Bob Dylan And Charles Baudelaire (Part IV)


By Larrry Fyffe

The songs of Bob Dylan hold out a little more hope than do the dark poems of Charles Baudelaire.

Charles Baudelaire speaks of individual despair:

I threw her in a well to drown
With the walled rocks that round it stood
To keep her there and hold her down
I would forget her if I could ….
Crush my guilty head
Or cut my body in half
I laugh at God, at the devil
And at the holy table as well

(Charles Baudelaire: The Assassin’s Wine)

Bob Dylan speaks of a world in despair:

The cat’s in the well, the wolf is lookin’ down
He got his big bushy tail draggin’ all over the ground
Cat’s in the well, the gentle lady is asleep ….
She ain’t hearin’ a thing, the silence is a-stickin’ her deep
The cat’s in the well, and grief is showin’ its face
The world is being slaughtered, and it’s such a bloody disgrace ….
The cat’s in the well, leaves are startin’ to fall
Good night, my love, may the Lord have mercy on us all

(Bob Dylan: Cat’s In The Well)

Poet Arthur Rimbaud, influenced by Baudelaire, inverts and darkens children’s fairy tales and nursery rhymes – such as Charles Perrault’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’:

Against the fall of snow, a Being Beautiful, and very tall
Whistlings of death and circles of faint music
Make this adored body, swelling and trembling
Like a spectre rise
Black and scarlet gashes bursting the gleaming flesh
The true colours of life grow dark
Dancing and drifting in the scaffolding around the vision

(Arthur Rimbaud: Being Beautious)

Charles Perrault’s ‘Boots In Boots’ is about a poor fellow who gets to marry a princess; the singer/songwiter plays around with another fairy tale by Perrault – ‘Cinderella’:

Cinderella, she seems so easy, ‘It takes one to know one’, she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets, Bett Davis style ….
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row

(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

Baudelaire turns the biblical theme of Cain and Abel upside down:

Race of Abel, your disgrace is
The sword is conquered by the pike
Race of Cain, ascend to heaven
And cast God down upon the earth

(Baudelaire: Abel And Cain)

According to Baudelaire, the reasonable men of the Age Of The Enlightenment have shut God outside the Universe.

Bob Dylan is almost as dark:
Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide
The fortune-telling lady has taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love or expecting rain

(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

The hunchback in the above verse alludes to a Victor Hugo story.

Arthur Rimbaud refers to Shakespeare’s dark play – ‘Hamlet’:

On the calm black water when the stars are sleeping
White Ophelia floats like a great lily
Floats very slowly, lying in her long veils
In the far-off forest, the sound of the hunting horn

(Arthur Rimbaud: Ophelia)

Dylan sings of metaphorical death-in-life:

Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window, for her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday, she already is an old maid
To her death is quite romantic, she wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness

(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

The darkness in  Symbolist poetry runs through many of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics – tempered a bit by the light thrown by Romantic Transcendental poems, and Christian gospel songs.

What else is on the site?

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to the 500+ songs reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.  It contains links to reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.

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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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