Bob Dylan: Keats West


by Larry Fyffe

In the song “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”, Bob Dylan pirates the ‘negative capability’ philosophy of John Keats, written on the wall. In the poem ‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’,  Keats looks upon a painting of a desirable women frozen in time; she’s on an urn that carries the ashes of the dead; on sensuous earth, however, like summer turns to winter, the warmth of youthful beauty fades away:

Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve
She cannot fade, though thou has not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair
(John Keats: Ode On A Grecian Urn)

In the song lyrics below, Key West, in the southern climes seemingly betwixt heaven and earth, is a place of permanent sunshine where aging people go to live out their lives:

Key West is the place to be
If you are looking for immortality
Key West is paradise divine
Key West is fine and fair
Key West is on the horizon line
(Bob Dylan: Key West)

Key West always remains the same like the flat painting on Keats’ urn:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid spring adieu
And, happy melodies, wearied
Forever piping forever anew
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever panting, and for ever young
(John Keats: Ode To A Grecian Urn)

Quite happy in security retirees be; of the Grecian urn, the poet writes;

When old age this generation waste
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
(John Keats: Ode On A Grecian Urn)

When growing up there’s something that doth not love the thought of a retaining wall that encloses the permanent:

I'm searching for love, for inspiration
On that private radio station
Coming out of Luxembourg and Budapest
Radio signal clear as can be
I'm so in love that I can hardly see
Down on the flatlands, way down in Key West
(Bob Dylan: Key West)

Struggling with forces both ‘dark’ and ‘light’ is what growing up is all about; wandering Odysseus and Aeneas we all be before we settle down. So says another of Bob Dylan’s favorite poets, much influenced by the philosophy of John Keats:

On desperate seas long wont to roam
The hyacinth hair, thy classic face have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome
(Edgar Allan Poe: To Helen)

So says Bob:

Such is life, such is happiness
Hibiscus flowers grow everywhere here
If you wear one, put it behind your ear
Down on the bottom, way down in Key West
((Bob Dylan: Key West)

The smaller western bougainvillea flower looks similar to the hibiscus flower that symbolizes the Hindu Mother Goddess who has a bloody, raging side to her that’s tamed by her husband, the God of Time and Change; at him, she sticks out her tongue:

I know all the Hindu rituals
People tell me I'm truly blessed
Bougainvillea blooming in the summer, in the spring
Winter here is an unknown thing
Down in the flatlands, way down in Key West
(Bob Dylan: Key West)

Apparently, all is not quite as bright as it’s made out to be, hidden in the darkness there:

Key West is under the sun, under the radar, under the gun
You stay to the left, and then you lean to the right
Feel the sunlight on your skin, and the healing virtues of the wind
Key West, Key West is the land of light
(Bob Dylan: Key West)

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  1. A music source:

    Soothe me, baby, move me, baby
    Yes, I heard it all
    Another mule is kicking at my stall
    (Dave Bartholomew: Another Mule)

    As in:

    I heard all about it
    He was going down slow
    I heard it all
    The wireless radio
    (Bob Dylan: Key West)

  2. Yes, I’ve mentioned that particular poem by Stevens previously in regards to Dylan’s work:

    She was the single artifier of the world
    In which she sung. And when she sang, the sea
    Whatever self it had, became the self
    That was her song, for she was the maker
    (Wallace Stevens: The Idea Of Order At Key West)

    The idea that the Great Mother of birth, love, and death, puts order on the seemingly chaos of the external Nature – Blakean – Romantic Transcendentalism turned upside down, as it were – oft via her earth-bound male offspring as an Artist whom she protects with a ‘golden bough”, a symbol of a female Muse akin to Wordsworth’s solitary reaper.

    Perhaps Dylan’s “pretty little Miss” makes a direct link to Stevens’ poem in the song ‘Key West’.

  3. See Untold : “Charles Swinburne, Wallace Stevens, And The Jack Of Hearts”.

  4. Fly around my pretty little miss
    Fly around my daisy
    Fly around my pretty little miss
    You almost drive me crazy
    (Traditional: Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss)

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