Bob Dylan and Charles Baudelaire (Part V): Handy Dandy


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by Larry Fyffe

Not noticed other than by ‘Untold Dylan’, the song by Bob Dylan called ‘Handy Dandy’ is a lyrical broth in which the translated French poet Charles Baudelaire is stewing. Typical of his cooking style, Dylan mixes in a batch of other poetic medicines as well.

Baudelaire is a free-spending, whore-seeking, alcohol-drinking, drug-taking, ‘dandy’ who deplores boring bourgeois life. He pens ‘The Flowers Of Evil’, concerning the sorrows that accompany life, sex, and death; he even once tries suicide:

She is weeping, fool, because she lived
And because she lives, but what she deplores most
What makes her shudder down to her knees
Is that tomorrow she will still have to live
Tomorrow after tomorrow, like us

(Charles Baudelaire: The Mask)

Bob Dylan treads more lightly:

Handy Dandy, he got a basket of flowers
And a bag full of sorrow
He finishes his drink, and gets up from the table
He says, ‘Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow’
Handy Dandy, Handy Dandy, just like sugar and candy

(Bob Dylan: Handy Dandy)

Like Baudelaire, Dylan alludes to nursery rhymes:

Handy Spanky, Jack-A-Dandy
Love plum cake and sugar candy
He bought some at a grocer’s shop
And out he came – hop, hop, hop

(Handy Spanky : nursery rhyme)

Charles Baudelaire spends loads of money on an Afro-Fench dancer; he calls her his ‘Black Venus’:

Indolent darling, how I love to see
The skin of your body so beautiful
Shimmer like silk

(Charles Baudelaire: The Dancing Serpent)

Baudelaire’s sinister images are not lost on the singer/songwriter:

Handy Dandy, he got a stick in his hand
And a pocket full of money
He say, ‘Darling, tell me the truth, how much time you got?’
She say, ‘You got all the time in the world, honey’
Handy Dandy, Handy Dandy
He got the clear crystal fountain
He got that soft silky skin
He got that fortress on top of his mountain
With no doors, no windows, no thieves can break in

(Bob Dylan: Handy Dandy)

Nor are lost the images from the romantic lyrics of a folk song:

I will build my love a towel
By yon pure crystal fountain
And on it I will lay
All the flowers of the mountain

(Wild Mountain Thyme)

A song influenced by the darker Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine contains similar imagery:

As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden
The wounded flowers were dangling on the vine
I was passing by yon cool crystal fountain

(Bob Dylan: Ain’t Talkin’)

Baudelaire’s ‘surrealistic’ water fountain be not so pure, clear, or cool:

It seems at times my blood flows out in waves
Like a fountain that gushes rhythmical sobs ….
I’ve sought forgetfulness in lust
But love’s a bed of needles and they thrust
To give more drink to each rapacious whore

(Charles Baudelaire: Fountain Of Blood)

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan humourously repeats a phrase from another Symbolist poet who is influenced by Baudelaire:

You say, ‘What is it made of?’
And he’ll say, ‘Can you repeat the words you said?’
You say, ‘What is he afraid of?’
He’ll say, ‘Nothin’ – neither alive nor dead’

(Bob Dylan: Handy Dandy)

To wit:

In short, is a flower, Rosemary
Or Lily, dead or alive
Worth the excrement of one sea-bird?

(Arthur Rimbaud: On The Subject Of Flowers)

She’s lookin’ into your eyes, she’s holdin’ your hand
She say, “You can’t repeat the past”
You say, “What do you mean, ‘You can’t?’ –
Of course, you can!”

(Bob Dylan: Summer Days)

Handy Dandy, sittin’ with a girl named ‘Nancy’
In a garden feelin’ kind of lazy
He says, ‘Ah, you want a gun? I’ll get you one’
She say, ‘Boy, you talkin’ crazy’
Handy Dandy, just like sugar and candy

(Bob Dylan: Handy Dandy)

The two other Symbolist poets mentioned catch Baudelaire’s melancholia:

Opening the narrow rickety gate
I went for a walk in the little garden
All lit up by that gentle morning sun
Starring each flower with watery light
Nothing was changed ….

(Paul Verlaine: After Three Years)

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.

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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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