Bob Dylan And Percy Shelley
By Larry Fyffe
That the Utopian egalitarian society envisioned in the imagination of Romantic Percy Shelley is always being torn apart by the poet’s observations of reality much influences the song lyrics of Bob Dylan; that is, Nature shows itself to be quite indifferent to man’s existence though Romantic poets like William Wordsworth exalt the benevolence of a caring Universe:
Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear? ….
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat – nay, drink your blood?
(Percy Shelley: Men Of England)
The songwriter, however, points his finger at both the higher-ups and lower-downs in society for not properly appreciating the comforts provided by God’s green Earth:
Businessmen, they drink my wine
Ploughmen dig my earth
None of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth
(Bob Dylan: All Along The Watchtower)
The ultimate responsibility for reconnecting mankind to the natural world, to regain a Paradise lost by acting as a go-between, Shelley and Dylan lay at the doorsteps of womankind:
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea
What are all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?
(Shelley: Love’s Philosophy)
Both writers rhyming ‘earth’ and ‘worth’.
Like the male poet, the songwriter seeks the female spirit, a Muse:
If not for you
The winter would hold no spring
Couldn’t hear the robin sing
If not for you
(Dylan: If Not For You)
The sweet sprite, a Blakean symbol that blows the poet’s trumpet, and ignites his imagination – as in the verse below:
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my word among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
( Shelley: Ode To The West Wind)
The spirit in the air manifests itself sometimes hot, sometimes cold:
Well, your railroad gate, you know I just can’t jump it
Sometimes it gets so hard you see
I’m just here beating on my trumpet
With all those promises you left for me
But where are you tonight Sweet Marie?
(Dylan: Absolutely Sweet Marie)
Mother Earth itself the source of a sparkling imagination, the Blakean symbol thereof:
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire
The blue deep thou wingest
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest
(Shelley: To A Skylark)
Not so hopeful as Shelley is Dylan concerning the prospect of an egalitarian Paradise outside the gates of the poetic imagination:
And I try to harmonize with songs
The lonesome sparrow sings
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden
(Dylan: Gates Of Eden)
Outside have always been kings, and it looks like there always will be.
Percy Shelley, phallic imagery abounding, draws heavily from the well of preRomantic William Blake, fire symbolizing sexual desire:
And before that chasm of light
As within a furnace bright Column, tower, and dome, and spire
Shine like obelisks of fire
Pointing with inconstant motion
From the altar of dark ocean
To the sapphire-tinted skies
(Shelley: Euganean Hills)
However, flames are not necessarily a sign of Paradise, according to Dylan:
There’s a woman on my lap and she’s
Got white skin, got assassin’s eyes
I’m looking up into the sapphire-tinted skies
(Dylan: Things Have Changed)
The poet seeks a good, not dark, spirit to pilot him to a safe and secure shelter:
On some rock the wild wave wraps
With folded wings, they waiting sit
For my bark, to pilot it
To some calm and blooming cove
Where for me, and those I love
May a windless bower be built
(Shelley: Euganean Hills)
The singer/songwriter expresses the same sentiment:
Down along the cove
We walked together hand in hand ….
Everybody watchin’ us go by
Knows we’re in love, yes, and they understand
(Dylan: Down Along The Cove)
The lament for youthful innocence lost, a common theme of the Romantic poets:
Every sprite beneath the moon
Would repent it’s envy vain
And the earth grow young again
( Shelley: Euganean Hills)
And of songwriters still clinging by their fingertips to Romantic notions:
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
(Dylan: Forever Young)
What is on the site
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. Also a list of the most read articles on this site.
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.
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.