Modern Times revisited: Bob Dylan and Shmuel Hanagid Part One

by Joost Nillissen

As I was writing my retellings of the songs on Modern Times, I found myself studying the Art of Poetry, more or less, I imagine, as Dylan took time out to study the Art of Love while writing the songs for this album.

I discovered the Golden Age of Hebrew Poetry (Spain 950-1492) a couple years ago and immersed myself in it. When studying Modern Times I found some amazing similarities between Dylan, the greatest poet of our times and the greatest poet of the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry: Shmuel Hanagid.

Shmuel Hanagid (993-1056) was a merchant, Talmudic scholar, poet and became the leader or Prince (Hanagid) of the city state of Granada. His real name was Shmuel Ben Josef or in Arabic sources Isma’il Ibn Nagrila. He fought many battles against other city states for his Arab overlord who resided across the sea in present-day Morocco. These were the Dark Ages, but the Muslims brought light to Spain with their poetry, architecture and science. For some of the time the Muslims, Christians and Jews coexisted more or less peacefully under Muslim rule.

These were very religious times, everybody prayed and everybody knew the Book by heart, whether that be the Bible, the Koran or the Torah. And everybody wrote poems on a daily basis. Invitations to parties, weddings, funerals, thank-you notes, apologies, love, grief and disagreements often came in the form of  a poem. Arab poetry flourished with elegance and clarity while Hebrew poetry up to that time had been wooden and liturgical, to be read during services in the synagogue.

Shmuel Hanagid changed all that, just like Shakespeare four hundered years later changed the art of play writing and Dylan a thousand years later changed the art of song writing, (for which he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature).

Like Shakespeare and Dylan, Hanagid had many followers. He wrote secular poetry about almost everything: autobiographical, love, drink, parties, battles, loss, old age, wisdom. He was the great innovator of his day, just like Shakespeare and Dylan.

The first characteristic of Hanagid’s poetry is that almost every line he wrote refers to the Torah, Talmud or Greek philosophy. As I said, these were very religious times. One example: when he used the word “slime-filled pits” everybody knew he was referring to Genesis 14:10 where the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah are fleeing and fall into the slime-filled pits in the vale of Siddim near the Dead Sea. These two words add a new layer to the poem Hanagid wrote on the death of his brother.

Take this as an example:

He’ll bring you trouble with talk like dreams,

invoking song and verse to cheat you;

but dreams, my son, aren’t what they seem:

not all the poet says is true

(Translation by Peter Cole from “Selected poems of Shmuel Hanagid”)

In the above poem line 1 refers to  2 Kings 9:11 and Judges 5:12; line 2 to: Psalms 137:3; line 3 to: Zachariah 10:2 and Ecclesiastes 5:6 and line 4 to Aristotle.

And so on and on. Those for whom the poems were written – Jews obviously – recognized the links and praised the poet for his brilliance and inventiveness.

The words or expressions Hanagid lifted straight from the Hebrew Bible or other sources are called ‘inlays’ and they present a deeper meaning; the source of the lines also come to play a role in the poem. Hanagid, like Dylan, uses these inlays to make to widen the scope and change the perspective of the poem. They are connections the readers do not expect. It’s like a jeweller taking precious stones of an antique artefact and puts them into the filigree of a new crown, thus adding unexpected shine and lustre to the poem. Bringing a beauty from the past into a modern work is paying tribute to the source and let the echo of the past ring through, while at the same time adding additional layers to the song, making it mysterious with hidden meanings.

One of the characteristics of Dylan’s Modern Times is this use of inlays. A lot has been said and written about the lines and music Dylan has taken from others. On Modern Times there’s quite a lot from Ovid, the Latin poet who died this year exactly 2000 years ago. When Dylan sings ‘every nook and granny has its tears’ and you have read Ovid’s exile book Tristia, Dylan’s nook and cranny get an additional meaning. You can picture yourself the old man in exile in an empty house, surrounded by strangers speaking a strange language, eating strange food. Longing for his wife.

I’m quite sure Dylan did not lift any lines from Shmuel Hanagid, at least I couldn’t find any. But there is an amazing similarity in mood, ambience, flavor, symbolism. They share the same credentials and for a part the same background. That becomes evident in the songs on Modern Times.

(This is part one of Modern Times revisited – Dylan Hanagid – Part Two is soon to follow)

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 others.

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5 Responses to Modern Times revisited: Bob Dylan and Shmuel Hanagid Part One

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    And I imagine critics were saying Hanagid was stealing other people’s work way back then too!

  2. They probably did, but then again, he wrote in Hebrew so not too many would complain.

  3. Kieran says:

    That’s brilliant! I never heard of Hanagid but will look him up now: that verse you quoted is especially like something from a Dylan song:

    “He’ll bring you trouble with talk like dreams,
    invoking song and verse to cheat you;
    but dreams, my son, aren’t what they seem:
    not all the poet says is true…”

  4. DeGaulle says:

    The ‘enlightened’ Islamic myth. The Mohammedans brought darkness to what had been an advanced Romano-Visigothic civilisation. An example of what happens when universities become flush with Saudi money.

    The Mohammedans left little poetry. Their architecture consisted mainly of occupying that which had been built by the far superior architects of their predecessors. They had no science. What did it consist of? Averroes discovered an Aristotelian text that the Mohammedans had managed not to burn in Alexandria and proceeded to hopelessly misinterpret it. Soon after, even this was suppressed by the Arabs. The more these iconoclasts were expelled from Spain, the more science began to develop under the auspices and authority of Christendom.

  5. Larry Fyffe says:

    Come on, even in this day and age Christianity would burn Darwin’s books if secular governments hadn’t arisen or had done nothing to stop it, and we’d be back into the ‘Dark Ages.’

    We can read Omar Khayyam’s poetry; he was an Iranian poet and mathematician. And today no scholar finds himself excommunicated for saying the earth goes around the sun.

    Science survived in spite of religion, including the Abrahamic ones.

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