The Never-Ending Art Of Becoming: Bob Dylan And Paul Verlaine

The Never-Ending Art Of Becoming:
Bob Dylan And Paul Verlaine

By Larry Fyffe

Astounding the number of people, including critics of popular music, who listen to the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s songs, and then assert, and with pride of the all-knowing, that the singer/songwriter may be studied in the history of oral/aural music, but that he knows nothing at all, or very little, about the history of the print media, including ‘lowbrow’ and ‘highbrow’ literature, and its important place in the entertainment and art culture of society before the invention of radio and TV.

Worse still are the dogmatized, who claim to listen to Bob Dylan’s words, and yet assert that the philosophical perspective of the singer/songwriter is frozen in time by his adherence to the doctrines of the Christian Absolutists, who teach that there are no answers left for him or anyone to seek in so far as the reason for Mankind’s existence is concerned.

Book-burnings are less frequent these days, and Bob Dylan is aware of the Symbolist poetry of Paul Verlaine, who, not only questions religious orthodoxy, but indeed the very possibility of acquiring of any absolute knowledge or truth about the way people ought to conduct themselves:

“Opening the narrow rickety gate
I went for a walk in the little garden
All lit up by that gentle morning sun
Starring each flower with watery light
Nothing was changed. Again: the humble arbour
With wild vines, and chairs of rattan
The fountain as ever in its silvery pattern
And the old aspen with its eternal murmur
Weathered among the bland scents of mignonette”
(Paul Verlaine: After Three Years)

So much for those Romantic Transcendentalist poets’ feeling the comforting presence of some light-carrying guiding spirit in the world of Nature; it’s bland and murmurs; the gardener is gone; nothing is revealed.

Verlaine reverses the Romantic polarity – organic nature may be eternally bland, but man-made art is not: it changes, informs at least a tiny bit:

“I found the Veleda statue standing there yet
At the head of the avenue, it’s plaster flaking”

The peeling plaster of the flora goddess is Verlaine’s objective correlative, a Symbol, a word-picture of the poet’s creative imagination in its quest for, not absolute truth (the gates to the Garden of Eden are locked), but for its attempt to further self-awareness; there is no success like failure:

“As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden
The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine
I was passing by yon cool crystal fountain
Some one hit me from behind…..
As I walked out in the mystic garden
On a hot summer day, a hot summer lawn
Excuse me, ma’am, I beg your pardon
There’s no one here, the gardener is gone”
(Bob Dylan: Ain’t Talkin’)

Physical sensations and mental images are, in and of themselves, flakes of knowledge:

“At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true
And there are no truths
Outside the Gates of Eden”
(Bob Dylan: Gates of Eden)

Dylan double downs on the lyrical words of singer Leonard Cohen – there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in:

“Broken bottles, broken plates
Broken switches, broken gates
Broken dishes, broken parts,
Streets are filled with broken hearts
Broken words never meant to be spoken
Everything is broken”
(Bob Dylan: Everything Is Broken)

Bringing it all back home:

“Oh the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs…..
Train wheels runnin’ through the back of my memory
As the daylight hours do return
Some day, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody
When I paint my masterpiece”
(Bob Dylan: When I Paint My Masterpiece)

Of vital importance, according to Dylan, is the chase after the huntress, the mind’s fleeting imagination:

“Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All these scenes to this affair
You’re gonna make me lonesome
when you go”
(Bob Dylan: You Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go)

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.


  1. No, not mine ….though I can’t speak French, I can render the meaning somewhat ‘en anglais’.

  2. Dylan’s ‘Ain’t Talkin’ makes reference to St. John 20: 15

    Jesus saith unto her (Mary Magdalene), ‘woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith until him, ‘Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

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