Bob Dylan And Archibald MacLeish
by Larry Fyffe
The imagery of the Romantic Transcendentalist poets tends to be organic and fluid; the benevolence of external Nature, with its regenerative and restorative power, is celebrated:
To me the converging objects of
the Universe perpetually flow
(Walt Whitman: Song Of Myself)
Mankind is part of this flow, and strengthens the creative process through industry and scientific technology, at least according to the optimistic outlook of Whitman, a Romantic poet of the New World who does not have to contend with Darwin’s declaration that all living creatures struggle to survive in a hostile environment.
The later Neo-Romantics modify their poetic views accordingly:
Flowery I die
For all things are grief-like
(Dylan Thomas: Of Any Flower)
Militaristic monopoly capitalism feasts under the shadow of the atomic bomb. The Modernist poet Archibald MacLeish examines the human condition, under these conditions, from a cold impersonal, though imaginative, perspective. In protest of the alienation wrought, he creates a mock literary Darwinism, and retreats into the bunker of art for art’s sake.
MacLeish draws upon the symbolism of the preRomantic poet William Blake – water stands for power; in creates life and it can drown it:
The labour of order has no rest
To impose on the confused, fortuitous
Flowing away of the world, Form –
Still, cool, clean, obdurate ….
Flower by brittle flower, rises
The coral reef that calms the water
(MacLeish: Reasons For Music)
Armoured as his artistic style is in the cloak of pseudo-Darwinism, MacLeish juxtaposes TS Eliot’s pair of ragged claws (symbol of death) and tasty fish ova (symbol of life), in the following verse:
Fish has laid her succulent eggs
Safe in Sargasso weed
So wound and bound that crabbed legs
Nor clattering claws can find and feed …
The universe her love has made
The poet extends his alliterative claws, and lashes out at the flowing and flowery images of the Romantics and their latter day followers:
In the ringside ritual of self-applause
The small ironic silence of his claws
(MacLeish: Vicissitudes Of The Creator)
The pinchered crab awaits his turn to perform in the ring of the watery circus. A follower of Ezra Pound as far as poetic style is concerned, MacLeish prefers the hard image, ideas congealed into things, into objects – often of iron and concrete, anti-Tennysonian:
Swirling and leaping into the sun, is stone’s
Refusal of the river; not the river
(MacLeish: What Every Lover Learns)
Resistance to, not adaption to, the so-called natural order is MacLeish’s real motto – today’s cities, instead of being Walt Whitman’s haven for modern man, have fallen victim to chaos personified:
Hope that was a noble flame
Has fanned to violence and feeds
On cities and the flesh of men
And chokes where unclean smoke defiles it
(MacLeish: Pole Star For This Year)
As far as MacLeish is concerned, monopoly capitalism imposes upon humanity an amoral Existentialist outlook; the freak show, jugglers and clowns under the big top, signs that hope is gone:
Quite unexpectedly the top blew off
And there, there overhead, there, there,
Those thousands of white faces, those
dazed eyes ….
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing – nothing at all
(MacLeish: The End Of The World)
In his song lyrics, Bob Dylan too stares into Conrad’s heart of darkness, but sorrowful like Romantic poet John Keats; emotional and personal:
Well my sense of humanity has gone down
Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been
Some kind of pain ….
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
(Bob Dylan: Not Dark Yet)
Any day now, he shall be released. The songwriter, by his fingertips, clings to the lamp-lit balcony of the Neo-Romantics, preferring the sensual and fluid imagery of their poetry, drain pipes and all. And memories of youth:
Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship
My senses have been stripped
My hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step
Wait ony for my boot-heels to go wandering
(Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man)
Though he bears the marks of his struggle with TS Eliot and Ezra Pound in the captain’s tower, Bob Dylan endeavours to keep himself standing still, centre ring, in a whirling vortex, alliteration’s fluids flowing free, forever young.
An endeavour helped along by kindred spirits, especially female muses. With his double-edged lyrics, Dylan, in the following, sings not just about a stimulating piece of a peaceful female, but also about his love of making an exciting piece of fine art (boots of Spanish leather being one of his symbols thereof):
Oh well, I love you pretty baby
You’re the only love I’ve ever known
Just as long as you stay with me
The whole world is my throne ….
Beyond here lies nothing
Nothing but the moon and stars
(Dylan: Beyond Here Lies Nothing)
Both literally and figuratively speaking, Dylan flees from the dark pall of MacLeish’s poetry; Dylan adapts, escapes from the established social order to disorderly Desolation Row with its circus-like atmosphere:
All these people that you mention, yes
I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to re-arrange their faces and give them
all another name ….
Right now I can’t read too good, don’t send
me no more letters – no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row
(Dylan: Desolation Row)
In the final analysis, Dylan rejects the overly dark pessimism of MacLiesh’s poetics:
“And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth’s noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night”
(MacLiesh: You, Andrew Marvell)
That is okay, father of night:
“If you don’t mind sleeping with
Your face down in the grave”
(Dylan: Foot of Pride)
Don’t send me no more letters – no – send me a pair of boots – made of Spanish leather.
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1: Over 400 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.
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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.