Bob Dylan and Rainer Rilke (Part II)

Part one of this article appears at:


by Larry Fyffe

In poems of latter-day Romantic Transcendentalist Rainer Rilke, “roses,” a ‘thing’, symbolizes the life force that pervades the Universe; what that vital force is lies beyond the human senses. It sometimes seems more apparent within the female body and the sweet smell of roses. Rilke intuits a transcendental force therefrom.

The mechanical model of the Enlightenment, according to the Romantic Transcendalists, fails to take into account the ‘spark’ that ignites and
maintains organic life.

Rainer Rilke’s poems are themselves like roses; roses that express this mysterious life urge in figurative language through the creation of magical metaphors, metonymy, and sensual imagery.

Rilke’s Freudian surrealistic imagery of the male sexual function breathes some life back into the corpse of Nietzsche’s deity:

And this above all: that the light has to sift
Through these petals. From a thousand skies
They filter slowly that mysterious drop
In whose gleaming fire the tangled bundle
Of stamens stirs itself and stands upright
(Rainer Rilke: The Bowl Of Roses)

Likewise, so does the female reproductive function:

Ah, and around this
Centre, the rose of the watching
Flower and un-flower. Round this
Stamp, this pistil, caught in the pollen
Of its own flowering, fertilized
Again to a shadow-fruit of disinterest
Their never-conscious, seeming-to-smile, disinterest
Gleaming lightly, on surface thinness
(Rainer Rilke: Duino Elegy V)

A contra-Romantic theme is Rilke’s – the godhead’s not dead; he’s merely disinterested in what’s going on, and that sentiment is mirrored down on Earth:

Bob Dylan veers away from such a dark existentialist cosomology; he’s got a pocket full of them and Dyan cracks a simile – some women are like roses that are consciously happy:

People carry roses
Make promises by the hour
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her
(Bob Dylan: Love My Zero)

Whatever the life force is (actually unknowable due to the limitations of the senses), Rilke figuratively depicts it as noncaring. Representing himself as the mythological Mercury sent from distant Zeus, Rilke passes on the message that it does not matter to the the Commander-in-Chief of the Universe whether you are happy or sorrowful

That closer to caring Mother Nature be most women, even when consciously sorrowful, is the message delivered in a number of Bob Dylan’s songs:

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes
And your silver cross and your voice like chimes ….
Oh, the farmers and the businessmen, they all did decide
To show you where the dead angels are that they used to hide
But why did they pick you to sympathize with their side
How could they ever have mistaken you …..
And with the child of a hoodlum wrapped up in your arms?
(Bob Dylan: Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands)

The godhead is disinterested, but angels are worse – they bring Gothic horror to the human heart, or so writes Rilke. ‘Tobias’ means ‘the Goodness of God”:

Every angel is terror. And yet
Ah, knowing you, I invoke you, almost deadly
birds of the soul. Where are the days of Tobias
When most of the most radiant
Of you stood at the simple threshold
Disguised somewhat for the journey and no
longer awesome?
(Rainer Rilke: Elegy II)

Dylan makes use of Rilke’s Poe-like symbolism, but the angel evokes empathy;
not fear like TS Eliot’s ‘eternal footman’ does:

The wind howls like a hammer
The night blows cold and rainy
My love, she’s like some angel
At my window with a broken wing
(Bob Dylan: Love My Zero)

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


  1. Rilke distances himself and humans from the Romantic Transcendentalist view of an all-pervading benevolent life force in Nature:

    “Look, we don’t love like the flowers with only one season behind us. When we love, a sap older than memory rises in our arms”

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