Bob Dylan And Henry Longfellow: Desire (Part II)


by Larry Fyffe

He who knows not American history, knows not Bob Dylan. Or, to be more precise, he who knows not the Romantic myths surrounding American history, knows not Bob Dylan.

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow shoots his myth-bearing arrow into the oak tree of American folklore.

On the way to Jamestown, Virginia, Captain Miles Standish is blown off course and lands at Plymouth Rock. Longfellow immortalizes the Indian-killer in ‘The Courtship Of Miles Standish’.

Taking her cue from Longfellow’s poem, another Romantic immortalizes Pocahontas, the Indian princess associated with the Jamestown settlement:

Knowest thou what thou hast done, thou, dark-haired child?
What great events on thy compassion hung?
What prowess lurks beneath your aspect mild
And in the accents of that foreign tongue? ……
But thou, O forests princess, true of heart
When o’er our fathers waved destruction’s dart
Shalt in their children’s loving hearts be shrined
Pure, lonely star, o’er dark oblivion wave
It is not meet thy name should moulder in the grave
(Lydia Sigourney: Pocahontas)

The singer/songwriter gets Star Trek’s Scotty to beam him back to the early English settlement at Jamestown:

I got a house on a hill, I got hogs out in the mud
I got a house on a hill, I got hogs out lying in the mud
Got a long-haired woman, she got royal Indian blood
(Bob Dylan: Summer Days)

Sir Walter Raleigh brings hogs to Jamestown in 1607.

The ‘Desire’ album pays tribute to poet Henry Longfellow, and his Romantic reworking of the history of the later settlement at Plymouth Rock:

…. Oh sister, when I fall into your spacey arms
Can not ya feel the weight of oblivion
And the songs of redemption on your backside
We surface alongside Miles Standish
And take the Rock
(Liner notes: Desire album)

The singer/songwriter lightens up with humour the transformation of ‘the American Dream’ of a new Eden into the reality of materalistic greed -Captain Standish becomes Captain Arab:

I was riding on the Mayflower
When I thought I spied some land ….
Captain Arab he started writing up some deeds
He said ‘Let’s set up a fort
And start buying this place with beads’
(Bob Dylan: 115th Dream)

In the ‘Desire’ song ‘Isis’, Bob Dylan humourously mixes together mythologies in the manner of Gothic Romantic poetry. Searched for, as expressed through various mythologies, is the Oneness of the Universe before it split apart. For example, in Christian mythology, Jesus is considered an integral part of Father Sky, and the Lord unites with Mary, the Earth Mother; the produce of Earth and Sky be Adam and Eve.

In Egyptian mythology, Isis, a Mary-like symbol of a devoted mother, is the product of the Sky goddess and Earth god. She is the wife to her brother Osirus. Set, the jealous brother of Osirus, locks him in a coffin, a tale akin to the Christian story of Cain stoning his brother Abel to death.

Bob Dylan recklessly satires these mythologies and plays with Longfellow’s poetic juxtaposition of material and spiritual values:

I was thinkin’ about turquoise
I was thinkin’ about gold
I was thinkin’ about diamonds
And the world’s biggest necklace
As we rode through the canyons
Through the devilish cold
I was thinkin’ about Isis
How she thought I was so reckless
(Bob Dylan: Isis)

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.

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 Band revitalizes a Longfellowian ‘archetype’ (typical model) of the devoted follower, lover, or mother who gets separated from and then awaits the return of the one she’s devoted to (ie, Mary Magdalene, Penelope):

    They used to waltz on the the banks of the mighty Mississippi
    Lovin’ the whole night through
    ‘Til the riverboat gambler went off to make a killing
    And bring it on back to you
    (Robbie Robertson: Evangeline)

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the Romantic poem ‘Evangeline’.

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