Bob Dylan And John Crowe Ransom


by Larry Fyffe

The alliterative poetry of John Crowe Ransom, admired by Archibald MacLeish, has a somewhat Gnostic bent to it, styled in mock epic, parody, and irony:

The skies were jaded while the faded sun
Slack of his office to confute the fogs
Lay sick abed, but I, inured to duty
Sat for my food. Three hours each day we souls
Who might be angels but are fastened down
With bodies, most infuriating freight
Sit fattening these frames and skeletons
With fifthy food which we must cast away
Before they feed again
(John Ransom: Morning)

Said in the Bible:

Thou hast clothed me with skin and flesh
And has fenced me with bones and sinews
(Job: 10:11)

We all be vulnerable tin angels. Fools rush inwhere angels fear to tread: “What was it you were looking for that took your life that night?/…I’ll never kiss your lips again/They buried you today” (‘Teen Angel’). Bob Dylan’s ‘Tin Angel’ shows signs that he takes his cue also from a traditional folk song, and from a Ransom poem:

Then saddle for me my milk-white steed
For my big horse is not speedy-o
And I will ride till I seek my bride
She’s away with the raggle taggle gypsy-oò
He rode east and he rode west also
Until he came to a wide open plain
It was there he spied his lady-o ….
‘What care I for my house and my land
What care I for my money-o
I’d rather have a kiss from the yellow gypsy’s lips
I’m away with the raggle taggle gypsy-o’
(Traditional: The Raggle Taggle Gypsy)

Monty Python’s Don Quixote-like movie mock epic of a foolhardy chivairic ‘Black Knight’ is based on Ransom’s ‘Captain Carpenter’. The poem alludes to the Bible – “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary…?”(Mark 6:3). Carpenter encounters not a Mary Magdalene; the hyperbolic strife he endures spoofs the suffering of the unwavering devotion of Job, and Christ Himself:

Captain Carpenter rose up in his prime
Put on his pistols and went riding out ….
It was a pretty lady and all her train
That played with him so sweetly but before
An hour she’d taken a sword with all her main
And twined him of his nose for evermore ….
Their strokes and counters whistled in the wind
I wished he had delivered half his blows
But where she should have made off like a hind
The bitch bit off his arms at the elbows ….
And Captain Carpenter parted with his ears
To a black devil that used him in his wise
O Jesus ere his threescore years and ten years
Another had plucked out his sweet blue eyes
(John Ransom: Captain Carpenter)

An allusion to:

I know there lies a new slain knight
And nobody knows that he lies there ….
His lady’s taken another mate
So we may make our dinner sweet
You sit on his white breast-bone
And I’ll peck out his bonny blue eyes
(Traditional: The Two Corbies)

The Dylanesque rhyme twist matches John Ransom’s ‘ears/years’; ‘wise/eyes’ with ‘ear’/’clear’; ‘surprise’/ skies’/ ‘wise’/’eyes’ in the singer/songwriters’ black-humoured narrative of a love triangle in which it appears that our foolhardy knight meets a bloody fate at the hands of a rival, the chief of the clan:

Well, they rode all night and they rode all day
Eastward along down the broad highway
His spirit was tired and his vision was bent
His men deserted him and onward he went ….
The gun went boom and the shot rang clear
First bullet glazed his ear
Second ball went straight in
And he bent in the middle like a twisted pin
(Bob Dylan: Tin Angel)

Ramson expresses metaphorically the Gnostic theme that the human spirit is limited by the pangs and pains of the physical body:

Better to walk forth in the frozen air
And wash my wound in the snows; that
would be healing
Because my heart would throb less painful there
Being caked with cold, and past the smart of feeling
(John Ronsom: Winter Remembered)

Dylan observes that over-heated emotion and devotion be dangerous to one’s health:

His face was hardened and caked with sweat
His arms ached and his hands were wet
‘You’re a murderous queen, and a bloody wife
If you don’t mind’ I’ll have the knife’
(Bob Dylan: Tin Angel)

However, for Dylan, all is not lost. Given the right circumstances, the goodly spiritual sparks within the physical body ignite to light up the darkness:

I was eating with the pigs off a fancy tray
I was told that I was lookin’ good and to have a nice day
It all seemed so proper, it all seemed so elite
Eating that absolute garbage while being discreet
But you changed my life
Came along in a time of strife
(Bob Dylan: You Changed My Life)

The material excesses of the economic system known as capitalism do not go unscathed.

What else is on the site

1: 500+ 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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