The Ghosts Of Electricity: Bob Dylan And Symbolism

The Ghosts Of Electricity Howl In The Bones Of Her Face: Bob Dylan And Symbolism By LarryFyffe

Bob Dylan mentions a number of relatively recent writers in his song lyrics who are classified under the broad heading of Symbolist poets; I would call them Latter Day Romantics.

“Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbard”
(Bob Dylan: You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go)

And in this song as well:

“Then she opened up a book of poems
And she started quotin’ it to me
It was either written by Charles Baudelaire
Or some Italian poem from the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal”
(Bob Dylan:Tangled up in blue: variation)

The last two lines, an image from the French poet himself:

“We often said imperishable things
The evenings lighted by the glow of coals”
(Charles Baudelaire: The Balcony)

And then there’s:

“”And Ezra Pound and TS Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers”
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

With the possible exception of Pound, the Symbolist poets have a profound effect on Dylan and his the song lyrics.

Symbolist poets express states of mind, irrational thoughts, emotional feelings, and subconsciousness through the utilization of physical objects, and sense perceptions such as smells, tastes, and sounds. Their poetry simulates musical rhythm.

Like the Transcendentalist Romantics, many of them under the influence of Swedenborg, these Symbolist poets and songwriters like Dylan search for the ultimate spiritual reality that supposedly lies behind the material world.

The dark spiritual world of the modern city, rather than the brightness of the natural environment, is what they often uncover: a cold, alienating, and impersonal presence.

“Teaming, swarming city
City full of dreams
Where ghosts in broad daylight
Accost the passer-by
Everywhere mysteries flow like sap
Through the narrow canals of the mighty giant”
(Charles Baudelaire: Seven Old Men)

The Modernist poet TS Eliot, likewise:

“Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many
I had not thought death had undone so many”
(Eliot: The Wasteland)

An influence on Allen Ginsberg, Imagist poet William Carlos Williams paints a very similar picture of the modern city in his ‘Paderson’ poem.

And now a Symbolist poem by Bob Dylan’s literary associate:

“I saw the best minds of my generation,
destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix
angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”
(Allen Ginsberg: Howl)

Following the motto “No ideas but in things’ (William Carlos Williams), Dylan expresses in Symbolist song style the alienation wrought by a cold, dank city:

“He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drain pipes
And reciting the alphabet”
(Dylan: Desolation Row)

Arthur Rimbaud is Bob Dylan’s favorite Symbolist poet, and it shows. Though not mentioned by other examiners of his
songs, ‘Untold Dylan’ lets it be known for the first time that the lyrics of the narrative song ‘Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts’ have their roots in a poem by Rimbard:

“In short, is a single Flower
Lily or Rosemary, live or dead
Worth the excrement of a solitary sea-bird?”
(Rimbard: On The Subject Of Flowers)

The answer my friend is blowing in this song:

Lily had already taken all of the dye out of her hair
She was thinkin’ ’bout her father, who she very rarely saw
Thinkin’ ’bout Rosemary, and thinkin’ about the law
But most of all she was thinkin’ ’bout the Jack Of Hearts”
(Bob Dylan: Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts)


Jack Of Hearts: a symbol of charm and charity
Lily: a symbol of devotion and death
Rosemary: a symbol of faithfulness and memory

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  1. I love your site but could you please correct the typo on the french great poet:

    “Situations have ended sad
    Relationships have all been bad
    Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbard


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