True Love Tends To Forget (1978) part II

by Jochen Markhorst

This article is an addendum to a previous piece on the same song,

The two autobiographical bookfs by Anatole Broyard, author, New York Times reviewer and columnist, were only published after his death in 1990. For Dylanologists, the second one is especially fascinating: Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (1993).

Broyard moves, well-timed, to Greenwich Village in 1947, and he describes with entertaining journalistic detachment how the neighbourhood develops into an artists’ colony, a focal point of poets, outsiders and birds of paradise. He moves into a flat on Jones Street – the street where the cover photo of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan will be taken, around the corner from Dylan’s 161 West 4th Street. There’s something in the air there, apparently. Dylan is not the only literary phenomenon in the neighbourhood:

“It was in a stationery store on West Fourth Street and she fell because she bumped into W. H. Auden. In fact, they both fell. Auden lived around the corner on Cornelia Street and I often saw him scurrying along with his arms full of books and papers. He looked like a man running out of a burning building with whatever of his possessions he’d been able to grab. He had a curious scuttling gait, perhaps because he always wore espadrilles.”

… followed by a somewhat farcical description of clumsy attempts to get up and flailing limbs. It is a romantic idea to imagine how Dylan had such a physical tête-à-tête with W.H. Auden, but when Dylan moves into his little flat on West 4th Street in the early 1960s, the English American has already left. In 1953 Wystan Hugh moves in with his lover Chester Kallman on the second floor of 77 Saint Marks Place, on the other side of Washington Square Park, near Tompkins Square Park. Only one mile, twenty minutes’ walk, from Positively 4th Street, by the way, and Auden continued to live there until his return to England in 1972 – the fantasy that the two literary hot shots at one time or another collided is not entirely science fiction.

In any case, Auden has left traces. The cultural impact of Dylan and Auden is comparable on a one-to-one basis and is often enough mentioned in so many words. In literary reviews, Dylan is called the “W.H. Auden of the 1960s” about as often as Auden is called the “Dylan of the 1930s” in the twenty-first century. But the similarities are more tangible than something as debatable as “cultural impact”; Dylan uses Auden’s poetry more than once as a template.

The first time on John Wesley Harding. Auden’s “As I Went Out One Evening” is fairly widely believed to have been used by Dylan as a template for “As I Went Out One Morning”; word choice, rhyme scheme and the remarkable metre all match. But Auden draws from a source that, despite a diversion, is even closer to Dylan, and thus may actually have provided Dylan’s format: the centuries-old English (or Irish) folk song “John Riley”. A song that Dylan knows and admires, if his words in Chronicles are to be taken seriously:

“I could do the songs she did, for starters…”Mary Hamilton,” “Silver Dagger,” “John Riley,” “Henry Martin.” I could make them drop into place like she did, but in a different way. Not everyone can sing these songs convincingly. The singer has to make you believe what you are hearing and Joan did that.”

Dylan is, of course, talking about Joan Baez, who recorded the song for her debut album. There are dozens of variations on the lyrics, and Baez sings the same variation that Odetta (1960), Judy Collins (1961), Bob Gibson (1957) all sing, and that Dylan will also sing along effortlessly:

A fair young maid all in her garden,
A strange young man comes passing by
Saying fair maid, will you marry me
And this answer was her reply

… and which has at most a superficial resemblance to Dylan’s “As I Went Out One Morning” and, apart from the theme, Eternal Love, no resemblance to Auden’s “As I Went Out One Evening”. But Auden knows the ancient variant, and Dylan knows Pete Seeger’s 1950 adaptation of it:

As I went walking one Sunday morning
To breathe the sweet and pleasant air,
Who should I spy but a fair young maiden
She seemed to me like a lily fair.
I stepped to her add kindly asked her,
"Would you like to be a bold sailor's wife?"
"Oh no kind sir," she quickly answered,
"I choose to lead a sweet single life."

…which unmistakably echoes in Dylan’s song:

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

“The Wicked Messenger”, on Side 2 from the same John Wesley Harding, rings another W.H. Auden bell. In terms of form, it is an anomalous song on the album. Almost all songs (eight of the twelve) consist of eight-line stanzas with the rhyme scheme abcbdefe; a classic ballad form, indeed. But “The Wicked Messenger” has six-line verses and a rather unusual, open rhyme scheme: abcdbc, with a surprising, non-rhyming fourth line. Not unique however as we can find it one time in the literary canon – yes, with W.H. Auden, who uses the identical structure and unique rhyme scheme for his brilliant “In Schrafft’s”;

Having finished the Blue-plate Special
And reached the coffee stage,
Stirring her cup she sat,
A somewhat shapeless figure
of indeterminate age
In an undistinguished hat

 In 1978, on Street-Legal, Dylan reaches another peak of the poetic high-mountain range that his oeuvre has been up to then anyway. Musical, sound-focused masterpieces such as “Spanish Harlem Incident”, “Visions Of Johanna” or “Shelter From The Storm” are now produced rather effortlessly by the poet, and it seems he is looking for a new challenge: the rigid form. The highlight is “No Time To Think”, in fact a sonnet series with a structure, rhyme scheme and metre that Dylan copies from T.S. Eliot’s cat poem “Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town”.

Graphically, through the formatting of the lyrics in Lyrics and on the site, Dylan obscures the template, and he does so here, in “True Love Tends To Forget”. On paper, the verses are unspectacular. Four-line, rhyme scheme aabb:

I’m getting weary looking in my baby’s eyes
When she’s near me she’s so hard to recognize
I finally realize there’s no room for regret
True love, true love, true love tends to forget

The recital, however, is:

I’m getting weary
looking in my baby’s eyes
When she’s near me
she’s so hard to recognize
I finally realize
there’s no room for regret
True love, true love, true love tends to forget

Seven lines, rhyme scheme ababbcc. That rearrangement, or actual form, has every verse. The second stanza, for example, is in fact:

Hold me,
baby be near
You told me
that you’d be sincere
Every day of the year
’s like playin’ Russian roulette
True love, true love, true love tends to forget

… and the third and fourth stanzas can be rearranged exactly like this, as seven-line stanzas with the rhyme scheme ababbcc. Which can be traced back to W.H. Auden.

The form itself, the rhyme royal, is centuries old and actually already extinct in the twentieth century. In the late Middle Ages, especially in England, it is used for long, narrative poems. Introduced by Chaucer, who also uses it in four of the Canterbury Tales. The literary not untalented King James I of Scotland was a fan, and around 1423 he composes his long “The Kingis Quair” (197 stanzas) after Chaucer’s model – hence perhaps the name royal rhyme (although it is more likely that the French model, the chant royal, is the namesake). Chaucer remains the measure of things for a century, but in the Elizabethan Era, in the sixteenth century, the form dies out. Only Shakespeare uses it one more time (for “The Rape Of Lucrece”, 1594).

The most striking, and best, attempt at resuscitation comes in the twentieth century, and is performed by W.H. Auden in his monumental “Letter To Lord Byron”, probably one of the longest light verses of the twentieth century, with its irresistible opening:

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet's fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord—Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold's trash,'
‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?'
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent's photo in the nude.

… in which the power of the joy of rhyme, the humour and the linguistic acrobatics is reinforced by the chosen archaic form, by the use of the extinct royal rhyme. And when Dylan, forty years after Auden, picks up the form for his “True Love Tends To Forget”, the two poets meet once again. Though not through a physical collision, on the corner of West 4th Street and Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village, but more poetic, less brutal and much more charming – here, on Street-Legal.

——————

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

About Untold Dylan…

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