Bob Dylan and Lord Tennyson: Flagging down the Double E


By Larry Fyffe

As I often have noted, Bob Dylan’s song lyrics are rather consistently double-edged. Many of his song lyrics show a side of life bathed in bright light, akin to the poems of the Romantic Transcendentalists who rescue God by revamping the religious possibility of a renewed life in order to counter what many of these poets consider to be the rather dark discoveries of the rational and scientific method that placed God outside of the Universe.

Bob Dylan, of the time present, leans more towards the views of pre-Romantic poet William Blake and the romantic-offshoot Gothicists and Surrealists than the Transcendentalists. He updates, intertwines, and tangles up both dark and light visions of the human condition.

The desolate side of the economic and social climes of modern times require that the honest artist do so. The subjective Romantic emotionalists have to grapple with the objective, empirically-based discoveries made by modern science, including those found by studying Earth’s geological and biological past.

The Victorian poet Lord Tennyson finds himself face to face with the newfound discoveries of Charles Darwin that leads the scientist to construct a materialistic (environmentally and biologically based) deterministic theory. The poet links the Theory of Evolution to the Judeo-Christian influenced Romantic movement.

Bob Dylan’s song lyrics reveal the influence of Tennyson’s creative imagination.

Neither the Pantheist faith in a ‘spirit’ of love emanating from an unknowable Creator that puts man at the head of the line, nor the scientific view of Evolution is dismissed by the Victorian poet:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law –
Though Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrieked against His creed

The spiritualistic Emanuel Swedenborg pops up his head yet again:

Our little systems have their day
They have their day and cease to be
They are but broken lights of Thee
And Thou, O Lord, art more than they
(Tennyson: In Memorian)

Charles Darwin treads heavily upon the stage – all creatures, great and small, must adapt to environmental change or perish; in this struggle, there are creatures that survive through natural selection, and pass on their genes.

However, the imaginative Victorian artist pens the script with crooked hands, and, rather than to a Greek god, compares himself to a mighty eagle:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands ….
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls
He watches from his mountain walls
And like a thunderbolt he falls
(Tennyson: The Eagle)

Similarly, taking Darwin into account, and with a nod to Jack London’s ‘Call Of The Wild’, the adaptive and imaginative singer/songwriter, envisions himself able to survive by stealing poetic scrapes that drop from beak of the Tennysonian eagle:

Well, the nature of man
Is to beg and to steal
I do it myself
It’s not so unreal
The call of the wild is
Forever at my door
Wants me to fly like an eagle
While being chained to the floor
(Bob Dylan: You Changed My Life)

Bob Dylan gives Charles Darwin’s roulette wheel a spin; luck has a lot to do with success. The Romantic theme that Man is born free but finds himself everywhere in chains, the songster looks at through the lens of Evolutionary Theory that shows wild animals are well-adapted to their environments. Karl Marx notwithstanding, Bob Dylan concludes that most urbanized people, especially those living in present city-centre environs, are like wild animals caged; tormented – since they don’t adapt well to confined places:

Time’s pilin’ up, we struggle and we scrape
We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape
City’s just a jungle, more games to play
Trapped in the heart of it trying to escape
(Dylan: Mississippi)

Worse still, Man is a species that uniquely goes the way of waging wars; as the cockroach scurries along its merry old way, only time will tell which one will survive, and which one will be left behind:

There’s not to make reply
There’s not to reason why
There’s but to do and die
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
(Tennyson: The Charge Of The Light Brigade)

That’s the way it is. Even when a human has enough room to make his or her own decisions, biological make-up and vitality, along with social, economic, and political conditions, are all factors that affect whether or not an individual fulfils his or her potential:

Tell Ol’ Bill when he comes home
Anything is worth a try
Tell him that I’m not alone
That the hour has come to do or die
(Dylan: Tell Ol’ Bill)

Thus spake Tennyson:

‘Tis not too late to seek a new world
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die ….
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield
(Tennyson: Ulysses)

To go where no man has gone before!

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home 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.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that 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



  1. It seems like a tenuous link. I’m not sure I ever heard of Bob being influenced by Tennyson before, and certainly not to such an extent…

  2. Kiernan, Tennyson’s there if you look, especially in Dylan’s rather Victorian view regarding the role of women.

    The poet’s home is on the Isle of Wright and it’s said Dylan was encouraged to play there in 1969 so he could visit it.

    Abive, I point to lyric evidence Dylan that alludes to Tennyson’s mighty Eagle and his famous ‘do and die’ Charge; you say the connection is ‘ tenuous’ but give no support for that assertion whatsoever.

    Dylan’ whole artistic outlook certainly is to boldly go where no man has gone before…literally and figuratively.

    I do see your point in so far that Dylan does not wear
    Tennyson’s influence on his sleeve as he also does not concerning many other poets as well.

    And I do appreciate your comment and the chance to respond to it.

  3. Dylan sums up Tennyson’s two-edged position quite nicly:

    They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five
    Judge says to the High Sheriff
    ‘I want him dead or alive”
    (Bob Dylan: High Water Everwhere)

  4. ie, While ‘Social’ Darwinism refomulates scientific Darwinism in order to justify capitalist competition and greed (not to mention racism), Jesus’ teachings say that the poor are not to be forgotten.

  5. I read your article now 4 or 5 times and I get the message, but please know, Larry, that I struggle with sentences like “…that leads the scientist to construct a materialistic (environmentally and biologically based) deterministic theory.” It requires close reading. Very close. You keep surprising me with these little jewels of connection. Thanks.

  6. Darwinism presents a physical cause that determines the physical state of living organisms, though not an explanation of creation itself- natural selection, the biological adaption by chance to the physical environment – that requires no predetermined plan with an ultimate outcome foreknown by ‘God’ that is accepted by much of mankind to explain and justify the presence of moral authority. The cockroach might indeed find itself the ‘winner’ in the race for survival. Who knows?

    But that still leaves the various conceptions of God for philosophers, sociologists, and biologists , as well as poets and songwriters to contend with.

  7. Charles Darwin knew nothing about ‘genes’ and how they work , but the point is, though they’re likey not that knowlegable on the science themselves (just as I am not), Tennyson and Dylan take account in their poetry and songs the controversy that erupts between evolution and religion.

  8. For sure, both Tennyson and Dylan be well versed in biblical imagery and symbolism, including these playing- card-like creatures: ..,,”they four had the face a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side; …. of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle (Ezekiel 1:10), the last often thought of as representing the creative, artistic, imaginative side of mankind.

  9. And in Angelina we have the singer go up the spiral staircase to weep and beg for mercy. He can’t help but notice the angel with four faces: that of a cherub, a human, a lion, and an eagle. Ezekiel 10:14.

  10. It’s not intressting where Dylan got his inspiration from, the only thing that matter is what you feel when listening to his song. To try reengineer his work is an autistic approach that is NOT rewarding for normal people. Yoy trying to set a cage around his work, but Dylan will not let you do that…

    Because of you extremely nerdish academic nature you probably are no able to feel his work with your body and soul.
    As in line with this i don’t care what the speeched said when he got his well deserved nobel-prize, cause magic , of any kind, should never be interpreted, just felt.

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