Bob Dylan: Fearful Symmetry


By Larry Fyffe

Loosely stated:

In his book, “The Great Code”, Canadian Northrop Frye examines the writings of the  Bible from a literary point of view; its language he  considers in and of itself, and discovers that an unrecognized unity lies within this holy book – though language itself has developed in accordance with three supposed cyclical stages of history:

1: mimetic/harmonic – human existence is magically in tune with what is natural; there are no written references as to anything being good or bad.

2: metaphoric/comparative – human existence is semi-detached from what is natural; that which is considered ‘good’, and what is  ‘bad’ is put down in writing.

3: metonymic/associative – human existence becomes alienated from the biblical point of view – life is depicted as demonic, and ironic; it’s full of sorrow, a ‘downer’; moreover, writing itself, ‘the Word’, shatters to pieces.

In “The Great Code”, Northrop Frye presents basically a Romantic vision that seeks a return to the biblical outlook that’s akin to what Ginsberg calls ‘Blakean-light’ mythology.

Upon the waves of Frye’s Jungian Sea, singer/songwriter/musician Bob Dylan launches his Titanic ship of fools laden with poetic lyrics which are accompanied by various types of folk, country, blues, rap, jazz, and rocknroll music – listeners thereto, being passengers on board, choose for themseves which side they are on –  even if it’s the written lyrics thereof upon which they focus.

The song lyrics below lean towards the mimetic/harmonic point of view:

Take me on a trip
Upon your magic swirling ship
My senses have been stripped ....
Cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it
(Bob Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man)

The following lyrics lean more toward the metonymic/associative point of view:

Little Richard in a two-storey house
Hey Little Richard, poor Little Richard
Little Richard's gonna climb on out
Hey Little Richard, poor little Richard
Little Richard's gonna climb with me
Hey Little Richard, poor little Richard
Little Richard is fine with me
(Bob Dylan: Hey Little Richard)

The song lyrics below more so:

"Daddy can you hear the angel talk?"
One more year of lollipops, ice-cream cones, and soda pop
One more year of cracker jacks, bubble gum, and sugar smacks
One more year of Daddy's little girl
(Bob Dylan: Daddy's Little Girl ~ Hazel Smith)

Harking back to the country song below:

He spoke of his angel, a dear little girl
He loved every footstep, he loved every curl
But she went to Heaven, just one year ago
The angels came for her, at the first fall of snow
(Molly O'Day: At the First Fall Of Snow ~ Lorene Rose)

The three language phases overlap; the following song lends itself to a metaphoric/comparative point of view – the narrator therein apparently stays away a little too long from his girlfriend who’s not with him in Mississippi:

Well I got here following the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are
Only thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long
(Bob Dylan: Mississippi)

There’s a hidden comparative unity that can be perceived in the earlier song below in which the narrator thereof gets killed by a falling tree before he has a chance to return home to his gal (in the Bible, Moses dies before he makes it to the Promised Land):

Little Rosie, your hair grow long
'Cause I'm going to see your daddy when I get home
There ain't but one thing that I done wrong
I stayed in Mississippi just a day too long
(Rosie:~ traditional)

In the song lyrics given beneath, there’s a mirror image mythology – the narrator’s gal tells him to go home, that he  shouldn’t be where he does not belong:

Well, I sat down by her side, and for a while I tried
To make that girl my wife
She gave me her best advice, and she said
"Go home, and lead a quiet life"
Well, I been to the East, and I been to the West
And I been out where the black winds roar
Somehow though, I never did get that far
With the girl from the Red River Shore
(Bob Dylan: Red River Shore)

And there be those among us who dare say that Bob Dylan’s song lyrics make no sense!

12 years of Untold Dylan

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  1. I am only now hooking up with this great blog. Thank you! After reading Fearful Symmetry I, I am curious about what version of the Bible Frye uses? I think it would make a difference if it is the Hebrew Version of the Old Testament, the Torah, which Bob would mostly be familiar with especially in his early days of writing vs. the King James version.

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