More on TS Eliot, Walt Whitman, Percy Shelley, and Bob Dylan


By Larry Fyffe

Many of the song lyrics of Bob Dylan reveal the influences of poets TS Eliot, Walt Whitman, and Percy Shelley:

When Bob Dylan read a bit of TS Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’ on the air, he introduced the the poem by saying it ‘commenorated the death of Abraham Lincoln’:

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

Actually, the poem to which Dylan refers is one by Walt Whitman:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed
And the great star early drooped in the western
sky in the night
I mourned, and yet shall mourn with every returning spring
(Walt Whitman: When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloomed)

Whitman commemorates Lincoln’s death in another poem too:

But O heart! heart! heart!
O bleeding drops of red
Where on the deck my Captain lies
Fallen cold and dead
(Walt Whitman: O Captain! My Captain!)

In a number of his song lyrics, Dylan makes reference to Walt Whitman’s poetry:

All swims before her eyes, flashes with black, she
catches the main words only
Sentences broken, ‘gunshot wound in the breast, cavalry
skirmish, taken to hospital
At present low, but soon will be better ….
While they stand at the home at the door he is dead already
(Walt Whitman: Come Up From The Fields Father)

Below again, a connection to the American Civil War:

A letter came to to mother
Came today
Gunshot wound to the breast
Is what it did say
But he’ll be better soon
He’s in a hospital bed
But he’ll never be better
He’s already dead
(Bob Dylan: ‘Cross The Green Mountain)

The Modernist poetry of TS Eliot, Bob Dylan also draws upon:

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
Still and white
(TS Eliot: Rhapsody On A Windy Night)

Ezra Pound and TS Eliot emphasize, instead of abstract language, the use of sense-evoking images:

Then take me disappearin’ through 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
From from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
(Bob Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man)

And the use of images in poetry to create a sense of movement:

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

Dylan does the same in song lyrics:

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

The exotic and gothic imagery of Romantic poet Percy Shelley be there in Bob Dylan’s song lyrics as well:

As within a furnace bright
Column, tower, and dome, and spire
Shine the obelisks of fire
Pointing with inconstant motion
From the altar of dark ocean
To the sapphire-tinted skies
(Percy Shelley: Euganean Hill)

As in the following:

There’s a woman on my lap, she’s drinking champagne
Got white skin, got assassin’s eyes
I’m looking up into the sapphire-tinted skies
I’m well dressed, waiting for a train
(Bob Dylan: Things Have Changed)

Bringing it all back home to the lines from ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ quoted above:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing
(Percy Shelley: Ode To The West Wind)

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.

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



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