Bob Dylan And Oscar Wilde


By Larry Fyffe

Whether through pure coincidence, deliberate allusion, or subconscious memory, the song lyrics of Bob Dylan often reveal similar themes (the prospect of cyclical regeneration, for example), and writing styles of other authors. It seems that he’s gotta serve somebody:

It could be a Symbolist poet:

Through the blue summer days, I shall travel all the ways
Pricked by the ears of maize, trampling the dew
A dreamer, I will gaze, as underfoot the coolness plays
I let the evening breeze, drench my head anew
(Arthur Rimbaud: Sensation)

Of course it all depends on which English translation the singer/songwriter might have read – i.e., in the poem above, ‘dew’/’anew’ rhyme; in the song below, ‘blue’/’anew’ rhyme:

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, baby blue
(Bob Dylan: It’s All Over Now Baby Blue)

It could a traditional song – with images therein of soft snow, hard ice, and a chilling wind:

When the cold feathered snow does in plenty descend
And whiten the prospect around
The cutting wind from the North shall attend
Hard chilling and freezing the ground
When the hills and the dales are all covered with white
When the rivers congeal to the shore
When the bright twinkling stars shall proclaim a cold night
Then remember the state of the poor
(Remember The Poor)

In the song below, there’s diction that transfers symbolic meaning to the snow, wind, and ice:

If you’re travellin’ in the North country fair
Remember me to one who lives there
For she once was a true love of mine
If you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze, and the summer ends
Please see she has a coat so warm
To keep her from the howling winds
(Girl From The North Country)

It could be a Christianized version thereof:

The time will come when our Saviour on Earth
All the world shall agree with one voice
All nations unite to salute the blest morn
And the whole of the Earth shall rejoice
And the grave rules triumphant no more
When grim death deprived of his killing sting
Saints, angels, and men ‘hallelujah’ will sing
Then the rich must remember the poor
(Remember The Poor)

An optimistc message, though less religious in tone, is delivered in the following song lyrics:

The time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin’
Like the stillness in the wind
Before the hurricane begins
The hour that the ship comes in
(Bob Dylan: When The Ship Comes In)

It could be a melancholic Romantic poet:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My senses, as though I had drunk
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
(John Keats: Ode To A Nightingale)

Christopher Ricks, underestimated as a literary critic by some analysts of Dylan’s lyrics, points out a Keats connection to a song:

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there has been some kind of pain
(Bob Dylan: Not Dark Yet)

It could be a Decadent writer:

“Behind every exquisite thing that has existed, there was something tragic”
(Oscar Wilde: The Picture Of Dorian Gray)

Symbolist Arthur Rimbaud be a latter-day Romantic poet – a disgruntled idealist. On the other hand, Decadent writer Oscar Wilde does not seek objective co-relatives in words drawn from the natural world of flowers.

Wilde makes no attempt to find a higher meaning for existence by looking to Nature. He looks instead to art: in ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’, though his portrait ages, Dorian himself remains forever young.

Note in the Keats poem and Dylan song the ‘Dylanesque rhyme twist’ -‘pains’/’drains’; ‘pain’/’drain’. He who thinks Dylan throws in rhymes just because they sound good to him, underestimates the singer/songwriter’s artistic ingenuity.

Dylan’s gotta serve somebody.

What else is on the site?

Untold Dylan contains a review of every Dylan musical composition of which we can find a copy (around 500) and over 300 other articles on Dylan, his work and the impact of his work.

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  1. Here is another “Bob Dylan And Oscar Wilde” connection.

    The last verse of Dylan’s 2002 studio performance of “GONNA CHANGE MY WAY OF THINKING” reads:

    I’ll tell you something
    Things you never had you’ll never miss
    I’ll tell you something
    Things you never had you’ll never miss
    Tell you something else, a brave man will kill you with a sword
    A coward with a kiss

    This is a reference to the seventh verse of Oscar Wilde’s “THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL” (this verse is also repeated slightly altered as the last of the 109 verses of this long ballad):

    “Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
    By each let this be heard,
    Some do it with a bitter look,
    Some with a flattering word,
    The coward does it with a kiss,
    The brave man with a sword!”
    [seventh verse]

    “And all men kill the thing they love,
    By all let this be heard,
    Some do it with a bitter look,
    Some with a flattering word,
    The coward does it with a kiss,
    The brave man with a sword!”
    [last verse]

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