Air/Wind Symbolism in the song lyrics of Bob Dylan

By Larry Fyffe

In the poems containing William Blake’s personal mythology, Air/Wind represents the breath of life within the individual, the vitalistic spirit, tangled up in an unbalanced state along with three other elements: Water (power), Fire (emotion), and Earth (imagination).

The psyche’s imbalance expands to the social structure at large, and results in cold and distant reason, reinforced by violence, (symbolized by the Tiger), dominating human life to the detriment of intuition, and the emotion of alturistic love (symbolized by the Lamb).

In modern times, on the macro-level, the Industrial Revolution rationalizes the mass production of goods, while objective science takes over the search for knowledge.

The written poems of William Blake transform the precise language of science into the flexible metaphors of art:

“Never seek to tell thy love
Love that never told can be
For the gentle wind does move
Silently, invisibly”
(William Blake: Love’s Secret)

For Blake, since the wind blows in all different directions, it’s a metaphor for the never-ending struggle to balance the situation one is in with the desire for individual freedom, a dilemma out of which there is no easy means to escape, no absolute answer thereto, excepting death.

Bob Dylan employs the poetic device in his song lyrics:

“As I went out one morning
To breathe the air around Tom Paine’s
I spied the fairest damsel
That ever did walk in chains”
(Dylan: As I Went Out This Morning)

Dylan hopes for a future change in the weather for the better, but the direction of the  wind indicates that the case may be otherwise:

“Yes, and how many years can people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just dosen’t see
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind”
(Dylan: Blowin’ In The Wind)

Dylan, echoing Blake: love need not to be expressed by words that flow breath-like through the teeth, but instead by the vitalistic spirit that shines forth so brightly from within:

“My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true like ice, like fire”
(Dylan: Love Minus Zero)

But, though it’s best to celebrate life, Dylan sings that there are external forces that can be harmful over which one has little control:

“The wind howls like a hammer
The night blows cold and rainy
My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing”

Bob Dylan pulls up images from the poems of William Blake to show that he doesn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing; the singer sees some signs of hope, however:

“And them Caribbean winds still blow from  Nassau to Mexico
Fanning the flames in the furnace of desire
And them distant ships of liberty on them iron waves so bold and free
Brings everything that’s near to me
nearer to the fire”
(Dylan: Caribbean Wind)

Almost always double-edged, Dylan sings that not even his art will save him from physical death, from taking his last breath; it’s a tale told an idiot, signifying nothing:

“Idiot wind
Blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
Idiot wind
Blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”
(Dylan: Idiot Wind)

The hour is getting late, but the Romantic idealism about liberty that William Blake expresses in his rebel-devil poetry, cheers on double-horned Bob Dylan in his fight against the reactionary views of TS Eliot in the captain’s tower:

“May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift”
(Dylan: Forever Young)

What is on the site

1: Over 390 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.


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