Bob Dylan And Edward Taylor


by Larry Fyffe

The lyrics of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, as previously shown, deal with American history – its capitalist economics, puritanical religion, ardent militarism, and materialistic culture.

The Puritans, with the deterministic doctrines – the ‘predestination’ belief that all mankind is decrepit because Adam and Eve sinned, and the belief that all-seeing God has already chosen the ‘elect’ that will be saved – have a strong impact on the myths of the ‘America Dream’.

Edward Taylor, in the days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, be a Puritan poet, a true believer in divine creationism.

In the following poem, he asks questions purely rhetorical:

Upon what base was fixed the lath, wherein
He turned this globe, and riggalled it so trim?
Who blew the bellows of his furnace vast?
Or held the mould wherein the world was cast?
(Edward Taylor: The Preface)

A later preRomantic British poet by the name of William Blake (like Taylor, influenced by the Metaphysical poets), is a bit more more skeptical, and an anti-predestinationist to boot:

What the hammer? What the chain
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare it’s deadly terrors clasp?
(William Blake: The Tiger)

Taylor rhymes ‘vast/cast’; Blake, ‘grasp/clasp’.

Bob Dylan rejects not the hard work ethos of John Calvinist’s Purutanism, but considers ‘Lady Luck’ to be an idol worth worshipping:

They say I shot a man named Gray
And took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks
And when she died it came to me
I can’t help it if I’m lucky
(Bob Dylan: Idiot Wind)

The lyrics of Dylan songs indicate that he does not believe that God gives a ‘sign’ that He has certain chosen people that He favours – not by saving them from death at critical moments in history, anyway:

When the Reaper’s task had ended
Sixteen hundred had gone to rest
The good, the bad, the rich, the poor
The loviest and the best
(Bob Dylan: Tempest)

Neither William Blake nor John Calvin gets a nod from God:

Calvin, Blake, and Wilson
Gambled in the dark
Not one of them would ever live to
Tell the tale on the disembark
(Bob Dylan: Tempest)

In a figurative Christian conceit, Edward Taylor petitions that the faults he has are not sufficient signs that his name is missing from the list of the special elect. The poet hopes that he’s still nonetheless favoured by the Christ (‘the rose’); and by His Father:

Shall not thy rose my garden fresh perfume?
Shall not thy beauty my dull heart assail?
Shall not thy golden gleams run through the gloom?
Shall my black velvet mask thy fair face veil?
Pass over my faults shine forth, bright sun; arise
Enthrone thy rosy self within my eyes
(Edward Taylor: Reflection)

Whether or not directy familiar with Taylor’s poem, the singer/songwriter sticks with the sexual suggestiveness of the images found in ‘Solomon’s Song’:

Well the devil’s in the alley, mule’s in the stall
Say anything you want to, I have heard it all
I was thinkin’ about things that Rosie’s said
I was thinking I was sleeping in Rosie’s bed
(Bob Dylan: Mississippi)

From Puritanism comes the concept of the ‘American Dream’; it’s a dream waiting there for everyone to be fulfilled, and gain material wealth for themselves – a sign from the Calvinist God to special individuals that they have God on their side:

Lord, feed mine eyes then with thy doings rare
And fat my heart with these ripe fruits thou barest
Adorn my life well with thine works; make fair
My person with apparel thou preparest
My boughs shall loaded be with fruits that spring
Up from thy works while to thy praise I sing
(Edward Taylor: Should I With Silver Tools)

Not quite so fast, saith Dylan – the sign of real richness comes, not from external wealth, but from igniting the Spirit that lies within oneself, and letting it shine forth:

Many try to stop me, shake me up in my mind
Say, ‘Prove to me that He is Lord, show me a sign’
What kind of sign they need when it all come from within
When what’s lost has been found
What’s to come has already been
(Bob Dylan: Pressing On)

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  1. Calvin, Blake, Wilson –

    Without much of a stretch, a connection to Swedenborg mysticism ( influenced Blake), as well as to Freudian psychology could be made by referencing ‘William Wilson’ by Edgar Allan Poe, a short story about having a ‘double’, a conscience, ie, a superego.

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