Bob Dylan And Rudyard Kipling: The God Of Deliverance, The God Of Forgiveness, And The Law Of The Jungle


by Larry Fyffe

Down in his basement, Bob Dylan mixes up his medicine. He pours into his bucket of songs the search for emancipation expressed by Judaism, the forgoing of vengence advocated by Christianity, and mixes them together along with the survival of the fittest Theory of Evolution (or rather it’s misapplication to the human world of economic competition, political struggles, and warfare – ‘Social Darwinism’).

Rudyard Kipling latches on to Social Darwinism because it sanctifies the technological innovations and the militaristic imperialism of Queen Victoria’s England:

Now this is the law of the jungle
As old and as true as the sky
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper
But the wolf that shall break it must die
(Rudyard Kipling: The Law Of The Jungle)

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan does not share Kipling’s creed, but contends that the contents of religion and science books get twisted to serve the greedy interests of authorities, who portray themselves as horse-mounted lovers of babies and dogs:

Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy
The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers
In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed
Michaelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features
Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space
Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face
(Bob Dylan: Jokerman)

According to Kipling, it takes the courage of a real man, not a ‘gentlemen-ranker’, to withstand the physical and mental torture inflicted by war:

We have done with hope and honour, we are lost to love and truth
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth
God help us, for we knew the worst too young
(Rudyard Kipling: Gentlemen-Rankers)

On the other hand, the Romantically-inclined singer/songwriter, a believer in an individualistic and independent spirituality, breaks with the law of the jungle; denounces war and its sacrifice of young men who have been turned into bloodhounds that kneel:

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young
(Bob Dylan: Forever Young)

That the singer follows the poet’s rhyme of ‘rung’ with ‘young’ confirms that Dylan is specifically aiming at Kipling’s unquestioning poetic loyality to God, Queen and Country.

There’s intolerance everwhere, whether by men of so-called ‘science’ or by men of so-called ‘religion’, and Dylan howls at them.

Because many art critics do not take into account the singer/songwriter’s work as a whole, some conclude that Dylan is standing up for organized and dogmatic religion even as he mocks it:

Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian, and the Jew
‘You can’t open your mind, boys
To every conceivable point of view’
They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five
Judge says to the High Sheriff, ‘I want him dead or alive
Either one, I don’t care’
High water, everywhere
(Bob Dylan: High Water)

Metaphorically, the ‘High Sheriff’ represents a God filled with vengeance; the historical scientific-minded George Lewes (Lewis), the non-spiritual:

Kipling glorifies the cold iron weapons of war as though they be the iconic nails driven through the hands of Christ, symbols of a compassionate Lord (supposedly not unlike the the Great White Christian Iron Lady herself), capable, not only of self-sacrifice to deliver all mankind from bondage, but of forgiving any reluctance to accept the endeavour:

Crowns are for the valiant, sceptres for the bold
Thrones and power for the mighty men who dare to take and hold
‘Nay’, said the Baron, kneeling in his hall
‘But cold iron is master of men all
Iron out of Calvary is master of men all’
(Rudyard Kipling: Cold Iron)

Not being such a high-minded leader, Dylan escapes from being sacrificed on an altar. The live-to-fight-another-day gunfighter runs away in search of a new life. And he’s quite willing, unlike the reluctant Baron mentioned above, to accept forgiveness:

I’m gonna remember forever the joy that we shared
Looking at you, and I’m on my bended knee
You have no idea what you do to me
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound
Twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound
(Bob Dylan: Cold Irons Bound)

A Puritan writer criticizes those sinners who wait until the last minute to change their lives:

Some are not over wise
That man would have been loath
Might he have had a week to run twenty miles in for his life
To have deferred that journey till the last hour of that week
(John Bunyan: Pilgrim’s Progress)

Some pilgrims do not want to be considered over wise:

A worried man with a worried mind
No one in front of me and nothing behind
There’s a woman on my lap and she’s drinking champagne
I’m looking up into sapphire-tinted skies
I’m well-dressed, waiting on the last train
(Bob Dylan: Things Have Changed)

Best not to end up like Jesus Christ or Jimmy Ringo.

What else 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

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. The cynical let other people fight his battles, and then he criticize them afterwards.
    The gentle man fights his own battles and he only fights, when he is deadly threatened.

    The above descibes the border between civilisation and Darwinism.

    I really like your examples Larry Fyffe.

  2. Kipling is far more subtle in these poems than many seem to realise.

    Whereas I think Dylan does understand the depth and nuance in Kipling’s poetry. As he wrote:

    “From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of [the Nobel Prize for Literature]: Kipling, Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Albert Camus, Hemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.”

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