Bob Dylan And WH Auden (Part III)

By Larry Fyffe

As I went out one morning I bumped into WH Auden

The threepenny opera: Bob Dylan and WH Auden

In spite of what he jokingly claims, singer/singerwriter Bob Dylan is quite influenced by the humanist messages uncovered in the figurative diction of WH Auden’s writings.

Auden, a poet who is influenced by socio-economic theories of Karl Marx though extremely disgruntled at  how these have been put into practice:


About suffering they were never wrong
The Old Masters: how well they understood
It's human position ....
In Brueghel's 'Icarus', for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster ....
and the expensive ship delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on

Musée des Beaux Arts (1940) W.H. Auden

In the poem above, by way of hyperbolic analogy, the worship of the Golden Calf, the God of Money, is far more important than concern about the dire plight of any fellow human beings in the modern industrial state let alone in an outright authoritarian one.

Similar to the sentiments expressed in the song lyrics below whereby individuals are conditioned in  capitalist ‘democracies’ to think only of themselves:

Advertising signs that con you
Into thinking you're the one
That can do what's never be better done
That can win what's never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you
(Bob Dylan: It's Alright Ma)

Yes, to think the modernized Puritanical thought that no-one is to be trusted; below, Victor believes he’s Christ Almighty; knows all:

It wasn't the Jack Of Diamonds
Not the Joker she drew first
It wasn't the the King or Queen of Hearts
But the Ace of Spades reversed
Victor was standing in the doorway
He didn't utter a word
She said, "What's the matter darling?"
He behaved as if he hadn't heard
(WH Auden: Victor)

Postmodern Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine. Seems Death awaits those who do not properly follow the path of the Golden Calf – akin to the sentiment expressed in the narrative song lyrics below; only it’s the wealthy but wayward Big Diamond Jim who’s got a real reason to be nervous; JOH might well stand for ‘Jehovah’:

He was standing in the doorway, looking like the Jack Of Hearts ....
She fluttered her false eyelashes, and whispered in his ear
"Sorry, darling, that I'm late", but he didn't seem to hear
He was staring into space over at the Jack Of Hearts
(Bob Dylan: Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts)

The Dylanesque ‘rhyme twist’ ~ ‘ear’/hear’ instead of ~ ‘word’/ ‘heard’ – with a Lily as a symbol of Death rather than an Ace of Spades:

So be the mechanical clock of the city oft juxtaposed in poetry with the organic and regenerative cycles of the countryside:

As I walked out one evening
Walking down Bristol Street
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat ....
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime
O let not Time deceive you
You cannot conquer time
(WH Auden: As I Walked Out One Evening)

An Imagist poet presents a darker metaphor depicting death-like city life:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd
Petals on a wet, black bough
(Ezra Pound: In A Station Of The Metro)

Below, Death is described as a fair maiden but she’s really the Queen of Spades in disguise:

As I went out one morning
To breathe the air around Tom Paine's
I spied the fairest damsel
That ever did walk in chains ....
"I beg you, sir", she pleaded
From the corners of her mouth
"I will secretly accept you
And together we'll fly south"
(Bob Dylan: As I Went Out One Morning)

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