Bob Dylan and Rainer Rilke


by Larry Fyffe

The Transcendental Romantic poets, perceiving a vitalism in the natural organic world, contend that restrictions imposed by the institutions of society block most human individuals from intuitively feeling the regenerative spirit that pervades the universe.

The Metaphysical poets before that employ intellectual wit and word play, particularly conceits, to highlight the descrepancies between human behaviour and the teachings of religious authorities.

PreModernist Rainer Rilke rains on both their parades and plays with the conventional syntax and meanings of words to create word-pictures that contrast life and death. He solidifies the otherwise abstract concept that there is a transcendental life force at work throughout the universe and so it’s also operating within the body of each individual human.

Rilke goes further and reverses Rousseau’s Romantic message that ‘we are born free but everywhere we are in chains’. Rilke contends that as an individual matures this life force drives both the human behaviour that is conventionally considered ‘natural’, and the behaviour that at present is labelled ‘unnatural’. Those capable of getting in touch with this mysterious life force realize that the Godhead is not dead like Nietzsche claims, but that over time He merely loosens His grip on how people should behave:

For this is a crime if anything is a crime
Not to increase the freedom of love
With all the freedom we can summon in ourselves
We have, indeed, when we love, only this one thing –
To loose another because holding on to ourselves
Comes easily to us and does not first have to be learned
(Rainer Rilke: Requiem For A Friend – translated)

The influence of Rainer Rilke’s poetry on Bob Dylan’s song lyrics is clearly discernable:

If love is a sin, then beauty is a crime
All things are beautiful in their time
The black and the white, the yellow and the brown
It’s all right there in front of you in Scarlet Town
(Bob Dylan: Scarlet Town)

One of Dylan’s most famous songs is inspired by Rainer Rilke’s angst-ridden poems of lament and joy – you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone, but there comes a time to let it go. In Greek and Roman mythology, Hermes (Mercury) is Zeus’ winged messenger, a trickster and a master thief who guides the dead to the underworld; Orpheus is a magical musician; Eurydice, his short-lived wife:

They’re still coming, but they were two
Fearfully light in their passage. If only he might
Turn once more (if looking back
Were not to the ruin of all his work
That he had to accomplish), then he must see them
The quiet pair, mutely following him
(Rainer Rilke: Orpheus, Eurydice, And Hermes)

For Bob Dylan, there’s a time to look back, and a time to look ahead:

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home
A complete unknown, like a rolling stone
You never turned around to see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did
their tricks for you
You never understood that it ain’t no good
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
(Bob Dylan: Like a Rolling Stone)

Dylan has a little fun with Rilke’s view of cosmological evolution. The singer/songwriter covers and inverses the following 1929 song so that it’s about a same sex couple:

I’m not much to look at
Nothin’ to see
Just glad I’m livin’
And lucky to be
I’ve got a man who’s crazy for me
He’s funny that way
I can’t save a dollar
Ain’t worth a cent
He’d never holler
He’d live in a tent
I’ve got a man who’s crazy for me
He’s funny that way
(Bob Dylan: He’s Funny That Way – Moret/Whiting)


  1. Though Rousseau’s message influences the Romantics, he himself be part of the Enlightenment that emphasizes the use of reason to advance the teaching of institutional values.

  2. ‘Black Orpheus”(1959) is a movie based on the mythology of Orpheus and Eurydice

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