TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Bob Dylan Fighting In The Captain’s Tower

TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Bob Dylan Fighting In The Captain’s Tower

TS Eliot’s Wasteland turns Joseph Conrad on his head. While the novelist peers into the “Heart Of Darkness”, the poet finds himself even unable to peer into the heart of light:

“Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither Living nor dead, and I knew nothing
Looking into the heart of light
The silence”
(Eliot: The Wasteland)

Existential angst, the futility of human existence: a feeling of alienation, of lonliness, of emptiness; a sinking feeling that every thing is broken.

The anxiety echoed in the song lyrics of a British band:

“I tried to look, my eyes were blind
I tried to speak, but could not find
The words to say
They left me lying where I lay
I could not bear the light of day”
(Strawbs: Blue Angel)

Ezra Pound is not dismayed and declares: “Make it new.” The Modernist poet abvocates a new style, a concise imagistic one, to shake the dust off the shelves filled with books of didactic and abstractionist poems.

And Pound champions a fresh outlook to replace the nihilism that has set in upon the degenerate social milieu of the times.

Though he later recants, Pound’s support of fascism causes many in the artistic community to abandon him. Instead, they pick up on his innovative poetic style, called Vorticism: the presentation of an image through the written word that conveys to the listener’s or reader’s mind the sensation of stillness amid whirling momentum, a style that often employs the alliteration trope:

“And they took her out of Scios
And off her course …
And the boy came to, again, with the racket
And looked over the bows
and to eastward, and to the Naxos passage
God sleight then, god-sleight
Ship stock in sea-swirl”
(Erza Pound: Canto 2)

Later, rappers put in their fifty cents’ worth:

“It goes, thanks TS, but the world ends like this
Not a bang, not a whimper, but a sibilant hiss”
(Doomtree: No Home Owners)

Here’s another alliterative image whirling, and set to music:

“The dust blows forward and the dust blows back
And the wind blows black through the sky
And the smokestack blows up in the sun’s eye
What am I gonna die?”
(Captain Beefheart: The Dust Blows Forward, The Dust Blows Back)

Vortex  imagery from the song lyrics of Bob Dylan:

“Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot…..
Hang around the theatres
Girl by the whirl pool
Looking for a new fool”
(Bob Dylan: Subterranean Homesick Blues)

In some songs, Dylan will also comment on how he constructs his art even as he creates it: a swirling image, one of catastrophic proportions:

“Smokestack was  leaning sideways
Heavy feet began to pound
I walked into the whirlwind
Sky splitting all around”
(Dylan: Tempest)

Coincidence that he mentions ‘pound’ and poetic measure with the accompanying hissing s-sounds? Perhaps.

Hanging around movie theatres, Bob, the Romantic, searches for a way to escape the impending cataclysm, the Titantic’s sinking being a symbol for the Apocalypse Now; the title of a film based on Conrad’s “Heart Of Darkness”, by the way:

“The Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting
Which side are you on?”
(Dylan: Desolation Row)

Which side is important because the Bible tells us: if you are good, then you shall be saved:

“As the whirlwind passeth, so is the wicked no more
But the righteous is an
everlasting foundation”
(Porverbs 10:22)

Apparently, however, it does not matter when you’re on the world’s biggest metaphor, and it’s sinking into the Atlantic Ocean:

“When the Reaper’s task had ended
Sixteen hundred had gone to rest
The good, the bad, the rich, the poor
The loveliest and the best”

Seems that Bob Dylan wonders, although the Deity be not dead, if God is nevertheless Himself a nihilistic Existentialist:

“They waited at the landing
And they tried to understand
But there is no understanding
For the judgement of God’s hand”
(Dylan: Tempest)

Sounds like God is a god that does not believe in Himself.

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  1. I have always felt that “Desolation Row” was Dylan’s ‘Farewell to History and Journalism’. That is to mean that after “Highway 61 Revisited” his lyrics and ideas became almost ‘obscure’ and without obvious reference. (“Hurricane” and “Knocking on Heavens Door” were a welcome return to reality).
    As God said, “I received your letter yesterday, About the time the DOORKNOB broke. You asked me how I was doing, WAS THAT SOME KIND OF JOKE? All these people that you mention, I know them, they are all quite LAME. I had to rearrange their faces, and give the all another name . . .
    “Blonde on Blonde” is almost an “orgy” of obscurity but contains some of his greatest songs! “Visions of Johanna”, celebrated as his “greatest” song is almost unfathomable.

  2. I find Dylan not really obscure at all but an artist who uses figurative rather than literal language in the fragmented, vorticistic, imaginist and ‘stream of consciousness’ style of Modernist and Postmodernist poets; indeed on close examination, his song lyrics, taken in the context of his works as a totality, reveals that Dylan is quite consistent throughout in the themes that he presents.

  3. Edna St. Vincent Millay comes immediately to mind:

    So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind
    Into the darkness they go, the wise and thd lovely
    …..Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
    Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind
    Quietly they go, the intellligent, the witty, the brave
    (Dirge Without Music)

    Dylan adds the music.

  4. And especially Edgar Allan Poe:

    Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
    In a strange city lying alone
    Far down within the dim west
    Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
    Have gone to their eternal rest
    (The City In The Sea)

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