Bob Dylan and John Milton

by Larry Fyffe

Often, nursery rhymes are morality tales told by adults to children in order to teach them the difference between bad and good behaviour:

Ding dong bell
Kitty's in the well
Who put her there?
Little Johnny Thin
Who pulled her out?
Little Tommy Stout
(Ding, Dong Bell ~ nursery rhyme)

An adult, however, might go further, and make a religious allegory out of the nursery rhyme: Johnny Thin is Satan who leads God’s human creations (represented by the ‘kitty’) to Hell; Tommy Stout is Jesus who endangers His own life in order to save them.

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan adds another step to the ladder. He revises the above nursery rhyme, and combines ‘low’ and ‘high’ art to construct a Post Modern narrative that leaves the door ajar for the adult reader/listener to add his/her own thoughts to its possible meaning:

The cat's in the well, the wolf is looking down
He got his big bushy tail dragging all over the ground
(Bob Dylan: Cat's In The Well)

At first glance, the above song is similar to the allegorical nursery rhyme, only this time the wolf represents Satan: here’s a biblical reference to support this interpretation.

In the biblical piece below, the wolf represents Satan; the good shepherd, Jesus; the sheep, the people; and the hireling, corrupted clergy:

I am the good shepherd
The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep
But he that is an hireling ... seeth the wolf coming
And leaveth the sheep and fleeth
And the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep
(The Book Of St. John 10: 11,12)

Likewise in the song below, “the gentle lady”, the bride of Christ (the church), nor its flock, are on alert for the devil:

The cat's in the well, the gentle lady is asleep
She ain't hearing a thing , the silence is a-sticking her deep
(Bob Dylan: Cat's In The Well)

There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark:

The cat's in the well, and the barn is full of bull
The night is long, and the table is, oh, so full
(Bob Dylan: Cat's In The Well)

The kitty is hoping for one of those biblical miracles:

And He commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass
And He took the five loaves, and the two fishes
And, looking up to heaven, He blessed, and brake
And gave the loaves to his disciples
And the disciples to the multitude
And they all did eat, and were filled
And they took up of the fragments that remained
Twelve baskets full
(St. Matthew 14: 19, 20)

But where is Jesus when you really need Him? Not to worry, He’s ‘looking down’ at you from Heaven; he’s protecting the kitty. Jesus is symbolized by the wolf, the sacred animal of Apollo, the son of Zeus (Jove):

Another name often given him was ‘the Lycian’, variously explained as meaning
Wolf-God, God of Light, and God of Lycia
(Mythology: Edith Hamilton)

According to mythology, Apollo (Phoebus) is born in Lycia, “the land of the wolves”, where his mother flees to get away from the wrath of Hera, the wife of Zeus; Leto is guided and guarded by wolves.

A Puritan poet pens an elegy – the main theme of which is thought by many analysts thereof to be about the corrupt members of the clergy of the established church, they neglecting their flock of sheep:

"The hungry sheep look up and are not fed
But swollen with the wind, and the rank mist they draw
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said ..."
(John Milton: Lycidas)

In ancient mythology, Lycidas is a shepherd, not a wolf, akin to Adonis, the handsome youth who’s allowed to return to “the high lawns” in the spring; running water is a symbol of regeneration. In the winter, Adonis is trapped in the underworld; Nature’s unconcerned about the comforts of mankind; at times life seems so futile:

The cat's in the well, the leaves are starting to fall
Good night, my love, may the Lord have mercy on us all
(Bob Dylan: Cat's In The Well)

Never let it be said that the poetic lyrics of John Milton or Bob Dylan be simplistic.

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1 Response to Bob Dylan and John Milton

  1. We are actively promoting a link to this interesting topic on The Bob Dylan Project at:
    https://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/114/Cats-in-the-Well

    If you are interested, we are a portal to all the great information related to this topic.

    Join us inside Bob Dylan Music Box.

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