Bob Dylan And Charles Baudelaire (Part II): The Jack Of Arts

By Larry Fyffe

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan draws many of his images from the deck of Symbols placed before him by the French poet Charles Baudelaire. A symbol is a concise image with broad meaning:

In a soiled deck of cards that reeks of dirty scent
The handsome Jack Of Hearts and the worn Queen Of Spades
Talk in a suggestive tone of their old love affair

(Baudelaire: Spleen I)

On one level, the following song lyrics are about the emotional struggle with love, compassion, and hate experienced by individuals in today’s society:

Backstage the girls were playing five-card stud by the stairs
Lily had two Queens,  she was hopin’ for a third to match her pair …..
Lily called another bet, and drew up the Jack Of Hearts

(Bob Dylan: Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts)

The Jack Of Hearts symbolizes love and sex; Lily, as does the Queen Of Spades, symbolizes Death.

Death – both literal and metaphorical:

I want to build for you, Madonna, my mistress
An underground altar in the depth of my grief
And carved out in the darkest corner of my heart
Far from worldly desire and mocking looks
A niche, all enameled with blue and with gold
Where you shall stand, amazed statue
With my polished verse as a trellis of pure metal

(Baudelaire: To A Madonna)

The following fragmented song lyrics, peppered with updated Baudelairean imagery, could well refer to a poster of Brigette Bardot with a motorcycle; the grey flannel dwarf to an uptight businessman:

The motorcycle black Madonna
Two-wheeled gypsy queen
And her silver-studded phantom cause
The gray flannel dwarf to scream
As he weeps to wicked birds of prey

(Bob Dylan: Gates Of Eden)

According to many Romantic artists, the Reason of The Enlightenment casts God outside of the Universe, leaving Man, still locked outside of Eden, with only his physical body and it’s sensations – no Absolute moral authority to guide him or her, and no reward to look forward to in an ‘afterlife’. The Romantic Transcendentalists come up with the idea that the organic world of Nature is God’s Spirit imperfectly manifested – a hard sell when most people live in cities. Capitalist birds of prey swoop down to build their Edenic nests of concrete, plastered with  posters of Brigette Bardot on a motorcycle:

Expressed in black humour by the singer/songwriter:

Well, my telephone rang, it would not stop
It’s President Kennedy callin’ me up
He said, ‘My friend, Bob, what do we need to make
the country grow?’
I said, ‘ My friend, John – – Brigette Bardot’

(Bob Dylan: I Shall Be Free)

The Symbolists of their day champion Art as a replacement for the oh-so-boring capitalist gods who ride golden calves upon the platform of democracy. These  poets mount their silver steeds and ride off to rescue the Romanic damsel-in-distress.The Symbolists, even if ‘dandies’, explore the dark, desolate streets of the contemporary city in search of artistic inspiration.  Bob Dylan takes on a persona that emulates the art and lifestyle of the Symbolists – he drives a motorcycle, and the Queen of Spades jumps on, grabs him around the waist.

In the words of both Baudelaire and Dylan, Art is personified as a beautiful and unattainable woman that becomes a ‘thing in itself’ to worship:

Bewitching eyes, you shine like mystical candles
That burn in broad daylight
The sun reddens but does not quench their eerie flame ….
You walk, singing the awakening of my soul
Bright stars whose flame no sun can pale

(Baudelaire: The Living Torch)

Who among us would try to deny it?

With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into you eyes where the moonlight swims
And your match-book songs and your gypsy hymns
Who among them would try to impress you?

(Bob Dylan: Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands)

The sound of the ticking clock, and pumping heart – the shortness of life – causes some Symbolist poets to scream at other-worldly religions, at flowery Romantic Transcendentalism …. and even at Art itself:

In short, is a flower, Rosemary
Or Lily, dead or alive, worth
The excrement of one sea-bird
Is it worth a solitary candle drip?
(Arthur Rimbaud: On The Subject Of Flowers)

You may also enjoy: The Ghosts Of Electricity: Bob Dylan And Symbolism


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