False Prophet: ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?’

False Prophet Part 1

by Bob Jope

‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?’

With characteristically fastidious self-deprecation, TS Eliot’s Prufrock, in a poem alluded to – almost quoted from – by Dylan in ‘Desolation Row’, announces:

I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter

Dylan, by contrast, insists over and over, with an unPrufrockian defiance reaffirmed by a driving blues beat, “I ain’t no false prophet”.

The insistence draws attention to the telling epithet, ‘false’, as much as to the key word ‘prophet’, and there’s a typical ambivalence here, something that underscores the song and its possible meanings: by declaring that he’s not a ‘false prophet’ is the speaker here denying prophetic qualities or affirming that he’s not ‘false’ – ie he is a prophet of sorts, and one we can trust, or should pay heed to? I’m very much inclined to the latter.

It’s a cliché to say that we live in an age of ‘fake news’, but like so many clichés (it’s how they become them) it contains a truth: we’re confronted and affronted everywhere by fakery and falsehood, by lying politicians and their sycophantic media cronies inventing ‘facts’. By insisting on not being a false prophet the voice of the poem is setting itself apart from and in opposition to fakery.

The claim to be a prophet is a large one, but it calls to mind William Blake (whose ‘Songs of Experience’ are referenced in ‘I Contain Multitudes’) and his vision of the poet as seer, possessing a wisdom, an ability to see what others are blind to, a prophet who speaks truth to the present day from the perspective of an outsider, even a voice in the wilderness, one, perhaps, who goes ‘where only the lonely can go’:

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future sees

Blake claims that Milton, for example, was ‘a true poet’ who regarded that kind of Energy ‘call’d Evil’ as the ‘only life’. Blake considers Energy to be opposed to Reason, the force which, he believes, restrains desire. He exalts the life of the passions over that of Reason and the true poet/seer/prophet should exalt passionate life and deny imprisoning restraint, the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ (in ‘London’) that chain us down. Comparably, Dylan’s prophet declares:

I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life

(Intriguingly, too, where Blake is the enemy of reason (mocked punningly as a god, Urizen) Dylan’s prophet – or seer – declares himself ‘the enemy of treason’.)

This elevation of Energy led Blake to believe that Milton in Paradise Lost was unconsciously on Satan’s side:

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790)

Dylan’s ‘enemy of the unlived meaningless life’ can appear to be something like an embodiment of that Blakean Energy and Passion as he declares with a kind of snarling swagger:

I’m first among equals - second to none
I’m last of the best - you can bury the rest
Don’t care what I drink - don’t care what I eat
I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet

The extravagant boasting culminates in a reference to Wumen Huikai  a Chinese Chán (in Japanese: Zen) master during China‘s Song period, apparently famed for the 48-koan collection The Gateless Barrier, including this:

You must carry the iron with no hole.
No trivial matter, this curse passes to descendants.
If you want to support the gate and sustain the house
You must climb a mountain of swords with bare feet.

The commands are knowingly absurd, the feats demanded hyperbolic. That’s their point. Dylan’s Prophet, though, will have us believe that he’s achieved at least one of them.

In fact, as elsewhere on this multitudinous album – ‘Key West’, for example, is a rich, mesmerising dramatic monologue – we find ourselves wondering about the voice we’re hearing, who we’re hearing, as Dylan again appears to be adopting a persona – and part of the challenge of engaging fully with the song’s meaning(s) is coming to terms with that persona, or in this song’s case, personae? After all, ‘I is another’: ‘I and I’.

The image accompanying the early-released single offers a cryptic clue. It’s a loaded pastiche of the cover image for The Shadow #96, featuring the stories ‘Death About Town’ and ‘North Woods Mystery’. (Death About Town, we also read, ‘stalks rich and poor alike’.) The skeletal figure is The Shadow himself:

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Every fan of old-time radio, the fruit of a “golden age” on the American airwaves which lasted from the 1920s until television took hold, can tell you the answer: The Shadow knows.


The Shadow knows the evil lurking in men’s hearts and here he (or a version of him) carries a syringe with an intention we can only guess at (poison or a vaccine?) while behind him the silhouette of a hanged man has a Trumplike forelock. Dylan’s speaker stalks the land, and like The Shadow, ‘I just know what I know’.

Then again, ‘It may be the Devil, it may be the Lord…’ The persona, the voice, swings from boasts and vengeful threats, like an Old Testament Jehovah (Blake’s ‘Nobodaddy’) ‘here to bring vengeance’, to inveigling seducer as oily as Satan – who can also, of course, come disguised ‘as a Man of Peace’ –  tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden:

What are you lookin’ at - there’s nothing to see
Just a cool breeze encircling me
Let’s walk in the garden - so far and so wide
We can sit in the shade by the fountain side…

Shade cast by the Tree of Knowledge, Blake’s ‘Poison Tree’?

Tracking the voice as it addresses us through the verses, we begin with a world-weary, even cynical note of resignation:

Another day without end - another ship going out
Another day of anger - bitterness and doubt

The article will continue shortly….

One comment

  1. In his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake has a bit of fun at Emmanuel Swedenborg’s expense ~ the scientist turned religious visionary proclaims that faith-alone- is-not-good-enough-for-salvation, and considers the spiritual level to be more real, indeed more scientific, than the physical one ( Robert Frost’s mother a follower). Furthermore, Emmanuel asserts that he’s been sent in place of Jesus to fulfill God’s promise of the Second Coming. It’s apparent that Dylan sides with the figurative William Blake on that score.

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