Bob Dylan and The Heart Of Darkness

Bob Dylan And The Heart Of Darkness

by Larry Fyffe

The French Symbolists poets are the offspring of earlier Romantic poets who envision the material world as a manifestation of a mysterious vilalistic force that drives the Universe. As inhabitants of cities, the Symbolist poets react against the flowery diction used by the Romantic dreamers of green organic countrysides:

In short, is a Fower, Rosemary
Lily, dead or alive, worth
The excrement of one sea-bird?
(Arthur Rimbaud: The Poet On the Subject Of Flowers)

The Modernist poets question this modified form of idealistic Romanticism, drawing instead upon images taken from the physical world, objective correlatives that express their feeling of horror and despair living in a world behind which lies nothing:

The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things
A twisted branch upon the beach
Eaten smooth and polished
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton
Stiff and white
(TS Eliot: Rhapsody On A Windy Night)

Dancing with one, and then the other, singer/songwriter Bob Dylan juggles these differing points of view:

And take me disappearing through the
the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted frightened trees
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach
Of crazy sorrow
(Bob Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man)

The Romantic in Dylan flees from the land of sorrow in the hope of finding some shelter from the dark clouds of TS Eliot’s poetry:

Well, my ship is in the harbour
And the sails are spread
Listen to me, pretty baby
Lay your hand upon my head
Beyond here lies nothin’
(Bob Dylan: Beyond Here Lies Nothin’)

Ironically, largely due to Bob Dylan’s artistic endeavours, thoughout the world of songwriting and song, TS Eliot’s existential angst has spread far and wide:

White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year by year
(TS Eliot: The Wasteland)

To Gothic rock bands:

The bodies on the naked, on the low damp ground
In the violet hour, to the violent sound …
This is the floor show, the clapping hands
Animal flow from the animal glands
(Sisters Of Mercy: Floor Show)

The sickly imagery of the Modernist poetry is everwhere:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but with a whimper
(TS Eliot: The Hollow Men)

In folk music:

Is this the whimper and the ending
The impotence of people raised on fear
The fear that blinds the sense of common oneness?
(Peter, Paul And Mary: Greenwood, written by Peter Yarrow)

In rap:

Citizens’ sinuses ring with sirens whose singing is violence
It goes thanks TS, but the world ends like this
Not a bang, not a whimper, but a sibilant hiss
(Doomtree: No Home Owners)

Images of despair everywhere:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory with desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain
(TS Eliot: The Wasteland)

In indietronia rock:

April is the cruellest month
I reckon this March could be a contender
There’s only so much sorrow a man can take
(Hot Chip: Play Boy)

Images of death everywhere:

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker
And I have seen the Eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker
And in short, I was afraid
(TS Eliot: The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock)

In baroque rock:

In the sleeves of a man
Don’t wanna be a boy today
Heard the Eternal Footman
Brought himself a bike to race
(Tori Amos: Pretty Good Year)

The Modernist news is not good. Little time there is, but life under pressure to conform drags on:

In confessional rock:

Is there time, is there time
To follow just one desire
Is there time, is there time
To follow your heart?
(Dashboard Confessional: Shade Of The Poisoned Trees)

In the end, resistance to conformity is futile anyhow:

They will say, “How his hair is turning thin” ……
I have measured out my life in coffee spoons ……
I grow old – I grow old –
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled
(TS Eliot: The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock)

In Canadian folk rock:

Someday I’ll have a disappearing hairline
Someday I’ll wear pajamas in the daytime
Afternoons will be measured out
Measured out, measured with
Coffee spoons and TS Eliot
(Crash Test Dummies: Afternoon And Coffee Spoons)

To be concise, what’s the use?

Do I dare
Disturb the Universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse
(TS Eliot: The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock)

In activist hip hop:

Instead of being pimped and then prostituted
Won’t be the last time
‘Cause it ain’t the first
So do I dare disturb the Universe?
(Public Enemy: Niggativity)

What little time there is, not taken advantage of anyway:

Your arms full and your hair wet, I could not
Speak and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing
(TS Eliot: The Wasteland)

In progressive rock:

I stepped back into the shadows
I tried to look, my eyes were blind
I tried to speak, but I could not find
The words to say
(The Strawbs: Blue Angel)

More Modernist images of indecision, and wrong decisions:

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the shadow
(TS Eliot: Hollow Men)

In pop rock:

Between the intention and the expression
Between the emotion and the response
Falls the shadow
Sometimes I fail to follow through
On things I want to do
Other times I find myself doing the very things I hate
(Devo: The Shadow)

More images of inaction on the part of those under control:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michaelangelo
(TS Eliot: The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock)

In song lyrics written by singer Bob Dylan:

All along the watch tower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants too
(Bob Dylan: All Along The Watchtower)

TS Eliot’s Modernist outlook be heavily influenced by Joseph Conrad’s novella
‘Heart Of Darkness’, a story that peers into the primitive instincts hidden within the human heart.

Bob Dylan’s dance beneath the diamond skies is tempered by the conditions imposed on others by those in power who have hearts of darkness:

And your pleasure knows no limits
Your voice is like a meadowlark
But your heart’s like an ocean
Mysterious and dark
One more cup of coffee for the road
One more cup of coffee ‘fore I go
To the valley below
(Bob Dylan: One More Cup Of Coffee)

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. Hi Larry,
    thats interesting that you choose “Heart of Darkness” for your headline.
    Not long ago i read this book and i found so many echoes in the lyrics around the songs of “Shot of Love” and other songs which deal with dark feelings/ soul and heart, that i´m shure that Dylan used this book as a source, in the way we know it, picking out strong expressions, pictures and so on.
    But thats o.k. boy…

  2. Appreciate your comment, Demel….Yes, indeed, that’s what I’m suggesting…. as I point out in ‘Bob Dylan, Ezra Pound, And TS Eliot Fighting In The Captain’s Tower’, Eliot’s poem Wasteland references Conrad’s book, plays on its title…’I knew nothing/Looking into the heart of light”

  3. And Cousins sings, “I could not stand the light of day…”; the line “I have no strength to fight” may allude to a line from Ducasse’s ‘Maldoror’ , a prose poem which Dylan read.

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