Bob Dylan And Thomas Hardy (Part VIII) (and 7 Curses, as nowhere else)


by Larry Fyffe

As singer Bob Dylan does in the television play “The Madhouse On Castle Street”, Thomas Hardy in his novel “The Mayor Of Casterbridge” sets the stage for his tragic tale through folk song – ballads similar to those ‘borrowed’ by Robert Burns:

It's home, and it's home, home glad would I be
O home, home, home to my own country
There's an eye that ever weeps, and a fair face will be fain 
As I pass through Annan Water with my bonnie bands again
When the flower is in the bud, and the leaf upon the tree
The lark shall sing me home to my own country
(Home To My Own Country)

Later artists, such as  poet William Wordsworth, consider industrialized, city-enclosed, people as no longer in touch with the regenerative ‘spirit’ of Nature; Darwinian science depicts the Universe as uncaring, and at times even cruel to its living inhabitants.

Alienation from natural world is portrayed in the dark-humoured song from the TV play:

Lady Margaret's pillow is wet with tears
No body's been on it in twenty years
(Bob Dylan: The Ballad Of The Gliding Swan)

Happier is the following ballad that shows up in Hardy’s story:

As I came in by my bower door
As day was waxing weary
Oh, who came tripping down the stairs
But bonnie Peg, my dearie
(Bonnie Peg My Dearie)

The singer of the similar ballad below adds a humorous last line to the traditional song:

Come a-running down the stairs, pretty Peggy-O
Come a-running down the stairs
Combing back your yellow hair
You're the prettiest darn girl I ever seen-io
(Bob Dylan: Pretty Peggy-O)

It’s a line that parodies the last line in the song below that’s mentioned by Hardy in “The Mayor Of Casterbridge”:

The rosebud washed in summer's shower
Bloomed fresh within the sunny bower
But Kitty was the fairest flower
That ever was seen in Gowrie
(The Lass Of Gowrie)

A folk song based on the following biblical text is also noted by Hardy:

When he shall be judged
Let he be condemned
And let his prayers become sin
Let his days be few,
And let another take his office
Let his children be fatherless
And his wife a widow
Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg
(Psalm 109)

The song too calls for the deceitful to be severely punished:

His seed shall orphans be, his wife
A widow plunged in grief
His vagrant children beg their bread
Where none can give relief
His ill-gotten riches shall be made 
To usurers a prey
The fruit of all his toil shall be
By strangers borne away
None shall be found that to his wants
Their mercy will extend
Or to his helpless orphan seed
The least assistance lend
A swift destruction shall soon seize
On his unhappy race
And the next age his hated name
Shall utterly disface
(Psalm One Hundred Nine)

Reminding of the curse cast by the singer/songwriter in the song beneath:

These be seven curses on a judge so cruel
That one doctor will not save him
That two healers will not heal him
That three eyes will not see him
That four ears will not hear him
That five walls will not hide him
That six diggers will not bury him
And that seven deaths shall never kill him
(Bob Dylan: Seven Curses)

All the above verses are befitting musical props to Hardy’s story. Unemployed Michael gets drunk, sells his wife Susan and their baby girl Elizabeth-Jane to a sailor; Michael regrets that, reforms, sells corn, climbs the social ladder. He becomes the mayor of Casterbridge.

Then things fall apart. Believing the sailor dead, the mayor’s wife returns, and ‘remarries’ her husband; his beautiful grown-up ‘stepchild’ is there too – she’s also named Elizabeth-Jane, but sired by the sailor (the baby that Michael sold to the sailor having died). Things go from bad to worse. Susan dies; the mayor’s business fails; the girl’s father turns up, and Michael tells him that Elizabeth is dead.

In the end, the ‘stepchild’ gets happily married to a successful man. Needless to say, the former mayor is now a social outcast; he wishes to be forgotten, and dies alone.

If Bob Dylan were around at that time, he’d be in Hardy’s novel singing a ballad that addresses the amoral Universe:

You treat me like a stepchild
Oh, Lordy, like a stepchild
I wanna turn my back, and run away from you
But you know that I can't leave you, babe
(Bob Dylan: Stepchild)

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