Bob Dylan and the Poetry of John Donne: Catch a Falling Star


By Larry Fyffe

Though influenced the singer/songwriter is by the sentimental and emotional Nature-guided Romantics, no poetry affects the song lyrics of Bob Dylan like that of the ornate and witty writing of the Baroque Metaphysical poet John Donne, filled as it is by hyperbolic trope, erotic imagery, paradoxical contrast, and extended metaphor.

Based on a Donne poem is Perry Como’s 1959 Grammy Award-winning song:

Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
And never let it fade away
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Save it for a rainy day
For love may come and tap you on the shoulder
Some starless night
Just in case you feel you want to hold her
You’ll have a pocket full of starlight
(Writers- Pockriss; Vance: Catch A Falling Star)

The source-poem, seldom, if ever, mentioned:

Go catch a falling star
Get with child a mandrake root
Tell me where all past years are
Or who cleft the devil’s foot
Teach me to hear the mermaids singing
(John Donne: Go Catch A Falling Star)

In Greek mythology, Odysseus has himself tied to the mast of his ship so he can hear the words that the mermaids are singing – about things that are going to happen in the hereafter upon this earth.

Done in is the Modernist poet TS Eliot by Donne:

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each
I do not think that they will sing for me
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black
(TS Eliot: The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock)

Likewise Bob Dylan:

And Ezra Pound And TS Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

A former lover of Bob Dylan, compares herself to mermaid-like Venus on a half-shell, protecting her man:

Well you burst on the scene
Already a legend
The unwashed phenomenon
The original vagabond
You strayed into my arms
And there you stayed
Temporarily lost at sea
The Madonna was yours for free
Yes the girl on the half-shell
Would keep you from harm
(Joan Baez: Diamonds And Rust)

Dylan himself fears being trapped by society’s pliers, symbolized by the female:

I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now, I shall be released
(Bob Dylan: I Shall Be Released)

Both John Donne and Bob Dylan depict earth-dwelling humankind as having a spiritual side, symbolized by the Sun, by God, or by Jesus, coming from the East, that is entangled intimately with a material side coming from the opposite direction, symbolized by the darkness of night; womankind both writers oft place in the latter category.

Hence, is’t that I am carried towards the west
This day when my soul form bends toward the east
There shall I see the sun, by rising set
And by that setting endless day beget
(John Donne: Riding Westward)

Without the sense of darkness and night, there’d be no contrasting sense of light and day, no comparison for what is life and what is death:

Each man’s death diminishes me
Therefore send not to know
For whom the bell tolls
It tolls for thee
(John Donne: For Whom The Bell Toll)

Figuratively speaking, a heart broken over a love lost of a woman can be compared to dying:

When the last rays of daylight go down
Buddy, you’ll roll no more
I can hear the church bells in the yard
I wonder who they’re ringin’ for?
I know that I can’t win
But my heart just won’t give in
Last night I danced with a stranger
But she reminded me you were the one
You left me in the doorway cryin’
In the dark land of the sun
(Bob Dylan: Standing In The Doorway)

The rather dark Baroque message of Donne and Eliot is softened a bit by the singer/songwriter through the addition of some Whitmanian Transcendental sentiment:

The trailing moss and mystic glow
Purple blossoms soft as snow
My tears keep flowing to the sea
Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief
It takes a thief to catch a thief
For whom does the bell toll for love?
It tolls for you and me
(Bob Dylan: Moonlight)

As in the poem that follows:

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 ever-returning spring …..
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night – O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappeared – O the black murk that
hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless – O helpless
soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul
(Walt Whitman: When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloomed)

A feature of Baroque poetry is the colour black:

Oh, the gentlemen are talking and the midnight moon
is on the riverside
They are drinking up and walking and it is time for
me to slide
I live in another world where life and death are memorized
Where the earth is strung with lover’s pearls and all I
see are dark eyes
(Bob Dylan: Dark Eyes)

Bob Dylan ties himself to the mast of the ship so that he can hear the words that the melodic mermaids are singing to him – he wants to see the face of God, and live to tell about it.

What else is on the site

1: Over 470 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 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 produced 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 our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

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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