Bob Dylan And More Robert Browning

See also: Bob Dylan, Jack of Diamonds and Robert Browning

by Larry Fyffe

There are analysts of song lyrics by Bob Dylan who walk the plank of the Auto/Biographical School of Dylanology, fall off the end of it, and nearly drown; and there are those who turn around only to fall off the other end, and nearly drown in the Sound School of Dylanology.

However, the singer/songwriter often refers to artistic works of others, to traditional songs or pieces of literature, containing meaningful themes which Dylan sometimes follows quite closely, and at other times turns the meaning therein around in one aspect or another.

As noted previously, Robert Browning is one source Dylan chooses from the world of literature; Browning’s a poet known for employing the literary device known as the ‘dramatic monologue’ – akin to the “talking blues”, the speaker in the poem addresses an implied audience; tells a story, often humorous, that reveals the narrator’s own character when doing so.

Below, an example of a dramatic monologue concerning life in the busy city versus that in the quiet countryside. It’s rather clear that the Romantic Transcendentalist theme of life being better in the countryside is mocked by the Victorian poet:

Look, two and two go the priests, then the monks 
    with cowl and sandals
And penitents dressed in white shirts a-holding the yellow candles
One he carries a flag up straight, and another a cross with handles
And the Duke's guard brings up the rear, 
    for the better prevention of scandals
(Robert Browning: Up At The Villa, Down In The City)

The source of the song lyrics quoted beneath given away by ‘Dylanesque rhyme twists’

~’sandals’/’sandals’;~ ‘scandals’/’scandals’;~’candles’/’candle’; ~’handles’/’handle’/’vandals’ –

The meaning thereof, trapped in words claimed to be subconsciously chosen, abounds with irony – the established norms of society, of straight people, scorn ‘unacceptable’ lifestyles like that of pot-smoking, supposedly nature-loving hippies:

Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don't wear sandals
Try to avoid scandals
Don't wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don't work
'Cause the vandals took the handle
(Bob Dylan: Subterranean  Homesick Blues)

In the bouncing music and song lyrics below, the narrator is stuck for a little while in the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle of big city life; he expresses not a romantic sentiment concerning the countryside, but a realistic one – practical, he makes the best of a lonesome situation:

Wish I was back in the city
Instead of this old bank of sand
Withe the sun beating down on the chimney tops
And the one I love so close at hand ...
But right now I'll just sit here contentedly
And watch the river flow
(Bob Dylan: Watching The River Flow)

As previously noted, the Christian School of Dylanology attempts to bind many of Bob Dylan’s songs with the established dogmas of organized religious theology; or at least tries to transform them into “morality tales” based thereon.



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