding right along, yes again you are right I did skip commenting on the whole brain salad surgery references. This is all you are getting from me with that regard and right or completely off the field I will just lob it to you quickly and take the risk that I attempted to get right out of my comfort zone to do it. If I go out in a sputter, please note that I have no interest in the whole blaze of glory thing anyway.

    I think ELP are against the world’s inundation of thought or morals that destroy the mind and they are seeking an ungoverned sexual liberation. I could be really wrong about my take on it though I have no real expertise about it. To me, I think the mind can get very depraved or even at worst turn reprobate. Do we not have many types of parameters to guide us in life? I actually think that for what some call freedom I see as a more insidious bondage and I dare say it is rife in our world today and people are suffering from it. This is the freedom that often encourages addiction. So on the other side what some view as bondage I see as freedom. So perspective is highly subjective. There is absolutely nothing wrong with sexual stimulation but methods can come into question. I mean fellatio is fine but I don’t personally think that porn is. For me brain surgery would be a renewing of the mind (Rm. 12:2)t and it is done by washing by the word. (Eph.5:26) There are many other verses that deal with this too!

    Anyway I must confess I really gravitate toward Bob above all other musicians and poets he is my stable anchor. Its not that I don’t appreciate diversity, its more a matter that Bob himself is highly diverse and layered just like Scripture is.

    Finally that’s all I have to share in these matters.
    honestly nissi

  8. Do comments awaiting moderation get typos fixed? Don’t expect any thing in the way of grammar, punctuation, context and the like.

  9. You worry too much about an odd typo now and then…they come with the territory…need to be fixed as one is writing them I believe… in any event your
    .comments are fine and make sense

  10. Thanks Larry,
    Thanks for the typo pass it actually relieves me so much for real! I read your entire article again and now I noticed so much more and also what you said about us saying similar things! I am since giving myself permission to slow down a bit. I think my response to you which by the way was written in good humor comes off a little too strong or edgy. The written word is great but it is hard to sound the way you would conversing over a cup of coffee. Subtle smiles and voice inflections are hard to convey in writing.

    I do want to tell you that I really enjoyed your entire article and that if I have sounded at all defensive it is not at all to you. On the contrary, it is against my perception of self. Your article was so good and the subject matter so unique (for me anyway) that I really felt I wanted to respond which I find rather puzzling because as I said it is not a topic I would have ever dreamed of writing about! So I really want to thank you for writing an article that would draw me out like that! Its like the song New York New York; “If I can make it here I can make it anywhere”. If I can write about this I can try and continue to comment on some of the other articles. This has been a good challenge for me. So I want to thank you for that even though it was not your intent.
    Keep up the good work! nissi

  11. There’s bound to be an article coming down the pipe that one disagrees with; as long as criticism is done in good faith ,and not done in a nasty manner, it’s more than welcome.

    I have long ago come to the conclusion that I might not be perfect (lol,lol)!

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